Disclaimer: The Hunger Games is not mine.
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Just a reminder that submissions for my next SYOT are still open. Information and the tribute form are on my profile.
And here we have our last chapter. It's been a fantastic ride, and I hope you've enjoyed it as much as I have. Thank you to everyone who submitted a tribute; this wouldn't have happened without you.
District Eight Mentor
It was almost noon when the phone rang.
Lander reached over and answered it. "Care?"
When she answered, her voice was thin and tired. "Yell at me."
"The Victory Tour leaves in an hour. I don't want to get up. Yell at me."
Lander smirked. "You're still in bed? You're telling me that the victor of the Tenth Hunger Games – the girl who killed four tributes, the girl who survived being stepped on by a giant mutt – is too lazy to get out of bed and face a few cameras? Stop whining, get out of bed, and get ready! The train leaves in an hour, and you're going to be on it! So get up!" He paused. "How was that?"
There was a shuffling noise. A creaking. More shuffling. Heavy breathing. A loud thud and a muttered, "Damn it."
Lander cringed. "Fall again?"
"Just your nose if you keep talking."
Lander held back a chuckle. "Out of bed yet?"
A pause. "Does lying on the floor count?"
"Nope. Get up."
More shuffling. Another thud. But, finally, she answered, "Okay. Okay. I'm up."
Lander nodded, leaning back against his pillow. "Good. Now it's your turn."
"I don't want to go on your stupid Victory Tour, either. I'm still in bed, too. Yell at me."
But, instead, he got a laugh. A full, genuine laugh. Lander smiled. Good. "You—" Carolina fumbled around for the right word. "I don't need to hear about how much you don't want to go on this stupid Victory Tour. You're not the one who has to stand there and see the families of the kids you killed! You're not the one who has to look them in the eye and recite some idiotic speech about bravery and honor! And you're not the one who can't even get out of bed without falling – twice! – because your legs still won't cooperate for more than a few steps. So I should not need to yell at you to get you out of bed, Lander Katz!"
"You just did."
"I know. Out of bed yet?"
Lander sighed and rolled over. "Yeah."
Lander sighed. Sat up a little. Rolled over again until his legs were dangling over the side of the bed. His feet touched the floor. Finally, he was standing. "All right, I'm up. Happy now?"
Lander nodded. "Me, neither. Let's go."
Victor of the Tenth Hunger Games
She still didn't know what she was going to say.
"It doesn't really matter, you know," Lander pointed out as the train rolled on. "Remember, they don't really want to be there, either. They want to get this over with as badly as you do. So keep it short and simple. Read the stupid pre-written speeches, maybe add a thing or two about the ones you actually knew, and then let them move on."
Carolina nodded. "That's the problem. How many of them did I actually know? Maeren and Koray. And Shaw. But other than that…" She shook her head. "I don't really know enough to actually be able to say anything about any of them."
Lander shrugged. "Doesn't matter. Even if you'd met and talked to every single one of them, you still wouldn't know them better than the people you're talking to."
"I just wish I had known them better."
Lander shook his head. "No, you don't. That would just make this even harder. Just read the cards, get through these two weeks, and then it's over."
Carolina sighed. "Maybe you're right."
"Of course I'm right. I've done this, remember? It's just one of those things you have to get through." He shook his head, leaning forward. "Now, there is one more thing. It's about Mabel."
Carolina shook her head. "Not again, Lander, please. I don't need any help."
"Don't kid yourself, Care. You need all the help you can get – especially since your mother decided to move out."
Carolina looked away. That had been less than a week ago. They had tried so hard – both of them – but, in the end, they had both decided it was just too much. They simply couldn't go back to the way things had been. Her mother had been over to visit since then – twice – but the visits were awkward. Her mother hated seeing people in pain … and the pain was still there.
"Look, Care," Lander continued. "You're making progress. You really are. But the fact is that you still can't get around on your own – not without your wheelchair or your walker. If you had someone to take care of the little things – cooking, cleaning, things like that – you'd have more energy. You'd be able to focus on recovering."
