Actions

Work Header

Six

Chapter Text

It was early when Thea Farrow woke up. Too early when she considered how late she had been up last night. The morning’s first light only just now snuck its way through the window over her narrow bed, painting stripes of light on the dark wood floor and painted walls. The dust dancing in the air lit up brightly, like small lights on a string of wire.

Thea was surprised she had gotten any sleep at all. It hadn’t been her plan to be up so late, but sleep hadn’t come easy. The first half of the night, she had tossed and turned, her mind going to places it shouldn’t. The mere idea of the Reaping had her thoughts in a flurry, focusing on everything that could go wrong. Even now… Her mind buzzed with activity but there wasn’t one particular thought or feeling she could pinpoint. It just was. It wasn’t the anxiety she used to feel on Reaping Day even just a year or two ago. In fact, she almost felt nothing. She wasn’t numb per se, because she did feel. It was such a strange sensation, like a void in the middle of her chest. With each passing hour, it spread, consuming her.

Inhaling deeply, Thea shut her eyes. She pulled her blanket up to her nose and turned onto her side. Frankly, it was too warm to be under such a thick blanket, but she liked the weight of it. It was comforting, grounding.

She tried pushing the thought of the Reaping from her mind, but it hung over her like a shadow. It changed shape, shrinking, or growing in size, and sometimes it disappeared completely. But it always came back. The Capitol made sure of that.

Thea moved again, turning onto her back so she faced the ceiling. She pulled an arm out from under the blanket and rested it over her stomach. At seventeen, her name would be in the drawing six times today. Her odds were better than some could claim but that didn’t mean they were good either. Any odds were bad when it came to the Hunger Games.

With calloused fingers, she picked at the top sheet, which was thin and scratchy. She wondered what time it was, how many hours she had before she lined up with all the other eligible kids in the district to see which of them were headed to the Capitol for this year’s games.

Six times , she thought again. Her name would be in the drawing six times today. Briefly, Thea tried doing the mental math to figure out her real odds.

There were close to twelve thousand people in District Five, it was one of the larger districts. How many eligible kids was that? Her school was so large, Thea barely knew anyone aside from those in her class. That had to help her. If even just one thousand girls had their name in the drawing, her odds sounded pretty good. But what did that mean for the twelve and thirteen-year-olds who were reaped? It didn’t happen too often—at least not in District Five—but it still happened. Just two years ago, one of Five’s tributes was a twelve-year-old boy. His name was only in the drawing once. Four times if he had signed up for tesserae. The odds were supposed to be in his favor and yet...

(Maybe the odds don’t matter)

Thea wondered if this year’s tributes would be anyone she knew. Five was one of the luckier districts. They weren’t as well off as One or Two, but they did much better than the outer districts, like Eleven or Twelve. Here not nearly as many kids had to sign up for tesserae, which meant the Reaping was almost fair. It wasn’t always the poor kids whose names were called. Sometimes—almost just as often, really—it was a kid from the merchant class. Kids like Thea.

Not that any of the merchants were well off. No one in District Five was except the head peacekeeper and perhaps the mayor. As for everyone else… money got tight. At least once a year there were food shortages, usually on beef and pork. Five had a few small farms that grew produce and one that raised chickens, but it wasn’t enough to keep the entire district fed. It merely supplemented the supplies the Capitol allotted them. Sometimes, in producing power for the Capitol and the rest of the nation, their own power went on the fritz, leaving parts of the district without power for days on end. Most homes had solar panels, but even the power produced from those could be siphoned off by that Capitol.

But District Five made do. They always made do. And that ability to make do, to survive quietly was what kept them safe. Peacekeepers would always have a place in Five. They would never disappear or fail to do their jobs, but so long as the status quo was maintained, there was wiggle room. They could relax some, look the other way when the butcher three doors down got drunk on his own moonshine instead of whipping him in the town square for all to see because it was technically illegal to make and sell liquor without a license.  As long as the status quo remained, everyone was safe.

An hour later, when Thea finally sat up, the sun was a little higher in the sky. Now light touched even the darkest corners of her bedroom. She raised her arms and stretched out her back, rolling her head from side to side. Faint pops ran up and down her spine and she grimaced.

The mattress squeaked when Thea moved to kneel in front of the window. Her arms landed on the sill before she pushed the yellowed lace curtains out of the way so she could see out the dirty window. The corners of her mouth turned up slightly as she gazed outside.

Rarely did District Five look nice. It was all grey brick and black asphalt, with power lines stretched between buildings. Practically every building and house had solar panels attached. From the edge of the Market, where Thea’s family and other merchants lived, you could see smokestacks, which marked the outer edge of the Grid where all the factories and power plants lived.

The largest factory, which produced batteries and power packs, loomed over the main part of the district, dark and ugly. The sky above it was constantly a dark, hazy shade of blue from pollution caused by smoke from the factories. There were other factories too, which made everything from lightbulbs to power cords. When it came to technology, Five was just behind Three in terms of production. They just did it on a smaller scale.

Beyond the Grid were the poorer neighborhoods and a few additional shops. Those neighborhoods stretched all the way to the opposite end of the district from the Market. It was there the district truly took a turn for the worse. If the Market was dull and dirty, that neighborhood was falling apart. The houses were small, covered with cracked solar panels and attached to more power lines than should have been allowed.

The prettiest Five ever got was near the wind turbines at the edge of the district. Thea guessed the area surrounding the lake and hydropower plant would be nice but it was concealed by forest and only authorized personnel were allowed there so she had never seen it. But she had seen the fields around the wind turbines. They were large and full of luscious grass. Sometimes wildflowers grew there. There were tall trees at the edges of the fields, where the forest began. It was a pretty sight until birds flying by got caught in the spinning blades of the turbines, filling that lush green field with bird carcasses. It was especially bad during the migration season.

Right now the field would be clean and free of any dead birds, but only because of the Reaping. The Reaping meant cameras and cameras meant things got cleaned up. Buildings were hosed down until the dark grey concrete blocks were a lighter grey. Signs were repainted and touched up. Cracked windows replaced. Everything to make a dull ugly district look nicer than it actually was.

Ironically, the worst time of year for all districts was the best time for Thea’s family business-wise. The hardware store they ran got an influx of orders for paint and other supplies in the weeks before the Reaping. They did repairs too. Last week, Thea helped her mother replace the butcher’s front window and did repairs on the mayor’s porch. Anything cameras might film had to be in perfect condition, even if the government didn’t care enough to maintain it for the rest of the year.

But right now, as the sun crept over the horizon, District Five looked nice. The early morning light painted the concrete shades of purple and orange, a nice contrast to the clear blue sky. It was oddly quiet too. With the window closed, Thea couldn’t hear the distant hum of the dam and hydropower plant, which never stopped running, day or night. Her family’s apartment, which usually creaked and groaned each time there was a strong wind, was silent.

Thea would be surprised if anyone was out right now. Reaping Day was officially a holiday, so most slept in. Those who weren’t or couldn’t sleep kept to their homes, maybe nursing a coffee if they could afford it. Thea’s family could, but sugar was a rare luxury so her mother Lydia drank it black and Thea and her father Caleb avoided it altogether. Personally, Thea didn’t understand how her mother tolerated it. It was so bitter without sugar or milk.

The pipes in the walls rattled, signaling one of her parents was awake. Her mother, most likely. Caleb wouldn’t get up until the last possible moment. Not on Reaping Day.

Thea didn’t know how long she stayed there, leaned up against the wall, and looking out the window as colors painted the district. It was only when the sun was high in the sky and the streets had returned to their dull grey glory that she moved at all.

The mattress squeaked again when she got out of bed. The floor was cool beneath her bare feet. In the mirror on the wall, she caught a glimpse of herself. The oversized t-shirt she slept in was wrinkled and the bun she had put her hair up in before bed last night had fallen out almost completely, having moved from the top of her head to the nape of her neck as she slept. Small tendrils of hair fell into her face so she brushed them aside, taking a deep breath. She was up, she might as well get ready.

As quietly as she could (the smallest of movements could be heard through the thin walls), Thea busied herself with getting dressed. Sometime during the night, after she had gone to bed, Lydia had placed a set of clothes on the dresser. The Reaping was a formal event and always aired live, staggered throughout the day so a single person could watch them all. Thea imagined the only people that wanted to do that were the rich citizens of the Capitol, so, of course, she had to look nice. They could have only the prettiest pigs for the slaughter.

As Thea dressed, her fingers began to shake, making her struggle with the buttons on her blouse. She bit down on her bottom lip, brow furrowing, and, with a considerable amount of effort, she forced each button through its designated hole.

(Six times)

The shirt had belonged to her mother when she was around Thea’s age. It was white and made of cotton. The fabric had thinned around the elbows and buttons had been lost and replaced over the years, but it was otherwise in good shape. The only thing wrong with it was the sleeves, which was more Thea’s fault than the shirt’s. The sleeves were too long, coming down past her hands, so Thea had to roll them up to use her hands. But the chunky folded cuffs looked awkward so she ended up rolling them to her elbows. It took her a couple tries to get the cuffs to fold neatly and evenly enough with her trembling hands but, once she had, she looked much better.

The skirt was new, made from scrap fabric by her mother a year ago. It was blue linen with a subtle pattern. Various shades of blue and white thread were stitched on it in whirling shapes, giving it texture. Because it was made from scraps, Lydia didn’t have a single large piece of fabric to use, so she cut the fabric into panels and strategically sewed them together, making the skirt appear fuller than it really was. She might have been a handywoman, but she could have made a good seamstress in another life.

Thea couldn’t stop yawning. Sleepiness clung to her, following her everywhere she went. She had been up late and was up early. It was ridiculous. She had been exhausted last night and was exhausted now. She could have at least slept in but her body didn’t let her. It never did. Early mornings were a constant in Thea's life. The District rose early and stayed up late. It didn't matter if you were a student or a worker at one of the factories or power plants. Late to bed and early to rise was the creed of District Five.

She pulled her skirt to her waist and, giving the stiff zipper a good yank, zipped it up. She tucked her shirt in next, smoothing it out as she went. There was a part of her—a naive and childish part of her—that hoped if she took long enough to get ready, the Reaping would happen without her. The video from the Capitol would play, Clement Huff, their district’s escort, would make his ridiculous speech, then two tributes would be chosen and it would be over. She would be safe for another year. She would live for another year.

But that couldn’t happen. When it came to the Reaping, there was no choice. The entire district was required to attend, at the punishment of life in prison. The only exception was for the dead or dying and Thea was neither of those.

Her hands shook again so she clasped them tightly in front of her. Six times. Her name was in the drawing six times out of thousands of other names. Someone would have worse odds. There was always someone with worse odds, wasn’t there?

Thea gazed into the mirror hanging on the wall. It was just long enough to capture the top of her head to the middle of her shins. Wringing her hands, she tilted her head from side to side, not sure what she thought about being all dolled up like this. She still recognized herself, of course. She wasn’t that far gone, but…

Taking a breath, she inspected her tan face and the faint sunburn over her nose. Her dark eyes moved to her equally dark hair, studying how it fell over her shoulders in faint waves. It was her face, her body, but it didn’t feel right. It didn’t look right. None of it did. Not the skirt or her mother’s blouse. Not her hair. She didn’t look right dressed like this. It wasn’t her.

Most in District Five didn’t bother with nice clothes. Nice clothes were for funerals, weddings, and Reaping Day. Factory and powerplant workers wore the same dark blue jumpsuits and so did the engineers and maintenance workers at the dam and wind turbines. The merchant class had a bit more freedom to wear nice things, but Thea’s family never bothered. When you were patching up a wall or replacing a showerhead, frilly dresses only got in the way. Most days, Thea wore jeans or overalls, her hair in a tight bun on top of her head. Anything else was foreign to her.

And this was foreign. The girl in the mirror looking back at her was foreign. It was so strange. Her face and hair scrubbed clean, her clothes neatly pressed instead of wrinkled. Any other day, she might have felt good about herself. For once, she looked different than her peers, all of whom typically wore clothes just like hers. She got to be an individual for once, not someone being trained for a set role. But then she remembered the Reaping and anything good she felt disappeared.

There was a quiet knock on the door and Thea spun around. Her mother poked her head in. Thea smiled.

“Oh you’re already up,” Lydia said with a slight tone of surprise. The door opened wider and she stepped inside, coming just past the threshold. She wore pajamas with a pale grey robe thrown over them. Looking Thea up and down. she smiled. “I knew that shirt would fit you.”

Thea glanced down at herself, shrugging. “The sleeves are too long.”

“They were long on me too,” Lydia told her. She paused before adding, “You look beautiful.”

Thea dipped her chin. With her left hand, she held onto her right elbow, letting that arm hang stiffly in front of her. “Maybe I’ll get one last growth spurt and it’ll fit right for next year’s Reaping.”

(Six)

Lydia nodded, her smile fading at the mention of the Reaping. “Maybe.” She leaned against the doorway, one hand clutching her forearm, similar to how Thea currently stood. She had dark circles under her eyes, which stood out starkly against her tan face. Thea wondered how long she had been awake.

“Dad up?” Thea bent down in front of her small closet to find her flats. They were a basic black and frankly a bit too big, but there was no point in replacing them if she only wore them once a year.

Humming, Lydia nodded. “Yep. He’s, uh, been up for a while.”

Thea found her shoes and braced herself against the wall to put them on. “Really? Didn’t think he’d be up so early.”

“Neither did I.”

“Where is he now?” Usually, the morning of the Reaping was the time she spent with Lydia. Caleb spent every moment he could locked away in his and Lydia’s bedroom, only emerging when Lydia finally went to retrieve him. He would nod at Thea, not uttering a word, and their little family would leave for the Reaping together, walking side-by-side. Lydia was always in the middle, with Thea on one side and Caleb at the other but a few feet away. It was their own awkward tradition.

When Lydia didn’t immediately respond, Thea looked up. “Well? Is he going to tell me good morning for a change?” Her otherwise casual question had a weight tacked on to the end that was impossible to ignore.

“He… couldn’t sleep,” Lydia slowly spoke as if she was considering each word as it came to her mind, “So he’s taking a walk.”

Thea only just kept herself from snorting. She hadn’t fallen asleep until well past midnight and was up with the sun. “When is he coming back?”

Lydia shifted, glancing at the floor. “Not until later. After the Reaping.”

