"You'll tell yourself anything you have to, to pretend that you're still the one in control."

-Jodi Picoult, Change of Heart: A Novel

Lucilius Caninus, Capitol (85)

It takes a lot to get me around these days. The top-notch physical therapy and nutrient pills are helping, but the truth is I'm growing old, and soon there will be a new president. The problems that are rapidly arising these days do nothing to help.

"Daddy, Daddy!"

My daughter runs into my private room. My dear, precious daughter. Ten years old and already so smart, so beautiful. But right now, on this fateful day, I don't have time even for her.

"Hello, sweetie," I greet her. "What are you doing in here? I'm busy right now and I can't play with you. Could you ask an Avox?"

"The Head Gamemaker sent me," she says. "He wants to talk to you. He says something is going wrong."

"What, something else? Tell that son of a- " She looks at me with wide eyes. "I'm sorry, Dez. Tell him he can come in, I suppose. But don't bother being nice about it. He's an oily prig who doesn't know a small problem from an imminent rebellion."

She nods and pokes her head through the doorway. "Mr. Head Gamemaker son of an oily prig, you can come in."

"He'll never let me hear the end of that," I moan. "Oh well. Run along, Desdemona. If you're bored, go play with the arena controls or something. You couldn't possibly mess things up more than they're already messed up."

She beams and turns to leave, but hands me a red rose first. "I almost forgot, Daddy! Red is so your color."

Then she skips out of the room before I can kiss her.

"Son of an oily prig?" Livius Daermon seeps into the room, smiling twistedly with his wet lips. That's the only way I can describe the way he moves, seeping, first one slippery foot and then the next and then an oily face and then the rest of him just slinks in. I swear, he is the living embodiment of salad oil.

"Yes, and you certainly deserve it, you puffy, moon-faced dolt," I say boredly, propping my feet up on my desk. "What lovely news have you got for me now?"

"Did you know that your devil child left a frog in my coffee cup and a note that said 'Green is your color'?"

"Boo- bloody- hoo. Tell me the bad news or your color will be dripping crimson."

"The Hawk children's orphanage is handing out rebellious pamphlets."

I bang my head against the desk. "This is getting out of control. Why, why, why? So many rules broken and bent! I swear, I will raze that orphanage if it isn't stopped."

"Yes, well, I have the district statuses. I don't think one District Ten orphanage will be your biggest problem."

He hands me a holo pad, and if I had enough hair left, I would tear it out.

'District One: Upset that their tributes didn't volunteer and that they're causing dissension among their pack. Low risk.

District Two: Upset that their tributes are siblings and that the sister is causing dissension. Low risk.

District Three: Used to having tributes die so soon, but very upset about the multiple rules broken in the Games. Low to medium risk.

District Four: Upset about Quetile but proud of Shore, no specific complaints. Zero risk.

District Five: Very upset about Blue and Mellow, leading a march of support, but proud of Kingsport. Medium risk.

District Six: Uproar about their tributes' marriage and, relatedly, the Hawk girl's pregnancy. Medium to high risk.

District Seven: Pandemonium. About to lose them. Cut off contact and usurping Peacekeeper/Mayor control. Nightbloom family leading rebellious plans. Highest risk.

District Eight: Upset about McCoy having the first death but used to such things and proud of Downing. Zero risk.

District Nine: Uproar about Caraway and Blitz, as her arson back in the district is revealed. High risk.

District Ten: Uproar about Hawk siblings, particularly sister's pregnancy. Handing out rebellious pamphlets and cutting off communications. Close to losing them. Highest risk.

District Eleven: Upset about extra tribute Mellow and her death, but severely subdued by Peacekeepers due to their vitality to the Capitol. Low risk.

District Twelve: Proud of McEowan and Burns. Upset about broken rules but not majorly. Low to zero risk.'

I bang my head on the desk again. "Uggh. Can we just do with seafood, cloth, and coal? Can we just bomb everyone else?"

"Afraid not. But Districts Seven and Ten may need some tear gas or some such thing, tame them down a bit." Oily slimeball, trying to advise me.

