life a fact above all others

An exploration of Foxface. District Five Project, Tribute, Surviving Girl, Living Girl, Dead Girl.

Second-person POV. Excessive imagery. Pretentiousness. *throws hands up in surrender*


~.~

Surrounded by miles of desert and crackling electrical fences, District Five – otherwise known as the Science District – appear as domes and tall imposing buildings arrayed together with underlying mathematical order, with sections dedicated to every field: physics, biology, pharmaceuticals, cosmetics. It is the core of scientific progress in Panem and, among the Districts, has the greatest concentration of brainpower.

Less than half of its population is born in the actual District.

~.~

You don't remember life before foster families and books and laboratories, don't know which District you hail from, don't know the name you were born with; you don't care to know. There was no point going back to the time when you weren't a Project – someone groomed for Capitol research – wasn't smart, clever, promising. Wasn't fed, sheltered, protected.

Like dazzling beauty in One or brute strength in Two or pigheaded ruggedness in Twelve, intelligence in Five was the measure of a person's worth and gold to be hoarded. And, for as long as you could remember, you had always been too smart for your own good. They gave you a book of jargon at eight, closed your hand around a microinjection tube at twelve, a small project of your own on tracker jacker venom barely a year after.

Pleasing them was important, had always been more important than anything else, because it was key to your survival. You learned and worked, understood, impressed. And, with a smile with cold teeth, they praised you.

~.~

But also, beyond theory and experiments and results, you saw.

You saw, in the after-hours, scientists being herded, blindfolded, to their stations. You saw, faces turning blue from poison fumes, acid corroding the skin off hands in bloody flecks, vats of flesh-eating bacteria upturned and spilled over, explosions and fires tall as pillars. You saw, men and women dragged to hovercrafts in the dead of the nights, joining the ranks of the disappeared come morning.

You saw too, the growing cache of stolen materials and substances, propaganda sheets in code and between files, underground stockpiles of food, stolen unnoticed. Excerpts of illegal books circling around. You saw, some of your nuclear physicists – their identities supposedly the meat of secrets – being invoked to secrets meetings. The Rebellion was in your District, riding everyday phenomena under the noses of Peacekeepers, collecting in the night, hidden in plain sight.

You saw, and pretended you did not. Whatever they did – these Capitol people or these rebels – you were a Project and your existence, while certainly not stellar, and was tiring, and insanely demanding, was as stable as you've ever needed. You weren't about to get involved.

~.~

There was a boy.

He was from the engineering part of the District, another Project. Handsome. Black curls, sharp bones, a smile as lopsided as your own. He held your hand on your first date, when he snuck you flying to the edge of District Four on their latest prototype of hovercraft, you could almost smell the ocean from where you were; he gave you mutant carnations that would take a long time wilting and – aiee! – you thought nothing could disappoint you then, not him, not anyone, not life itself with its greedy hoard of letdowns.

~.~

Everyone eligible prepares for the Reaping as they were taught to. You've followed the routine year after year; as always, your fingers did not shake as you pack the entirety of your work into boxes to be reopened later. The DNA model with its vivid green coils placed on the shelves. Papers neatly stacked. Inventory done. Turnover-ready. You walk out with a lighter step than most.

The Capitol had a way of ensuring the most productive of you wouldn't be reaped – a barely visible tag, perhaps differently-textured paper, a blot of color, something – District Five had been sending dummies to the arena for years.

Your boy is there, terse, in a different area. He sends you a quick glance, an tilt of the lips too somber to construed as a smile, but you recognize the same brand of relief on his face as on yours. You're Projects, your safety was guaranteed, built on a mountain of available sacrifices: lesser children, disabled children, children who would have grown up to be, at best, gofers.

Last week a Capitol scientist paused to watch you navigate the glistening blue-green network of veins that fed into a xenografted eye, his mouth pursed inscrutably at your competence; you can't help but feel a just a bit prideful. Once again, you kept yourself safe, perhaps the safest you've ever been.

The mayor starts his speech in glorious monotony; you see males from Geology whisper among themselves at the part on the slew of disasters that besieged the entity once known as North America. Behind the mayor, the Victors are seated, five in total, three alive. Then the tributes are drawn.

~.~

Nothing would ever hurt quite as much as irony when your name is called.

~.~

The memory would always be sharper upon recall: the sun breathing down in deceivingly languid ripples, the air bereft of sound save for the crackle of microphone static, a problem years of advanced technology had not yet remedied, lesser girls tangling fingers in their hair in grim anticipation, and then the escort''s hands catching on a slip of innocuous white paper, and then one moment you were so surprised you couldn't think.

And then, the buzz – outcropping from the crowd, betraying their confusion and fear – so loud on your skin you almost couldn't hear as girls around you exhale in respite.

You know of only one thing that would proper the Capitol to losing one of their Projects: they thought you a threat.

You would've given them everything – loyalty, dedication, hands and eyes and, what the hell, heart – for protection in turn. You would've bowed to their desires if they asked. You. The quintessential Capitol robot. A threat.

Somehow, you keep your face straight.

~.~

When it was time for the male tribute to be called – and everyone draws a sharper breath now, now that a Project was tribute, their illusory security shattered, how quickly the Capitol pulls back its small mercies – you fear, for a fleeting irrational second, your boy would volunteer.

He does not. Your boy works in the Hovercraft lab in Engineering, and desgined jets as the Capitol wanted them: fast, economically sleek, streamlined. Your boy studies drag. He knew when to cut his losses.

(You'll never admit to a fraction of the disappointment because you, you've wanted to be admitted to Evolution, you understand perfectly the merits of survival and should've known and should've –

Really, it's better this way. Really.)

