A/N: Now we've moved away from the careers and are going on a more emotional journey through the tribute which have less chance or survival in the same district as Foxface. It isn't going to stop us writing our best though, is it? ;) These reapings have been done by… the brilliant Lexi Blaze (D5 female) and the writer-of-impossible-formatting-chapters (and I guess I'll put heroic as well) Pumpkin Grin (D5 male)!

Claus Hendall (by Pumkin Grin)

"I had become, with the approach of night, once more aware of loneliness and time - those two companions without whom no journey can yield us anything." - Lawrence Durrell.


A stray ray of sun peeks in through my window, focusing on the right side of my face. My hand unconsciously tries to swat it away, but feels nothing. Realizing that simply waving my hand at the sun wasn't going to make it leave, I open my eyes.

The sun hits me full force as I shift into a sitting position, causing me to blink blearily in response. For eight 'o clock in the morning, the sun was unusually bright. I frown, trying to leave my bed but failing due to my ankle being tangled within the sheets. Once I had that sorted out, I finally manage to tumble off of my mattress. I curse under my breath as I almost make impact with the floor, but I quickly regain my balance.

I stand there, in the middle of my room. I face the window silently as I scratch at a cowlick in my untidy hair. I have felt the need to have my hands constantly moving lately; the habit started a few weeks ago, evolving from twiddling my thumbs to circling and wringing my wrists. I had to do something to provide some sort of distraction from things yet to come.

Which, in this case, would be the Reaping. And after that, if I was picked, the Hunger Games.

The stone in my gut hasn't dissolved yet; in fact, my belly feels even more bloated with despair. Who can blame me? I have a good chance of being picked, thanks to my age of seventeen years, which equates to my name being in the roster six times. But at least I hadn't applied for tesserae. That would've added my name even more to the roster, therefore increasing my chances of being picked. Even with just six names, however, I still felt miserable.

I hated the Hunger Games. I always had. I never understood the perverse glee and sick enjoyment people derived from it. They laughed and cheered as kids younger than me were forced to kill each other for others' enjoyment. My parents hate it too, I think. I wonder if they ever imagine seeing me on those TV screens, killing other kids. I wonder if they imagine me being killed live as well while they could only stand and watch. Again, I only wonder about these things; I don't really talk to them much, and vice versa.

I begin to make my bed silently. It might be the last time I see it again, after all. Then another part of me insists that I will come back to this bed, that I will not be reaped. I reprimand myself for being so bipolar; make up your mind already!

This is what the Hunger Games did to you; just the slight tension of being capable of being reaped was enough to make you go crazy.

Once I'm sure my bed is made, I retrieve my Reaping outfit from my closet. It has been ironed compulsively for a week, thanks to yours truly. I slip out of my sleepwear and tug on the light blue button up shirt and the black slacks. I appreciated it for not its purpose (to look your best for when you're getting reaped) but for its practicality. I always liked simple and sensible clothing. Though today, my attitude towards the outfit shifts from this and wary. It reminds me of what is coming near.

I run my fingers through my straw-colored hair before resorting to a comb to tame the cowlicks and knots. I give my face a quick onceover before I duck into the bathroom to wash my face. Again, I begin to chastise myself for wanting to look presentable for what could be my impending doom. "Shut up," I murmur to myself. The voices that constantly worry about my fate instead choose to speak louder. Shaking my head wearily, I pat my face with a towel before heading downstairs.

"Good morning," I greet my parents. They look up at me and give a curt nod before returning to their tasks – reading the newspaper and washing the dishes, respective to my father and mother. I frown for a brief moment before taking a seat across from Dad.

Dad glances up at me. "You look nice today, Claus." He says.

I nod, looking downwards as I poke at my already-prepared plate of eggs and bacon. "Thank you," I reply. Dad nods in response.

The sound of running water disappears, replaced by the clanking of dishes upon one another. Mom places her gloves at the rim of the sink basin before occupying the seat to my right. "So, Claus," she begins as she prepares her own plate of breakfast. "I take it that you've ran your daily mile earlier this morning?"

I pause, my spoon full of eggs suspended just below my mouth. I close my lips for a moment before speaking. "Not today, no," I murmur. It was true; I wasn't up to my daily running exercise today. You can guess why. "I didn't feel like it."

