Tesla Sinclair, 17, District 1
Victor

It's the mattress I notice first. Soft, cushy, faintly cool in a way that makes the mound of blankets all the more cozy. This isn't the hard stone ground of the labyrinth, or the weak straw beds of the Roman houses, or even the springy second-hand pull-out Electra and I have to share in our shitty apartment. The only time I've ever felt this comfortable was in our house back in 3.

I keep my eyes shut, somehow both aware of the delusion and falling for it anyways. I'm sleeping in after pulling an all-nighter for school. Wirea's banging around in the kitchen downstairs as Dad tries and fails to teach her to make something edible. Electra squeals in delight as Archie chases her around the living room. Mom's soft footsteps are just outside my door, quietly creaking it open, about to whisper my name for breakfast.

"Tess . . ."

My heart rate spikes, and my eyes shoot open. Some primal instinct quickening my breath, tensing my muscles, shouting that I don't have time to indulge myself in dreams. I have to stay alert. Watch my surroundings. Be prepared for—

White lights. Electric. White ceiling too, white walls, white floor, white bed. I might have thought I was dead, if my insides didn't feel like they'd be scrubbed down with sandpaper.

There are people in the room, watching me. Three women in masks, clutching their clipboards defensively in front of them as they step towards the walls. They each wear the same pale uniforms, a stark contrast to the deep black suit of the man sitting next to me.

My mouth drops a little at the sight of him. The silver eyes, the carefully curled hair, the tie with green geometric blocks on a navy blue background. I know him. But I don't dare say his name, for fear he'll say it's not right, that he's not my escort, this isn't what I think it is, it's all just the next stage in whatever hell the Gamemakers have planned next.

"Tesla," the man says, rubbing his forehead. "Tesla Sinclair."

His voice is so painfully familiar, but I don't let my expectations budge an inch. If I allow myself to think for even a moment that I'm out, and then I'm not? I'll die. I will absolutely die.

"Who would have thought?" His eyes rise to meet mine as I clench the sheets with bloodless knuckles, too terrified to move, waiting for the next bomb to drop. "You made it out."

And then, a moment later, "Congratulations."

Congratulations.

It's real.

"Marcellus?" I finally find the courage to say. The word barely comes out as a whisper from my cracked and aching throat.

"Mm-hmm."

"This is . . .?"

"A hospital.

"In . . .?"

"The Capitol."

I sit back against the headboard, propped up by a pile of thick white pillows. Pillows.

I'm out.

Marcellus eyes me strangely, as if expecting something more, but my face remains unchanged. I don't . . . I don't honestly know what to do with this information. Out. In the Capitol. What does that even mean?

Part of the wall slides open, revealing a door and a fourth masked woman who enters. No clipboard on this one, just a tray with a bowl, a glass of water, and a small, unpeeled orange.

It's this spot of colour that finally drives the truth home. I'm out, and out means food. And a bed. A bath. Clothes. Everything.

The strangest squeak bubbles up from my chest as the tray is set before me. It dies somewhere in my throat though, which is closing rapidly, choked by so many emotions I can't begin to name them all. But sadness isn't one of them, that I'm definitely aware of—my lips ache as they quirk up, but I'm still smiling.

The bowl is filled with a clear, yellowish liquid, which smells so good it almost makes me sick. The spoon beside it is silver and perfect, and that's what really gets me, because how long has it been since I haven't had to eat something with my hands? My fingers shake as I pick it up, and Marcellus murmurs something—"slowly," I think, but I'm too enraptured to care.

Until I see my reflection.

It's the curve of the metal. Distorting your face. But my free hand still shoots up to feel the left side of my chin, my cheek. I expect something smooth, as soft as these sheets, but instead what I find is rough and wrinkled and veiny and wrong.

Still burned. Still like the arena.

That's not me. I'm not like this, not now. I'm out. I'm different. I'm me.

The masked woman shrieks as the spoon strikes the wall by her head. I find myself wondering who threw it even as I take the bowl and hurl it at another approaching woman. Marcellus is saying something, but I can't hear him; I can't even hear myself, because I am screaming now, I realise. It's like I'm on the ceiling, watching a monster thrash on the bad while some poor, hapless humans try to restrain it. Its jaw works wildly, spit spraying from its lips, ugly red limbs spasming back and forth. So inappropriate in this pleasant white room. A relic of a worse place, a worse time. Not something that belongs here now.