~.~

There was a boy. And, counting three official dates and dozens of just-sneaking-round, he did not see sufficient reason to die with you.

"I'm sorry," he says, looking at a point past your face, his voice hollow, apologetic. He waited to see you in custody, after your fosters and your supervisors and associates who each in turn gave their apologies, this boy who could've been yours; farewell the undercurrent in his words.

You nod, a sharp halting movement, effectively cutting him off.

It's only later, after the cameras, as you watch the orange shafts of sunset light fall in diagonal patterns on the train tracks leading to District Five, now a point somewhere in the distant horizon, that you think:

Yeah, I'm sorry too.

(And, maybe, just because you feel entitled to, a small solace: fuck you.)

~.~

The train lances its way to the heart of Panem. Yards of landscape roll past in an inertial blur. The clean, silver chrome that vaults your chambers is polished and solid. Soundproof. No one hears you raging, stripped of your ivory tower.

~.~

District Five victors – if they were Projects – generally won by their wits, you remember.

Of your dead victors, one had been in Pathology and had a wicked memory; the arena was a vast stone labyrinth and he'd trapped, tricked, outmaneuvered everyone else. Another the genius from Physics who, through means you and everyone else cannot fathom, harnessed the falling lighting in the arena of storm to eletrocute all competition. He disappeared shortly after the Victory Tour.

Of the living, one won by luck. The Careers had turned on each other and the last one died of exsanguination before he found her. The other victor had been eighteen when he was reaped, and was years into Advanced Weapons Development. He was almost a Career. Even better.

And then your mentor. You remember her smirking at you during the Reaping, bedecked with rouge, a thin cigarette between long silvery fingers, her eyes constantly half-closed as though bored, maddeningly calm. She won the her Games two decades ago, defeated the remaining Careers by poisoning the riverwater upstream of their camp. A Chemistry Project. Since then she'd invented the abortion drugs so loved by the Capitol, bright jellied things like candy, various flavors. That and other in-demand monstrosities.

In District Five, this is how the Hunger Games had always been won: by the incisive edge of intellect, by cunning, by calculation, by ruthlessness. Fellow tributes tricked into caverns full of coiled muttated snakes. Long range weapons with enough propulsion to crush ribcages. A scorched-black field full of fried corpses, still smoking. Long-fingered hands cleanly and precisely slipping caustic substances to blue lips of paralyzed, sickened teenagers.

You yourself had wanted Evolution – you're certain you'd have ended up there, in the laboratory only the best were allowed to work: Muttations – you've believed the basic tenet: the strong survive, the rest die out.

Fact: you're capable of all things required of Victors.

Addendum: you can win.

~.~

You watch the recap in silence, note the details, remember the strengths of each. The names aren't important. Some are more memorable than others: impressive people from the Career Districts, a hauntingly young girl from Eleven, Miss Twelve. Girl Twelve looks like a study in desperation, thin and malnourished and her lot the laughingstock of all Panem. You analyze her, the hardness of her brow, the abject poverty in the contour of her limb, the raw unspoiled bravery; you analyze them all.

Ideas flood your brain from nerve circuit to nerve circuit, lighting up in paranoid succession, like the flare signals unfurling through watchtowers back in Five, joined by searchlights and sirens, until the evening sky lit up in a iridescent vista.

Calm down, you say to yourself. Calm down. You're overthinking.

Your mentor smirks, a quick venomous flit, before she lights up another cig. You've seen her already write off the boy you came with as a lost cause; before you watched the recaps she looked straight to you, her contempt for the non-Project rendering him invisible. She doesn't like you either, but you're the one she'll keep alive.

~.~

Past the mountains and past the tunnel, the Capitol rises up from earth, built on the bones of the Districts, a vista of buildings reaching high as the sky, their metal and glass facades catching the sunset, a city set on multi-hued fire against the horizon.

~.~

You wholeheartedly believe that your stylist is grotesque. In return, his prep team has heaps a pile of grievances against you: your skin is too dry, your face is too thin – aquiline, says a stylist, with a tone of lilting vowels and crushed consonants, as he adds plump to the terse line of your mouth – your eyes too squinty, too slanted. But they like the color of your hair, flame-red and plaited with copper by the desert sun – so rich and fiery and dangerous-looking – they talk about artificial dyes and bleaches and paint your face red as chemicals.

They want you an inferno, sodium and magnesium gaslit, you hear them say, you wonder if they ever witnessed a chemical one the way you did when a storehouse exploded and every surface in the District was awash with fire – probably not, they otherwise wouldn't use the word so lightly.

Nonetheless, you don't mock the concept, if it would help sponsorship. Your face in a mirror is sleek and glittering red like crushed rubies. Angry. That's about right too.

~.~

In the end, no one notices anyway, not with Girl Twelve and Boy Twelve on fire several chariots behind, their capes streaming blue flames like wings, their faces illuminated soft and pure by yellow heart of the blaze.

~.~

Time moves quickly in the Training Center, measured in heartbeats, frantic ticking.

In the privacy of the fifth floor, amid rich food and luxuriant bathrooms, strategies are mapped out and shot down time and time again. You propose plans one after the other; in response, your mentor cites years in which a similar plan backfired most cruelly.

You would cry, you think, if someone hadn't done it before. And thanks to Johanna Mason – whose brilliant strategy your mentor rubs in your face – no one overlooked snivelling, underfed girls anymore. Especially girls from the most insular and craftiest District in Panem.

