Jesse's life had been governed by three rules since he was four years old.
Rule 1: Do everything with a purpose.
Rule 2: There are no friends, only allies.
Rule 3: Make no apologies.
He supposed there was a clause added onto one of those rules, or maybe it was a guideline, or maybe it was just a fact of life, but one piece of information eclipsed all three from the moment he realized what exactly he was being trained for:
You will end up in the arena.
It's been like this for as long as Jesse can remember. Ever since he was twelve years old, he's stood there in line with the other boys his age, in neat lines so that everyone is visible. Everyone must be accounted for; they can't have someone slipping away or just not showing up. He watches with bated breath as the names are pulled, wondering if this year he'll be the one chosen. He never is, of course, and even if he had been, someone older and larger than him would have pushed him out of the way to volunteer.
But this year will be different. This year he's eighteen, the last year he'll be eligible, and what a waste of his life it would be if he didn't end up in the arena. It's what he's been waiting for, after all, waiting patiently while silently cursing all the boys bigger and louder than him, who'd been able to shove their way to the front before he could in previous years.
This year, he will end up in the arena.
It's what he wants more than anything. Others think of it as a chore, and other districts think of it as a punishment, but he sees it as his destiny. He is going to be in that arena, and he is going to win.
He's at the back of the line this year. He's not the tallest nor is he the biggest, but that is no measure of strength. His body is all lean muscle, his mind filled with tactics and tricks, his stomach conditioned to digest any variety of strange and potentially dangerous foods. There is no luxury in training for the games; the luxury comes after you win.
He pays no mind to the girl whose name gets called, for he knows that the stick-thin seventeen year old with the long, orange braid is going to end up the one going. Sure enough, when a timid-looking thirteen year old steps forward after the name is called, the girl with the orange braid actually elbows the person next to her in the ribs, shouting, "I volunteer!" He thinks, for a split second, how nice it would have been to have ended up with someone he actually could work with as opposed to someone with whom he had never gotten along, but then again, rule two must be taken into account.
It would be much easier to kill this self-righteous bitch than it would be to kill someone he actually liked.
He looks to his right and to his left as the man at the podium plunges his hand into the bowl with all the boys' names, giving the boy to his left a long, stern look.
This is my year.
"Jesse St. James," the man calls out, and he could laugh at the sheer irony. And he does laugh; the sound rings out across the crowd, cutting through the crisp air and leaving a warm glow in its wake. All smiles, he begins to walk towards the podium, reaching out to grab another boy by the face and shoving him down toward the ground when he sees he is about to protest. The boy crumples to the ground with a soft whimper, but Jesse doesn't even give him a second glance.
He looks straight into the camera that is trained on him, eyes fixed on it as he walks, never breaking eye contact until he reaches the steps. He takes his place next to orange girl, looking out at the crowd, feeling their eyes on him, feeling their pride in the pair of them.
It's like riding on top of a wave before it brings you crashing back to earth. Jesse lives for these moments of recognition, where people look upon him with wonder and envy, knowing that he is destined for great things. Because he is; by God, he is. He can feel it in the intensity of their stares, feel it in the way the orange girl is also looking at him, feel it in the way he's carrying himself now, posture straight and his expression one of a smug sort of neutrality. Anyone looking at him would swear he hadn't just had his name pulled to go into the Games.
And yet, he has. He's going. And he's never been more pleased with himself in his life.
His attention is then directed to the large television screen in the square, where his own face has now ceased appearing, showing instead a completely different town. Jesse watches without moving, without reacting, as tributes are chosen from each of the following districts. District two offers two rather hulking teens, while District three's are smaller, seeming to be more agile. Nobody looks out of the ordinary, and the entire deal isn't even all that interesting until in district ten, a boy's name is called and the complete look of shock and horror on his face is enough to make even Jesse's jaw tighten.
He's bored by the time all twelve districts have two tributes, wanting to skip the goodbyes and go straight to the Capitol. He doesn't need to say goodbye, after all. He'll be gone for a month, maybe two, and then he'll be back, the only thing coming in his wake being a fat sum of money and a key to one of the winners' estates.
"So," the orange-haired girl speaks to him once they're safely tucked away in the train for the Capitol, "it's the two of us, then."
"So it would seem," Jesse responds, not even bothering to look over at her, choosing instead to continue staring out the window. He'd never been the type for idle chatter.
"I'm glad your name was called," she continues. "It wouldn't do to have District One offer up a sorry excuse for a career like the previous year." Jesse sniffs loudly in response, because most of their district had agreed to never speak of the incident again. They'd all thought a winner had been found in Klaus, but nobody had bothered to factor in the boy's stupidity. He had lasted five minutes in the arena, setting a new record for the shortest time spent by a career tribute.
"Besides, I'm in this for the challenge, just like you are," the girl still isn't finished. "It would do nobody any good if you were killed in the bloodbath, or even on the first day, would it?" She laughs, a high-pitched, simpering sound, but he makes no noise. "If I am to kill you, I don't want it to be easy."
Jesse's jaw tightens again, this time for a whole other reason. True, if it came down to it he would put an end to this girl without the blink of an eye, but he wasn't about to go shouting about it. There was something so… inappropriate about making those types of jokes, even if it was common knowledge that a person would have to commit murder in order to make it out alive. He turns from the window abruptly, reaching out swiftly and cupping the girl's jaw, tipping her head upwards sharply.
"No," he says, shaking his head, his eyes locked onto hers, which have widened. "We aren't going to talk about that. Because in order for you to speak that way to me, you indulge in a fantasy worthy of an imbecile, and it just won't do to represent District One in such a fashion." His fingers tighten, squeezing against her jaw, feeling just how little substance there is to her. She really is all skin and bones. How she expects to manage more than a day is beyond him.
None too kindly, he pushes her away, and only then does he release her. She stumbles backwards, one hand instantly on her jaw, rubbing at the red mark already flaring to life. Jesse goes back to staring out the window, not caring if she is angry with him. Anger causes people to be irrational, causes them to lash out. She will fall victim to poor judgment that way, making her an easy target.
It's all part of the game, after all, and he's been playing it since his was four years old. He's perfected it. Everything he does from here on out has a greater purpose, and being one step ahead is always five steps behind.
And he's been planning the orange-haired girl's death since he'd watched her elbow her way to the front. She is too proud and much too haughty, and even worse, she lets it show. Her own ego, her delusions that she cannot fail, will mean her ultimate destruction. Jesse entertains the same fantasies, but in his case it is different. He doesn't want to win; he knows he will win. He's silent about this determination, about his own assuredness, and that is why he will win.
The rest of the trip passes in silence, though Jesse can feel her reproachful gaze on him. They reach the Capitol before the others, of course, and as such are ushered to their respective chambers without fuss. The fuss comes later, when the pair are to be pampered and clothed to impress, to put on a show for the benefit of everyone else. At least, that is how most tributes choose to see it. Jesse? No, the show is as much for him as it is for everyone else.
He supposes he should at least know his fellow tribute's name, so as they finish their dinner in silence and make for their separate rooms, he speaks.
"I didn't hear your name," is all he says. It's not an apology, because that would be going against rule three. It's simply a statement of truth.
"Jewel," she tells him, one hand going to her jaw again, as if afraid he's going to make a grab for her again.
"Jewel," he repeats. Then he walks away without another word and with no parting words to offer. And though he now has a name to attach to that orange hair, it changes nothing. Jewels are hard and lifeless and cause men to become mad with want and greed. They were nothing but a show of wealth, a way for lesser men to make themselves feel like more.
And yet every jewel could be cracked.