"Mabel is eleven—"
"Which is exactly the same age Nicoline was when she started working for me."
"And how well did that turn out?" Carolina demanded. Lander cringed, and Carolina knew she'd struck a nerve. "That's it, isn't it," she realized. "This isn't about me at all. It's about them – Shaw and Nicoline. You want to make it up to her. Make up for the fact that her brother and sister didn't come home."
"It's not my fault—"
"No. No, it's not."
Lander smiled a little. "That's what you said before – the night before the Games. You told Shaw it wasn't his fault, and then you said it wasn't mine, either."
"It's still true. You did your best for them – both of them. And, let's face it, if Shaw had made it back alive, I wouldn't be here. So if it's your fault, then it's my fault, too." She shook her head. "But that is the reason you suggested her, isn't it. Why, out of all the people you could have suggested to help me, you picked Mabel. You feel guilty, and—"
"She's starving," Lander blurted out.
That caught Carolina off-guard. "What?"
"Her family – I've been keeping an eye on them. For their sakes – Nicoline and Shaw. They're completely falling apart. Both of her parents have lost their jobs, and they don't even care. They've completely tuned out everything – even their daughter. I offered her a job myself, but … she's terrified of me. Let's be honest. You're a bit less … intimidating."
"Because I'm a cripple?"
"No, you imbecile. Because you won't scream at the poor little kid. Because you won't take your anger out on her like I did with Nicoline. And because you'll need her as much as she needs you." He shook his head. "It would be good for both of you. Please, just … just consider it."
"I … okay," Carolina nodded.
Lander shrugged. "Who knows? You said you wanted to know more about everyone who died. I bet she could tell you a lot about Shaw."
Carolina lit up. "Lander, you're a genius!" She quickly explained her plan. "What do you think?"
Lander cocked an eyebrow. "Very you."
"Do you think anyone would be upset?"
"Anyone here having the meaning of the Capitol?"
Carolina nodded, and Lander considered for a moment. "Not if you frame it right," he decided at last.
"What do you mean?"
Lander reached for one of her cue cards and a pen. "Something like this."
Hunger Games Host
It was the same speech.
In every district, Carolina rose shakily from her wheelchair and took a few faltering steps towards the microphone, leaning on her walker. Then she looked out at the crowd and began.
"We're here today to tell a story. A story of victory and a story of defeat. A story of courage and a story of honor. A story of the Capitol and a story of the Districts. It is your story, and it is mine. It is the story of the Tenth Hunger Games.
"We all know my part in the story. We all know how I came to be standing here, in front of you. But no single one of us knows the whole story. We each have our own part to play, but this sometimes makes us blind to the parts of others. All of us – victors and vanquished – have a tale to tell.
"I'm not here today to tell a story. I'm here to listen. After this gathering is over, you can find me in the Justice Building. To the families and friends of this district's fallen tributes, I make this invitation: Tell me your stories. Share the part that this district's brave tributes played, and what brought them to that point.
"We're all stories in the end," she finished with just a hint of a smile. "Let's make it a good one."
Fallen Tributes: Arianna Cool and Hendrix Cohen
The boys introduced themselves as Conan, Nook, Cranny, and Rat.
"We thought she could win," Rat said quietly, tears in his eyes. "She was fast. She could fight. We thought she had a chance."
Conan put an arm around his friend. "She didn't even really get a chance to fight, though. After she ran away from the bloodbath—"
"I would've done the same thing," Nook put in. "You saw what he did to the other boy. I'm just glad that didn't happen to her."
Cranny nodded. "She would have wanted to go down fighting, though."
Carolina nodded, watching the four of them. Arianna hadn't gone down fighting. Speared through the leg by one of the mutt's spikes, she'd spent the last few hours of her life unconscious, completely unaware of the girl who had killed her.
