I do not own the Hunger Games. The tribute belongs to his respective submitter.

I apologize in advance for the ridiculous length of this chapter.

Hey young blood, doesn't it feel like our time is running out?

Icarus Castillo, Head Gamemaker

"Maybe you can come down to see us next weekend," Kaylana says over the phone. My niece babbles in the background, too young to form actual words. "You know, after all of the Hunger Games stuff is over with. Emily misses you."

I smile, though it's an empty expression. I won't see them again. This is probably the last time I'll ever speak to my sister.

Careful to keep my voice level and amiable, I say, "Yeah, that sounds great. I miss her, too. And you and Carson, of course." Leaning my forehead against the doorframe, I close my eyes and draw a quick breath. "Hey, you remember that one tree, the one in the park? Where we used to leave those paper messages?"

Kaylana laughs on the other end. "You mean when we used to think we were spies? Leaving vitally important transmissions that had to be kept top secret at all costs." She gives an inward sigh. "Yes, yes I do."

I force myself to take a steadying breath, lowering my head and staring at the floor. They're probably listening to this conversation, but they don't know where the tree is. I'll just have to hope that they didn't follow me, and that they won't follow Kaylana. "Yeah. Check the tree. I don't know if it's still there, or if they took it." Despite my best efforts, a quiver enters my voice that I can't quite conceal. "I left something for you."

I can sense an immediate change in her demeanor, even over the phone. "'They'? Icarus, what are you talking about? Are you alright?"

Lying to myself, lying to her, I say, "Yeah, yeah. Everything's alright. I just… I just have some things to tell you."

"And you can't tell me in person?" she asks, suspicion and worry creeping into her words. "What's going on?"

I force myself to breathe. "Trust me. Just this once." On the other end, she's completely silent, and I briefly fear that she doesn't believe me, chalking it up to some psychotic break on my part. That wouldn't be too far from the truth. "Please."

After a nerve-wracking pause, she answers, "Alright. I just… are you sure everything's okay? Do you want us to stop by?"

"No," I say, too quickly. "I'm fine. Really. I'll see you next weekend, alright?"

She sighs. I can tell she isn't convinced, but there isn't much she can do, and she knows it. "O-okay." Hesitantly, she adds, "Next Saturday?"

It takes every iota of self-control to keep my voice from shattering. "Yeah. Next Saturday."

"Alright. Bye, Icarus." A pause stretches between us. "I love you."

"I love you, too." Tightening my fist, clenching my jaw until it feels like my teeth will crack, I say, with a finality my sister can't possibly understand, "Good bye, Kaylana."

The speaker clicks, and I find myself in complete silence. Dragging my hand across my mouth, I delicately place the phone on the countertop and sink to the ground, my back against the wall as I face the floor-to-ceiling window. The huge swathe of glass offers me an unobstructed view of the Capitol in all of its nighttime glory. It's so beautiful. All of the lights, all of the thoughts and plans and wishes, all of the people living their lives in gilded splendor, completely unaware that a gaping, hungry maw awaits them just below the thin veneer of luxury.

Why me? Why did Snow have to destroy my life? There were plenty of other fools virtually lined up to act as the next Head Gamemaker, yet he chose to forgo all of them and instead he picked the one person who didn't want the toxic privilege.

A key slides through the lock on my front door, even though I own the only key that should work. The door creaks open, and two shoes clack onto the hardwood floor.

I clasp my hands together and rest my thumbs against my lips. I don't want to die.

The stranger pauses, and I hear him exhale. The footsteps draw nearer and nearer.

I don't want to die.

A black-clad figure edges into the corner of my vision. I shift my gaze to meet that of the stranger, and I can't help but give a derisive smirk.

"Icarus," he says, black eyes flashing with something akin to recognition. "You know why I'm here."

"Of course, Xander," I say, chest sinking and jaw tight.

He sighs, adjusting his black gloves as if it's the most normal thing in the world for him to be standing here, my very own purveyor of the end. "The President was less than pleased with your ultimately futile decision to disobey his direct orders. You know what that entails, do you not?"

I exhale through my nose and close my eyes. "Yup."

I hear Xander kneel down beside me, his knees cracking with the movement. "He likes you, Icarus."

My eyebrows draw together in a scowl. "Bullshit."

Xander lets out an exasperated sigh and rises to his feet. "Don't be so immature, Icarus. Really, he does. But your behavior continually tests his patience, and this time, you went too far."

My eyes fly open and I stand, trembling from adrenaline and anger and uncertainty. "I couldn't kill another kid, Xander! Trance was already dead, but Waverly was still alive, and I… I couldn't do it."

"It wasn't your choice to make, Icarus."

"Apparently." I stare at him, barely able to reconcile this man before me with the man I considered my friend. Then again, Shadows of the President don't have consciences. The President is their conscience. I guess that was my mistake.

"But since he likes you so much," Xander says, a cold grin slithering across his face, "he's given you another chance to choose who lives and who dies."

My blood runs cold. "What are you talking about?"

He holds his gloved hands out in a mocking shrug. "A simple posit, if you may."


"Kaylana's life,"

No no no no.

"-or yours?"

I can't breathe.

"Your choice."

I stagger back, shaking my head. This isn't a choice. My sister has a family. She has a fiancé. She has a daughter. She's my sister. I can't. I can't do that to her. No. This is my own destruction. I built it, I bleed for it.

Yet, the faltering flame of desperate hope lingers at the back of my mind, a chance for survival that makes the failure sting so much worse. But what would that make me? Both choices will kill me in the end.

I am done letting people die.

"My sister lives," I say, the words heavy and hoarse and barely above a whisper. "No question."

Xander chuckles. "How noble of you."

Before I can blink, he flies at me, hand moving too fast to track. I instinctively bring my arms up to protect my face, but his fist collides with the soft spot under my ribs. I double over, choking, and he yanks my head to the side. Something pricks my neck, and my flesh freezes over. Everything goes blurry, and I slide to the ground, unable to regain my balance.