Thea stared, taking in her mother’s words. “Seriously? But we—we always—” she cut off, unable to ignore the stinging wound left by her mother’s words. “He can’t even pretend to care enough to walk me to the square? If he keeps this up, I might start to think he doesn’t like me.”

“Don’t say that!” Lydia’s voice grew angry, a stark difference from its usual soft and gentle tone. “He loves you.”

Thea threw her hands up in the air, letting out a frustrated noise. “He hasn’t spoken to me in days! He won’t look me in the eye—

“He’s going through something,” Lydia said. “You know how he is. Today’s a hard day for him.”

Thea’s eyes angrily flashed. “It’s a hard day for me! All right? It’s my life that’s on the line, not his!”

“I know that—”

“Then why do you keep defending him?” Thea demanded. She huffed, making a frustrated noise. “Every damn year it’s the same story. He avoids me, only talks to me when he has no other choice! Even when the Games aren’t going on, he barely pays me any mind!”

“That is not true. He loves you!”

Thea scoffed and retorted, “If he loves me, then he should stop making his grief my problem!”

Lydia held her hands out in front of her. She briefly closed her eyes, like she was trying to calm herself. “It’s not that simple. Alec was his brother .”

“And I’m his daughter.

Lydia’s hands balled up, forming tight fists, and she looked away. She took a deep breath before speaking in a slow voice. “This is a conversation for another day.”

Thea didn’t respond, instead she moved to sit on the foot of her bed. Tilting her chin up slightly, she stared out the window, her eyes glassy with tears. Usually, she made a point to not cry over her father. If he didn't want her, that was on him. But they had a tradition... They always walked to the Reaping as a family and he was now forgoing that because it was too hard? And to think that Lydia was defending him, talking about Thea's dead uncle like she didn't know what happened.

Lydia moved again, this time crossing her arms over her chest. “There’s… I just made coffee. We have sugar too. Mr. Connors gave me some after I fixed his sink yesterday.”

Thea stiffly nodded. She couldn't.“Okay.”

Her mother shifted against, playing with some hair that had fallen from the loose braid over her shoulder. Facing Thea, whose back was still to her, her mouth opened and closed. “We—we have some eggs if you’re hungry. I was thinking about making omelets.”

Thea’s eyes stung as tears threatened to spill. She didn’t care what Lydia said, she was his daughter. His living daughter. She mattered more than his dead brother.

“Thea?”

She squeezed her eyes shut, praying with all her might she wouldn’t cry. “I’m not hungry, Mom.”

Looking rather helpless, Lydia nodded. “All right. We’ll have them after the Reaping then. Does that sound good?”

Thea shrugged, letting out a shaky breath. A tear slipped past her eyelid and down her cheek. “Sure. Whatever.” She waited for her mother to leave, but Lydia didn’t. Not right away. Instead, she walked across the room and pressed a kiss to the crown of Thea’s head.

“I love you,” she whispered.

Thea nodded, still not facing her. “Love you too, Mama.”


After silently stewing in her room for the better part of an hour, Thea left without so much as a word to her mother. Doing so pained her but she couldn’t speak to Lydia right now. This was supposed to be their time together but anything she could say would start a fight and you didn’t fight on Reaping Day, not with family. Not when your name was in the drawing.

(Six times)

So, in an effort to keep the fragile peace, Thea declined the cup of coffee Lydia offered to make her even though she really wanted it, and she refused to join her in the kitchen for their usual chat. Despite the Reaping, it was something they both looked forward to. It was their time together, alone, without work hanging over their heads or Caleb to bring down the mood. And in the afternoons, after the Reaping, they got to relax. They would set up shop in their tiny living room and eat a cake or pie from the bakery, which was a rare treat reserved for birthdays and special occasions.

As much as their argument today had ruined their plans for a relaxing afternoon, Thea was beginning to think it might have been necessary. Had she ever voiced her feelings when it came to Caleb? How, despite him almost never speaking with her on a personal level, he made her feel so small, or how angry she was with Lydia for allowing him to behave this way?

No, she hadn’t. Perhaps a part of her knew how upset it would make Lydia. And it would. Lydia would be absolutely gutted if she learned that Thea felt small next to her father. Insignificant even. Thea never could stand to see her mother upset but she was also so angry. Angry at Caleb, at Lydia, at everything.

But the moment Thea stepped outside, that anger dissolved and was replaced with the heavy feeling of dread. Her thoughts shifted from her family to the Reaping, which was at ten o’clock sharp, but line up began well before that. Getting a few thousand teenagers in the town square was no easy task. An entire side street was dedicated to it. They would line up there and inch along until it was their turn. It was a long, painstaking process that Thea almost hated more than the Reaping itself. The wait, the suspense of not knowing… It was the worst.

It was strange to walk all by herself. She couldn’t remember ever attending the Reaping without her parents, even when she became eligible they were there.

Thea walked as slowly as she could excuse but soon enough, she arrived at check-in. The line was down the block, full of teenagers anxiously waiting their turn. Security was strict, but that was to be expected. There were always more peacekeepers on Reaping Day. They were stationed around the square and Thea had passed many on patrol on her way here. They had to catch all the stragglers.

All things considered, the line moved at a decent enough pace. Every few minutes, a peacekeeper would call for the next person and Thea would slowly shuffle forward, behind the rest of the group. The only noises were those made by scuffling feet as people’s shoes scraped the pavement and the loud bark of the peacekeeper at the head of the line.

“Next person… Next… Next…”

Even friends weren’t speaking. The girls in front of Thea kept their heads down, moving slowly and silently, their faces drawn. They were as nervous as Thea was, lost in their own heads.

Thea’s heart thumped uncomfortably in her chest, seeming to rise up her windpipe and settle in the back of her throat. She fiddled with the hem of her skirt while she waited. Her palms were damp. Six times… Just six, she reminded herself. Someone had to have worse odds. There was always someone with worse odds.

Thea could have sworn she had just woken up to the early morning light creeping across her bedroom floor. Now she was dressed, ready, and waiting for the Reaping while her stomach did backflips. Her hands started to shake so she let go of her skirt and clasped her hands in front of herself, gripping them tightly. clasped her trembling hands in front of her. Her eyes darted around, looking for something else—anything else—to focus on.

(Six)

The three girls in front of her had to be right around Thea’s age, maybe a year older. She wasn’t sure if they were friends but they might have been with how they stood. They didn’t speak to each other but were almost huddled in a circle, standing so no one’s back was to another.

(Only six)

It made Thea wish she had a friend to stand by. She had acquaintances, people she spoke with at school, but not much in the way of friends. She worked too much for that. After school each day, she went straight home to help with the store. Sometimes she manned it all by herself while her parents did odd jobs around the district.

Behind her, Thea heard a loud gasp, like someone was holding back a sob. She turned around to find a fifteen-year-old boy bent over beside a young girl, his sister.

“It’s okay. It’s okay,” he said, desperation creeping into his voice. He kept glancing over his shoulder, searching for peacekeepers. “Please stop crying. Stop.”

The girl tried. She really did. Thea watched as she skewed her face up, trying to hold back her cries. But every time she did, a soft sob erupted from her chest moments later. It was her first Reaping, which was always the worst. Thea remembered hers vividly. She hadn’t just been nervous or scared, she was terrified.

Thea felt for the girl, she really did, but a hint of envy bubbled up too. Your first Reaping would always be the worst but, in some ways, it was the easiest. In the following years, at no point would you have better odds, regardless of whether or not you had signed up for tessera.

As the girl cried again, Thea thought about stepping in to try and comfort her. Her brother’s words only fell flat, doing nothing to help her. And Thea couldn’t blame her. The girl was scared, really scared, but Thea was more concerned about peacekeepers. By the look of it, the girl’s brother was too. He kept looking over his shoulder, begging her to stop crying

But before Thea could decide what to do, she was called forward. It was her turn now.

A table was set up at the entrance of the town square. It was small as there were only three peacekeepers handling sign-in. Two of them were occupied when Thea walked up, so she ended up face-to-face when the third, who was a middle-aged man. Unlike his colleagues, he didn’t wear his helmet. Without it, Thea could see how his mouth seemed to form a permanent frown and how his narrowed eyes did nothing but glare. He didn’t spare her so much as a glance and instead focused on his tablet.

“Name?”

“Farrow, Thea.”

He punched it in and then grabbed a small device. Without warning, he grabbed Thea’s hand and pressed the tip of her finger to the pointed end. With a loud click, a needle came out and pricked her finger, making Thea jump. She flinched, her eyes squeezing shut. The moment he released her, she snatched her hand back. She shook her head at herself. Every year… She was seventeen years old and the finger prick still scared her. It was pathetic. She knew it was coming, but that didn’t matter. She didn’t know if it was the sound or the pain that scared her so much, but it did.

Waiting for the peacekeeper’s permission to leave, Thea rubbed her stinging finger. The Capitol took fraud very seriously. The DNA test made it impossible for anyone to take another’s place. Not that Thea ever imagined that to be a problem. She sure as hell wouldn’t take someone’s place and she didn’t think she could bear to let someone take hers. If her name was drawn, they would be the one to die. She couldn’t live with that guilt.

The device beeped, and her name popped up on the small screen, confirming she was who she claimed to be. The peacekeeper pressed a button on his tablet and waved her on through to the square. She looked back for a brief second, just in time to see another peacekeeper grab the crying girl by the arm and yank her forward. Thea turned away, her hands balled up into fists. She continued into the square, walking where the peacekeeper had pointed.

The square was divided by a large aisle that ran down the center. On either side of the aisle, within the boys’ and girls’ respective areas, there were small sections marked out by ropes. Everyone was sorted by age with the eighteen-year-olds positioned up front, closest to the small temporary stage set up in front of the Justice Center, and the twelve-year-olds in the back.

Among the seventeen-year-olds, Thea found herself a space close to the aisle, letting her see the stage without solely depending on the large screen hanging above it. From there, she could see two podiums set up on either side of the microphone, which sat center stage. On each podium was a large glass ball with a small opening at the top. The glass was clear, allowing Thea to see the hundreds of slips of paper inside. In the ball on the right, there were six pieces of paper with her name written on them.

“Six,” Thea whispered, taking a deep inhale. She clasped her hands together and repeated, “Just six.”

As the square filled up, Thea busied herself by taking in her surroundings. Attached to the stage was a large white banner that read 68th Annual Hunger Games . Onstage, to the left of the microphone, and behind the other podium, there were three chairs. None were occupied just yet, but Thea knew who they were for. One was for the mayor and the other two were for District Five’s victors: Porter Millicent Tripp and Delmar Keaton.

Thea didn’t know much about the two. Of course, they had their honorable mentions in the school curriculum, but the mentions were brief at best and limited to their time in the Hunger Games. Porter was the oldest of the two, in her fifties, and the victor of the 38th Hunger Games. Apparently, between starvation and a neck injury, she was almost the first victor to die while still in the arena. Delmar was in his mid-forties. Thea couldn’t remember how or when Delmar won his games, but it was bloody. Nowadays, they didn’t do much. They could be seen out in the Market sometimes to get groceries but that was all. One of them—Thea wasn’t sure which—had a pack of dogs that wandered around the Victors’ Village, barking at anyone who came by.

Almost an hour passed before the Reaping ceremony began. The television screen turned on first, showing off the crowd before switching focus to the stage. The mayor, a short wisp of a woman named Luna Wolfe, was the first to take the stage. She waved, smiling meekly, but it was all for the camera, which zoomed in on her wrinkled face. Not a single person in the crowd cheered or waved back.

Porter and Delmar joined Ms. Wolfe moments later. Delmar was quite unkempt. While his clothes were clean, they were wrinkled and the tail of his shirt poked out from underneath his tan suit jacket. Porter walked just behind him, a faint but tense smile adorning her features. She looked far more put together than her fellow victor. Her white slacks and navy blouse were neatly pressed and her dark hair was pulled back into a perfect high ponytail. She stood beside the mayor while Delmar plopped down in his seat, slouching and spreading his legs wide.

Clement Huff pranced on stage next. Smiling with teeth that were too white, he waved to the crowd, happier to see them than anyone was to see him.

“Hello, hello!” he practically gushed. His hair was dyed emerald green and styled into a pompadour. His lime green suit had metallic gold accents that sparkled in the sun. A garish gold lipstick lined his lips, making every one of his smiles look more disturbing than the last. “Happy Hunger Games, and may the odds be ever in your favor.”

His voice grated against Thea’s ears. She gripped the fabric of her skirt, balling both her hands into fists. It was abnormally high-pitched, almost squeaky, and she wondered if it was his actual voice or not.

“Today marks the start of festivities for the 68th Hunger Games,” Clement said. “Now, to get us started, we have a video all the way from the Capitol.” By the way he acted, you would have thought it was a surprise, but it wasn’t. For as long as Thea could remember, they had watched this video at every Reaping. It was to remind the districts of the Rebellion and the dark days that followed, to remind them of the Capitol’s kindness.

Thea stared at the ground as President Snow’s voice filled the square. She didn’t need to watch it to know what was going on. Ruined cities, dead innocents… It was awful. No punches were pulled. They showed the worst of the war until they got to the Capitol, where everything was good and perfect. They regained control and recreated the entire nation. The old system wasn’t good enough, so they made a better one.

It wasn’t until the video was over that Thea looked up. Peering past the girl in front of her, she saw Clement shudder and step in front of the microphone once more.

“I get goosebumps every time. Now.” Clement held out both hands, one pointing at each bowl. “Shall we start with the boys or the girls?” He waited for a beat before deciding it himself. “The boys, it is.”

Cameras followed his walk across the stage to the bowl on his right. It zoomed in, showing his manicured fingers reach inside and take a slip of paper. He returned to the microphone and cleared his throat, opening the paper. To Thea’s left, dozens of boys tensed, jaws clenching and their hands balling up into fists.

As Clement read off the name, speaking as clearly as he could, his voice came close to a normal pitch, making Thea think the squeakiness was something he forced.

“Owen Wood,” he announced.

Thea turned her head and gazed across the aisle where several boys relaxed, inhaling deeply as relief washed over them. They all were. All but one. Thea craned her neck, searching the crowd for Owen Wood. Once she saw him, she would know. Every tribute ended up with the same shell-shocked expression. Some cried while others froze, locking up completely. What would Owen do?

Cameras found Owen before Thea did, so she tilted her head up to watch the television screen. He came from the thirteen-year-old section with shock written all over his face. His eyes were wide and his complexion pale. Some other boys pushed and shoved him until he got to the aisle. The camera operator took this as an opportunity to zoom in and get a shot of Owen as his eyes quickly filled with tears. He was frozen. His chest heaved and looked around, only moving when two peacekeepers headed his way.