This is the sentiment that it—that I try to express. But I can't make the logic work for me, can't form sentences to calmly explain to everyone what the problem is. All I can screech, over and over, is the same senseless phrase, which I only hear with my own ears seconds before a needle is jabbed into my arm.

"Put me back! Put me back, put me back, PUT ME BACK!"

/\/\/\/\/\/\/\

This . . . continues. Wake, scream, repeat.

How many times I throw a fit, I'm not sure. When I finally come to my senses, I'm too embarrassed to ask. It's not even my brain that stops me, in the end—it's my throat. One day or night, I open my mouth and find that making any sound feels like it opens a thousand cuts from my lungs to my lips. My next instinct is to cry, but that hurts too much too. I could always wrestle with the restraints they've put me in anyways, but now that I've taken a moment to pause, I realise just how exhausted I feel. So all I wind up doing is lying awake on this cushy mattress, staring up at the blank, blank ceiling. Nothing to do but breathe.

Eventually Marcellus comes back. I'm still not up to talking, but I'm far more receptive to listening, which, it turns out, is all he really cares about. There are still procedures to follow, after all. Still an audience to please.

Roaring, stomping, cheering my name. "TES-LA! TES-LA!"

Marcellus pauses carefully when I drive the nails of my thumbs into the sides of my index fingers. But I don't start screaming again, so he deems it safe to continue.

Blah blah, huge honour, blah, President is ecstatic. I spend most of his introduction trying not to picture Julia August's face as she threw down a laurel wreath into the pool of blood at my feet. Mostly because I imagine my face probably looked similar as I'd picked it up and shoved it on my head.

I really want to check my hair right now. There are still spots of blood on my scalp, I'm sure of it. I can feel it. But the restraints won't let me; I form tight fists and do my best to resist tugging on them. Still, my breaths come faster; in, out, in, out, inoutinoutin—

"—and then you'll be off back to One."

". . . what?"

"Back to One," Marcellus repeats, as my head swivels to meet his gaze. I'm looking for mockery, any signs that he's lying—he wasn't exactly the nicest person last time we were here—but though there's still an expression of perpetual distaste curling his lips, he truly seems genuine. "Four more days, Tesla, and then you're on the train."

Four more days.

/\/\/\/\/\/\/\

The wait is agonising.

I didn't realise at the time that I'd be spending those four days in the hospital. Marcellus and I had a whole conversation without me acting out once, so I really think that should have given me the go-ahead to leave, but apparently the doctor doesn't agree. Which only makes me more twitchy since I'm tied to a bed and trapped with my own thoughts for that whole time. Panic and anger fill my stomach in shifts, threatening to boil over until I clench my jaw and squeeze my eyes shut and force myself to think of anything else. If I slip up, they might keep me in the hospital for even longer. They might never let me leave.

"Thinking," of course, is a minefield. I can't focus on anything that relates to me, past, present, or future. At first I try something impersonal, like math equations I remember from school, until it suddenly hits me that Vesper was the one who gave me that particular idea ("The numbers help. When people . . . when it hurts. I guess maybe because they have solutions."). After a near-miss of a meltdown, I switch gears to art. Fucking art. We never had it in 3, but for some reason it's part of the 1 curriculum, and when I was hired as a tutor it was expected I knew everything, but god I was bad at it. I couldn't see things properly, never cared about the direction of light, the hints of colours beneath colours, and don't even get me started on perspective. It was frustrating and hair-pulling and exactly what I need now.

So I pass the four days trying to imagine how I'd draw this room. Noticing that the lights aren't just white, but slightly blue; studying every wrinkle in my sheets to try and comprehend how folds work. And as long as I don't let my mind wander too far (drawing = art = music = Vesper = Games), it's passable. Enough, at least, for me to keep my head. I even resist the urge to run when, on the morning of that blessed fourth day, they finally release the restraints. Instead I sit up primly, and I say "thank you, ma'am" to all the masked ladies in a voice that sounds nothing like my own, and I follow Marcellus out into the hall and off to the elevator.

It's only when we step inside that I recognise it. I've been in it before—we're in the Training Centre.

When I'd asked Vesper where the Peacekeepers had taken him and Soren after their fight, he'd stammered something about "underground."