"Whadid you do?" I slur, gulping down air like a dying fish. Xander's smile dances in front of me, shockingly bright in the low light.

"Oh, don't worry," he says, words sing-songy and horrifically dissonant from the situation at hand. "It'll dissolve into your bloodstream before they find you." He grabs my wrist and drags me down the hall, whistling to himself.

Colors swirl up and down the walls, and I feel myself sinking. Water roars nearby, but I can't quite… I can't quite tell from where.

Xander's voice reaches me from a faraway place. "Sorry, Icarus. Nothing personal. It just needs to look convincing."

Despite our similar body sizes, he manages to lift me up and dump me into the bathtub without much trouble. A thin layer of lukewarm water washes over me, and prickly fear surges through my gut. Even through the haze, I know what Xander is going to do.

He grabs my right hand, wraps it around a knife, and forces me to drag the blade down my own outstretched forearm. I scream and struggle against him, trying to escape, but he's too strong, and I am slipping. The blade digs deep into my other forearm, and he shoves me under the water.

I wrap my hands around his, trying to pry his fingers away, though I know it's completely futile. Even if I managed to overpower him, I'd bleed out before I could call for help.

A welcome sense of calm overcomes me. Xander looks down with a certain mix of pity and self-satisfaction, because to him, I'm just another contract.

I can't be angry. This is my fault. It was always my fault.

Blood pours from my wrists, dying the water a sickly orange, and I count the last few grains of sand as they slip through the hourglass. Darkness edges around my vision. I'm fading.

I hope Kaylana gets the letter.

There are so many things I wanted to do with my life. Guess I'll just have to settle with what I did accomplish. Looking back… it's not much.

I hope I go somewhere nice. If I end up anywhere, though, it'll probably be hell.

Poor Spicer. I bet she won't take the news very well. But she… she probably saw this coming from three miles away.

I hope that… Kaylana and… Emily can forgive me.

I... I hope…


"You broke our spirit", says the note we pass

Trance Berrill, District One Male

Victor of the Sixty-Fourth Hunger Games

"You look good," Cashmere says, peering at the mirror with her ever-evaluative gaze.

Gloss nods in assent, mouth pressed into a line of approval. "Yeah. You look like a victor."

Darius stands on the other side of me, lips peeled back in a smile that's so white it's almost blue. "Not just a victor. The Victor. As the lead stylist, I always gets to work on the winner, so he better look good."

"Well you did a good job," I say, though it's more of a response than my actual opinion. I still don't feel like all of me. Gloss says that it's just shock, and the drugs. But I'm not… I'm not so sure.

I didn't get a chance to go home and see my family, since I was on an operating table for a full eight hours and recuperating for another forty. I still have heavy-duty stitches and bandages wrapped around my midsection, and the doctor lady told me not to make any sudden movements for the next two weeks. Even the Capitol's medical technology has a limit, I guess.

I think they only saved half of me, though. The other half died alongside Waverly.

A sickly attendant leans through the door, her golden eyeshadow sparkling in the mirror lights. "Interview starts in five."

I nod at her, forcing myself to conjure a smile. Something tugs at my gut, like an echo of nervousness. But I'm not really afraid. I already won.

Down the hallway I walk, the stage manager and helpers and assistants all making way as I pass, endlessly glowing grins on all of their harlequin faces. They respect me because I'm a killer. I will never understand them.

I wait at the edge of the stage, just outside of the audiences' view, as Caesar talks about the administrative lineup for next year's Hunger Games, the statistics of past victories, so on and so forth.

Gloss walks up next to me, face stern but eyes soft. "Try not to mess this up."

"Tell me something I don't know."

He grabs my arm and turns me towards him. "I'm serious. Don't insult the Capitol, and don't do or say anything too stupid, alright?"

"Alright," I respond, unable to fake any sort of emotion. I'm just tired.

He places his hands on my shoulders and leans down to look me straight in the eye. "Hey, are you okay?"

"I killed three people who didn't deserve it and I was clinically dead for four minutes." I narrow my eyes, fighting the sudden and disturbing impulse to hurt him. "All things considered, I'm doing pretty well."

Standing up straight, he lets his hands fall to his sides. "I see." With a delicate sigh, he says, "It will get better. You will get better."

"You keep saying that, but I don't know whether I believe you anymore."

Gloss falls silent, and I remember that he's only one year older than me. Odd.

He seems like he's lived forever.

From the stage, Caesar cries, "And may I welcome the victor of the Sixty-Fourth Hunger Games, District One's very own Trance Berrill!"

"Wish me luck," I mutter.

Gloss inclines his head in acknowledgement, and one of the backstage assistants hurriedly attaches a microphone to the inside of my suit before waving me along.

A bright spotlight focuses on me as I cross the stage, the heat bringing the blood to my face, even though I know a layer of makeup prevents the audience from seeing my skin flush. I'd hate to ruin their image of a perfect, unfeeling doll-victor, something they can pose and play with and dispose of once they're done.

"Please," Caesar says, gesturing to the seat beside him.

I comply, once again forcing a bright smile. I need to look like a convincingly happy victor. That's what Gloss said.

"Now, before we begin the interview, a moment of silence must be spent to honor the architect of the Sixty-Fourth Hunger Games, Icarus Castillo, who tragically chose to take his own life early yesterday morning." A cold murmur runs through the audience, and I stare down at my hands. Even though I can't muster up any sympathy for the man who designed the arena that almost destroyed me - who knows, maybe it did - it still doesn't make sense. Why would he kill himself right after pulling off the greatest accomplishment of his career?

Caesar bows his head in silence, and the audience follows suit. After about five seconds, he lifts his gaze and says, "He will be greatly missed, and our hearts go out to his family and friends." Somberly, he turns his attention to me. "Now, back to our guest of honor. Trance, what does victory feel like?"