~.~

During the day, when tributes are gathered together in the guise of training – a thin veil, really, for letting you scope each other in morbid curiousity – you go from station to station gathering requisite skills: camouflage, knives, climbing, swimming – a popular station ever since the Mad Girl won – archery, survival. Survival, if such a thing could be taught, you've failed it already, having been reaped.

~.~

If you're careful to listen, you find unusual acts of kindnesses between tributes. On the rooftop, you hear them talking, of life and of dreams as though those were already distant shores, bonding when they shouldn't be, taking comfort from the roof of boundless sky. Boy Eleven shields Girl Eleven from the hunting gazes of the Careers. Boy Four with keen green eyes is unusually gallant with regards to elevators. The pair from Twelve, of course, who splayed their affections like flags, high and proud.

You sometimes catch the girl staring at you. Her eyes are a clear, steely, compelling grey that almost has you bristling for their candor, their open hostility. District Five, with its obsession for locked-door secrecy and furtive liaisons and folders upon folders marked confidential, would've banned those eyes, if they could.

~.~

Your mentor, perhaps believing you might stand an actual chance, ceases being vaguely indifferent to strangely wary. She discourages weapons training as basically useless; you're not a Career, she says, it's muscle memory and your bones wouldn't where to turn. The ideal would be to get a gun, only there hadn't been a gun in the cornucopia since a tribute from Three got her hands on once and became Victor of one of the quickest and least entertaining Games in history.

("And don't think we can pull off a Finnick Odair, speaking of whom –")

You cannot gauge the helpfulness of her advice when it's your life it's measured against. Stay alive, she says in a voice short and clipped, Don't attack directly. Let them finish each other off. Hide.

You kick at the ground in frustration. Tell me something I don't know.

She frowns at you; you can't regret antagonizing her. You two've spent days in sullen armistice, eyes clasped in the inevitable challenge between the headstrong, and cooperation is shaky at best. (Somehow you've found common ground while in a guarded conversation about walking the fine line between worthy-Project and dangerous-Project. You know now, at least, which side of the fence you fell under. She told you you've grown arrogant, which was prelude to subversion. You asked how she knew.)

"Steal," Your mentor finally says, with a wayward flinch. Smoke and regret and a sigh escapes from her mouth, twisting up and dying in the air. "That's what I should've done."

Then she mentions the interview, the cusp over which the Games will begin and all bets will be off. You make more plans.

Time moves so quickly.

~.~

The stage lights and television screens strike a bargain with you: they will not be so unkind if you check the incisiveness of your words and the enmity of your gestures; if you play your part, they will sell you to the audience – the audience without a face, only eyes and hands and mouths and appetite – and entice them to keep you alive. On the mathematics of survival, you judge it fair and take the deal. You kept a small smile with you the entire interview, wily and knowing, playing sly, playing elusive, taking care to keep your lesser qualities – anger, cleverness, wit – in your tightly-coiled hands.

Boy Twelve – Peeta, and no one will be forgetting his name soon, his or Katniss's – declares his unrequited love and blows you and the Capitol and all of Panem away. He's a dark horse, that one, District-boy charm in abundance and so excellent at lying through his teeth.

He makes you feel so lonely you could die.

~.~

The sound of the gong is prelude to an orchestra of destruction. The suffocating melody begins with a bloody arterial spray, arching from a sliced throat. Jagged cries of pain and resentment. After that, a rising crescendo: blunt thuds from objects hitting teenage flesh, bones rattling in their sockets, skin ripping open. The high scream of metal. Dirt sruffing under a dance of frenzied feet. There is nothing calm in the music of the bloodbath, only frantic irregular movement: sudden trumpeting to action, a climatic cacophony at a kill, a cannon shot into the sky, then a steep crash into silence. Repeat. Repeat. Repeat.

You make a narrow escape, transversing Clove of District Two, following Katniss Everdeen's trail to the woods. You yank out the knife sticking out from the convulsing Boy Nine with relative ease; it sliced cleanly between two ribs, straight at the heart. The knife you use to chop off the distinguishing banner of your hair. Whatever is left on your head you coat with fistfuls of earth.

Adequately camouflaged, you double back to the Cornucopia, strewing several trails along the way, broken twigs and scattered foliage, to misdirect the Careers. The bottom line of your daring strategy: as a lamprey to sharks, you'll suck on the Career pack.

You arrive just in time to see your District partner die, his mouth of blood, iron victory sank into his chest, trespassing across so many vitals. He was a year above and several authorization levels below you, a lost cause from the beginning.

You bite down on your lip hard enough to draw blood, keep deathly still. You were ready for this. You planned for this. You were prepared. Clinical detachment kicks in.

(In truth, all the planning in the world wouldn't have prepared you when everything condensed into that one gripping, solid moment when reality tore off from theory so violently: death not a body onscreen, not a corpse under white sheets, but a head oozing blood where it was dashed against the ground, a spearhead sticking out.)

~.~

The Careers hunt like a band of predators, their hunger palpable, their instincts sharp: a powerful bear, a coiled viper, sharks and barracudas, wild dogs. You trail them with methodical care, keeping to their narrow sliver of a blind spot, hidden in plain sight, in copses and thickets, keeping to higher ground. Somewhere in your chest is a cold, nameless fear that threatens to bubble up higher and higher, sharper than anything you've ever felt. This your mentor never told you about. You shove it down hard as you could, into the well of other chaotic emotions that trussed logical thinking: panic, anger, want.

