Originally published: 2018-02-10
Many, many thanks to monsterr for betareading this and to Kikinu, for cheering me on this terrible universe :D
On the Seam, everything was grey.
Grey was the color of the days worn out at the mines, grey was the tedium of the schoolchildren getting prepared for a future just as somber.
The grey monotony was broken very rarely and almost never for the better: another accident at the mines that left children without their parents; the annual feast of blood and horror that left parents without their children.
Every now and then, a flash of color: the wings of a bird wandering from a more benign climate; a glimpse of blue sky; the multicolored billowing skirts of the Azumane girls when they came down to the Seam.
The Azumane girls always had their arms full of baskets filled with food, bandages, and flasks of alcohol; baskets that emptied in no time. The people in the Seam were proud, because pride was all they had left against the despair, and they would've never accepted charity from the merchants, much less from the Capitol.
But the Azumane girls had once been Seam girls. Before the bright-colored dresses, their faces and hands had been tainted by coal dust, there had been patches on their clothes and constant worry in their pupils. They still glided through the Seam like they belonged there, though their laughter was as foreign there as the glimmering dresses in colors unknown: emerald, turquoise, fuchsia, lilac…
Sometimes Azumane-san came along with them, far less changed than her daughters. There were no longer any patches on her clothes and perhaps her hair looked shinier, far away from the coal dust that flew over everything at the Seam. But her smile, with the one cracked tooth below, and her hoarse voice remained the same every time she stopped to trade gossip with her old neighbors. It was almost, almost, as though she had never left.
One is too old to learn new tricks, she used to say, and her clothes might have been brand new but they remained as dark as ever: no glimmering dresses or hair ribbons for Azumane-san, who by the end of her visits to the Seam always took a stroll towards the old cabin with its blocked windows, because old habits took a long time to die.
They hardly ever saw her husband, but that surprised no one.
A little stranger, perhaps, was how little they saw the eldest of the Azumane children. Without counting, of course, when he showed up on the holographic screens or at the square's stage on reaping day.
These days, people in the Seam only saw Azumane Asahi when the train brought him back once more from the Capitol. Then he walked down the path that led to the Seam, his shoulders hunched, as though he was still trying to take up as little space as possible. His steps led him slowly but inexorably first to one house, then to another, always to keep the same conversation, both expected and feared.
(Sometimes, his steps would lead him to one of the merchants' homes, but it made no difference. Names could change, but the conversation was always the same).
There was never any sobbing, any crying to be heard from the homes Asahi visited. All the tears had been spilled long before his arrival. Perhaps the parents from District 12 understood, even amidst their own grief, that it was a spectacle that he didn't need to –that he could not– see.
They watched him walk away, bent over the weight of another two deaths on his shoulders. His eyes averted the children's gaze and especially, their mothers'.
The people in the Seam, perhaps, would have liked to tell him that no one blamed him for the children that did not return. That all of them had long ago learnt that the odds were never in their favor.
But the people in the Seam had their pride, and they recognized Asahi as one of their own well enough to know he wouldn't accept any pity either.
The holographic screens spread throughout all of Panem told a story. The characters changed, but the story was always the same. The districts bled out on the arena –same as they bled out all year long on the fields, the factories, the slaughterhouses– and the Capitol celebrated its triumph, over and over again.
Other stories would always exist, though. Stories that would never come out of the Hunger Games' editing room, that wouldn't be narrated in the hosts' shrill, nasal voices, that would never graze a screen. Stories told in hushed voices in-between shift changes at the factories, told in the mockingbirds' song in the fields; stories written on each line of suffering on the people's faces; in the children's eyes whose gleam dimmed all too soon.
Perhaps, if the Capitol had showed a little more interest in those sort of stories, Azumane Asahi would have faced a very different fate.
But the Capitol only cared about the story that always ended the same way: Panem today, Panem tomorrow, Panem forever.
The Hob was a compact mass of noise and smells wrapped in shadows, because no one who went there was a friend neither of light nor open air.
Nor a friend of the law, but District 12's Peacekeepers had an innate gift for looking the other way.
"I'm not paying another coin. Take it or leave it."
The boy stammered something, his words swallowed by the ruckus. He walked, as usual, a little hunched, as though he wanted to make himself smaller, but he cowered even more before the harsh glare from the man at the stall.