He's been in this elevator.

They've all been in this elevator.

I close my eyes and try to listen to the music, because Marcellus is breathing so heavily it sounds like there's twenty-three of him.

Fortunately we don't go far. Past the lobby, the gym, then to our floor. He has to nudge me to get out; I don't realise he's not following until I stumble into the hall alone.

In this all-too-familiar-setting, it would take me approximately three seconds to lose it —thankfully my prep team appears in two. I don't understand a word they say, or why they're here, but I'm just catatonic enough to let them march me to my room without losing full control of my body. My mind is essentially white noise, which is good, because if I'd had the ability to think, I would have remembered that Vesper's door is right across the hall, and then I would have looked at it, and then . . .

Prep. Prep is fine. Not nearly as painful as the first time, but then I suppose my idea of "pain" has been irreversibly skewed since I was last dolled up. I started to panic a bit at first when I saw all the tools they had laid out—the thought of people approaching me with scissors, with hot irons, nearly made me scream—but surprisingly when they started I actually . . . relaxed, a little bit. Capitolites, my stylist and prep team in particular, are just so far removed from the threats I've had to face that they don't even register on my radar. I fear humans and all the malicious intents that go with them, but these are something else entirely, nothing but blobs of colour with strange accents and sparkly wigs and too-big-to-be-normal eyes. I remember being completely unnerved by them my first time here, but at least it's utterly impossible to find them menacing.

They've also prepared the best bath I've ever had, so that helps. The moment I enter the room, Calynthia whirls me away to the tub, which is already steaming, filled with purple bubbles and the strong smell of lavender. I sink deep into the water while her hands soothingly scrub through what hair I've got left, and it's like I can feel the blood washing away. This is it. This is where I change back.

Except, six hours later, I'm standing before a mirror and trying not to cry. The dress is gorgeous, of course, and gold, but it's practically sleeveless, with a plunging neckline and a slit in the skirt that happens to be on my left side. My bracelet, necklace, and even the golden wreath in my hair are all studded with small rubies that only highlight the redness of my skin. Calynthia actually asked my permission to shave my head, which I vehemently denied her, but now I see how silly it looks, are even her best attempts at styling my short, choppy hair fail to cover the scarring and bald patches. And my face . . . my face . . .

Calynthia finishes touching up my lipstick then closes her kit as I choke out, "Is that all?"

"Oh, everyone wants to see the scars." She puts her hands on my shoulders, smiling innocently. "You're a warrior, Tesla."

I want to answer with equal innocence. "Me? No. I'm a scholar. Fighting isn't something I'm capable of." Maybe it's a product of having a twin, of being used to seeing someone with such similar features, but during these past four days, I've started to think of the arena's victor as . . . someone else. Another District 1 girl, who looked like me, but wasn't me (besides, it wasn't my idea to do all those things, it was Wirea's, wasn't it?). That girl, she's like my sister, someone I'm close to, and understand, and pity, but not she isn't me. She can't be me.

Except there she is in the mirror. Trembling, clenching her fists—am I doing that? But I'm not angry; although, come to think of it, Calynthia is supposed to be my stylist, she's supposed to know her make-up, how to fix this, if she would just do her fucking job

I don't realise I spend the rest of our session staring at the scissors on the vanity, weighing terrible scenarios in my head, until Marcellus knocks on the door and escorts me out.

I'm not sure what this occasion is supposed to be—I think he said something about a celebration—but I find it strange that he takes me back down into the basement. We pass down a long hall (labyrinthlabyrinthlabyrinth) before finally coming upon a grey, nondescript door.

"You'll be lifted up to the stage," Marcellus says by way of vague explanation, before opening the door and revealing a simple metal plate.

I nearly claw his eyes out before three Peacekeepers swoop in from nowhere to intervene. He's calling me a bitch, and I'm shrieking that he's a fucking asshole, "you're gonna put me on that again, are you shitting me, I will kill you, I will kill you if you touch me!"

The doctors arrive. They give me something. Eventually I pass out. Not before biting a Peacekeeper's finger near off and getting blood all over my nice gold dress.

Rinse, repeat.

