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Hung Thin Between the Dark and Dark

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Jessica Williams was seventeen years old when her name was called during the Reaping. The first thing that registers was the shock, and for a while that’s all she knows. She walked up on stage in a daze, her legs moving because some part of her knew that was what was expected of them, and when she asked for volunteers, she could barely hear the words over the howling in her ears.

There weren’t any volunteers. Of course there weren’t- Five wasn’t a Career district. It was her and Josh Gad whose names were called and it was her and Josh Gad who boarded the train after a flurry of goodbyes she couldn’t remember no matter how hard she tried- she barely remembered to have a token. Their representative- John Hodgeman- flitted around for a time, too enthusiastic and too oblivious and too… everything, from his owl-like eyes down to the pointed toes of his boots. He didn’t sit still all through dinner, reaching over everyone’s shoulders to grab at the food, and kept up a running commentary as they watched the reapings, grating on Jessica’s nerves until she wanted to scream.

He left them alone once the reaping in District 12 was over, and then it was just the seven of them: five victors and two tributes. Jon Stewart, Stephen Colbert, Samantha Bee, Aasif Mandvi, and Olivia Munn; Josh Gad and Jessica Williams.

“Any advice?” Josh asked.

“Don’t puke,” Stephen blurted out. He’d been hitting the wine pretty heavily, and Jessica wasn’t sure he was talking to them, as opposed to himself.

“Actually, for tonight, that’s not terrible advice,” Sam said. “Keep your dinner down, and get some rest. That’s all you really need to do.”

“We’ll tell you the rest as it comes,” Jon said. “No one’s sizing you up yet, you can take it one step at a time until we get to the Capitol.”

That was not exactly comforting.

~*~

She ate at breakfast the next morning before they pulled into the Capitol, sitting across from Olivia, who was picking at a salad as opposed to say, the chocolate pancakes. Or the chocolate muffins. Or the hot chocolate. There wasn’t a lot of chocolate around the Williams’ place. They might be rich enough to avoid taking out tesserae but that didn’t mean they had a lot left over for luxuries.

“So, what’s on the agenda for today?” Jessica asked, smiling at Olivia.

“Today is about the parade,” Jon answered for her. Stephen’s head shot up at the mention of a parade, and the corners of Jon’s mouth twitched upwards in response. “The first thing that’ll happen is whatever the prep team decides needs to be done before your stylist sees you. I’ll be honest- it’ll suck and probably hurt a little. Just grit your teeth and let them do their jobs, okay? Once they’re finished, you’ll see your stylist: again, it’ll suck, but let them do their jobs. We’ve got a good team, and they’ll help you make an impression on potential sponsors. You should start thinking about what kind of strategies you can use, and who you want to mentor you. While you’re doing that, it’ll be our job to start making sure that the Capitol knows to root for you. So. Tell me about yourselves.”

Jessica froze up. After a moment of silence, Josh began speaking, babbling about his family and the prizes he’d won in school for speaking and-

She stopped listening. It just hit her that if she was going to live- and she really, really wanted to live- then Josh was going to have to die.

~*~

Her stylist left her with a mirror. She twirled in front of it for a moment, marveling.

“Sarah and I thought about it, and we decided that we’d pick one element- the sun for solar power, earth for geothermal power- for each tribute,” Reza had said. “And now that’s I’ve got a good look at you, I think you’re probably more of a sun person.”

She was. Yellow had been her color back home, and gold apparently looked even better on her. She twirled and twirled again, watching the skirt flare out into a thousand gossamer-thin strands of silk and reflect golden light out in all directions.

This dress was so dope.

“Ready to go?” Reza asked. “Your chariot is waiting!”

Chariot. Right.

She had to ride in District Five’s chariot with Josh.

The horses were a steely-blue color, with jet black manes and tails. There was a small fan installed in the chariot itself that kept her dress billowing out impressively. She spent the chariot ride looking straight ahead at District Four’s carriage: the crowd scared her, and she couldn’t deal with Josh just then.

She had the horrible feeling that she wasn’t going to be able to deal with Josh ever.

