The Altruistic Favorite: Sassafras "Sassy" Hemlocke, District One, Year 384

An eighteen-year-old's fate is determined in the early hours of the morning, before her district has really begun to stir. Dark clouds line the horizon and seem to hang down from the sky, looming and ominous and heavy. Lightning dances between them, and the low rumble of thunder crackles from the distance. Compact raindrops slam into the first surface they meet, running down her smooth glass window and soaking into the yard's soil below.

Sassy stirs when her room is illuminated in a flash, dark and light and dark again. It is Reaping Day, and it is raining, and she lives in District One. This year, one of their tributes will do well—very well, if the severity of the storm is any indication—and in the half-conscious, bleary part of her mind, she is determined that the tribute will be her.

Her blanket sags onto the floor, and she grabs for it blindly, giving up with a sigh and settling back down, dark brown eyes closing. She pushes herself upright, and one thought enters her mind in what would be a blind moment of panic, if she wasn't a Career, if she wasn't above that, if she did not have all of the odds in her favor.

This is the last time I'll sleep in this bed.

It's there and gone, and then she's scrambling to get up before that sinks in, already reaching for a light switch.

. . .

In a different neighborhood, her best friend sleeps peacefully, oblivious to the storm. In the fourth district, a girl watches sand sink between her fingers and fall into the sea. A boy in Five is watching data fly across a screen, and in Seven a tiny slip of a girl swings an ax half as big as she is. A Nine boy of seventeen treads deliberately through the forest, searching for prey, and an artist in Eleven takes a step back from her drawing. None exactly know what is about to hit them.

. . .

Sassy's hands tremble as she dresses, smoothing down the layers of her white skirt, fixing the collar of her pink blouse. She looks up at the mirror of her closet door, and sees that her hair is still all-askew and she's gone so pale it almost exactly matches her skin tone. She grabs a brush off her night table and painfully tries to work out all the tangles.

Minutes later, she almost trips down the last few steps heading to the kitchen, buzzing with nervous, excited energy. Across the table is the lavish breakfast her mother's prepared to celebrate her volunteering, and right now, she already has a stomachache just looking at it.

But she smiles, and says, "Morning," and sits down. Her grandmother sits at the table as well; it's just the three of them. She gets a plate shoved in her direction, and a kiss to the top of her head from her mother.

"Morning, dear. You look lovely."

"Thanks," she says.

"Yes, so grown up," says Grandmother, as Sassy waits for a nod from her mother to start taking food from the platters. She thinks it's just polite, even though everyone else says it seems an act of timidity. She makes a mental note to not do it in the Capitol. But what'll they think of me, then?

"Big day ahead—eat up."

"It looks delicious," she says, even though she feels nauseated. She takes toast, pancakes, hash browns, bacon, and a glass of orange juice and of milk. They're rich, but not this rich, so Sassy assumes this is because of the event to come.

The lights flicker with another clap of thunder that makes her cringe. She can't act scared like that in the Capitol or the arena, either.

. . .

In the Capitol, a man named Lucius Cromwell examines the final arena holographic-map. The shape of a teardrop tilted slightly to the left, mountains all around the edges and a range of them filling up the thin section, a waterfall and lake to the right side of the entrance to the main area, and the Cornucopia further down and to the left of that. It's all beautiful, mysterious, and deadly. More deadly than the tributes may ever know.

. . .

Sassy signs her name on the clipboard with more flourish than usual, and then makes her way towards the eighteen-year-old section, huddled under an umbrella. But she spots two twelve-year-olds on the way who are shivering and wet without an umbrella of their own like most of the crowd has. Their dresses are old-looking, their faces hungry. They are a rarity in One, but that doesn't mean they don't exist at all.

"Hey!" Sassy calls after them, and they don't hear. "Hey!" Now they turn around. She holds out the umbrella to them. "Here—go on, take it. I'm volunteering, I'll be up on the stage, out of the rain, so you need it more than I do." They stare at her. "Go on." She presses the handle into the taller girl's hand.

"Thank you," says the smaller one, and Sassy nods.

"No problem." But she's already soaked through with rain. She keeps walking towards the eighteen-year-old section, hoping the body heat of the mass will help warm her up. It does, some. She glances across the aisle at Clyde, her best friend, her future enemy. He will be stepping up to be a tribute as well. The thought of watching him kill scares her.

The thought of watching herself kill scares her more.

. . .

In District Seven, the little girl tries to put on a brave face as her hazel eyes fly wide in terror when her name is called, while in District Ten, Fodder Tacke races forward to volunteer when they call out the name of his cousin. "I volunteer, I volunteer as tribute!" he screams, but Sassy and Clyde in District One don't hear it.

. . .

The time between her stepping up and now, sitting in the Remake Center, was a blur of not knowing who she was talking to, what to say, how to act, where and when to go somewhere. She said her "goodbye" and her "don't worry about me, I'll make you proud" and her "I love you" and she met her mentor and escort and stylist and prep team.