"You're wasting my time. Take the money at once and leave the bottles, will ya?"
The boy twisted his hands, uneasy. It was obvious that the price wasn't what he had been told to ask for, and maybe he was split between the fear of angering the ogre-faced man in front of everyone, and the dread of facing whatever fate would wait for him at home if he came back with less money than expected.
It was a sorry sight, because the boy, though tall, couldn't be old enough to go to the mines, but at the Hob it was every man for himself.
Over the racket, rose a high-pitched voice:
"Last week you paid us more."
The man blinked, as though he had a hard time focusing his gaze on the girl poking out from behind the boy. With her skinny arms crossed over her chest and a scowl on her face, she barely reached the boy's shoulder and she couldn't be any older than twelve, but she didn't even flinch when the man leant over the flimsy plank that acted as a counter and growled that last week was last week, today this was the price he was willing to pay and if she didn't like it, whatever.
The girl scrunched up her nose and spat on the floor.
(Girls from the 12 tended to be harder than coal, maybe because they were the ones who had to keep everything together at home while their brothers died on the arena.)
"Oh, no, Asuka," the boy sighed, covering his face with his hands. She didn't even glance at him, her black eyes focused on the man who regarded her like she was some annoying fly.
"You have no choice but to buy from us, because no one besides Mom knows how to make alcohol that even the Mayor can drink. But you know what? We don't have to sell to you."
The man stared at her, his jaw falling open, until he managed to put it back in its place to bark out a laugh.
"Oh yeah? And who are you going to sell it to, midget?"
The girl gave a one-shouldered shrug; her dress, made entirely of patches and sackcloth, was so stiff it did not even move.
"To the Mayor. The Peacekeepers. The merchants. Everybody drinks Mom's alcohol. The Head Peacekeeper is more likely to lock you up for leaving him without his bottles than to arrest us for selling them."
At that moment, it wasn't just the man who stared; most of the Hob stopped whatever they were doing to stare at the twelve-year-old bag of bones facing off the most ruthless bargainer there.
(The boy next to her stopped trying to hide his face behind his hands and seemed intent on asphyxiating himself instead.)
A grimace twisted her pointed, coal-stained little face, so very much like the pixies that were said to dwell on the mines to play pranks on the miners.
"C'mon, Asahi. This old geezer is wasting our time."
Asahi stood frozen in place, his face drained of all color. Unfazed, she turned her head, her messy hair a black cloud behind her, but she hadn't taken even two steps before the man coughed.
"Hey, midget, who are you calling an old geezer? C'mere with those bottles."
She glanced at him over her shoulder with narrowed eyes, more pixie-like than ever.
"You'll pay us the same as last week?"
Grumbling over the horrible scam he was the victim of, the old man piled up a bunch of coins, which the girl grabbed and carefully counted, after trying their hardness with her teeth. She grinned.
"That's more like it. Asahi, hand the bottles over to the gentleman, will ya?"
With a relieved sighed that seemed to pour out from his very bones, the boy took the bottles out of the sackcloth bag he carried on his shoulder. The man shot him one last glare.
"Boy, I hope you never get called to the Games, 'cause this midget you've got for a sister could beat you."
The midget in question opened her mouth, but her brother grabbed her by the arm and almost lifted her away.
"Don't listen to him, Asahi, that old geezer is just—"
But she would never get to the end of that sentence: the explosion engulfed her words and everything else. It reverberated throughout the ground of the entire Seam and shook the Hob and the village, stealing all the breath from their lungs in one blow.
A moment suspended in time: everyone on the streets, at the Hob, in their homes, frozen on the spot. The buzzing in their ears, the strange quietness in the air, the wide-eyed gazes.
And the column of thick black smoke rising from the mines.
Time accelerated once more. Silence was broken by an anguished cry and the echoes of all those with a loved one at the mines; sackcloth bags and baskets fallen on the ground, its contents dumped in the dust without anyone caring; a mob breaking into a run towards the black smoke.
No one heard him; his voice suffocated by the general panic, so Asahi grabbed his sister by the shoulders and pulled her out of the way so she wasn't stomped on.
"Asahi!" she cried and he looked at her: black eyes wide open, her pixie mouth twisted in a grimace.
She was young, but not young enough not to understand.
"Let's go home," Asahi mumbled, and he was grateful she said nothing else.
They found their mother on the doorstep, with Asami pulling on her dress.
