A Breath on the Embers

by Aadler
Copyright April 2013


Fandom: the Hunger Games (book or movie, either one will work)
Rating: PG13
Genre: AU (darkish, but then so is that world)

Disclaimer: Characters from the Hunger Games are property of Suzanne Collins, Scholastic Press (book series), and Lionsgate (film).


Panem was a tinderbox, waiting for a spark. Few knew that appalling fact … but, paradoxically, those highest in the seats of power knew it best. Even the knowledge was dangerous, and so had to be kept hidden. It could not be secret, however — it had to be available — when it came to the vital few with the responsibility of quenching every possibility of a spark, of doing whatever was necessary to guard against the devouring flame.

It was an irony known only to the men and women at the pinnacle, and felt most keenly by Coriolanus Snow himself: you spent your entire life clawing your way to the top, by innuendo and misdirection and calculated alliances and SO-carefully timed betrayals, by flattery and undercutting doubt and manipulation and assassination, by guile with the appearance of frankness and directness that glided on layers of guile, by never exposing an instant's weakness for decades at a time and then risking everything on a single play at the critical moment, tightrope-walking on the edge of a razor and hoarding so many secrets that much of the time you were hiding the truth even from yourself … You did all that, schemed all that, risked all that, played all that, won all that —

— and then, upon ascending to the height of power, then you understood just how fragile was the entire structure that supported that power, and how deadly your own peril.

Much history had been lost in the great wars, but some remained, and Snow had carefully studied those remnants. He knew — from the French and Russian revolutions, from the dwindling might of Rome, from the last emperor of China and the last days of Ghadaffi in Libya — that rebellion came not under the grimmest tyranny but when that tyranny slackened, when people who had known only the grip of power's iron fist felt that grip lessen and sensed weakness. Therefore, the grip must remain crushing at all times; the power of the state must be pervasive, irresistible, inescapable, permeating the very molecules of the air. When you ruled by fear and force, you created hate, and that hate must be kept impotent and knowing its impotence, or you would be consumed in its release.

A spark would set it all ablaze, and so the spark could not — would not — must not be allowed to form.

But what if you didn't recognize it when it came? What if, with the entire world burning round you, you still couldn't pinpoint the moment it first flared into ravenous life?

When — when — did it all truly begin?

~ – ~ – ~

It couldn't have been at the Reaping, when the tributes for District Twelve were chosen and announced, because there had been nothing remarkable about that. The girl's name had been announced, and she had started forward automatically, face stunned and pale but compliant: just as tributes should be, though of course a more forceful personality made for better theater. Her older sister had not been compliant (as would later be seen in far too much detail), leaving her place to rush forward, trying to push through the Peacekeepers, crying out the younger girl's name … For a moment it looked as if she was about to shout something else, but her voice cracked with strain, she coughed, and a second later she was dropped by a rifle butt to the back of her head. Precise application of force, and Snow, reviewing the visual record later, had approved: the older girl could lawfully have been shot for her behavior, but each action conveyed its own message, and the contemptuous felling had been exactly the right message for the situation. Or so it had seemed.

No. No, this was where it began, where it could so easily have been prevented if only they had known, but this wasn't the spark. It was only … stage setting. Foreshadowing, for the cataclysm yet to come.

~ – ~ – ~

Nor was it the parade with the other tributes, though that was where Primrose Everdeen would first make her mark. The artist Cinna had chosen fire as the motif for those from the coal district (a welcome change, after so many attempts to do something original or at least aesthetic with miners' helmets). The effect was striking, the colors of the matching costumes shifting from yellow through darkening shades of orange into brilliant red, with the flickering glow dancing around them as if they actually were on fire. Snow had no idea how that last bit had been done, but the how didn't matter; the colors drew attention, but it was something else that kept the watchers' eyes fixed on the two from District Twelve. Some of the other tribute pairs stared straight ahead, some were clearly out of their depth, some tried to play to the crowd … but none of them, none, paid any attention to one another, which only heightened the contrast: for in the coal district chariot, Primrose Everdeen the apothecary's daughter clung to Peeta Mellark the baker's son as if seeking protection, and the young man kept his arms around her as if promising it.