Thea only shook her head, a hand covering her mouth. He was so young…

A girl in front of her leaned over to her friend, whispering, “He’s a goner.”

Thea hated to make such a judgment after only a brief glance, but she had to agree. As Owen walked past, flanked by peacekeepers, she got a better look at him than the TV revealed. He was small, even for a thirteen-year-old. He was thin and lanky, probably due for a growth spurt.

“There he is,” Clement said, smiling widely as Owen walked up the stairs to the stage. “Come along, dear.” He took the boy by the hand and pulled him to the microphone where he placed Owen to his right. Clement addressed the crowd once more, “There we go. Owen Wood. Do we have any volunteers for Owen?”

Thea turned her head, casting a glance at the boys’ section. Some guys moved, shuffling around, but most stood still, their gaze fixed on the ground like they were scared to face him. None of them would volunteer.

“Let’s give Owen a hand then,” Clement said, leading the weak applause. Thea didn’t join in and neither did the girls around her.

“Now it’s time for the girls.”

Thea tensed, suddenly unable to breathe. With sweaty palms, she gripped the sides of her skirt. Her eyes never left Clement as he walked over to the other bowl and chose a piece of paper. Thea’s mind raced.

Her name was only in there six times—just six. Out of thousands of names, someone’s odds were worse. Someone—

Clement returned to the microphone and coughed to clear his throat. Slowly—too slowly—he unfolded the paper, holding it up directly in front of his nose to read out the name.

But when he did, Thea couldn’t understand it. Blinking, she tilted her head to the side. All she heard from Clement was a garbled, mispronounced name. She wasn’t sure whose name it was but it couldn’t have been hers. Her name was only in there six times.

(Six, just six)

Clement repeated himself and this time it came out clearer and Thea’s heart stopped.

“Thea Farrow. Thea Farrow, where are you?”

She froze, staring forward at the stage. Thea… Farrow . That—that was her name. That was her .

But… It couldn’t be.

Thes took quick, short breaths. It couldn’t be her. It couldn’t be her.

(Six times… Someone’s odds were worse. Somebody had worse odds )

“Thea, go! ” Someone gave her a push, propelling her toward the aisle.

“There she is!” Clement exclaimed, clapping his hands together.

On weak legs, Thea pushed forward, walking to the stage before she was dragged there by peacekeepers. Cameras zoomed in, projecting her image onto every screen in the district, the nation.

Thea’s chin wobbled and she immediately clenched her jaw. No crying , she told herself, shaking her head slightly. Crying did nothing but put a target on your back.

Peacekeepers followed Thea to the stage. Clement met her at the stairs and offered her a hand. Without a second thought, Thea took it, scared her body might fail her. Her knees wobbled, taking each step with great effort. She felt as though a strong gust of wind could bring her down.

It was only when they made it to the microphone that Clement released her. Smiling, he clasped his hands in front of his chest and said, “Here she is. Thea Farrow. Do we have any volunteers for Thea?”

Thea’s eyes frantically scanned the crowd, a surge of desperation welling up in her chest. She couldn’t go into the arena. She would die. She would die like her uncle, like her father always feared she would.

But… But who would volunteer for her? Thea had no one. Not an older sister or cousin that could take her place. She had no friends. All those years she spent working in the shop, readying herself for the rest of her life when the Reaping no longer hung over her head and Caleb was no longer terrified of losing her… Wasted. All of it was gone in a second and not a single person cared. Every girl she caught the gaze of looked away, pity painting their features. But pity wasn’t enough. Not here, not now. How could it be? Every girl in the crowd was safe for another year. The eighteen-year-olds down in front were safe for life. There was no one. Not a single person appeared to even consider stepping up for her.

Just like Owen, no one would volunteer for Thea and everyone knew it, including Clement, who continued only seconds after asking.

“Then may I introduce to you, District Five, your tributes for the 68th Annual Hunger Games, Thea Farrow, and Owen Wood!” Clement thrust a hand at Thea and then to Owen before he started clapping. No one in the crowd joined, but he kept smiling. “Now if our tributes will—”

“NO!”

People gasped, turning around to try and find the source of the shout. Who would dare interrupt the Reaping like that?

The broadcast cut out almost instantly, leaving every television screen in the square black. Thea tilted her head, stepping forward. That voice… She knew it.

The entire crowd, from the teenagers in the front to their parents in the back, grew restless. Clement clapped his hands together, trying to regain the crowd’s attention. “Let’s just quiet down—”

“NO, NO! THEA!”

Thea froze. The voice wasn’t just familiar, it was her father’s.

In the back corner, there was a struggle. The distance made it hard to see any features, but Thea saw it was Caleb who fought his way forward, attacking anyone who got in his way, which was everyone. Neighbors, friends, even complete strangers tried to stop him, but all that did was make him fight harder.

“THEA! THEA!”

“Dad.” Her voice was barely a whisper. Her hands shook. “ Dad !”

Why was he doing this? He was going to get himself killed.

“Dad!” Shouting, Thea ran down the stairs but a peacekeeper stopped her, grabbing her by the waist. He pulled her toward the Justice Center. She kicked out her legs, squirming in his arms. “No! Let me go! Let me go!

“DON’T TAKE HER!” Caleb continued shouting. “DON’T YOU TAKE HER!”

Thea clawed at the hands around her. “Wait! Just—Let me go! Th—that’s dad. That’s my dad!

From behind the stage, Thea couldn’t see the crowd or her father anymore, but she could hear his shouts.

“LEAVE HER ALONE! THEA! THEA!”

“Just let me talk to him!” Thea twisted and kicked her feet out, trying anything to get the peacekeeper to release her but his grip was ironclad. He forced her through the door and into the Justice Building.

END THE GAMES! KILL—”

Thea was thrown into a room off the main hall. As she hit the floor, landing on her hands and knees, the sound of gunshots pierced the room. Panicked, Thea sprang to her feet and ran to the door. The peacekeeper slammed it in her face. Then, it was silent.

Chapter Text

Thea’s entire body trembled, the sound of gunshots echoing in her ears. She held her hands out in front of her, right next to her mouth, hyperventilating.

No… No. That didn’t—Her father wouldn’t… He didn’t care. He ignored her, never paying her any attention. He didn’t—

Breathing faster, Thea tried the door but it was locked. She cursed and kicked it. “No! No, no, no! Let me out! Let me out!” Beginning to cry, she then paced the length of the room. She wrung her hands in front of her.

The room was narrow but long, full of plush furniture and completely lacking in windows. Paintings decorated the walls. A small chandelier hung from the ceiling. The room must be soundproofed too because she couldn’t hear anything from outside. No gunshots or screams because there had to be screams. People wouldn’t have just been silent after those first gunshots.

But Thea heard nothing and without windows, she had no idea what was happening outside.

As a sob erupted from her chest, Thea’s knees buckled and she collapsed onto the sofa, which was soft gold in color. She buried her face into her hands. Her hair cascaded around her like a curtain, blocking the rest of the room from view. Hot tears spilled down her cheeks and she let out a choked sob.

What just happened? Did the peacekeepers fire into the crowd… at Caleb? Were they just warning shots?

No… They weren’t warning shots. Thea knew that—a child would know that. Growing up, Thea had been fed stories about the Dark Days and the Capitol’s methods for keeping the districts in line after the rebellion. It had been especially bad during the early days of the Hunger Games. Public floggings and executions. Or, depending on the crime, the criminal would be whisked away during the night to prison or to the Capitol to live out their days as an avox—a slave. One day they would be home with their families and the next it would be as though they had never existed in the first place. Could that be Caleb’s fate? As relaxed as some of the peacekeepers were, there was no way they would go easy on him, not for this. They would make an example of him. He would be sent to prison or to the Capitol as an avox or... Or killed.

Thea cried harder, confusion, and fear swirling inside her. It was stifling.  She couldn’t think, she couldn’t breathe. Everything was so—she couldn’t wrap her head around it. She… She was a tribute now and her father—

Thea grabbed the throw pillow and hurled it across the room, screaming. Her eyes burned as hot tears flowed down her cheeks. Pulling her knees to her chest, Thea curled into a tight ball and cried into her lap. She cried and cried, shaking from head to toe. She stayed there for who knew how long before the door swung up and she lifted her head with a start.

Lydia had arrived.

Never had Thea been so happy, so relieved to see Lydia. She wasn’t sure she would after Caleb’s show. Tributes were supposed to be given time to say goodbye to their families but Thea had started to worry Lydia would be taken into custody as well.

She rushed over and threw her arms around Lydia. “Mama.” She almost collapsed into Lydia’s arms as a fresh wave of tears hit. “I—I… He… He—” Thea couldn’t get a word out. Her thoughts were too jumbled. Every time she tried speaking, barely a sound came out. Her earlier anger at Lydia was nowhere in sight. Even her relief was beginning to fade as her fear resurfaced.

(I’m dead)

Lydia rubbed circles on Thea’s back, shushing her. “I know. I know.” She inhaled deeply. Tears stained her cheeks. “Let… Let’s sit. Sit.”

Neither of them was willing to let go of the other, so they shuffled awkwardly to the sofa. Once they were seated, Lydia repositioned herself so she could better hold Thea, who cried into her shoulder. It was stiff and uncomfortable. Thea’s face was pressed against Lydia’s bony shoulder, who squeezed so tightly Thea thought her ribs might break. Before this, she might have made a snarky remark and pulled away, but all she could think about was that this was the last hug she would ever receive from her mother, so she drew her in closer, never letting go.

Thea wouldn’t make it very far in the Games, there was no way. She couldn’t fight or hunt. She had no survival skills. The closest she had ever come to setting foot in the woods was the field where the wind turbines were. She hated bugs and harbored an irrational fear of spiders. And there was no telling where the gamemakers would dump them this year. It could be a forest or desert. The arena could be somewhere tropical or urban. Once the Games had taken place in an abandoned amusement park. Another in an open beach, with nothing but sand, four-foot-wide crabs, and the ocean. Thea was completely clueless. If she avoided the bloodbath at the Cornucopia, she might last a day or two but she couldn’t survive much longer than that. Another tribute would get her or perhaps a muttation. Maybe she would starve to death or get bitten by a poisonous snake. Regardless, she would be coming home in a body bag.

Thea sat up, pulling away just enough that she could face Lydia. “Why did he do it? Why did Dad…” She stopped, gesturing vaguely with one hand. She sobbed again. “He doesn’t care—He wasn’t supposed to care . But he… He…”

“Oh, baby.” Lydia hugged her again, this time tighter than before. Tears ran down her cheeks and onto the top of Thea’s head, wetting her hair. “He loves you. I promise he does. He just wasn’t good at showing it.”

Thea sniffled, blinking forcefully. She opened her mouth, the words dancing on her tongue. She had to know but she struggled to find the courage to ask.  “Is… Is Dad—Is he dead?”

Lydia froze, her grip on Thea loosening.

“Mom?” She sat up enough to face Lydia, whose eyes watered. The whites of her eyes were red, standing out starkly against her brown eyes.

Mom ,” Thea repeated. She felt panic settle in, taking a hold of her. Something tightened around her lungs, making it hard to breathe. “Is… Is Dad dead?”

“I don’t…” Lydia’s chin wobbled. She turned so Thea could only view her in profile. She spoke in a thick, wavering voice. “I don’t know. It—It happened so fast. He was beside me and then… He wasn’t. He… I could hear him. And—and I could tell something was happening but after the broadcast cut out…” She stopped and shook her head. “But you… You don’t need to think about that.”

“Wh—what?” Thea stared, her mouth agape. “How… How can I not think about it? Did you hear him? Hear what he said?” Thea rubbed her face with one hand. “There were gunshots , Mom. The peacekeepers—”

Lydia cut her off, sharply turning her head, saying, “I know what they did!”

“Then why won’t you tell me what happened to Dad?” Thea demanded. Lydia had to know. She may not have seen Caleb, but she had to have seen something . At least when they brought her to the Justice Center.

“Because I don’t know! ” Lydia exclaimed before covering her face with her hands. Then, in a much quieter voice, she said it again, uncovering her face so she could look at Thea. “I don’t know. I don’t know what happened when the peacekeepers fired. If Caleb is alive or…” Her bottom lip quivered. “Or dead . I don’t know if anyone else was hurt. It was chaos. I’ve never seen anything like it, not even when I was a little girl.” She stared past Thea. an odd expression painting her face like she was caught inside a memory. Her eyes watered before she snapped out of it, shaking her head. “That doesn’t... That doesn't matter. What matters, Thea, is you surviving and you can’t survive if you’re worried about Dad.”

“Mom—” she started only to be cut off by Lydia, who grasped her hand.

“You have to survive, Thea,” Lydia said. “I need you to survive. To come home.”

“How?” Thea asked genuinely. She gestured to herself. “Look at me. I—I can’t fight, I can’t hunt. I can’t do anything!”

Lydia winced. “Don’t say that. You’re smart… resourceful. You…” She paused, thinking for a moment before snapping her fingers. “You were barely twelve years old when you decided you were going to work in the shop after school and help me on jobs. You’d stay up late reading manuals and—and tinkering with your alarm clock.”

Thea scoffed. That was all Lydia could come up with? “Yeah. Yeah. That’ll save me in the arena. Just build an alarm clock, or unclog a toilet.”

Lydia made a face. “That’s not what I mean and you know it. You have skills. They can translate over to other things. You know, making traps or—or making weapons!”

Sarcasm tinting her voice, Thea replied, “Sure. I’ll just go around killing people like a damn career. Slit some throats while people sleep. That’ll work, Mom. It’s not like I’ll be going up against people who have been training since they could walk !”

A single tear slid down her face, causing her to make a frustrated noise. She fell back against the couch cushions. She couldn’t even have an argument without crying. How on earth was she supposed to go against the careers, kids whose entire lives had been spent waiting for their chance to fight in the Games? In career districts like One and Two and even Four, training for the Hunger Games wasn’t just an option for children, it was expected. Officially it wasn’t allowed, but those districts had been training kids for decades now. Even tributes from those districts who didn’t volunteer went into the arena with a great advantage. It was the reason those districts had the most victors.

Thea wiped her cheek, letting out a sniffle. “They’ll kill me for the heck of it, Mom. First chance they get.”