She didn't really sleep while on the train.

Now, she's tired, but lets the team fuss over the flow of her dress. It is a pretty one, she has to admit, strapless, a simple white first layer covered in more translucent sheets of gold, shimmering fabric. The shoes match, as does a sort of tiara in her hair, wrestled into curls, and an elaborate necklace dangling around her neck. They've made her look beautiful for tonight, even if she doesn't feel like she is. She watched the Reapings, saw the faces of the parents whose children she's about to kill….

But she can't tell the prep team any of that, can she? Sassy goes down to the stable and meets the Careers from District Two and District Four—the ones from Two, well, they scare her a bit, and the boy from Four is somewhat the same, but his thoughtful district partner, she likes.

They get on the chariots.

The crowd loves her.

. . .

In her home, her mother and grandmother watch her with teary eyes and clenched hands. "Our little Sassy's gotten big on us," they say, and they are proud. They are honored to know her, maybe to "have" known her, because they know their sweet, innocent little girl isn't going to come back out of the arena the same, (if she does). There will be blood on her pale hands, and memories she can't escape. But she'll live. They are certain of it.

. . .

After the ceremonies, Sassy's tribute team is full of praise for her, and for Clyde, and for their allies. Clyde gives her a squeeze of the hand, platonic, friendly, reassuring. They go back upstairs and eat dinner and watch the recap and then she goes to bed, but again, she doesn't sleep.

Instead, she cries. She thinks of her allies, who she doesn't want to kill, doesn't want to see die right in front of her. She's eighteen and she still refuses to step on the stray spider, let alone plunge a sword into a child. What made this seem like a good idea? Why was her honor more important than another kid's life?

She sobs, muffled into the cool, silky sheets that the Capitol has provided. They think she is brave, and strong, and bold, but really, she's scared. She feels like she might fall apart the second she gets into the arena, or when she stands in a group with the other tributes—no, kids—tomorrow. Some of them are six years younger than her, and she is scared.

How could they feel?

Her mother, and her grandmother… they were afraid to let her go. And she is older, and trained, and prepared in the senses that she can be. There are others not so lucky.

. . .

In the cover of night, the boys from District Nine, District Ten, and District Five ally, defying the norms of an alliance of the District Nine tributes and of Five tributes going at it alone. Their mentors aren't sure what to make of it. Those are the two alliances of the Games—it's them versus the Careers, for now. Maybe the others don't really stand a chance.

. . .

By lunch, she's tired, and it's only halfway through the day. Her training sessions at home were more energy-consuming than this. Why does she feel so worn out? She decides it's due to emotion, and a lack of sleep. Yes, that has to be it, because it can't just be her being out of shape. But it still means that she is weak. She puts on her most charming smile and chats with the girl from Four.

After the meal, the group compromises by going to the trapping station. Sassy hates the image that the instructor paints in their minds of a little twelve-year-old strangling to death right in front of them in a noose, attempting to scream. She feels like she might throw up the lunch, but she doesn't.

She's strong. She's a Career. She still has these Games.

Because she has to. There is no other option. There's no second place or second chances. You win, or you die.

There is room only for one victor. It has to be her. She is terrified of what happens otherwise, too terrified for it to actually happen, because the world just can't work that way, can it? Who would be so cruel to sentence her to an eternity suffering for her kills?

That's what she's going to get even if she wins, though.

Or maybe she'll go down early enough she will have nothing to repent for.

No. She can't think like that.

. . .

In the same day, the alliance of boys heads to every survival skill station, deciding that tomorrow will be weapons, the day after that, the coordination and agility stations. The girl from Seven shows off with an axe and then heads for climbing. The Eleven artist wanders as she pleases at a variety, happy at camouflage for most of the first afternoon; she seems almost like she's in a trance. The tributes from Twelve show no skill at anything they attempt, and the ones from Three pick up on skills quickly but have trouble executing them. The boy from Six hides in the corner of the room at the water purifying station, and there are a few girls that spend most of the day at trapping other than the time the Careers are there. Because, well, they scare everyone, not just Sassy.

. . .

For her demonstration, she receives a nine. It's not top-notch, especially for a Career, but she is pleased with it. She fought a few dummies with a sword, and threw in a few other skills—like the trapping. Why everyone loves that station this year, no one really seems to know, or care.

Maybe it's because they feel so trapped, themselves.

Sassy's mentor is not overly happy with her, but is in a good mood from Clyde's ten and is satisfied. She did extraordinary well at the ceremonies, and will do the same at the interviews, everyone is sure. She's everyone's favorite for her smile and laugh and cute little wave, not for ability to kill, or willingness.

It's strange for District One—they are beauty or talent, and Sassy isn't exactly either, though she has some of both.

She's all charm.

. . .