Ridiculous, and pathetic considering that the pitiless logic of the Games guaranteed that at least one of them would die … but that was how it played, as pathos, as hopeless gallantry that might pluck at the heart but would not, could not, ever lead to any productive outcome. That was, after all, the message of the games: that the tributes, and their districts, were always and inescapably under Capitol control. Every aspect of the process was designed to drive that message home.

This was not the spark, but part of the spectacle. Still, it could be recognized later as one of a series of steps that led to the fatal ignition.

When had the control shifted, been lost, so that every effort to retain and regain and re-establish it had only hastened the plunge into the inferno?

When?

~ – ~ – ~

Loss of control had, perhaps, begun with the interviews, but if so it hadn't been noted at the time. Every year different tributes arrived, with different histories and backgrounds and personalities, and different possibilities for the narratives that could be woven around them, all coordinated toward the composite narrative that served the larger purpose. Some years offered better material than others, but the army responsible for forging the elements of the Games into a forcible reality — the analysts and technicians and artists and publicists and psychologists and so many others — had long experience and sharp-honed skill at making effective use of whatever was available to them.

And so it proved this time as well. Glimmer's calculated, polished sexuality; Cato's aggressive confidence; the sense of something deeper beneath Finch's enigmatic responses; the terse, sullen strength emanating from Thresh even in the one-word answers that were all Caesar Flickerman could elicit from him … Every phase of the game had its own stars, and some decent use could be made from any tribute if necessary, but naturally some needed less packaging than others.

In an ordinary season, the focus would have fallen on Cato and Glimmer. In a particularly sparse year, more effort would have been made to highlight the hint of mystery that hung about the vulpine Finch, seen only in glimpses without further probing. This year, the 74th Hunger Games, the majority of attention centered on two others, and both were unexpected.

The first was Rue, the little girl from District Eleven. Children that young were usually overwhelmed by the attention, the spectacle, and the knowledge that they were so obscenely outmatched in physical power and lethality. At first it appeared that she would be one such, for at the beginning of her interview she was shy, nervous, and so soft-spoken that the most artful amplification was needed to make her words heard. That passed quickly, however; perhaps she drew encouragement from not being the youngest and smallest of the tributes (Prim Everdeen was her age and size, and the District Three boy — Gauge, was it? — though slightly older, was no taller or heavier), or perhaps she had simply given herself that time to assess the situation, for after those first moments she warmed up and came alive. Winsome, impish, optimistic and engaging, when she ended with "Don't count me out," speculation immediately arose as to whether she might be one of the occasional wild cards, a Cruce Haldone or Annie Cresta or (small and unthreatening as she was) maybe even another Johanna Mason.

The biggest surprise, however, was Peeta Mellark. Baker's son or not, raised in the poorest and smallest and most backward district or not, the boy was a born performer. He and Caesar Flickerman fell into an instant comedic rapport that seasoned entertainers could spend years trying and failing to achieve. His ranking score was also high enough that, coupled with that unexpected but potent screen presence, he might well receive enough gifts from sponsors to make a crucial difference in the arena.

The telling moment, though, the greatest impact, came when Flickerman asked about Peeta's love life, and the boy went a bit bashful (an act, an artifice, they knew that now, but who could have expected such masterful manipulation from District Twelve gutter-sweepings?) and mumbled, "Well, there was a girl … I used to hope that maybe, someday … but that can't happen now." And Caesar, seizing on the moment of sympathy like the consummate manipulator he was, said, "Well, you never know. If you win these Games and go back, you'll be quite the catch, don't you think?"

And Peeta's face went completely flat, and when he answered Caesar his voice was soft but very, very clear. "If I go back, I'll have no chance, because her sister came here with me. Her little sister is the other District Twelve tribute. If I go back, she'll never be able to look at me without knowing I'm there because her sister is dead."

Then he looked out at the cameras, and with that same flat finality he said, "So I'll just have to make sure that Prim is the one who goes back."

That was the moment the audience response — not just in the studio, not even in the Capitol, but across the breadth of Panem — skyrocketed. That was the moment the 74th Hunger Games became something else entirely. That was the moment the world changed: when the baker's son publicly pledged to give his life, not even for the girl he loved, but to save someone she loved.

Not the spark. Still, not the spark. But, very possibly, the last moment when the appearance of that deadly flame might have been prevented.

