When Jay looks back on his childhood, he doesn't think of his mother's death. He doesn't think of long hours waiting for his father who would never appear. He doesn't think of finding out his grandfather had passed. He doesn't think of the cascade of bad grades and disappointed teachers that characterized his early years.

No, he thinks of a bustling fall day in the market. He had been young—five or six, and it had been too easy to get separated from his grandmother. Besides, it hadn't been long since his mother died, and he wasn't very good at sticking with his grandparents yet.

And thus, little Jay had wandered around, asking strangers if they had seen his grandmother. No one stopped to help a wayward kindergartener, but Jay knows now that is just how things are in District Five. Everyone looks out for their own skin and their own skin alone.

Eventually, he had drifted into an alleyway. His mother had always said to avoid the back alleys—it was where the thieves and the addicts hung out.

(When looking back on the memory, Jay always scoffs at this particular part. If only his mother could see him now.)

There, in that alleyway, there had been a pair of men. One tall, one short. It was the only feature Jay can remember about them, a noticeable height difference.

The tall one had been holding a gun. A revolver. Jay remembers the name.

"You ever heard of a game called Russian Roulette, Mr. Welles?" the tall man had asked, swinging the revolver around his pointer finger.

Mr. Welles had paled, eyeing the gun with nervousness. "You're not suggesting we—"

"You know exactly what I'm suggesting," the tall man said. "It's either this, or you pay your dues."

"I…" Mr. Welles said, swallowing visibly. "Then we will play."

"I knew you would say that." The tall man smiled coldly, removing a small piece of metal from his pocket and slipping into the gun. "I'm sure you know the rules."

"…yes."

Jay had clung to a wall, peering around to watch the men play their game. He didn't understand the game then, didn't understand what was fun about it. That was the point of games, after all. Besides, there didn't seem to be much of a goal in mind. How could someone win a game like that?

The tall man spun the gun's cylinder, placed it against his temple, and pulled the trigger.

Jay leaned closer. It didn't make any sense to him; he had seen people with guns before, and he knew that when people pulled the trigger, someone got hurt. That was how it worked. But he also knew that his mother told him that guns needed bullets to hurt people. The tall man had only put one bullet in the gun. Maybe that was the point of the game.

Mr. Welles did the same; spinning the cylinder, leveling the barrel with his forehead, and, after a moment of hesitation, pulled the trigger. He flinched with his entire body and handed the gun off with trembling fingers.

Around they went, taking turns firing empties against their skin. Jay had stayed and watched, transfixed by the game the men were playing. It didn't seem like a very fun game. Mr. Welles definitely wasn't enjoying it, and Jay's teachers always said that you stop playing a game if someone isn't having a good time.

A shot rang out across the alleyway, and Mr. Welles fell to the ground with a small hole in the side of his head. Jay cried out in terror as he felt hands close around his midsection and lift him into the air.

"Jay!" his grandmother exclaimed, looking more pale than usual, hurrying out of the alley and back to the main street. "What have we told you about staying out of those alleyways? They're dangerous."

"I'm sorry," Jay had said as his grandmother set him on the ground. "I won't run off again."

He closed his eyes and saw the face of Mr. Welles on the ground, blood trickling out of his temple, empty gaze staring off into nothingness.

Jay certainly didn't think the game was fun then, and he thinks it's even less fun now.

The memory doesn't come up again for years. Jay shoves it down in the lowest chamber of his thoughts, because it gave him enough nightmares as a five-year-old. He doesn't have the time to unpack the undue effects that witnessing a violent death like that could have had on him.

Because he's fourteen now. He saw stuff like that again. All of the poor people in District Five have. It's hard to avoid, even if Jay has tried.

It's just one of those memories that should have been lost to the pull of growing up, but something drags it back up.

He's fourteen, he's not a kid anymore. He heads out to the market early one morning with the remains of his grandfather's meager monthly pension in his pocket. It's barely a few caps. Not nearly enough to buy them groceries, especially not in the winter, when the shopkeepers hike their prices up to combat food scarcity.

Jay wraps his coat tighter around his body, tugging on the sleeves in a vain attempt to make them long enough for his arms. A new coat would be nice. But they need heating more.

Winter is undoubtedly the worst season. District Five always gets buried in snow, and Jay is the only able-bodied person in his home. His grandmother would break her back if she tried to shovel snow. Their house never stays warm enough, no matter whether they have heating or not, and Jay knows that one of these years, his grandmother will not make it through the winter.

Well, he knows she will not make it through this one if he doesn't find a way to get food.

It sets Jay's resolve. His grandmother has done so much for him. The least he can do is help her live comfortably for as long as possible.

He wanders the market as the shopkeepers get ready for a long, cold day of little business. Most of them aren't open yet, which gives Jay time to figure out where he's going to get caps. He passes a dark shop with a shelf sitting in front of the window with a tarp over it. The tarp flutters in the biting wind, and Jay can see rows of canned goods sitting beneath it.

It's a split second decision, really—a split second decision, but one of the most important in Jay's life nonetheless.

The tarp billows, and Jay snatches up three cans and hides them under his coat.

The whole thing takes maybe five seconds, and by the time most people would notice Jay had stopped, he's already moving on.

Still, he walks faster than he had before, listening to the cans clink together under his jacket over the sound of the wind. No one looks at him as he passes. Everyone in District Five keeps to themselves. Besides, he's sure that shopkeeper won't miss those cans. Even if they do, those cans aren't going to do them in.

Not like it will for Jay if he doesn't have them.

He needs these more than that shopkeeper. His life depends on it.

His grandmother's life depends on it.

It's only three cans. Jay isn't a monster.

Jay walks faster. He rounds a corner and nearly slams into the Peacekeeper. In his surprise, the cans almost slip out of his jacket, and Jay takes a step back, attempting to put distance between them.

The Peacekeeper stares for a moment, and then says, "Care to open your coat?"

When Jay looks back on the highlights of his life, this moment stands out. In his mind, it's the first shot of his game of Russian Roulette with life. He imagines a revolver pressed against his temple, digging into his skin, his own finger on the trigger.

Ready to try his luck. Ready to risk his life. Ready to pull the trigger. It fits his life—it fits his habit of cheating death.

"Not particularly," he says, hoping to keep any piece of nervousness out of his voice. He's not sure he accomplishes it.

"Let me rephrase that," the Peacekeeper says. "Open your coat."

Jay considers running, but he knows it would only delay the inevitable. He remembers one of his neighbors getting arrested for stealing in his own home after being chased down by the Peacekeepers. He has no desire to repeat the incident.

So he stays put, imaginary finger on the trigger, and hopes for a miracle.

The Peacekeeper is reaching for his coat zipper, and Jay's eyes are screwed shut, and the imaginary hand is shaking, and he presses the trigger—

"Peacekeeper! Peacekeeper, my shop is on fire and my son is stuck inside!" a woman's voice tearfully exclaims.

It's blank. He survives for another day, another chance, another gunshot.

Jay peeks his eyes open in time to see the Peacekeeper follow the woman away, potential teenage criminal forgotten.

It's a miracle. Wasting no time to thank whatever deity took pity on him, Jay gathers his coat and cans closer to his chest, and runs all of the way home.

It's hot this time, early July, cold long forgotten in favor of blistering heat. Jay's taller now, more experienced, with a stash of stolen wallets hidden under the floorboards of his bedroom.

(Sometimes, his grandmother asks where the money is coming from. He lies to her, telling her he's taken a job at one of the factories, but he's pretty sure she knows the truth. He never could keep secrets from her. But, notably, she does not try to stop him.)

There's a freshly stolen wallet in one of the pockets he's sewn to the inside of all of his shirts. He nicked it off of a rich girl he'd passed on the street, but his mind is firmly elsewhere as he glances over his shoulders, careful to keep his head down. Maybe it took him four years to realize it, but he can't keep stealing to live forever. Not even with the help of other thieves.

He's always known it was supposed to be a temporary solution, just to keep them afloat until he got old enough to get a real job. Well, he's old enough now, and his grandmother hasn't got much time left. He needs to be able to support her for real, instead of running around stealing for fun.

And the various power plants are always looking for more workers. They're so dangerous to work in that there are constantly positions that need to be refilled.

But stealing to survive is dangerous too. At least if he's working at a power plant, he's not breaking the law.

This wallet may very well be the last thing he's going to steal—he's starting work at one of the dams on Monday, and he'll be able to close that chapter of his life. Even if it was kind of fun. Even if the other thieves don't agree with his decision. Even if it's not the kind of chapter that you can easily close.

All he has to do is make it through the Reaping. Which really won't be that hard. He's made it through all but one. It doesn't matter that he's taken tesserae. There are very, very few people in District Five who haven't.

(As long as he ignores the voice in his head that whispers that maybe it will be this year, maybe this year he'll name will be pulled from that bowl and he'll be torn away from his grandmother—)

Once he makes it through this one, he's home free. It's unfortunate that he's going to lose tesserae, but they'll survive.

They always do.

"Hey, Jay!" Penny's voice calls from behind him. He turns and sees her and Ramon standing by a storefront. They're both dressed in their nicest clothes, ready for the Reaping.