Mom frowns, shooting a concerned glance my way. "Oh, why not? It would have certainly helped, especially if…" she leaves her sentence there as her gaze slowly shifts to the center of the table. A sudden cloud of unease settles over us.

"I just didn't feel like it, that's all." I repeat as I shove in a few mouthfuls of breakfast before dumping my plate in the sink. My appetite, if you could call it that, was gone. I go back upstairs to brush my teeth, then I hurry back downstairs to put on my shoes before leaving out the front door.

A cool breeze wafts past me, tousling my hair back. Running a hand over my wispy hair to sort it back into place, I walk at a brisk pace in a fervent attempt to escape the awkwardness of my home. Yet, I couldn't stop from replaying the words in my mind. It certainly would have helped, especially if… that was what Mom had said. The way she had said it just made me even more depressed than I already was. She was already assuming that I was going to be reaped. Was she doing it just to soften the blow of having her already-estranged son being reaped? Trying to thin out the tiny sliver that could barely be called a connection between me and the two of them?

I reach the park by my school, with the familiar playground that I used to play at when I was little. I stop when I see two others already there, sitting on two of the four available swings. However, upon closer inspection, I realize it's my two friends Ryne and Gerall.

"Hey, guys," I greet as I hurry over to them. They look up at me with surprised yet somber smiles.

"Hi Claus." Ryne replies, waving at me. Gerall nods at me, choosing not to spend his words. I think of this as a wise move.

I sit in the third swing, next to Gerall's. And we just sit there, silent and consumed by our thoughts, worries, and fears.

"You know, this might be the last time any of us sit here." Ryne pipes up, her voice flat and solemn. "Could be me. Could be either of you. Could be…" she sighs, tilting her head heavenward. "Could be any of us."

Gerall shifts uncomfortably in his seat. "I would usually ask you to shut up about that, but you're right," he agrees hesitantly. He looks at me with his dark eyes, so full of apprehension. He can tell that I agree as well. "Our lives are literally being determined by a single slip of paper."

"I probably have a higher chance of getting reaped than either of you two," Ryne says bitterly. "Since I'm the only one that's had to apply for tesserae." I see her knuckles go white as they grip the chains of the swing tightly.

I feel a little guilty for thinking the same; Ryne is the poorest out of us three. Whereas me and Gerall belong to relatively normal middle-class families, Ryne only lives with her father in what would be equated to as the slums of District 5. Therefore, tesserae was frequently a necessity for her. I begin to feel tiny tendrils of relief creep on me before I hurriedly sweep them away.

"Not to mention that I still have two years of eligibility left. Which means even more additions, because no doubt I'll still be applying for tesser—"

"Ryne, just—just shut up!" Gerall snaps angrily. Both Ryne and I recoil, even though the comment was only aimed towards Ryne. I lower my head as Ryne chooses to stare off into space in silent frustration. Gerall alternates between looking at me and Ryne; no doubt he's at a temporary loss for words.

"Sorry." He says sheepishly. Ryne shakes her head, not looking at him. My attention remains devoted to a rather unremarkable pebble that lies at my feet.

"I'm just…scared."


Ryne speaks. "…We all are. For each other, for ourselves. We're all scared."

I say nothing, instead choosing to stare at my shoes.

Everyone is ready now, dressed in neat practical clothing. Faces are clean, hair is neatly arranged, backs are straightened. I passed many of my neighbors, dressed up and prepared like this, as I had walked away from the park. They all had blank yet depressed expressions on their faces.

I had retreated back to my house after my brief meeting with Ryne and Gerall, choosing to sit up in my room quietly. I didn't touch any of the books that stood in my bookshelves, nor did I crack open any of my journals, where my numerous short stories were kept. I decided to stack all four of my journals up on my dresser, leaving them out for my parents to see.

No, stop it, one of the voices in my head insists. Stop being so negative; you are not going to be reaped.

"That's not very realistic, thinking like that."

It's not being unrealistic, it's being certain. You only have your name in there six times. There are thousands more than that. What're the odds of you being selected from all of those names?

"Remember ten years ago? That one twelve year old was picked. He was killed," I add. "Anyone can get picked. You know that. Don't try to sugarcoat it."

I wait for the voice to speak up again, but it seems the voice has dissapeared.