“Then don’t let them,” Lydia responded. “Don’t give them that chance.”

“You say that like I’ll have a choice.”

“Just t ry ,” Lydia begged. “If you try, you’ll have a shot. A chance at coming home.”

Thea slipped her hand out of her mother’s and turned away, a fresh wave of tears starting to fall. She focused on a small painting hanging on the wood-paneled wall. It was a tiny painting, no more than eight inches wide, and showed the lake just outside of town, where the dam and hydropower plant was. Except in this depiction, they had been omitted, leaving the lake as nature originally intended.

“Thea.”

She squeezed her eyes shut, not moving an inch.

“Thea, look at me.” Lydia’s voice was soft but firm, reminding Thea of when she was a little girl and had gotten into something she wasn’t supposed to. Lydia had never shouted. Sometimes she had to take a minute to calm herself down but once she did, she spoke calmly with this air of authority that even Thea couldn’t ignore. All she had to do was ask Thea what she had done and Thea would confess almost instantly. If Lydia wanted something done, all she had to do was use that tone with Thea and it would get done. “ Look at me.”

And so Thea did. She bit down on her lip, trying her hardest to not cry anymore but it seemed like crying was her natural state now. “I’m scared.”

Lydia nodded, tears filling her own eyes. “I know, I know.” She squeezed Thea’s hands, “But that’s why you have to try. Okay? Not all victors are fighters. Some hid out. Others made traps. And someone—Oh, who was it?” She snapped her fingers, thinking. “I can’t remember. This was years ago before you were born. It was someone from District Three, I think. They used electricity to kill the other tributes. If they could do that, there’s no telling what you can accomplish. You could win.”

Only if no one killed her first, but Thea kept that thought to herself. Lydia was so hopeful. And now that Caleb was… Wherever he was, Thea couldn’t crush her mother’s hopes like that. Even if all she could imagine was the career pack gleefully killing her for all to see.

Without a word, Lydia pulled Thea back into a hug. Squeezing her tightly, Lydia kissed Thea’s forehead. “Just try,” she whispered. “Don’t think about me or—or your dad. Just try to survive. Promise me you’ll do that. Please.”

Thea nodded. “Yeah. I… I’ll try.”

Hearing that, Lydia almost smiled through her tears. “Good. Good. You’re… You’re going to try. You’ll try.”

“I’ll try, Mama. I promise I’ll try.”

Silent, they remained in their embrace for a few more minutes until the door opened once again. A peacekeeper—possibly the same one who had thrown Thea in there—filled the doorway. His helmet covered his face, leaving a dark square where his eyes were supposed to be. “Visit’s over.”

“What?” Thea sat up, her forehead wrinkling. “No. I—I get an hour. It hasn’t been an hour yet.” Maybe twenty minutes had passed since Lydia arrived and tributes always received a full hour with their families before they left on the train. It was the one right they had.

“Not anymore. Let’s go.” The peacekeeper faced Lydia, a hand on his gun. “Now.”

Taking a deep breath, Lydia nodded. “Okay. Just… Let me say goodbye.”

The peacekeeper stepped forward. “I said now .”

Thea latched onto Lydia, hugging her tighter. No. No, no, no. She needed more time. She had so much to say. She had to apologize for this morning. First, she picked a fight, and then she left for the Reaping without a word. “I’m sorry, I’m so sorry,” she blurted out, crying again. “I shouldn’t… I should have stayed. I should have had breakfast.” No coffee, no omelets, no cake. Those traditions existed so they could have something to focus on, so they could have something certain on a day full of so many unknowns. And Thea had thumbed her nose at them for the sake of her pride. “I’m so sorry, Mom.”

Lydia blinked forcefully, trying her best to stem the flow of tears. She unwrapped Thea’s arms from her body. “I know, baby. And it’s okay. All right? It’s okay . I love you, I love you so much.” Her voice was soft and shaky.

“Five seconds,” growled the peacekeeper.

Quickly, Lydia reached behind her neck for the necklace that usually lived under her shirt, hidden from view. She undid the clasp and pressed it into her daughter’s hands. “Take this.”

Thea started to protest but Lydia wouldn’t hear it.

“Make it your token,” she said. She wiped her nose with her hand, glancing at the peacekeeper. “I love you. Come back to me. Please come back.”

Huffing loudly, the peacekeeper grabbed Lydia by the arm and pulled her away, Thea stood, following them to the door.

“I love you!” she called. “I love—”

The door slammed shut and she flinched.

She was alone.


A few minutes later, there was a gentle knock on the door and Clement poked his head inside.

From her place on the sofa, Thea glared at him. Her cheeks were bright red and her eyes puffy from crying. She had resorted to breathing through her mouth since her nose was so stopped up. She cradled her mother’s necklace in both hands, switching between tracing the dark crystal pendant with her finger and twisting the tarnished chain. “What?”

If Lydia was taken away so he could come see her, Thea would break something. He would have all the time with her he wanted once they boarded the train.

“Sorry,” Clement spoke much differently now than he had on stage. Instead of sounding pompous, his voice had a layer of sincerity to it. It was softer too, not as high-pitched or obnoxious. Opening the door wider, he stepped inside. “I didn’t mean to startle you.”

Thea’s gaze shifted to the floor. “You didn’t. Is it time to go?”

Clement nodded. “Yes, but first—” he held up a wet cloth “—I thought you might want to wash your face. I know when I cry, I hate how puffy my face gets.”

Thea gave him a dirty look. “Yeah. That’s exactly what I care about right now. How I look .” Her voice stung with bitter sarcasm.

“Maybe not,” Clement agreed, coming closer. “But sponsors will. And other tributes.”

Thea ground her teeth, annoyed to admit that he had a point. Crying, whimpering tributes never got far in the games. Sponsors didn’t take them seriously and the career pack usually picked them off during the bloodbath. Thea couldn’t have either of those things happen, not if she was going to make good on her promise to Lydia. So she accepted Clement’s offer, which made him smile as he handed the damp cloth over,  showing his bright teeth between his gold lips. Somehow, inside, away from the bright sun, the gold makeup was less garish. Still tacky, in Thea’s opinion, but not quite as loud.

The cloth was blissfully cool against Thea’s face, like a shower after a day of work under the hot sun. She wiped her cheeks first and then her eyes, even holding the cloth over the puffy skin for a few moments. When she finished, Clement gave his approval.

“Much better,” he said. “Now we best get going. We’re already behind schedule.”

Thea left the wet cloth on the end table and let Clement usher her out the door. A group of peacekeepers waited in the lobby with Owen, who looked even smaller next to them. His eyes were red but no longer puffy. Clement must have visited him too.

They would walk to the train station from the Justice Center. The station wasn’t far, just a short walk from the town square.

When they left the Justice Center, Thea was temporarily blinded by both the sun and the bright flash of a camera. A photographer and a film crew were waiting right outside the door. They began to shout.

“Thea! Thea, look this way!”

“Owen, how do you feel?”

“Thea, Thea!”

A camera was shoved in Thea’s face. She didn’t know if it was for taking pictures or filming and she didn’t care. It was too close, way too close. Thea froze, her breath caught in her throat. The only thing that kept her moving was the light push Clement gave her. He pressed the space between her shoulder blades, making it look like he was giving her a pat on the back to the cameras.

Smiling brightly, he whispered in her ear, “Deep breath and a big smile.”

The deep breath was easy, helpful even, but smiling was a completely different scenario. She didn’t feel like smiling but Clement was Capitol, he knew what sponsors would like, so she tried to smile., she really did. But it was like she no longer had the correct muscles. It was too overwhelming. In mere seconds, her world had been taken from her and she was thrust into a new one. One where she’d be judged and scrutinized for a week before she was thrown into the arena, expected to fight for her life.

It began here, walking to the train station in a daze, flanked by peacekeepers and surrounded by cameras. Thea focused on breathing. If she kept breathing, then perhaps she could keep her fear and panic from bubbling to the surface once again. The cameras, the Games, her father… It was all too much, way too much. If she tried to do anything other than walk and breathe, she might just crack and she couldn’t do that. If she did, she would cry and if she cried, she might not ever stop.

Clement kept close, walking between Thea and Owen. Every so often, he patted Thea on the shoulder, propelling her forward so the peacekeepers wouldn’t. He did the same with Owen, who shrunk under the cameras’ attention, almost like he was hiding. He dragged his feet and faced the ground, sniffling. He was crying again. Through the corner of her eye, Thea watched Clement rub small circles between on his back.

The train station was barely big enough to be considered an actual building. A more accurate term would be ‘shack’. It was small and run-down but that was no surprise. Aside from the Hunger Games, it didn’t get any real use. Every month, supplies came by train, and once a year, they received new peacekeepers but that was all. Travel between districts was forbidden and the only people who went to the Capitol were tributes and their mentors.

Thinking of her mentors, Thea looked around the platform for Porter and Delmar but didn’t find either. She did spot another camera crew waiting by the train and more peacekeepers than she had ever seen around the district. They stood in pairs, just outside the station and along the length of the platform. Her stomach churned when she realized she was the reason why. The cameras might have missed her father’s outburst, but district officials hadn’t. What did that make her, a flight risk? All tributes were flight risks, though. It had to be something worse. Was she a criminal now too?

“Let’s go. All aboard,” Clement said briskly. “Can’t have them leaving for the Capitol without us.”

Thea might have said something if it weren’t for the cameras. The only way that the train would leave without them was if they were already dead. In that case, they would probably go find two other teenagers to take their place.

“Come now, Thea.” Clement waved her ahead of him and toward the train car.

Thea’s mouth formed a tight frown but she moved forward and got on right after Owen.

The entryway was small and tight, more like a narrow closet than anything. But through the next door was the nicest room Thea had ever seen, which included the formal design of the Justice Building. Thea nearly came to a full stop. It was only Owen pushing behind her that sent her into the train car, which had to be the nicest place she had ever seen, including the Justice Center.

The train car was large and lavish, full of the finest furniture and decorations. The floor was made of dark wood but a plush rug filled the sitting area, brightening the area up. In the sitting area, there was a long sectional couch with light green furnishings. Two matching chairs were to the right of it, sitting side by side, forming a small rectangle around the flatscreen TV attached to the wall. The coffee table matched the floor and was piled high with a number of different snacks. Finger sandwiches, cookies, and other treats were placed on silver plates and trays. There was a bar too, fully stocked and in use by one of their mentors, who was pouring himself a drink.

Displeasure flashed over Clement’s feature, but he quickly composed himself and said, smiling politely, “Delmar. I see you’re already making yourself at home. Where’s Porter?”

Delmar held one finger up, bringing the glass to his lips. Thea watched, her eyes growing wide. He didn’t sip it like she thought he would. Instead, he downed the drink, slinging it back like a shot. He wiped his mouth on his sleeve and slammed the glass down on the bar. Only after that did he answer, saying in a gruff voice, “Bathroom.” Then he refilled his glass and sauntered over to the couch, where he stretched out, kicking off his shoes. He ignored Thea and Owen completely, leaving them to stand awkwardly in the center of the room.

Thea took a long, deep breath, her hands balling up into fists. If Clement was bothered by Delmar’s behavior, he hid it well, but Thea was enraged. Was Delmar going to acknowledge them, his tributes , or was he going to continue to act like he was on vacation? Because that was how he was behaving. Slouching on the couch, he swirled the liquid in his glass and flipped through channels on the TV without a care in the world.

“I’ll go fetch Porter,” Clement told Thea and Owen, his expression ever pleasant. “Make yourselves comfortable. Have a snack. Try the macarons. You’ll love them.” Then he was gone, disappearing into the next car over.

“What’s a macaron?” Owen asked, speaking for the first time since they had left the Justice Building.

“No idea,” she muttered. She strode over to the sitting area and sat down at the very end of the sofa, near where one of Delmar’s shoes had landed. The other was underneath the coffee table. She eyed Delmar, tempted to speak up but decided she would wait for Porter to arrive before saying anything. As rude as he was acting, Delmar might just be waiting for his fellow victor.

Thea’s right foot jiggling, her parents came to mind. What was Lydia doing? Was she already home or was she wandering the district in the same daze Thea found herself in? And Caleb… Was he dead or on his way to some Capitol prison? She didn’t know what the punishment was for interrupting the Reaping like he did. Surely it wasn’t death. People used to be quite vocal about their displeasure with the Games. Who knew how many had responded similarly to how Caleb had when their children were reaped, especially in the early years. The Capitol couldn’t have just killed them… Right? The point of the Hunger Games was to avoid such violence.

Owen was the first to speak, breaking the awkward silence that filled the cabin like hot air. He dipped his chin, gesturing to Thea's necklace. "That your token?"

Thea nodded. As she played with the necklace, she ran the tarnished silver chain between her fingers. She had yet to put it on. She turned it over in her hands watching as the dark stone shimmered blue depending on how the light hit it. “It’s my mom’s.”

“It’s pretty. What kind of rock is it?”

“Um… I don’t… I don’t know.” She used to. When she was a little girl, she used to sit in her mother’s lap and play with her necklace. It was newer then. Caleb had given it to Lydia for an anniversary or something one year. Or maybe it was a wedding present, Thea wasn’t sure. But she could clearly envision what it used to look like. The untarnished silver chain seemed to always shine and the stone pendant was free of the knicks and mars it was now covered in. Lydia had tried to protect it by slipping it under her shirt while she worked or slipping it in her pocket, but time ended up damaging it anyway.

“I got a handkerchief.” Owen pulled her from his pocket and waved it. It looked more like a rag if Thea was to be honest, but she didn’t say so.

“Cool,” she said shortly, hoping Owen wouldn’t continue. She wasn’t in the mindset for small talk.

Thea watched as Owen returned the rag to his pocket. Now that she was right next to him, she saw that his pants were too big—they were probably a hand-me-down. Maybe he had a big brother or a cousin. Maybe they had belonged to his father just like Thea’s shirt had belonged to Lydia. His belt was fastened on the last hole, making the fabric of his pants bunch up around his waist. The hem of his pants had been carefully folded so they didn’t completely cover his shoes.

Owen sat down in one of the oddly shaped armchairs. It was like a wingback but with only half the back. He glanced at Delmar, whose eyes were glued to the television screen as he flipped through channels at lightning speed, and fidgeted in his seat until he found a comfortable position. “So… Uh… Now what?” He looked directly at Delmar, sitting up so straight it looked like someone had fused a metal rod to his spine. His leg bounced and his hands shook. He sniffled and wiped his nose on his sleeve.

