Winning. It's a nice concept in theory, surely preferable to a bloody death, but it's not everything it's chalked up to be either. Sure, it does sound glorious: being a victor, the last one standing, celebrated during the Games and secure after. Children in the Career districts are made to believe that it's the ultimate goal to strive for, the way to ensure their family's well-being for the rest of their days. In truth, it's just another method of survival, and one that comes at as high a cost as any other.
Finnick Odair, fourteen years old and naive as they come, climbs out of the train after his victory tour grinning and relieved. Not innocent; never again that, but he's alive. His family has already moved into the Victor's Village. They'll never have to worry about food and shelter again. He won, the youngest victor in the history of the Games, beating the odds. He thinks it's over.
He doesn't know that it's all going to fall down on him, that his body won't be his own anymore. He doesn't doesn't know that, even though his Games are behind him, he's only just begun being a pawn.
Most people in the Capitol never think about how vicious an invention the Hunger Games are. They have no reason to. People in the districts are more aware of that, Mags thinks, although the richer districts, like her own, may have developed a screwed idea of what they mean.
When she won, the only child out of twenty-four to come back home, Panem was still raw and new, an empire built on scorched earth. Her mother began to cry the moment her name was drawn, and she continued to weep when they led Mags away, Mag's youngest brother clutched tight in her arms because he didn't understand and wanted to go where his big sister was going. Many of the people who looked on remembered a different world, fought in the rebellion, or lost people who did. The Hunger Games ripped open wounds not yet scabbed over. No one was glad, no one was hopeful, and no one had any illusions about the way the game was played.
More than fifty years later, things have changed a lot. Not the ground rules, of course: those are still the same. Twelve districts, twenty-three deaths, one winner. But everything around them got perverted and twisted. Now, the Capitol cheers on the children they send off to be slaughtered. Some children in District Four – and Three, Two and One – are brought up to be tributes. Mothers still weep and younger siblings still cling to them, but it's also seen as a chance. A springboard. Having a child in the Games is less of a tragedy, and more of a high-stakes lottery: gamble a child, get a one-in-twenty-four chance to win a better life.
Mags knows better. The stakes are too high, nothing but a cruel illusion. She has seen so many children go into the arena, and only too few of them come out.
When her name falls out of the bowl, Johanna Mason knows that the odds are most definitely not in her favor. She's not a Career; she has been prepared for a life of chopping wood, not fighting and killing. She's seventeen, strong and stubborn, but that's all she's got going for herself.
Nevertheless, she comes out the other end alive. A little worse for wear and with a monster riding on her back that she won't ever be able to shed, but if she's honest, she always knew it was there. Living inside of her, waiting to come out and play. And it did, it sliced and slashed, spurred on by the blood it spilled. It saved her, and it continues to make her feel safe even after she has left the arena. She starts to believe that she actually won something, that she's invincible and nothing can hurt her ever again.
She doesn't realize how wrong she is until she turns the Capitol down, doesn't let them whore her out, and her mother, her father, her aunt and her two sisters pay the price. Once again, there's blood on her hands, but this time, there's no way to wash it off.
That's when the monster becomes her only friend, and the Capitol her only enemy.
In his rare sober moments, Haymitch Abernathy can get almost philosophical. There's not much use in that, of course, seeing as how there's no one around to witness them, but that's just part of the irony. And see, irony? That's the one common denominator his whole life is centered around. He's the bottom line of a long and not at all funny joke.
Tributes from District Twelve aren't supposed to win. They're cannon fodder. Haymitch knows that when he goes into the arena to face twice as many opponents as usual, a bloodbath like no other Games before. He doesn't expect to survive, and no one else expects him to do so either.
He's overlooked, and wins by leaping out of the shadows that hid him.
But hey, wait. That's not the best part. No, the best part, Haymitch Abernathy will tell you if you give him the chance, is that the Capitol makes that same mistake twice, when it comes to him. They let him slide right back into that same shadow, let him rot there after they took everything from him that was worth taking. They thought him defeated, silenced, broken. They didn't care to worry about him beyond that.
Every year, he's forced to help feed a new pair of kids into the gullet of the Hunger Games. Twenty-four years, forty-two children. Tributes from District Twelve aren't supposed to win. And they don't, not until Katniss and Peeta throw President Snow the finger like Haymitch once did, and Haymitch decides it's time for another leap.
No one ever saw them coming. Not him, not Katniss. And yet it's the two of them – the old drunk and the girl on fire, both in their own way – that will make an empire tumble and fall. The surviving tributes from District Twelve. Haymitch Abernathy is going to have the last laugh, and he won't care how bitter it will be or how high a price it cost.