Anastacia Conrad was the name of the winner of the 69th Hunger Games. Aubrey took a deep draught from her cup at the Capitol bar. The image of her tribute dying in electric spasms imprinted itself on the back of her eyelids. Her father was not going to be happy, not because someone died. That wasn’t important. No, he would be furious about District 2 falling short of victory again. Ever since Aubrey won, District 2 had been having a bad go of things. It was death after death for their tributes, seven years running. The fact that her tribute, a promising boy named Gaius, had fallen in battle to a girl from District 3 would not go over well.
“I’ll have what she’s having,” A voice sounded over her shoulder.
Aubrey turned to see her best friend, Chloe Beale. “Hey, you’re still in the Capitol?”
“Yeah, I’m not ready to give Marina’s Mom my condolences,” Chloe answered. The bartender, with the mohawk and overly large neon lip ring, slid a margarita across the bar and into the redhead’s waiting hand.
“Never gets easier, huh;” Chloe sighed.
“Nope,” Aubrey mused, considering her glass.
Chloe had been the first tribute to beat one of Aubrey’s mentees. Winning at the age of fifteen, she had impressed the game makers with her bubbly attitude and astute survival skills. It helped that the arena was an aqua-based landscape of deep lagoons and scattered islands. Bets had been through the roof in favor of District 4. It was a shame when the tsunami came and wiped out the remaining tributes, leaving Chloe to fight her district partner to the death.
Half in love with the redhead, Tom had killed himself instead of raising a hand against Chloe. This romantic conclusion had won Chloe the nickname of The Siren., something that led to a plethora of seashell and mermaid fashion throughout the Capitol. Aubrey had tried to hold a grudge, but Chloe’s warm personality belied any ill will Aubrey could have mustered.
“She’s going to need help,” Chloe muttered, gesturing at the screen.
Aubrey turned to watch the recap of Anastacia’s interview. The crowd loved her. The girl was smart, proving her skill with engineering and mechanics time and time again; it didn’t hurt that Ms.Conrad was positively the most beautiful woman Aubrey had ever laid eyes on. If Anastacia hadn’t shown her mechanical prowess, Aubrey would have thought she was from District 1. Now, Anastacia was out of the games, and the beauty that saved her would be a curse.
“I always feel bad for the pretty ones,” Aubrey sighed.
“Yeah, there’s plenty of sorrow to spread around this place;” Chloe’s words were barely audible over her cup, but years of auditory training allowed Aubrey to pick it up.
“Careful, just because our new fellow victor has trouble on her head doesn’t mean that we need any on yours,” Aubrey warned.
Taking one last sip of her drink, Aubrey slapped some money on the bartop and got up to leave. Squeezing Chloe’s shoulder on the way out, Anastacia’s face flashed in her mind as dread settled deep in her gut. That girl was going to be trouble; she was sure of it.
It was the victory tour when Aubrey finally met Anastacia in person. The girl had garnered a reputation amongst the Districts and Capitol. Collecting gifts and favors from her patrons, Anastacia Conrad was the one to watch. They were having dinner in the town hall, where Aubrey was seated directly beside the newcomer. She was far from pleased about it.
Despite the rumors that Anastacia’s personality was as lovely as her appearance, Aubrey couldn’t shake the feeling that Anastacia was doing her best to snub District 2. Not only had the new victor been late to every gathering, but her speech seemed stacked with puns that hinted at Gaius’s end. While Gaius was admittedly a bit of an ass, no one deserved to have their death brought down to a cheap footnote at the end of a victory speech. Especially by the very person that killed him.
The dinner had devolved into a party where the banquet tables were pushed aside for dancing and music. Aubrey had gotten a dance with her father briefly before switching to Thomas, Chloe’s on and off again boyfriend, and then her brother.
“Miss High and Mighty have left the building,” Jason muttered into Aubrey’s ear.
Aubrey glanced around briefly, confirming that the tall brunette in question was indeed gone. “She couldn’t have gotten too far. They never let victors have too much fun.”
Her brother nodded in agreement before spinning her away and back in for a dip. “Maybe The Hunter has gone to get some air. I know the roof of the justice building is a fan favorite.”
