Chariot Rides.

I'm bad, and they say that the good die last.

Estrella Villon, 16
District Six Female

The golden rays of dawn soak through the curtains of my train car far too early and far too harshly. A panic comes over me as I realize I'm not in my bed at home but in a moving, swaying capsule of unfamiliar blankets; a relaxing, sedating sort of horror settles over me as I remember just exactly where I am.

Squinting my eyes in the newfound brightness, I kick the thermal sheets off my sweaty body and manage to get myself down off my bunk. I come down too hard, stubbing a toe on a nearby ladder. "Ow!" Wincing, I grit my teeth in both pain and the bitter realization that, for a second day in a row, my luck is just that fucking bad.

"How long 'til the Capitol?"

The sound of my own weary voice seems to echo through the desolate room, echoing back to me that once again, I am completely and utterly alone. I sigh, tugging off the velvety robes that I cloaked myself in twelve hours ago in favor of slim-fitting joggers and a tank top. Much better.

It's not like I haven't been to the Capitol a million times; the first few times one goes, I understand the appeal of wanting to look pretty and dolled up at the train station. But over time, you stop caring about the wayward glances and critical eyes. People become buzzards, judgmental and searching for the slightest sign of prey. Why bother being on the harsh offensive when the best protection is a strong defense against giving a fuck?

I step out into the hallway to find the train absolutely buzzing with Avoxes and similar figures. It's too easy to slink away to the kitchen car, where Vanilan and Felix sit silent in a booth. Aston broods over the both of them, chattering a mile a minute as he chefs up a mug of coffee.

"Very important day, chariots." I pick up Aston's voice the closer I get to the booth. "The first chance for sponsors to see you as a united front, a district worth fighting for even if you don't ally with each other!"

Aston won his Game just two years ago at the age of thirteen – younger than I am at this point. It came out of complete left field, blowing away the districts as a brutal reminder that anyone and everyone has a shot at a turnaround victory. I've never seen District Six in such high spirits. The jellyfish, I remember him being called, lighting the way out of the darkness that Six had become so surrounded in.

"Estrella." He stands as he sees me, beaming. I approach him with ease, smiling politely as he welcomes me with a handshake. "What would you like to eat? We've got bounties of pastries and a chef that can – well, I'm sure you're used to all of this by now."

My cheeks don't grow red as they used to at a mention of my past, but grow wide with a smile. "I'd love a veggie omelet and maybe a few donuts," I gush, reaching past my district partners and pouring a glass of orange juice. I glance up to a nearby Avox, who nods and darts back to the kitchen. "Now, where were we before I arrived so rudely late?"

"Getting to know each other better." Aston smiles. "I know you all were so tired last night, we didn't get to talk much."

"Well, it's a good thing I love icebreakers." I flip a lock of hair behind my shoulder, looking expectantly at Vanilan and Felix. They look blank. "Alright, I suppose we can start all over if that's what you'd like."

"…I'm Felix." Felix Agrippa is mirthless, I note. Perhaps a bit drained looking. Surely he finds these secondary introductions pointless.

"Vanilan Surana. But I go by Surana."

"And I'm Estrella."

"We know who you are," Surana says around a snicker, almost incredulously. "It's hard not to know who you are around Six."

He's talking about the years I spent as my own namesake, an estrella - in some long-lost language it means star, I've heard. So what a twist of fate that a star is what I turned out to become. From district dirt to a girl spotted singing melodies at the train station at the right place and time to STELLA, one of the treasured few district children that actually made it out. District kids aren't supposed to leave the districts, everyone knows that. But provided a rich Capitolite likes what you have to offer, and nobody will miss you…?

But it's not something I exactly love to be reminded of. Which is exactly why I narrow my eyes, tilt my head and say "But you don't really know me, then do you? Silly way to put it. You know of me."

This time it's Felix who laughs into a napkin, obviously trying to conceal a smile more sinister. "Though I think we've heard enough about you to have a pretty good idea."

"Stop that," Aston says, albeit with a curious tone.

"No, you all stop." I glare across the table, making sure to lock eyes with each boy. "And you better listen because I'm going to say this only once, and if you go against me on this one thing then you may as well consider yourselves dead to me. But I won't be going into these Games with that reputation, and I'd love for it to never be brought up."

"You're ridiculous if you think nobody will call you out for it," Surana mutters. "You've made quite a name for yourself over the past few years."

I hold my chin high, glowering at him down my nose. "Perhaps," I say. "But it's not an image I'd like to relive, and that's all the information you're getting. Bring it up again and we're going to have a miserable last few days of life."

Felix exhales. "Okay, princess," he mutters. Surana only shrugs, an air of disinterest settling amongst his features.