Jay walks over and greets them, pretending he can't feel the weight of that girl's wallet in his shirt. He knows that Penny and Ramon don't exactly approve of what he does—what he did—to survive.

(But he also knows they would never turn him in.)

The three of them walk the rest of the way to the square together, talking about inane things. The air in the square when they arrive is anxious and tense, but Jay remains unconcerned. He's come this far. He knows it does no good to get cocky. That's something his grandmother always said. In their station in life, they have no room for arrogance.

But Jay figures that if he's been lucky enough all these years to continually rob people blind and not get caught, he can get lucky one last time and have his sixteen slips disappear in the bowl.

He's come this far. It's not going to happen this time. It's not. Because all Jay has to do is tell himself that, and eventually, he'll start believing it.

At least the anxiety will go away as soon as he hears the name on whatever unfortunate slip is dragged from the bowl. It will go away, and he'll never have to deal with this particular worry again.

They check in, and Ramon and Jay split away from Penny. It doesn't take long for District Five's escort, a short, dark-skinned woman named Halo, to arrive on stage. She titters happily all through the video and then reaches her hand into the girls' Reaping Ball.

There is a moment of apprehension, a moment where he fears Penny's name will be on Halo's lips, and then she cheerily calls, "Mariela Romano!"

After a moment, a pale, well-dressed, familiar girl stumbles out of the eighteen-year-olds section. It takes Jay a moment to place where he remembers her from:

The wallet hidden in his shirt belongs to her. It's unfortunate timing, but at least he won't have to worry about her coming back for it. And she probably isn't even thinking about it now, as she takes the silent death march to the stage.

Halo greets her and reaches into the boys' bowl, spending an agonizing second digging through the slips for the perfect one. Finally, she plucks one out and unfolds it.

Jay releases a breath of relief before she even reads the slip, because in just a few seconds, one of his many anxieties will be banished forever, and he'll be free to die in some other, horrific way—

"Jay Enerhodar!"

The world crashes in around Jay's shoulders, and for a moment, he feels like he's been shoved out of his body. Someone elbows him in the back, shoving him forward, and he's slammed back into his skin. He stumbles numbly to the stage, and the only thought in his mind is what's going to happen to my grandmother?

She can't take care of herself, not with her arthritis. She can't even walk anymore. She could never get to the market, let alone find work to get food…

Jay draws in a sharp breath as he mounts the stage. Halo directs him to shake hands with Mariela, and her wallet suddenly feels very heavy inside his shirt.

Everything blurs as they're led into the Justice Building, as Jay looks over his shoulder for one last look of the square. It's not a particularly happy place, now just filled with faces that are safe for another year, but it's a piece of home, and Jay may never get to see it again.

A Peacekeeper leads Jay into one of the plush goodbye rooms, and he sits heavily on an armchair. He fishes the wallet out of his shirt and starts to look through it; there's a few loyalty cards to expensive businesses that Jay's passed before. Several pictures of Mariela with various people. A picture of two stick figures that looks to be drawn by a child. And a whole wad of caps.

There must be almost four hundred caps jammed into one of the pockets. Jay leaves everything else in the wallet and hides it back in his shirt just in time for Penny and Ramon to step into the room.

"Give it to her," Jay says, shoving the caps into Ramon's hands. "Please, bring her groceries until I…" he trails off, unsure of how to finish the sentence. He doesn't feel confident enough to say, "until I get back". "For as long as you can."

Ramon stares at the caps for a few moments, then nods and takes the money. As soon as they came, Penny and Ramon are gone, replaced by no one.

Jay sits alone in the ostentatious room, staring out of the window at the throngs of children leaving the square. He wonders if they know just how lucky they are.

(They must. They must all be drowning in relief, in the knowledge that it's not them, not this time. Jay knows that he always was.)

His grandmother does not arrive. Of course, he knew she wouldn't—couldn't—come to say goodbye. He doubts she even knows what happened, not yet. She'll know by tonight, when the neighbors arrive with their condolences.

Silence fills the room, and Jay can only fear for the worst.

The first train car Jay steps into must have cost more money than Jay's had in his entire life. It's a dining car, with a sitting area and a TV on the other side of the table. Halo tells Jay and Mariela to have a seat while she fetches their mentors, and the tense silence that follows tells Jay more than words could.

There are fresh tears trailing down Mariela's face, mixing with the tracks left by old ones. She stares off into space, gaze locked on some unseen point in the distance, and chokes on a sob. "This is so stupid," she says, clenching her hands into fists. "This is so fucking stupid."

Jay considers his answer for a second and says, "I'm sorry."

Mariela glares daggers at him, nostrils flaring with anger. "Well, you don't get to be sorry. Because if you think you're going to get—to get—get sympathy from me or some bullshit like that, you're sorely mistaken. There's no way in hell that I won't be leaving that arena alive, because if I don't, then who's gonna take care of Lucienne?" She's out of her chair, leaning over Jay's with her hands on the arms. "I don't care what I have to do to get back to her. I'm the only person she has, and I will go through every damn tribute in these Games all by myself if that's what it takes."

Jay looks her up and down as her chest heaves. "Who's Lucienne?"

The anger and malice disappears from Mariela's eyes at that. She sinks back into her chair and says, "She's my daughter. She's just three-years-old. If I die…she won't have anyone. She won't even remember me."

The wallet in his shirt burns a hole in the fabric. At least, it feels like it. Jay remembers the crudely drawn picture of two stick figures, labeled with unreadable scribbles. But it's possible that those squiggles could have read "Mommy" and "Luci". And when he thinks back to the moment he stole the wallet, when he had come across Mariela walking with a group of girls her age, there had been a toddler with them. Jay had assumed it was one of their younger siblings or something.

Just as Jay's about to retrieve the wallet and return it to Mariela, the door opens and Halo marches in with their mentors. Jay remembers both of them well enough, since they are two of the three living District Five victors. They both won decades ago, but there are very few Games that are regularly played back home. If Jay remembers correctly, they won consecutive years somewhere in the Eighties.

He can already predict who is going to get which mentor; Nook will gravitate toward Mariela as soon as he hears her situation. That's one thing Jay can remember vividly about Nook's Games—he had two young children to get home to.

Which will leave Jay with Lloyd. It's not a bad thing, or at least, Jay thinks it's not a bad thing. Lloyd was ruthless in the arena—Jay remembers being seven or eight, and having his grandmother cover his eyes when Lloyd slit the throats of the Career alliance in their sleep.

Sure enough, Mariela wanders off into another car with Nook. Halo disappears shortly after, and Jay waits for Lloyd to say something.

Instead, the man tosses him a bread roll from the spread on the dining table. "You look like you haven't eaten in days," he says, sitting back in a plush chair. "It's pitiful, honestly. It's no wonder there's only been one Victor from Five since I won; all of our tributes are pathetic."

"You say that as if Laurens was a Career in hiding," Jay says.

Lloyd glares at him and says, "I've learned now that Laurens's victory was a fluke, nothing more. And if you think you've got any chance against the Careers, well…you're sorely mistaken." He picks up the T.V. remote and flicks it on, the screen lighting up midway through a reaping recap.

A pair of tall, burly Careers stand on District Two's stage, smug looks on their faces. Lloyd gestures to them and says, "What do you think? Do you think you could take one of them in a fight?"

"Apparently, you didn't think you could," Jay says, more out of incredulity than an attempt to insult. "Didn't you kill all of the Careers in their sleep?"

Lloyd's left eye twitches. "Oh, so you're one of those people who believes that I took the coward's way out." He gets to his feet, sweeping toward the train car's door. "Well, I was thinking about helping you, but clearly, you're not worth my time. Good luck on your own."

He stalks out of the car without saying another word.

Jay sags in his chair. It feels like it was an inevitability—it always has been Jay Enerhodar against the world. As his grandmother became more and more ill and distant, Jay felt more and more alone.

It seems fitting that it continues to be this way, even in the Hunger Games.

Jay takes a bite of the bread roll and wonders what exactly he's going to do now.

The combined living-dining space on District Five's floor of the Tribute Tower is larger than Jay's entire house back home. He pauses just a few feet out of the elevator to take in the splendor as he removes the headpiece from his costume. He thinks they were dressed as lightning, but honestly, it's hard to tell.

Mariela discards her own headpiece as she drops heavily on the couch, propping her chin on her hands and staring at the blank T.V. screen. After a moment of consideration, Jay hesitantly joins her. The wallet is jammed under his belt, where he can feel it digging into his hip. He sits on the couch, a few feet between them, and tries to figure out exactly how to go about this.

Instead, Mariela speaks first. "Have you thought about what's going on back home yet?"

Of course he has. The only thing he can think about is his grandmother. Is she okay? Is she getting food? He's been gone for a day now. Are Penny and Ramon helping her? What's going to happen to her if Jay fails to get home to her?

"My grandmother relies on me for care," Jay says. "I just hope she's still okay."

Mariela seems to contemplate her answer for a few seconds. "Lucienne is probably in the Community Home." She shudders. "I've heard horror stories about that place."