~ – ~ – ~

They should have killed the both of them, as quickly as possible. That was easy to see now, and would have been easy enough to put into effect then. The problem was that there had been no way of knowing what was building, of how explosive this mixture would prove to be. Decades of patient rise through the strata of power had taught Snow: you didn't prevail by avoiding risk, but by finding the right way to turn the essentials to your advantage. This, here, was an opportunity for excellent theater, not to be wasted … and the issue of how to deal with Prim and Peeta would, of course, depend on whether — and how, and how long — they continued to survive.

When they entered the arena, and the gong sounded, the girl made an unimpressive start, even if it was enough to keep her alive for the moment: she ran. Simply ran, ignoring the weapons and supplies scattered around the Cornucopia; she actually jumped over a small backpack in her flight, either too panicked to think clearly or (unlikely, but possible) making an instant, deliberate choice to let nothing check her speed for even a fraction of a second. Ran for the trees, awkward and spindly but driving straight as an arrow, and once into the forest she continued to run, slowing after a while but never stopping, pushing on and on. Ran — eventually the screens began showing the nationwide audience a clock on it — for nearly six hours. And, after that, walked until night fell.

"She won't last two more days," one commentator pronounced confidently. "Look at her: no food, water, tools or weapons or shelter, not so much as a sheet of plastic to keep off the dew. She sacrificed everything for distance, and now she has nothing to work with. She's done for, it's just a matter of time."

"I don't know," his counterpart argued. "She'd have been taking a big chance if she spent even a few seconds trying to grab anything. Instead, she took a chance on being able to survive without anything. You could argue it either way, but there's one solid fact: she's taken herself as far as possible from the greatest danger in the arena."

The other tributes. It didn't even need to be said.

Peeta had taken a different gamble, staying at the Cornucopia and fighting alongside the Careers and hoping the earlier tentative alliance with them would hold. Snow was far too busy to watch the entirety of the Games, either in real time or by review of the various recorded video feeds, but he always made a point of seeing everything that was broadcast to the public on that first day, for it allowed him to judge the tone and tenor, and assess the tributes' effectiveness in bloody reality as opposed to training skill or studio performance. He noted with interest that Peeta fought only defensively, which could mean any of several things.

It might have been fastidiousness, queasiness, a fundamental reluctance or even inability to kill. (That would be a weakness, almost certainly fatal over enough time.) It might have been pure, sound tactical judgment: he was strong — the reason the Careers had offered an alliance — but neither trained nor skilled in weapons, and a cautious defense kept him alive, and his opponent occupied, until one or another Career could spare a moment to join him and administer a killing stroke. It might have been cunning, hiding his fullest capabilities and letting someone else take the risks that came with a dedicated attack. Or, just possibly, it might have been a more subtle craftiness: preserving his viewer appeal, keeping himself alive while masking whatever killer might be hiding behind the bland, polite, stolid exterior.

One thing was not in doubt: he still knew how to play to the cameras, and was still doing it. In private moments during that long first day — snatched from sorting and arranging the Cornucopia supplies, working out guard shifts and search-patrol tactics with his 'allies', and insisting to them that his interview statement had been solely to garner sympathy and throw the other tributes off their guard — he would gaze at the trees into which Prim had vanished, and stroke a plain, featureless brass disk that hung from a cord around his neck, and (too softly for anyone else to hear, but he knew the floating nanocams would pick it up) whisper, "I'll keep my promise, Katniss. I'll get her back to you, I swear."

It maintained his personal mystique, kept his audience popularity at a high level and, to Snow if to none other, marked him as a formidable player. (Really, that level of instinctive skill at influencing an anonymous public, from someone with no training or background to support it? Raised in the Capitol, he would already have been a major force to reckon with.) It also augmented the attention being paid to someone outside the arena.

Katniss. The older girl, the one who had been struck down during the inconsequential attempt to intervene in her sister's Reaping, and now the other side of the doomed 'romance' that had never been. Sought out for background, human interest, supporting material to bolster the raw material of the Games themselves, the girl stood in front of the interviewers' cameras, face gaunt with grief and eyes burning with hate, and said, "That's hers. The necklace, it's Prim's. I gave it to her, and she must have given it to him. Because she trusts him." And then she told about how she had never dealt with Peeta, never even spoken to him, and certainly never known of his unvoiced affection, but he had once saved her life — her entire family — with two discarded loaves of bread. She related the story in detail, with passion, words and gestures and expressions drawing a vivid portrait of starvation, despair, hopelessness, creeping death, and then a seemingly careless act that had brought salvation.