It's Aston who turns to me, a kindred smile lighting his face. "I know what it's like," he murmurs lowly. "I won't ever bring it up, but if you ever want to talk…"

I nod, a note of gratefulness blooming in my chest. "Thanks, Aston."

The train suddenly pulls to a halt, signaling our arrival in the Capitol. Felix and Surana peek tentatively out at the massive influx of paparazzi and Capitolites, screaming out names and jeers alike. They've never seen so many people – their faces grow more uneasy as the mobs grow louder, paling into a vague form of social terror. Yet for me, no such anxiety rises up. It's just another day at the office, if the office were a grey train platform in the southern section of the Capitol.

They might mock me for my past, but at least it gives me an advantage. I smile to myself, rising from the booth with excitement.

"…On second thought, I don't think I'll have breakfast anyways. Who can eat on such a day like this!"

Ruhi Brennan, 18
District Seven Female

This can't be real.

Stylists rush around the room too big to be necessary, tittering amongst themselves, spilling jars of tonics and fragrances, flailing about with swathes of cloth that I couldn't even begin to pronounce. The entire process of getting a tribute ready for chariot rides is cutthroat for their future career paths, apparently – never mind the fact that they'll all be watching me getting my throat sliced to bits in just a few days.

"Tabitha!" someone screams directly next to my ear, "Why has she not been tea tree oil deep conditioned yet? She still has lice crawling around!"

I swirl around to face the defacer, "I don't have lice-"

"Don't argue, baby, I've dated enough leeches to know a louse when I see one." The hawkish young man next to me tugs on his thin lavender goatee, penetrating me with his eyes as if he's staring into my soul. I shift on the stool uncomfortably, tugging the svelte robe around me for some semblance of comfort.

"Are you quite done?" I ask irritably.

"Not yet." He squints, tilting my chin up with a hand icy to the touch. "You look like you've never washed your face a day in your life, your eyebrows are overgrown to the point of shrubbery, your armpits make you smell like a dead animal, and there's enough hair under there to conceal a newborn baby."

"Some women don't shave," I counter.

"Fair enough…" the man turns his nose up in disdain, "but some women also know the power of a cheap deodorant."

Minutes melt into hours as this strange prep team scrubs, scrapes, and shaves my body of anything that could be considered unbecomingly, and I sit in a state of numbness, quiet as a mouse. Not that I feel numb, as I'm bitterly aware of the fact that this is the most positive attention I've gotten in well over a year. To the contrary, the excess of attentiveness introduces a lump in my throat that only grows bigger with each and every serum that they lather onto my body.

Gradually the voices die down, the lotions stop coming, and the perfume bottles are cast aside. All four members of the prep team stare at me, wide-eyed and gaping, analyzing me once more as they circle my stool.

"…Almost perfect, in that dress."

"She could stand to lose a bit of weight on the hips."

"They're child-birthing hips. She's from Seven."

"You bitches couldn't be more sadistic if you made an honest attempt." The man with the lavender goatee purses his lips, turning a critical eye towards me. "For district dirt, we sure did turn her into a star. Ruhi, baby, take a look in the mirror and tell me you don't look absolutely stunning."

A mirror is thrust in front of me, and for the first time in forever do I finally see myself as something – someone – worth looking at. I raise my hands, wanting to touch everything. My cheeks, done up with a soft rose tone and rosy glitters. The petite gemstones, glued onto my earlobes and catching delicate strands of light. My lengthened eyelashes, cradling my face and coated in something brown. So this is the definition of the beauty that my family could never afford. As I pinch the side of my nose, wondering how they made it look smaller, I decide that I hold a reverence for this newfound beauty.

"I look okay," I say softly.

He gives me a reassuring, but firm, pat on the back. "More than okay. But if you don't hurry up and get out to the chariot cafeteria, then nobody will care because nobody will have seen you." I look at him blankly. "I'm saying better early than late. To the elevator with you."

This is the longest I've been without Madoc or Kadrium for the past twenty-four hours, and I'm torn between not so ready to return to a life of complete independence yet and relishing in the time by myself, without the noise of other human beings. I hover by the elevator, hoping that the prep team won't take notice, but quickly I'm shooed inside.

There's someone standing inside as I get in. Just great.

I keep my distance from the tribute standing inside as best I can, but I can't ignore when they break the tense silence. "Hello, my name is Pagan."

"Ruhi," I mumble, keeping my eyes glued to the ground.

They're persistent. "Your costume is very interesting. Are you supposed to be a… forest-themed mermaid?"

My eyes flicker across the expanses of glittering greens and golds that line my body. "I'm not sure, honestly. I didn't ask too many questions."

The elevator isn't going fast enough, and Pagan isn't giving me the space to ignore them. "I think I'm supposed to represent a bottle of wine," they say, flinging their arms out wide to reveal a lengthy wingspan. I take in the rose-colored satiny dress, billowing around their ankles to reveal lux sandals. "If only they'd provided me with a prop of the real deal."

