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Here is something they won't tell you before you enter the arena:

A human life is not so much different than a reptile's.

You kill, you run, and, in most cases, you die. Sana's always imagined it with dead, unseeing eyes turned toward that fake holograph of an evening sky, where beyond the ritual cannon blast, there might be stars.

If you're lucky, you live to molt.

The difference is this: the reptile walks away with its heart and its bones and its blood. You walk past the dead, only a shell.

You might as well be dead, too.

 

 

Sana wears earrings made from tiny shells on her Victory Tour.

Sana's mother used to tell her that you could hear the sound of the sea swelling inside a conch when you placed it against your ear. Sana can't listen to the ebb and flow of tides anymore without her lungs burning from being pushed underwater, without the cries of drowning kids flooding her ears every time she broke the surface.

The sea is a wretched, unforgiving thing.

The Victor's Village in District Four sits on a high cliff overlooking the ocean. They say that ten years ago, the winner of the 45th games jumped off the ledge, cracked his skull against one of the rocks, fell into the water, and died. No one bothered to collect the body. Three days later, the waves had carried him away, and it all became hearsay.

Some days, Sana sits on that cliff and watches, shivering, as the sun sets the ocean aflame. Some days, Sana wants the sea to swallow her whole.

And some days, rarer days, Sana wants to swallow the sea.

 

 

Winners don't tell other winners congratulations. Winners, in this case, aren't really winners, and the things each of them have seen have left behind a convoluted puzzle that none of them can piece together, can make none of them whole again.

"You weren't supposed to make it," is what Sunmi, who'd won the games eight years before she had, says once Sana's out of the arena. She'd spent all her time winning sponsors for their male tribute, who'd died in the initial fight for supplies.

This is what people say about the 67th Hunger Games:

It was a boring year. The favorites died earlier than expected, and the last few tributes died when the gamemakers rounded them all up and created a flood that only Sana managed to swim through.

District Four was not supposed to win. It won't say this in history books, but Sana knows this is how they all will think, like they all coo over her tiny shell earrings in the Capitol, like the impassive ocean of faces that stares back at her in every District she visits.

Sana knows, pressed against Sunmi's skinny breast by her skinny arms, that one of those cannon blasts in the arena should've been hers.

They can say what they want but this is what Sana knows:

Most nights, the darkness behind her eyelids is the face of the boy coughing up blood from her stab wound. And most nights, she lies in her too-big bed and listens to the waves crashing against the high cliff of the Victor's Village.

Most nights, the sun doesn't rise quickly enough.

 

 

This is what they say about the 63rd Hunger Games:

It was a good year for the games. The victor was this tiny boy from District Seven reaped when he was thirteen, and he'd been so very clever, and so very brave when he'd been pitted against the last two tributes and managed to kill them both.

This is what they don't say:

The boy, sobbing over the bodies screaming I'm sorry over and over again. The thunderous applause outside the barrier silences. Someone has to drag him out of the arena, and then it starts up again, drowning out his cries as how the swell before a hurricane swallows everything.

Sana meets this boy, now more a man, at the 68th games for the first time. He is taller and broader and with droopy eyes a bit sadder than the small boy Sana had seen on the staticky television screen five years ago.

"Are you going for a walk?" Sana asks. They are all supposed to be sleeping, or indulging themselves in the Capitol's opulences, and it almost makes Sana yearn for the sea.

He nods. He doesn't ask if Sana wants to join him, but he slows his pace to leave room for her strides.

Being in the Capitol is like painstakingly trying to bleach out any sense of the suffering going on outside of it. But even so, the coat he's wearing smells like the earth, the evergreen, and the fog of District Seven in the early morning as Sana trekked across the freshly rained-upon dirt and got her white shoes dirty before her speech. It's a jarring memory against the backdrop of a city lit up gold.

They're a long way from home.

 

 

Home, loosely defined –

Sana was eleven when her parents undocked their boat with the promise of running to freedom.

Sana was eleven when the fishermen found her buoyed by her lifejacket in the aftermath of a storm, lips blue and numb.

Sana was eighteen when the flood drained out until she was laying on the soggy earth heaving up water, and when she'd finally pulled herself up on shaky legs, all she could see were the bloated bodies sprawled around her as they declared the victor of the 67th Hunger Games.

If Sana closes her eyes, she claims that sometimes, she can hear the beginnings of a storm.

 

 

Chan reminds her of a forest.

Sana had never seen a forest until she entered the arena, ran as fast as her legs could carry her, and hid for days. And through the hunger paining her stomach, and the fear that kept her from falling asleep, there was something beautiful about the light that filtered through the leaves.

Chan tells her that at the core of every tree they cut down in District Seven are rings, an etching of how many years it's stood. "Like a ripple in the ocean," he describes it as, tracing them into the dirt of the garden.

Sana tilts her head to make sense of it. "A bulls-eye," she mentions. The 68th Hunger Games begin tomorrow.

The slight smile on Chan's face turns somber. "Like a bulls-eye," he agrees. He stamps out the picture with his foot.

Chan lies awake most nights, like her. Unlike her, his shoulders have grown broader and broader over the years to encompass the expansion of a heart too kind to let any tribute go without a fighting chance, and the resulting scar tissue that comes with each death.

Because this will not go down in history books but:

"Do you think they'll make it?" Sana asks Sunmi as their male tribute glances at them one last time before entering the testing room.

Sunmi doesn't smile. Sunmi closes her eyes. "No." She turns toward Sana. "But I also said that about you last year. And you're here now."