~*~

If there was one good thing about being a District Five tribute, it was this: District Five had the most victors- the most survivors- out of any non-career district. Most of them were still alive- and most of them had been from the past twenty-five years. Jon Stewart was the oldest surviving victor from the forty-eighth Games: Stephen Colbert had won the forty-ninth, Samantha Bee had won the fifty-third, Aasif Mandvi had won the fifty-ninth, and Olivia Munn had won the seventy-first, just two years before. There had been another victor, Craig Kilborn, from the first Quarter Quell, but he’d died between Stephen’s victory and the second Quarter Quell.

She thought about that all during dinner: about what it might mean, that distribution of victors. She didn’t eat very much. She was too busy thinking, and anyway, all the food she’d eaten settled heavily in her stomach, and it was all she could do to keep it there.

She dragged herself through the courses, forcing herself to eat something for appearances’ sake if nothing else. Reza kept shooting her worried looks, so she didn’t think that was actually successful- that might have something to do with the way she spent most of dinner chewing on her fingernails.

“You did just fine during the parade. You both looked great,” Jon said, after Jessica gave up on the pretense of eating. Josh hadn’t even bothered.

“They looked spectacular, thank you very much,” John- Oliver, not Hodgeman- said before turning to Jessica and admonishing “Don’t bite your nails, I worked hard on those!”

“I’ve been busy creating a buzz,” John- Hodgeman, not Oliver- cut in. “There’s already some talk of this year being another year without a Career champion- unofficially, of course.”

“Your training starts tomorrow,” Jon continued, as though no one else had spoken. “You’re going to have to choose a mentor, so-”

“You,” Jessica said.

Jon blinked, thrown by the interruption.

“I want you to mentor me,” Jessica clarified.

“I take you’ll be mentored separately then?” Jon asked.

“I, uh-” Josh floundered.

Jessica didn’t look at him. “Yes.”

“Works for me,” Jon agreed. “How about you Josh, who are you being mentored by?”

“Um-I- Aasif?”

Jessica kind of got the impression that she’d stolen his first choice out from under him. Well too bad- she refused to feel guilty about it.

~*~

They had some time after dinner, during which everyone else was busy watching the recap, so Jon brought her into the empty sitting room- the one with a fake fireplace filled with glowing pink flames rather than a television. She sat down on the sofa that looked hard and felt divine, and Jon sat in one of the armchairs opposite her.

“So how do you feel about killing people?” he asked.

Jessica hesitated. How the hell was she supposed to answer that?

“Honest answer,” Jon said seriously. “We can work with whatever you’ve got, but you have to be honest about it.”

“I don’t want to,” Jessica said. “I don’t want to kill anyone.”

“That’s just fine,” Jon said. “I didn’t want to either. None of us did- but we all wanted to live more than we wanted not to kill anyone. How about you?”

“I really, really don’t want to die,” Jessica said.

“Enough to kill someone,” Jon stressed.

“Yes-I,” She stopped, and thought about it, imagining what it would be like to actually kill someone. “I don’t know.”

“Are you thinking about whether or not you could shoot a gun at someone at a distance?” Jon asked.

“Stabbing, actually,” Jessica said. “No guns in the arena.”

Her hands were shaking. Jon’s eyes flicked down to where she had them bunched in the hem of her shirt, and back up to her face.

“Don’t do that,” Jon said. “There’s more than one way to skin a cat. Just- try and think about this, for a minute- if someone cornered you back home, and you thought they were going to kill you, would you be able to kill them?”

“Yes,” Jessica replied quickly.

“No, no, I want you to actually imagine doing it, and then tell me.”

She did. If she’d been walking home from her maintenance training- the center was clear on the other side of town, she normally took the tram, but sometimes she got hungry and spent her fare on a snack instead- and someone had attacked her, could she have picked up a broken bottle or something and attacked him right back? Could she have killed him?

How did you even kill someone? She had more than a vague idea of course- watching the Games was mandatory and all- but how hard did you have to hit someone on the head in order for them to die? How did you manage to stick someone between the ribs?

“I think I need to know more about killing people,” Jessica said. “I mean, I would try, but I’m not sure how I’d go about succeeding.”

Jon laughed.

