Author's Note: Written for (and runner-up in) Starvation's April 2012 monthly challenge – prompt: "inescapable". Please note – this is set in the Before the Music Dies world, so if you've read my Fanfiction series, several things should seem familiar. But you don't have to have read that to understand this, though I suppose you should know: this is AU and takes place around the four-hundred fifth Hunger Games. Warnings: no spoilers for the canon, but some for the Before the Music Dies Legacy; also, general darkness, character death(s). Enjoy, and please review; feedback is always appreciated.

. . .

iridescent

They've spent their whole lives trying to stay sane enough to reach this moment. Or maybe this day, or week, or month, or several months, because it's not like they have time to remember—if it's Tuesday or Friday, February or June, it doesn't matter.

Nothing else can ever matter again, but no one's told them this.

A countdown clock outside ticks down the days, hours, minutes. Until the Games, until twenty-four children face the reality of their own deaths. Not one of the Gamemakers notices.

It's five past seven in the morning, but none of them have left the Gamemaking Center in weeks, so their scheduled hours have faded into the background.

This isn't really a seven-to-three job, something they can't tell anyone but each other, and they already know.

The meeting follows the agenda to the minute, but something in the air is wrong today. The atmosphere should be upbeat and urgent, this far into the planning; but instead it's tired and slow as everyone fights to keep their eyes open. That's an unspoken competition in itself.

"And what's our job?" Lavender asks the others. "I mean… why are we here?" The Head Gamemaker's question is unanswered for a few minutes, rhetorical until it's not.

"At the Gamemaking Center, or in general?" Ritter asks, always the psychologist.

"Here," Lavender says softly. "Being Gamemakers. Go for obvious answers."

"To run the Hunger Games?"

"To create the arena?"

"To keep the Capitol entertained?"

"Because of the Treaty of Treason?"

She says nothing, just shakes her head slightly. That last answer tugs at her memory. Misty, the old Head Gamemaker, had told her that President Paylor would give her the death-threat speech, and Lavender had been ready for that. But she hadn't expected to hear words like Fourteen and Quarter Quell and plan and lies and this is what I need you to do. A whole war she has to hide from the others.

"We are here to put together the Games." Lavender inhales sharply and then sighs, her voice quieting further. "But… I mean, the Games are judged based on the victor. Always. How sane they are, how many pieces they come out of the arena in. It's our job… to make sure that they don't. Leave the arena. That they spend the rest of their lives trying to find a way out."

. . .

The four-hundred fifth Hunger Games come and go in no more than four days, a record-setter. Weeks pass and the talk never stops. Those ghosts! Did you see the look on that Four girl's face— And the finale! What a battle— Oh, I wish the pair from One could've—

What's funny, really, but only to the Gamemakers, is that none of the articles, not one, dares to call any of it tragic. Not the death of the little girl from Eleven, November, in the bloodbath. Not Charity slitting the throat of her district partner, supposedly in love with her. Not Namitha watching the life go out of all her allies' eyes in under five minutes. Not the sweet, kind girl from Twelve being so close to reaching her only ally, the insane girl from Nine, before the water pulled her under for the last time.

There are no rules about maintaining humanity.

While the Capitol has never paid particular attention to the Gamemaking panel, they are now. Not a day goes by their names aren't mentioned somewhere, whether another interview is published or another review featured in The Capitol Daily. Lavender, perhaps, suffers from this most of all, even in her first year.

A never-ending spotlight shines on those who want it least.

. . .

Designated Arena Planning Time—DAPT, to the panel—ends abruptly, months before the next Games. It's the first time the previous year has been mentioned amongst them other than for publicity or record-keeping, and it doesn't go well.

"This year, everyone's watching."

"They were last year; it's required."

"But, paying attention."

"They're not caring. You think they're going to cry whenever someone dies? No."

And then, of course, the room falls silent, and they think of the girl from Nine. No one outside the room would understand what had happened as the fourteen-year-old's cannon fired.

It's in those times they hate themselves the most.

After, Lavender rises but makes no move to leave with the others, watching the video wall across the room. Francisco lingers near the doorway closest to her. "You think anyone actually gets it?" he asks, typically slow, though the actual talking isn't. Light brown eyes demand an answer.

Suddenly the maybe-four-inches he has on her seem like a lot more. She wonders whom he's talking about. The panel? The Capitol? Is this just his old fight with her about how only he knows what it's like in a district? She assumes he means, who could ever understand this? "Ah… no," she sighs. "I don't."

. . .

It's one of those nights, when it's nearing one in the morning and they're all still at their workstations.

Lavender sets an Arena Tech tablet—AT to the Gamemakers—on her desk. The view out that window-wall of her office is actually beautiful at night, all moving streetlights and cars in the distance, and illuminated skyscrapers going up the mountainside, lights and music pouring out of the late-night attractions. She doesn't count the days it's been since any of them even left the Gamemaking Center. Outside, there is nothing waiting for them.

She dims the display pulled up on her desk, only enough so the glare is less sharp on her eyes, and puts her head down for a moment, and wonders, why do we still do this? Tears threaten to spill over, but don't—because she's just Lavender, and she's Head Gamemaker, and she has to be the strong one, the one who always knows what to do.