Jay has, too. When he was younger, he was always afraid that his grandmother would die, and he would be sent to the Community Home, where there was never enough room, food, or attention for all of the orphans. He'd heard worse stories on the playground as a child, but he put about as much stock in ghost stories and urban legends.

It takes another moment for either of them to speak. Jay notices that Nook and Lloyd seem to have retired to their rooms, but Halo is still wandering around in the background.

"I'm sorry about your grandmother," Mariela says. "But I have to get home to my daughter."

Jay decides that he won't be killing Mariela. He can't conscience ripping a young child away from their mother—so much like his own mother's sudden and untimely death. Besides, Mariela clearly doesn't deserve that. She's just a girl trying to get home to someone who needs her. She's not much different from Jay—the difference is that Jay is going to get home to the someone who needs him.

But he won't do it by carelessly cutting Mariela down.

(There's a voice, somewhere in his mind, that tells him that if he wants to win, he doesn't get to decide what lines he won't cross. That being willing to do whatever it takes means doing whatever it takes.)

"Well," he says. "Then…let the best tribute win."

Mariela stands and laughs. "Don't worry. I'm going to. For Lucienne."

She starts to walk away, and Jay tries to dig the wallet out of his belt. By the time he gets it out, she's disappeared into her room and closed the door.

Sighing, Jay makes his way to his own room, noting that his last name is misspelled. The room isn't as extravagant as he expected it to be, but he doesn't particularly care. He sits on the bed, laying back against the comforter, and for the first time in twenty-four hours, lets himself think.

Last night, he simply passed out on the train. It had been a long, stressful day, and even his anxiety about the Games and about his grandmother couldn't stop him from getting sleep.

But tonight he feels wired. Half an hour ago, he was standing before thousands of screaming Capitolites as they chanted the names of various tributes. It was loud, it was bright, and it was way more attention that Jay is used to. Back home, he made a concerted effort to keep himself invisible. The less about him that is remarkable, the more likely it is that his marks will forget his features. District Five is filled with pasty, malnourished white boys.

Here, though, his job is to be memorable. It feels wrong. It feels dangerous.

Jay gets to his feet, walking toward the balcony door. He steps out into the humid Capitol night. The air smells like indulgence and alcohol. In the streets below him, Jay can see Capitolites mingling and celebrating. He drags his gaze away from the ground and looks around, taking in the incredible architecture around him.

Every building in District Five is the same—dark brick boxes with uniform windows and brown doors. But in the Capitol, every building is different—painted a different color, made from a different material, with accents and statues and ornate windows. Some of it is gaudy. Some of it isn't.

When Jay takes everything in, he can almost forget why he's here. Can almost forget about the Games looming on the horizon. Can almost forget about his grandmother. Can almost forget that he might be dead in a week.

He sits down on the ground, leaning against the railing to watch the Capitolites run around on the ground below him. He wraps his hands around two of the posts and rattles them, although he's not entirely sure why.

His thoughts swirl around his head, fighting with each for dominance. He can't die, not while his grandmother needs him.

But he also can't die because he doesn't want to die.

Jay is eighteen. There's still so much life left for him. Maybe it isn't going to be great. Maybe if he'd never been Reaped, he would have spent the rest of his life working a dead-end power plant job until one of the machines inevitably killed him. Maybe he would have been poor forever, but he would be living.

Although, there is a serious argument to be made that Jay hasn't been doing much living in the past few years.

No living—just surviving.

And Jay's still doing that. Just surviving. When does he get to stop surviving and start living?

He supposes he gets to start living once he survives the Hunger Games.

Which is doable. Definitely. How hard can it be? It's not like District Five has only won the Games five times in a hundred and fifteen years. It's not like he's just some malnourished, back alley thief.

No, he can do this. He's come so far already. This is just one more obstacle in his path. And he's overcome it all so far.

Jay takes in a shuddering breath, removing his hands from the railing to wrap them around himself instead. This kind of anxiety is different from what he's used to. Usually, it's a coiling snake, curled around his shoulders and weighing him down. It's thoughts like what if I get caught? what if I can't get the heating back? what if I can't find anyone to pickpocket?

That's not what this is. This is all encompassing dread, filling his stomach and his ribcage and his lungs. It's still a snake, but instead of being on his shoulders, it's inside him. Constricting around his organs, pressing into his heart and his windpipe and his brain. He's not thinking about getting caught. He's not thinking about the heating or the food or the money.

All he can think is I don't want to die.

And some part of him feels selfish, because he's sure that all of the other twenty-three tributes in this building are thinking the exact same thing. But only one of them can win, and Jay refuses to let it be anyone but him.

(Even Mariela.)

(Even if, maybe, just maybe, she needs to go home more.)

Because Jay doesn't want to die. So he's not going to.

All he has to do is figure out how to get from here to there. Unfortunately, he's never been very good with plans.

Training goes smoothly until early on the second day, when Jay accidentally bumps into the boy from Six. He's pretty sure the boy's name is Cadogan. He's a mountain of a tribute, eighteen-years-old, all angry glares and sharp edges. Yesterday, Jay watched him launch weights across the room like they were ragdolls. It doesn't take a genius to tell that Cadogan is not someone you want to cross.

But Jay bumps into him anyway while attempting to reach a rack of knives. It's nothing serious, literally just a slight misstep that ends in them knocking shoulders, but Cadogan explodes. He whips around, grabbing Jay by the shoulders and slamming him into the wall behind them.

"You got something you want to say to me?" he says, leaning close enough to Jay's face that he feels Cadogan's spit on his skin. "Or are you just looking for trouble?"

Jay can't help it. He's not usually one for confrontation, not like this, at least. Up until thirty seconds ago, he had no problem with Cadogan. He was just another tribute that Jay needed to get through to win the Games. Sure, he was intimidating and threatening, but Jay wasn't exhausting a lot of brainpower thinking about him. But sometimes his mouth works ahead of his brain, and he says, "I was just trying to knock some sense into you."

A vein on Cadogan's neck pulses, and before Jay can process what's happening, he has him in a headlock, pressing down on his throat until he can't breathe. He tries to throw him off, but Cadogan must have a hundred pounds on him, and it seems to be nothing but muscle. Jay may be fairly well-built, but he's been malnourished for his entire life. He can't compete with Cadogan, but he'll be damned if he doesn't try.

As he wrestles against Cadogan's iron grip, he thinks that this would be a pitiful way to die.

And then there's a phantom gun being leveled with his temple. It's his own arm holding the gun, even though both of his hands are currently busy trying in vain to free him from Cadogan's grasp. He chokes, desperate for air. Through blurry vision he sees several trainers running in their direction. He lets his eyes fall closed.

(His phantom hand pulls the trigger.)

It's the second shot. It's the second time he imagines himself cheating death, outsmarting the Reaper, surviving to fight for nothing for another day.

The trainers pull Cadogan off, and Jay flops onto the mat beneath him, gasping for air.

(Another blank. Another death cheated. Another six chambers, any of which could hand him to his demise—)

One of the trainers helps him to his feet, saying something about taking him to see the nurses. Jay nods, not entirely processing what she's saying, too busy imagining his own gruesome end. The barrel of the gun is still there, digging into his skin. Reminding him of what's still to come.

There is no gun.

There was never a gun.

But there is still a game to play.

The nurse gives him some kind of liquid medicine that "should have his throat back in tip-top shape in time for the interviews!" and sends him up to his floor for the rest of the day. Apparently, he needs rest.

(And to miss out on almost an entire day of training. That is not lost on him.)

Nook and Lloyd are surprised to see him, but at the sight of quickly forming bruises on his neck, they both seem to understand what happened. Nook tells him he'll make him a cup of tea, saying that it always helped his kids when they had sore throats, and leaves him sitting on the couch with Lloyd.

"So," Lloyd says conversationally. "You want to tell me what happened?"

Jay clears his throat several times, only to say, "No."

His voice does sound like he's been eating gravel. But maybe the Capitolites are into that.

"You know, I got into a fight in training too," Lloyd says. "It was with an outlier, the boy from Eight or Ten or something. It's been a long time. I punched him square in the nose, broke it in fact. Sure, it hurt my hand, but it was worth it. Proved I wasn't someone to mess with."

Jay eyes Lloyd skeptically. "Thought you didn't want to get involved with me."

Lloyd shrugs. "Eh. At least this" He gestures to Jay's neck. "is interesting. So. Enlighten me."

"I insulted the boy from Six."

"That monster?" Lloyd laughs. "You must have a death wish to be antagonizing someone like that."

"He started it."

Nook arrives with a steaming mug of tea. Jay accepts it and relishes in the relief it brings to his throat as Lloyd says, "Well, then it is your responsibility to finish it."

"He tried to kill me," Jay says. "I'm not going to go up against him again."

Lloyd shrugs once more, as if Jay is the weird one in the room. Eventually, he gets up and disappears into the elevator.

"Don't mind him," Nook says. "He'll come around."

"He's running out of time," Jay says, taking a sip of tea.

Nook shakes his head and sits beside Jay. "He is jaded by years and years of failure."

"And you're not?"