"Mom, what's going on? Mom, why's everyone running? Mom, Daddy's alright, isn't he?"
She wasn't looking at her: she didn't even hear her. She was stock-still, her eyes glued to the smoke; her mouth, a twisted line. Asahi realized then that he had never seen their mother frightened for real. Asuka might've thought along the same lines.
"Quiet, Asami," she told her younger sister without malice, and she must have understood, despite her nine years of age, because she shut up at once and stopped pulling on their mother's dress.
"Mom?" Asahi asked in a hushed voice. She flinched, blinked and at long last she seemed to recognize her three kids.
"Today of all days you had to be lucky enough to sell down to the last bottle, did you?" She clicked her tongue. "Good thing I saved a little, but it's not gonna be good enough. Asuka, Asami, go fetch the flasks under my bed. Careful, girls, we're gonna need up to the last drop. We'll need even more, but…" She bit her lip, her gaze dragged to the mines once more. Around them, utter chaos: people running, screaming, the sobbing of the children who cried without fully understanding why yet.
His mother looked at him in the eye and seemed to make a decision.
"Asahi, go to the cabin and start making some more. I'll… I'll go the mines. As soon as I learn something, I'll be back to lend you a hand."
Asahi nodded, vines of thorns tangling in his throat.
He should've gone in her stead. He was faster, stronger.
But he was also much more of a coward and he didn't want to find his father's corpse among the wreckage.
It needs to be said: the Peacekeepers did their best. But no hovercraft came from the Capitol with a rescue team, a drill, medicine; people from the 12 were on their own. Neighbors from the Seam and the merchant area, identical at long last under the coal dust, their knees on the ground, digging practically bare-handed, nails torn apart, their palms rubbed raw.
And always those few centimeters of hard rock separating them from yet another life waning underneath their feet.
There were certain images that would never appear on Panem's holographic screens. The row of coffins, wood as dark as blood-stained coal; the Justice Building wrapped in black cloths swirling in the wind. The festering wounds, the maimed bodies. The entire Seam turned into a hospital and a graveyard. The despair of those who could still run to and fro with alcohol bottles and the rags that served as bandages.
The dimming light in the glassy pupils of the bodies lying on the ground.
They weren't the thrilling deaths of the Games and, just like the children with their emaciated legs and their starvation-swollen bellies, just like all the elder people ruined by a life in the mines, they would never appear on screen.
Two days later, the bodies still to be buried, the debris was swept away and the mines reopened their gates. Blood had to keep pumping through Panem's arteries towards the Capitol.
Yesterday, today and always.
The foreman, recently promoted due to the death of his predecessor, stared at the few men and women —so damned few– that showed up to work in the mines that day. Some had had enough luck to get out in time. Others rather decided that their wounds weighed less than the need to put some bread on the table and there they were, with bandaged arms and legs but a look as hard as coal in their eyes.
His gaze was arrested by a tall young man, with a slight shadow on his cheeks; a rusted pick he recognized at once in one hand and, in the other, the last one of Azumane-san's alcohol bottles. The boy averted his gaze, hunching over as though he were trying to take up less space or maybe blend in with his surroundings.
The foreman clenched his jaw and swallowed down the bile creeping up his esophagus. In District 12, practically forgotten by the Capitol, laws were more lax; Peacekeepers prone to look the other way. There was one law, though, that every foreman had felt the obligation to uphold, and it was the law of minimum age for work in the tunnels. The man regarded once more the meager group of miners barely standing on their feet, he glanced again at the young man. Before his eyes paraded, perhaps, the rows of coffins, the wounded, the empty wagons that had to go back to the Capitol the following day, because Panem forbid that the people over there ever ran out of coal.
"I see you've turned eighteen."
It wasn't a question, but the boy still nodded, even though both of them knew it to be a lie and that it would remain so for the following three years. He tried to hand over the bottle, but the foreman turned it down with a gesture.
"Your mother is gonna need it, with all the wounded back home. C'mon, follow the rest so they show you what to do, I ain't got all day."
The foreman watched the boy as he followed the survivors through the tunnels until darkness swallowed him whole, just like all the other things Panem did not wish to see.
Pain, slipping down his spine like liquid fire, was an old companion. By the corner of his eye he noted Asami's anxiousness gesture, arms out-stretched towards him as though she wanted to reach out and help, but Asuka gripped her shoulder and she let her arms drop. Clever girl.