She made it come alive, and the interviewers ate it up. So did people all over Panem.

A fierce one! She'd have made much better arena fodder than her sister, and it might be a good idea to see that she was reaped next year, because that kind of fire could be dangerous. (And Snow could see something else: if Peeta Mellark came back without her sister, especially if there was the least suggestion that he might have been able to save her and failed to seize the opportunity, Katniss Everdeen might well do quite a bit more than spurn him. Regardless of the cost to herself.)

It was all over the telecasts, the people of the Capitol greedy for diversion, entertainment, even a lachrymose sentimentality that could never be mistaken for compassion, while out in the districts the spectacle was followed for … other reasons. And Haymitch Abernathy, who had once transitioned from brash, clever, ruthless competitor (and eventual victor) to worthless staggering drunk seemingly overnight, was abruptly in his element, courting potential sponsors and talking up his District Twelve charges on the twice-daily interview programs and endlessly politicking the programmers themselves on just what a dramatic gold mine they had on their hands: the defenseless child separated from the devoted protector willing to throw away his own survival for the sake of a love he could never have, while the desperate sister watched helplessly from half a continent away … honestly, you couldn't invent anything half so good! A contemptible, broken-down souse only days before, suddenly he was everywhere, bending every effort to leverage his charges' unexpected popularity to their advantage.

Prim Everdeen received a silver parachute bearing a single canteen with an inbuilt filter: empty, but capable of holding water if she could find any, and a strong hint that she should promptly do so. (Even so early as the second day, the price for such an item would have been stiff indeed.) Peeta Mellark received … nothing. Though Snow considered the actual gift wasted on such an unpromising candidate, he agreed with Haymitch's choice regarding Peeta: any sign of outside favor, just now, would only draw jealous attention onto him from his supposed allies. Haymitch, it would seem, still retained some vestige of the tactical cunning that had made him such a deadly, resourceful player nearly twenty-five years before.

The dramas continued, both those taking place in the arena and those adapted or manufactured outside it. Prim Everdeen squeezed the dew from her own clothing each morning for a precious ration of water, but couldn't find any other source and nothing at all in the way of food. Glimmer began playing up to Cato, to which Marvel pointedly paid no attention at all and which Clove regarded with a mixture of annoyance and contempt. Gauge succeeded in reactivating the mines around the Cornucopia — a deeply unwelcome development, and any number of Gamemaker designers and technicians would face a gamut of searing questions — thereby freeing the Career pack to begin hunting the other tributes (and, consequently, keeping Gauge alive a few more days, for only his technical virtuosity had given him any value to the Careers). Thresh had gone to ground in a wheat field, disappointing for someone who had shown such promise of telegenic violence … but, while subsisting on field mice and roots from another field — prudent, since the bioengineered wheat would have destroyed his digestive system in undetectable increments within three days — he scouted the Career pack daily, obviously biding his time until he could do maximum damage in the first thunderous stroke, and so was allowed to remain unmolested, for awhile. Rue …

Rue, it became clear on the third day, was shadowing Prim.

Following, never speaking, never showing herself, but always keeping the other girl under observation. On the fourth morning, Prim woke to find a crude arrow design laid out in broken branches next to where she had slept, and no footprints in the dew around her. After her first fright, Prim seemed to realize that a hostile observer wouldn't have left her alive, and on following the direction marked she found the water source that Rue had been using since the evening of the first day. The next morning, a small heap of tubers from the same marsh was stacked next to where Prim had been sleeping, and the girl realized that she now had a food supply as well.

Raffia, the female tribute from District Eight, built a fire in the hours before sunset, giving it time to burn down before darkness would have made it visible to searchers (a close call on the first night had taught her the danger there), but making it possible for her to preserve some warmth during the night by lying next to the banked coals. Unfortunately, this time she had chosen a spot too near a tracker-jacker nest; the smoke disturbed the touchy creatures, and Raffia died from the hallucinogenic venom in the stings, raving and tearing at her own flesh before at last she lay still.