"I take it you're from Eleven, then." I tilt my head. "One of the so-called Career districts."

"Is that what you think of us?" Pagan laughs lightly. "That's rich – I think being a Career district is one of our detriments, not to mention one of the least important factors about our good old Eleven."

The doors open, but neither Pagan nor I move an inch. We both gaze out into the expanse of the room beyond, teeming with mentors and tributes and horses alike. My stomach does a somersault. Once again, I'm cast into the grey area of whether I'm excited to see people that don't give a damn about my last name, or whether I'm sick to my stomach at the entirety of the situation and what it entails.

"What a clusterfuck," I murmur. Pagan snorts.

"I suppose we all have to face reality at some time or another," they sigh, fluffing up their tawny hair with both hands. They cast a sidelong glance to me. "Come find me tomorrow, during training. Perhaps we can face reality together."

"I won't ally with you," I say.

Pagan chuckles. "Did I ever extend that invitation?" I scowl into the face of their mirth. "If you know so much about the Career histories of Eleven and Twelve, you must know that I've basically been born into an alliance. I'd be dumb to throw that to the side, no?"

I swallow thickly, now feeling both like an asshole and like I'd love to get out of this fucking elevator right now. "Sure. I'm sorry. I misunderstood, it appears."

The doors begin to slide shut, but Pagan shoots an arm out to block them. "Consider my offer," they say, offering me a wink. "Our time here may have been short, but I think it's nice to make these connections."

I force a laugh of my own, sliding out of the elevator before Pagan has the chance to go first.

"The connection of a lifetime," I say, uncaring if they hear or not. "at least for the next four days."

Ilias Laghari, 18
District Twelve Male

"Custer and Cornelia warned us that promptness wasn't Eleven's strong suit."

To my side, Greta shifts on heels too high and scans the cafeteria like a hawk, arms crossed. To my other side, Campbell titters as the tributes from One stroll past us, looking like a group of angry poodles.

"I'm sure they won't be too late," I assure Greta, "not when they care about this just as much as our district does, if not more."

She tosses her nose in the air, as if trying to avoid a rotten smell. "It's unprofessional of them. The power dynamic has always shifted in Twelve's favor year after year – this must be why. What an introduction."

As if on a cue, Luena Glacelle and Alpheus Baker emerge from an elevator, dressed to the nines in shimmering floor-length outfits in the styles of expensive, luxurious wines. I find myself inwardly resenting the creaky, skimpy gladiator-style coat of armor I've got to wear, and especially moreso as Luena and Alpheus tread towards us with ease, laughing with every step.

"They sure look happy," mutters Campbell with disdain.

They are happy. It's evident in their faces, the ease of their conversation and laughter. We haven't even had the pleasure of introductions and it's obvious that their dynamic is stronger than the forced one we have going on. Greta is blunt and humorless. Campbell is hostile and cold. I'm trapped somewhere in the middle, not quite thick-skinned enough to put up with Campbell's digs nor to hear the blatant truths Greta has to spill.

Perhaps District Eleven could help me out, in that aspect.

"Welcome," I greet warmly as they sidle closer to our chariot, eyes bright. "I'm Ilias, and these are my district partners Campbell and Greta."

"Nice to meet you," Greta echoes evenly.

"I'm Luena, and he's Alpheus." Luena's forest green eyes flicker over to me, and her smile widens the smallest bit. "Our third partner Pagan hasn't arrived yet, but they won't be late. We all just got caught up with our final fittings."

I glance to Greta, whose face is emotionless yet sharp. It's clear that she still isn't pleased with their performance – but she can't really be peeved if it wasn't their fault, right?

"Not an issue in the slightest." I wave my hand. "It's just nice to see some friendly faces, and great to meet you both. Our mentors recommended that we seek you out immediately and try to make friends."

"We could always use a few more of those!" Alpheus beams.

"Not so fast," Greta butts in, her face clouded with thinly cloaked anger. Her eyes shoot daggers in my direction. "The last thing District Twelve needs right now is someone to call friend. But an alliance is something we could work towards once we've analyzed each other's skills."

"Work towards?" Luena scoffs, a bit incredulous. "We only have three days to come up with something before the arena. Don't you think with a performance and judging session to determine alliances, you're taking things a bit slowly?"

This is not the gung-ho group of teammates I had hoped for. I cast a distressed glance over to Campbell, but she's making direct eye contact with the ground. She'll be no help in remedying.

"I don't think we need to agree to an alliance right now, considering we've spent all of three minutes together…" I float out a gentle middle ground. "but it sure would be nice to spend time together tomorrow and talk about it further, make sure everyone gets what they and their mentors want."