Maybe it was better that way. Maybe it wasn't what she would have wanted, but at least it was painless. And certainly better than what had happened to her district partner.
"Anyway," Conan was saying. "I guess we just wanted people to know that … we miss her."
"A lot," Rat added. Nook and Cranny nodded their agreement.
Carolina blinked away a few tears as the boys left. Everybody deserved friends like that.
"We met at school." Genesis managed a weak smile. "And my father – he always sent me to deliver metal to Hendrix's father's shop. We'd been dating for a while, and I thought…" She trailed off. "I guess it doesn't matter now."
Carolina shook her head. "It matters. It means he had people who cared about him. That always matters."
Genesis nodded. "A lot of people. He had three sisters, you know. And a niece. She's four now. We didn't let her watch…" She trailed off again, in tears.
Carolina looked away. She had watched. She had seen what had happened to Hendrix. No one deserved to go through that, and no one deserved to watch it – especially someone who had cared for him so much. "I'm so sorry," she said quietly.
Genesis nodded a little. "You didn't have anything to do with it. And the boy from One – the one who killed Hendrix – you killed him. He didn't win, so I guess I should be grateful for that. But…"
Carolina shook her head. Yes, she and Kaji had killed Alicante. But she hadn't done it out of a sense of vengeance or justice; she'd done it because he was trying to kill her. She hadn't been avenging Hendrix, or Cormac, or even Maeren. She'd been protecting herself.
But maybe that was good enough.
Fallen Tributes: Binix Morraen and Dallas Roy
Mycr arrived with a baby.
Well, not exactly a baby anymore; the child in his arms must have been about a year old. "My nephew, Gannet," he explained, taking a seat next to her. "Sher's son … and Binix's."
"I didn't know—"
"Of course not. Not something she would have told anyone – especially someone who wasn't an ally. And I doubt she told them, either. She didn't want anyone's pity."
Carolina nodded. He was right, of course. Why would Binix have told her? They hadn't known each other. They hadn't even talked during training.
"She probably didn't even tell anyone why she volunteered," Mycr continued.
Carolina shook her head. Binix had simply seemed like she wanted to be there. Like she'd been training, and volunteered – like a few of the others. "Why?" she asked.
Mycr considered for a moment. Then he shook his head. "I don't think she'd want anyone to know," he decided at last. "Let's just go with … because she made a choice. I think she'd like that."
"Dallas was a good boy," his mother said tearfully. "He didn't deserve what happened to him, after his brother died. He didn't deserve the other personality that sometimes took over. He was such a sweet boy…"
Carolina nodded. The Dallas she had seen on the tape – the Dallas who had been there most of the time – wouldn't have hurt a fly. She wouldn't have even guessed that there was another Dallas. A darker Dallas.
A Dallas who might have steered the Games in a very different direction, if he had been there.
"He died as Dallas," his mother said at last. "I'll always be grateful for that. He was himself, at the very end – and that's what he would have wanted."
Was it? Or would he have wanted to live, regardless of the cost? She had no way of knowing, and maybe that was for the best.
She wondered which she would have wanted.
Fallen Tributes: Maeren Kinsella and Lyre Fairfax
Part of her had been hoping Maeren's family wouldn't come.
And most of them didn't. But her sister, Chenoa, came in, tears already streaming down her face. Carolina half-expected her to scream. To lash out. To yell at her for abandoning Maeren.
And maybe that would have been better. Better than the silence as Chenoa wept. She didn't say a word; she just sat there, crying, until Carolina finally tried to put an arm around her shoulder to comfort her.
Chenoa jerked away suddenly. "Don't you dare," she whispered. "You did this." She buried her face in her hands, the words echoing in the small room, and echoing in Carolina's mind long after she left.
You did this.
By the time Lyre's family came in, Carolina's face was buried in her hands. She looked up, startled, trying to compose herself. "Hey, it's all right," the youngest of Lyre's older brothers, Lislie, said, plopping down reassuringly next to her. "Everybody's been crying. If you don't cry about the Games, you're either an idiot or you don't care."