Lenca, the District Nine boy, and Pulse, the District Three girl, were killed by the Career pack in the mid-morning and late afternoon of the seventh day. Once again Peeta had no direct role in either death, though he blocked Lenca's escape at a critical juncture. And, while the Careers were away from the Cornucopia, the nationwide audience saw Finch slip through the live mines, dancing around them in an intricate pre-planned choreography, and steal just enough food to last her for two days before settling the sacks and boxes to conceal her theft. After leaving the minefield in the same oddly graceful dance, Finch blew a kiss in the direction the Careers had gone in their departure, before taking again to the cover of the trees.

An engaging performance, and a welcome new thread in the developing narrative. Other elements, however, were less satisfactory. The Gamemakers decided Prim and her unseen benefactor had been too static for too long, and that night the fireball launchers drove both girls from the marsh they had used as refuge.

~ – ~ – ~

The problem was that what had come to be regarded as the central drama was no longer moving forward. Peeta and Prim — with Katniss as the third point of the triangle — had taken over the Games: that was what people wanted to watch. Seeing Peeta maneuver to hold a stable position among the Careers, and Prim being invisibly aided by Rue, had held the attention and kept up the audience, especially while Katniss kept making her own contributions from outside the arena and Haymitch massaged the narrative within the Capitol. Ultimately, though, a story about two people couldn't hold its force while they stubbornly remained apart. If they couldn't be forcibly steered toward one another (clumsy, but sometimes intervention was needed, and what could be recognized as probable intervention served to reinforce the message of Capitol control), it was at least time to disrupt the dynamic that was keeping them separated.

It accomplished that, and other things as well. Quite a bit more, in fact, than intended.

Seeing the reflection of the flames in the sky, the Careers realized this sudden new activity was probably aimed at someone, and staged themselves to pick off whoever might be fleeing. It was a ticklish balancing act, getting close enough to be effectively positioned without entering a zone wherein they might themselves become targets, but they deemed the potential reward to be worth the risk. The results were … mixed.

Even with the Gamemakers' intent to drive rather than kill, it was miraculous that Prim Everdeen wasn't roasted alive. Her reactions were slow, her instincts hesitant, her flight stumbling and uncoordinated. None of those were so of Rue. She went quick and sure, decisive and nimble, and so she was the first out of the danger area, and thus the one found by the killer pack awaiting a vulnerable fugitive.

She almost made it through. Glimmer loosed an arrow at her, but Glimmer was far from skilled with a bow, and the arrow missed Rue and pierced the thigh of the boy Gauge, who had been trying to head off the running girl. In the same instant Peeta struck without warning, his staff breaking Glimmer's neck. Clove was too close, however; two of her knives brought Rue down, and another caught Peeta in the back as he bolted from the scene of his betrayal.

So, Snow observed. The boy was able to kill, after all.

Peeta was badly hurt, one lung punctured, and had to go to ground within half a mile. If the others had pursued him in force, he wouldn't have been able to evade or effectively hide from them. As it was, they had more than enough to occupy their attention. Rue was gone, but it had been an expensive night for the Careers. Gauge bled out in minutes from a severed femoral artery, and Glimmer had been dead before her face hit the ground, so — counting Peeta's departure — they had lost three of their number in a single engagement. Worse: with Gauge dead, none of the others knew how to deactivate the mines at the Cornucopia. The food and other supplies that they had left "protected" in an explosive ring were now untouchable by any of them.

Just as well that Gauge hadn't survived; if he had somehow emerged the winner in these Games, he would have found victory to bear a bitter price. Haymitch Abernathy had learned something similar a score of years ago: his little trick of taking advantage of the force field's bounce-back effect had looked a bit too much like "outsmarting the Capitol", and this was an impression that could not be allowed under any circumstances. District Three might still feel some repercussions from the boy's actions, but that could be decided at leisure now that both of its Tributes had been swept from the field.

Prim? She passed through the area unscathed, unnoticed, and entirely unaware of the events that had neutralized (lethally in one case, and probably soon in the second) her only allies.