He gave them a half-smile, perfected in the last three years to hide a pained grimace, and Asami's shoulders relaxed a little.
Neither of the girls said a word, but he felt their anxious glances following each of his movements as he dragged himself towards the rocking chair leaning on the ash road that served as a cane. When he sank into the chair, he had to clench his teeth to face a new flare-up of ache. Anyone would have thought he'd have got used to being an invalid.
In silence, Asami dragged a stool to sit next to him. She handed over the willow strands and at once she began weaving her own basket.
She smiled, a smile as flimsy as butterfly wings, a smile that for a fleeting moment reminded him so much of her eldest brother that it felt like a kick to the chest. If she saw the shadow in her father's eyes, the speed of her fingers didn't let it show.
Asami had just turned twelve. If she had been a boy…
But luckily she wasn't.
A bitter taste on his tongue: luck was precisely what the Azumane family had run out of.
He swallowed a useless sigh and went to work. His fingers were not even remotely as fast and skillful as his youngest daughter's, but if they were never again deign to hold a pick and a shovel, they'd better be good for something.
From behind him came Asuka's out-of-tune humming and a pan's metallic clang, followed by the blunt edge of a knife scraping on what, he assumed, was a potato. It wasn't hard to guess, given that there were no other vegetables in the house.
Their neighbors had tried to bring them food but, with that mix of politeness and steely resolve so typically hers, his wife had returned it. Any of the other families in the Seam suffered more hunger than them, and they weren't in such a sorry state as to take charity from the merchants.
(Not yet, at least).
Speaking of his wife…
"Asuka, where is your mother?
The humming was cut short for a moment.
"In the cabin. She said that she'd come for dinner."
The cabin: Four crumbling walls, a tin roof and dark fabrics covering all the windows. Everyone knew about the Azumane's illegal distillery, but his wife believed in keeping up the pretense. They always referred to the distillery as "the cabin" and the bottles always came out covered by weeds or flowers. The cabin had ensured that the Azumane children were the best fed in the Seam. It could have earned them some nasty looks, but their neighbors knew there would never be a wounded or a sick person among them that didn't get all the help alcohol could provide.
It made sense for his wife to be at work; at the moment, without a miner's salary to rely on, the cabin was the only thing that would keep the Azumanes alive.
It also happened to be the only place in the entire district safe from the holographic screens.
Asahi should have been there with her. He still remembered his son as a little boy, sitting while hugging his knees as he watched his mother work among the pots on the fire and the hissing copper tubes.
"Pay attention, Asahi," she used to tell him. "One day it'll be your turn."
She'd liked to imagine a future in which Asahi took over her distillery and the girls sold the bottles, none of them trapped in the dark belly of a mine.
It would've been a nice future, but first the explosion at the mine and then the escort's voice calling Asahi's name sealed a very different fate.
The glowing and colorful faces of the hosts filled the room when the holographic screen came alive; Panem's anthem swallowed Asuka's humming and the half-woven basket slipped from Asami's fingers to roll down the dusty floor.
Almost as a reflex, his hand fell to Asami's shoulder to give her a reassuring squeeze, but his eyes wouldn't be torn from the screen. The holographic image seemed to tremble and blur, but perhaps it was him, because the hosts' words had become an unintelligible buzzing in his ears. An impression of unreality clouded his thoughts.
He knew, on a rational level, what was going on. He knew what came after the Tribute Parade, after the interviews, the last bets. He knew what would begin with the thunder of a canon and would only end with another. But a part of him was still convinced, beyond all reason and logic, that Asahi was still in the mines, that he would come back home for dinner with tired eyes, coal dust underneath his nails, a flimsy smile, like butterfly wings, for his family.
A part of him believed it still, even when Asami tensed under his touch and Asuka let out a strangled cry, when the holograph took the shape of twenty-four metal plates in a circle with as many tributes waiting for the canon and there, among them, tall, strong, and absolutely terrified and trying to hide it, stood Asahi.
He felt Asami hiding her face against his side, Asuka's hand reaching for his but, most of all, he felt Asahi's terror like it was his own.
(It had been his last reaping. One last reaping, and he would've been free forever.
Or at least until he had sons of his own.)
The cameras scanned the brand new arena, along with the tributes' anxious gazes in their last sixty seconds before the bloodbath.