Carolina nodded. She remembered watching the highlights, seeing Lyre cry over his ally's death. "Lyre cared."
Lislie nodded. "Sure did. Let me tell you about the time—"
They talked for hours – Lyre's sibling spouting off one antic after another, recalling silly pranks and goofy jokes. Soon, Carolina was laughing along with them. She couldn't help it. They were just so full of life. Even when their brother was dead, they weren't mourning as much as celebrating the life he'd had.
Exactly what he would have wanted.
Fallen Tributes: Ardrey Keevan and Cormac Reilly
She was beginning to think that none of Ardrey's family would come.
Not that she would have blamed them. Wounded or not, Ardrey had been fighting for her life. Fighting to live – just a little longer. Carolina had promised to help her.
Instead, she had killed her.
When Ardrey's mother finally came, she didn't stay long. And she didn't say much. She just sat there, silent, unsure, watching the girl who had killed her daughter. "I wish you had tried to help her," she said at last, then simply got up and left.
Carolina sat there, watching the door, for a long time. Part of her agreed. Wished she had tried. It wouldn't have done any good, maybe, but what harm would it have done? Would it have hurt anyone? Would it have hurt her to try?
She wished she had an answer.
"That was him." Cormac's friend Clinton swallowed hard, holding back tears. "Everything you saw on tape, every moment of the highlights – that's exactly who Cormac was. He would have done anything to spare someone else pain, even if it meant going through that pain himself. That's something even the Games couldn't change."
Carolina nodded. He was right. What Cormac had done … it wasn't logical. It wasn't reasonable. But it was brave. It was noble. It was selfless. "I think he was the bravest one in the arena," she said at last, softly.
Clinton's face broke into a sad smile. "I wish he was here to hear you say that. I don't think he ever thought of himself as brave. Or particularly special or different. He just wanted to be a good person."
"Maybe that's what being brave is," Carolina said softly. "Being a good person … even if it costs you. Even if you pay for it."
Even if the cost is your life.
Fallen Tributes: Rana Goodrich and Kaji Ichihara
"I was mad at her," Abi admitted, holding Rana's daughter, Bailey, on her lap. "I was mad at her for a long time, after she left Bailey with us. How could she abandon her daughter? But if she hadn't…"
She wiped the tears from her eyes. "I may never have met her. Sterling may never have met his daughter. And he wouldn't have wanted that. So, now, I'm grateful. Grateful that she gave us this … this wonderful gift. I just wish … I wish Bailey could have known her."
Carolina swallowed hard. Maybe she could have, if Kaji had realized in the forest that he was chasing Rana, and not her. If their places had been reversed, would it be Rana who was sitting here, with her family? With her daughter?
She was glad she didn't know.
"Kaji was never going to make it out of there alive," his girlfriend Charlotte said quietly. "He knew that. The fact that his parents were rebels … He wasn't proud of it, but it was part of who he was. It was always going to be his undoing. And I loved him in spite of it."
Carolina nodded, wondering whether, if the room wasn't being watched, she might have said 'because of it.' Maybe it didn't matter now. Kaji was dead; there was no sense in getting anyone else in trouble because of him. "He saved my life," Carolina said at last, not sure what else to say. "He didn't have to, but…"
"You didn't have to save him, either," Charlotte pointed out. She leaned forward a little. "Why did you run that night – towards him, towards the screams?"
Carolina looked away. She still wasn't sure. But she was glad she had. Glad that, for whatever reason, she had decided to care. "I don't know," she admitted. "I guess I just wasn't thinking."
Charlotte smiled a little. "Well, then thank you for not thinking."
Fallen Tributes: Marjani Esan and Roshan Varick
"I shouldn't have let him volunteer." There were tears in Bastien's eyes. "He never stood a chance, and he knew it. He just wanted to make sure Marjani came home. But the only reason she died was because she was looking for him. If she'd been thinking about herself…"
Carolina cringed. He was right. Marjani had been looking for Roshan during the bloodbath. She had been trying to protect her ally. And it had gotten her killed.
