Interlude I - Estella Eden Has a Meeting

Spring of 3189

Capitol - Estella Eden, 40

"Gimme the usual," I yell loudly as I push through the little coffee shop's double doors. The long line of Capitolites waiting patiently for their turn to order all whip around to stare incredulously at me. That is, until they realize who I am.

"Right away, ma'am," one of the baristas says, his face getting suddenly pale. I snicker to myself and gracefully slide off my warm coat as I make my way towards the back of the shop, my hips swaying. My white-blond hair bounces around my face in short, beachy waves. I sit down at my usual spot at a curved booth in the back, near the staff entrance. I unzip my black leather bag and pull out a thin silver laptop. A young couple sitting at a table by the glass wall of the corner cafe start whispering to themselves and cast sidelong glances at me. I smirk, amused, and push my signature aviators up to the crown of my head.

"Stella!" a familiar voice squeals, making me glance up from my work into the silver-grey eyes of Melvina May. "I thought you had your meeting today," she says, softer this time, settling into the seat beside me. She's wearing an old-fashioned lace grey skater dress and the uniform dark green apron labeled A Taste Of May in fancy, curved writing. Underneath, in typewriter font, it reads coffee shop by day, nightclub by night.

"I do, I just wanted to get a little work done first. Tie up some loose ends, y'know?" I shut the laptop screen and fold my arms over the round wood table, leaning forward. "So how's it going, babe? Looks like business is as good as usual," I add, nodding towards the long line. Just as I point it out, another barista walks briskly out to our table, a large chocolatey frappuccino in one hand. Her hot pink hair, tied into two complicated braids at the back of her head, bounces on each of her broad shoulders as she places the cup on the table.

"Oh, Kari, would you mind fixing me an espresso? Thanks, dear," Mel says, giving the young barista a warm smile. "It's been great, actually. You have no idea how amazing it is at night," she says, her eyes rolling and her lips pulling apart in a glittering, mischievous grin. "You should come by sometimes. You only ever show up in the daytime. Like… an inverted vampire."

I laugh crisply and lean back, taking a sip of my drink. "You know me, Mel. If I came to one of your crazy parties, I'd end up sitting alone in a corner waiting for it to be over. Remember high school?"

She laughs and runs a porcelain hand through her ruby red curls. "Yeah, I remember. You and Bryden were always like that. But at least you guys were there to save my ass if I ever needed it. Damn, I was always out of control."

"Mel, you still are," I add, my voice playful.

She chuckles and we fall silent as Kari comes back with her espresso. "How is Bryden? I haven't seen him in a while." She takes the lid off of her drink and pulls a small vial of clear liquid out of a pocket on her apron.

"He's fine. Really dedicated to his work. You'd think that out of all three of us, you would be the stylist, huh?" I say.

"Honestly. I do remember him going crazy about the parade and the interviews, though. And you were always crazy about…" she laughs breathily and puts the vial away after adding a few drops to her drink. "Kind of everything," she finishes, cupping both hands around her espresso and just holding it there on the table.

"Yeah. And now look we are! I would have guessed you'd be dead or a stripper, but hey, you're pretty successful," I joke.

"Okay well, first of all, a stripper? Really? But yeah… without you guys I'd probably have drunk myself to death, if I'm being honest."

"Who says you still won't?" I say, nodding towards her drink. "Day-drinker," I add.

"At least I'm having fun. You're the one with such a life-threatening job. Does it ever bother you that if someone wasn't particularly satisfied with the show, the president could just, you know… off you?" Mel says, her voice suddenly quieting down to an uncharacteristic whisper.

"I mean, it used to. When I was just a gamemaker. I think maybe it was because I had so many superiors, but now the only superior I have is the president," I say. I take another sip of my frappuccino and sigh, satisfied with the moment. I've made other friends since meeting Melvina and Bryden, but they're always going to be my squad, my core.

"About the president…" Mel starts. "You met the new one yet?"

"Not in person. I did have to call him a few times to check in about the arena and stuff, though. He seems kind of different than Yanus," I say, referring to the last president we had, who just retired last year.

"What do you mean?" Mel asks, seeming genuinely curious.

"I mean… he seems kind of indifferent?" I shake my head, not really knowing how to describe it. "I don't really know, I guess I have to meet him in person first."

"Isn't he unmarried?" Mel says, disregarding what I said. "That seems kinda weird, huh? He's like 40-something and apparently has never even had so much as a girlfriend." She raises both eyebrows at me in concern for either the poor dude or me. Of course she'd have read every magazine she could get her hands on about him.

"Mel, you're not married," I point out.

"Okay, but I still get plenty of action," she says with a cute little knowing smirk. "Maybe you guys are meant for each other. You're both way too in love with your work."