And then, a flood rose up his throat and from his mouth burst out loud laughter.
Asuka squeezed his hand hard enough to bruise; Asami's head shot up to pin him with a wide-eyed gaze, but once laughter escaped his mouth it was impossible to hold back.
This year the arena wasn't shaped as a jungle, a forest, or a frozen wasteland. It wasn't a city in ruins or a deadly desert, nor a beach with poisoned waters. This year, the team of Gamemakers chose to be creative and on the screen it appeared an immense maze, the Cornucopia at its center, its branches reaching out for miles.
A gigantic maze in the shape of dark, suffocating tunnels, with stone walls closing in over their heads, like arteries in the belly of the beast.
Or like coal mines.
When the canon went off and the bloodbath began, he was still laughing.
Nobody expected much from District 12. The most marginal, the poorest, the least civilized: on the screens it gave an impression of uniform greyness. Greyness made of worn faces, threadbare clothes, decayed buildings, as though the coal dust had painted the landscape and its inhabitants once and for all.
It took the last place in the transmission of reaping day and the last place on the thoughts of everyone watching the Games.
The tributes from the 12 could only matter to the 12.
Azumane Asahi called the escort in a shrill voice, his lime green turban with feathers, the only touch of color in the entire district. Whispers began to run through the rows of people packed on the town square, and when the young man started to walk towards the stage, for once those watching the screens at home perked up and paid attention to District 12.
The tributes from that district had always seemed, somewhat ironically, carbon copies: feeble, emaciated, with matted dark hair and colorless eyes, as washed out as the land they inhabited. They looked dirty, whether they were or not, and their clothes had the flair of sackcloth bags, often full of holes and patches. Very, very rarely, a fair-haired boy with clothes that looked a little better, if he came from the town. In the long run, they didn't show better survival skills and soon enough the audience forgot all about them.
Azumane Asahi didn't look like any of those kids. For starters, he was unusually tall for the Seam, reaching over a meter eighty of height, with broad shoulders and muscle on his arms. His features didn't have either that indelible trace of malnutrition that showed on every line on the other boys' bodies. He seemed strong and healthy, as much as any victor from District 2, and next to him the other tribute looked like a brittle autumn leaf. Azumane looked older than the eighteen years he actually was, as the shadow of a beard on his face and his hardened expression provided an aura of danger that was so hard to find among the 12's timid habitants.
(His knees were hitting one another as he trembled, cold sweat dripped down his spine and his jaw was stuck with the effort of clenching his teeth, but the cameras would catch none of it.)
Withdrawn and quiet, he survived the interview by shielding behind the intimidating aura of his looks. He might not have been a favorite –there always were those who were more brilliant, more attractive– but for once, District 12 wasn't ruled out at once.
If they had known a few things about Azumane Asahi, perhaps the Gamemakers would have designed a different arena and the Careers wouldn't have underestimated him so. But to them, despite his size, Azumane was just another tribute from 12, soon to join the long list of their dead. So many years had passed since their last victor that the man had gone senile: the Games weren't made for the people of District 12.
A maze full of dead ends, lethal traps, and stone tunnels ready to crumble down as soon as some excitement was called for. The Careers realized soon enough that learning to throw knives or handle a sword from a young age wouldn't be of much help when the enemy was the darkness, the lack of oxygen, or a rock wall falling on them.
Amid the confusion, only one tribute kept his calm: the same one that, instead of looking for weapons, had only grabbed a pick and a shovel from the Cornucopia before blending into the darkness deep in the labyrinth. When the exits were suddenly sealed, when the lights went out, when oxygen and water ran scarce, the surviving tribute of 12 was the only one who proved resourceful enough not to give into panic.
The arena devoured those tributes unprepared for it and the pick proved that it could hold its own against other foes besides rock. The crack of the skull of the tribute of District 2 as the pick split it in half was only suffocated by the thunder of the last canon.
The announcer's voice, colored maybe by a trace of unprecedented surprise, reverberated on the stone walls to proclaim Azumane Asahi as the first victor from District 12 in forty-two years.
An incomprehensible, unspeakable secret: sometimes, he missed the mines.
The blinding blackness, the stale air, the rock ceiling grazing his hair even with his head down and his body bent; the long hours of raising the pick until his every muscle was pulverized. The abrupt silence saturated of poorly concealed terror every time the canary's song was cut short. The merciless uniformity of their days chained in an infinite loop only interrupted by old age or death.