~.~

It would have been beautiful. The forest smells of pine and spruce, woodsap and bark, leaves and soil. There were trees with trunks bowing almost solemnly to the ground, branches like arms beckoning up, starbursts of leaves. Trees so tall you can't see where they end, intercircling rings in their core, decades upon decades of survival. There is nothing like this grove of monolithic sequoias in District Five, nothing so near to the reverential silence. What a brilliant perversion that it becomes an ideal Arena: it's every beauty double-edged, it's every grace a weapon.

~.~

The encroaching dakrness with its accompanying chill (and, likewise, malice) is something you're not used to but nothing you can't endure.

Across the lake, the Careers light torches around their encampment and in the flickering firelight, they move as elegant shadows, one with the dark, hefting food and armor and weapons from the belly of the Cornucopia. Their voices filter to you on the icy wind, strategically confident. Their attentions are turned foremost to Thresh and Katniss; you yourself barely even make the conversation.

You've barely secured yourself in a thicker bush when the Capitol anthem resounds and all of you look up. The anthem weaves out flawlessly to wherever any of you are, faces flicker against the dark night and that's that. Eleven are dead. Thirteen are alive. You make sure to keep a lighted map of your head of all the living tributes, now spread out in the Arena like stars in a sky: so many, so few at the same time.

~.~

Boy Three guards the pyramid. He is small, stunted by malnutrition, hunched by fear, but he is chillingly good at his work. His District is similar to yours – Factories: only less cutting edge, more practical presumably – so you know not to underestimate him. Even then, you are nothing short of stunned when he rewires the bombs and buries them in a complex pattern you hastily copy down on the soil, a finger-shaped furrow for every one.

He falls asleep from the hard work of digging – and certainly, being around the pack has to be weary on the soul – several inactive bombs lie deceptively innocuous around him. When the light goes out, bereft of the gas used to sustain it, you grab things they wouldn't miss – a knapsack, canisters, a knife, food – and hoard water from the lake, feeling like a bonafide delinquent and all too proud of it.

You're too close for the luxury of sleeping but you must've fallen sometime in the night anyway, because the whistle of cannonfire wakes you up.

~.~

While the Careers sleep off the exhaustion of murder, you carefully take your planned route across the woods to gather data on the Arena. You navigate by the sun travelling east to west, designating landmarks along the way, keeping to the shadowy pockets between trees, pressing flat to a surface at every noise. Most of the path is uphill; you grit your teeth against the soreness in your muscles and blistering skin and stick it out, watching for things to add to your arsenal: hiding places, ones good enough to sleep in; inconspicuous hollows in rocks and trees for storing supplies; escape routes through the weave of branches and vines just large enough for you to slip through; springs and streams; sharp rocks. You create more false trails.

Back in Five, existence had always been served in clean slices: discrete parts, independent factors, cause and consequence. The next days and years were quantifiable, often foreseeable, points leading to the distant asymptote: your future, approximated. Since the reaping, nothing has been so carefully delineated. Everything bled in and out of everything else, factors inextricable without a manifest change in the remaining matrix. Messy, murky and bitterly unpredictable.

You hunt for bird's nests on low branches, wishing you were a better climber. You try to hunt – hoping to catch them alive, to use as decoys in the future, mockingjays especially – wishing you were a better shot. Knowledge fails you brick by brick; formulas and theories abandon you. Knowing the nutrient content of tree bark wouldn't be adequate. The ability to measure the force of a projectile doesn't ensure a dead Career.

You'd survived on planning and naked wit, agility and a surprising pool of resilience. It's true; evolution did work like this: starting from a hardy core, surviving the mesh of the years through flexibility, the liquid ability to adapt. Your intelligence had never been so suddenly gratifying.

That's when, behind a large fallen log, you stumble upon a pod of incubating muttations.

~.~

They're bear mutts and very young. Skin and cells and softened flesh and brittle bones. They glow oddly bright throught the haze of memory: shell-pink, dark eye spots, thistledown fur. Sometime in the past, prototypes had rampaged through the Biology compound. Teeth, teeth, teeth, teeth. Something inside you free-falls without a surface to land on.

Raw red gashes bloom on your arm from the sharp fetal skeletons; you barely feel them as you hack at the abominations at a pace and a savagery unknown to you, mindlessly tearing handful after bloody handful from the gelatinous mass of soft flesh and sticky amniotic liquid.

It's only later you regain your methodical mind, without the bright fear burning through, when the sky turns a liquid red-gold behind a setting sun and your hands up to the elbows turn a crusty brown with dirt and dried blood. The foundation of your security split open, how easily your only advantage can be stolen.

Trembling, you mark the crevasse where they were stowed, note the small cave beyond, dank and dark as a womb. Nearby, there is a small ledge from where the Cornucopia by the glittering lake can be seen, if sparingly. You narrow your eyes, regain focus; the Careers are awake and preparing to hunt again.

~.~

Bird calls. Animal hooves thundering on the earth. Woodsmoke.

You and Boy Three whip your heads to where the disturbance swells, bolting upright, prey ready to flee. A red glow from the shadowy enclave of trees unwinds rapidly through the sky; long tongues of flame lick the air, clouds of smoke unfurl, black and ominous, embers shoot up. Even this far, the heat of the fire caresses your face. When Boy Three goes to investigate, you make off with, what seems to you, the heist of the decade.

~.~

Dawn breaks with a cool, misty fog hovering over the lake. The Careers stagger to the water surface and seep themselves in, coughing and hissing and gritting their teeth; singed hair and shiny burns and a long black jag down Girl Four's cheek. You spend an agonizing two hours listening to their plans – time-proven methods of Careers past, lean and efficient, but predictable. You make your own plans alongside. The day unfolds hot and dry and they opt to spend it recuperating and taking inventory of their supplies but you leave the lakeside, thinking to search for roasted animals in the charred remains of the forest, a spring of your own, more hiding places.