An hour later, my parents and I are being pressed together as we squeeze in through a crowd consisting of the populace of District 5. My parents insist on standing in the back, but I refuse. I want to be closer to the stage, to the escort from the Capitol. That way, it would be impossible for me to mistake my name as someone else's when they call it.

I stop near the front. My parents follow, slightly jerking forward from suddenly doing the same. Out of the corner of my eye, I see Mom facing me with uncertainty. I look at her, and her expression suddenly changes from insecurity to blank patience. Dad's countenance is the same. They have created masks for their emotions, leaving me only guess at what they're truly feeling. I decide this to be a hopeless task and instead focus on finding my friends.

After a moment of searching I see Ryne with her father off to my left, facing the stage. My gaze scans once more over the crowd before stopping on the familiarly pudgy Gerall behind me. Both of their expressions are forced into looking empty like everyone else's, but I can see their anxiety. I swallow on air and turn back to the stage, where our escort is giving their speech.

Everyone waits, assuming the illusion of patience when, in reality, they all wait for the escort to announce the two unlucky names. I can tell, because that's how I feel. I just want to hear the names. I can't take the tension. I notice my hands balling up into fists; I don't unfurl them.

Finally, the moment arrives. The escort's clipped Capitol-accented voice finishes the practiced speech and gives the packet to an awaiting Peacekeeper. The same Peacekeeper comes back after putting away the packet, this time with a large glass bowl. Thousands of white paper slips occupy the majority of the space of the bowl; it's effectively a bowl full of lives.

This time, the escort takes no time in giving any unnecessary speeches. They must feel as impatient and pressured as we do. They lower their finely manicured hand into the confines of the bowl, swirling around the contents as if it were some sort of soup. We all watch as the hand almost teasingly circles around the bowl, contemplating its first victim. Then suddenly, enough to make some of us jump, the hand selects a single slip.

My heartbeat increases, pounding faster and faster within my ribcage. It screams at the escort, READ THE SLIP! READ THE SLIP!

The escort does so. For an instant, the world has stopped.

"Claus Hendall."

Right then and there, my heartbeat is gone. Vanished. It never existed. I know my face is blanching, because I feel all signs of warmth leaving me. My fists tighten as my nails bite into my palms, and before long they begin to shake.

The looks of sympathy and shock I receive clue in the Peacekeepers on my location. Two or three of them leave the stage and approach me with stern expressions. Before I know it, I feel them grabbing my skinny forearms and dragging me to the stage. I do not register it at all. My mind is too occupied with just one thought: they picked me.

I hear screams. They sound like Ryne's and Geralls, which snap me out of my daze and direct my attention to them. I can see Ryne pushing towards me, arms outstretched for me. I can distinguish Gerall's and Ryne's screams now. "I volunteer! I volunteer!"

"No!" I yell out, just loud enough for them to hear. Their voices die down as they gaze up at me helplessly. "No," I repeat, quietly this time as Peacekeepers begin ushering them back. I don't want to lose any one of them, which is rather hypocritical considering I'm the one leaving. But I don't want them to be subjected to what I am about to face.

I glance to where my parents stand, slightly astonished. My heart drops at their blank reactions. At the most, they look mildly surprised. My gaze lingers before I lower my head. I don't want to see those faces, devoid of emotion. Their expressions tell me that even now, what little familial connection we have – or had, rather – is as weak as the strength in my knees. Their expressions tell me that they feel I will not last long.

I vaguely hear the escort call the other tribute, a female, to the stage. "Aella Dekas," the name is, and I can see a petite blonde being ushered up the stage. Though, to be honest, my mind is far too struck into a state of catatonia that I can't bring myself to dwell on it.

I am then pushed into a waiting room, but my senses are too blurred together to notice . I am asked if I want to see some people who are waiting for me. I nod.

I see Ryne and Gerall rushing in, enveloping me in a tight hug. I feel a prickly wetness on my cheeks before I realize that both of them are weeping. My arms slowly circle around them and squeeze them tighter to me, not wanting to let them go. They say things, promises to root for me and to wish me luck every day. I respond back with my own promises, though I force myself not to hear them. I don't want to hear my lies.