In the sitting room of the District Two floor, the tributes' mentor is displeased at their tens—a twelve is near impossible, but please, they could have pulled off an eleven, couldn't they? Meanwhile, the girl from Seven surprises almost everyone with an eight, while the Twelves pull a four and a five. The Eleven girl also does well with an eight, but her district partner gets a six. The boy alliance all does "decently" with sixes; only the one from Nine expected any higher, really. The Fours do well with a nine for the girl and ten for the boy. There are no elevens, no twelves, and nothing lower than a four. It's an average year.

. . .

It's the current Interview Host's second year: Edalene Ranalt. Sassy is up first—somehow it slipped her mind that it would be the case. She's not too nervous as she goes up to the stage. She spots herself on a screen and sees how confident and composed she looks, and tries to feel the same way inside. She talks to Edalene easily, and the crowd seems to love it.

"Doesn't this girl have it all, folks? Looks, brains, charm, skill… she's a shoo-in, isn't she?"

There is wild applause. She receives glares from all of the other tributes aside her friend from Four, who gives her a quiet high-five when she takes her seat. Edalene exaggerated her high points, she knows, but who else does?

She can pull this off, certainly.

Clyde goes up, and he's the one that talks more about being here with his best friend.

"Do you think you could face each other, in the end?"

Sassy's stomach clenches. Her dress seems tight, suddenly.

"Well, Edalene," Clyde says, "I'd be pretty damn scared if that happened." His buzzer goes off. He sits next to Sassy again. She tries not to look at him or at the cameras. She's scared, too. He is helping her now, but later, they may have to kill each other. Edalene put it nicely.

She looks over at her best friend and mentally whispers, I'm sorry.

. . .

The girls from Four and Eleven are a bit alike in their almost dreamy, deep personifications of themselves, in a stark contrast to the Twos that terrify the audience who won't be put against them in the morning. The Threes are presented as intelligent as usual, and so is the boy from Five. The boy from Nine is skilled but a bit snarky, while Fodder from Ten is selfless and brave for volunteering. The girl from Seven is sweet and adorable but deadly determined, and the rest barely stick in the audience's minds, just another few kids about to die soon.

. . . . .

Sassy can't think straight just before the bloodbath. Her mind refuses to get past the fact that she could die in sixty seconds, less than that, and the voice of the Games Announcer counting down coming from overhead keeps her thoughts from flowing properly. She is shaking and sick and tensed, and keeps trying to swallow down air, unsuccessfully. And yet, there is some excitement among the nerves. An adrenaline rush. What she's spent her whole life waiting to do is just seconds away.

Fifteen seconds.

Where will the pack—fourteen—be heading—thirteen—from here—twelve—?

She tries to take in the arena, as if she hasn't noticed it before. She shakes a bit harder, perfectly positioned to run. She's going to just sprint straight into the action, right? No sense in delaying it, but…. The Careers will have plenty of supplies.

Then again, the sword not too far away looks just like it was made for her.

They might've well have written her name on it.

She's still torn when the gong rings out, and after that, it's quiet other than footsteps. Her feet propel her forwards automatically, but she stops halfway to that sword to look around at what's happening. Some are getting away. Get them! the Career part of her mind screams. She sprints for a knife, and then sees something long and sharp coming towards her.

Fear makes her trip, and instinct makes her roll to the side, and determination makes her get back up and head for the girl from Six, almost hesitantly tackling her to the ground, and fighting her for the bag in her hand. She's scared to hit too hard, to be on top of the fight for too long. In the end, she springs away and grabs the bag, heads off to grab a knife.

She doesn't think much before throwing it at the Six girl, the handle slipping smoothly from her hand. But seeing death on television tones it down, even for the Hunger Games. It doesn't show the way the knife slides into the girl's back, tearing away the fabric of her tribute outfit and becoming coated in warm, sticky blood, sending droplets into the air. It doesn't send the sound of the girl's scream straight to Sassy's heart, or make the sound of the thump that her body makes hitting the ground so clear. Everyone else fades out of focus, and Sassy just watches her.

She just ended that child's life. A child who has parents now distraught back home, and two little siblings who are having their eyes shielded as their sister's dead eyes stare up at the arena's perfect, blue sky. A child who did absolutely nothing wrong.

Sassy runs over to the sword, feeling sicker. There's a feeling of accomplishment nagging at the evil part of her mind, but she looks up at the sky, like she expects to see the other girl's spirit floating up to the clouds. Out of the force field, out of this prison.

She picks up the new blade and starts to advance on the boy from Seven. An arrow flies past her face, and she turns, weapon raised. There's the boy from District Nine, already aiming another weapon. Sassy runs towards him, but when an ally screams, "SASSY, LOOK OUT—!" she ducks, hoping against all hope that it's the right move. It is. A knife flies over her head, and her heart pounds. She straightens, and charges the boy from Nine, who refuses to die.

Die, die, die! chants the Career half of her.

But she doesn't want to kill this boy, not when the other half of her is still aching over the death of the Six girl. She pretends to be drawn in by a backpack and runs towards that instead. She wonders when everyone will be gone for now, when her allies and her will make camp, because she's tired and she can't go on with this amount of fear in her for too much longer.