Delmar’s gaze shifted from the TV to Owen. “Christ. Are you crying? Did you seriously go out there crying?”

Owen grew pale. “I… I, uh—”

Delmar ignored him, turning to Thea. “Did he seriously go out there in front of cameras , crying?”

Thea wasn’t quite sure what to say, so she simply nodded. Delmar huffed, rolling his eyes.

“Thanks, kid. You’ve just made my life even harder,” he snapped before taking a swig. He ran a hand through his mousy brown curls. “No more crying. Either of you.”

“I’m not crying!” Thea said indignantly.

“You were. Your eyes are still puffy,” Delmar said. “But thanks for having the foresight to stop before any cameras caught you.” He shot a pointed look at Owen, who tried defending himself.

“What, are we not supposed to have any emotions?”

“Not if it doesn’t get you sponsors,” Delmar said. “And you, bud—” he leaned forward and jabbed his finger at the boy “—the weak look won’t work for you. A boy your age crying like that is just pathetic.”

Hearing that made Thea even angrier with Delmar. Owen was thirteen years old and Delmar didn’t seem to care one bit how scared he was. How scared either of them was.

Instead, he settled back into the couch, slouching. He glanced Thea’s way and gestured with his glass. “You, though… You might pull it off.”

Thea looked the other way, silent. She took a deep breath and rubbed her pendant. Talk about a class act. Hopefully, Porter would be better.

As if on cue, the door to the other car opened with a soft whoosh, and in came Clement with Porter in tow.

“Thea, Owen, meet your other mentor Porter,” Clement introduced, waving to the woman. “Porter, your tributes.”

Thea nodded her head in greeting. Her hands shook slightly so she tightened her fingers around her necklace.

“Do you have a plan for us?” Owen asked Porter, who made a face.

“Here we go…” Delmar finished off his drink and got up to get a refill, rolling his eyes.

Porter took his seat and started pursuing their snack options. “What are you talking about?” She grabbed a small but colorful cookie and stuffed it in her mouth. While she chewed, she grabbed a plate and started filling it up.

“Strategy…” Owen slowly said, looking from Porter to Delmar. “You’re our mentors.”

“And we just left,” Delmar said, waving a bottle of scotch around. “I mean… I think we’re still in the district. I don’t know. Clement, can you see the dam out the window?”

Thea‘s head snapped up, her eyes flashing with anger. “Seriously? Is it that hard to answer his question?”

“We’re still in the district!” Delmar said. “There’s no point.”

“There’s no point? ” Thea repeated, rising to her feet. “There’s no point in us wanting to survive? How—” She held her hands out in front of her and mimed throttling him. “ Ugh! Do you actually plan on helping us or are you only here for the booze?”

Delmar’s gaze darkened and his hand tightened around the neck of the bottle. For a moment, fear flashed over Thea. With the look he gave her, she half expected him to hurl the bottle at her or crack it over her head.

But then, from Thea’s left, came her cackling savior. Porter. The woman had lost it at Thea’s insult and was cracking up. She slapped her knee and threw her head back, laughing so hard she snorted.

“She’s definitely got your number, Delmar,” she said, shaking her head in amusement. “Ohh…”

Delmar put down the liquor bottle and it hit the bar with a loud smack. He stalked over and snatched the remote off the coffee table and all but threw it at Thea, who barely kept it from hitting her square in the face. “You want help? Watch the Reapings. Figure out who the competition is. Spoiler: it’ll be the careers.” He turned his heel and headed to his quarters in the other car, snagging the bottle of scotch on his way out.

“You better apologize, Thea,” Clement spoke, shaking his head.

Porter disagreed, unbothered by the entire situation. Chuckling to herself, she waved a hand. “Don’t bother. He is only here for the booze.”

“Then what about you?” Thea said. “Are you going to help us or just pig out on some cake?” It was a rude, uncalled-for jab and she knew it, but Porter seemed more interested in the spread on the coffee table than anything else, including her tributes.

Clement scolded her and, while Porter made a face, she didn’t get angry as Delmar had.

“Who says I can’t do both?” she said in almost a daring tone. She grabbed a pastry from her plate and stuffed it in her mouth whole.

Sighing, Clement’s eyes rolled to the ceiling like he couldn’t believe his luck. Then he shot her a pointed look, saying, “Porter. Manners.”

“Wha? ‘M hungry,” she said through her food.

“It’s rude,” Clement said.

Porter rolled her eyes but didn’t speak again until she had swallowed. She turned to Thea, who was still standing behind the couch. In one hand she held the remote and in the other, she had her necklace.

“Gimme that.” Porter leaned over and plucked the remote from Thea’s hand. “Delmar’s right about the Reapings. Know thy enemy. Isn’t that what they say?” The TV turned on. “What time is it?”

“Almost twelve,” Clement answered, sitting down beside Owen in the other armchair. “Eight should be finishing up and then there will be a short break before Nine goes.”

“Then let’s start at the beginning. What do ya say, kid?”

It took Thea a moment to realize Porter was addressing her. “What? Me?”

“Yeah, you,” Porter replied. “Sit down. Pig out on cake .” She shot Thea a pointed look, raising her eyebrows.

Thea’s cheeks turned red and turned her gaze to the floor. She sat back down, locking her knees together. She watched Porter pull up the first of the Reapings.

As the program started, Panem’s anthem played. Footage of the Capitol aired first, before cutting to District One.

Thea had never watched the Reapings for other districts. She didn’t think anyone in District Five did. She watched the recaps, but only because she had no other choice. They never showed the Reapings in their entirety, just the tributes after they had been chosen or, in some cases, volunteered.  but just the tributes after they had been chosen (or volunteered). It was typically followed up by commentary from Caesar Flickerman and Claudius Templesmith, the respective host, and announcer for the Games.

It was strange to see another Reaping from the start. Thea didn’t think she had ever seen so much of District One, which was far more urban than she had realized but also far prettier. Despite all of the factories and mining that took place within the district, it still managed to look attractive. The streets were well maintained, not full of cracks and potholes like in District Five. The buildings were clean and painted pretty colors. There wasn’t a hideous solar panel in sight.

The town square was gigantic, way bigger than District Five’s and chock full of teenagers who were… Thea almost couldn’t believe it but they were excited . She knew that to fight in the Games was an honor in the career districts, but seeing the sheer excitement amongst children and their parents alike was bizarre. At home, anxiety and dread were all anyone felt before the Reaping. Maybe a healthy dose of fear depending on how many times your name was in the drawing.

Maybe Thea should have had more fear going into the Reaping. Maybe this was punishment for naively assuming her odds were fine when they clearly weren't.

Porter fast-forwarded through the opening speech and video to the Reaping itself. The moment District One’s escort read the name off the first slip of paper, there was a volunteer. Eighteen-year-old Alana Everrest leaped forward from the front row, hand raised in the air. The girl whose name was called never even had to move. Alana took the stage like it was her birthright. From the audience, a man—Alana’s father—caught the attention of the cameras but he didn’t protest as Caleb had. He cheered, pumping his fist in the air, happy as can be. He beamed with pride, shouting, “That’s my daughter! That’s my girl!”

Thea frowned, remembering her own father’s reaction when she was reaped. He hadn’t been proud, he’d been terrified. Completely and utterly. His voice had trembled, teeming with panic as he shouted her name.

“What happened to my dad?” The words left Thea’s mouth before she knew what she was saying. She turned to Porter and then Clement, her face stony. “What happened after they pulled me from the square?”

Sheer panic washed over Clement’s face. “Oh. Darling… You—you don’t want to hear about that.”

“If I didn’t want to know, I wouldn’t ask.” Thea was unusually calm, especially considering how she had acted in the Justice Center. “Tell me.”

Clement avoided her gaze, uncomfortable. “Thea…”

“Porter.” Thea swiveled in her seat, facing the older woman. “Is my dad dead?”

Out of the corner of her eye, Thea caught Clement shaking his head at Porter and mouthing something.

“Stop it!” she snapped at him. “I deserve to know—I want to know!”

Porter watched with an odd expression. “Really? You seriously want to know?”

Thea hit the arm of the couch. “Yes! Why else would I be asking?” she exclaimed.

Porter shrugged at Clement, who shook his head in protest, and faced Thea. “All right then. Ask and you shall receive. ” She tilted her head from one side to another and clicked her tongue like she wasn’t sure how to say it. “Well… Your dad’s dead, but you probably already knew that.”

Dead. Fresh from Porter's mouth, the word rang inside Thea's head, over and over. Dead, dead, dead .

Suddenly Thea felt like she was a kid again, just thirteen years old. Once, in helping her mother paint someone's house, Thea fell off a ladder. She landed on her back, unharmed. In fact, she was more surprised than anything. In those first few seconds, after she hit the hard ground, she couldn’t breathe. She had gasped and gasped for air, her lungs burning, but failed to get even the tiniest breath of air.

That was what Thea felt right now. She felt like she was thirteen years old again and had just fallen off that ladder. Now, she gasped for air, gaping like a fish, frozen, unable to move, to breathe. Had her heart stopped? She genuinely thought it had because that pounding she had felt against her ribs for so long—ever since the Reaping—was gone.

“Thea.” Clement’s voice was gentle. No longer sitting, he hovered in front of her. He reached out, resting his hand on her shoulder. Thea immediately jumped up, slipping past him.

“Don’t touch me!” She rubbed her face with both hands. She knew Caleb wouldn’t get away with it and she knew that, whatever happened, wouldn’t be good but…

(Dead)

“He was executed,” Porter explained further, “for attempting to incite a riot.”

A riot? That hadn’t been a riot. A disturbance yes, but not a riot. How could they call it that?

Without another word, Thea left the train car, hurrying through the same door Delmar had left through. She entered a narrow hallway where there were four bedrooms. She entered the first one on the left, heavily breathing.

He was dead. Her father was dead. He didn’t speak to her or look at her for days when it came time for Reaping Day. He ignored her, he always ignored her and it made her feel so angry, so unloved. But today… Today he died for her. Or was it because of her? For or because ? Did he die for her or because of her?

How many times had Thea decided she hated him? How many times did she wish he would leave? She didn’t need him, only her mother. She and Lydia were all either of them needed.

(He was dead)

She didn’t need him. She never needed him.

(Dead)

And it worked out because he didn’t need her. He never seemed to be bothered by her presence or lack thereof. Neither of them mattered to the other.

(Dead. Dead. Dead)

An invisible hand grasped Thea’s lungs and squeezed, crushing the soft fragile organ between strong fingers.

Did they kill him in the square or simply incapacitate him before carting him off somewhere else to finish the job?

(He was dead )

Why did Caleb do it? He hadn’t volunteered for his brother or even considered it. Thea never had the guts to watch the entirety of Alec’s Games, but she had seen his Reaping. Caleb had done nothing when his brother’s name was called. He stood in the town square, mere yards from where Thea had stood today, and just watched. He watched Alec take the stage, shock and fear all over his face. When the escort asked for volunteers, Caleb turned away. He couldn’t even face Alec.

(He’s dead and it’s your fault)

Did he visit Alec in the Justice Center? Did the two of them huddle in the same room Thea and Lydia were in today and cry in each other’s arms? Did Caleb ever apologize or did Alec die thinking he didn’t care?

(Just like Dad)

When was the last time Thea told Caleb she loved him? She told her mother all the time. Of course, she did, Lydia was her mother, but Caleb… That relationship was almost formal.

(Your fault)

“Oh, Fu-uck.” Thea punched her thigh. “Fuck, fuck.” She gasped again, trying to level out her breathing. If she didn’t calm down, she would cry again.

Maybe Delmar’s words hadn’t been completely insensitive, after all. She didn’t know about Owen but she could not fall apart again. Not when there was so much else to worry about. The Opening Ceremony, training, interviews—all leading up to the Games. Crying over her dead father was wasted energy.

(Your fault)

Thea collapsed on the bed face-first. Grabbing a pillow, she started to shake. “Stop,” she whispered, squeezing her eyes shut. “Stop it!”

(He doesn’t care. He never cared)

Thea wondered if there would be a funeral or not. Would Lydia even get that month’s worth of sympathy pay? Her husband was gone and her daughter—

Thea sat up, her hair mussed, and clothes wrinkled, her expression blank. Lydia was alone now. Caleb was dead and if Thea died… Lydia would have no one left. She would be alone in that tiny apartment left with a hardware store that didn’t make enough money on its own. Not to support three people. That was why Lydia and Caleb spent so much time out in the district, doing odd jobs. Would Lydia be able to continue doing that now? No, Thea realized she couldn’t, not without closing the store but then they would lose business. Maybe Lydia wouldn’t have to depend on odd jobs anymore. Caleb was gone and Thea was likely to follow. Their income wouldn't have to support three anymore, just one.

Thea’s head nearly dropped to her lap. She held it between her hands, shaking it from side to side. Her eyes filled with tears so she squeezed them shut. “No more…” she murmured. “No more crying.”

“You’re in my room.”

Thea jumped at the sound of Porter’s voice, sitting up stiffly. She hadn’t even noticed Porter arrive “Ex-excuse me?”

“This—” Porter twirled one finger in the air “—is my room.”

Thea’s mouth fell open. “I don’t… There wasn’t a sign.”

“So?” Porter strutted inside and plopped down on the foot of the bed. “The first room on the left is always mine. Now move.” She spread out her limbs and pushed at Thea until she got off the bed, more confused than anything else.

“Why are you here?”

Porter shifted until she got comfortable. She shoved the pillow Thea had been hugging under her head. “Because if I hadn’t come back here, Clement would have. He means well but no one wants that. Anyway—” she turned her head to face Thea. “You done crying yet?”

Thea scoffed. “You and Delmar both. How about I just turn off my emotions entirely? Would that be better?”

“Yes, actually, it would.”

“You’ve got to be kidding me,” Thea muttered, running a hand through her hair. Right now, she wished Clement had come to fetch her.

“Look, there’s a time and place for crying and temper tantrums—”

Thea spun around. “ Temper tantrums? I’m upset my dad died, not throwing a hissy fit because no one will give me any candy!”

Sitting up, Porter held up her hands, palms out in a defensive gesture. “Don’t yell at me. I’m just saying, there’s a time and place for that stuff but now’s not it.”

“Then when is?” Thea asked, shrugging her shoulders. “When do I get to mourn the man who I thought didn’t love me? And—and come to terms with the fact that, in a week, I’ll probably be dead and the promise I made to my mom will be broken— she’ll be broken!”