/\/\/\/\/\/\/\

"Miss Sinclair!" Domitius Afer greets me warmly when, two weeks later, I walk out onto his stage (from the wings, not some godforsaken metal plate, you insensitive fuckwits). "You've really made us wait for the pleasure of your appearance!"

"Am I not worth waiting for?" I say with a smirk that gets the audience laughing. Technically we got the go-ahead for my interview two days ago, but I insisted on reserving those days to practice with Marcellus every possible line I might need to endear myself back to the crowd. My escort's not pleasant company, by any stretch of the definition, but he knows how to build a mask. And that's what I need. More than anything.

"Of course you are. Look at her!" He throws his arm as I do a little curtsy, and the audience cheers. I'll hand it to him, if Afer's own act is genuine, then he's probably the only half-decent Capitolite I've met. During the first round of interviews, he managed to get an audience who'd booed and hurled rotten fruits at us not a week before to actually applaud our appearance. And here he is again, getting the Capitol to cheer for a member of its sworn enemies.

But then . . . I'm not, I suppose. Not now that I'm their victor. This isn't just the interviewer's manipulation. These Capitolites genuinely see me as a hero.

"They'll like you. They'll trust you. I could never make them do that."

A violent shudder runs up my spine that I barely conceal with a smile as I sit myself across from Domitius.

"Now, the president was supposed to be here tonight, but unfortunately she couldn't make the rescheduling," Domitius says, passing me an enormous bouquet of roses that I guess I'm just supposed to hold for the rest of this evening. "She does send her deepest apologies."

"I'm sure she's got more important things to be doing. Being the head of a country, and all."

"Of course, of course. She did send a quick video message though, so without further ado, let us begin!"

The lights dim. The audience cheers, then swiftly hushes. I take a deep breath, fingering a thorny rose stem, and try to concentrate on the fact that it could be worse—I could be doing this while forced to look the real Julia August in the eye.

Instead, her face fills the twenty-foot screen behind us, her eyes thankfully forward rather than looking down at me. This close, I can see every pixel of her skin, and she looks flawless. Too flawless. Part of our courseload back in 3 was learning how to "assist the Capitol in presenting a pleasant public face," and though most wouldn't see it, if you know what you're looking for, it becomes glaringly obvious. The skin beneath her eyes is airbrushed to oblivion, the corners of her mouth are stretched up just a bit too high to be natural. From the big picture, she's the epitome of a bubbly Capitolite, but look closer and you start to wonder what exactly they're trying to cover up. Stress, perhaps? Guilt?

SorenStanleyReeseVesper—

"Welcome, citizens of Panem!" the president's voice booms, and I force myself to focus on the amusing fact that someone's attempted to alter her pitch to sound a bit more excited, and, consequently, much more like a chipmunk. "And welcome, of course, to our Hunger Games victor—Tesla Sinclair!"

A spotlight momentarily blinds me as applause deafens the stadium. I wave calmly, a well practiced gesture, and smile—always smile.

"When this event began, its purpose was twofold. To honour our ancestral civilisations who had survived so much hardship, as we ourselves were now forced to endure. And to lay the groundwork for a new future, in which any humble citizen of our country could have the chance to win fame and fortune, not just for themselves, but for the entire district which they call home. With Miss Sinclair's victory, this final purpose has indeed been achieved."

Is it just me, or did I hear a hesitation?

"The end of these Hunger Games marks a new era for Panem," the president continues. "An era that is post-war, post-violence. An era of prosperity and peace. Miss Sinclair has emerged from the flames, as we all have, and has come out stronger and wiser for it."

I would have snorted something decidedly unladylike at that statement, if I wasn't half-convinced that the president was being genuinely serious. She's really talking like it's over—like it's all over.

"So raise a glass to a new age, and to our young victor." The president smiles toothily, but again it's warped, too big, too strained. "Thank you very much. Goodnight, Panem, and enjoy."

The screen blinks off. The audience claps politely. I follow along, at this point accustomed to mimicking the actions of others on autopilot while inside my mind is a thousand miles away. Julia August's words repeat in my head, over and over. That's . . . it? Really? Nothing further about the child murder games the government just sanctioned? We're past that now? I don't know whether to be relieved or furious.

"It's completely insane. And it never won't be."

I manage to catch myself right before I say "shut up" out loud on live TV. That would have been a difficult one to come back from.