. . . . .

The Careers are nearly the last ones left at the Cornucopia, indeed. The boy from Two tells them all to grab whatever they want and then they'll start heading out. There's agreement on that. Sassy stocks up on water and food, gets a sleeping bag and a pillow, and a first aid kit, shoves it all in her backpack, and holds onto her sword, slips a few knifes into her belt loop. She's confident, now. But the one thing echoing in her mind is the scream of the girl from District Six. She dreads the anthem tonight.

They aren't exactly sure where to go. There are caves lining this area, but they don't want to be that trapped, with no view. There's the mountain range in the neck of the teardrop shape, but that would be hard to navigate. So they set out for the lake, and walk along the perimeter, and Sassy is becoming a bit absorbed in her thinking about how pretty the lake is, smooth and reflecting sunlight. She can't think like that. Careers don't think like that.

She sighs.

When they come to a point where they're on the far right side of the lake (looking at it from the Cornucopia view, at least, because Sassy's already thinking of tricks that might be played on them in this way), they notice that they can get behind the waterfall. It's a trend in the latest set of Games, if there's a waterfall, you can get into some kind of a cave behind it.

They hop over a little branch of the lake to be under a rock, inside a cave-like structure that's hidden by the water. It's a constant, low roar in their ears, that Sassy is starting to find irritating, but she doesn't want to say so.

"I love it," says the boy from Two. "No footprints, no sound getting out, no sight of us... it's perfect. And we can get plenty of water from the lake."

There's a lot of shrugs and people saying "fine by me".

Sassy decides that there are a lot of upsides, if she's being honest. So she can deal with it, for now, at least. Clyde smiles at her. She has to smile back, because he's still alive, and they're both fine, and for now, almost safe. She can't shake off the feelings brought on by the world outside, beyond the waterfall, but she can appreciate how tributes, at least at first, can almost be fooled into security.

She's used to feeling safe. It's just a habit.

It's not for everyone in this arena.

The Careers claim spots in the cave. She decides on one near the back, away from where any potential attackers would come in, away from the noise of the waterfall, away from where her voice will escape the rock walls. She puts her backpack and other supplies down, other than the sword. She has decided that that is never leaving her hand, for as long as she is in these Games. Her mother and grandmother wouldn't be as proud if she was to ever be caught unprepared. What a disgrace it would be...

"So. We can go back a bit later, once the coast'll be somewhat clear, and go through whatever we left at the Cornucopia. I figure we won't need a tent or whatever, but some extra food can't hurt."

There's more agreement. Their alliance is doing decently, Sassy thinks, and she's glad. It'll help her sleep, if it's at all possible. And sleep sounds so tempting; she could go for a nap right now. But that's not really an option. Then again, she wants to only be asleep if Clyde is awake to look out for her.

Then again, maybe she can't even trust him, anymore.

. . . . .

Once the first signs of sunset show up, they go back through what's at the Cornucopia, and drag some of it back to their camp. Sassy's arms hurt from carrying a heavy box of rice that distance, and she's dreading hunting, is seriously considering coming up with a reason to stay back in the cave. Wait a minute.

"Hey, with all of this stuff around, maybe someone should stay here, keep an eye on this place," she suggests, innocently.

"I'll do it, if no one else wants to," says the girl from Four, quietly.

Sassy groans and swears mentally, but doesn't say anything. The girl from Four stays, and the rest of them head out towards the mountain range.

. . . . .

They find no one, and all Sassy accomplishes is managing to scrape her knees on the edge of a rock. It burns and hurts, just that, and she can't imagine the feel of a knife in her back. She's relieved when they get back to the cave, and Clyde is the first person on watch. She can sleep.

She curls up in her sleeping bag and closes her eyes tightly. She longs for her bed—this is terribly comfortable—and for her mother's goodnight hug and the warmth and familiarity of her house and for a bit of light coming from the end of the hall. And for the promise that when she wakes, it won't be with someone standing over her, wielding a knife.

A lot of time passes, or at least it feels like it, and Sassy wishes she would just fall asleep. Eventually she crawls out of the sleeping bag and goes over to sit next to where Clyde is, right next to the waterfall. "Hey," he says.

"Hey."

She leans on his shoulder, and he sighs. "Sassy."

"I know," she says. "I know; we can't."

"Not here. … Probably not ever."

"I know." She scoots away from him, suddenly saddened, and stands up. So does he. "So, what now?"

"We say goodbye."

"But we're both still here."

"Not really."

"What does that mean?" There's silence between them. Some frogs inhabiting the lake continue to ribbit, ribbit in it.

He hugs her, tightly, instead of answering, and gives a characteristic tug on her ponytail. She clutches him and wishes they weren't in the arena. Maybe that's what he means. They let go. "Bye, Sassy."