"It could have been me," Bastien continued. "I would have been able to protect her. One of us might have made it home."
"One of you," Carolina pointed out. "Not both of you. And maybe neither of you – you don't know. Nobody does. None of us know what might have happened, if things had gone a little differently."
Bastien glared. "But you're happy they didn't, of course. Because then you might not be the one sitting here."
Carolina held her tongue. "But you would be. You'd either be sitting here, mourning your sister, or you'd be dead, and she'd be mourning you. Or you'd both be dead, and then where would your friend be? There's no good way this could have ended – none. But you're still alive."
"But I shouldn't be! It should be her! Or him! Not me!"
Carolina could feel tears in her eyes as he stormed out, and she couldn't help thinking of Shaw. Shaw, who had been so furious that Zione had taken his place alongside Nicoline, who had been so consumed by his guilt that he'd volunteered for a boy he didn't even know.
Carolina hoped Bastien wouldn't make the same mistake.
Fallen Tributes: Theia Slate and Cyne Whitten
"She was the only family I had," Theia's friend Row whispered through tears. "Even though she wasn't really – family, that is. She just found me one day. We were both starving. She said we'd make a good team. But she really just wanted to protect me."
Carolina stared at the boy, shocked. She never would have guessed. Theia had killed four tributes – one of them blind, two wounded. Carolina never would have imagined her as the sort who would adopt a fellow orphan to take care of.
Idiot. Of course she behaved differently during the Games, when she knew that only one of them would make it out alive. Theia hadn't done anything worse than she had. And at least she hadn't turned on her allies – because she'd had the sense not to get attached. Not to find anyone to protect.
At least not in the Games.
She hadn't expected to see Harakuise.
But there he was, alongside Jai. "I didn't know Cyne that well," he admitted. "But he had a sense of duty – of honor. And it got him killed, but … it saved Jai. He did something good, in the end, and he'd be glad to know that."
Jai nodded. "He and Brie … that's why they always got along so well. They would both have done anything – anything – to protect someone they cared about."
"Got Brie killed, too," Harakuise pointed out once Jai had left. "You don't win the Games by being noble."
Carolina looked away. "No. No, you don't."
Harakuise smirked a little. "Regretting these little storytelling sessions yet?"
A little. It would be easier to just leave. Forget the names, the faces. Never hear the stories.
But pain was better than emptiness. Pain meant she was still alive. Still human. "Maybe a little," she admitted. "But I'd regret not doing it even more."
Harakuise clapped her on the back. "Just five more left."
Fallen Tributes: Avalia De Montemercy and Mathias Arnett
"She was always so happy," Avalia's sister Sharlotte said through tears. "She loved her life. She loved other people. I didn't think she could ever…"
Carolina nodded. "Hurt anybody," she finished.
Sharlotte nodded. "She just … left them. She blew that whistle, startled the mutts, and left them to die. How could she do that?"
"Because she wanted to live," Carolina said before she could stop herself. "She was scared, and she knew that only one of them could make it out alive. She wanted it to be her. She didn't do it because she wanted to hurt them. She did it because she thought it was the only thing she could do." Just like me.
Sharlotte shook her head. "She shouldn't have."
"Maybe not," Carolina admitted. "But everyone in the Games does things they shouldn't. Regular rules – normal ways of thinking about things – they don't work in there. They just get you killed."
Sharlotte shook her head. "I don't understand."
Carolina nodded. "And I hope you never do."
Mathias' sister Caitlyn sat quietly for a moment, not sure what to say. "I didn't tell him," she said at last, quietly. "I didn't tell him how much I loved him. I told him I hoped he'd come back. I told him I'd be waiting, but I didn't say…" She wiped her eyes. "I thought that if I said it … he would think I was saying goodbye. Forever. But I was, and now…" She was sobbing now. "Do you think he knew?"