"I appreciate tributes with drive and motivation," Nook says. In Jay's eyes, it's a non-answer.

"Like Mariela?"

"Or like you. Take your pick," Nook says. He stands as well, and adds, "Enjoy the tea," as he enters his bedroom and closes the door.

Jay leans back against the couch, setting the mug on the coffee table. Thoughts swirl in his head again, and the only one that sticks out to him is that he's tired of being alone.

According to Lloyd, a six is "good, only if you're looking to get killed", which does not fill Jay with much confidence. Mariela got a four, though, so he figures he has some sort of leg up.

(Cadogan got a nine. The sure-footed girl from Two, Shira, got a ten. The blind boy from Eight got a two.)

It's late, long after everyone has gone to bed, but Jay once again cannot sleep. He sits instead on the couch, staring distantly off into space. There's only one day left. Just the interviews, and then…all bets are off. Jay will have to make good on his promise to do whatever it takes, and he's not sure he's prepared for that.

He's not sure of much anymore.

He's not sure of anything anymore.

Jay jumps when Mariela sits on the couch beside him, clad in pajamas but looking very much awake.

"I take it you can't sleep either," she says.

"No," Jay says. The medicine the nurse gave him has done its job already; the bruises are nearly gone and his voice is back to normal. It makes him wonder why the Capitol hoards all of this incredible medicine when the Districts are slowly wasting away. Well, he's pretty sure he knows the answer, but he wonders anyway.

"I miss my daughter," Mariela says. "Do you miss your grandmother?"

His grandmother doesn't talk much anymore. Their conversations are mostly one-sided, but she's been his constant companion for almost his entire life. Of course he misses her. "All I want is to get back to her."

"I feel that," Mariela agrees. Silence stretches between them while Mariela seems to be contemplating something. "Do you want to make a deal?"

"…what kind of a deal?"

"We'll promise each other that if we meet in the arena, we won't kill each other," Mariela says. "In honor of our reasons to go home. Or District pride. Or whatever sounds best in our interviews." She smiles, and Jay does too, but mostly for her benefit.

It sounds nice. To know that there is one person in the arena who won't be actively trying to kill him. Jay extends a hand and says, "Let's shake on it."

"Sure," Mariela says. She takes his hand, and the deal is done.

They sit and chat about nothing for a while. There is no alliance between them. Jay's smart enough to understand that. But there is agreement. Understanding. And in Jay's world…it seems like that's the best he's going to get.

If Mariela hadn't gone before him, he's pretty sure his interview would have been fine. The problem is, they told the same story, except one of them is going home to a toddler and one of them is going home to an elderly woman. It's not hard to see which one the Capitol is going to side with.

It doesn't matter to Jay. He won't kill Mariela, but that won't stop him from doing whatever else he has to do to get back to his grandmother.

He retrieves the wallet from his room, unable to sleep. The Games begin in the morning. This is his last chance to return it to her.

Despite the late hour, he finds Mariela sitting at the dining table, cradling a mug of coffee. Her hair has come down from its updo and is a mess around her head. She looks tired, worn out.

"Hey, Mariela," Jay says. He fiddles with the wallet in his hands, unsure of how she's going to react.

Mariela looks up and a small smile appears on her face. "Hi, Jay. Here to toast to your last night on Earth?"

"Might as well," Jay says. He fetches himself a mug and fills it with coffee before joining her at the table.

He's only known her for a few days, but he likes her. There usually isn't room in his life for new people. It's what he's had to do to survive.

But he can see himself in Mariela, and he's clearly grown on her. He wouldn't mind being her ally. They would work well together, both working toward the same goal, even if they would both know what would happen if it came down to just the two of them.

If they had met back home, before the Games, Jay might like to become friends. They could work together to keep their respective families afloat. He would make room in his life for her and Lucienne.

(Of course, they're not back home. Still, it's a nice fantasy, a nice thought, that if they weren't here, they could be friends. But they are here. And they are not friends.)

"What do you think is in store for us tomorrow?" Mariela says, dragging Jay from his thoughts.

"I don't know," Jay says.

"Neither do I," Mariela responds, warming her hands on her mug. "But I'm sure we'll make it through."

She said "we'll". Plural. Jay opens his mouth to ask her to ally when she points at the wallet beside his mug and says, "Hey, what's that?"

Jay steels himself, sets down his mug, lifts up the wallet. "It's…your wallet."

"My wallet?"

He could lie. He could tell her he found it on the ground on the train and figured it must be hers. He could tell her he found it back home, in District Five, before the Reaping even happened. She doesn't need to know how he got it.

But she'll notice the missing caps. She'll notice someone has been rifling through it. She'll notice that he found it days ago and is only returning it now. She'll know.

Stealing is Jay's shame. It's his desperation, his reminder of his own refusal to just lay down and die. He doesn't want the people in his life to know what he does, to know how he survives.

All they need to know is that he survives.

He never wanted his grandmother to know. He never wanted Penny and Ramon to know.

And he definitely does not want Mariela to know.

"I stole it," Jay says in a quiet voice. "On the morning of the Reaping."

Mariela is frozen in her seat, hands clenched around her mug, staring at him as if he has grown a second head. "You…stole it from me. You stole from me. On Reaping Day?"

Jay's throat constricts; all he can do is nod.

"You absolute fucking asshole," Mariela says in a deathly calm voice. "You stole it from me days ago, and you're only now returning it?"

"I tried to give it back before—" Jay starts. "When we were on the trains, and after the parade and—"

"Shut up," Mariela says. She pushes her chair back, mug abandoned, and snatches the wallet from Jay. She digs through it, checking each of her pockets until she plucks out a folded piece of paper.

It's the drawing of the two stick figures, labeled with indecipherable scribbles.

"God, just…fuck you," Mariela says. "Fuck you, you awful bastard."

"I was only doing what I had to do to survive," Jay says, trying to both defend himself and salvage the situation. "Wouldn't you do anything for your daughter? Wouldn't you be willing to do whatever it takes to keep her safe?"

"When I say I would do anything for my daughter, I mean I will sacrifice everything and fight to win to get back to her, not to rob innocent single mothers!" Mariela slams her hands down on the table, the wallet still clutched in one of them. "You stole my wallet. You stole my money. Do you think I'm rich? Do you think I usually just have thousands of caps lying around? I was going to use that money to make a down payment on an apartment. I was going to get Lucienne a place to live, you fucking bastard." She steps closer to him, getting in his face, and adds, "What, pray tell, did you use it for?"

"I…I gave it to my grandmother," Jay says. "Because she needs it."

"Oh, that's rich," Mariela says.

"How so?" Jay says, offense creeping into his voice. "How is me giving money to my grandmother any different than you giving money to your daughter?"

"Because my daughter's not going to be dead in a year, Jay!" Mariela yells. Her spit splatters on Jay's face.

Jay stares at her, disgust and horror evident in his expression. "You think your daughter's life is worth more than my grandmother's?"

"Of course I do," Mariela says, seeming to compose herself. "Everyone does."

"I—"

"Let me put it this way," interrupts Mariela. "Your grandmother has lived years and years and years of life. Lucienne is three. Tell me which one deserves a caretaker more."

"My grandmother."

Mariela shakes her head, muttering something under her breath that sounds like "Some people never learn". Then, she grabs the wallet and slams her bedroom door behind her.

Jay slumps in his chair, cradling his hands around his coffee mug. It's gone cold.

(He should have just lied. He should have just told her he found it on the ground earlier and figured it belonged to her. Then they could have become allies. Then they could have become friends.)

It doesn't change anything, Jay decides. He still won't kill her. It's not like he's even going to cross paths with her in the Games. She'll die to someone else, and he won't ever have to worry about it.

Because he's not sure he can deal with making a motherless child on his conscience.

"You know, Jay, you're growing on me," Lloyd says suddenly, leaning against his bedroom door frame. "You're an interesting guy. I mean, I don't know why you didn't just lie to her. That's what I would have done."

"I don't like lying to people," Jay says. But he's done it so many times. He lies to everyone.

"Hm," Lloyd says. "Well…all I'm saying is, if you manage to get anyone to donate to your sponsor fund…I won't withhold it from you."

Jay isn't sure what to say to that, so he doesn't answer. Instead, he steps into his bedroom and closes the door.

Morning comes, and Jay hasn't slept a wink.

There's too many what ifs racing around his mind, too much anxiety crawling over his skin. He feels clammy with dread, like he can never quite get enough air, and like he might just keel over and die right now.

But he gets out of bed and joins Mariela on the hovercraft anyway. She doesn't look at him, doesn't acknowledge his existence. Jay didn't expect anything different.

The tribute outfit consists of black pants, a gray long-sleeved shirt, rain boots, and a long, purple raincoat. The first thing his stylist says is that he should expect it to be wet.

Jay nods as he pulls the boots on. The coat goes past the seat of his pants, ending at about mid-thigh. The shirt is fairly heavy, which means it will probably be cold as well as rainy. Whatever the arena is going to be, Jay is not looking forward to it.

And then he's stepping into the tube at the urging of the pleasant female voice in the ceiling. His stylist gives him a little wave as the plate begins to rise, which feels somewhere between condescending and careless, and then he's plunged into darkness.