"Bye, Clyde," she whispers, teary, and then turns quickly and heads back towards her sleeping bag before she loses it completely. Clyde, her best friend, so close but yet out of reach. They can't be friends here. They're both alone. She's never felt so lonely before. She curls up in a little ball in the sleeping bag and breathes shakily. Then she hears a rustling sound, and looks up in the darkness, and sees something floating into the cave towards her. A parachute.

A parachute!

Sponsor gifts already. They must have actually felt her last conversation. The thought of people watching that makes her sick to her stomach, but she opens up the gift obediently. There's a note. And a teddy bear. She clamps a hand over her mouth to muffle her laughter, almost hysterical with the combination of that and the tears. The note says, "You don't have to kill this. –M" She thinks about it. Her mentor's name doesn't start with "M".

"Mom?" she whispers, feeling like a little girl again in the moment. Her heart aches more at the thought. Her mom arranged for this gift to be sent. She just knows.

She falls asleep with the bear in her arms, discovering that it's a high-quality Capitol toy, with automatic warmth and a tiny, beating heart, that won't ever have to stop.

. . . . .

Most of the pack makes fun of her for it in the morning when they find her still sleeping like that, but they are jealous of the fact that she's getting gifts.

"Aw, how sweet," says the Two girl, snidely. Sassy tries not to respond, and tucks the bear into her backpack, goes to help Clyde start to sort out all of their food supplies.

She won't starve to death, at least.

. . . . .

They hunt again that night, and find both of the tributes from Three, separately. Their lives end at the hands of District Two, and Sassy's breathing clenches, suffocating her. They come across the girls from Eight and Nine, and some of their blood lands on Sassy's shoes. She spends what has to be an hour trying to scrub it off, once they get back to camp, her heart racing.

Who's still alive?

Them. All of the Careers. They're all still alive. Then there's the Five/Nine/Ten boys, the girl from Seven, the boy from Eight, the girl from Ten, and both from Eleven. Fourteen tributes—thirteen left to die.

Sassy doesn't want to start thinking like that, but that's the way it has to be. Come on, you're a Career, you're in the arena and you're sleeping with a teddy bear. Come on, now.

The thoughts don't stop her emotion or keep her from clinging to the bear.

. . . . .

A cannon fires the next morning, and it turns out to belong to the girl from District Ten. She was fifteen and had wide, blue eyes, and just before the Games, had been adopted by one of her teachers. Sassy took a long walk by herself, and prayed for the adoptive father who had just lost the only child he'd ever truly loved.

. . . . .

That night, their hunting is unsuccessful. It's night three and there are only thirteen left, so everyone is spread out. When the girl from Four suggests they stop hunting the mountain ranges and start splitting up to go into the caves, there's agreement.

Sassy heads into the tunnel with the entrance closest to their camp, a flashlight in hand. It's so dark in here. Who would hide in this place? So dark… no light at all… it's eerie, like when she goes downstairs alone late at night during a storm, and she's terrified, eager to run out.

She hears something, a sound like a baby animal whining, a whimper, and turns to poke the flashlight towards one cubby in the caves and finds not the bear cub she expected, but a tiny slip of a girl. She looks even smaller when she's not holding an axe—or any weapon at all that Sassy can see—and is all curled up, alone in the dark.

Her eyes fly open at the sound of Sassy's footsteps, light hazel and gaping at her. She retreats further into the cave, away from the entrance Sassy came in from.

"I—" She's about so say that she shouldn't be scared, that she won't hurt her, but then realizes that she is here to kill. Then she doesn't have anything to say. Whatever it is… it'll be the last thing this little girl ever hears.

"I'm sorry," she whispers.

"N-no, please, please, please, please don't kill me, please—"

"I'm sorry," Sassy says again, approaching her, knife raised.

"I h-gave to go-o-o back," sobs the Seven girl. "My c-cou-cousins n-need me, please…."

Sassy's kneeling on the ground now, leaning over her, and she can see a bleeding wound on her shoulder, and thinks of how much that has to hurt, much more than her only real injury of skinned knees. This girl is thirteen. "PLEASE—!"

Shakily, Sassy pins down her shoulders, one hand holding the flat part of the knife against her, and sits on her knees. "Why do your cousins need you?" she asks, because maybe some masochistic, self-loathing part of her mind wants to make this all the more tragic and depressing.

"My—my u-uncle c-can't take c-care of—of them any-anymo-ore. H-he got a-arres—arrested." She sobs harder. "Please…."

Sassy's heart clenches for her. She can't do this. She can't kill this girl. "Okay," she says, and starts to let go of her, pulls her hands away. She's nauseous and shaky and her hands are sweating—oh, her hands are sweating, and the knife is slipping from her grip as she moves away, and then there's a blood-curdling scream escaping Seven's lips and Sassy looks down, horrified, her hands flying to her mouth. There's a knife sticking out of the girl's chest. Sassy has just killed her. Oh great Panem oh great Panem no no no no no….