As Thea yelled, Porter began to chuckle. The corners of her mouth turned up, forming a sly smile, as she gazed at the ceiling and laughed.

Thea stopped in her tracks, her face turning bright red. “What… Are you seriously laughing at me? What is wrong with you?”

Porter laughed harder. She pressed her hand against the mattress and pushed until she was in a sitting position. “What isn’t?”

“What… What the fuck?” Thea would take Delmar back in a heartbeat right now. Drunk or not, he'd made his feelings crystal clear. But not Porter. She was something else entirely.

Porter leaned back on her elbows. Her eyes traveled up and down, seeming to inspect every inch of Thea’s body. She smiled again, letting a burst of air out from her nose like a silent laugh. “You’re angry.”

“I’m terrified!” Thea shot back.

“Maybe,” Porter hummed. “But you’re angry too.” She didn’t say anything else, instead, she watched Thea, tilting her head.

Thea squirmed uncomfortably. She crossed her arms over her chest, almost hugging herself. “Okay. Sure! I’m angry. Got anything else? Something?” She just wanted a plan, that was all she wanted. If she had a plan, she could figure out a way to survive, but she needed her mentors for that and Porter wouldn't stop staring. “What—what’s with the freaking staring already?”

Porter answered easily, “I think I can make something out of you.”

Thea made a face, wondering about Porter’s sanity. “Make me into what?”

“I don’t know yet.” Porter got off the bed and strolled to the door, a lazy air to her. Stopping at the threshold, she faced Thea. “You’ve got five minutes. After that, you better be out there in front of the TV ready to watch the rest of the Reapings. Delmar’s a dick, but he is right.” She turned, about to leave but stopped again. “Oh! This yours?” From her pocket, she revealed Thea’s necklace.

Thea gasped. She didn’t remember dropping it, but she snatched it from Porter’s hand like it was gold. “It’s my token.”

Porter hummed. “You should ask your stylist to get you a shorter chain then. It’d be all sorts of fucked up to get strangled with it.”

Thea immediately blanched, eyes growing wide, while Porter headed back to the other car, laughing the whole way.

Chapter Text

For five minutes, Thea sat on the edge of the bed, stunned.

Porter was crazy. Absolutely, positively, batshit crazy.

And yet… She had a point. It was a poorly expressed point but that didn’t make it any less true. There was a time and place for crying and this wasn’t it. Thea knew that. Crying tributes never did well. It was off-putting to sponsors and usually made you a target in the arena. Crying now was a waste of time.

But crying was all Thea felt like doing right now. She wanted to curl up in bed, hide under the covers, and cry her eyes out. Only she didn't. Porter’s words had made her shake with rage but they also were oddly helpful. Thea felt different now... More motivated than scared.

Thea was a tribute now. Everything that happened in the coming days would make or break her survival. And she had to survive. She wanted… She wanted a life. She wanted to be there for her mother as she aged and maybe have a family someday—someone to come home to after a long day of work in the shop. She wanted a chance to fall in love and—and have babies.

Thea blew air from her nose, almost shaking her head. Babies . What was she thinking? She had never thought about babies before. She hadn’t even kissed a boy yet.

That thought sat differently now. Everyone had a first love. It was practically a rite of passage. Thea was going to die without ever having loved anyone. Without ever being loved.

Thea wrung her hands. All she wanted was a chance. Opportunity. She wanted a choice, to be able to make decisions for herself, but that was a right she had lost the moment she was reaped. If she wanted it back, she’d have to fight for it. Falling apart every time she thought of her parents or the Hunger Games would only hinder that. She had to forget them. Her parents, her fear... There was nothing to debate. Survival had to be her sole focus.

But she couldn’t stop thinking about them. The only thing racing more than her pulse was her thoughts. Lydia… Caleb… The Games. She couldn’t not think about them. It didn’t matter how hard she tried, it wouldn’t stop. The thoughts wouldn't go away. She could reinforce the walls, lock all the doors, and cover the windows. It didn’t matter. Those bad thoughts broke through and tore her down.

And how could Thea avoid the Hunger Games? It was her reality now. What was left of her life, however long or short, would be dedicated to the Games. She had no choice there but she could avoid thinking of her parents. Instead of building a fortress, she had to make a barricade. Lock away every thought and memory of her little family, put them somewhere far away, in the back of her mind, where they couldn’t call to her and where she couldn’t call back.

Thea ran her hands over her face, groaning. The more she focused on not thinking about her parents, the more they forced their way to the forefront of her thoughts. Lydia or Caleb would pop in her head and Thea would immediately zero in on them.

It was an awful rollercoaster of emotions too. When she thought of Caleb, an odd mix of confusion and anger filled her, while thinking of her mother made her heart heavy with sorrow. But the thought of Lydia also brought a sense of obligation. Her mother had never asked much of Thea. She had even been reluctant to give her daughter chores. Beginning work in the hardware store so young was Thea’s choice, not her mother’s. Neither of her parents had expected it. But during her goodbye with Lydia back in Five, something in the woman changed. Lydia had been on the verge of breaking. She tried to hide it, Thea could see that. She also saw how shaken her mother was. Lydia’s fear had bled into her voice, making it tremble. Thea didn’t know which hurt more: seeing her mother cry like that or knowing that she was crying because of her. Thea couldn’t let that happen again. She had to go home.

But then there was the Hunger Games. Nothing hurt Thea as much as thinking about that did. When she thought of it, her entire body lit up with fear. Her hair stood on end and breathing became difficult. The worst thoughts came to mind. All she could think about was what could go wrong or how she could be killed. The other tributes were a threat—especially the careers—but what about the arena or the gamemakers’ bag of tricks? Each was dangerous in their own right. Thea thought of her uncle, who was torn to pieces by a muttation while the entire nation watched. Would she die like that? Or would it be something else, like acid rain or starvation? Natural causes killed plenty of tributes. Last year most of the tributes froze to death. Infection was a big killer too. The question was: what would get Thea?

Thea tugged at her hair, squeezing her eyes shut. No. No. She had to stop thinking that way. She was going to survive. She was going to everything in her power to survive, to go home to her mother. To make sure her mother never again cried like she did this morning. Thea had to stop focusing on the bad, the what if’s.

Those what if’s were the scariest part of this entire situation. Not knowing what was going to happen, if she would survive, how Lydia was... In fact, knowing that Caleb was dead probably brought Thea the most peace out of anything here. Even if she did feel nothing but guilt as a result.

Thea’s eyes opened. That was why she had to stop thinking about it. She couldn't think about Lydia and Caleb anymore, but she especially had to stop thinking about everything that could go wrong. She glanced at her necklace, weighing it in her hands. For a moment she thought about leaving it here. Tokens were meant to remind tributes of home, which she didn’t want. Home led to Lydia who led to Caleb who led to the Games, leading to a never-ending cycle of fear and heartache.

Thea tried to leave it on the end table, but she couldn’t let go. Like a magnet, her necklace stuck to her hand, refusing to be let go. So she kept it, putting it on so she wouldn’t lose it again. But instead of wearing it in full view, she tucked it under her blouse so she couldn’t see it. She was thankful to have a piece of home with her but, for now, she had to forget her home and her family so she could survive. She had to make good on her promise to Lydia, and that began with watching the Reapings.

As ordered, Thea returned to the main train car, ignoring the pitiful looks from Owen and Clement. She sat down in her previous seat at the end of the sofa. Beside her sat Porter, who snacked on her plateful of goodies one right after another. After each bite had been chewed and swallowed, the next one was waiting outside her mouth, ready to be eaten.

Someone had paused the TV, leaving it awkwardly stopped in the middle of another tribute volunteering. It was the male tribute for District One. Even on the television screen, Thea could tell he was tall. He towered over his peers. He was muscular too, and a vicious expression painted his face as he thrust his hand into the air.

“Everyone ready?” Clement asked, picking up the remote. He had his own plate of snacks, but with considerably smaller portions than Porter. Owen had a plate too, which he only picked at it.

Holding a wedge of cake between her fingers, Porter said, “Hit it.”

The Reapings resumed. Thea watched intently, focusing on her competition.

District One had two eager volunteers this year. Alana was joined by the tall and muscular boy, who was named Royal. District Two’s tributes were volunteers as well. Astor and Nadine. Both were eighteen and fresh from the training academy. Just looking at them made Thea squirm uncomfortably.

“And those, kids, are what we call careers ,” Porter chimed in, using a, overly nice, high-pitched voice so she sounded like a teacher. Then she made a noise, dropping the voice as she added, “Seriously. That Royal could kill you with his pinky. The girl too.”

District Three came next and Porter gave a bark of a laugh when she saw its tributes side-by-side. They were fifteen and sixteen and, according to Porter, brought nothing but brains to the table and brains would do nothing for you when a career was coming at you with a sword.

“Easy prey,” she’d said, making Thea squirm.

The last of the career districts, District Four, only had one volunteer: seventeen-year-old Corrie. She was tall and lean, and most likely comfortable with a spear or trident, according to Porter. Four’s tributes usually were. The boy tribute, Theo, was a year younger but looked as strong and confident as the tributes for One and Two. He may have even volunteered had his name not been called.

While District Six’s boy tribute could be a threat, Porter was dismissive. She said it was unlikely he or his district partner would be terribly dangerous. She spoke similarly of Eight’s tributes and was a little warier of Nine’s. It was Seven and Ten that had her concerned.

“If you can chop up wood or slaughter cattle, you can kill someone,” she said.

Thea frowned. Trees were one thing and cows another. But a human life? It was different. Every life had value, even the careers had to believe that.

In general, Porter made Thea quite uncomfortable. Although she was more personable than Delmar, she was rather crass too. In between her first impressions of the tributes, she made crude jokes and mocked the other victors. She was happy to do it too like she had been looking forward to the Reapings all year long. When she wasn’t talking, she was eating. If she wasn’t doing either of those, she was popping a pill from an orange prescription bottle she kept in her lap.

As they viewed the Reapings, Clement made it his goal to make Thea and Owen as comfortable as possible. He offered them sandwiches and cookies, fancy little cakes and a mix of sweet and savory foods Thea didn’t recognize. Porter would chime in, saying carbs , but was more interested in watching the TV than anything else.

“If there’s nothing here you want,” Clement spoke, “then we can order something. The kitchen is fully stocked.” He was particularly bothered by the fact that Thea had no interest in eating.

“I’m really… I’m not hungry,” Thea said with a polite shake of her head, though she knew she should eat something. She hadn’t eaten since dinner last night, but the idea of eating anything, let alone this rich food, made her blanch. This morning it felt like her stomach was twisting itself into knots. Now it felt like it had run away, leaving a large painful pit of nothing in its place.

Clement’s lips formed a thin line. “All right,” he relented. “How about something to drink instead? We have flavored water, tea, cocoa, coffee.”

Thea perked up some at the mention of coffee, so she nodded, asking for that. “Can I have it with sugar?”

“You can have it with whatever you want!” Clement called over the avox in the corner, who was there in an instant. “Can we get a coffee with sugar for her?”

With a nod, the avox left, heading over to the table next to the bar where a number of other drinks were. He picked up a dark-colored carafe and poured it into a pale mug. He delivered it and a bowl of sugar cubes to Thea, placing both on the coffee table. He brandished a spoon from his apron and gently put it next to her coffee.

“Thank you,” Thea said, earning another nod before the avox returned to the corner. She dropped one sugar cube in her coffee but didn’t get to do much more because Porter gasped loudly, snatching up Thea’s attention. Ten’s Reaping was over and Eleven’s was about to start.

“Oh, it’s Eleven. It’s Eleven.” She grabbed onto Thea’s arm, making the girl jump and stare in shock. “Is he gonna be drunk, or has Seeder whipped him into shape? Oh, I hope he’s drunk.”

“You don’t have to sound so excited, Porter,” Clement said, refilling his plate with more macarons and cakes. “Chaff is a kind enough man, even with his… Issues.” He was much more diplomatic in his language than Porter was. He didn’t call the victors from Six addicts or reference other victors’ alcoholism. He used words like issues and once shortcomings .

Thea kept her eyes glued to the screen, watching as the ceremony began. Eleven, much like Five, didn’t have the best of luck in the Games, so they only had a handful of victors and only two were particularly noteworthy: Chaff and Seeder. Seeder appeared on screen first. Her skin was dark and she wore a simple green shift. Chaff followed. He was tall and lumbering and missing a hand. By all appearances, he was sober. Once she realized, Porter deflated.

“Damn. I was hoping someone would fall off the stage this year,” she complained. She paused before adding, a grin forming, “There’s still Twelve.”

Thea made a face, glancing at Owen, who was just as perturbed. Clement only sighed.

Eleven’s tributes were decently sized. The boy was no older than fifteen but looked strong. The girl was older and appeared to be in as good a shape as he was, but sheer terror was written all over her features.

“Eh.” Porter stood, stretching out her back. “They’ve got brute strength. That’s it.” She plopped down again and tucked her feet underneath herself.

“Shouldn’t we wait for training scores before deciding that?” Thea asked. Each year, the gamemakers judged the tributes individually and gave a score based on their odds of survival and combat skills. A low score could be just as deadly as a high one. Anything less than four or five made you easy prey, but anything higher than a nine made you the person to kill. “You’re judging them at first glance.”

“Of course I am,” Porter said looking at Thea like she had asked what color was the sky. “This entire circus is about looks. How people perceive you is what determines whether or not you get sponsors, allies. I promise every single one of them has already decided what to think about you.” She looked at Owen too. “Both of you.”

Owen frowned. “And what if it’s bad?”

“Then you gotta try like hell to change it,” Porter said. “And trust me, that’s not going to be easy, bub. I heard about your crying episode. The careers are probably laughing about it as we speak.”

He bit his lip and looked down at the floor, not uttering a word.

Porter rounded on Thea next. “And you… Your eyes were a bit puffy on the way to the train station but that neutral bitchy expression helped.”

Thea furrowed her brow. “Bitchy?” She was emotionally distraught. How did that equal bitchy?

“Ambition. Determination.” Porter shrugged. “Whatever you want to call it. We can spin it. And with your father—”

“Porter!”

Thea jumped when Clement raised his voice. Porter’s comment had surprised her. It stung too, bringing back the pain and guilt Thea tried so hard to shove to the back of her mind. But hearing Clement snap like that was a shock to the system. He was so soft-spoken. His voice had an airy, carefree quality to it most of the time. Even when Thea had insulted Delmar, he had behaved somewhat calmly. That wasn’t the case now. His eyes darkened, shooting daggers at Porter as if he were silently communicating something.