You've set just about three traps – the wounds of your hands tear open, this time you notice – where your first parachute arrives; the silver reflects sunlight in a bright wink as it floats lazily down. Jewel-toned green liquid in a small amber vial, it's antiseptic and you sag against a tree in relief. There is a code developed by District Five tributes, a form of primitive communication, translating the mentor's omnicient knowledge of events within and without the Arena to inconspicuous objects. You'd been worried after the incident with the muttations – the fear you still cannot explain – but this one means: The Capitol let it pass.

You dab at the wounds and secure the medicine in your pack. What you and her and others before you did may be cheating, but what is that in a game of so few rules.

~.~

Even from across the lake, you recognize the injuries. The festering tells all.

Tracker jacker venom, and you remember how they'd slapped the research upon the younger Projects back when it was a rising trend in the Capitol, a fun and daring and darkly lethal game. The peptides in the venom were so small and so simple, miniscule peaks on a chromatogram, and yet hijacked the brain and the senses with unfathomable efficacy, spinning nightmares with effortless cruelty. You'd used in on muttmice; others did it on people. You suddenly wish you could isolate some right now, to coat your ever growing collection of sharp rocks with the concentrated toxin.

Meanwhile, Peeta staggers back to the woods, hefting himself through the dark silhouettes of trees and Cato sways after him. Marvel drags himself behind Cato. You follow them, not bothering to silence the crunch of pine needles under your feet. They were already half-mired in the world of vertigo and painful illusions. Mice had fainted after the sound of a tiny bell; more sensory information, magnified and echoed by the venom splashing in their blood, should disorient these boys even further.

You hope to find the nest, maybe there were larvae. Not as terribly potent, but much easier handling.

~.~

What you find instead: Glimmer, her startling beauty laid to waste, swollen and rotting in pus; Peeta, toppling into the moonlit stream, a puddle of dark blood spreading wider and wider where his feet had stood; Cato, staggering half-blind through the undergrowth, clawing at his skin aflame in starlight; Katniss, completely stoned inside one of your unmarked ravines, crying and crying at ghostly sensations in her plagued sleep.

~.~

You spare them all, more for your sake than theirs, because there is still Thresh, there are still too many tributes, there are still Gamemakers and Capitol citizens and sponsors, there are factors upon factors you cannot compute to add up to your victory. (You were tempted to kill, of course. Simple quick surgical cuts at the jugular. You settled instead for replacing their water-purifying solutions with pondwater and inciting biological warfare instead.)

~.~

The tracker-jacker-induced reprieve itches to be taken advantage of.

~.~

You encounter Boy Ten as he is crawling to the lake, covered in leaves and burnt tatters of clothes and grasping a walking stick that may double as a weapon. He slurps his fill of the lifegiving water. His skin burnt nearly red and he sighs gratefully as he hobbles further into the lake and its sweet relief.

The knife is steady in your hand. The cripple had already lived longer than expected anyway. You stall, however, and the moment is defining as any. None of the previous victors from Five ever stalled with their fingers on a blade, denied themselves a kill. "It's true then, your handicap?"

He wheels around, splashing clumsily. His eyes are blue chips of District Five's sky, honest and unnervingly clear. At the moment, they're hard. "Syndactyly."

You walk closer, mindful of Boy Three watching from where he's surrounded by sleeping Careers, wishing you had Clove's aim – this would be easier if it were so. Boy Ten flexes his cane and – quick as a flash – there's water sparkling in your eyes and he'd wrestling you down using all his bony weight. Gnarled hands grip the knife and toss it aside.

You struggle. You go for the throat. Jugularjugularjugular.

His voice is raspy from lack of use. "Stop it, I don't want to kill anyone."

It's a statement you don't want to inspect too closely. "I want to win."

He sneers and then he's off you and ambling back into the woods, brandishing the cane – and it was a weapon, the ends filed to an unusually sharp points – so you can't follow. You retrieve the knife and throw it at his retreating back in vain.

~.~

The grassland beyond the steep incline would have been beautiful too. Tall grass thrust from the earth in sharp green spikes, swaying and waving with the wind. Grains of purple and white and gold rustle in their sheaths, breaking the otherwise eerie silence. It looks safe from a distance, wonderful for hiding once you arrived at the higher hills. A natural bulwark full of snakes and rabid rodents.

You square your shoulders and climb down.

~.~

You outrun Thresh by taking a zigzag path through the grassy valley. He doesn't take the turns as sharply as you do.

~.~

Boy Three blabbed.

Boy Ten is dead and the Career pack chase after your trail, the three of them fanning out behind you like a bird of war spreading its wings, closing in. You wouldn't have been able to escape them if you hadn't been prepared for days. Nerves stretched taut, you run through one of your engineered escape routes, snaking through a glade of closely-spaced trees and prominent protrusions from the ground, scaling a steep grassy slope to convex hollow in a wall of trees, releasing two mockingjays in different directions. They squeal in your voice and circle away to distant fields. A stack of rocks released, a landslide feigned. The path you took is obscured beyond recognition.

Outwit. Outwit. Outwit.

~.~

Your mentor sends you food minutes after you sidestepped – and it had to be him – Cato, just bread, wafer-thin and almost harshly dry. The message is significant: The Capitol is hunting you. The use of the mockingjays may have been the last straw.

Fear, wet and clammy, spiders across your skin. You rise to your feet from where you were cowering behind a bush of silvery-green leaves. Cast your eyes around, strain your ears.