"Why did there have to be a marriage, an extra tribute, an eleven year old, a pregnancy, and two sets of siblings? I'm drowning here! What's next? I'm sure we'll soon discover that a toddler girl from Seven, Panem forbid, stumbled into the arena through a hole in the forcefield!"

"I'll have the forcefield checked," he says, taking it seriously. "Well, we better see if anything like that is happening."

He flicks the switch near my desk to turn on all six televisions on the wall.

Each shows a different scene in the arena, and each is constantly changing. Livius and I see Shore and Ismail-Pignati returning to their camp empty-handed, Caraway starting a fire for his experienced allies, that awful Nightbloom girl in a tree, and a random rainbow arching over the whole arena.

"Wait, a rainbow?" Livius says.

"Probably my daughter. Forget about it."

"Hey, look, sponsor gifts. Two of them," he says, zooming in on the faint silvery parachutes. I hope they'll go to Shore, Downing, McEowan, or Burns, the only ones whose districts are behaving.

One goes to the Hawk girl, unfortunately. She opens it eagerly, and Livius focuses on the costly presents: a whip and a hypodermic needle in a glass box.

She brightens. "Ember, Rory, look! It's medicine for me."

"It'll get rid of the baby. You'll still feel sick for a while, but you won't be as heavy or clumsy or emotional anymore," Rory says, anticipating the smack and dodging it.

"You brat. Eugh, I hate needles. Oh well." Before she plunges it into her arm, she looks at the cameras and sighs. "I'm sorry, Banteng. You would've been a great dad."

After she draws it out, shuddering from the pain and cold, Ember wraps her arm in a cloth filled with ice. "It'll numb it a bit. Why don't you just take a nice nap now and let me and Rory take guard duty?"

"Rory and me," Rory corrects.

"Or that. Up you come, Prom."

Promise is too weak to resist as her allies bundle her in two of the three blankets in their pack, and succumbs to sleep about a minute later.

Ember and Rory sit wrapped in the remaining blanket, maintaining a companionable silence. The only sound is Promise mumbling drowsily, and finally, Rory dozing off as well, crying softly in his sleep. Ember shows nothing but compassion as she plants a kiss on his black curls, sweat-soaked despite the cold.

"Good night, sweetie," she whispers, stroking his pale forehead, and sits vigilant into the fading of afternoon to dusk.

The scene is oddly touching, and Valius and I suddenly realize we've been watching for ages, which is rather embarrassing, being so touched by three simple little tributes.

"Er, ahem. That Hawk girl is more than a little attractive. If she wins, I expect many clients will want her for those violet eyes and her nice body," I cover hastily.

"Of course. And Burns is also pretty. Her sapphires might outdo Hawk's violets. I hope I could get a discount on them," he says no less awkwardly. "I'll just find the other parachute."

He rapidly keys in a search query, and the camera switches to a scene of none other than our lovebirds from District Six.

"They got another meal? And an axe? Why couldn't someone like Downing or Shore get gifts?" I say, banging my head against the desk for certainly not the last time.

"They got a note, too." Livius zooms in on a piece of paper next to the happily embracing couple. Blaugh, I hope Desdemona doesn't see this. Such a bad influence on the child. Kids these days, they'd rather have romance than Career pack fights, I don't know...

" 'Keep up the good work, they love you. Stay together. Bianca, Alexie is proud of you. Kyle, Milah and your mother are waiting for you. We are so proud of you. Be strong.' Their mentors are so sappy!" Livius sneers. "Why not just out with it and say 'You mean the world to us, daaaahlings, we lahv you both?' "

I snort to cover up my laugh. "Yes, well, ahem. Let marriage be marriage and love be love while it lasts, I prefer lust. That's how Desdemona came about, you know, I never married, the mother was some District One victor in the year she won, her name was Aphrodite I believe."

"Funny, I've got an appointment with Aphrodite tonight." Lucky dolt.

"I've got an appointment with Kuthu Matheson, District Twelve, in an hour, so I have to leave." I rise stiffly from my seat. "Fix the problems or die, understand?"

"Completely, sir."

"Or red will so be your color."

"Understood, sir."

MERRY CHRISTMAS EVERYBODY!