If he was, then message received, because Porter’s mouth clamped shut and she directed her attention to the remaining snacks on the coffee table. She changed the subject, saying in a dull voice, “Dinner better be good. I can only eat so many finger sandwiches and cucumbers.”

A tense silence fell. No one said a word for the rest of Eleven’s Reaping or during the start of Twelve’s, which Porter had been so excited for. There were no comments or crude jokes from her, only quiet. Thea shifted uncomfortably in her seat. Caleb had wormed his way back into her thoughts, making her miss Porter’s earlier chatter. However rude it might have been, it made for a nice distraction. Now it was silent, her earlier words serving as a tense reminder to Thea that her father was dead.

Her shoulder muscles tightened and she gripped the fabric of her skirt, squeezing her hand so tightly her fingernails cut into her skin.

(Dead)

She had to figure out how to stop thinking, to turn off everything. Thoughts, feelings… Everything but the bare necessities.

(Dead, dead)

It didn’t matter anymore. She never needed her father before today. Being a tribute wouldn’t change that. She just had to stop thinking about him.

(It’s your fault)

But she couldn’t. Instead, she felt a whirlwind of thoughts and feelings, none of which she knew how to deal with. Her father was dead, her mother alone, and she was headed to her death. She may as well have a gun pressed to the back of her head. She couldn’t see it. She didn’t know when the trigger would be pulled, but there was no doubting it was there. In a week’s time, she would end up in the grave next to Caleb’s.

Watching the Reapings didn’t help with what she was feeling. It identified the competition, but, for the most part, it just introduced her to the two dozen teenagers she was expected to fight to the death. Thea didn’t want that. She didn’t even want to face them. This wasn’t a wrestling match, it was battle. It was life or death. Thea wasn’t interested in hurting anyone, but if—no, when —someone came after her, what was she supposed to do? What could she do?

Thea had promised to survive and surviving meant killing, didn’t it? Were there any victors who had won without killing? Plenty had hidden out, kept out of sight until they couldn’t anymore. But eventually, they all made a decision to not just survive, but to live. To win. And that meant killing. It was what the Games were designed to do. They pushed you until you finally chose between living or dying. Thea had promised her mother that she would do everything she could to survive. Did that mean she had already chosen to kill when it came to it? Could she?

By the time Haymitch Abernathy took the stage, Porter was at the edge of her seat. In between bites of food, she muttered to herself, “Come on, come on…”

Haymitch swayed dangerously and staggered over to District Twelve’s escort—Thea didn’t know the woman’s name. Haymitch slung his arm around her, a bottle of liquor in his free hand.

“Oh no,” Clement sighed but Porter positively vibrated with excitement. Her recent embarrassment was completely forgotten.

On the television, Twelve’s escort shrieked before she could stop herself. Her knees buckled slightly under the weight of Haymitch.

“Oh… Oh, Haymitch,” she tried to act brave and smile but anyone with a brain could see through it. She was furious. “It’s… so nice to see you.”

“Let’s fast forward,” Clement spoke up, reaching for the remote, which sat on the coffee table.

“Don’t you dare!” Porter snapped. Her eyes never left the television. “Fall, fall, fall .”

Thea shifted in her seat, crossing her right leg over the left as discomfort washed over her. Owen felt the same by the look of it. His head tilted down to face his plate, but his eyes lifted, looking between Clement and Porter.

“He has a disease, Porter,” Clement stated.

“Doesn’t mean he can’t be funny.”

Haymitch rambled into the microphone, not saying much of anything. At least nothing that made sense. Eventually, the escort managed to fight him off and send him back to his seat.

Porter pouted once she realized he wasn’t going to fall. “Damn.” She slouched in her seat, silent until the female tribute was chosen.

A disturbingly thin girl, no older than Thea, took to the stage. Her knees visibly trembled once she made it there. Twelve’s escort led the weak applause.

Porter snorted and bluntly said, “She’s gonna die.”

Thea shrunk in her seat but kept her eyes trained on the television. The male tribute was picked next. He was younger, about fourteen years old. Almost immediately, Porter turned off the television, standing up.

“Well, he’s gonna die too.” She stretched, leaning forward then back.

“You don’t know that,” Owen timidly said, speaking for the first time in hours. He looked up at Porter over his plate, which was still full.

“He’s fourteen years old,” Porter said. “He’s dying and he’s dying quick.”

Thea frowned, narrowing her eyes. “Finnick Odair was fourteen when he won.”

Porter waltzed over to the bar. “Odair was a fucking prodigy. Those kids are underweight and have never seen a day of work.” She perused the liquor selection, humming to herself. “I want vodka. Clement, you want anything?”

Clement sighed, rubbing his temple with two fingers. “No.”

“Suit yourself.”

Thea gave a slight shake of her head, clenching her jaw. “Can I go?” she addressed Clement, who smiled when she spoke.

“Of course, dear. The next car over—I’m sure you saw—has bedrooms. You can take a nap or change clothes. The closets are fully stocked.”

Thea didn’t care about taking a nap or changing. She just wanted out of here. Away from Porter. How could she talk like that? They were children, scared children. Did she not remember what it was like to be in their shoes? If it was Thea or Owen on the screen, would she be saying the same thing? Was she already thinking it? Owen was a year younger than the boy from Twelve and his district partner was the same age as Thea. If Porter expected those tributes to die, then what did she think about Thea and Owen? Once they were in the arena, would Porter even try to help them? Who cared if Porter thought she could make something out of Thea. What mattered was if she thought Thea had a chance at winning .

Positively steaming with rage, Thea quickly left. Before the door between train cars slid shut, though, Porter called after her.

“Stay out of my room!”

Thea scoffed. Her room . They wouldn’t even be on the train overnight. There was no need to claim bedrooms. They would be in the Capitol by nightfall, maybe before. District Five, along with a handful of other districts, shared a border with the Capitol, thus making their trip quicker than most tributes could say.

Thea stopped in the middle of the hallway, right in front of Porter’s bedroom. The door was wide open.

Her room . Thea would have laughed if she weren’t so angry. Peering over her shoulder at the door to the other car, Thea placed a toe over the threshold. Then her foot. Then she was inside, kicking the door shut behind her. What was Porter going to do to her? Refuse to mentor her? Thea decided that Porter was full of it. The girl from twelve was thin, yes, but she was the closest tribute to Thea’s size and build outside of the careers. If Porter didn’t believe that girl would survive, then she couldn’t believe Thea would either.

Thea practically fell onto the bed, landing on the large pile of pillows at the head of the bed. She pressed her face into the nearest pillow and screamed until she ran out of breath. Then she took a deep breath and let out another scream. And another and another…

After the fourth scream, Thea was calmer. She rolled onto her side and stared at the wall, feeling pleasantly numb. Narrow windows lined the very top of the light blue wall, showing matching bits of sky rush by as the train moved.

How far was she from home now? A hundred miles, two hundred? She didn’t know the details of their trip—how fast they traveled or the distance to the Capitol. All she knew was that she was the farthest from home she had ever been in her life.

Letting out a shaky breath, Thea moved again, this time to stare at the ceiling. She wanted to go home . To lay in her bed under her scratchy sheets, in the room with walls that were so thin she could hear everything. The train was too quiet and oddly still for something that was moving so fast. If she didn’t know better, she would assume they weren’t moving at all. Nothing moved, not even on the sharpest turns, and the engine didn’t make a sound. It was so quiet, it was uncomfortable. At home—just from inside her bedroom—Thea could tell you exactly what was going on at any given moment. If someone was in the kitchen, she knew. If someone was downstairs in the shop, she knew. She could tell if they were moving around or standing still. She knew whenever the shop received a customer or when a transaction was made. Their cash register was old and worn, but it made such a sharp, distinct ding every time it opened or shut. Thea could hear it now, obnoxiously ringing again and again.

Ding! Ding, ding!

Growing up, Thea had hated it. It was such a stupid and unnecessary addition to the cash register. If she was operating it, she knew when she was making a transaction. She didn’t need it to tell her. But right now she wanted to go to the shop and open and close the machine again and again, listening to that stupid ding. She wanted to sit behind the counter and do absolutely nothing. Just take it in. Reminisce. The store was an extension of her home. An extension of her. It was all she knew. As a small child, she had spent most of her time playing on the floor behind the counter. She learned to count and how to read by helping with inventory. Sometimes her mother had let her help with transactions or place pricing stickers on the merchandise. When she finished school, she would begin working there full-time. When her parents died, she would take over ownership.

Past, present, and future. The shop was everything to her and Thea had never realized it.

Before she knew it, Thea was crying again. She wanted to be there so badly. She wanted to inhale the scent of fresh lumber and paint and grumble when the cash register opened and shut. She wanted to hear her mother muttering to herself as she counted out the cash in the register at the end of each night. Was this what it felt like to be homesick?

Shaking her head, Thea sat up and frantically wiped her eyes. No crying. She wasn’t allowed to cry.

This was ridiculous, she was ridiculous . Not even an hour had passed and she had already broken her new rule. Not that it was a surprise. Caleb was still on her mind. He had been there all day, hanging over her and refusing to leave. And ever since Porter told her he was dead, Thea had been...

Thea chewed on her bottom lip. A part of her refused to believe it. Any of it. His outburst or—or that he was dead. The day she turned twelve, Caleb, already distant, had cut himself off from her completely. He proved to her that he didn’t care so why did he do it? Why on Earth would he kill himself for her? He had to have known what would happen. No one interrupted the Reaping and got away with it. If he didn’t care, why did he bother?

(He loves you)

“Ugh!” Thea ran her hands over her face when her eyes started to leak tears once again. “Stop crying! Stop!”

She would have to amend her rule. She had to forget about more than just her parents. She had to forget about home. Was that even possible? That was like asking someone to forget everything about themselves.

She could do it if no one asked her about her home or her family. The interviews were three minutes each and Thea didn’t think Caesar Flickerman had ever stuck to a script. He bounced around, trying to play up every tribute’s strengths. If she wasn’t interested in discussing her family, surely he would notice. If he did, then he would stop and ask something else. Something she could answer.

That calmed her down some. She stopped crying, only sniffling every so often. Her feet dangled over the edge of the bed, her toes brushing against the floor. She thought about Porter’s words from earlier.

“Ambition. Determination. Whatever you want to call it. We can spin it. And with your father…”

There he was. For someone who Thea thought so little of in life, Caleb had a way of worming his way into her mind in death.

Thea wiped her nose on the back of her hand, sniffling. Maybe this was proof Porter wasn’t planning on helping her. She thought that Thea’s so-called rebel father could help her. It was ridiculous. Rebels didn’t win the Hunger Games, they were the reason it existed. And Caleb, as much as Thea hated to admit it, was a rebel now. At least by the Capitol’s definition. He not only tried to stop the Reaping—which, in itself, was illegal—but he called for the end of the Games. That was treason. Her father committed treason. That wouldn’t help Thea, it would get her killed.

If it hasn’t already, Thea bitterly thought. The broadcast may have been cut off, but there was no telling how much people saw before it did. In District Five, the news would quietly but quickly spread to anyone who hadn’t personally seen the rest of Caleb’s outburst. People would discuss it out of the corners of their mouths while watching out for peacekeepers. The truth would get twisted and there before long Alec Farrow would be brought into the conversation.

Caleb didn’t have the balls to save his brother but he sure did try to save his daughter, They’d say. Maybe he wasn’t a coward, after all.

There was no telling what kind of treatment Lydia would be subjected to. Normally, there were condolences all around for the families of tributes, but Caleb complicated things. She might be avoided, or ostracized completely. If anyone did approach Lydia, they wouldn’t mention Caleb, only Thea.

What a good girl you have , they might say.   Always so nice and polite.

But soon have would turn into had and Thea would be just as dead to the district as Alec and Caleb were.

And what really sucked about it, is that Thea wouldn’t blame them. She would do the same thing. She has done the same thing. Every year two of her peers were chosen and thrown into the Games, and every year she would give her condolences to their families. At first, she would try to act hopeful, telling them, So-and-so’s smart. They might make it. The family would smile and thank her, and she would continue with her life, fully aware that her peers weren’t coming home. She knew it, their families knew it, everyone knew it. But only someone cruel would actually say it. At least out loud.

How many people expected Thea to die? Even if Caleb’s outburst had been contained to District Five, the Capitol had to know. It was their job to know. The Gamemakers were probably already plotting ways to kill her. They would make a production out of it. Those in the dark of Caleb’s treasonous act would call it bad luck, but the people of District Five would see it for the message it was: a reminder of what happened to rebels and rebel sympathizers.

Thea brought a throw pillow to her chest and hugged it. Those pills of Porter’s must have her higher than a kite for her to believe that Thea’s rebel father could be of any help to her.

Letting out a long sigh, Thea laid back down, still holding the pillow. Her hair splayed out around her head and her necklace slid toward her throat. She reached for it. Despite its constant contact with her skin, it was cool to the touch. Fiddling with it, Thea worked the pendant between each of her fingers. One, two, three. One, two, three. One, two—

BANG!

Thea sprang into sitting position, cheeks flushed and eyes wide. She turned and found Porter in the doorway, glaring.

“Did I or did I not tell you that this is my room?”

Her heart pounding, Thea worked on calming herself down. On hand to her chest, she said, “I don’t care” and laid back down, quietly sniffling.

Porter’s nose wrinkled and she made a slight noise of disgust. “God. You too? I already had to deal with the other one crying.”

The other one . “Do you even know our names?” Thea asked.

“Of course I do. Move over.”

Before Thea could get a word out, Porter’s hands were pushing on her.

“Hey! Get off!” Thea threw her arm out, which Porter dodged. Thea rolled over to the other side of the bed and sat up, her expression sour. “What do you want?”

Porter propped herself on the mound of pillows, squirming until she was comfortable. “Oh let’s see… I want a lot of things. For Clement to stop being so righteous, for Delmar to get rid of those damn dogs of his… I’d like to get the hell off this train but that’s not happening. None of it is. So... I think I’ll settle for a nap. Which means—” she shooed Thea with one hand “Buh-bye.”

“What about strategy? A—A plan? Are you even going to help me?”

“I said I would, didn’t?” said Porter.

“No, you didn’t,” Thea said. “All you said was that you can make something out of me. Whatever that means.”