(Or until the escort called your name on reaping day.)
And yet, in the mines' suffocating darkness, Asahi never felt threatened. There, he knew where to place his feet; there, his size and his strength were an advantage, not a source of shame. No one stared; no one spoke to him more than was necessary.
No one expected him to bring their children back home.
Back then, he only knew the pick's sound when it hit the rock; his hands only knew the stain of coal dust.
(Later, he would learn to recognize the cracking of a broken skull; later, he would see his hands soaked in blood; later, he would learn about the horrors lurking in the shadows.)
Sometimes, he missed the mines: when the gleam of the spotlights burnt his retinas, when the kaleidoscope of bright costumes and hairdos made him dizzy; when the laughter and the applause melted into the screams and the pick blows against the bone still resonating inside his head.
His mentor wasn't much help. His mind wasn't entirely his own when Asahi stepped into the arena. A few months later he died, perhaps because he had taken off his shoulders the weight of being the only victor from 12. The escort had no patience for Asahi's nerves and anxiety.
"Smile, you're a victor. Don't crouch. Don't stammer. Wave. No, not like that, less mechanic. Smile."
After a while she left to a better destination than 12. To Asahi it was all the same: all the escorts were carbon copies, all just as histrionic, just as smiley, just as impatient to leave District 12. After a few years, Asahi stopped feeling ashamed for mixing up their names and faces.
In the Capitol's annual circus, Asahi often felt like a poorly stuffed scarecrow, incapable of understanding the language of these people who smiled at him and expected him to do the same, who took purgatives to keep stuffing themselves with food while at home children starved to death, and who asked him what he thought about the new trends in perfumes when, that very same morning, his tributes had bled out on the arena and he was already wondering how he would face their parents.
(Did he know them? Were they old neighbors from the Seam? Sons to any of the merchants his mother brought from? Had their elder siblings been Asahi's classmates? Even worse: were the dead children Asuka's and Asami's friends?)
"Hey, glass-heart, let go of all that negativity bursting from your every pore."
A smack on his back that nearly stole his breath.
"Suga, that doesn't work–" and another smack on the back of his neck that made him yelp.
"Daichi, that hurts."
"But it works," he replied, quite calm, as Asahi rubbed the back of his head and kept whimpering in a half-breath, until Daichi rolled his eyes. "Come on, I didn't hit you that hard, I'm sure Suga was way worse—HEY, THAT PUNCH WAS UNCALLED FOR."
At the Capitol, only two people managed every now and then to remind him that he was still a person.
Sawamura Daichi and Sugawara Koushi were the youngest victors from District 8. Maybe because they were close in age, maybe because his status as the sole survivor from 12 moved them to pity: for whatever reason, they had decided to adopt him, so to speak.
Asahi was grateful, though it couldn't be said that either of them showed much sympathy towards his poor nerves. Daichi fervently believed that "friendly" punches built character and, for each one of the glowing smiles he gave to the cameras, Suga had a remark soaked in corrosive acid.
But they were also the ones who pulled him from the darkest corners where his thoughts often warped themselves, who took him by the arm and guided him through the turbulent waters of multicolored costumes and plastic smiles in the search of sponsors.
Every now and then, they even made him laugh, when Asahi believed he had forgotten how.
They were bonded, perhaps, more by horror than affection, but even so he could call him friends.
(A word that even know felt so foreign to him.)
Like all the other victors from the marginal districts, Asahi both feared and hated the Capitol, with all its traps placed underneath polite smiles and small talk. A relieved sigh escaped his lips on the train back home, each mile that put some distance behind him was a breath of fresh air into his lungs.
And yet, in the grey vastness of his home district, where he had to take long turns to avoid the school with all its future tributes, where he had to bend his head to avoid their parents' gazes, he was surprised when he found himself missing even the hitting from Suga and Daichi, the only two people left he could still look in the eye.
But the sad truth was that he missed the mines even more.
She knew it didn't make much sense, but she couldn't help it. Every few weeks her feet took her towards the familiar paths where she had raced as a child, where the future father of her children had escorted her to the old cabin that would become their home. The paths treaded over and over again as she tried to find the way to earn a little more money so her children's hunger was felt a little less.
