District 3 – Kozume Kenma
It was easy for him to remain unnoticed. District 3, with its urban landscape filled with factories, didn't harvest many victors. Very rarely could they find on the arena the technological tools they handled best, and often enough Nature itself was their worst enemy.
The scrawny boy with his face constantly hidden underneath a curtain of black hair didn't catch anyone's eye. If that year anyone bothered to pay any attention at all to District 3, their eyes were immediately drawn to the other tribute, who was over a meter ninety centimeters tall, with a confident grin and silver hair reminiscent of the latest Victor from District 8, the ever popular Sugawara Koushi. He was just fifteen years old, but he showed the same childish self-confidence throughout the entire preliminaries, especially during his interview. With a score of eight, he became the one tribute from District 3 worth paying attention to.
On the other hand, Kozume Kenma's main talent seemed to be his ability to blend in with his surroundings and make people forget about his presence, even when he was standing right in front of them. Even the interviewer, with his long career of dealing with tributes, had a hard time getting something out of the boy that would make him memorable to the audience.
"Kenma, what would you say is your greatest strength?"
The boy tilted his head a little, his dark hair barely allowing a glimpse of his cat-like eyes.
"I paid attention to survival lessons," he answered at long last, his voice almost too low for the microphone. "So I guess first they'd have to find me before they can kill me. And if it gets to that…" He shrugged. "Kuro taught me how to wield a knife."
"Is Kuro your mentor?"
He shook his head, his dark hair gliding over his face like a curtain when the show came to an end.
"He's… he's my best friend. Since always. When he came to say goodbye, he told me what I had to do. To survive."
"And what did you tell him?"
Kenma bit his lip.
"That I'd try," he replied, in the same quiet, monotone voice.
The interviewer smiled with so much understanding and sympathy that no one would have said his job meant sending children to slaughter.
"Of course. For my part, Kenma, I wish that the odds may ever be in your favor."
For the first time, the boy's face reflected something like feeling: sheer incredulity.
Though it might've been a trick of the light.
The gong that signaled the end of the interview rang and, as soon as he got up from his seat to leave his spot to Haiba Lev, the audience forgot all about him. It was very likely that the other tributes also forgot Kozume Kenma as soon as he was out of their sight.
An understandable mistake.
That year, the Gamekeepers decided to try something different. More than one member of the audience gasped when the screens revealed the new arena. Before their eyes there wasn't a dense jungle, mountains covered by woods, or a beach with white sands. Instead, grey dilapidated buildings, some of them as tall as the ones in the Capitol, stretched in all directions as far as their eyes could reach. It was the chillingly accurate reconstruction of a city in ruins after the destruction of ancient wars, with its houses, buildings, and strange concrete structures with towers (bell towers, the hosts specified) now reduced to mere shells of what they'd been. Every now and then, though, a glimpse of its old splendor could be found: stained glass windows with flowers and animals marred by cracks; a painting over a crumbling wall; a dome that still held onto its golden shine gleaming under the sunlight.
Its charm did not neutralize its dangers, of course. As the imitation of a city laid waste to by war, many of its structures were unsteady, with beams ready to fall on the tributes' heads, and floors that sunk underneath their feet; a lot of the water was contaminated and traps were concealed around every corner.
The Cornucopia lay in the courtyard of a grand building with maze-like corridors and twisting marble stairs, its fantastic mosaic floors all too soon painted red.
Kenma didn't even approach the Cornucopia: he grabbed the bag closest at hand and ran into the shadows. As he turned around a corner, he bumped into one of the tributes from District 7, who held a big cudgel in his hands. Echoes of anguished screams reverberated through the walls and a second went by, then another, as the two of them stared at each other without moving a muscle. The gaze of the boy from 7 didn't tear away from the bag Kenma had managed to grab and the hand holding the cudgel began to rise over his head.
"Kenma, get down!"
Fast as cat Kenma threw himself to the ground and just a second later a brick flew across the air to impact on the face of the tribute from District 7. The cudgel fell from his hands, his face now covered in blood, his feet stumbling backwards. Kenma didn't stop to watch: he ran towards the stairs, putting distance between him and the clamor of the battle, until he reached a terrace bathed by the feeble light of a grey morning.
Out of breath, he turned to face the other tribute from his district.
"Not that I'm not grateful or anything," he mumbled, "but why are you following me?"
Lev scratched the back of his head.