He rises in silence for several seconds, doing nothing but trying to control his breathing. When he steps out into the arena, he wants to look collected. Calm. Like he's ready to face whatever is waiting for him.

Like he's ready to do whatever it takes.

He hears the rain before he feels it, listening to pound on the ground above him. Thunder crashes across the sky as the plate settles into place, giving him his first look at the arena.

It's pouring rain. The sky is dark with clouds, making visibility low. Jay can't make out the identities of the tributes standing beside him, only able to see their purple rain coats. One of them is tall. One of them is short. It's the only thing he can identify about them.

The Cornucopia is silver and geometric, blocky. Supplies spill out of it, like always, onto the slick ground.

It doesn't seem all that weird until he starts to look past the tributes beside him. Behind him, there's a building, made from a material somewhere between metal and plastic. It's shiny, streaked with purple and yellow and blue. The ground seems to be made from the substance. In fact, everything seems to be made from that same material.

To his left, he can make out a railing if he squints. The railing is lined with streetlights, casting spotlights on the ground. On the other side of the Cornucopia, there's another building, identical to the one behind him. There's a break in the railing to his left, like there's a pathway branching out over…what? There must be something below them.

The counter reaches ten. Jay sets his resolve, preparing to dash off of his plate toward a backpack a few feet away. He can figure out the arena later. Now he just needs to get out of here with his life.

Get the backpack. Get to the path to the left. Avoid the other tributes.

Rain drips down from Jay's hair. He ignores it.

The gong rings, and Jay springs off of his platform. The ground is more slippery than he expected, and he loses his footing, sliding into a puddle in a heap. He clambers to his feet, snatching up the closest thing to him—which, luckily, turns out to be the backpack he was looking for—and making a break for it.

He hears someone scream in pain in the midst of the sounds of footsteps splashing around, and soon another cry joins it. Distracted by the screams, Jay slams face first into someone's back. They both end up sprawled on the ground, and from his distance, he recognizes the girl from Eleven. They scramble to their feet and skirt around each other, and that's when Jay sees the knife.

(It's the third shot. The gun is leveled against his temple once more, his phantom finger playing with the trigger, ready to try his luck.)

The knife sails out of Cadogan's hand, headed straight for him. He doesn't see it until it's going to be too late, until the knife is going to hit his heart and there's no time to escape—

There's a hand on his arm, yanking him out of the way. For the third time in two minutes, he lands hard in a puddle. The knife flies right past him.

(The shot is another blank. He lives to try another day.)

Jay doesn't waste anymore time at the Cornucopia. Backpack clutched in his hands, he sprints as fast he can toward the pathway. He keeps running along the path, keeping his eyes on the ground to avoid slipping in any more puddles. The sounds of fighting slowly quieten as he puts distance between him and Cornucopia. Finally, he pauses to catch his breath beneath one of the streetlamps, and takes a peek over the railing.

They're in the air. Below him, he can see a maze of crisscrossing pathways and structures, identical to the one he currently stands on. But beneath that, there's nothing. Just air and nothingness and rain.

That doesn't make any sense. The entire city can't just be floating. There has to be something beneath them, something to catch tributes if they fall.

The thought startles Jay into action. He's exposed out here, even if the rain makes it hard to see anyone nearby. If he steps into a streetlight, someone would be able to see him from far away. He moves to the nearest building and tries to find an entrance. The pathway goes through this building like a tunnel, but there doesn't appear to be any doors or windows. Jay squints, running his hand along the wall, trying to find a latch or a handle. When that falls through, he jumps and slaps his hand against the tunnel's ceiling. All of the buildings are tall, but now that he looks closer, he notices that they don't have any windows. They're just blank, uniform rectangles. It's not that much different than back home.

Home makes Jay's head pound. His grandmother must be watching right now. Maybe Penny and Ramon are there too, to support each other. It's a nice thought.

A cannon fires. Followed by another. And another. Jay counts seven in total. It's not a very big bloodbath. But the rain must have made it easier for tributes to slip away undetected.

When the ceiling doesn't work, Jay feels along the ground. Finally, he finds a small catch on the ground. He pulls on it, revealing a ladder to the level below. Figuring it will put distance between him and the Careers, Jay carefully climbs down the rungs.

The wind picks up, although the rain starts to lessen. Jay is soaked to the bone, despite the raincoat being high quality. All of those impromptu baths in puddles did him no favors.

Jay explores the buildings he comes across, unable to find any doors or windows on any of them. There must be some trick to it. There must be something Jay isn't seeing.

He enters another tunnel and sits with his back to one of the walls. Remembering his backpack, he opens it up and digs through it, hoping for clues. Inside, he finds two empty water bottles, a folded up tarp, a small switchblade, a flashlight, and a funnel.

It's obvious where he's supposed to get water, but what about food? There has to be a way into the buildings. There must be food inside of them.

Jay sets the funnel in one of the water bottles and sets it out in the rain to fill. He sets the other one out too, although he doubts it will fill very fast.

Thunder crashes again, and the rain starts to fall harder. Jay is glad to be at least a little bit protected as he stares at the building in front of him, trying to work out the puzzle.

He's always been observant, but puzzles were never his thing. And the way in can't be too hard, because the Capitol wants a good show. It wouldn't be very fun to watch all of the tributes stumble through the rain while slowly starving to death.

Eventually, he decides he needs to keep moving. He picks up the half-filled water bottles, screws the caps on, and tucks them into his backpack. He checks the ground, making sure there's no evidence of his presence, and once he's satisfied, he starts to walk.

Careful to avoid the streetlights, Jay walks for several hours. He descends three more ladders and finds himself on the lowest level. The rain reaches less of the pathways here, sheltered by the levels above it, and it's definitely Jay's favorite level.

Still, the buildings are just as blank as the ones above them.

It's impossible to tell how much time is passing, because the sky doesn't seem to darken or lighten.

The only way Jay can tell it's nighttime is because the Anthem blares through the arena. Jay pauses to watch the fallen, noting the rain has let up enough to make the projection visible.

The first face is the District Three girl, followed by the boy. Then both from Four, which comes as a shock. The girl from Seven. The boy from Nine. And the girl from Eleven.

Jay keeps moving, finding himself a nice corner of the arena to use as a camp for tonight. He sets his water bottles out to fill after drinking one of them. Luckily, the ground in this tunnel is fairly dry, so he wraps the tarp around his body and curls up. It doesn't feel like a safe place to fall asleep, but Jay is exhausted. He hasn't slept since the night before the interviews. Despite his misgivings about his camp spot, Jay falls asleep easily.

When he wakes up, it's just as dark and rainy. There's no way to tell how long he was asleep, not with the sun blotted out by the sun, but he feels fairly well rested. He gets to his feet, returning his supplies to his backpack and downing one of the water bottles.

There's nothing for him to do but keep looking for food. He's sure that the answer must lie in the buildings. Otherwise, why would they be there? But it occurs to him that it might just be his bag. There might be food at the Cornucopia. It's not like he can get it, but it's worth it to check.

It's dangerous, too. Jay ignores that part.

He makes his way back up to the fifth level. As he climbs the ladder between the second and third, he spots a tribute standing beneath a streetlight, staring at something on the horizon.

(He climbs faster.)

The rain lets up as he gets closer to the Cornucopia, which he is grateful for. The further he can stay from the Careers, the better. As he approaches, he hears voices echoing out of the silver horn.

"You've gone through all of the boxes?"

"Yes."

"All of them?"

"Yes, Shira! I checked them all. It's just weapons and tarps and empty water bottles."

"Then what the fuck are we supposed to do? Starve?"

"Oh, come on. There has to be food around here somewhere. All of the tributes in the Games can't rely on sponsors for that."

"Ugh. I hope Hiro and Lumira have better luck than we're having here."

A cannon fires, making Jay jump.

"There we go. Hiro and Lumira are getting something done."

Jay decides to take that as his cue to leave.

As he scurries back down to the bottom level, he tries to piece out the answer to this. The Careers have no food, either. There's nothing in the Cornucopia.

Another cannon fires. Over the sound of pouring rain, Jay swears he can hear birds squawking.

He steps under a streetlight, and suddenly there's someone on his back, tackling him to the ground. He cries out in surprise, flipping over in time to see the girl from Eight about to bring a knife down on his face.

(If he remembers correctly, her name is Ikara. She said in her interview that she had eight siblings back home and all of them were counting on her to win.)

Jay rolls out of the way, throwing the girl off of him. She tumbles toward the edge of the walkway, backpack slipping off of her shoulders. Her lower half flops out into open air, and the rest of her starts to fall with her legs. At the last second, she manages to grab onto the railing, holding on for dear life.

Watching her desperate attempts to scramble back onto solid ground, Jay gets to his feet, trying to decide what to do.

Well, he knows what he should do. He should push her off, should end her life right here.

He has to. She has to die if he wants to get home to his grandmother.

One of her hands closes around his ankle, and she yanks. She loses her own grip and goes tumbling off into the darkness, screaming as she falls and Jay—

(The gun is back, no, no, it's always there, always ready for him to pull the trigger again, to try his luck, because what choice does he have? Someday, he will be unable to outrun death.)