The paths were the same, with the same run-down shacks on either side, but she couldn't pretend she was still the same, even when she sat on her old home's doorstep to trade gossip with the people who had watched her grow and who almost treated her the same as always.
The paths were the same, but her shoes were a little newer and her heart much older.
She didn't avoid the dead children's parents. She offered help, when she knew it would be welcomed and if not, she kept quiet. More often than not they just exchanged a glance, a nod, before they went on their way, clutching a little harder the hand of the children by their side, if they were lucky enough to still have any left.
You're so lucky, Azumane-san, one of the merchants would sometimes tell her whenever she went to the shops.
(Like everyone in the Seam, she felt out of place in the town's shops and she didn't like its inhabitants very much, but you couldn't get everything at the Hob and it would've been stupid not to use the money they paid for so dearly.)
Lucky. What a strange thought.
Were the parents who had lost one kid to the arena but who still had another one at home lucky?
Lucky or cursed: to wait and despair for the day one of your children got called again.
Azumane-san guessed that it could be said she had been lucky. Her husband had survived when so many others had died in the mines. Asami and Asuka has grown tall and strong, and they would never have to lift a finger to earn their keep as long as their brother lived.
And her son had come back home in one piece. That was lucky.
He had come back with eyes dimmed, perhaps. With scars he struggled to conceal and nightmares he would deny even when the shadows underneath his eyes gave him away. With smiles that Asuka and Asami struggled to drag out. So few, so rare.
She thought of Asahi's silence, of the weight on his shoulders. He had always been a little quiet, a little bent over himself. But now his silence was some sort of swamp where all the questions he would never answer twisted underneath the surface. What did he see when he closed his eyes at night and couldn't sleep? When his gaze got lost far away (inwards) and his hands clutched the edge of the table until his knuckles went white and he didn't reply as his parents called him, what was he listening to?
One afternoon they came back after a visit to the Seam and they found him crouched under the stairs, his face hidden between his knees and his arms over his head.
"Asahi? Asahi, sweetie, it's me."
His body went rigid, but he didn't give any signs of having heard her. She took a step towards him, calling his name quietly, and he flinched back until he hit the wall. She stopped short, frozen.
Her son, so big, so tall, was shaking.
Asuka, always brave, always daring to face off against a Peacekeeper or the toughest seller at the Hob, was stuck in her place.
Her words died abruptly when another wince shook Asahi and Asuka fell quiet, her big eyes filled with confusion.
It was Asami who knelt that day, who crawled centimeter by centimeter, halting each time Asahi seemed to hunch even further; she was the one who whispered sweet nothings, talking to him as one would to a wounded animal, until she managed to sit beside him, until he let her place one arm over his shoulders.
Asahi came back little by little and when he regained his voice he mumbled:
"I… I saw a rat. I think. Or I heard it, I don't know. How stupid, right? I'm sorry, Mom, I'm sorry I scared you, it was so stupid…"
She tried to calm him down, but Asahi's gaze slipped away from hers, and his shoulders tensed when Asuka gave him a friendly poke on his arm, he swallowed when his father called them from the next room.
It wasn't the only time.
Sometimes, his father's voice managed to bring him back. Sometimes, she had to kneel by his side for what felt like hours, until Asahi's mind abandoned wherever it locked itself up. Once, Asami tried to hold his hand and he almost hit her. Asuka tried the old remedy of throwing a glass of water to his face.
It was a one-time experiment.
"You were so lucky, Azumane-san. Your boy came back safe and sound."
In District 12, luck was never really on your side.
The most important thing about the Hunger Games was that they were never over. They were a cyclic torture: no matter how much you wanted to wake up from the nightmare, a new reaping day always arrived.
And when summer died and snow covered the roads and the reaping seemed so far away, the train came into the station to bring the latest reminder of the Games on his Victory Tour.
Asahi didn't have Suga's knack for faking smiles. He kept as well as he could a grimace on his face as the Mayor and the current escort congratulated the new victor. More often than not they were Careers that didn't even bother to conceal their impatience to get out of there and go back to their own districts. Asahi didn't blame them, not really: he couldn't wait for them to get out of there either.
Just like the escorts, many of the victors began to get mixed up in his mind. Once he was back at the Capitol he'd have no other choice but to pay them a little more attention, but when he welcomed them to the 12 he always repeated the same mechanical gesture, and the responses he got were just as mechanical and forgettable.