After a couple of minutes, they are forced to leave. I wait for a couple more in case my parents decide to speak to me. But the Peacekeepers tell me to hurry up and board the train; nobody else was waiting for me.

So, with the knowledge that my parents had not come to say goodbye, I board the train. My fate is sealed.

Aella Dekas (by Lexi Blaze)

I'm not afraid of death because I don't believe in it. It's just getting out of one car and into another.
- John Lennon

A/N: Hello everyone! I'm Alexa Blaze. First off, I'd like to say thanks so much to everyone reading this story, and thank you all for leaving reviews! This is getting so much attention; it's wonderful and I know for a fact that it's deserved. Secondly, I want to thank Mikki105 for coming up with this fantastic idea and inviting me to be a part of it! It means a lot to me, so thank you. Lastly, I just want to congradulate all the authors I'm working with. You guys are truly amazing, and some of the best writers I've ever met. Keep up the great work everyone!
- Sexy Lexi


I wake up to the sound of my sister's scream ringing throughout the house. Crawling out of bed and wrapping myself up in my blanket, I stumble down the hall, rubbing sleep out of my eyes. Cleo, my 19-year-old sister, is standing over the vanity in her bedroom, looking like someone has just slapped her.

Upon seeing me in the doorway, she lunges forward and tries to wrap her hands around my neck – but I manage to push her down onto her back before she can strangle me. Cleo's eyes bulge out when I flatten her on our hardwood floor; she looks up at me, panting. I must have knocked the breath out of her.

"What do you want, Cleo?" I grumble, pulling my blanket tighter around my lean frame. "You woke me up."

She glares up at me. "You stole my shirt!"

"Which one?" I sigh, rolling my eyes and sitting down on the floor in front of her.

"The purple one I was going to wear for the Reaping!" she shrieks, reaching forwards to pull at my hair, but I swat her hands away.

"Oh, right. That one. Flynn, Pascal and I may or may not have used it as a flag when we were playing 'Capture the Flag' yesterday," I say sheepishly.

"Arghhh!" Cleo screams, doing a backwards somersault into her room. "You are the worst little sister ever!"

"I know," I smile, getting up from the floor and heading back to my bedroom, away from her anguished cries. I honestly can't stand Cleo, and she can't stand me either: we're complete opposites, even though we're sisters who are only three years apart. Cleo is obsessed with boys, makeup, hair, and clothing, while I couldn't care less about any of that stuff. Honestly, the only things that interest me are sports, and hanging out with my guy friends – but not because I want to make out with them, like Cleo. Simply because they're the best friends anyone could ever ask for.

I throw on a pair of pants, a white t-shirt and a baggy grey hoodie. The clothing helps to cover my ample chest and curvy body. While my sister takes pleasure in showing as much skin as possible, I don't. I'm actually really uncomfortable with the way my body looks. It's not like I'm fat, extremely skinny, or have no boobs; I just don't like my curves. That's why I wear baggy hoodies: they hide my chest so I can look and feel, well . . . flatter.

Before I run downstairs, I take a quick look in the mirror as I pull my long, wavy blonde hair up into a high ponytail. I like to keep it up because then it stays off my face, and makes running around with my friends easier. Cleo likes to believe I do it to show off my big green eyes, round face, and light freckles dotting my nose, but she's just pretending. She hates the fact that she has a sister who doesn't give a damn about what she looks like.

Rushing downstairs, I see that Mom and Dad are already in the kitchen. Cleo, I guess, is still in her room, searching out the perfect outfit to wear, even though she's not eligible to be Reaped anymore, and therefore doesn't really have a reason to look nice. Mom and Dad give me tense smiles as I wolf down my breakfast. They're worried about me and the Reaping today, but aren't about to break down in tears. It's not like they know me that well, even though I'm their daughter. They spend most of their time at work.

I wave as I head out the door and into the dusty streets of District 5. It's unreasonably sunny today – almost as if the sun is trying to brighten the otherwise depressing day. It's Reaping Day, though, and nothing could make the mood in the District any better. I feel as if I'm standing in the middle of a dark, depressing black hole of despair.

Without warning, something hits me in the back and knocks me to the ground. I roll over in the dirt, coughing; the wind was knocked out of me, and I swallowed a bunch of dust. Looking up, I raise my fists, preparing for a fight with whatever knocked me down . . . but it's just my best friend, Flynn.