Jay clings to the railing, wrapping his arms around it as he slowly pulls himself back onto the platform.

(The fourth shot is blank. He is halfway there.)

He sits on the ground, so exposed but so unable to care, breathing hard, staring out at nothing.

A cannon fires.

How long did that girl fall before she died? How did she die? Did she hit the ground? Did she hit a forcefield?

Jay doesn't care. He doesn't want to know.

Eventually, he convinces himself to stand. The adrenaline is gone from his body, and he moves slowly as he finds a new hiding place for the night.

He sets up like the night before, setting his bottles out to fill and wrapping the tarp around himself. He's in a different place tonight, not much better hidden than last night, but it will have to do. The rain is letting up again, which he supposes means the Anthem will be on soon.

Tonight's fallen is the girl from Nine, the girl from Eight, and Cadogan. That one surprises him. Jay wonders vaguely how he died, just to take his mind off of Ikara.

That was her name. He's pretty sure, at least. He's never been great with names.

He killed her. Jay Enerhodar is a murderer. But Jay Enerhodar is not a monster.

So it's okay. Because his grandmother needs him, and that trumps all else.

(He knows it doesn't. God, does he know. But it doesn't matter. Until he gets back to her, nothing matters. So he'll keep fighting, keep killing, if that's what it takes.)

The next day passes uneventfully. There are no cannons, and Jay wanders around in a vain search for food or shelter. He sees no other tributes, which tells him there must be a way into the buildings, because where else would they be? There's only ten dead. There should be thirteen other tributes wandering as aimlessly as him.

His stomach grumbles all the while, but he's gone longer than two days without food.

Early on day four, Jay hears more squawking birds. The sound is closer this time, and Jay spots the flock settled on the railing about ten feet ahead of him.

They're ugly little things, black and greasy and beady eyed. They fall silent at the sight of him, cocking their heads and shifting around and flapping their feathers.

Only one thing comes to mind when Jay tries to figure out what to do: run.

They have to be mutts, they have to have killed Cadogan and the girl from Nine. And if Cadogan couldn't fight them off, Jay doesn't stand any chance.

So he runs, as the flock follows him as one. They're not very fast, but he can see their talons glistening from here, and he does not want to be on the other end of that.

"Hey! Quick! Over here!" a voice calls over the din of rain and squawking.

Jay sees a girl's head sticking out of the top of a lower level building, waving her arms to get his attention. He can't make out her face, but he knows she's not a Career.

And anything is better than getting torn apart by those birds.

The top of the building is at the same height as the walkway he stands on, but there's several feet of open air between the two.

"Don't worry!" the girl cries. "The jump's not as bad as it looks!"

Jay climbs up on the railing as the birds descend on him, and he throws out his arms to get them away. There's only a moment of hesitation before he jumps, landing hard on his shoulder on the building's roof. Wasting no time to deal with any injuries, Jay scrambles to his feet and drops through the hole the girl was sticking out of.

The girl slams the hatch shut, sighing in relief.

(The fifth shot is blank, too. Jay is running out of second chances.)

He finds himself in a small room. There's a bed and several cabinets, a table and chair, and what looks like a bathroom. Jay looks around for a door, but it's clear the only entrance is in the ceiling.

So that's what he was missing. The only way in is through the top, not the sides.

The girl takes a seat in one of the chairs. Her hair is wet, her purple rain jacket hanging on a hook on the wall, and she raises an eyebrow at him. She can't be very old. Maybe fourteen at most. "So? You want something to eat?"

Jay eyes her for a moment, worried she might be tricking him.

"Don't look so skeptical," the girl says. "I just saved your life."

After a moment, Jay nods. He is starving. He hasn't eaten since the morning the Games began.

The girl rifles through the cabinets for a few minutes before producing a can of beans. It's cold, but Jay has learned to eat anything, so he doesn't particularly care.

"So, you're Jay, right?" the girl says. "I'm Flick."

"Flick?"

"It's short for Felicity," Flick says with a shrug. "Sorry about the beans. I think this room has already been fleeced by someone else."

"I didn't even notice," Jay says.

"Yeah, the better rooms are definitely higher up. But I needed somewhere to hide, and this one was free. I think the Careers have figured it out, and are going through the empty ones to steal all of the food." Flick picks at one of her nails absentmindedly, allowing Jay to see the cut on the inside of her wrist.

"Where'd you get that?"

"One of the birds got me," Flick says. "That's why I've been hiding in here. I figure once they spot another tribute, they'll move along, and I can too."

"What's your strategy?" Jay asks.

"What's yours?" Flick counters, for the first time looking distrusting.

"I don't really know," Jay says. "All I know is I have to survive."

Flick laughs. "Don't we all?"

"I have to go home," Jay says. "Because my grandmother needs me to take care of her—"

"Yeah, you and the last thousand tributes to fight in the Games," Flick says, still laughing. "We're all fighting for someone back home. It doesn't make you special, or even more deserving of victory."

"Then who is deserving of victory?"

"Are you kidding? No one," Flick says. "No one is deserving of victory. Especially not you, what with your helpless little grandma back home—"

Jay doesn't know why he does it. People will ask him, surely, what possesses him to remove his switchblade from his belt and plunge it into Flick's throat, but he has no answer.

He just does it. One second, he and Flick are having a conversation, and the next, Jay stands over her corpse as she sluggishly bleeds on the carpet.

A cannon booms, and it occurs to Jay what he just did.

(He remembers her, too. Felicity Raynor, District Six. A spunky, do-it-all girl with a mechanic father and a dead mother. Fourteen-years-old. A child.)

It was a necessity. Jay's not a monster. Flick had to die in order for Jay to win. That's how this works. There is only one winner.

And Jay will be damned if he lets it be anyone but him.

(Even Mariela.)

(Because Mariela does not deserve it as much as he does. He's already done so much to get here, and what has Mariela done? Hide? Insult him? She does not deserve this. Not like he does.)

Jay ransacks the room for supplies, pointedly ignoring the corpse on the ground, and fills his backpack and Ikara's with as much food as he can fit. He takes all of Flick's supplies, although he leaves her bag. He doesn't need three.

Flick had a machete on her. It looks like it would be too big for a girl her size, but in Jay's hands, it's perfect.

Jay steps out into the rain with blood splattered pants, a machete in hand, and a pair of bodies left in his wake.

He's ready to play the game. He's ready to win.

Whatever it takes.

Jay spends the next day wandering the lower levels, ducking into the top of every building he could reach in search of tributes. He's sure the Careers are doing the same thing, and he's not going to complain about them helping him along. If they want to kill the other outliers still left, then it only gets him closer to home. Closer to his grandmother. Because she needs him.

(His grandmother did always say he has a bit of a one-track mind.)

Jay finds no one on day five, and day six brings a whole slew of cannons. Four of them fire in quick succession. Over the rain, Jay can hear the sounds of fighting high above him. They must be several levels up, above the Cornucopia, where Jay has yet to venture. And if the Careers are up there, he'll be happy searching for tributes down here.

That night, he pokes his head out of the top of the building to watch the fallen. The first face shown is the girl from One. Then comes the boy from Two. Last is the pair from Twelve.

It brings the tributes down to nine. Only eight of them left for him to go through. And he will go through them, just like he went through Flick and Ikara.

Because he needs this. No, no, his grandmother needs this. She needs him.

Jay has trouble sleeping that night. He lies on the bed, keeping an eye on the hatch in the ceiling. That's the problem with these rooms; there's only one way in or out, and if someone were to be standing up there, there would be no escape. It doesn't make Jay feel very confident about sleeping alone in one, but it's so much better than wrapping himself in a tarp on a walkway.

He gives up on sleeping eventually, deciding that today he'll just go without it. He gathers up his supplies, eats a meal, and climbs out of the hatch.

Jay is so, so tired of the rain, of being constantly between soaked and damp. He's tired of the dark sky, of the stupid spotlight streetlamps.

Honestly, Jay is just tired in general. He wants to go home, where he knows his grandmother will be safe and taken care of, and he can spend his day on the streets, pickpocketing rich people and swiping cans from stores.

But Jay will continue to survive, because surviving is all he knows.

A footstep splashes in a puddle behind him. He whirls around, eyes searching the rain for a purple coat.

He spots Mariela about fifteen feet away from him, staring him down, half-hidden by one of the tunnels. Even from this distance, he can see it in her eyes, daring him to attack, daring him to break their deal.

(He should. He should attack her. He should kill her. Because Mariela has to die, just like Flick and Ikara, in order for Jay to go home. He knows this. He knows this.)

Jay does not attack. Because he is not a monster.

He is someone who kills fourteen-year-old girls, who steals from single mothers, who lies to everyone he's ever known.

But he will not cross that line. He can't. He promised he wouldn't, he promised he would let Mariela live if they ever crossed paths.

So, Jay turns and walks away, because he is not a monster.

On day eight, a feast is announced, promising food to anyone who decides to come. It commences with the Anthem, which isn't very helpful, because there is no way to know how long away that is.