Something flying through the air knocks you to the ground. Little starburts of shock explode behind your eyes, blood in your mouth, maybe dislodged teeth. Another projectile falls, piercing through the skin of your shoulder, your knapsack and even the packed earth underneath: a stone pike, sharp enough to impale. Blood drains from your face and the pain doesn't even register.

There is a rumble of great amounts of falling rock – you don't think, you run.

~.~

In Five, everyone had a time set aside for physical activity – an idea pushed forth with regard to the Games – but it never caught on. Atomized society such as theirs, people were often too busy surviving on their own to participate in a needless, community-building exercise.

The quickest path to the Cornucopia – which is, arguably, the safest site in the arena – is by skidding down a steep slope to a stream, beyond which was a straight path through the trees. By the time you scramble into the stream, you're breathless, a stitch digging up your side, pain blooming in your shoulder. The water has been rigged too; you stumble and fall in a sudden whitewater rush. You've already floated down a few meters before when you finally gather enough energy to hasten out on the opposite shore.

You climb one of your chosen and well-stocked trees until your couldn't raise your arm anymore for the pain, disinfect and wrap the bleeding cut, check on the state of the Careers – still absent, and promptly faint. The water of the stream had been unnaturally cold and, thorougly soaked, you feel the freeze as it sang to your rattling bones.

~.~

You dream of being clean again: no dust or sweat in your hair, no mud underneath your nails, tracts of pale skin dusted only by freckles, blood free of pathogens. Sterile white lab coat. Clean hands and face and lungs. You always used to be clean. It was mandatory in the labs – a microscopic puff of bacteria could cause widespread contamination and had been cause of more than a few whippings – illness hadn't been allowed, and you took the practice home and the field and wherever you were, despite the dusty winds that constantly swept the District.

~.~

You manage all of two hours of sleep until the Careers tread the leaves right beneath you, torches held so high you smell the acrid smoke. They're conferring about a dyad of fires being lit and it's then you notice it: twin plumes of thick smoke trailing and wavering in the sky like silvery banners. Marvel splits from the others and forges ahead, breaking branches and crushing needles. Cato and Clove tread more carefully, Boy Three following. You tilt your head side to relieve the tension winding around your neck like a noose, dropping down only after you are sure they are gone.

~.~

Katniss is in the bush you often share with Rue, the heel of her boot sticking out, the bow primed and lethal and perfect in her hand. If she had hoped to take the Careers tonight, she'd missed her chance.

You wait for the girl to storm the supplies, but she doesn't move. You creep to the nearer to the pyramid in tiptoe silence, biting your lip, reluctant to follow your nightly routine; an arrow from Katniss Everdeen would be dire, whether it hit or missed. The night wanes with the travelling moon and brighter stars, and yet Katniss remains still as the black surface of the lake.

At her very core, she is a smart girl. It may be because of this that you show her the pattern to take, a path of safety across a ground choked with bombs. No arrows fly.

~.~

You smelled it when you stumbled. Nose pressed to the ground for but a moment before the panic took, and the earth around the lake still smelled vaguely metallic of dried blood.

~.~

The sounds of whistling arrows reach you only seconds before the force of the first blast knocks you off your feet. Boom, boom, boom, boom, the bombs seems to cascade inside your bones, ripping through matrix and marrow as it viciously tears the ground. Sulfuric scents permeate the air.

You scuttle up the nearest tree and, to wherever she is now, you salute Katniss Everdeen an acknowledgement. One survivor to another. You've always hated things you couldn't predict, but her will to live – this risky gambit – impresses you to an extent you cannot ever voice.

~.~

In the morning, as you scavenge the decimated stack, you still have to laugh at the sight. The destruction is magnificent.

~.~

You are there to hear the final strains of the lullaby Katniss Everdeen sings to Girl Eleven. High in the trees, sullenly silent. The melody washes and swirls between your fingers like wispy gold, ethereal and gilt-edged. Anger and indignance thrum in your heart like distant explosions. In the face of so many events and transgressions and proofs that should have accustomed you to the brazen face of injustice, there is still something horribly wrong with having such a child fight for her life, chidlish innocence and baby-teeth still in. No one would've wanted to die that young.

You were there to hear him coming. Marvel. Animal instinct told you to hide, and you did. Thing is, you hesitated.

You were there and you hesitated when you saw Girl Eleven tangled in the weave of vines that would be her funeral dress. You stopped as something clawed at your skin; conscience, humanity – parts of you the Capitol insisted did. not. exist. Things that addled the tally in your head: six alive and eighteen and Rue and the boy who didn't fight and a district partner and a lovely girl and the comfort of ignorance and justice in a society dead.

You couldn't have helped her, you tell yourself again, scribing on your mind that there is no price too exorbitant for your survival, ethics be damned. It's the Hunger Games. You were just trying to survive.

Just trying to survive. But your mind slips on a parenthetical: (Like an animal.)

~.~

You cry later. Soundlessly, tearlessly, hand pressed to hide the trembling of your jaw, a scream gone cold, eyes shut; the audience will think you're sleeping. Crying doesn't help at all and only makes you feel old and tired and weak.

You think that maybe it's wrong to mourn because you're now one person closer to winning, that this is simply natural selection at its most raw – the ageless pile of sacrifices exposed: weaker children mangled and dead, a crush of small flowers to wreathe them – necessity and selfishness outweighing all.