I search for an embellished answer, something full of adulation and admiration and the type of soft words that will satisfy the audience, and more importantly, President Snow. But no matter how hard I try, I can't think of a good lie. "I'm not really sure," I answer honestly. "I mean, I'm happy that I'm alive, I'm happy that I get to see my parents and my sister and my friends again. But the actions that I had to take in order to be talking to you right now… I am still trying to come to a solid conclusion about that part of my time in the arena."

Caesar nods, his gaze flickering downwards. "What kill, would you say, was the most difficult for you to make?"

I think for a moment. "Well, I don't think my answer to that question would be all that accurate, since I can't really remember killing Waverly. So, excluding her, Birch. He was really strong."

Caesar's eyebrows rise in surprise. "You can't remember? Well, in that case, it's time for the recaps!"

The audience cheers as the lights dim.

Bile rises in my throat and acrid fear bubbles on the back of my tongue, but I force myself to remain calm, look forward, and keep my gaze pasted to the wall-sized screen without breaking down into tears. It takes a considerably larger amount of self-control than I would have imagined.

The reapings pass in less than two minutes. Alpha practically kills the competing volunteer, Birch ascends the steps of the stage with an unreadable expression, and Alder smirks like he knew it would happen. If I could go back and tell myself to just stand there, keep my lips sealed, let some other idiot volunteer…

The pre-arena interviews, upon the second viewing, seem so ridiculously delicate, so unreasonably small. How easily the tributes' voices, hopes, needs were all taken away and crushed under the iron whims of the Capitol. The audience gasps at Linden's blatant insanity, laughs at Glen's obvious stupidity, and applauds Rumor's confidence under pressure. I don't remember the Trance Berrill that's talking up on the screen. He seems like he's from an entirely different lifetime.

Our training scores appear next to our names, mine first. A few sponsor interviews are shown, and it looks like most of them wrote me off pretty early. Apparently most of them expected Necali, Waverly, or Birch to win. The ones who bet on me all seem pretty pleased with themselves and their powers of prediction.

Then it's the bloodbath, and we're standing on our plates as the numbers dwindle to zero. When the games begin, it's all chaos. Linden kills Relly and chops her up, I watch myself kill Mariah, and Linden goes on to kill Pagnotta Millet before flying off in search of his next female victim. Necali buries a knife in Cascade's back, and the boy bleeds out in seconds. Idrial and Charcoal have a run-in with Dominic, though they manage to knock him out and escape, leaving him in the Cornucopia. He flees a few minutes later.

Apparently Nemo had the chance to kill Taun Navarro, but he let the kid go, surprising most of the audience and apparently scaring off a lot of his sponsors. It would have been great if Alpha hadn't swooped in and finished off Taun herself.

Stellar kills Glen and Linden kills Idrial, though Charcoal manages to escape, whereupon she's found by Alder Haynes from District Six. Odd that he felt the need to help her.

The cameras then focus on the Cornucopia, where we Careers loiter around, thinking of our next move. Alpha shocks the audience by burying her knife in Stellar's neck. I leave the Cornucopia, believing that my district partner would have killed me if she got the chance. Judging by the glare she gives me, I was probably right. It appears that the rest of the Career alliance fell apart right after I left, with Nemo and Waverly deciding that it was better to leave Necali and Erizelda to their own devices.

A day and a half later, Necali and Erizelda try to kill Alpha, but Linden jumps them with the express intent of killing Erizelda. Alpha gets away, Erizelda breaks and runs, and Linden manages to overpower Necali, beating him to within an inch of his life.

A muttation drags Rumor under the ocean, drowning her. Dominic ends up killing an already gravely-injured Wade, but Zeno makes it out alive. Birch, Selene, and Flavia try to ambush me, and I inwardly cringe when the bolt spears through Selene's chest. It was either her or me, and I chose me.

A horrible muttation rips Erizelda apart from the inside out, and proceeds to overtake her body.

Early the next morning, Alpha ambushes Nemo and slits his throat. The audience laughs as he dies choking on his own blood. Are they even human?

The Erizelda-muttation finds Dominic and snaps his neck with shocking ease. Necali hunts Alpha down, and in accordance with his district honor, kills her. Almost immediately afterwards, he finds what's left of Erizelda and finishes her off, too, but something... happens to him. Black stars curl around the edges of my vision, and I actively tense my stomach to keep my blood pressure at a manageable level, even in spite of the terrible pain. I have to stay conscious.

Alder tries to protect his allies, and ends up getting axed by Linden. He manages to poison the bastard, though.

Birch kills Necali and Flavia kills Linden, but he injures her shoulder terribly, and she bleeds to death the next morning.

Her death marks the beginning of the arena's end.

I shut my eyes. The sound of Zeno's explosion rocks the room, and I clench my jaw as the image of his broken body rises to the forefront of my mind. I hear Waverly fight with Charcoal, before ending the life of the girl from Twelve with a sickening crunch. I know that Birch and I are fighting up on the screen, but it doesn't properly register in my brain. Even as I hear him gurgle and die, I can't accept that this is real.

I'm not here.

Looking up just in time to watch Waverly sink her trident into my stomach, I immediately force myself to look away. So, that's what happened. Dizzy nausea plays around the edges of my mind, and I have to blink away the stars. I can't pass out on stage.

One cannon sounds, and a full ten seconds of dead air pass before the voice hurriedly cries, "Ladies and gentlemen, the victor of the Sixty-Fourth Hunger Games: Trance Berrill!"

They play a clip of me, standing and looking up at the sky. I remember that moment - only a few minutes before I killed Waverly. They edited the video so that it looks like I have a bloody gash on my stomach, a cut on my shoulder, and a bruise on the edge of my left eye socket.

The camera pans out to reveal a dead Waverly, also edited in. If I hadn't been there, I would probably believe the video, just like the rest of the audience.

But I was there. I know that the clip is a lie.

I was already dead.

The overhead lights slowly grow in intensity as Caesar turns to look at me, the light bulbs on his suit shimmering with the movement.