Likewise unknowing of the changed circumstances, Finch made another sneak-raid on the Cornucopia supplies the following day. Marvel, who had climbed a tree nearby in hope of being able to discern, from a height, some traces that might hint at the pattern of mine placement, saw her and moved to intercept her as she returned to the screening forest. He was drawing back his spear (fool, couldn't he see the importance of capturing someone who knew a way through that deadly net?) when Thresh rose up behind him, wrenched the weapon away, and drove it through Marvel's body. Finch whirled, alerted by the sound, to see both the now-erased threat and her unexpected savior. Thresh had lost weight in the long days of hiding and stalking, but he was still a mountain of brute muscle and iron determination. "They'll all be watching now," he told Finch as she stood poised to flee. "I need food. You need protection." And, after a few seconds in which that agile intelligence must have assessed and weighed dozens of factors, the girl uttered the first word she had spoken since entering the arena: "Deal."

Later that same day, in a turn that could not have been better timed if it had been deliberately manipulated by the Gamemakers, Prim, seeking water to replace the source she had lost when forced away from the marsh, stumbled across Peeta, who had hidden himself in the shadow of a riverbank, camouflaged with mud and leaves and a level of talent he had not previously demonstrated.

So, the two at the center of the drama had at last been reunited … and it was perfect. He was far too badly wounded to help her in any way, while she was weak, unskilled, and incompetent. The scenario that Peeta had constructed could now play out to a pathetic, meaningless conclusion, and there were an uncounted number of ways this could be used to underscore the never-ending theme of helplessness against the Capitol.

Ultimately, the Games had never been about anything else.

~ – ~ – ~

In the Capitol, like in the arena, any action carried potential risk, and so did any failure to act or conscious choice to refrain from acting. Every Games cycle brought its own set of perils and opportunities; assessing the responses, by the populations of the various districts, to the events within the arena, allowed the rulers to judge the temper and moods of their subjects, and occasionally to shape the progress of the Games to support an overarching agenda. This time, the various elements had worked themselves out almost without any external influence. The joining of Finch and Thresh was an unexpected delight; with his strength and ruthlessness, and her imagination, cunning, and resourcefulness, they could be a formidable duo. As Careers from the same district, however, Cato and Clove had doubtless been trained in how to function as a team (the Career-producing districts generally did that, particularly District Two), and so their tactical coordination would be better developed. The inevitable showdown between the two pairs promised delicious entertainment.

The two from District Twelve, of course, were no longer a factor. The only question now remaining was if they would survive long enough to be killed by any of the others.

Finch shared her pilfered rations with Thresh, and they continued to watch the two Careers from concealment, whenever they could do so without unnecessary risk. They didn't speak, though. Thresh seemed disinclined, and Finch probably saw no advantage to conversation.

By contrast, Clove and Cato talked quite a bit. Complaint, recrimination, frustration at their sudden new hunger, but also grim determination to see this through to a suitable end. Unvoiced was the stark fact that, upon prevailing over the others, they would necessarily be pitted against one another. This was simply part of the Games, and any Career suddenly faced with the naked reality knew better, at the very least, than to let it prompt a show of weakness.

Peeta and Prim … starved.

His wound had become infected, and he could barely move. The only weapon they had was Clove's knife, which Peeta had agonizingly managed to pull from his back before Prim found him, and which he had insisted she take for protection. She was hopeless: couldn't track, couldn't fish, couldn't set snares for small game, had no idea of which plants were edible or how to prepare them. The tubers Rue had supplied had been of meager nutritional value, enough to keep them going but little more than that; with the Careers, Peeta had fared better; now, both of them had nothing. And she wouldn't leave him, despite his pleas, so they were bound together in doom. Back in the Capitol, Haymitch was being shut out in all his frenzied attempts to procure gifts of food, medicine, tools, anything: his charges were a lost cause now, and everyone could see it.

Peeta no longer made any effort to play to the unseen cameras, his will seeming to have dwindled with his strength. He faded in and out of consciousness; even when he was awake, he was often delirious. In his lucid moments, he would look to Prim, helpless and grieving, and murmur over and over, "I promised I'd get you back. I promised. Oh, God, what am I going to do?"

Perfect. In every possible way, perfect.

~ – ~ – ~

On the sixth day after their impromptu team-up, Finch made another foray to the Cornucopia supplies, while Thresh watched from a position to cover her, as promised. They had done this together once already, and like before they had chosen a time when Cato and Clove were away. In either happenstance or suspicion, however, Clove had circled back on her own; seeing the fox-faced girl making a selection from the stacked food boxes, Clove didn't attempt to approach her (and, like Marvel had been, was too short-sighted to recognize the benefits of capture), but instead lofted stones into the enclosure until one of them set off the mines.