But your think too that maybe this is a leg of evolution you haven't learned of yet – was perhaps forbidden to learn of – when humans took that final step of transcendence from the realm of animals, to consciousness of consciousness, and discover a spate of surprisingly un-survivalist emotions that come with it: empathy, sympathy, selflessness, grief.

~.~

There were some things you couldn't ignore, however brainwashed, however willing to forget, however reluctant to look closely. You were always aware on some level of the perpetual injustice that lay beneath the fabric of your world; of the abductions, empty seats in the cafeteria, cleaned-out desks; of medical studies on people, teasing diseases from under the skins of living subjects, on handicapped children with their stupid floppy little legs; of long, vicious incarcerations; of deaths unaccounted for; of the tithing of children.

It was okay, you were taught, it was the way things have always gone and the way things will always be. The best labs with the highest authorization levels and the most advanced equipment and most intelligent machines were filled with people who believed that. They scoffed at a world run on ideals. They were a realm of ghosts walking through long corridors, in a robotic daze, trapped within themselves. Their apathy a living oblivion.

In your head, a scale tilts and crashes. In your chest, an emotions runs like water, a discontent that's as deep as hunger. You're angry, you realize, desperately so. It wasn't okay. Never, it had never been okay.

Your original plan – if you won, and that is why you never even thought about it, unwilling to afford the distraction – was to assure the Capitol of your steadfast fealty. Go back to the cold comfort of existence.

Now you weren't so sure.

~.~

The fear that grips you following Claudius Templesmith's proclamation is so fierce it seems to ravage the flesh and so ominous that the silver parachute with a couple of crusty slices of bread is unnecessary. The stakes had been raised, the Games have been upped, and the Gamemakers are bored with you.

The next days you are parrying for your life: lighting fires for protection – it's good that Cato and Clove were hunting Thresh or else you would have been easy prey – against mutts, insects mostly; staying near the lake to survive the weather extremes; dodging acidic geysers shooting from the rocky crevices close to the stream, burning speckles of bleached-white on your skin; foraging for food from the laconic earth. It had not surprising when you checked, in every hole and hollow you've dug and camouflaged for days and days, all your supplies destroyed or bespoiled. You sleep with one eye open and pretending the cold hands on your cheek aren't yours but someone else's – anyone else's – offering comfort. Exhaustion wraps around your body in thick, sweaty swathes.

You wander near Peeta and Katniss as often as you can, be as entertaining as possible even if you have to be branded a voyeur. You watch the couple with a sort of vague, sort of bone-deep sadness as everyday dawns with clouds of the softest pinks imaginable and the odds ever plummeting from your favor.

~.~

You refuse to consider yourself desperate until the Cladius Templesmith's voice mercilessly returns with the dangle of a feast.

"Send me armor, and food," you whisper to the invisible buzz of cameras whirring away – and you are desperate: hungry, sleep-deprived, sick with something that clogs and rocks in your chest – need is a clear note in your voice, scratchy as it is. The begging tone is something that insinuates itself unbidden in your throat and something you are powerless to remove. "Please, please, armor and food." And a strategy.

Your mentor sends you food: a tiny pack of dried corn kernels – and for everything that she was, could she not think of anything better – for Cornucopia. A puzzle with an easy answer. (Dried though, that bitch.)

~.~

You huddle inside the cold golden horn and wait until the sky bleeds with sunrays.

The dream is short: in the cafeteria of the Biology unit, the rebels are asking for support, table to table, person to person. Their hands are emaciated. Their eyes are abyssal. They smell of sickness and smoke and fire. Blades stick out from their chest, their lips are blue with poison. They are a country filled with craters and stagnant lives and bled hearts. You turn your head away, shift your head side to side as if to dislodge their words in your ear. You refuse to listen. You don't stand up. Then suddenly it is yourself you didn't stand up for. It is you. It is Rue, with her half-hurt smile and sticks of flowers in her hair. It is Katniss, desperate for the people she cradles close to her heart: a sister in a dust-ridged dress, a dying boy. It is hundreds of others who've lived and ate and slept the horror of the Games, just as real as you, that you didn't stand up for. This is a practice you've condoned. This is an evil you've allowed.

You wake up before the closure of absolution, guilt bleak and heavy behind your eyelids, covered in the dew of cold sweat.

~.~

The table clicks into place and you are flying as if through space and time converging towards that single backpack that means your life, mind full of arrows and flying knives and a spear long enough to impale. Rushing away, you listen for pursuers, but there is nothing but a blanket of silence behind you and, in your chest, the sound of a heart beating too fast for words.

~.~

The armor slips on like a second skin, and the medicine is nothing short of miraculous, and you have to put every effort not to eat the rolls two at a time, and you return to the Cornucopia. A cannon had fired, and all the backpacks are gone, and Katniss is nowhere to be found, and you would've thought Thresh didn't even attend the feast if it weren't for the dent in Clove's head, a deep concave and bruise-purple against her white skin. Cato screams stay with me, stay with me with hopeless despair, cradles her broken-glass body with astonishing tenderness, and it's hard to not feel sorry.

~.~

Come morning, the clouds hang low from the overcast sky and a thin fog blankets the earth of the arena until the worlds seems to be an unending palette of mist. You alternatre between watching Cato's dark form scything across the weather-beaten grass, his form a moving dot of pure black in the wash of white, seemingly impervious to the light falling rain, and watching for the Twelve's.

In the afternoon, rain crashes down in heavy silver sheets as lightning cruises along the sky with alarming regularity. Winds icy as knives pick up, cutting through bark and cloth and skin. You keep moving to higher ground as the lake overflows, straining against the lack of visibility and slipping on mudpuddles, driven only by the fear of being carried away into the whirpool that threatens to development more and more as the afternoon goes by. A dead blue girl in a lake, it was the type of tragic beauty Capitol citizens were keen to immortalize in their art, in their show, on their skin.