"Not cool, buddy," I huff as he pulls me to my feet. Behind him stands Pascal – our other best friend – laughing at me.

"Did I scare you, Aella?" he winks, and I push him. A shoving match ensues; one that I end up winning. We're laughing too hard to continue by the time Cleo marches out of my house. It looks as if she's already put her face on (literally – my sister is a cake-face), and is ready to face the day in a ridiculously short skirt and a top that plunges so low I'm surprised her boobs aren't hanging out. As she walks past, Flynn nods at her approvingly, winking. She just smiles flirtatiously when she sees him, and continues on her way.

It's no secret that Flynn's got a thing for my sister, but their rapport is only skin-deep. He thinks she's sexy, and Cleo thinks he's hot. The end. I'm used to their reckless flirting; I have to deal with it a lot when I'm around Flynn. A lot of girls seem to like him.

I can see why, though. He's got floppy brown hair and soft brown eyes, with a strong nose and high cheekbones. Plus, he's a rather kind, funny and respectful individual: any girl's dream guy. The relationship between me and Flynn is completely platonic, though: neither of us have ever had any feelings for each other, and we never will. Flynn is like the older brother I've never had.

Pascal's almost the same. We have each other's backs for everything, and we're into most of the same stuff. Pascal isn't one for the ladies, though, like Flynn – he's the quiet one in our trio. The ginger with the pasty skin who keeps to himself.

"So, what'cha up to, Aella?" Flynn asks, as Pascal comes to stand beside us.

"Nothing much," I sigh, strolling down the street with them, strides matching even though they're both a year older than me. "Got any money?"

Flynn shrugs. "Yeah, a few bucks. Why?"

"Wanna get some chips and kick around a football or something before the Reapings?"

"Sure," he smiles, eyes crinkling at the corners in the way that makes girls swoon.

We head down to the Square, where people are hastily setting up a stage for the Reapings today. A few Capitol television crewmen are wandering around, checking out the District but never straying far from their base. One of them looks straight at me and gives a low, appreciative whistle. Beside me, Pascal chuckles as he shoves me into the grocery store.

I don't see why guys look at me suggestively, like that crewman did. I'm nothing special to look at: I cover my curves, I don't wear makeup, and I keep my hair back. Cleo says I could be pretty if I actually put some effort into my appearance . . . but really. Who does that?

We purchase a bag of crappy District 5 chips and then quickly stop by Flynn's house to pick up a football and head to the park beside our school. As we pass by the swing set, I see a girl named Ryne waiting for her friends. Flynn goes over to talk to her, but I hang back awkwardly, munching on potato chips and talking to Pascal.

It's not that I don't like her – it's just that I've never exactly felt comfortable around girls. I've always been a tomboy, and I've never really made any effort to become friends with someone of the same gender as me. I find that talking to other girls is awkward, annoying, dull, and ultimately difficult. I have nothing in common with them.

Ryne offers me a smile while she's talking to Flynn, but I don't return it. Instead, I stare at my dirty shoes, covered in dust and grime.

After what feels like forever, Flynn says goodbye to her as some guy joins Ryne on the swings. When we head for the soccer field, I spark up a conversation with my best friends.

"So, how do you feel about the Games this year? Any idea of what the arena might be?"

Pascal snorts. "How would I know what the Gamemakers are planning? It could be anything from an underwater arena to a giant piece of sushi."

I roll my eyes. "Yes, because that's so deadly."

"You ask a stupid question, you get a stupid answer," he sighs.

"Well, you're a stupid person," I crookedly grin.

Pascal glares at me. "You're the one who spent all day yesterday trying to convince me you could see the future."

"How does that make me stupid?" I ask. "It just makes me . . . prophetic."

Pascal pulls me into a headlock, but I jab an elbow back into his stomach. Soon, we are fighting: throwing punches, kicks and insults. Flynn's efforts to stop us are only half-hearted. If there's one advantage to being friends with boys, it's that I know how to throw a good punch.

We resolve our row quickly. Being a tomboy and hanging out with guys means there isn't much drama, and there aren't many emotions hanging in the air between all of us. While girls can be fearful, depressed, furious, lonely, content, and envious (among other things), I feel like I can only ever be happy, sad, and angry. Life is so much easier without drama, and when one doesn't hold grudges.