"Fine by me," Alpheus shrugs. "We'll decide tomorrow."

Luena and Greta glance at each other once more, eyes narrowed, before Alpheus tugs on Luena's sleeve and gestures to their own chariot. Pagan Corneal sits, brooding and observing from the back of a silken white horse. If I didn't know better, I would have thought they were staring directly at me.

"We'll fill Pagan in and introduce you all tomorrow," Alpheus says. "Best of luck in the parade!"

As soon as they're out of earshot, I turn to Greta, who's still tight-lipped. "That went well!" I say brightly.

"I don't want to work with them," she mutters. "They're being reckless about making alliances and acting fake by saying they want to be friends. Who wants to be friends here when it's eye-for-an-eye in four days?"

"They're our best shot," I plead. "Custer and Cornelia said so. Twelve has done substantially better in the Games when we're cohesive with Eleven." Greta looks off to the side, obviously not convinced. Next to me Campbell groans under her breath, not thrilled with the conversation either. "Come on, Greta, you know I'm right. Maybe they made a bad impression, but they're probably nervous…?"

She heaves a sigh, avoids my gaze, and faces forward. "Fine, I'll give them an actual chance tomorrow," she murmurs, flippant. "But their third partner has got to stop eyeing us all up like we're meat at a butcher's shop. I'm unnerved."

Our horses pull forward, jerking us back into reality. My knees knock together in a collision of metal and nerves, palms sweating as I glance around the cafeteria. The horses in front of us whine, nostrils flaring and heavy hooves stamping on the ground. I almost don't notice Campbell cowering next to me, eyes wide as if she's just been spooked. I don't even realize when I slide my hand over hers. For comfort? A reminder that even in the face of uncertainty, nice people still exist? Even I'm not sure.

It's obvious the simple-minded gesture isn't appreciated, however. Almost instantly she flails her arm, sending my hand into the air and Campbell back to her hunched, defensive stance over the chariot bar.

Greta snorts next to me. "Tough luck finding a girlfriend in the Games, huh?"

I open my mouth. "I wasn't gonna-"

"District One!" a voice shouts from somewhere in the distance as the first chariot is sent off.

A hush falls over the cafeteria, the heart of every single tribute hammering out a silent cacophony of apprehension. I watch Greta's hand tighten around the bar of the chariot until her knuckles are white. District Three!

"Nervous, huh?" I try poking fun.

Greta's jaw tightens, and I quickly realize she is. Even Queen Greta, with all her bluntness and sidelong scowls, is not immune to the pressures of an audience with a million foreign Capitolites. She's not perfect nor the ice queen she makes herself out to be – she's human, and I'd forgotten. An easy laugh bubbles up from between my lips, and even the glower she shoots me isn't enough to dissuade it. District Six!

"What the hell are you laughing at?" Greta whispers harshly.

"You," I answer simply. District Seven! "I've just had an idea. How about we all link hands as our chariot rolls out? You know it's always best to advertise a united front, at least for the first few public appearances."

Campbell lifts her head silently, turns to me.

Greta's less inclined. Pride's a bitch. "They won't fall for it," she says. "They never do."

I watch her shaking hands, clutching the bar still as if her very life depends on it. District Eleven! I'm running out of time. "Okay," I say. "Well, if you won't do it for the sake of appearances, then how about because I'm scared to death?"

Not waiting for an answer, I reach out and snag a hand from each girl at my side just as the horses pull forward. Their free hands shoot out, grabbing the bar so that we don't collapse off the chariot. We pull out from the cafeteria into an enormous gilded stadium, the luxury and extravagance half-blinding me.

Campbell and Greta's hands are sweaty in my own. Yet the longer they wave, the higher I hold our linked hands in the air, smiling like a fool despite the terrors erupting in my stomach, I feel them relaxing, loosening up, growing less tense. I've made a difference, even if they don't realize it.

There's hope for District Twelve yet – and it all starts with me.

A/N: Can't Look Back by Machine Gun Kelly.

A timely update? What is this, 2016? The first few months of quarantine?

I hope you're all having a safe, healthy, happy holiday season. I highly doubt I'll be back with another update before the new year, so I also just want to wish everyone a happy new year and thank GOD we are almost out of 2020! I won't knock this year as a whole because it has introduced some new and wonderful things into my life (such as a resurgence into this website…) but I'll be happier than anyone when it's over, I swear.

And thank you to the few people who reviewed / reached out to let me know they're still reading up on this story! Even if I'm not writing this story for reviews it sure is nice to see that some submitters have still stuck around. : )

Up next we have training with Heidi, Venec, and Luena!

What's your favorite district to submit to? (Provided it's a regular story with Districts One-Twelve!)

Have a great holiday season and a safe NYE – I'll see you all in the new year xoxo : ))