"That was some finale," he says, his overly-white, sparkling smile almost too much to bear.

I look at him. I can't force myself to grin. "Yeah. Yeah, it was."

It rains on the day of Alpha's funeral.

I stare down at the casket, the wooden box that carries the body of a girl whom I talked with just a few days before. When did she die? A week ago? Two? My sense of time is slipping between my fingers and I have no idea how to get ahold of it again. Everything is passing me in a blur.

On the other side of the hole in the ground, her parents are stone-faced and silent, though I know that her mother's been crying nonstop since her daughter's body returned from the Capitol and her father hasn't eaten in four days. Apparently, as a victor, I get to hear all of the juicy gossip that I never wanted to know.

Around me, no one makes a sound. Alpha wasn't really well-liked. But she's still dead when she didn't have to be.

As they lower her box into the open earth, Gloss appears alongside me. He says nothing, but I know that he's here to see how I'm doing. To make sure that I won't go off and step in front of a speeding car or open my veins or eat the barrel of a gun. I want to think that his supervision isn't required, that I'm perfectly fine, that I don't see their faces whenever I close my eyes.

But then I would be lying to myself.

A low, snobbish buzz permeates the entire restaurant, interspersed with clinks of glass and an occasional laugh.

I stare down at the empty plate, wondering just how long I can go without eating before I shrivel up and die. A tiny kipper sits slightly off-center, next to a smear of some sort of mushroom sauce. I only put it there to make it look like I already ate something. I haven't felt hungry in a week, and I haven't eaten a solid meal since yesterday morning.

I don't want to be here. It's some sort of award ceremony for the Capitol television industry, giving explicit acknowledgement to unusually superb actors and directors and other talented people. Apparently, since I'm the most recent victor, five people in the upper echelon wanted me and my family to accompany them as their guests of honor. I asked, begged my family to decline, but my mother and father insisted that we attend. They accepted the invitation of an actor named Bradeus Thornsbee, who plays in some love triangle drama that's only available for viewing in the Capitol. I'm told he's exceptionally talented.

It will be fun, they said.

It will be good for you to socialize, they said.

I'm pretty sure Mom and Dad and Lazuli are only here because they want to feel fancy and important. I can't really blame them.

Bradeus's husband, Florentine or Floran or something, giggles at one of Bradeus's jokes, and accidentally scrapes his knife across the plate. The resulting noise sends a spike of pain through my teeth, and everything around me goes blurry.

I squeeze my eyes shut, hold my breath, and lean against the table, but I can't force the noise out.

They keep talking, keep laughing, keep scraping their knives and clinking their glasses.

"I need to go," I say, pushing my chair back and placing my napkin on the table. This is too much.

"Trance?" my mother calls, though it's more of a formality than a demonstration of actual concern.

I turn sharply down one of the golden-lit hallways, stumbling against the wall, trying to keep the dizziness at bay. The bathrooms are… somewhere. The guide said they were at the back of the restaurant, but I don't see anything other than a few benches and a potted plant.

As I round another corner, I clamp my hand over my mouth to suppress a scream, recoiling back in horror. Birch stands in the walkway, his neck gaping and bleeding where I cut him. His purple lips spread into a wide smile, condemning and vicious and dead.

No. He's not here. He's not here he's not here he's not here he's not here. He can't be.

I press myself against the wall and hold my face in my hands, desperately trying to set my lungs back to a normal breathing pattern. It's just a hallucination. It'll go away like the others.

Why did I let them drag me here?

"Trance?" another voice ventures, though it isn't my mother.

I look up to see a very tall, broad-shouldered man, probably in his early twenties. I think I've seen his face before, but who knows with Capitolites? They all wear so much makeup that it's impossible to tell them apart.

Out of respect, I offer him my hand. "I should probably know who you are, shouldn't I?"

He returns the handshake. "We met backstage after your victory interview. But you've met so many other people since then, I didn't expect you to remember me." The cold half-smirk doesn't leave his lips. "My name's Byron."

Now I remember. "Your mom designed the muttations for the arena, right?"

"That's me."

Hesitantly, I say, "Nice to meet you again, Byron."

Something is off about the way his lips twitch at the corners. Did he follow me here? "The pleasure's all mine."

I withdraw my hand. He throws a glance up and down the deserted hall, as if searching for someone. Whether or not we've met before, his behavior is starting to creep me out. "Well, I was actually just about to leave, so-"

Before I can complete my sentence, Byron lunges forward and clutches the sides of my face, pressing himself against me, and suddenly it's a brutal kiss and his breath is my breath and I do not want this. His lips taste like expensive wine and his fingers are iron against my skin. The gears in my mind are frozen with shock and disgust and horror, and I don't move, even as his tongue invades my mouth like a warm, aggressive slug.

After what can only be a few seconds, still an eternity too long, I push violently against him, strong and desperate with adrenaline. He goes stumbling back, green eyes blazing with predatory, foxlike satisfaction.

Wiping the side of his mouth with his thumb, he gives me a Cheshire grin. "You're a lot stronger than you look."

I don't respond, can't respond, remaining completely still as the icy, solid shock weighs heavily in my gut, my lips burning with distress and anger. His spit is in my mouth, and a small, but growing part of me wants to beat the absolute crap out of him.

"Why did you do that?" I ask, voice cracking and thin, still unable to fully process what just happened. I feel violated.

Dorian shrugs. "I've had my eye on you since you volunteered. I'm very pleased that you won." He inclines his head, and a strand of black hair falls into his eyes. "I asked Snow about you, but he said that he gave you a reprieve until your birthday. I have no idea how you got him to do it, but that's three and a half months away. And I've never been very good at waiting." He places his hand on the back of his neck in a display of mock bashfulness. I think I'm going to be sick. "Anyways, I figured I'd just give you an early birthday present. Let you know that you've been on my mind."

My body is trembling and the entire world is too bright, too loud. "What are you talking about?"