"I'm sorry, I'm sorry, I'm so sorry, I didn't mean to drop it—" Sassy's voice breaks, and the sentence ends with a choked cry. The other girl is still breathing, just barely. Sassy lets her go immediately and then pulls the Seven girl into a tight hug, as painlessly as she can. "I'm sorry, I'm sorry…." Sassy's crying now, too, clutching her, and getting tears in her hair.

She's going hysterical, slowly, and she whispers, "If I win I'll take care of your cousins, I promise, I promise, I'm sorry…." She tries to stroke her hair, shaking so harshly it doesn't work.

"T—Tell them th-that I… l-love them…." Her eyes flutter shut, her grip on Sassy's hand loosens, and her breathing is shallower.

When the cannon fires, Sassy jumps. She moves away, lowers the girl onto the ground, turns her onto her side, and takes the knife out of her. She pushes the hair away from her face and keeps crying until she can even begin to fumble with the zipper on her bag, and she pulls out the teddy bear in it, tucks it under the younger girl's arm.

"I'm sorry," she whispers.

(She'll say the same thing to the cousins, tiny Danny and Lynn, on her Victory Tour, and hug them, too, and cry again.)

The Seven girl looks younger like that, like she should be in a crib and sucking her thumb. The Games brought out everyone's need to be a child. Sassy kisses her on the forehead and goes. She faces the other Careers trying to congratulate her on a kill when they found no one, and the next anthem, where her face shines down on them—and it's then that Sassy realizes she never asked the girl what her name was.

(It was Hazel Grace, after the color of her eyes.)

. . . . .

A day passes where nothing happens. Sassy tries to think of nothing, and stares into the water at her own wavering reflection. She punches the surface of the lake in frustration and then regrets the impulsive act of violence. It's too Career-like.

It's just water, the other part of her mind chides.

For a second she thinks of not letting herself win.

But she has to, for "the cousins".

. . . . .

The next afternoon, the Careers are spread out on the bank of the lake, and Sassy lays there with her feet just barely in the water, her head in the grass, basking in the sun. It's the most at peace she's felt in ages, and she desperately needs it. Her hands fiddle absently with some weeds, and she watches frogs hop around. She thinks of her mother and grandmother, of the twelve-year-olds at the Reaping she gave her umbrella to, of Clyde, of her time in the Capitol, of the parachute bringing the teddy bear, and most of all, the deaths. The little girl from Seven, and the others.

She watches her allies with a careful eye. The boy from Two got a sleek and shiny sword from a sponsor last night, and he experiments with how sharp it is. The tributes from Four are talking by themselves, and Clyde seems to be watching Sassy from somewhere nearby. And the girl from Two—the girl from Two….

A cannon. All of them jump up, weapons raised, looking around wildly. The girl from Two doesn't get up. "Lucia!" calls her district partner, in a panic. "Lucia!" The whole pack runs over to her. She's completely still on the ground, dark eyes dilated and staring upwards. In her right hand is a freshly-filled water bottle with one sip gone.

The boy from Two shakes her urgently. "Come on, get up, get up…."

Clyde picks up the water bottle. "The lake's not safe anymore."

"LUCIA, GET UP!" screams the other Two, still shaking her almost violently. "WAKE UP!"

"She's not going to," snaps the boy from Four, kicking the water bottle towards the lake. "It's too late."

Sassy tries to touch his shoulder comfortingly, but he shoves her away. "No, the water's fine, see—" he grabs the bottle and hastily drinks a few gulps, even as Clyde attempts to tear it away from him. The cannon fires. Sassy takes a startled step back as he falls, beside his district partner.

"Great," mumbles the boy from Four.

Sassy swallows tightly.

"I guess that's that," Clyde says.

Sassy has to agree, even if it's sick. She wonders if death is really the end. Maybe that's one of the things that scare her the most.

. . . . .

Day Six, ten tributes left. District One, Four, Eleven, and the boys from Five, Eight, Nine, and Ten. The time of the final eight is approaching quickly, and Sassy is considering the state of their alliance. It seems to be her and Clyde versus District Four, and there's no definite leadership. She's scared of that.

She wonders what really made her want to be a Career in the first place. So she wouldn't be looked down on in her district? Was it really all because of pride? Now she's beginning to think that it's not worth it. Nothing's worth this.

That evening, the boy from Eight dies in a rockslide. The Careers see the mountain falling apart and hear the cannon and see his face in the sky later, so it doesn't take much to put it together. But Sassy doesn't want to think about it too much.

Her heart is hurting enough.

. . . . .

It's late on Day Seven, very late, or maybe early on Day Eight, it's hard to tell, when they next find someone while hunting. The boy from District Eleven. Sassy hasn't slept well, and the arena has worn her out. She feels exhausted while they chase him, uphill, to eventually corner him between them and a cliff-like edge.

She's a bit hunched over, hands on her knees, panting desperately for air, aching all over, a sweaty mess.