I keep my mental voice distracted by playing a constant track of AHHHHHHHH while on the outside I smile sweetly at Domitius. "The interview now, is it not?"

"Almost! You know we're all dying for the juicy details."

"I almost died to get them to you."

Thank god they all take that as a joke. Domitius even wipes a tear from his eye. "Touché, Madame Sinclair, touché. But first, the recap! I'm sure few people have forgotten your magnificent journey to victory, but I know they also won't mind revisiting it!"

The crowd loses it. Every cheer and stomp makes me twitch, and it's becoming increasingly hard to hide as I offer Domitius a confused smile, but he's too busy riling up the crowd as they chant "RE-PLAY! RE-PLAY! RE-PLAY!"

Marcellus has a seat in the front row; I catch his gaze and give him what I'm sure is a bit of a crazy-eyed what the fuck? He just shrugs, a helpless I didn't know before a less innocent slice at his throat with two fingers. Don't fuck this up.

The lights are dimming again. The screen behind me is lighting up. Dramatic music soars as a title appears.

The Hunger Games

They're showing it.

Oh god.

Everyone here, they're all going to see what I did.

. . . no. They've already seen it.

They know what I am, what I am, what I AM—

Thumbnail into palm again, hard enough to hurt. I cannot break down here; I cannot breakdown here. If I do, I'll look just like that girl onscreen. I'll still be her.

SorenStanleyReeseVesperAemiliusSamantha—

"Two hours," I whisper to myself. Maximum three. No way they're showing the whole thing, this has to be a highlights real. I can live through that. I made it through once already. Three hours. I can do three hours. Breathe, Tess.

I'm so convinced I can manage it. My frantic gasps even out, and my eyes go a little unfocused of their own accord, so the screen is little more than a blur of colours. I focus wholly on the thought of what paints I'd have to mix to get that effect. See how that grey has hints of yellow? No need to think of the suit that bears the colour, the suit on the boy, who's running for the stage, who's asked for his name and sounds a bit choked even as he willingly volunteers, "I'm Vesper P-Prospero—"

/\/\/\/\/\/\/\

I'm in the elevator.

. . . how did I get in the elevator?

Marcellus is beside me, but there's no one else. I stare openly at him, but he's wholly focused on polishing his watch, bobbing his head absently to the tinny music playing above us.

The door opens. He strolls out onto our floor, heading for his bedroom. Doesn't even give me a second glance. Just calls over his shoulder, "Up early tomorrow. We're heading right to the station."

I'm still so stunned the elevator almost closes on me; I leap forward just as he makes it to his door, about to disappear within. "Wait!"

That was louder than I meant it to be. Now he's the one staring at me like I'm out of place. "What?"

"What about . . ." I wring my hands, which are absolutely slick with sweat. I can feel it trickling down my exposed back (am I still in my dress? I'm still in my dress. And I dropped my bouquet of roses—when did I have those?) "What about the ceremony?"

"What about it?" Marcellus leans against the doorframe, looking longingly at his bed within. "We don't have to go over 'performance' or 'strategy' anymore. You're done with that."

"So I . . . I was fine? For the interview?"

"Bit bland, but again, I'm no longer getting paid to care."

A bit bland. It must have been more than just that, because I don't remember a single thing I said. I can picture my arrival on stage, sitting with Domitius, the start of the recap—

And then the elevator. Nothing in between.

I stagger towards the kitchen off the hall, hands scrambling for a glass. Marcellus rolls his eyes as I fill it up—"use the filtered water, not that tap shit"—and tries to slink away as I down the whole thing in one go.

"Marcellus." He groans as I wipe my chin and set the glass down. The last thing I want to do is talk to anyone right now—I mostly just want to curl up on my bed and stare at the wall for a while—but I have to know. "Did Domitius ask me what he said?"

"Who?"

I expect his name to catch in my throat, but it comes out surprisingly smooth. "Kale Hackberry."

"Oh. Sure."

"What did I say?"

"Are you kidding me?" He eyes me up and down, lip curling. "I told you not to drink before we went."

"I didn't. Just humour me."

"I don't know. Something like 'it wasn't worth remembering.'"

"And the audience was fine with that?"

"You heard the laughs. I'm sure we can all guess it was some kind of meaningless threat." Marcellus shrugs. "Who cares. He's dead."