For a brief moment he sends me a playfully disapproving stare, before his eyes grow wide. "You really don't know?" His mouth warps into a pouting smile. "Aw, your innocence is touching. Really, it is." Leaning down, and in a voice low enough to make my skin squirm, he says, "One night with me, and I'm sure you'll understand." He flashes me a smile made of teeth and venom, before spinning on his feet and sauntering down the hallway, leaving me confused, afraid, and alone.

I sink against the wall, desperately clutching to every piece of myself, because it's all threatening to fall apart. For the hundredth time in the past two weeks, I wonder if death would have been easier.

Fifteen minutes after my departure, I find myself back in the dining hall, more shaken and disturbed than I've been since I left the arena. Byron is nowhere to be found, but the rest of the dining Capitolites more than make up for his disgusting presence, stabbing their food and talking with open mouths and pointing giddily at the announcer up on stage. They're all so ugly and shiny, pumped full of chemicals and erratic, disjointed colors. I wonder if any of them even looked in a mirror before walking out of their houses today.


I wonder what she's doing right now. Something more bearable than this, I hope.

I need to see her. Desperately. I need someone who will listen.

My mother acknowledges my return with a mere nod, her dark hair pulled back in a French twist and her face painted in that way all Capitolites adore. She didn't want to feel too out of place, not at her first upper-crust dinner.

I seat myself between Bradeus and my father, my internal screams drowned out as the announcer elicits a wave of roaring laughter from the audience. With quaking hands I spit into my cloth napkin, trying to rid myself of his taste.

No one asks.

I don't tell them.

fa·tigue [fə-teeg]


The temporary inability to respond to a situation, usually resulting from overexposure or excessive activity.

The rain pounds against the wide kitchen window of my new home, the house that I bought with other peoples' blood.

The knife knocks against the wood as I chop up a carrot. The orange is the brightest thing in the room.

"You're so gloomy," Lazuli says, sitting on the rightmost barstool and resting her chin on her fist. "You've barely said anything since you got back. You won! You got a house! You get to go to fancy parties! The least you can do is smile."

I keep chopping the carrot, cutting it up more than necessary, into little tiny chunks that might be the right size for a rabbit. I just don't want to look at her. "I did things that I wish I hadn't. I don't want to talk about it."

"You survived while twenty-three other kids died. I don't know when you got so selfish, but frankly, it's disgusting. Stop being such an ingrate."

I raise my gaze to meet hers. She's staring at me in the way she always does, like she's the queen of everything and I'm just some peasant that she chose to grace with her presence. "Three people are dead because of me. I merely survived a death match, one I was stupid enough to volunteer for. In fact, I didn't survive." She narrows her eyes. Oh, right. I haven't told her that I died.

The memories have been returning to me over the past few days, slowly. Not just what I saw on the recaps, but the actual experience. The actual pain.

Leaning against the isle, I blink and draw a sharp intake of breath, searching for the right words. "I know what it feels like to be impaled, and I know what it feels like to bleed out and die alongside someone that I considered my friend. I have no idea what kind of luck you're talking about, but to me, that doesn't sound like something I should be grateful for. It sounds more like a joke. A terrible joke with no punch line, because it's just that bad."

She hops down from the barstool and circles around the isle, eyes burning and jaw slightly slack. "You're unbelievable, Trance. You win the competition that most District One citizens can only dream of participating in, and you're skulking around like some pathetic outer-district tribute, 'oh woe is me, I had to kill people.'"

"Shut up," I whisper, fingers pressed against the countertop as I try to quell the anger that's spreading through me like poison.

But she doesn't stop. "Those people were weak, Trance. They deserved to die."

"Shut up," I repeat, voice rising. I feel the heat creeping up my neck. I want - no, need - her to stop. They didn't deserve to die. None of them did.

"You're the victor. You have a right to be happy. You're a killer, and you should wear that like a badge of honor! You outlasted every other tribute in that arena!"

"Shut up!" I cry, more of a plea than a demand. I desperately need her to leave me alone. Is that really so much to ask?

"No!" she cries. "You're pathetic! If you can't even handle your victory, then you don't deserve it, and everyone else died in vain!"


I grab the knife and face her, my entire world stained a deep, nauseating red. My fingers tighten around the handle, the tendons in my wrist go taut, and for a terrible, sickening moment, I truly want to kill her. I want to bury the knife in her heart and watch her blood run across the kitchen floor. I want to slice her neck open and rip out her vocal cords so that she'll never speak again. I want to end her.

…I want to end her.

My own sister.

I take a step back, everything running in slow motion as my eyes widen with fear, and I let out an agonized cry, burying the weapon in the wooden countertop.

I collapse against the cabinets and curl up on the ground, screaming until my shrieks decay into low, braying, bottomless sobs. Whatever delicate thread that had been holding back all of the emotions and memories I'd so desperately tried to suppress has finally snapped, and the entire tidal wave threatens to consume me.

Maybe it would be better if it did. If I just died right here.

It would save me a lifetime of hatred and anger and fear and wondering just what our lives would have been like if we'd never set foot in that arena. Who they would have loved. Who they would have hated. What their kids would have looked like. What kind of people they would have been.

What kind of person I would have been.

I took it all away. Everything is dead, and I killed it.

The fingerprints that I've left on this world are all ugly and terrible and the biggest mistake the universe ever made was letting me take my first breath.

Hands rest on me and I push them away, because I don't want to be touched while the entire world is falling down around me. Or maybe there was never a world to begin with, just one long train of delusion and pain.

Let me die here.

The hands grasp harder, pulling me into a sitting position.

I look up to find Gloss. Apparently Lazuli had enough time to retrieve him from two houses down. His lips are moving and his face is full of concern and anxiety, two emotions that I don't deserve, and he grabs my face and forces me to look him in the eyes.

"Trance!" he shouts, trying to drag me back to reality. "Trance, calm down. Stop thinking, and take a deep breath."