“No, no- that’s good,” he said, at her offended look. “Okay, next question: what do you think about death traps?”

~*~

Reza apparently agreed with her about the gold, because her training suit had golden piping on all the seams that matched what nail polish she hadn’t already chewed off exactly.

She listened with half an ear as Atala ran through the rules about training: the long list of safety rules for each of the weapon’s stations, no fighting the other tributes, trainers are available to spar with- and then minute she was done, Jessica went straight to the snare station.

“See how you do with the snares,” Jon had advised her. “You were in maintenance training, so you’ve got to have some engineering skills. Spend today seeing how that translates into traps, and if you do well, then you can spend the next day on first aide.”

“What if I don’t do well?” Jessica had asked.

“Then you work on getting better the next day, and I’ll show you which body parts you need to aim for. But you’re going to need something impressive to show the Gamemakers, and unless you’ve got something up your sleeve you haven't told me about, snares are a good bet for you.”

So, snares it was. She was careful to keep her interests focused entirely on catching different types of game- once she’d managed one type of trap, she moved on to another, rather than having the trainer tell her how much bigger they needed to be to trap a human. She was pretty sure that she could figure that part out by herself. Probably.

She figured out what kind of snare she was going to build to impress the Gamemakers right before lunch: a complicated trap that would yank a fox or dog up in the air and then crush its head between two logs. It was messy, and messes were always in the Games’ highlights.

She studied Josh during lunch- he was moving around from table to table, talking to everyone who wasn’t at the Career table. The Careers themselves were sitting all in a bunch, talking and roughhousing, never allowing Josh out of their sight.

“Move along,” she told him, before he had the chance to sit down. He did so, looking hurt.

She did not want to be anywhere near Josh- not now, and certainly not during the Games.

~*~

“No matter what weapons you’ll find in the area, there’s really only three ways to kill someone with one,” Jon said that night after dinner. He’d only just barely closed the door and Jessica hadn’t even had a chance to sit down. She had the feeling that maybe she wasn’t supposed to sit down for this. “There’s stabbing, there’s slashing, and there’s bludgeoning.”

“What about strangling?” She asked. Aasif had done a lot of that- his was the first Game she remembered clearly- and the sound of people choking had given her nightmares that had stuck around for longer than the extra supplies his victory had secured for District Five.

“No weapon required. Wire works the best, as Aasif can tell you, but in all honesty, your shoelace will be able to work in a pinch- providing you want to garrote somebody. I don’t recommend it. It’s really the sort of thing you do if you can sneak up on somebody- which you can’t.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?” Jessica asked.

“It means you’ve bumped into that coffee table at least three times in past two days,” Jon said.

“Well-” Jessica began, and then bumped her shin into the coffee table. “Point taken!” she finished angrily.

Jon giggled into the back of his hand. Jessica did her best not to join in.

“Okay, okay. So- getting down to business- if you can’t get any weapons, try to find a stick. You can use that to parry someone who has a knife or a sword or something, and-”

“Go back to parrying,” Jessica told him.

He put her through her paces until she was just about ready to drop before ushering her back to her room. She fell into a deep sleep, woke up what felt like three minutes later, and went out to face day two of her training.

~*~

Josh was annoyingly chipper at breakfast: she spent the first part of her training ensuring that she knew how to tie knots and dress wounds- and which kinds of wounds she, or any other tribute, would be unlikely to recover from. Josh was annoyingly chipper at lunch, and had amassed a group of five kids into an alliance: Jessica spent the afternoon learning how to identify edible plants, and build shelters. Josh was mercifully silent during dinner: Jon tossed her a stick after dinner, and showed her how to hold one and use it for striking, blocking, and parrying.

“You know,” Jessica panted about an hour later. “You’re pretty fast for an old guy.”

“I have to keep up with you kids somehow,” Jon replied.

She learned a lot about how to defend herself, and end a fight quickly, followed by a quick round of ways she could avoid starting one, early on in the Games at least-“Remember, you’re taller than two-thirds of the other contestants, so feel free to use that to intimidate the competition. Just don’t try to intimidate anyone in ways that might make you trip over your own feet.”- and then he let her sit back down and left for a minute, to grab her a glass of water.