"Right." I nod, and he takes that as his moment to finally escape. I return to my room as well, taking a deep breath of . . . relief? No, it's not quite strong enough for that. I'm really not sure what I feel.

Whatever it is, it doesn't really matter. In a moment, the confusion is gone, replaced by the well-defined horror of the experience I just went through—or rather, didn't go through. I sit amongst my pillows just like I meant to and train my gaze on the wall, hoping to somehow puzzle out internally the mess going on inside my head. I'll sleep in a few minutes; just have to work this out first.

Somehow, in a few minutes the sun has risen, and Marcellus is banging on my door, telling me it's time to go.

/\/\/\/\/\/\/\

For all the rushing we have to do to get there, I still find myself stuck waiting on the platform for fifty minutes as the Peacekeepers do one last security sweep. Marcellus groaned the moment we were stopped from boarding and promptly found a bench to nap on, which leaves me all alone by the tracks, watching suits in white patrol up and down our train in the distance.

The station is out of down, away from the deafening hubbub of downtown. I'm at the very edge, were the platform drops off suddenly into long meadow of yellowed grass—very briefly I consider just taking off into it, racing away and leaving everything behind. But no, I don't want that. I want to go home. I want to see my family.

My family . . .

"Miss Sinclair?"

I turn. And I freeze.

Octavian August in on the platform next to me.

"Apologies that I couldn't make the ceremony yesterday." He seems distracted, stretching out his hand to shake, then retracting it, as though unaware I didn't even touch it. "But I did want to see you off. And congratulate you. In person."

"Oh." I . . . I really can't think of anything else to say. My hand twitches at my side.

Twitches for a knife.

"You were . . . certainly not what we were expecting," Octavian says in a strangely quick yet halting rhythm. His eyes keep darting to the train behind him, or to a corner of sky just beside my head, but never to my face. "You were chosen for your father, obviously, but it could have been any number of children with connections, it just happened to be you, we had, quite frankly, written off District One as having any notable role in this."

I'm getting the feeling this is not information I'm supposed to be getting. Wasn't the reaping supposed to be "random," as laughable as it is to even consider that possibility now?

Stab him.

I don't have a knife.

Snap his neck. You saw Riley do it once. How hard can it be?

Kill him.

KILL HIM.

"But you." His eyes finally land on me just as my hands twitch together this time. But the power of his gaze scatters any thoughts I might have once had. His expression is . . . utterly impossible to read. And not because I think he's trying to hide anything. Because there is genuinely nothing comprehensible behind it. "You went, well, above and beyond. You understood—you understand, don't you?"

Is this what people look like, when they see me? Something human in all physical senses of the word, but utterly inhuman when it comes to the abhorrent vortex of thoughts behind their eyes. Though I want to condemn Octavian, though I want to hurt him as much as he's tortured me, I find myself nodding along. Tears are brimming my eyes too—tears of disgust, at myself, and tears of relief. It's like he sees all the shit that I've done, without the excuses of "for my family" or "for the Capitol," and he still accepts it. He feels the same way, because, in the end, this wasn't for Panem either. It was for him.

We're the same.

"How did it feel?" he asks, stepping closer. I'm trembling so violently it has to be noticeable—I feel like I'm about to fall off this platform—but he doesn't question it. "What was it like?"

The tears are really falling now, like I'm having another meltdown, but one playing out in slow motion. "W-What?"

"Killing Hackberry."

The boy who burned me. Who nearly killed me. Who almost took my family from me.

It felt . . . It felt . . .

"G-Good?" I choke out. "I guess? I don't . . . I don't know. How was it supposed to feel?"

Octavian watches me stoically as I start to sob. "I don't know," he murmurs.

He says his congratulations after that, and presses something, "a gift," into my hand. I'm barely aware of anything at this point. Marcellus finds me ten minutes after Octavian leaves, still standing, tears pouring down my cheeks. He doesn't even seem surprised—just rolls his eyes and escorts me onto the train. I head right for my bedroom, and I cry all day.

Eventually, I get a hold of myself enough to open my hand and look at the item inside. I should have known from the feel; it's my broken locket.

I keep sobbing all into the night.