"Let go of me!" I cry, my voice weak and overflowing. I rise to my feet and stagger backwards, catching myself on the countertop. "Just leave me alone. Why is that so difficult for people to understand, that I just want some peace and quiet?! Am I speaking English? Or am I dead, and this entire reality is my own personal hell?" I wipe my hands across my face, trying to rid myself of the tears that never seem to stop. "Because if it is, whoever designed it did a pretty good job!"

Gloss sighs. It's a tiny, sad, almost-disappointed-but-not-quite sound. "Lazuli," he says, "can you give us a minute?"

My sister nods, more afraid than I think I've ever seen her before. She hurriedly slips out, leaving us alone.

"Talk to me, Trance," my mentor says. He looks like he hasn't slept in years.

I seat myself on one of the barstools and rest my head on the granite counter, wrapping my hands around the back of my neck in some instinctual attempt to protect myself. "That's what you don't understand, what none of you understand. I don't want to talk. I don't want to think."

"Then what do you want?"

I raise my head and stare at him. He's only eighteen. He went through what I did when he was sixteen. And he's managed to keep it together.

"How do you do it?" I ask, surprised by the desperation in my own words. "How do you cope?"

For a moment he says nothing, simply giving me a long, evaluative stare. Then he smirks and looks down. "Everyone deals with it differently. Some turn to alcohol and morphling, but they always drink a little too deep, push the needle a little too far, and turn their victory into something worthless. Others focus their entire lives on what makes them truly happy, whether it be their family, or a talent, or helping others. Some spend years trying to give their experience meaning and worth, and a number manage to succeed. Some don't have to cope; they just move on with their lives, though I honestly don't understand their mindset. A lot of victors use various combinations of the first three. And a few others don't find a way to cope. They kill themselves."

He holds up his hands in placation, his face drawn and helpless. "I try to focus on the positive. Look for the good things that came out of my time in the arena. The fact that I won meant that I had the experience needed to help my sister survive, and since she would have volunteered even if I didn't, my knowledge helped ensure her survival. I have a house and income that will help me support the family I'll eventually have. I can help other tributes, like you, make it out of the arena alive." His shoulders rise and fall with a deep sigh. "And I have to hope that my life will have a positive sum total. But you? You need to find your own way to cope. And whatever you're doing now, it obviously isn't working." With a small smile, he adds, "I can't tell you that everything will be alright, because it won't. But I can tell you that I'm here, I'm your friend, and I will do everything I can to help you."

Silence falls between us and I glance down at my fragile reflection in the smooth granite.

I'm exhausted.

Can I believe him?

I don't know.

I never knew.

Hope requires a strength I no longer possess.

Sitting in the little silver bowl on my nightstand are exactly fifty-four full-strength painkillers, about twenty-seven days' worth. The doctors in the Capitol prescribed them to me in order to make my recovery as comfortable as possible. But I don't like the pills. They make everything fuzzy and pudding-like, and I'm having a difficult enough time keeping track of what's left of myself as it is. I've only taken two, and that was ten days ago, when my abdomen felt like it was going to melt in the worst of ways.

I haven't told anyone about the unused pills. I don't want to deal with their fussing and chastisements and warnings and questions and frowns. They just look for every excuse to pester me.

...it's a way out.

I am tired of feeling out of control, fearing that maybe one of these days I will give in to the impulse and end up hurting someone I love. I'm tired of smiling for their sake. I'm tired of people telling me how great I did, how wonderful and honorable and glorious my victory is, and how all of my sins are forgiven because I won.

I'm only here because I killed people.

And they're… happy about it.

I pick up one of the pills and turn it over in my palm, the shiny white surface catching the low early-morning light.

I'm just tired.

How easy it would be.

I haven't spoken to Gloss in the past week. He's been working with Cashmere and Obsidian in the Capitol, trying to secure a number of business deals, mostly endorsements and agreements with the sponsors who supported me while I was in the arena. He didn't tell me why he left, because he thinks that I'm a goldfish boy with a three-second memory and all the inductive capabilities of a block of wood. I'm not an idiot. Gloss wants to ensure that Snow doesn't have the motive or opportunity to sell me. To other people. Like Byron. For things that I don't want to think about.

They're wasting their time.

Last night I had a nightmare about Waverly.

We were on the final platform, just staring at each other. Gaping black holes stood in the place of her eyes, and her gray lips were heavy with curses, accusations, hatred. She started walking towards me, blood pouring from her mouth and nose, falling down her front and staining everything a dark, disgusting crimson. Before I could escape, she wrapped her hands around my neck and forced me to the ground, screaming how it should have been me, that I should be the one rotting in the earth.

I couldn't think of a reason why she'd be wrong. I still can't.

I'm afraid I never will.

They say it's peaceful.

The pill weighs heavily in my hand.

Like falling asleep.

I glance at the fifty-three others. Delicate. Enticing. Lying.

They'd leave you alone.

It would be nice. The silence.

It'll be like closing a book after reading the last page.

I've never liked endings, though.

It could-

It couldn't.

It will be-

No, it won't. It really, really won't.

I stand from my bed and place the pill back in the bowl.

Today is already a bad day. An especially bad day in a string of bad days.

But I have to hope that there will be better days.

Otherwise, they all died for nothing.

I can't do this anymore.

I can't forgive myself.

I can't reverse time.

I can't resurrect the dead.

I can't reseal Pandora's Box.

I can't win.

So what am I still doing here?

At exactly eight thirty every morning, a one-hundred-mile-an-hour supply train runs through the mountains and cuts across the northwestern sector of District One, passing about two miles from my house.

My old house. The one that I didn't kill for.

The tracks are simply a series of of blackened steel bars that run from the edge of District Twelve all the way to the Capitol. There's a loading station out near the western fence, where the train will be filled with all sorts of marvelous things. In return, we will receive lesser things. It's how it always goes. After the train departs from the loading station, it tunnels through three miles of dark, infinitely heavy mountain, running especially slow because there's no conductor. They haven't used conductors in years.