“Okay, so tomorrow is the big day: you’ve got to impress the Gamemakers. Now, I think at this point it’s safe to say that we want to market you as being some kind of confident. But that’s for the interview, and for the cameras in the arena. For the Gamemakers, you’re going to have to show that you’ve got the substance to go along with the flash. You can’t just be confident, or intimidating, even. You’ve got to be ruthless, or vicious.”

“Domineering,” Jessica added, because she has had clashes at school and maintenance training that have involved that word.

“If you can pull that off, great,” Jon said. “I’ll be sure to tell the sponsors that you’re domineering all over the place. But you have to be able to deliver.”

“I’ve got a plan,” Jessica assured him. “I’ve got a really tricky snare I can rig up for one of the dummies-”

“It’s not enough to ensnare someone, you have to kill them,” Jon interrupted. “There’ll be knives there- if you can ‘kill’ the dummy in a suitably-”

“The snare involves crushing the dummy’s head between two logs,” Jessica cut him off. “I’ve got it covered.”

Jon paused for a moment, considering. “That would work.”

“I have high hopes,” Jessica agreed.

“Well then, I think it’s time for bed,” Jon said. “I don’t know about you, but I’m pooped.”

~*~

The snare didn’t go off as planned, if only because the logs ended up colliding on the dummy’s crotch, rather than its head. There was an immediate reaction of groans and cringes from the Gamemakers, and remembering Jon’s advice, she took a knife from the supplies she’d used to assemble her trap, and slashed across the dummy’s throat. She was dismissed with a general air of appreciation, and managed to make it back to her room before having a total breakdown.

That was her plan. She was going to grab the backpack closest to her, find a place where she could be relatively safe, and start laying traps- not the complicated one she’d shown the Gamemakers, but simpler ones she could build quickly, and in large numbers.

“The main thing you have to worry about then is that either the Gamemakers or the Careers will decide that things are going too slow, and try to get you moving with a flood or a firestorm or something,” Jon had told her. “Keep a weapon with you, and some food and water if you can. Make sure you can move quickly if you have to.”

The strategy distanced her from killing people directly- from dealing with people directly at all, as a matter of fact. But she would have to check the traps. She would have to watch her back. It didn’t matter how isolated she tried to keep herself, only one of them could live, so they would come after her.

And she would trap them. And then she would have to kill them.

There was a knock on the door. “Jessica?” Jon called.

“Yeah?”

“They’re broadcasting the scores.”

“I’ll be out in a minute.”

She spent so time in the bathroom, making herself look as confident as possible. She couldn’t let Josh know how terrified she was. Then she left for the sitting room with the television, just in time to catch the District Two boy- Mo Roc- no, no, just the District Two boy. He’d gotten a nine. The girl got a ten. District Three wasn’t a career district, but both tributes scored a seven, which wasn’t bad. District Four got a nine, and an eight. District Five-

Josh got a six, which was just about above average. Not too shabby, but not enough to make him stand out. She got an eight, which was in the career range.

She wasn’t sure how she was supposed to feel about that.

“Oh, you might live,” Stephen said to her. Josh looked to Aasif for help.

“Don’t pay any attention to him. He got a four, and he made it,” Aasif advised.

“I, sir, was delib- delibritish- delitibl- I got that score on purpose,” Stephen slurred. “It was all part of the plan.”

“Sure,” Aasif, Sam, and Olivia said as one, drawing the word out until it almost didn’t sound like a word.

“Jon,” Stephen called plaintively.

“Be nice to Stephen in front of the actual kids, kids,” Jon said, not looking away from the screen. Jessica glanced back at it. The girl from District Twelve had gotten a four.

“And that’s all the mockingjay heard,” Sam said, shutting the television off on the anthem. “Now it’s time for all good little tributes to get to bed. We’ve got a big day tomorrow!”

“I thought we didn’t have anything tomorrow?” Josh asked.

“What do you mean, you don’t have anything,” John Hodgeman scoffed. “Your interview is the day after tomorrow! Neither of you are ready!”