Jay doesn't particularly care about the food. He has enough to last him a while. What he is interested in is the tributes. They'll all be there. Or most of them, at least. He contemplates the best course of action for a while, trying to decide between letting the others kill each other and staying safe away from them or joining the fray himself.

The plan he comes up with is better. He remembers the left pathway he ran off on when the Games started. It's one of the few walkways that leave the Cornucopia. While the others fight over the supplies, Jay will wait in the closest tunnel, and whatever tribute attempts to flee…well, they're not going to get very far.

It feels callous. It feels like something a Career would do.

But Jay isn't a monster. He's not a Career. He's just doing what's necessary. And you can't blame the desperate for what they do in order to get what they want.

So Jay lies in wait as the Anthem plays. There were no deaths today, but there undoubtedly will be soon. He watches from the sidelines as a table rises from the ground, piled with crates filled with food. The rain is picking up, so it's hard to tell how many tributes are present, but there's a good amount of them.

Soon, the sounds of fighting reach his ears, and he tightens his grip on his machete. A cannon booms as footsteps come pounding along the walkway. Jay readies himself to attack as a small boy rounds the bend and—

The boy collapses forward before Jay's blade can even reach him, an arrow sticking out of his back. A cannon sounds. He remembers Shira, the girl from Two, who bared her teeth at anyone daring to come close and fired arrow after arrow with near perfect accuracy.

Sure enough, an arrow goes sailing past his chest, slicing into his shirt but not his skin.

(Shot six. Shot six. Shot six. Another blank. Another blank. Another blank. He's running out of time. He's running out of shots. He's running out of luck.)

Jay springs out of the tunnel as another cannon fires in the distance. He swings his machete toward Shira as she loads another arrow. But they're in too close of quarters, no more than two feet between them, and she has no time before Jay's blade is digging into her shoulder. She cries out in pain, dropping the bow as Jay yanks the machete out of her flesh.

It doesn't take her long to compose herself. She whips a knife out of her belt, holding it with what must be her non-dominant hand.

The fight itself takes maybe two minutes. Jay's blade ends going straight through her heart, and she's dead before she hits the ground.

He gathers up his weaponry and supplies and flees down a ladder before anyone can realize where they were. The rain washes the blood from his hands and blade, but it will always be there.

Jay's not a monster. Shira was dangerous, a threat. She had to be taken down. Besides, she wanted this. She fought for this. In fact, she died for this.

The thought makes Jay laugh. That girl spent so many years of her life training to become the best Victor there could be, only for some pathetic little thief from District Five to snatch it from her hands.

Maybe Jay is a monster. He's laughing because Shira is dead.

Or maybe he's just crazy.

Jay doesn't know anymore. So he just keeps moving, because once he wins he'll know. He'll know…everything. Everything will make sense once he wins, because his grandmother will be safe and he will be alive and everything will be okay again.

He hears more birds squawking, hours and hours after the Feast ended. Shortly after, there's another cannon shot.

The fallen that night show five faces. The girl from Two. The boy from Seven. The boy from Eight. The girl from Ten. The boy from Eleven.

Jay settles on the bed in one of the buildings and tries to catalogue who is still left. It's just him, Mariela, and the boy from One, and someone else. He doesn't remember who.

It doesn't matter, anyway. They'll all be dead soon, and Jay will be going home.

The storm picks up on day nine. The rain is so harsh it hurts to stand out in it. Thunder crashes through the sky every few minutes, making it hard to get any meaningful sleep. Jay tosses and turns all night and only succeeds in making himself more exhausted.

When he peeks his head out on the morning of day ten, there's nothing but a light drizzle. The clouds are just as dark as always, but the ground is the driest it's been in a week. Jay breathes in the crisp air and spots the four birds waiting on the railing.

They don't make any noise, seeming content to only watch.

Jay gets the picture. It's time for the finale.

He ducks back into the building, grabbing all of his weapons, before he returns to let the birds usher him to the Cornucopia.

Occasionally they peck at him when he moves too slowly, urging him onward. All things considered, it doesn't seem too bad. Well, that lasts until Jay drops Shira's knife and stops to pick it up. The four birds swarm around him, apparently trying to stop him from turning around and going back, so Jay is forced to leave the knife and continue toward the Cornucopia.

As he rounds the last bend and the birds disperse, he hears sounds of fighting. The wind starts to pick up, the drizzle quickly turning into a downpour. Jay cautiously approaches the Cornucopia, seeing the boy from One locked in combat with the boy from Ten.

Jay joins the battle with a bang, plunging his machete in the boy from Ten's back while he's distracted. The cannon booms over the sound of thunder and Jay rounds on the boy from One.

He's already bloodied, with a large gash across his forehead and red seeping out of a wound in his side. With those injuries, they might just be evenly matched.

Jay fights like an animal, knowing he's so close, that safety and freedom and his grandmother are within reach, knowing that he can't come this far just to lose, knowing that he can't have killed all of those people for it to be for nothing.

He slashes and swipes and dodges and he doesn't want to die.

And now he can't die, not when he's so close. Not when Victory is so near he can taste it, can imagine the crown on his head, can imagine his name on a fountain. Not when he can imagine how happy his grandmother will be to see him, to know that he's okay, that he did it.

There's blood running down the side of his face, trickling down from cuts on his arm, splattered on his pants and his shirt and his raincoat.

Above all, Jay wants this to be over. He wants to go home, where he can be safe, not followed by the constancy of his own coming demise. He wants to sleep with the knowledge that no one will slit his throat. He wants the Games to be done, for the final shot to come, for him to find out just how lucky he is.

Jay brings the machete down on the boy from One's chest, listening in satisfaction to the sound of a cannon. He's so close. He's so close.

There's only one person left. There's only one person left, he can cut them down with ease, he's come this far, he's done so much, he's a monster—

"Jay," Mariela says.

The rain quiets enough for them to speak. Jay turns to face her, blood dripping from the end of his coat. Some of it belongs to him. Most of it doesn't.

(He knows what he must look like. He knows he looks like a monster.)

(He is a monster.)

"Mariela."

"You know what we have to do, right?" Mariela says, taking a step toward him. There's a knife in her hand. Jay doesn't take his eyes off of it. "You know how this has to end."

Jay doesn't say a word, gaze trained on Mariela's weapon, grip tightening around his own, knowing what he has to do. There is only one option.

He must kill her.

She's the only one left. The only thing standing between him and salvation. The only thing standing between him and his grandmother, and that's all that matters.

His grandmother has given him so much. She's spent so much time, so much money, to keep him safe, to keep him fed, and this is the least he can do to repay her. To come home to her. To fight for her. There is nothing else he can do. He has to do it. He has to kill Mariela.

He remembers shaking hands with her, back in the Capitol. He remembers agreeing that they wouldn't kill each other, on the grounds that they were just too similar. He remembers wanting to ally with her.

What would have happened if they had allied? Would they still have ended up in this situation?

He must kill her.

"I don't want to fight you," Mariela says. "Please, Jay, Lucienne needs me more than your grandmother needs you. Just let me go home to her."

Jay doesn't move, only continues to stare at her knife, waiting for her to drop the act and attack.

"You don't want to do this, Jay," Mariela says. "You don't want to make my daughter an orphan, do you? How would you feel if your mother died before you even got to know her?"

"I don't know," Jay says, voice cold and biting. "I guess your daughter will feel similarly to me."

And he charges.

Mariela brings up her knife to block his first slash. The rain pelts them like hail as thunder rumbles across the sky, and Jay's world tunnels to just this moment.

There is nothing before this moment. There is nothing beyond this moment. Not if he loses. Not if he fails.

Jay's had enough of that. It's time he succeeds.

Blood arcs through the air when Jay's blade catches Mariela's side. She drops to one knee, pressing a hand against the wound, but as soon as Jay attempts to attack, she rolls to the side, kicking her feet up to knock him over. He sprawls on the ground, and before he can get up, Mariela is leaning over him, one hand still jammed against her side. With the other, she attempts to bring her knife down on his heart. Her trajectory is off, and instead of hitting his chest she hits his shoulder.

Jay screams in pain as her knife goes straight through his flesh. She rips it out, seemingly intent on trying again, but with the last ounce of strength in his body, Jay rears upward and headbutts her. She falls back, dazed, and this time, Jay is the one who holds her down.

He straddles her torso, scrambling with his good hand for his machete. She writhes on the ground, screaming obscenities at him, grappling with his arms, trying in vain to escape, to retrieve her weapon, to survive.

Jay's left arm is holding on by a thread, flopping uselessly beside him as he finally reaches the machete. With it in hand, he slams it into Mariela's chest. He takes it out and does it again, and again, and again, until Mariela's chest is nothing but a crater of blood and gore.

(A cannon fires. The seventh shot is blank. Jay is, possibly, the luckiest monster in the world.)

A cannon fires. Jay does not stop stabbing his blade into her flesh.

A cannon fires. Mariela's blood splattered eyes stare blankly at the clouds, her mouth hung half open, her hands splayed out on the ground.

A cannon fires. Jay did whatever it took, no matter the cost.