"Hey, I… get around," I lie. I had a couple of girlfriends back in high school and I think one boyfriend in college, but that's all I can say for myself. Since then I've just been dedicated to climbing that ladder to the top. And now here I am: Head Gamemaker.

"Sure, honey," Mel says, flashing her eyes at me. "When's your meeting?"

"Huh? Oh, shit, right," I say, suddenly remembering. I turn on my phone screen to check the time, and my heart instantly flutters into a panicked frenzy. "In like, ten minutes! Dude, you didn't even let me get any work done," I groan, putting my laptop back into my bag and scooting out of the booth. Mel stands up and hands me my frappuccino, her eyes worried.

"Sorry," she says, and then her face lights up in its usual playful expression. "Don't have too much fun, Stella," she adds, winking at me as I leave the shop, throwing my aviators back down over my eyes and slinging my coat across my left shoulder.

I catch a taxi out on the street and direct him towards the President's mansion. The cab driver does a double take in the rearview mirror when he sees me, but he doesn't say anything other than the toll of the drive when we get there. "I'm late for a meeting," I say hurriedly, ready to dash into the mansion. I slide out of the car but turn back around when the guy starts to say something else.

"Look, lady, money is money and you need to pay," the cabbie says, obviously frustrated.

I sigh and lean over into the open passenger-side window. "Sir," I start, my voice calm and deadly. "I have very strong ties with the president, and I'm sure he wouldn't want me paying street scum like you my good money that I could use for better things. You should be honored to have driven me. In fact, you should have paid me. I don't think the president would take kindly to your attitude. I think, maybe, he'd do something to you and your family that you wouldn't like. Don't you agree?" The man narrows his eyes at me but doesn't say anything. "You seem like a smart man. Now go on your way and I won't tell him a thing," I say, smiling a sweet, toxic smile. He grumbles something, but I step away from the car and he pulls slowly out of the circular driveway at the front of the mansion. I smile happily to myself as I walk through the well-manicured front lawn and towards the double marble staircase curving towards two huge dark wooden doors. Abusing power is kind of my jam.

"Head Gamemaker Estella Eden," a calming woman's voice says loudly as I enter the building, startling me. I must still be on the mansion's home list from my two past years of being Head Gamemaker

"Ah, Ms. Eden," someone says. I tilt my head up to see an old man dressed in a suit and a tie standing at the top of almost identical marble stairs as the ones outside, if not scaled down a bit. "President Altair is waiting for you in his office. Please follow me. You can leave your coat by the door." A Peacekeeper walks up to me and I hand him my coat and also my frappuccino, faint butterflies in my stomach. It's not the first time I've been in the mansion, so I know the layout and where the president's office is, but I still follow the well-dressed old man out of courtesy. He steps aside when we reach a dark wood door, and I thank him and knock politely.

"Come in," a tired voice says in response from inside.

I push the door open and stop short as I take in the mess of an office. It's changed a great deal since the last time I was here for the previous Games. There's loose papers, folders, and books everywhere, some in neat stacks and others in piles on the hardwood floor. I can feel my mouth start to drop open so I clench my jaw, trying to hide my mild amusement and shock. In front of me, the president is tapping away madly behind a laptop, the glass wall behind him looking out at the city obstructed by papers taped up on the window-wall. I clear my throat uncomfortably and the president looks up, his dark eyebrows knitting together over his tired brown eyes. "Who are you?" he asks, shaking his head and shutting his laptop screen.

"Uh," I start, taken aback. "I'm Estella Eden," I say, but the statement ends up sounding more like a question, just like the first time I met the president when I was a new gamemaker. He had laughed and asked if I was sure, and my entire face had gone so red that he apologized at once and ordered someone to bring me iced tea.

I almost expect President Altair to do this, but instead he throws his hands up in a clueless gesture and huffs, exasperated. "I'm a little busy at the moment, so if you wouldn't mind coming back later, ma'am, I would greatly appreciate it," he says, his eyes flicking back down to his work. His hand goes to lift the laptop screen again but I interrupt him, walking forward and taking a seat in the comfy royal red velvet chair positioned across from his desk. He freezes and pins me with a surprised stare.

"I am Head Gamemaker Estella Eden. The Reapings are going to begin in a few weeks, and I am here because we scheduled a meeting to discuss the arena blueprints, muttations, and other plans," I say coldly. I lean over to take a manilla folder out of my bag and set it down on the president's desk. He looks up at me and then at the folder and then back up at me.

"I'm sorry," he finally says, putting his hands on the folder and just holding it there on the desk, much like how Mel was holding her espresso back in the coffee shop. "I've just been dealing with so many issues, you have no idea. My apologies if I seem snappy, I've just been so terribly stressed. In fact, I completely forgot about the Hunger Games." I chuckle and lean back in my chair, kind of curious.