"Weeeeell… you were always the smartest person I know. I'm sure you have a better idea of how to survive this arena than I do. And, well, I kinda told Yaku and Kuroo that I'd keep an eye on you, and I'm more afraid of them than the Careers to be honest. So I thought I'd be the muscle and you'd be the brains, what do you think?"
"Kenma seemed to ponder on it for a moment, and then he shrugged.
"The odds aren't in our favor, Lev, so it's all the same."
"That's… not very encouraging."
"It's the way it is. No one is betting on me right now. But if you want to… okay. Let's be allies."
As unequal a match as it might have seemed, time proved that it was in Lev's best interests to have Kenma as an ally. Lev was tall and nimble but prone to run into every lethal trap waiting on the arena, whereas Kenma seemed to have an almost preternatural talent of figuring out the placement of the traps and finding ways to avoid them. Other tributes were nowhere as lucky. Standing on the wrong step bathed a boy from District 6 in an acid shower, another tribute from 10 was burnt alive by the gas that suddenly leaked from a broken pipe, and several lost their lives amidst horrible pangs of pain due to contaminated water. And every loose tile could hide a new trap; every step, another collapse; every beam a potential cudgel.
"What's the plan, exactly? 'Cause you've got one, don't you?"
Kenma kept walking through the twisting alleys, unflappable as always, as Lev kept up with his long strides.
"To stay alive. To keep away from everyone else."
"That's not much of a plan."
"Any better ideas?"
At first, the plan seemed to work: Kenma's cat-like eyes soon located the most twisted and solitary paths, those through which the Careers did not dare to step on when they went hunting. Cameras didn't stay long on those two: Lev had a bit of a spark to amuse the audience, but Kenma's quiet ways couldn't compete with the Capitol's favorites.
Everyone would remember, though, the day Kozume Kenma underwent the transformation that changed him from imminent victim to future victor, long before it was proclaimed by the trumpets and the hosts' announcement. It was a moment they would replay over and over again in the following years, every time there was an old Games' montage, one of those memorable hits, engraved in the memory of everyone in the audience.
It's always exciting, isn't it? To watch the transformation of just another tribute into a new victor, like breaking off a cocoon, the hosts liked to say.
The cocoon broke, so to speak, one grey afternoon in a faintly illuminated warehouse, specks of dust twirling in the few rays of light that snuck through the cracks. Lev paced like a caged animal, babbling about everything and nothing, as Kenma, with the usual bored look on his face, went over their meager supplies.
"Lev, just watching you makes me tired. We can't get out until the Careers go away, just get some sleep."
The boy was unable to remain still and Kenma shot him a somewhat exasperated glare, but at this point his exasperation was charged with resignation and, perhaps, for those who knew him well, even a hint of fondness. As annoying as Lev's constant movement could be, deafening silence could be even more maddening. Kenma frowned, his gaze going over Lev's shoulder, seemingly fascinated by the erratic movement of specks of dust in a yellowish beam of light.
He rose to his feet, dropping his bag on the ground, and he began to circle the place on his tiptoes. With a stick he began to give little bumps to the walls, much to Lev's confusion.
"Kenma, what's going on? What are you looking for? Why are you hitting the walls? What…?"
Kenma told him to keep it quiet with a gesture, without even glancing at him, a solution that could never last long with Lev. After a while, he also began to walk around the warehouse in the opposite direction, although he didn't seem to know what to look for.
All of a sudden, Kenma stopped in his tracks and put his ear close to the wall, almost touching it, and began to softly rap on the wall with his stick. His face, usually expressionless, lit up and his lips almost curved into a smile. Lev didn't see it, ghosting his fingers on another wall, humming under his breath. Kenma abandoned the stick and his fingers began to feel the wall. With a sigh, Lev slouched against a column, complaining once again about what a pest the Career pack was. Kenma ignored him, or perhaps he didn't even hear him, focused as he was on the wall. His fingers pressed a particular point and then, the wall seemed to sink and Kenma pushed it aside like a screen door. Before his eyes, several blinking lights in different colors appeared, reflecting on his pale skin and drawing something akin to a smile on his face.
Lev didn't see it, though. Distracted, he took a step backwards and the ball of his feet found a loose tile. He could have twisted an ankle, but no: instead, he activated one of the most perfectly horrifying traps ever designed by the Gamekeepers.
"Lev, I found it. I found it."