The football game with Flynn and Pascal turns out to be disastrous. It's difficult to play with three people - usually we're with a bunch of other boys from school - and I accidentally crush the bag of chips halfway through our failed efforts.

"Can we please just do something else?" I smack Flynn on the arm as we lie down on the grassy ground in the park. I fold my hands on my stomach and look up at the sky, but Flynn pulls me over closer to him, so that my head is practically lying on his chest. When I give him a questioning look, his face turns placid.

"This may be the last time I can ever see you," is all he says, before going silent. We watch clouds float by, contemplating the possibilities of our futures. Pascal, jealous of our closeness, snuggles right up next to Flynn jokingly.

Suddenly, a large shadow looms over us. I look up, expecting it to be Cleo or one of Flynn's female friends – but instead, it's a dog.

"Maxi!" Pascal cries, sitting up and wrapping his arms around the golden-haired dog. "What're you doing so far from home?"

I reach out and scratch Maxi's neck; he barks and licks my hand. Maxi is Pascal's pet dog - we found him wandering the streets when we were 12 and he was just a puppy. The golden-haired dog likes to follow us around sometimes, and race us around the District.

"C'mon, boy," I coo at the dog, getting up and running to the other side of the field. He follows, and at the end I jump, sliding on my butt, into a mud puddle. Maxi follows right after, rolling around in wet dirt and spraying me with grime.

Laughing, I knot my fingers in his fur as he licks my face. The underside of my jeans is now soaked in mud, but I really don't care; getting dirty is my specialty. I tend to get messy a lot, because I'm a tomboy hanging out with a bunch of immature teenage boys.

Maxi starts barking when Flynn pulls him away from me a moment later. He's saying something about "leaving," and I don't understand what he means until I realize that it's almost time for the Reapings. I stand up and try to wipe most of the mud off my pants, but it doesn't work. All I end up doing is getting mud on my hands.

Later, when we arrive in the Square, Cleo finds me and freaks out. "Aella!" she screeches, not unlike this morning, when she sees the state I'm in. "You are a disgrace to this family," she chides as I roll my eyes. "How can I possibly be related to you? I mean, come on! You're covered in mud! What happens if you get Reaped, and you have to go up on the stage with your mud-soaked jeans? You'll be the laughing stock of Panem, that's what. And people will look down on me because I'm your sister!"

I shrug and scrunch up my nose. "All the more reason to look like a mess!"

Waving goodbye to Flynn and Pascal as they head to the 17's section, I stumble into the girls' 16 area. I stand on the very edge, as far away from the others as I can be, for obvious reasons. I just really can't interact with girls that well, no matter how hard I try. I always end up saying something offensive or stupid.

The escort starts blathering on and on about the Dark Days and the blah-de-blah-de-blah. I don't pay the slightest bit of attention. They say the same thing every year; the only difference is whether or not the escort looks like a giant bubble or not.

I'm not worried about the Reapings. Although District 5 is one of the smaller Districts, I doubt I'm going to get picked to go into the arena. There are so many names in the glass balls on stage . . . so many names that aren't mine. Unlike pretty much the rest of Panem, I'm not upset, worried, or even nervous. What are the chances that I'll get picked? Practically next to none.

The escort calls up the first tribute – some boy named Claus Hendall. His face is placid, but I can see some sort of inner turmoil going on behind his eyes. Two of his friends – one of them is the Ryne girl Flynn was talking to this morning – volunteer, but he brushes them off. This Claus guy must be one amazingly unselfish person if he doesn't want them to take his place.

The escort then reaches a hand into the glass ball for the girls. I can practically hear an intake of breath from the young women around me, but I just lean against the wall casually. The chances of me getting picked are –

"Aella Dekas."

This time, my breath catches in my throat. I honestly can't believe it. They picked me. Even after all my confidence about not being picked. Now, it doesn't matter how many times my name wasn't in that ball . . . because I was picked for the freaking Hunger Games! I was picked to die!

My limbs go absolutely frozen solid, so much that a few Peacekeepers have to usher me forwards. I don't even realize that I'm standing on stage until the escort demands I shake hands with Claus. He gives my shaking palm a friendly squeeze, but I can feel that he's trembling, too.