/\/\/\/\/\/\/\

By morning, I'm normal. Marcellus and I have a polite breakfast where we both read different Capitol magazines and don't deign to acknowledge the other's presence. My heart is thrumming in my chest, but I somehow manage to keep a refined posture as I daintily nibble at a raspberry scone. At this point, I've given up trying to understand whatever the fuck chemicals in my brain are making me fine one day and a raging mess the next.

I do get a new jolt of something shitty as there's a flash in the corner of my eye. Immediately I'm at the window, forgotten scone smushed against the glass as I try to peer back at what I saw. A large billboard, which, on this side, says:

NOW LEAVING DISTRICT 1

But we are, of course, heading in the opposite direction. Towards 1.

I knew this was coming. Even allowed myself to feel excited about it. My home, my family. I'm going to see them all again.

I politely excuse myself to the bathroom, where I promptly vomit up every bit of raspberry I've had.

I stay sitting across from the toilet for the rest of the trip. I tell myself it's because I still feel sick, that I might have another attack at any moment—and I almost manage to believe it. Until Marcellus bangs on the door, tell me it's time to go, and the first words out of my mouth are, "I don't want to."

"Tesla." There's a lengthy groan from the other side of the door. "There's a whole crowd gathered."

Even worse. I shake my head furiously at the unsympathetic toilet. "I'm not going."

"You can't just not go. They've got balloons and everything."

"Fuck the balloons."

"Your family's out there."

"Fuck . . ." The word catches in my throat; when I can finally make a sound, it comes out very small. "Fuck you."

"So you're going to stay in here? The whole time? Gonna come back to the Capitol with us?"

I jump at that. No—there is nowhere I'd hate more.

Except . . .

I suck my lips in between my teeth and bury my face in my knees. The next time Marcellus tries to speak, I scream until he goes away.

Mistake, I realise shortly. Even as I try to cling to the faint sounds outside—Marcellus's muffled but mic-amplified voice, applause, even some laughter—I find myself slipping all too easily down, down into darkness. Where all the shit is waiting for me.

Soren. Stanley. Reese and Vesper. Aemilius and Samantha. Andromeda. Kale.

The Colosseum. The cheers. The victory wreath stained with blood.

Julia August. Octavian August. Staring down at me.

Down. Underground. Buried in the Labyrinth.

Fire, blazing, burning in the Circus.

Me. Me, me, me, me, me.

A monster.

Monster.

monster

It's not like the other times when I've blacked out. I know exactly who smashed the mirror, dented the walls, shattered the toilet's porcelain top. I just try to block it out as I slump down in the shower amidst shards of ruin and try to drone everything beneath the pounding spray of ice-cold water.

The doorknob rattles. I shriek something, probably "Go away" or some ruder version of the same. I don't care if this train is going back to the Capitol. They can't make me leave. I'd rather spend the rest of my life in this shitty bathroom than do anything else.

A key turns in the lock. Fuck. I will kill Marcellus, I swear to god—

". . . Tess?"

But it's me who walks through the door. Albeit me with a braid, a hairstyle I've never tried, but still, me. Me from before.

Wirea steps cautiously into the bathroom, and Archie follows. Then Electra. All of them looking at me.

Heat rushes to my face. I open my mouth, to explain this, to make a joke, I don't know. Something to erase this situation from their minds.

Instead, I burst into tears.

They're on me in an instant. I don't even have time to flinch from her approach before Wirea's launched herself into the shower and is scooping me into a hug. She's kneeling on broken glass and porcelain, it has to hurt, but when I try to tell her to be careful, I only wind up sobbing harder. Then Archie is there too, and Electra, all three of them surrounding me, and for the first time, I don't think about how they're seeing me, or how I'm seeing myself. I'm fully absorbed in this moment of crying my heart out and clinging to my siblings, my siblings. They're here. I'm here.

It doesn't even matter who "I" am, in this instance. What matters is the here, and here is home.


Hey everyone! Sorry for the delay on this chapter - I was away for a while in No Internet Land, plus had some computer issues that still aren't completely resolved, but ah well, we're here! The first post-Games chapter, which was kinda surreal to write. Only two more left now. Don't worry, you will be seeing more of Tesla, but the next chapter is going to take a look at all the other families in the meantime.

Once again a humongous thank you to everyone who's stuck it out! I'm gonna do my big, "official" thanks on the next chapter, but just wanted to remind you guys once again that you're all amazing :) Have a good one, and keep staying safe!