His usually monotone voice was trembling, excitement for once drawn on his face. He almost vibrated on the spot, his hands sliding over the control panel, his eyes wide-open with fascination. Behind him, a black mist spread out from the borders of the loose tile underneath Lev's feet and rose crawling over his body with the speed of a silent flame, until it covered him head to toe between one heartbeat and the next, before he could even scream. At their homes, all of Panem held their breath, with a blend of horror and fascination, when the mist suddenly cleared, leaving behind a wide-eyed Lev, his mouth twisted in a grimace, his arms and legs rigid. The camera panned in a circle around him to show the trap's true dreadful genius: his skin had turned grainy and gray, as though turned into stone. The audio transmitted the shocked gasps from the hosts, for once speechless.
The screams of anguish of Lev's family and friends would never be heard on camera.
Kenma couldn't hear any of it and the audience watched with morbid fascination how the boy's focus remained entirely on what was before his eyes, mumbling to himself, ignorant of the horrors at his back.
Little by little, his enthusiasm dwindled, or perhaps the prolonged silence, so unusual on his partner's side, began to unnerve him.
"Lev?" he asked, without turning around. "Lev, what are you up to?"
Silence was all the answer he got and his shoulders tensed.
Very, very slowly, he began to turn around, his breathing speeding up, his skin sickeningly pale. Perhaps he already pictured it, perhaps his instincts forewarned him.
Perhaps he had already watched too many Hunger Games to expect a better outcome.
For an instant, he remained as still as his partner. With shaking hands he managed to pick up the stick from the ground and slowly, on his tiptoes, he got close enough to touch his partner's chest with the end of the stick. Lev didn't react. He poked him with a little more force and the body stumbled and fell, rigid like a statue, his arms and legs stuck in the same angle without moving at all, his face petrified in a permanent grimace.
"Oh," Kenma muttered, letting the stick fall with a clatter against the tiles.
Later, during his first interview as the brand new Victor, he was asked what had crossed his mind at that moment, while giant screens repeated the scene for all of Panem to see. No emotion showed on Kenma's face as he said:
"I thought I wanted to go home right away." He shrugged. "That was the fastest way I could think of."
The screens showed the last scenes of those unforgettable Games, when Kenma's fingers glided through the control panel and every single trap on the arena was unexpectedly activated at once. Nine tributes fell , killed by acid showers, gas burns, lethal electrical currents and, in the case of the Careers hidden in the Cornucopia, an explosion that tore the entire building to pieces, mosaic and tile splinters shot in every direction, a column of black smoke darkening the sky.
And the nerve-wrecking final scene: the tenth tribute, the lower half of his body buried under the debris, blood pouring from a deep cut on his forehead. Eyes twirling, his hands shaking convulsively, breathless whimpers escaping his lips.
Through the curtain of smoke and dust appeared a dark shadow, black hair stuck to grimy skin. Kenma sank to his knees next to the tribute from District 2, the only one for whom the cannon hadn't rang yet, and he watched his agony with impassivity. The boy stretched out a hand, perhaps to grasp his enemy, but he was shaking too much. Kenma looked through his clothes and from a pocket he pulled out a knife, the blade glinting underneath the feeble light.
A mumble barely caught by the powerful microphones:
"What did Kuro say…? Oh, right."
He grabbed the boy's hair, covered in dust and blood, with one hand, and he tilted the tribute's head to one side, as his other hand slid the knife across his throat without hesitation. He gulped when blood splattered all over his face, but any other reaction was drowned by the trumpets and the announcement of the new Victor from District 3.
"You knocked the breath out of us, Kenma," said the interviewer, his eyes, painted in bright neon colors, wide-open. "I never saw such a shocking ending. You didn't even give us enough time to do the interviews of the final eight's families!"
"I'm sorry," Kenma said in his usual monotone voice. His hair was no longer black, but bright blonde, much more fitting for a glorious Victor in his stylist's opinion. It still covered half of his face like a curtain, though.
The interviewer smiled, shaking his head.
"Oh, no, Kenma, you've got nothing to apologize for: your Games were absolutely epic, am I right?" The audience took their cue to cheer and clap. "I'm still shaking, so thrilling it was. Look at my hand, I can't keep it still."
(He could afford such displays of enthusiasm. The Head Gamekeeper, unable to predict that a tribute could manipulate the traps' controls from the arena, met a very different fate.)
A year later, the Capitol made their feelings perfectly clear regarding the spectacular ending of Kozume Kenma's games during the following reaping day, when the escort from District 3 in a booming voice read the name Kuroo Tetsuro.