Chan doesn't lie. Chan doesn't tell her that they'll be okay, or that they won't make it past the first day.

But Chan tells her about the woods. His brothers and his mother and his father, and the long scar running down his right arm, bleeding everywhere as they pulled him out of that arena five years ago, still sobbing.

"I remember," Sana whispers.

He exhales shakily. "Do you." It's not a question.

"I do." Rings of a tree, the screaming cries of a boy, the raised skin of a scar, silver even in the artificial light of the Capitol.

Eventually, that night, Sana falls asleep.

 

 

The girl dies first.

There is a silence in death, observed or otherwise. Even through the blood still blooming from the wound, the fighting of the remaining tributes over the supplies, the cannon blasts as the area clears and the bodies are counted.

Because this will not go down in history books but:

This world has a way of taking away what you've grown to love and twisting it into something you'll hate, gagging you with it over and over and over again until you learn to breathe with lungs half capacity.

"You won last year," the girl had said when they'd first met. She was twelve, unusually tall and yet to adjust to the new length of her limbs, fair and pretty like the richer families of their District were. Sana had waited on the podium for someone to volunteer in her place. They never came.

"You," she'd pressed her lips together for a moment, as if to stop them from quivering. "You swam. And then you won."

"Can you teach me how to swim?"

When the showing is over for the day, Chan reaches for her hand. It is so, so warm.

This will not go down in history books either:

That night, it rains in District Four.

 

 

Chan says that back at home, he screams in his sleep.

"I – When I close my eyes, I," he covers his face with his hands. "I see them. Staring back at me. Dead."

Here is something they won't tell you if you leave the arena:

Sana doesn't know how to tell people what she's seen in there.

Sana doesn't know how to tell people how when she was eleven, her parents tried to take her somewhere far away. And that they failed, and that when Sana was eighteen, she'd held her head above the water, and that sometimes, Sana wishes she'd let the sea swallow her whole instead.

Sana doesn't know how to tell Chan that he's the most beautiful person she's ever met, to have held her hand in his through the coldness of each new cannon blast, signaling the deaths of both their tributes, to have lived and still have so much capacity to love.

So here is what she tells him instead:

"Victor's Village," she closes her eyes, imagining it. "For us, is on a tall cliff overlooking the ocean."

"It's cold in the winter. Sometimes it snows, and the wind is strong, and I can't sleep." She puts his hand in hers. "I can't sleep most nights. But then I'll go outside and sit on that cliff."

"Sometimes the tides are so violent that I feel like the spray hits my face all the way up there. Sometimes I'll wait there for hours listening to the water, and it reminds me of the games. Sometimes, I just want the ocean to take me away."

Sana squeezes his hand. "But then the sun comes up." Chan's never seen the ocean before, or District Four apart from his Victory Tour years ago, and those images are fuzzy. "And the sun sets the ocean on fire."

She opens her eyes. Chan's looking at her, and the sea is a wretched, unforgiving thing, but Chan is the earth. And he will never see District Four again.

"And it's beautiful."

 

 

Sana meets Chan at the 68th games for the first time. He is taller and broader and with droopy eyes a bit sadder than the small boy Sana had seen on the staticky television screen five years ago –

Sana meets Chan in the middle of her Victory Tour for the first time. He is taller and broader and with droopy eyes a bit sadder than the small boy Sana had seen on the staticky television screen five years ago, but they meet eyes through the crowd, and in them, Sana sees a weariness only the games can beat into you –

Sana meets Chan at the end of her games for the first time. He is taller and broader and with droopy eyes a bit sadder than the small boy Sana had seen on the staticky television screen five years ago.

Winners don't tell other winners congratulations. Sana cries into his shirt, hoping the further she buries herself, the further away the ebb and flow of the tides will drown out the cries of kids that are dead now –

Sana meets Chan whilst training for the first time. He is taller and broader and with droopy eyes a bit sadder than the small boy Sana had seen on the staticky television screen five years ago, and with tributes of his own to worry about.

But, "Here," he tells her, adjusting her grip on the spear in her hand. "Close one eye," he says. He steps away. "And throw."

Bulls-eye.

 

 

This is what people will say about the 68th Hunger Games:

It was a good year for the games, albeit a little predictable. The victor was this girl from District One who'd trained for the games all her life, who'd won by mangling her fellow tribute in the last grand battle to the death until he was entirely unrecognizable.

This is what they won't say:

The girl from District Four died first. Her eyes, even in death, were wide with fear. Her parents did not cry for her.

She had learned how to swim two days before then, and, had the arena been filled with water, she might've lived a little longer.

Because this will not go down in history books but:

Winners don't tell other winners congratulations. Winners, in this case, aren't really winners, and the things each of them have seen have left behind a convoluted puzzle that none of them can piece together, can make none of them whole again.

"Maybe next year," Sunmi says as the train starts moving. Sana doesn't want there to be a next year in these games.

But she smiles, tight-lipped. "Maybe," she echoes as the train picks up speed. Everything outside becomes a blur.

 

 

This will not go down in history books either:

Sana presses her lips against Chan's for the first time at the 68th Hunger Games. He kisses back, just as tender, the tears that she wipes from his cheeks warm like when he first held her hand in his.

There have never been any winners in the games. Some days, Sana thinks she should've died in the ocean, in that arena. Some days, Sana thinks it might've been better that way. Let the water swallow her whole.

 

 

And some days, today, Sana wants to swallow the sea.