“We’re also going help you act as pretty as Reza’s going to make you look,” Sam told her.

“But not too pretty!” Stephen interjected.

“You’re still the prettiest one in the room, Stephen” Jon said, clearly operating on automatic.

John Oliver coughed into his hand.

“That’s not what I meant,” Stephen said, with all the drunken dignity he could muster. “What I meant was-” His tone lapsed into whisper, even though the volume didn’t change “- people might get ideas.”

There was an extremely awkward silence.

“I can handle myself,” Jessica said.

“And we can handle you,” Aasif said quickly, clapping Josh on the shoulder. “Once Stephen’s sobered up, he’ll even give you tips on how to talk yourself up. Useful ones.”

Stephen made a rude noise and sank deeper into the couch.

“Bed,” Jon reminded them. “You’re going to want to be rested for this, believe me.”

~*~

Jessica was pretty sure that heels this high had been invented as a torture device. Either that, or Josh had switched out the real shoes she was supposed to be practicing in with these monstrosities in an effort to sabotage her by make her break her ankles clean off her legs.

“Okay, that’s enough,” Sam said, after the fifth time she’d tripped over the edge of the rug and nearly fallen flat on her face. “We’ll tell Reza to get you something that’s flat, or with traction, maybe. You’re tall enough to do without them.”

The next step is smiling, which she didn’t really think was something she needed lessons on. Then again, she hadn’t actually smiled at all the past few days, and her face felt out of practice.

“Try to keep it sweet,” Olivia advised her. “You can say something like ‘This thong took some getting used to, but I figure if Jon can do it, so can I’ and get away with it as long as you say it sweetly and with a smile.”

“Thank you for making me picture that,” Jessica said sweetly, smiling.

“Now you’ve got it.”

The next lesson was sitting, during which she almost fell asleep. The first year of maintenance train, when she’d been twelve, had basically involved sitting up straight and directing the drones to do all of the heavy work. She knew how to sit, and it didn’t take a lot for her to learn to sit with her legs crossed properly either.

“If you aren’t going to bother paying attention, we’re just going to have to throw you to Jon,” Sam threatened.

Jessica smiled, and stuck out her tongue.

They kept her right up until lunch, during which Sam told her told her to load up on protein. Then Jon took her into the sitting room.

“There are certain traits which sponsors look for,” he began without preamble. “And Stephen’s right- we could sell you as being sexy very easily. But that doesn’t mesh very well with either what the public saw on the chariot or what you showed the Gamemakers. So- we’ll try something else, something that works with both your audiences, and will also support your strategy without giving it away completely. Okay?”

“Okay.”

“Good. So, who do you want to be?”

“Me. I mean, I can’t be me-me obviously, but I still want to be sort of me, you know? Like, I know I’m supposed to be domineering and all, and I can be, but I don’t want to go out there and have to act like I’m some big wrestling jock or something, I want to be me, and, you know, not dead. Does that make any sense?”

“I spent the whole morning talk to potential sponsors. That’s the most sensible thing I’ve heard all day,” Jon assured her. “And you’re right. You’re going to be locked in an arena where everyone wants to kill and parts of the landscape will also want to do you in. The less energy you have to spend on being something you aren’t the better. But for the interviews, we need to bring one trait of yours to the fore.”

There a moment of silence.

“Suggestions?” Jessica asked.

“You could go for aloof and superior,” Jon said. “You did get a high score, and you are planning on working alone.”

“As though anyone else could keep up with me,” Jessica said haughtily, affecting a Capitol accent and sticking her nose in the air.

“Okay, so another option is cocky,” Jon said, once he stopped laughing.

That one went better. Fierce went over well too. They eventually struck a balance between the two, and she managed to come up with enough things to say that sounded like she was both confident in herself, and willing to fight right now if there were any takers.

Then she planted her face in bed and went to sleep.

~*~

She spent most of that morning waiting for John to quit moaning over her nails. Wyatt had just about finished with her hair, and was sniping about Kristen over what she wasn’t waxing before he actually got started.

“This is more talk about my pubes than anyone should be having,” she told them.

“Eyes closed,” Wyatt said.