The Peacekeepers then waste no time in shoving us into the Justice Building, where we await our goodbyes. My parents come into the room almost immediately after I'm pushed into the luxurious space. Our goodbye is typical – tears, hugs, I love you's, and good luck wishes. Nothing special happens; but that's because we all know I won't be coming back.

Cleo runs into the room next. I'm baffled to see that she's crying. Cleo, my older sister, who's always so bitchy and apathetic, is crying. Over me. The annoying sibling who just made a fool out of the family name by walking up onto the stage with brown mud all over her pants.

"Please come home," she envelops me in a big hug. "I don't know what I'll do without you, Aella. Who will I have to scream at, and make fun of? Who will I have to be bitchy towards?"

"Is that all I am to you?" I raise an eyebrow, looking at her with my big green eyes. "Someone who you can pick on?"

She shakes her head soberly. "No, no, of course not. Although I may not act like it, Aella, I love having you around. You're my little sister. I wish I could protect you."

"But you can't," I trail off, stepping away and out of her reach.

She shakes her head as she begins to walk out the door. "I know . . . but I can tell you one thing. Ally with the Careers. They'll protect you, at least until there aren't many people left."

"How the hell am I supposed to convince to Careers to ally with me?" I snort, crossing my arms over my chest defensively.

Cleo glares. "Don't play dumb, Aella. I've seen you fooling around with Flynn and Pascal. Not only are you one of the fastest kids I've ever seen, you're great at sports. Some of those skills could come in handy."

"Like what?" I exclaim, my eyes wide and my lips trembling.

"Argh! I don't know! Just stop being difficult, Aella. You know you can do this. At least ally with the Careers. For me. Then you'll have a better chance of survival."

I snort again. "I'm not doing anything for you. Don't be ridiculous. They won't want me, anyways."

And then, for what seems like the first time ever, Cleo gives me a real, genuine smile. It's not her normally bitchy one, or even her smug one; it's her kind one. "C'mon, Aella. Think, little sis. There's at least one reason as to why they might want you." And then she steps out of the door and turns down the hallway, maybe never to be seen again.

I glower at a stain on the carpet as I wait for my next visitor, or for the Peacekeepers to tell me to board the train. All I'm feeling towards my sister is annoyance. She can't come in here and tell me what to do, and be all cryptic! I'm going to my death, for Panem's sake. The least she could do is be clear in what she's telling me.

But . . . she is clear. I know exactly what she's talking about. Pascal's father was a Victor a while ago, and he keeps weapons in his basement. He's paranoid about the Capitol coming and trying to kidnap him and his family, or something. The Games can do things like that to people. Anyways, I was fooling around with the weapons at his house with Flynn once. Okay, maybe more than once. But it wasn't like I was training . . . we were simply acting like immature guys, screwing around with sharp objects. Anyways, the moral of the story is . . . I found out I had quite the affinity for the double axe.

But that doesn't mean the Careers will accept me. Hell, I hate the Careers. They're bloodthirsty, sadistic children who run around with swords and knives and act like taking a life is no big deal. There is no way I'm going to join the Careers, even if they get down on their knees and beg me to be their ally.

I come to an epiphany, then: I won't join the Careers. Ha, ha. Big epiphany. But if I get the chance, I'll join some sort of alliance against the Careers.

Flynn and Pascal finally come in to say goodbye. They give me a bone-crushing hug at the same time, smothering me against their chests. Once I see my best friends, I finally break down into tears. What if I never see them again?

Neither of them are crying, but their faces are pale and gaunt. Flynn wipes a tear gently off my face with his thumb, but a few more just come back and take its place. "Just come home, Aella . . . please?" he begs.

"The District won't be the same without you," Pascal smiles sadly. All of a sudden, they both just turn on their heels at the same time and walk out of the room, as if it's too painful to see me crying and on my way to die.

Hastily I wipe my tears away when the Peacekeepers collect me. There are cameras on the train platform, filming our faces, but I don't give them the satisfaction of seeing me unravelled. Instead, I smile, but glare as well, just to throw the Capitol audiences off.

As I leave the District and step onto the train, I remember a quote I heard once: "I'm not afraid of death because I don't believe in it. It's just getting out of one car and into another." And so, when I look back at my home one last time . . . I'm smiling for real.