The girl from Four puts an arrow in the boy's heart, and they watch him fall through the air until he hits the ground, the cannon firing somewhere in between. Sassy has barely physically recovered by the time she processes that, and then she needs more air again, falls to her knees and throws up on the rocky ground.

. . . . .

There's another day of nothing, where the Four pair search for another source of water and Clyde watches over the camp. Sassy just wanders aimlessly. She doesn't have the focus or energy to do much anymore. She just wants to go home, eat a good meal, and get a good night's sleep, undisturbed by nightmares of the day's events, in her own comfortable, warm bed, in actual pajamas, somewhere where she is safe.

Back there, they're interviewing the families of the final eight. Someone must say something nice about her, because she gets a pot of hot soup that she shares with Clyde. It's good, the first good food she's had since the Games started, really, and just the spiced smell makes her mouth water. They find some bread to dip in it, making it richer and more filling.

If only they had gotten spoons.

. . . . .

It's the ninth night, and Sassy wakes with a start. Someone is shouting, and she hears the shriek of metal on metal. It takes her a few seconds too long to understand what's happening. The pair from Four is attacking her and Clyde. The alliance is splitting. This is the time to fight.

She grabs her sword, a backpack of food and water already on her back, and springs into action. She almost doesn't want to do this. The girl from Four, she thought they were almost… almost like friends, weren't they? And Clyde, she has been close to forever. His family will be watching her. But, but….

The boy from Four lunges at her, and she wedges her sword between them, barely cutting him, and kicks, struggling, trying to push her weapon upwards, while Clyde pulls him off of her. She has to do this. She has to kill Clyde, right now, because if she doesn't, she'll never work up the nerve and someone else will do it, and they won't have the mercy she has, but maybe she's just insane by now and she whispers I'm sorry, I'm sorry mentally, and she thinks that's her most-said phrase in the arena.

She scrambles to her feet, dodges a weapon shot by the girl from Four by ducking, and runs for the place where Four's district partner and Clyde are dueling. They all end up in a messy square, and Sassy's knocking away side attacks from the boy while dodging weapons thrown by the girl, and then she takes a step back, whips around in a semi-circle, and her sword lands in Clyde's back. He falls and the other boy turns on her.

There's a cannon. Sassy is teary now, and screaming internally, What did I just do?! But she dodges the Fours and then runs off to their side, an arrow scraping her shoulder, ow oww owww, and out of the waterfall's cave. She's pursued, but she sprints faster and faster until she's lost track of her movements, maybe misses a few steps, and is blinded by the tears streaking her face, making tracks in the dirt.

Clyde, Clyde, I'm sorry, I really loved you, don't you know that?

Her breathing comes fast and hard, but then she throws herself to the side, and into one of the caves lining the edge of the arena, and makes a few sharp turns until she can convince herself she's no longer being pursued, and ducks into something like a crawl space, moves on her elbows through it, painfully.

She's cried more since the Reaping than she has in her whole life, she thinks, hyperventilating against the cold ground in a cubbyhole she discovered at last. And with that in mind, she faints, welcoming the blissful darkness of unconsciousness.

. . . . .

Sassy gets a day of recovery, slowly forcing herself to eat and drink and sleep, and she sees Clyde's face projected against the cave roof that night. Her heart clenches again just looking at him, his familiar face and build and eyes and hair and... everything. The same look on his face as ever. Eventually, she has to look down at the ground, traces his name in the fine dust settled there, erases it with her shoe. She can imagine his brother and his parents watching at home and cursing her name, even though she spent his birthday and New Year's and Games Day with them for years. It hurts thinking of those times. What would happen to her now?

She curls up and tries to sleep, but doesn't. She doesn't feel hungry, either, even though she hasn't eaten in a while, now. She just feels pain, coming from her knees and her shoulder, but mostly from somewhere inside her. She's so tired of everything. Despite the fact that she had dreamed of this forever, now she just wants it all to be over, to be at home, to be able to pretend that it was just one long, horrible dream that was over now.

It's not just a dream, and she knows that. And it'll never be over. She'll have to mentor and re-watch these Games and be in the eyes of the press and the public forever. And she'll always have to face Clyde's family, and the Seven girl's cousins, and anyone who ever loved the Six girl. It would be terrible. But she does want to win, because she needs to get out of this arena more than anything.

Sassy considers the fact that she's just slowly going insane, and doesn't even want to think about anything that's happened to cause that. She's stabbed her best friend and an innocent thirteen-year-old and had something to do with the deaths of so many more innocent children. Thinking about that hurts. Thinking about anything hurts. She wishes she had her first-aid kit, because it had painkillers in it.

She just wants everything to go away. Has she not been through enough for them? Can it not be over now? She can't do any more than this. She'll never be able to hurt anyone else again.

If she somehow gets out of here alive and with some shred of sanity left in her, she'll try to make up for all of it. She will take care of "the cousins" and visit Clyde's family every single day and apologize over and over and over... but say what, that she had to live? Why was her life any more important than Clyde's, in that one moment?