“My eyes are closed, that doesn’t mean my ears have stopped working,” Jessica replied.

Kristen muttered something about the sexual objectification of adolescents' bodies in television.

“Then why the hell are you working here, if you care so much you can’t stop talking about it?” Wyatt snapped.

There was a long, tense silence.

“If I open my eyes right now, is there going to be a bomb or something in here?” Jessica asked finally.

“No,” Wyatt told her. “So keep your eyes closed.”

She had to keep her eyes closed while she was putting her interview outfit on, which was awkward in the extreme. Her shoes had heels, she could tell- but they were low, clunky boot-heels, not stilettos. Her dress felt a bit tight, and fell to just below her knee. She felt Reza tug on the fabric, and slip her a pair of earrings, and a necklace, and then, finally, she was allowed to open her eyes.

It was a dress alright, but the first thing she thought of was the suits the female escorts and Gamemakers wore. There wasn’t a lot of gold in it, and what gold there was had been toned down to a kind of Champaign color, and banished to the swirly embroidery that meandered around the dress, the wide belt around her waist, and the chain and settings of her jewelry. It was all pearl jewelry, the stud earrings, the pendant on the necklace, even her cufflinks and the pins holding her hair back away from her face. Everything else was lavender, even the shoes. It had subtle frills and ruffles down below the belt and lining the v-neck- but the cut of the skirt, the cuffs, and the wide collar folded down on her shoulders still made her think suit.

She didn’t look like she was going to fight in the Games. She looked like she was going to run them.

She didn’t know how she felt about that either.

“Well?” Reza asked.

Before she could try to come up with an answer, Jon burst in to the room, singing slightly off-key and dancing in a highly embarrassing fashion. Jessica watched, growing increasingly bewildered the longer things went on.

“How much do you want to bet that he kicks the chair into the dummy?” John asked Wyatt.

“No,” Wyatt replied, as Jon kicked the chair into the dummy.

“Don’t worry, he does this every year,” Kristen told her. “It’s his way of making sure you aren’t nervous.”

“Did it work?” Jon asked, dropping the song and dance routine mid-chorus.

“You know what?” Jessica said. “I got this.” The room burst into applause.

“That’s the spirit,” Jon said.

“Thank you,” Jessica said to Reza, holding out her hand. He shook it, smiling.

“Good luck,” he told her.

~*~

Ceasar Flickerman didn’t change from year to year, and as far as Jessica knew, hadn’t changed since the very first Hunger Games. The only exception was his hair and makeup, which changed in color every year. This year, he was in crimson red, which made him look a bit like he had gum disease all over his face. She sat next to Josh without looking at or acknowledging him, and waited for her turn.

She made herself pay attention to how everyone else presented themselves, trying to figure out who was the most likely to come after her. The Careers were a given. They had their pack, and they would try and weed out as much of the competition as possible before turning on one another. She didn’t know anything about the alliance Josh had made, and the girl from District Three didn’t give very much away- she had aloof down to a T. The last Career finished his interview with a bow and a flourish, and then it was her turn.

She did not fall on her way to the interview seat, which was her first big fear. Her second big fear was that she would forget everything that she’d planned on saying when she sat down. For a moment, that one came true, and her mind went completely blank the moment she sat down.

Then Flickerman started up, and it came flowing back.

“So how are you liking things in the Capitol?” he asked.

“Oh, it’s great,” Jessica replied. “I haven’t seen much of it yet, but the food is certainly great.”

There was a laugh from the crowd.

“Especially all the chocolate,” she added, once they’d died down a bit. “Though, I think I’d like that more if I didn’t keep hearing my Mom’s voice in my head, telling me that I need vitamins and nutrition.”

“Mothers,” Flickerman said knowingly. “Is she your only family back home?”

“No,” Jessica replied. There was a bit of talk about her family, and then her job training, which took up most of the interview.

“It’s a pretty fast-paced job actually,” Jessica said. “Especially if you’re trying to launch yourself into a supervisor position, like I was. You’ve constantly got to be directing everything and thinking about everything. Actually, now that I’m thinking about it, not having to do that these past few days has been really weird.”

“So your mind’s been on other things?” Flickerman asked.