~.~

You've never known how very debilitating hunger can be, leeching away flesh and spirit and, inexplicably, reason. You start seeing beings roosting in the trees and great shadowy birds, portentous of some edge of madness. You can't add two and two in your head and this angers you into careless mistakes. Flesh loses its grip on bone, the skin goes a mortal gray. Accusation burns your throat. Lilac bitterness turns between your teeth. You're pushed to the brink, inch upon inch, day after day.

~.~

There is only a certain amount of strain any entity can take before snapping.

When Cato finally hunts Thresh down, the fight is gruesome: great forces sunk down to their knees and fueled by desperation, bereft of the pride that made them as they once were, televised, bloodsport. Thresh is larger and stronger but Cato had years of training, certainly the most well-trained Career in several years. His blows are more economical, more damaging. He knows the weak points mapped out across the human body, swings his sword across them in broad arcs. To watch Thresh fall is like watching a great tree bow to the savage earth, a glacier shattering in the southern oceans, nature in disintegration, so majestically terrible one can never look away.

Cato leaves, his sights trained fully on the girl on fire. In that vision, you are but a speck and he doesn't even notice you standing so close.

Thresh lies on the rain-sloshed plain, chin tilted up to heaven, cold and broken in death. Blood dribbles on the grass. The storm breaks open and a shaft of light falls on him like a stairway to the sky. A wind picking up, raining petals of ominous white to the wet soil. A mockery of Rue's flowers, full dramatic effect.

What is this –

Your teeth chatter uncontrollably. The chill on your skin is nothing compared to the chill in your chest, saturating in your bones, a dank horror swelling upward and outward, an ugly bloated thing full of the silences and sacrifices and slaughters collected over the years. It breaks you along the faultlines laid bare by Rue's murder. These scars will remain unforgiving. This nightmare is the one that will haunt you the rest of your life.

~.~

When you wake up, the Arena is seared with light. Like a scavenger, you've wadded into Thresh's store of food, heaps of it, and your stomach is sublimely full and you can think again. The tally in your head is clear.

Clove and Thresh are dead but the others are still out there: Katniss, who is dangerous but predictable to an extent. Peeta, whose most dangerous aspect is that he will never, never, never let Katniss die on his watch. A fool in love, but there were worse things to be. Cato. Cato.

Cato is injured – he'd been limping, undoubtedly, however hazy the memory of his gait – and so beyond reason several sponsors, those who weren't so keen on animal rage, will have dropped him.

And then, you are deadly sure, the Gamemakers will push Cato and Katniss together. Ratings-wise, a penultimate battle between the Girl On Fire and the Victor favorite would be irresistible, ice and fire coalescing and ending in a shower of blood and stars; the audience will replay it in their minds as a movie of love-conquering-all-odds or else succumbing to a great wild force, so tragic and broken and beautiful.

And then, notwithstanding the drama, they will finish each other off – so you hope – or at least leave one so injured as to be an easy mark.

And then you handle Peeta Mellark, apt to be slow and weak then, in injury and grief both, easy prey for the traps and snares in your mind. You'll kill him before the Capitol decides they want the surviving half of Twelve's tandem, rather than you. (It's a painful thought, but whatever.)

And then you'll do something once you win. The path to winning, paved so cleanly now, barely registers as a kindness in the wake of the starvation and brutality. A hollow victory, and you wonder if this had always been the case.

And then.

And then.

And then.

~.~

And then you miscalculate soft, weak, loud, undereducated, foolishly-selfsacrificingly-in-love Peeta Mellark. Lucky, and that's something you'd forgotten to consider, rather than the number of books he hasn't read.

~.~

The berry on the ground had been juicy and red and beautiful as a tart. You hadn't imagined for a second it would be nightlock until the poison shatters and shoots across your veins like a lightning strike.

You know how evolution works, know it by heart, know it with soul-crushing conviction, accepted it as a justifiable truth: only the strong survive, the rest die. It had been an easy pill to swallow, then. You had been raised with the knowledge of universes and galaxies and orbitting stars, of the complexities of cells, of mechanisms of natural disasters and how old the earth is, of natural selection. In lieu of such great abstractions, the grand pattern of the the natural world, your own life seemed so inconsequential, death a fact, murder inevitable.

The Hunger Games have changed you plenty though, stripped away objectivity and maturity and ivory-tower apathy, and, when you die, it is with the full knowledge that your life is a fact above all others and, in spite of its accompanying cruelties, it is so unbearably precious and bright and stunningly unlived – who did you help, who did you change, where are your people, who did you love, what did you dream of – your hand comes up empty.

~.~

(And then you'll do something once you win. Just like that, your despairing soul is rocked to quiet waiting, the universe clicks into place. You want to do something, the desire palpable in your chest, mixing with a strange indefatigable hope, so pure and single-minded it hurts. Somewhere there is a world waiting, greater and wider than yours, immeasurable, spanning an history of more than seventy-four years, fighting yet greater crimes beyond your understanding; maybe you could learn to understand, maybe you can do that, maybe things will change.)

~.~

You try to capture all the wisps and lush magic and fullness of living in the few seconds you have left, converge the world into one quicksilver moment, gazing up the rare slice of brilliant blue sky. You had been alive, and you don't want to die, and all you can think:

It's not fair –

~.~

You die. The Capitol cheers. Panem watches on.

~.~


Notes: This makes me want to write Cato/Thresh slash.