How am I supposed to know? I never even talked to him. "I…" Say something. "I think so. I think he must have. You saw him fighting. The way he charged into the bloodbath – holding nothing back, determined to win. No one's that determined to win the Games unless they have something – someone – to come home to."
"Did you – have someone to come home to?"
Carolina nodded. "I have my mother." My mother who moved out because she can't stand to see what the Games did to me.
"Good," Sharlotte said quietly. "Everyone should have someone. Someone to come home to. Someone who would miss them – the way I miss Mathias."
Fallen Tributes: Astra Halley and Koray Chambers
"They're all gone," Astra's brother Oscar said quietly. "Our parents. Raysa. Astra. All of my family – gone."
"What happened?" Carolina asked, startled.
Oscar smiled wryly. "They didn't tell you, then. About the plague. Not exactly surprising, I suppose." He shook his head. "You know, people act like the Games are the worst thing that can happen to you. And they're terrible – don't get me wrong. But at least deaths in the Games are … limited. Twenty-three a year. That's it. Always. Constant, certain. Twenty-three die, one lives.
"More than that are dying every day here. But does anyone think about that? No, the Capitol covers it all up. Because it's not exciting. It's not glamorous. Who wants to hear about children and elderly choking, coughing up their own blood, slowly slipping into death – who wants to hear about that when we can see some blood and gore?"
"I'm so sorry. I didn't know."
"No, but you should know. Everyone should know that … there's always some way it could be worse. Maybe Astra had it easy, in the end. She didn't have to sit here and watch the rest of her family die. Maybe I should be grateful she didn't have to go through that."
"He always cared too much," Koray's brother Jericho said softly. "You know, when he … when he went back for Maeren, I was sitting there, watching the screen, and thinking, Don't do it. Don't go back, you idiot. But, at the same time, I knew. I knew he would. Because that's just who he was."
"I tried to tell him—"
Jericho smiled a little. "It wouldn't have mattered if a whole army tried to tell him. It wasn't in his nature to leave anyone behind."
Not like you. He didn't say the words, but they were there in his eyes. She had left them. Left him. Koray had done the right thing. She had done the selfish thing. Yet she was here, and Koray was dead.
"It's not fair," Jericho said, shaking his head. "Someone like him … he deserved to win."
Someone like him. Not someone like you.
Fallen Tributes: Sura Petrovich and Matthias Hadrian
"She had already lost so much." Sura's father shook his head. "She didn't deserve what happened. No one does, I suppose, but…" He sighed. "She was always smiling. Despite everything – despite all she'd lost. At least now she'll never have to lose anyone else."
Carolina nodded a little. That didn't seem very comforting, but it made some sense. Now that Sura was dead, nothing could hurt her. Nothing. Even if more of her loved ones went into the Games, she wouldn't have to watch them die. The Games had done their worst to her. Now she was free.
"And at least it was quick," her father added. "She didn't suffer – not much. Not like … like some of them."
Carolina shook the thought from her head. Tried to think of something comforting to say. But there was nothing – nothing she could say that would make this easier for him. He'd already said it all: she hadn't suffered, she would never lose anyone else, nothing worse could happen to her now.
Maybe that was as good a death as you could ask for.
"I want you to know why he was really there," Hadrian's friend Roland said. "Someone should know the reason – the real reason why he volunteered. He didn't want to fight. He didn't want to kill people. He was trying to escape."
Carolina blinked. Trying to escape what? What could be so bad that possible death in the Games had seemed like a better option?
But, before she could ask, Roland answered. "His girlfriend, Tecmessa. She was … bad for him. And I guess he didn't know how to break it off, so he ended it the only way he could."
Carolina cocked an eyebrow. She remembered Hadrian mentioning his girlfriend during interviews. How she'd given him her hair ribbon, how he'd promised to keep it safe for her until he got back. "What was he planning to do if he won?"