“Well, of course,” Jessica said.

“Like what?”

She froze. That was not a question they’d covered. ‘What do you think about x?’ yes, they’d done a lot of those, but straight up ‘What are you thinking?’

She considered for a moment, her eyes darting to where Reza and Sarah were seated with the other stylists.

Ah, fuck it.

“Honestly?” she asked.

“Don’t keep me hanging,” Flickerman said.

“I’ve been thinking of how to kill people,” she replied, smiling sweetly.

There was a moment of stunned silence, and then the buzzer went off.

Flickerman laughed. “What an exit! Good luck to you, Jessica Williams of District Five!”

She didn’t fall on the way back to her seat either.

~*~

She couldn’t sleep.

She was trying, she really was, but she couldn’t sleep. She could barely make her eyes close.

“Knock, knock,” Jon said, poking his head in the door.

“It’s not time for me to go already, is it?” she asked.

“Nope,” Jon said. “I’m just checking on you.”

Jessica sighed, and tried closing her eyes again. “I can’t sleep.”

Jon stepped inside, closing the door behind him.

“None of us could,” Jon told her. “I hardly slept the entire time between my Reaping and my Games. Stephen didn’t sleep the first three days he was here, and only went to sleep after that because I stayed with him. Sam locked herself in the bathroom and cried practically the whole night before her Games, Aasif rolled himself into a blanket burrito and pretended to sleep, and Olivia spent the entire night debating trivia with Stephen. You’re doing just fine.”

“How did you do it?” Jessica asked, sitting up. “How did you win?”

“It was different for each of us.” Jon leaned back against the door. “You remember Olivia’s Games, right?”

“Yeah.” Olivia had been sexy all the way during her interview. It got her into the Career pack, where she showed how smart she could be, roping other tributes for her fellows to kill, waiting until everyone else was dead or dying, convincing one of the boys that they could make with her if only the others were around. They’d poisoned the other Careers. Then she’d stabbed the boy. The only other surviving tribute, a girl from District Eight, died of injuries she’d sustained from a pack of wild dogs less than an hour later.

“How about Aasif?” Jon asked.

“He strangled a lot of people,” Jessica said.

“He snuck up on a lot of people,” Jon corrected. “He’s a pretty low-key guy, so it came more naturally to him than it would have to Olivia. Or Sam. Sam just took everyone by storm. No one was expecting her to be such a direct fighter- she picked off half the Career pack at the bloodbath and disappeared with a good amount of supplies, having set fire to the Cornucopia.”

Jessica considered that.

“The Cornucopia is no longer made of flammable material,” Jon told her. “Similarly, none of the predators in the arena have been anything less than rabid since Stephen convinced a giant eagle to pick off the competition for him.”

“I heard about that,” Jessica said in surprise. “But I thought it was an urban legend. He didn’t actually ride the eagle, did he?”

“Yeah,” Jon told her. “That’s how he directed it to his competitors.”

“I’m not fucking with that,” Jessica told, flopping back down on the bed.

“No. You don’t have to. You’ve got a good, solid plan, just like Olivia, Sam, and Aasif did. And you’re going to win, just like they did.”

“How did you win?” Jessica asked.

Jon was silent for a moment. “Unexpectedly,” he said at last. “When I was Reaped, District Five didn’t have a lot of prospects. We didn’t even have a victor from before the Career Districts became Career Districts, like everyone else had. There was Kilborn, of course, but everyone agreed he’d been a fluke- and they all agreed that we- me and Madeleine Smithberg, that was the girl’s name- were going to die. Craig didn’t even bother mentoring us- Madeleine tried to spend some time with him, but, uh- he wasn’t interesting in helping her, let’s leave it at that. So, it was just us and Lizz Winstead, who was our escort at the time. She’s a Gamemaker now- we stayed in touch.”

There was something soothing about the way he was speaking. Jessica could keep her eyes closed now.