“Oh.” Porter blinked. “Well, I’m telling you now. I’m gonna help. I just need time. Okay? This is more than threat assessment, that’s easy. This is strategy and that takes time. I’ve gotta think on it. I’ll have something for you before the Opening Ceremony.”

Thea chewed her lip. “But what about the Reaping? M—my dad. What he said…” She shifted her feet, running a hand through her hair. “You said he could help but I don’t see how. If anything, he’ll probably just get me killed.”

Rolling her eyes, Porter sat up. “Seriously? What did I just say?”

“I’m sorry that I have questions,” Thea said defensively. “Yeah, the broadcast cut out but how many people saw before it did? What does that mean for me?”

“Nothing!” Porter snapped, drawing a line in the air with her fingers. “It means nothing because no one outside the District saw!”

Thea was surprised. Her eyes grew wide and she blinked. “Wait. Really?”

“Yes! The Reapings are on a ten-second delay for a reason. This kind of shit happens more often than you’d think.”

“What—what about the Capitol then?” Thea asked, fiddling with her necklace through her shirt. “There were all those peacekeepers at the train station.”

“Well, obviously the government knows.”

“Aren’t I in trouble then? How can bringing up my rebel father help?”

“Ugh!” Porter fell over, landing on the mound of pillows behind her. “Because no one else knows what he did, how many times do I have to say it? And, trust me, the Capitol wants to keep this quiet as much as we do.”

Thea tilted her head. “They do? Shouldn’t they want to make an example of me?”

“Do you want them to?”

“No!” Thea quickly said. “I just want to go home.”

One of Porter’s shoes went flying across the room, followed by the other seconds later as she kicked them off. “Then keep your mouth shut and let me sleep. I’ll have a plan by tomorrow.”

Thea cast her eyes to the floor and headed to the door, saying, “Fine.”

“And close the door,” Porter added, rolling onto her side. Her voice ended up muffled by a pillow.

The door closed with a soft click . Standing in the narrow hallway, Thea looked around. She didn’t know where to go. She didn’t want to go back to the sitting room. All Clement would do was talk and Thea wasn’t in the mood for much talking. She didn’t want to see Owen either, especially if he was crying like Porter said he was. She could go to another bedroom but knowing her luck she would get in trouble for that too. So she headed down the hall, intending to check out the rest of the train.

When she reached the door, she paused and looked over her shoulder, half-expecting someone to stop her. But there weren’t any peacekeepers around nor any avoxes, so she continued with her plan and opened the door.

This next train car was a carbon copy of the last. Thea entered a narrow hallway that had five doors—two on one side and three on the other. More sleeping quarters, she guessed. The only difference here, though, was that all the doors were shut. Thea tried the closest one and found that it was locked. The next one was too so Thea strode moving on, entering the dining car.

The dining car was smaller than the last two train cars but it wasn’t any less grand. At the center of the room was a set dining table longer than any Thea had ever seen before. It was covered with a lace tablecloth and had ten wooden chairs with plush cushions surrounding it. Against the wall, on either side of the buffet, were two additional chairs in case the ten seats for the five passengers weren’t enough. Between the silver candlesticks was an ornate flower arrangement so large it would prevent anyone who sat in front of it from seeing past the perfect blossoms.

In the corner was a bar, but it was larger than the one in the living room. It was easily six feet long and had a marble countertop. Dark wood panels lined the front and sides. Thea peeked behind it and found it was fully stocked. At least Delmar didn’t have to worry about running out of scotch.

Thea didn’t stay there long. She walked on through, letting her fingers slide over the backs of the dinings chairs as she went. She figured she would wander until she decided she didn’t want to anymore or someone stopped her.

But the next car was the last one. The caboose. It was a lot like the first train car with the sitting area and bar but much cozier. The floors were lined with dark carpet and the walls were covered with wooden panels. The windows were bigger too, taking up most of the walls but were tinted so the sun didn’t come in. When Thea stepped past the threshold, the walls lights turned on and cast the shadowed room in soft orange light.

The only seating was a long sectional sofa that was low to the ground and made of brown leather. The back cushions were short and the seat from front to back was unusually long, which made it more like a bed than a couch.

Thea tentatively sat down in the corner of the sectional, underneath one of the windows. The seat cushion was softer than a bed and the leather upholstery was silky smooth under her fingers. The stitching was so fine the seams were almost undetectable.

From the couch, Thea inspected the rest of the room. There were bookshelves built into the walls, acting as literal bookends for the television, which was even bigger than the one in the other car. This one, however, wasn’t mounted on the wall but instead lived inside an oak cabinet with doors meant to conceal it from view should someone choose. There was a clock on the wall that told Thea it was just after three.

She should be eating cake with her mother right now, thankful to have been spared for another year. What was Lydia doing right now? Was she—

No. Thea squeezed her eyes shut. None of that. Lydia was a grown woman, she didn’t need her daughter’s worry. Especially not now. Thea was worrying enough about the Hunger Games.

For now, Thea would focus on getting through the rest of the day. Tomorrow morning Porter would hopefully have a plan for her. Personally, Thea wanted it now. She wanted to know everything that would happen within the next week. From the Opening Ceremony to training, to the interviews. Whatever Porter saw in her, Thea couldn’t see herself. The idea that Caleb could help her was still hard to wrap her head around and she still wasn't sure if Porter would actually be helpful, but if the Capitol wanted to keep things quiet, then listening to Porter was worth a shot.

Thea leaned back, almost laying down against the couch cushions. She toed off her shoes and tucked her feet under herself.

Still, Thea half-expected to be arrested upon their arrival to the Capitol. Instead of a crowd of Capitolites and sponsors, there would be peacekeepers ready to take her into custody. They would lock her up until it was time for the Games. That would be punishment enough. It was perfect for the Capitol. Killing her would require no effort on her part. The Games would continue as planned, entertaining the citizens of the Capitol, and Thea would be dead, quelling any unrest Caleb might have caused in District Five.

It wouldn’t be the first time the Capitol fixed a Game. Rumor had it, they did it a few years back. Maybe the 62nd or 63rd Hunger Games? The details were fuzzy, but Thea clearly remembered the tribute who went insane. He started cannibalizing his victims. While there weren’t any official rules in the arena, there were unwritten ones, and not eating your competitors was at the top of the list.

This tribute—Titus was his name—did well in the arena and might have won were it not for an avalanche that took him out. In the days following his death, all around the district, Thea heard rumors that the gamemakers had set it up under the Capitol’s orders. Their esteemed victor couldn’t be a cannibal so Titus had to go. Were they already planning something similar for Thea?

Thea rubbed her cheek and shook her head. No... Porter had sounded so sure when she said the Capitol wanted to keep things quiet. And for all the woman’s faults, Thea didn’t think she was a liar. Thea certainly had her doubts, but she truly believed that Porter was telling the truth when she promised to make a plan. She hadn’t been shy when it came to insulting other tributes and victors. Why start lying now?

It was funny. Thea had just met Porter and already felt like she knew more about her than she ever did her own father. Who knew he could be so... so... passionate ? While he was never against it, Caleb hadn’t been one for free expression. He wouldn’t even say what he wanted for supper, no matter how much Lydia might have pressed him. He would shrug and say whatever. Whatever, whatever, whatever . There were days where that was the only thing Caleb would say. Thea wasn’t sure he had a favorite color.

(Now you'll never know)

Thea rested her chin on the back of the sofa and gazed out the window, trying to focus on something else. The tinted glass made it difficult for her to see any details but she could make out vague shapes. There wasn’t much. The terrain was mostly flat with some trees and foliage but not much else.

Her eyelids kept drooping as she started to nod off. Exhaustion—both physical and mental—closed in on her. Cool air came from a vent in the ceiling, making her shiver. Goosebumps lined her bare legs. A throw blanket was folded over the back of the sofa so, leaning over, she tugged it down and over her lap. It was soft, making the prospect of sleep sound even nicer. Her head landed on the back of the couch. Breathing deeply, she dozed off.


She dreamed of blood. It was everywhere. Bright, sticky blood covered Thea from head to toe. It was on her hands, her face, her clothes. It poured from invisible wounds on her stomach and back. Her arms were littered with scrapes and cuts. Her skirt was torn and her necklace had been yanked from her neck, leaving red lines on her collar bones. As Thea ran, she limped, her right leg crying out in protest. From her ankle up to her knee, it throbbed with sharp pain.

There was nothing in front of her and nothing behind, yet she still ran. She ran and ran, out of breath. Tributes and muttations appeared out of nowhere, coming out of the white nothing like they were stepping out from behind a wall or through a curtain.

Nadine with an axe. Astor holding a sword.

An arrow skimmed Thea’s back as she ran. Invisible wolves growled and snarled at her, pushing her forward.

Royal manifested in front of her, grinning wickedly. Thea veered left before he could run her through with his spear.

The lights cut out and Thea skidded to a stop, panting. Hunched over, she spun in a circle. Even in darkness, she could still see the blood that covered her. It poured out of her and onto the floor, each drop making an audible splat when it made contact.

Something was after her. She had escaped the tributes and the mutts but it wasn’t over. Why wasn’t it over? Hadn’t they done enough to her?

“Leave me alone!” Thea tried to shout but her voice failed her. She couldn’t do more than rasp.

Behind her, Thea felt something move. She froze, her legs trembling. The thing behind her came close, so close that the hairs on the back of Thea’s neck stood on end. It leaned in, a hand touching her shoulder. Then it whispered,

“Run.”


Thea woke with a start, gasping for air. She snapped up into a sitting position and collided with a head full of green hair. She screamed. Frantic, she retreated, climbing over pillows and couch cushions until she made it to the other end of the couch, chest heaving.

It wasn’t until she realized she had been dreaming that she started to calm down. It wasn’t a muttation or tribute she had just hit, it was Clement, who looked just as scared as she was, if not more. One manicured hand rested over his heart as he inhaled sharply.

“Oh my…” he said, forcing himself to sound calm. “That was… Why that was quite a surprise. I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to startle you. I was just coming to wake you. We’re—we’re almost to the Capitol.”

Slowly, the tension left Thea’s body. Her taut muscles relaxed. Her shoulders slumped forward. But her shoulder burned. She touched it and brought her hand back to make sure there wasn’t any blood.

Clement tilted his head. “Are you okay?”

“Yeah…” Thea inhaled deeply, briefly closing her eyes. She hadn’t had a nightmare like that since... Ever. Even as a child, she didn’t have nightmares like that. This one was so vivid. So real. Normally, when she dreamed, she could see the differences between fantasy and reality. Like she had one foot in her dream and one foot out in the real world, keeping her grounded. That wasn’t the case this time.

“We—we’re at the Capitol?” Thea didn’t see anything out the window. The tinted glass had obscured the view in broad daylight. Now the sun had set, she saw nothing but darkness.

“Almost,” Clement answered, walking across the room to the door. There were a number of switches beside it. He flipped one down and, instead of turning on a light as Thea expected him too, the windows started to change color. Like a set of blinds being opened, the dark tint in the glass moved upwards, leaving clear glass in its place.

“Whoa.” Thea moved to her feet and peered out the window. She could see everything now. The sun hadn’t quite set like she thought it had. The fading sun left just enough light to paint the area around them. They were on a bridge, the train moving at a slower pace now than it had earlier, and were surrounded by dark water. The surface was so smooth that Thea could see the reflections of the snowcapped mountain in it almost perfectly.

“Beautiful, isn’t it?” Clement said with a fond smile as he gazed out the window too. “The only view better than this is from the rooftop at the Training Center.”

Thea looked back at him, wrinkling her nose slightly. The only rooftops she had seen were dirty and home to solar panels. “Really?”

“Oh yes. There’s a rooftop garden with every flower and plant you can think of,” he said, sounding rather excited. “There are benches and a fountain. On one end of the roof, there’s a wall of roses. You’ll love it.”

“How do you know?” Thea said. She pushed off the couch and headed for the door. “You don’t know what I like.”

The spark in Clement’s eyes faded, but he nodded. Following her through the dining car, he agreed with her. “You’re right. I don’t know. But I’d like to.”

“Do you tell all your tributes that or am I special?” Thea dryly said.

“Are the two mutually exclusive?”

His words made her stop. Standing at the head of the table, she turned, resting one hand on the back of the chair. “You really want to know me?”

Clement nodded. “You don’t have to tell me everything, or anything at all. But we have the next week together so why not know a bit about each other?”

She swallowed, not sure what to think. She faced the set table. She picked up a silver butter knife, briefly wondering why anyone would bother to set the table if no one would be eating there. She put it back, making sure it was even before she continued. “I… I like omelets. With peppers and ham, and cheese. My mom makes them every Reaping Day. It’s—it was our tradition. I doubt she did anything today.” There was nothing to celebrate today.

“I don’t think I’ve ever had an omelet with peppers,” Clement said. “Surely they aren’t spicy peppers.”

Thea shook her head. “Bell peppers.” When she was a kid, she would only eat the red ones, claiming they tasted better. As she grew, she realized every bell pepper tasted the same, regardless of the color, but every year, after the Reaping, she would find an omelet full of cheese, ham, and red bell peppers on her plate.

“I’ll have to try that sometime,” Clement decided. “As for my favorite food… I don’t know.” He tapped the space underneath his bottom lip, almost getting lipstick on his finger. “I do love a good macaron, but who doesn’t? I’m going to have to go with… Pain au chocolat.”

Thea wasn’t sure she heard it correctly. “Pain oh…”

Pain au chocolat ,” repeated Clement. “A chocolate croissant.”

“I don’t know what that is either,” Thea said.

“It’s a pastry. With chocolate and buttery layers,” he explained. “I’ll order some when we arrive at the Training Center. You can try it.”

“That’s not necessary. I don’t… I’m not big on sweets.” She didn’t have much choice. Candy and cakes were expensive. On the rare occasions her family did buy a cake or pie, it was the smallest (and cheapest) the bakery had.

“It’s not very sweet. At least try it.”

Thea nodded to placate him. She would at least humor him and try a bite. If her appetite improved and she liked it, maybe she would eat the entire thing.

For the first time since they left the station, Thea felt the floor under her move. It wasn’t enough of a lurch to make her fall but it was enough to make her notice. Coming from outside, there was a soft hissing.

“What’s that?” she asked Clement, slightly alarmed.

He looked bemused by her reaction. “Those are the brakes. Welcome to the Capitol, Thea.”