The resulting explosion obliterated Finch, along with the remaining food and supplies. Clove, who had underestimated or not even considered the possible violence of the blast, was smashed to the ground, bleeding and senseless. That alone might have been enough to kill her, but Thresh settled the matter by caving in her skull with the butt of Marvel's spear.

That left four. Almost over.

Alone in their bleak, barren hideaway, Peeta and Prim heard the gigantic detonation, and then minutes later the two cannon shots announcing that two more Tributes were gone. They huddled together wordlessly. That night, they saw the faces projected into the sky: Clove and Finch dead, that meant that the two remaining were the deadliest and most physically powerful of the original field of contestants.

In the morning, Peeta was all but comatose. Prim brought him water, trickling it past his lips, and he swallowed automatically but didn't wake. Wounded, wasting, without medicine or sustenance or hope, he was near the end, and it had to be as clear to the two of them as it was to the outside audience.

When the sun was almost directly overhead, he roused enough to call to Prim through cracked lips. His voice was so weak that she had to lay her ear next to his mouth to make out the words … but then she pulled back, shocked and pale. "No," she protested. "I can't. I can't do that!"

Urging her again to leave him, no doubt; this was becoming tedious. He raised his voice, in what had to be an expenditure of most of his remaining strength, but it was still barely audible. "You have to," he wheezed. "I promised. You have to live. This is the only …" He faded out, and for some minutes it was questionable if he would ever speak again. Then, the words slurred and faint: "Make it count. Make it count."

A little over an hour later, he died. He had been so still, for so long, that Prim didn't even know until she heard the cannon shot that meant another death, and found no heartbeat when she checked. She sat beside him, rocking and sobbing almost soundlessly … but then a shadow fell over them, and she looked up to see the hovercraft dispatched to retrieve the body, and with a cry she threw herself over him, as if desperate to shield him from this last indignity.

Futile, of course, these procedures had been refined for decades. Despite her frantic efforts, the cables were guided in, connected and secured, and she fell back as Peeta's body was raised into the air. Prim remained where she lay, momentarily exhausted. So near the edge herself, it couldn't be long now. Another day or two, not much more, even if nothing else killed her first …

Moving like one crippled, she drew herself up to sit, and stayed that way for a long time. Then another cannon boomed — one more Tribute gone, meaning the one remaining would be hunting her as the final means to victory — and at last she stirred into dreary purpose.

(That last boom had been Cato. Thresh had finally chosen his moment and attacked directly, and the two of them had fought a titanic battle, District Two training and skill and carefully sculpted muscle against pure, focused, iron-hard will to prevail. The two men had been very nearly equal … but, in the last analysis, Cato had been trying to win while Thresh cared only about killing his enemy, and even the awful wounds he sustained weren't enough to keep him from choking the life from Cato. Fine, rousing, cathartic, useful spectacle.)

Prim didn't know this, only her own loss. She stared straight ahead, tear-streaks dried on her cheeks, and spoke in a thin, empty voice. "I don't want to do this," she said. "I don't. But I don't want to die." Her gaze came into focus, as if she could actually see the invisible nanocams, and her next words were likewise more forceful. "You did this. You put us here. You set the rules. This is what you want."

So close, so close! Despite his victory, Thresh had been mortally stricken; in just a few more minutes, Prim would have been the "winner" by default, a victor who had simply done nothing while all the rest killed each other. The Capitol wouldn't get the benefit of those minutes, though … and the thrice-damned Seneca Crane (may he sizzle forever in whatever section of Hell was set aside for the catastrophically incompetent!) inexplicably chose to send the next segment out live, instead of censoring it instantly as any sane person would have done.

Because this was why nobody had seen the fire coming. They had been on the alert for the vaguest suggestion of a spark, and this was a magnesium torch, a blast furnace, fully formed and raging in the first moment of its existence: when a half-mad little girl, eyes sunken in privation and grief and horror, raised to her lips the bloody chunks of meat she had used Clove's knife to hack from the legs of her dead protector, and spoke the words that would put a continent to flame:

"After all, these are the Hunger Games."

end