A cannon fires. A voice somewhere declares Jay Enerhodar of District Five the Victor of the One-Hundredth, Fifteenth Annual Hunger Games.

Jay Enerhodar is a Victor.

(Jay Enerhodar is a monster.)

Jay wakes up with one less arm than he thought he had. Still groggy from pain medication and sedatives, Jay stares blankly at the stump where his arm used to be. The doctors offer to outfit him with the best prosthetic money can buy, but Jay refuses.

Lloyd and Nook stay by his side, chatting about inane things. At some point, Lloyd slips in that the interview and recap will be tomorrow afternoon, and Jay just nods silently.

He did what he came to do. He got out. He won. He's going back to District Five, back to his grandmother, back to his old life.

It doesn't matter what he did to get there. The ends justify the means. The ends always justify the means. It doesn't matter that he tore a child away from her family, a mother away from her toddler, a sister away from her siblings. It will all be worth it once he gets home.

But, all in all, he's okay. The arena may have made him a monster, but he's still Jay. And he's sure that everything will go back to normal once he gets home. Well, it will be different. He'll never have to steal another wallet, never to have ruin another life. He'll be able to get his grandmother the best medical care the Capitol has to offer. Maybe he'll have more free time, time to really hang out with Penny and Ramon again. It will be okay. It has to be. All of this cannot be for nothing.

Jay struggles through the interview, trying to do his best to follow Nook and Lloyd's advice. But there is nothing he wants to say. What can he say about the Games? He fought. He killed. He won. There. End of story.

The recap is worse. He watches himself kill with no remorse, watches himself cut down Ikara and Flick and Shira and Mariela. Watches all of the fights, all of the bloodshed, watches himself stand in the midst of it like he's always been there. Watches himself, kneeling there over Mariela's ravaged corpse, covered in blood and gore and grime, arm hanging loosely from his shoulder, and thinks that this is the monster that hides beneath children's beds. The monster that the arena can make of anyone.

When it comes to the party, he follows Lloyd and Nook around, unsure of what else to do. He has several fancy drinks that don't make him drunk enough to deal with Capitolites and listens to the chatter of people around him. They talk about his victory, about how well-deserved it was, how dramatic it was when he and Mariela fought, how proud they were to see District Five win again so soon.

He listens to it all, and only thinks It will all be worth it when I get home.

The train is an hour out from District Five when Nook sits Jay down and tells him there's something he needs to know.

"Okay," Jay says slowly. "What's up?"

"It's…it's your grandmother, Jay," Nook says. "She…she passed, while you were in the Games."

The world freezes. Jay stares at Nook, air suddenly gone from his lungs, the whole world going blurry. "What?"

Nook reaches out a hand and takes hold of Jay's remaining one. "She…she had a heart attack on day seven. The doctors believed it was caused by the heat and the…the stress of having you in the Games."

Jay killed his grandmother. Jay killed his grandmother. Jay is a monster.

"She's…she's dead?"

"Yes, Jay," Nook says, patting the back of Jay's hand. "I'm so sorry."

It was supposed to be worth it. It was supposed to be worth it.

He was supposed to go back to District Five, where he would have a tearful reunion with his grandmother, and they would go live in the Victors' Village, where they would never have any problems again. He did it, all of it, for his grandmother.

And then he killed her.

Jay puts his head in his hands and sobs. Nook wraps an arm around his shoulders, whispering empty words of comfort in his ear. It only makes Jay sob harder. He doesn't just cry for his grandmother. He cries because he killed people to get here. He cries because he ruined lives to get here. He cries because it was all for nothing.

His grandmother is gone. Dead. Forever. After he killed a fourteen-year-old girl for her. After he orphaned a toddler for her. He spent the entire Games doing everything for his grandmother, and she was dead by the time he fought Mariela.

He should have let Mariela kill him. Then at least she would have a reason to be here.

Jay's homecoming is an awful affair. The residents of District Five are cheering, but Penny and Ramon stand at the front of the crowd with sad looks on their face as Jay gets off the train. When he stops to greet them, they both start talking at once.

"We're so sorry about your grandmother—"

"We thought she'd be okay for the night—"

"Don't," Jay says. "It doesn't matter. It's not your fault."

It's mine.

Of course, Jay does not say that part out loud.

But he's going to be thinking about it for the rest of his life.

Weeks pass. Jay holes up in his new house in the Victors' Village and doesn't let anyone inside, no matter how many times Nook knocks on his door. He lies on the couch, only occasionally getting up to eat or use the bathroom. The T.V. remains turned off, undoubtedly playing endless reruns of the most recent Hunger Games. He doesn't bother to go upstairs, to explore the rest of the house.

He just sits and stares at the ceiling and wastes away. For the first time in his life, he is purposeless. After all, what is there left to do? He already won the Hunger Games. That's one of the most impressive things one can do. Where does he go from here?

His grandmother is gone. She is no longer here to occupy his time, although she does occupy his thoughts.

In a few months, he knows, his prep team and stylist will descend upon his house to prepare him for the Victory Tour. They'll want to know what his "special talent" is.

Maybe Jay will say sleeping. He doesn't do much else.

Even when he wakes up in a cold sweat, remembering phantom blood and phantom arrows and phantom guns.

At least the couch is nice. He can lay on it for hours and hours and still be comfortable. It's the little things that count. Well, he imagines that's what Nook would say in this situation.

He also doesn't care what Nook would say in this situation.

But that's not special. He doesn't really care about much right now.

The bathroom—at least, the only one he has ventured in—is high quality too. The shower is similar to the one in the Capitol, which makes him more uncomfortable than it should.

What does it matter? He doesn't deserve this. This house shouldn't go to a monster like him.

It should belong to Mariela. At least she would actually have someone else to live in it.

The thought gives him an idea. He sits up on the couch, considering it. It would be the next best thing to having Mariela here. And it would be his way of apologizing to Mariela for what he did.

Maybe it will feel like he's starting to make amends for what he's done.

Still, he sits on the idea for several days. With how he's been since he got home…he's not sure it's a good idea. He wishes there was someone he could go to for advice.

No, no, he wishes his grandmother was here. She would know what to do. She always knew what to do.

When he finally decides to go through with it, he takes a shower. It's the first time he's showered in a week, maybe two. It feels good. It makes him feel like a person.

The walk to the Community Home is a long one, but Jay is willing to make it anyway. When he arrives, he walks through the throngs of dirty, underfed children toward the matrons' station. The woman inside greets him and says, "Hello, what can I do for you?"

Jay clears his throat and says, "I'm looking for Lucienne Romano."

Lucienne is a spirited child. She likes to wear her hair in double braids. She's willing to play with anything she can get her hands on, but her favorite thing to do is draw. Jay buys her markers and a pad of paper and he swears he's never seen a child look so happy. Her eyes light up and she grins and thanks him in her adorable little voice.

Jay can see why Mariela loved her so much. She's a great kid.

But he can also see in it the poor girl's eyes, when she wakes up having a nightmare and wants no one but her mother. He did this to her. He ripped this child away from her mother, and he can only pretend to be a worthy replacement.

Still, Lucienne takes him easily. She marches up to him when he looks too sad and makes him play trains or draw pictures or turn on a funny movie.

She gives him purpose. Instead of taking care of his grandmother, now he takes care of Lucienne. He makes sure she is happy and fed and has all of the toys she could ever want.

And Lucienne makes him smile, which was something he wondered if he'd ever be capable of doing again.

She's been living with him for about two months when Lloyd and Nook spot Jay sitting on his front porch with Lucienne. She toddles around, showing Jay various things she picks up. She's a spitting image of her mother.

"So he adopts the kid of the woman he murdered," Lloyd says.

"I think it's sweet," Nook says.

"I think it's going to be a hard

conversation when that kid gets older and asks what happened to her mother."

"It's better than that poor child growing up in the Community Home, isn't it?" Nook says.

"That's debatable," Lloyd answers. "She's been adopted by an eighteen-year-old Victor of the Hunger Games who killed her mother. That's not a great start."

Nook shrugs and hums noncommittally. "She seems happy thus far."

"She's been here for a week."

"Still," Nook says. "It's better than Jay shut up in his house, all alone. At least now he has someone to keep him company."

"A small, impressionable child," Lloyd says. "What could go wrong?"

The pair stay and watch for a few minutes. Jay takes Lucienne's hand and walks over to them, kneeling down to introduce Nook and Lloyd to her.

Lloyd smiles at her and offers her a hand to shake. They talk for a few minutes, Nook attempting to grill Jay on the state of his mental health, but then Jay says he promised Lucienne homemade burgers for dinner tonight, and he doesn't know how to cook.

Maybe Jay Enerhodar isn't a monster after all.

A/N: Jay was created by Son of Arryn for the 2022 Victor Exchange and I love him so much. He's been a fun character to have in my head for a month and I'm very happy with how his story turned out. And, since I was able to fit him in a year that's pretty recent compared to my SYOTs, he might appear as a mentor at some point.

Fun fact: the arena was based off of a Mario Kart map. I don't really know why. Perpetual rain and a floating city just has cool vibes I guess.