An automated train. Out in the middle of nowhere.

Suffocating, endless tunnels. Mountains weighing down. Mouths moving in the darkness, constantly reminding me that I'm only alive because they're dead.

One day I'd just be gone.

Nothing left.

When it comes screaming past I'd just -

Betray everyone I've ever loved.

They prescribe pills to help me deal with the weight of living. Days pass, faces blur together, words fall to the ground in piles of worthless syllables and empty letters. They've muted the anger and fear and guilt and anxiety, at the expense of love and peace and curiosity and the ability to differentiate between dreams and reality, lies and not-lies.

I'm thinner than I was before. Too thin, maybe. Food makes me sick. Sound makes me crazy. I haven't slept in...

I keep seeing their faces. On the streets, in my nightmares. Everywhere but the recaps, because I refuse to watch them a second time.

I'm terrified of their suffocating presence, cold and clammy and impossible. I don't want to return their pitying stares. I don't want to endure their overly-delicate eggshell voices. Even worse, I don't want their unspoken words to hang around my neck like some sort of obscene and unintentional punishment.

Sunlight pours in but I can't feel it.

Time slips past, and I can't catch it.

I'm just a slab of numb flesh with no bearings.

But I am alive. And for every day I can say that, I've won.

"Nervous?" Gloss asks, straightening his tie.

"'Nervous' is too weak of a word. 'Terrified' is more accurate."

Tomorrow, I turn eighteen. The stroke of midnight will mark the end of the grace period that Snow granted me, and if this meeting doesn't go as planned, I will descend into a living hell.

No pressure.

"Just play it cool," he says. "Be completely honest. Address her with respect. And if she offers you what you want, take the deal. Don't hold out for something better. This is your last chance."

I squeeze my eyes shut, trying to quell the headache that's rising along the back of my skull. I wanted to keep my thoughts untangled, so I didn't take any of my medication this morning. I didn't think that I'd grown so dependent upon the pills. "I am perfectly aware of this. Thanks for reminding me."

The receptionist catches sight of us and activates the communicator on her ear. "Affinity, Gloss Sinclair and Trance Berrill are here to see you." She nods into the receiver, and smiles at us. "Madame Serrice will be with you shortly."

Lowering my voice, I lean over to Gloss and ask, "Do you think she'll forgive me if I throw up on her expensive carpet?"

He slaps the back of my head. "Don't even think like that."

Before I have the chance to slap him back, a very tall woman appears in the doorway. Her eyes are startlingly dark against her light skin, and she keeps her black hair pulled back in a ridiculously long, beautifully intricate braid. Her appearance falls somewhere between believably natural and ridiculously Capitolite.

"Hello, Gloss."

"Good afternoon, Madame."

Her gaze rests upon me, and she holds out her hand. "Trance Berrill, I presume?"

"The one and only," I deadpan, returning the gesture. "It's nice to finally meet you, Madame Serrice."

She gives me a seemingly genuine smile and waves us into her brightly-lit office. "Nice to meet you, as well." Indicating the two seats across the table, she says, "Please, sit."

As soon as I do, her entire demeanor changes. Her shoulders drop, she laces her fingers together, and with an unsettling, deeply concerned tone, she says, "I presume that, considering you're here to solidify a permanent sponsorship deal, you are aware of how dire your circumstances are?"

I honestly answer with, "Mostly."

"I'll clarify the situation, then. You're a good-looking kid and you're the third consecutive victor from District One - a historical feat that isn't likely to be repeated any time within the next six decades. More importantly, though, you possess a certain air of innocence and naiveté that is exceedingly rare in Careers. The type of people looking to buy you tend to favor rare things, refreshing things. Unfortunately, by virtue of your personality, you are exactly what they're looking for." She picks up a thin computer from her desk and scrolls down the screen. "The current bid for your first night stands at 289,753 gold. It's likely to hit 300,000 gold before the end of the hour, and 500,000 gold by midnight."

My stomach drops. Resting the heel of my hand against my temple, I slowly inhale, desperately trying to keep myself from breaking down in front of the woman who might very well save my life.

"However," she says, placing the tablet back on the table, "convincing Snow to give you four months of reprieve was an excellent choice. I'm sure it wasn't cheap."

"150,000 gold," I mutter. Exactly half of my initial winnings.

Madame Serrice lowers her gaze. "I assure you, that's a small price to pay. By convincing Snow to hold off, you've created the notion that you are unattainable. If we play our cards right, this will be your saving grace." She rests her hands on the table and stares at me with piercingly black eyes. "If everything goes as Snow plans, within two weeks, your image of innocence will have all but evaporated. You know this, Gloss knows this, I know this, even Snow knows this. However, if you are - for lack of a better word - preserved, then you'll become untouchable, in the best sense of the word. It will turn you into a brand name." She smiles, almost sheepishly, though her features are too elegant for genuine embarrassment. "Remember, I am looking to benefit from this deal as much as you are, though your safety is my priority."

Digging my fingernails into the palms of my hands, I say, "Unattainable will become untouchable." The difference is vague, though I understand what she's getting at.

She nods. "It's a near-imperceptible, though incredibly precarious transition. The last thing we want is for some rich pervert to view you as someone to add to their list of conquests. A situation such as that, depending on their determination, is bound to financially ruin you. You therefore must also become, to a certain degree, elusive. Attend a few events of your own volition here in the Capitol, but be exceedingly selective. Increase your visibility, but don't flaunt your presence. It is tantamount that the Capitol perceives you as reclusive and untouchable, though not intentionally so; out of their reach, but close enough to keep them interested; amiable and charming, whilst retaining an angle of remoteness."

She sighs and holds her hands in the air. "It's an incredibly fine line to tread, Trance. This particular image will be exceedingly difficult to cultivate and maintain. But right now, it's the only chance you have."

I nod. "I understand."