"You forgot about the Games?" I repeat. "You must be really stressed."

President Altair smiles at me, a sort of broken smile, but a smile nonetheless. I nod towards the folder pointedly and he jumps, as if remembering why I'm there again. "Right," he says, opening the folder and leafing through the papers, his eyes skimming over the possible designs I've created. He gets up and paces behind his desk, flashes of cold sunlight peeking through the breaks in the papers on his walls and hitting his dark velvety-looking skin as he walks past them.

"You do seem rather overwhelmed," I say, crossing my legs and flicking my left foot impatiently.

"Hm," he says in response and I can't help but let loose another little chuckle.

"It is rather strange that you… forgot the Games. I don't think any president has ever done that." I lean forward to look at the papers on his desk, feeling much more comfortable now that I know he's not one of those ruthless, insane presidents. I read a bit of a paper mentioning factories in District Eight, but I end up getting bored by the second sentence. This is why I could never be President. "Why did you run for this position?" I ask, realizing that Yanus never dealt with these issues. He always got someone else to cover them for him. He was mostly just interested in the Games. It made me feel somewhat like a teacher's pet, the way he'd wait all year to watch my work unfold in blissful glee.

"I wanted to help Panem," he says simply, sitting back down and sliding the folder back over to me. "These look good."

"Wha- That's it?" I say, my eyebrows coming together in disbelief. "What about choosing the arena?"

He waves a hand dismissively and straightens out a pile of papers on his desk. "You can choose any of those, they all looked fine," he says without looking up.

I tilt my head, amused if not slightly offended. My work has never been taken this lightly before. Especially not by the president. "Well I was a little torn, you see this one would never work, but these two are nearly perfect, don't you think?" I wait for a reaction as I show him the designs, but he just glances up, nods, and then looks back at his own papers. I frown and then push them both forward so he can't possibly avoid them. "However, I was thinking, what if we merge them? What do you think? The Cornucopia could be split. It's been done a few times, just not with these specific arenas, and since they're such opposites, I feel like-"

"Listen, Ms. Eden," President Altair says, holding his hands up.

"Stella," I interrupt.

"Hm?"

"You can call me Stella," I say, smiling warmly. I expect him to offer me his first name as well, but he just shakes his head and corrects himself, much to my surprise.

"Alright, Stella," he continues. "I understand that you really enjoy this, that this is… your life's work or whatever, but I have more pressing matters on hand that need to be dealt with. Just do whatever you feel is necessary for these Games, okay? I don't need to play such a big role in an entertainment show."

"Cetus," I start, standing up. "Can I call you Cetus, is that alright?" I ask, not really waiting for an answer.

"No," he says quietly.

I continue before he can finish even that small word, leaning over his desk, my hands splayed out on the loose papers. "This is not just a simple entertainment show. No, this the fate of a country, of Panem. Aren't you here to make Panem a better place? That's what the Hunger Games are about. They show the districts that we are powerful, that we will hold power over them, that we can do anything we want to them at any time. Don't you see? These Games are to help the Capitol prosper, to help Panem prosper. Without it, we would be overrun by rebels. Don't you agree?"

Cetus stammers, tripping over his own words and then stands up so he's eye-to-eye with me. "I'm not talking about making the Capitol better, I'm talking about making the entirety of Panem better. And we won't make Panem better by murdering innocent children."

"Murdering… children?" I say, then laugh, sitting back down in the chair. Cetus is pretty easy to figure out. He's just another sympathizer. A do-gooder. A real teacher's pet. "We're not the ones murdering them," I say, a hint of amusement in my voice. Cetus stays standing up, almost visibly fuming, but in an almost calm, determined way.

"But we are, Stella," he says quietly. I watch in silence as he sits back down in his chair and puts his head in his hands, sighing. "Just… do your thing with the arena. I'm sure everyone will love it." There's something almost defeated and broken in his voice that pulls at me to make him feel better, but I just narrow my eyes, scoop my blueprints back into my folder, and leave the room without a word.

A/N: hey guys! i wrote an author's note but i dunno where it went lol
the next chapter is going to be district seven reapings, which should be here either thursday or friday at the latest :)

don't forget to review! i haven't gotten any reviews for either of my most recent chapters yet, probably cause you guys thought i gave up haha oops.. anyway, tell me what you think! :) once the reapings are over, i'll be putting a poll on my profile where you can vote for your favorite tributes (try not to vote for your own haha, i wanna see who people are rooting for w/o bias)

- knifey :)

shower thought of the day: when you blink, your face is just eating your eyeballs (from my sister)