She may never know, really.

. . . . .

When she wakes again, she can only assume it's the next day, although the only light comes from her flashlight, in here. She's so thankful that she has that, or else she may really lose it. She hears four cannons throughout the day—one early on, and three close by each other later. Someone in the arena's been busy. The anthem that night shows the face of the artist girl from Eleven, with dark skin and eyes and hair and everything, and the boys from District Five, Nine, and Ten. She thinks of how selfless the Ten boy was, Fodder. He didn't deserve to die. He deserves to live, to be somehow, magically brought back. But that can't happen.

Her heart breaks for the person he volunteered for.

She just lies still in the darkness, trying to sleep again, and lets herself think too much about everything. But then she tries to think of nothing at all, but then she feels too much, and that's bad, too. She doesn't want to feel anything right now. If only she could be as cold as some of the others. But weren't they just kids, too? What separated them?

Everything. Nothing. Maybe she is losing it.

She's nearly sure that she is, in any case. She almost wants to die.

But she can't. Life isn't even that merciful.

It's just her and the pair from Four, now. The finale should be soon. Tomorrow is Day Twelve. What a good number to end on.

. . . . .

She doesn't want the final battle to take place somewhere small, dark, and where she's completely trapped, so she heads out of the caves towards the Cornucopia. Sassy's just at the final turn she needs to take to see sunlight when she first hears the screams.

Now she draws her sword and sprints around the corner and out into the open air. A group of mountain lions is chasing the District Four tributes, and she smacks straight into the girl when she is torn backwards.

The pain takes a few seconds to register as she dangles helplessly from the mutt's mouth. She feels the teeth tearing down into her clothes, through her skin and muscles, going deeper through her and tearing her flesh open more as the base of the mountain lion's teeth nearly hits her. She can't think, can't see, can't do anything but scream, as she is tossed up in the air and lands on the ground, hard, the breath knocked out of her. Blood is leaving her body at a furious rate, pouring down her back and stomach, hot and sticky. She's dizzy and sick, and it hurts, great Panem, and she's trying to move on the ground, flailing wildly, jabbing her sword out with her good arm towards the District Four boy.

Another mutt drags him up, and when she sees what she must've looked like a few seconds ago, she feels worse, and it all aches more. She's managed to get up onto one knee, and raises her weapon, brings it down into the top of the head of the mutt holding the Four boy in its teeth, and, scared half to death, she gets out of the way of another mountain lion trying to claw at her leg. It still scrapes her, and it burns, searing and stinging.

The mutt she stabbed dies, and hits the ground with a thud and the final scream of the boy still in its mouth, as its death go too far into him, penetrating his heart. There's a cannon. His district partner screams and tries to jump at Sassy, pins her on the ground, when a mutt attempts to grab both of them and they hurtle out of the way together, a mess of limbs and blood and missing pieces of meat from their bodies.

Sassy gives a terrified, agonized scream and tries to throw the girl off of her, manages to get up, and falls back, straight into the paws of another mountain lion. She's lifted off the ground, and almost dropped, with claws as long as her hands holding her up by the shirt, running through her skin. It hurts too much, she just can't….

Some choked sound escapes her as she's dropped, her body hurting from the fall and literally being torn apart and her previous injuries and just everything, and the Four girl is tossed towards her by another mutt, and Sassy attempts to run her through with her sword just as the cannon fires. Her weapon hits the girl anyways, and she wonders if she just killed her, or if the mutts did. They disperse, but Sassy is still afraid and the pain doesn't stop with the announcement of her victory that she barely registers, lying limply on the ground, not sure of anything anymore.

"Ladies and gentlemen, I present to you the victor of the three-hundred eighty-fourth Hunger Games, Sassafras Hemlocke!"

She can't even get a smile on her face, can't move, can't open her eyes, can't think of anything but pain, pain, pain, and the hovercraft swoops down before she can.

. . . . .

One week after Sassy wins, her victory ceremonies begin: interviews, parties, a celebration back home. She sees her mother and grandmother, and they hug her and they cry. They move into the Victor's Village.

Six months later, she goes on her Victory Tour. In District Seven, she promises Hazel Grace's cousins donations of money and whatever they need, and a house they can live in with a Capitol attendant to take care of them, which she pays for.

One year later, she marries Coarse, and she has never been happier. But quickly, she is off to the Capitol to mentor. Her tributes die, a vicious boy of eighteen and a beautiful girl a year younger. She becomes close with the families.

Three years later, she has her first and only daughter, Corsage. She was going to name her Hazel, but Coarse begged her not to. She calls her daughter Sage.

Twenty-two years after the Games, as her daughter prepares for the arena, she is called to the Capitol to help fight District Fourteen, because she is still loyal to Panem. And she is, she really, truly is, despite the Games, despite everything.

Also despite everything, she's all right.