“It was difficult, because we both knew that, at best, only one of us would leave the arena alive. We made Lizz promise that she would get sponsors for both of us, and then try to convince whoever had supported the one who died first to transfer their support to the other. Then we parted ways. She tried Craig, at first, and then she locked herself up with tapes from the previous Games. I relied on Reza a lot- I was his first tribute, he and Sarah started their careers that year- and he got me through the interview and most of the my planning. I was fast- I played soccer- and I figured I could grab some of the better supplies before anyone caught me.

“I didn’t quite manage it. One of the Careers grabbed me just I got one of the bigger frame packs. I sort of clubbed him with it- he went down before he could more than graze my arm. I stepped on his hand while I was trying to get the pack on, which broke it. I ran as soon as I had the pack on my back- I found out later that one of the other Careers had finished him off, and that had sent the entire pack against one another. That helped me a lot. The first day they all fought among themselves until there was only one left, and then he died in the flood that night. It was- they had a really pretty arena that year. It was all mangroves, these really huge mangroves- for the first hour or so, I just thought the trees were just really twisty, or that the vines were really big. But then I began climbing, and I realized that I’d just been walking between the roots the entire time. I decided, just for the heck of it, to try to climb to the top. I never did get that far, but it was good for me that I tried- that night the first flood came through and submerged the bottom forty feet. The Cornucopia floated, I found out later, and…”

She fell asleep.

~*~

When she woke up again, Jon was gone and Reza was there, waiting with a simple shift for her to change in to. They went up to the roof, and a hovercraft appeared, a ladder descending. As soon as Jessica touched it, she froze. She tried to look to Reza for help, but couldn't move her head. She couldn’t even scream as she was lifted into the hovercraft.

“If you stay still, this will hurt less,” a man with a large needle told her. Stay still? She couldn’t do anything else!

The tracker went, and then suddenly she was released, stumbling almost into the floor. Reza appeared out of nowhere and caught her, and guided her into a room where an Avox stood by a breakfast spread.

“Can’t eat?” Reza asked, when she didn’t do more than stare.

“No,” Jessica said. She was barely not throwing up as it was.

“Have a seat,” he said. Jessica sat.

Reza returned with a glass of water and a smoothie topped with whipped cream.

“Try to drink, at least,” he said. “Sam swears by this smoothie.”

“Did she drink it before her Game?” she asked.

“I don’t know. Sarah was her stylist. We switch off every year, which of us gets the girl.”

Jessica swallowed a mouthful of smoothie and smiled. “This year’s one of your lucky years then?”

“I certainly think so.”

It didn’t take very long for them to reach the Launch Room, where Reza helped her figure out the complicated zipper and snap combination on her outfit. It was a very warm outfit, and she started sweating almost immediately.

“Cold weather arena?” she asked, taking her token and fastening it snuggly around her wrist.

“Looks like it,” Reza replied. “I’ll go get you another glass of water.”

“Thanks,” Jessica said.

“Move around, make sure that doesn’t restrict your range of motion.”

She did a few jumping jacks, and jogged in place.

“All good?”

“Yeah.”

She sat down, stripping off most of the outerwear. They sat in silence, until the announcement to prepare for launch came.

“You know what your plan is?” Reza asked as he helped her back into her outfit.

“Grab a backpack, run as far as possible, find a safe place and a source of water, start laying traps,” Jessica recited.

“Good,” Reza said. “Good luck.”

The cylinder descended, cutting off. Jessica held her breathe, closed her eyes, and gave it until the count of three before opening them again.

~*~

The arena was murky and dark- almost as dark as the launch tubes had been. It was cold too, so cold that for a minute she swore she could feel the air freeze in her lungs. All around her, she could hear the discontented murmurs of her fellow- of the competition.

She looked around a backpack, or a place to run- the Cornucopia was in the nadir of some pretty serious slopes, and she didn’t see any trees, or any plant life at all, everything was just rocks, how the hell was she supposed to make her traps if there wasn’t any-

“Ladies and gentlemen, let the Seventy-Third Hunger Games begin!”

She only had a minute- sixty seconds and counting. Her eyes darted around the arena, searching for something, anything, that was like what she’d planned.

There- that rock looked a little too square to really be a rock. A backpack? A box?

Well, she’d be finding out.

The gong rang out, and Jessica took off. All around her, the bloodbath erupted, and snow began to fall.