Roland shrugged. "I don't think he'd thought that far. I don't think he really thought it through. He was just desperate. And desperate people do … irrational things."
That much, at least, made sense.
Fallen Tributes: Thea Cheviott and Alicante Morgan
"It should have been her."
Stellar's voice was calm, even, measured. But there was fire in her eyes. Grief. Anger. "You have no right to be sitting there. She deserved to win. She was stronger. She was better. It should have been her."
Carolina bit her tongue. What was she supposed to say? That she was sorry? Sorry she was alive? Sorry she had fought for her life? Sorry she hadn't rolled over and died simply because Thea deserved it more?
It wasn't as if she had asked to be in Games. It wasn't as if she had wanted it. Thea had chosen to risk her life. She had known there was a chance that she would lose it.
"I've been training," Stellar said flatly. "I promised her I would volunteer next year, and I mean to keep that promise. I'm going to volunteer. I'm going to win. And I'm going to do it for her." With that, she whirled around and left the room, leaving Carolina staring after her, wondering why anyone would want to do that.
"I never knew."
Alicante's father shook his head, an empty look in his eyes. "I never knew what he was planning to do. What he was capable of. I didn't even know he was planning to volunteer. If I'd known, I never would have let him…"
Carolina shook her head. "You couldn't have stopped him. You couldn't have stopped any of it. He made his own choices; it's not your fault."
The man in front of her smiled sadly. "It's easier that way, isn't it. Easier to put all the blame on him, because he's dead. He can't tell us why – why he did it, what pushed him to that point … whether or not it was me. It's easier to just say it was his fault. His choices. That he's the only one who's a monster."
Carolina nodded. It was easier. A lot easier.
But that didn't make it wrong.
District Eight Mentor
Carolina had barely said two words since getting on the train again.
"Maybe this was a bad idea, after all," Lander sighed. "If you hadn't met them – if you didn't know anything about them…"
"Then maybe I wouldn't feel so guilty? Maybe I would still be able to think that I won because I deserved it? Because I earned it?" Carolina looked away.
Lander rolled his eyes. "Nobody deserves to win the Games. That's silly. How would you pick? The person who's the bravest? The noblest? The person whose family needs them the most? The person who's willing to fight for it? The one who's trained their whole life for it? Who would decide?"
"I don't know," Carolina admitted. "But—"
"But nothing," Lander cut her off. "You can't keep doing this, Care. You can't spend the rest of your life apologizing for being alive. You won. Period. You're alive. They're not. Maybe you don't deserve it; I know I don't. But we can't change that now. All you can do is make the best of what you've got left."
Lander shook his head. "One day at a time. That's all you can do. Just one more day. One more step. One more, and then another." He smiled a little. "One more district to go. Think you can do this?"
Carolina nodded a little. "One more."
Fallen Tribute: Shaw Peters
"I was so mad at him." Tears fell from Mabel's eyes as she sat next to Carolina, instinctively scooting closer with every word. "Nicoline didn't have a choice, but Shaw – he could be here, right now, if he hadn't volunteered. I didn't understand how he could be so stupid. But now I … I just miss him so much, I don't want to be mad at him. I don't want to. I just want him back." She buried her face in Carolina's sleeve.
Carolina's arm went around the little girl without a second thought. Lander was right; she was all skin and bones. "Your parents – what do they—"
"They don't do anything," Mabel sobbed. "They just sit there. They rarely talk. They barely eat – only when I manage to find some food, or steal it. I almost got caught once, but … but what else could I do?"
Carolina pulled the little girl close, scolding herself for being so selfish. She'd been so focused on what would be best for her. What would help her heal. What would help her recover. She hadn't even bothered to think about the little girl who needed help even more than she did.
Carolina brushed a few tears away from Mabel's eyes. "I'll tell you exactly what you can do. You can come work for me."
"It won't be anything hard. I just … I just need a little help around the house, that's all. A little cleaning, a little dusting – and I'll pay you well."