Misty appears just a few inches over the threshold into her office, eyeing the nineteen-year-old practically collapsed over her own desk, thinking that she's too young for this.

"I know, so you can skip the speech," Lavender mumbles, not quite looking up.

"Lavender, we both know I don't lecture," Misty says, sounding more and more like the grandmother every day.

She almost works up the energy to smile, but doesn't quite get there.

"You're starting to think we must all be completely mad? Or that maybe we're the sane ones, and everyone else is?"

"We're not the sane ones," she answers. "Trust me, we're far from normal. I mean… whatever normal is, it's not killing children."

Misty leaves a slip of paper on her desk and walks out.

Let it fall all on me

'Cause I'm the one

You're looking for,

Nothing to lose

Nothing to hide

We are Free:

The ones they all

Adore.

It's true, and yet so, so wrong at the same time.

The pain burns somewhere deep inside her that she can't quite reach.

. . .

Most of the intense prep is over. They've forgotten how to relax, but they generally stop working somewhere before midnight and even go home about once a week, which is the closest they've come to it for a while.

The families they rarely see ask if they're happy, and there is no answer.

Some don't, or maybe just can't talk to their families anymore. Francisco, who abandoned his in District Five; Glisten, who ran away at sixteen; Misty, who lost most of hers years ago.

Life has its own Games to play with them; but so does Death.

This whimsical "Happiness" is on a different scale altogether for the eight of them. Rainshadow says that maybe it's better that way. Who else do they need? The petty, short relationships of most of the Capitol's citizens don't suit them. It's why Misty's divorced twice, why Ritter and Glisten have finally turned to each other, why... (Rainshadow doesn't say the last part aloud, her own conspiracy about Lavender and Francisco that the others would never believe.)

They're alone, together.

Lavender's first night back at her apartment, she wakes with the sound of terrified screaming ringing in her ears, breath coming only in short bursts. Images of the next arena seem to flash in front of her, frightening and gruesome and deadly. It feels, vaguely, like being torn into thousands of little pieces.

It takes her ten minutes to realize the screaming is her own.

. . .

It's Thespian who walks into her office the next day, looking uncharacteristically agitated and serious. His usual easy smile is nowhere to be found; he looks all of his thirty-six years and too many more. "It's Kaye," he says simply. "She's completely shut down on us."

Lavender takes a moment to process, then nods, rises. "Meaning…?"

"I don't even know," he says, exasperated. "She won't say what's wrong." His voice softens a bit, quieter. "I think these Games have finally gotten to her, Lav," Thespian almost whispers.

Of course, they eventually get to everyone.

She only nods again and then follows him, down a few floors to the room they'd all met in forty minutes earlier. Misty looks up at the whisk of the sliding door but doesn't say anything to them. Kaye doesn't seem to notice, still sobbing almost quietly.

Lavender takes a seat and wraps her arms around her, almost too tightly, protective. "Shh..." she murmurs softly, stroking one hand through her hair. "Just breathe…." She's heard that often enough, herself, and knows it's useless but the reminder's still there just the same.

Kaye tries to tell her something, but the words are too strangled and choked for her to hear. "Mm?"

"I c-can't—do this," she says too quickly, without air, and then only cries harder, still shaking enough she thinks she might collapse.

Lavender lets her eyes close, for just a moment. "I know… shh…." She glances at Thespian and Misty, who haven't really moved, and just shakes her head slightly. They leave, silent, with concerned expressions. Lavender doesn't quite say anything until Kaye's quiet, and then draws away just enough to reach out and wipe some of the tears off her face. "So Thespian said you wouldn't tell him or Misty what's wrong," she says gently. "Do you think you could tell me?"

There's not an answer right away, because there is none.

She brushes the tear-soaked hair away from her face.

"I don't know," Kaye chokes, voice still somewhat broken. "I'm sorry—I don't… I don't know…." She watches the ground too carefully. "It's just, this—I can't—the Games—I can't do this anymore," she finishes in a whisper.

Lavender doesn't answer; somehow, she suspected this was inevitable, straight from the start. She's never quite understood why Kaye would ever want to be a Gamemaker—always so kind and sweet to everybody, seemingly incapable of hurting someone, let alone killing them. Of course this would get to her easily—and somewhere behind the tears, her eyes still hold the same gentility they always have.

"I think you were right," she adds, calmer. "What you said—about the arena, and not leaving. But I think that's not just for the tributes." It's a terrifying thought, but it strikes them both as true.

Everyone, in their own way, is afraid of pain.

That applies to them just as much as anyone else.

"Did you always want to be a Gamemaker?" Lavender asks, changing the subject a bit after the quiet.

"… Sort of." The words sound like a question. "It just, seemed like the only thing worth doing, I guess."

"It did to all of us," Lavender says simply, and then sighs.

. . .

The four-hundred sixth Games approach Panem. Secrets and conspiracies spread, but the Gamemakers are right; this year, everyone's watching. Last year has not been erased, but it haunts those involved more than anyone. The Hunger Games aren't there to be forgotten, and remembered they will be.

It's an inescapable truth.

END