There were some exceptions, of course. Victors like Oikawa Tooru seemed to feel the compulsion to be charismatic even with the insignificant people from 12 and he made the Mayor laugh by telling her it was wonderful what coal dust had done for her hair.
Asahi didn't know what to say to that.
Three years later, all Iwaizumi Hajime said when he made it to District 12 was:
"Whatever Trashykawa said or did, I'm so sorry. He was born like that."
He didn't know what to say to that either.
Asahi would remember Kozume Kenma in particular because he looked as awkward as he himself felt. The conversation stumbled and suffered a sudden and painful death almost before it started, but Asahi would like to believe that they reached some sort of an understanding in their shared awkwardness.
The following year, he was surprised by how little Kuroo Tetsurou resembled his childhood friend, with his confident smirk and a handshake that almost broke his fingers. Like all of Panem, Asahi had followed the childhood friends' bad star that had doomed them to the Games in consecutive years. And like Suga and Daichi, Asahi doubted luck had had anything to do with it.
Every year, every new victor he met, always stronger, braver or smarter than himself, and Asahi wondered if he wasn't alive just by fortune's mercy.
Another year, another grey winter day standing on the platform next to the Mayor, who inquired after his parents' and sisters' health as though the Capitol's cameras and spotlights weren't there, practically on their faces.
(Asahi should've gotten used to it too after all these years, but he still struggled with the urge to hunch his shoulders and hide his head like a turtle.)
The escort was yelling, giving an order maybe. Asahi didn't pay him much attention: he was cold and hoping Asuka had thought of making some hot cocoa.
He wasn't sure what to expect from the latest victor. He knew that he came from District 10, because it was all what everyone could talk about. 10 wasn't as disastrous as 12 but it was a close thing. The only victors from 10 that Asahi remembered were the Ukais and only because they were famous: grandfather and grandson had won the Quarter Quells fifty years apart.
Asahi had never spoken to either, because truth to be told he found them quite intimidating.
Asahi didn't know much about the latest Hunger Games, because he just stopped watching once his last tribute died. To escape from the Games' paraphernalia was tricky: parties were mandatory for the prior victors, as the current escort always reminded him, and Asahi never dared to risk the Capitol's wrath. But it wasn't impossible to keep away from the screens, the news and the rumor mill, and that was what Suga, Daichi and he did once their tributes went up in pieces. They didn't even deign to watch the victor's final interview, so Asahi didn't know what he looked like.
The train got into the station announced by the gleam of the spotlights, the escort's shrill voice, the half-hearted applause from the neighbors from 12. First the escorte stepped down, who greeted her counterpart as though they were childhood friends even though they had probably never spoken before; then the prep team came out, unable to disguise their scrunched up noses at the grey ocean of the district's population.
And then, an orange bolt flashed before his eyes and suddenly his hand was between much warmer ones, and a deep voice called him Asahi-sanand he felt terribly confused until he thought of glancing down.
He found a pair of brown eyes that gleamed under the pale winter morning light; gelled-up hair, one defiant blonde strand among the brown; a grin capable of outshining the spotlights; a costume so orange it was blinding. Asahi managed to mumble a greeting, maybe, he wasn't certain. The tribute –the victor– was so tiny.
But he didn't let go of Asahi's hand or stop talking for a single moment.
"Asahi-san, I'm so glad that 12 is the first district I came to, because I wanted to meet you first of all."
"Eh, huh, yeah?"
"Of course! I still remember your Games, they were the coolest I've ever seen. The Careers always have it so easy, right? And then bam! The walls fall down, the tunnels close off, the floor turns into a slippery trap and the boy from 12 is the only one who keeps his cool. And that blow you gave to that mutt rat that it smashed against the wall? Wow. You were awesome."
Asahi mumbled something in reply, he never knew what. No one had ever called him "awesome" or "cool".
The escort from 10 came to drag away her victor so he'd give his speech to the rest of the district, and all of a sudden Asahi's hands felt very cold. The boy messed up once or twice with a laugh, and a little stupidly Asahi thought that the spotlights weren't needed, that his smile was more than enough. Something about him made his surroundings pale, and even the bright lime green that impregnated his escort from head to foot, flesh included, seemed to fade away next to him.
Nishinoya Yuu made the ruthless greyness of District 12 become a little less grey.