"Which brings me to your method of payment. As you can probably imagine, since Snow won't allow you to bid on your own auction, I will need to place the offer myself. Seeing as I do not plan to use you in the method that Snow intends, he will likely require me to pay double. This will bring my initial expense to approximately 1,000,000 gold."

I involuntarily balk at the ridiculous price.

Gloss simply raises an eyebrow. "That logic is sound."

She inclines her head in acknowledgement. "Regardless, I see this deal as more of an investment than a payout. I keep Snow out of your personal life, and you provide me with an economic opportunity that no one else can." Offering me a smile, she says, "In light of this, I'd like to propose my offer."

My heart rattles against my ribcage and my fingers tremble against the armrests. "Okay."

She pulls out a single piece of paper, entirely covered in small print. "You'll pay me 125,000 gold up front, and for every successive year that the contract remains valid, you will pay me exactly half of your victor's salary, as well as half of any other salaries you may accrue. This will partially offset the money that Snow expects to receive in return for your physical security. If I require your presence, whether it be for a social event, endorsement, or simple status report, you will acquiesce. Failing to do so will result in a 10,000 gold fine for each violation. Exceptions to this rule are limited to funerals, weddings, catastrophic injury to your person, and natural disasters."

Handing me the paper, she continues, "In return, I will ensure that no one has to opportunity to purchase you for purposes of carnal pleasure. My staff will organize your public appearances and ensure your personal privacy to the best of their abilities. You are required to notify me of any voluntary travel across district lines, including any trips you make to the Capitol, though I am not concerned about your travel within District One. In the event that I am unable to maintain my end of the deal, all invested capital will be returned to you, and the contract will be terminated. Do you understand the terms?"

I scan the entire document. It's mostly legal speak, but I understand enough to see that there are no surprises. I won't have to give her my firstborn child. No blood sacrifices. It's as fair a deal as I'm going to get, especially this close to the deadline.

I sigh and place the paper on the desk.

"Can I borrow a pen?"

She hands me a feather quill, the emeralds in her wedding ring catching a ray of afternoon sunlight. "Are you absolutely certain?"

I carefully sign and date my name on the dotted line. Sliding the contract back to her, I give a small nod. "Yes, I am."

With an expression of bright, genuine enthusiasm, she shakes my hand. "Excellent. I look forward to working with you, Mr. Berrill."

The convoy edges through the streets of District Eight, passing dozens upon dozens of factories and tenant buildings. Dark windows and hollow-eyed citizens stare at me with a painful, probing intensity. I turn against myself, desperately wishing to disappear into the velvet seat.

"Hun, what are you doing?" Cheshire asks, her blue feather eyelashes quivering as she blinks. "This is your victory tour. You're supposed to be looking out of the carriage. That's the whole point."

Gloss refuses to look at her, his mouth set into a stern, unforgiving line. They aren't on very good terms.

I have an answer for my escort, some snappy comeback, but the words catch in my throat and I lose my train of thought.

All I see are Wade and Erizelda as their faces fade from the arena sky, like a dying sunset after a beautiful day, mere echoes of something glorious and complex and shockingly, hideously brief.

Her hand is cold in mine.

"Are you sure I look okay?" she asks, adjusting the decorative comb for the eightieth time. The gemstones shine white and blue under the low ballroom light as she and I sway across the dance floor.

"You look fine."

Mirror scrunches up her face. "But people are staring at us like we shouldn't be dancing together. Maybe we should split up?"

Smirking, I say, "Don't worry about it. This is a couple's ball. We'd look even weirder if we were alone."

She's just being self-conscious. Everyone even remotely relevant to Capitol culture is currently in attendance, and the vast majority of them are so wrapped up in their own lives that they couldn't care less about some kid from District One, much less the girl he brought as his date. But a few lonely vultures weave through the crowd, casting wary and jealous glances at all of the merry party-goers.

One such vulture stands under a stone archway, sipping his glassful of red wine and eying me with an annoyed smirk. Byron is angry that he can't have me. And I absolutely intend on keeping it that way.

"Do you know him?" Mirror asks, tilting her chin in his direction.

"Yes. More than I'd like to," I admit.

Sensing my reticence on the subject, she simply nods and casts her gaze across the crowd. She's the only person I know who still respects silence.

"Thanks for agreeing to accompany me," I say, staring down at the absurdly polished floor as we waltz alongside the hundreds of other flashy couples.

Mirror grins. "I wouldn't miss it for the world."

The invisible weight tied around my neck loosens, if only by a fraction. I feel guilty. I shouldn't be allowed to enjoy myself. Not with what I've done.

But I manage to steal a few precious seconds of contentment from the oppressive mountain of glaring failure that looms over me. That's what my life has become, a game of theft that I play against myself.

Maybe it was always a game, and some gamemaker simply went and changed the rules while I wasn't looking. Or perhaps I never understood the rules to begin with.

Other people know the rules, though. Mirror and Gloss and Cashmere and Dion. They can help me understand.

I am not alone.

The war is won before its begun
Release the doves
Surrender, love

The lyrics are from the song "The Phoenix", by Fall Out Boy.

IT'S OVEEEEEERRRRRRRRRRRR. I've been waiting quite a while to say that. The blog has been updated for the final time, with a few sentences written in memorial of each tribute.

And how do I celebrate this momentous occasion? I start another SYOT, of course.

I don't know, maybe I'm just a masochist.

But seriously, look at all of these words. Over 10,000. Trance had a lot to say, I suppose.

I know that those monetary numbers probably seem fairly ridiculous, especially in comparison to Katniss' victor income in the actual trilogy, but I wanted to make a point. And it's not like I've been a strict adherent to canon, anyways.

I'd love to know your overall thoughts on Atmosphere (plots, handling of characters, the arena itself, etc.) Any concerns, thoughts, tips, or suggestions?

Thank you, PyroKwarius, for allowing me to take your wonderful, unique, spacey, naive tribute and absolutely deconstruct him. He'll be showing up in Sand Castles as a mentor.

With that, I bid you a fair adieu. It's been fun. Exhausting, but fun.