"Did Lander put you up to this?"
"Yes. But I think it's a good idea. You need the money. I need the help. And I … well, I could use the company."
Carolina nodded. "I lost something – during the Games. Something important. I was so focused on surviving that I … I lost what it meant to care about someone. To have someone to look after, to take care of. I want that back. Let me help you. Let me take care of you – at least until your parents can. Will you do that … for me?"
Mabel's face lit up. She threw her arms around Carolina, nearly knocking her over. "Yes. I can do that."
Carolina smiled a little. "Then I think I can, too."
District Eight Mentor
Morning of the Reaping for the 11th Annual Hunger Games
She had been up for hours.
Carolina rose shakily to her feet. Leaning heavily on her cane, she took a few steps. Then a few more. One step at a time. Lander had been right about that, at least.
At last, she made it to Mabel's door. "Mabel," she called softly. "You have to get up. The reaping's in half an hour."
"I don't want to." Mabel's voice was thin and frightened.
For a moment, Carolina allowed herself to feel the same fear. Mabel had lost her sister. Her brother. And now she was old enough for the reaping herself. "I know," she said at last, quietly. "I know you're scared. But it'll be over soon."
"How do you know? How do you know I won't be picked?"
Carolina shrugged. "I don't. But think about it this way: if you are, do you want to be up on that stage looking like you just rolled out of that bed? Or would you rather make a good first impression?"
"I don't want to be up there at all."
Carolina nudged the door open. "Neither do I. You think I want to be up there with Lander? You think I want to be mentoring two kids who are probably going to die? No. But I owe it to them to do my best. And you–" She smiled a little at the girl half-hidden under the covers. "–You owe it to your brother and sister to be there, no fighting, no fussing. So let's go."
There were tears in Mabel's eyes, but she climbed quietly out of bed. Carolina nodded. "That's it. Now get dressed. Breakfast is on the table; if you hurry, you might have time to eat before the reaping." Mabel nodded, and Carolina slowly turned and headed for the door.
Lander, at least, was already up – as long as lying on the couch and staring at the ceiling counted. He sat up a little as she entered. Completely winded by even the short trek from her house to his, she collapsed next to him on the couch, breathing hard. Lander smiled a little. "You didn't have to walk all the way over here. I'm already up."
Carolina nodded. "I know. But Mabel needed a little time alone." She shook her head. "She's so scared."
Lander shrugged. "It's reaping day. Everyone's scared. Everyone who's got a brain, at least."
"Stellar volunteered." That was the reason she had gotten up so early. District One's reaping had already aired, heralding two volunteers – including Thea's sister.
Lander rolled his eyes. "Like I said, anyone with a brain is scared."
Carolina smiled a little, and Lander clapped her on the back. "Come on. Don't want to be late, and we both know it's going to take you forever to get there – better to get an early start."
Carolina punched him playfully. "One of these days, I'll be able to race you."
"I look forward to that."
"I bet you do."
Slowly, she got to her feet again, and Lander helped her back to her own house, where Mabel was waiting for them, wearing a beautiful light yellow dress. Together, the three of them headed for the square.
Mabel took her place with the other twelve-year-olds, and Lander helped Carolina to her place onstage before plopping down in a seat next to her. He reached out a hand, and she took it and squeezed tightly.
"Here we go."
"We imagine the edge of chaos as a place where there is enough innovation to keep a living system vibrant, but enough stability to keep it from collapsing into anarchy. It is a zone of conflict and upheaval, where the old and the new are constantly at war. Finding the balance point must be a delicate matter – if a living system drifts too close, it risks falling over into incoherence and dissolution; but if the system moves too far away from the edge, it becomes rigid, frozen, totalitarian. Both conditions lead to extinction. Too much change is as destructive as too little. Only at the edge of chaos can complex systems flourish. And, by implication, extinction is the inevitable result of one or the other strategy – too much change, or too little." ~ Dr. Ian Malcolm