Aubrey scoffed at the use of the Capitol’s nickname for the new victor. The girl had made one flirtatious comment over a campfire, referring to her crotch as ‘A Hunter,’ and now it was everywhere. “I should probably go wrangle her before Dad notices she’s gone,” Jason sighed.
“I’ll do it; Dad is more likely to notice if you’re gone,” Aubrey said. Jason released her from his grasp, giving her hand a gentle squeeze before she left. “I’ll keep Dad occupied,” he offered as Aubrey trod off in the other direction.
Aubrey arrived on the roof of the building to see. The brunette was flat on her back, staring at the stars. Hearing the blonde’s approach, the other girl rolled her head to the side to meet Aubrey’s gaze. “Come to drag me back?”
“You can’t just leave, President Snow will hear about it, and he won’t be happy,” Aubrey replied.
The younger girl’s jaw tensed, the curvature of her cheekbones sharpened for a moment before finally relaxing. “If he kills anyone, he won’t have any leverage; I only have my brothers anyway. He’ll give me a break on this.”
Aubrey snorted but relented. She turned to leave for a moment, but a voice in her head told her not to. The other victor’s look of amazement when Aubrey approached and sat down, cross-legged, beside her was almost comical.
“Can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em,” Aubrey chuckled humorously.
“It’s not as though your district has a lot of beating to do; you all seem pretty cozy to me,” The brunette muttered darkly.
“Yeah, I get that. I was trained for the games since I was old enough to hold a sword. My Dad was a victor; my Mom was a victor, and so on. It’s a family dynasty. My brother went in two games before me, and my little brother Andy is going in this year.”
“How can you look forward to this? The decorations, the volunteering? How can you want this?”
“What’s the alternative, Anastacia?”
“Stacie, I hate my full name,” Stacie retorted, although she didn’t have an answer to Aubrey’s question. There wasn’t an alternative. It was: celebrate and prepare for it or dread and mourn it. One you died. Happily, the other you died miserably.
“Aubrey ‘The Captain’ Posen,” Stacie mused. “I thought you’d be more of a hardass.”
“I thought you’d be more of a flirt,” Aubrey retorted.
“I could if you want me to,” Stacie turned to look at Aubrey again, offering the blonde a lascivious smile and wink. Aubrey almost smiled.
“Save it for your suitors; I don’t pay for that stuff anyway.”
Stacie blinked in surprise at Aubrey’s revelation of knowledge. “How…?”
“He tried to do it to me two years after I won my games. You’re eighteen now, so you’re fair game. I was sixteen, but he didn’t care about that.”
“How did you get out of it?”
Aubrey turned to look at the brunette, thoughtful. Eventually, she decided on her answer.
“I didn’t, not really. My father runs the peacekeepers, my brother is just like you, and I’m untouched because I lost the one thing that he could take away from me. I bet that all my family members were too valuable, and I lost. The only reason Snow didn’t call me is because of the victors that came after me. I was a hot commodity, and now I’m not. I don’t know when I will be again.”
“So there’s no hope then,” Stacie’s words come out more like a garbled whisper. Aubrey turned, watching as Stacie’s shoulders shook slightly.
“I can’t tell you that it doesn’t suck to be a victor. Sometimes I wonder if we’re really the winners. I know it sucks; every victor in their right mind knows that it sucks. All I can tell you is that you find people who help face the terrible world with you. They don’t make the world better, but at least they’re there to help you keep as many pieces together as possible.”
Stacie nodded and wiped the tears from her eyes. Turning to face the brunette, Aubrey allowed her eyes to linger on Stacie’s face for a moment taking it all in.
“You’re smart; you’ll get through. Being a victor is a lot of responsibility, but I’m sure you’ll manage. And … if you need anything,” Aubrey sighed for a moment, considering the repercussions of the offer but deciding to do it anyway. “Your house has a phone; feel free to call me.”
“Really?” Stacie exclaimed.
“Yes, I’ve been a victor for the past seven years; I’m sure I can help you out.”
“Seven years? You’re what, twenty-two? You won at fifteen?”
“Fourteen, youngest ever, I’m twenty-one now,” Aubrey answered.
Stacie let that information sink in for a moment, thinking. “So, you’re only four years older than me?”
“Yes?” Aubrey said, perplexed.
“Well, age is just a number, and even then, it’s not that large of one. If you ever want to help me out in other ways,” Stacie’s come-on was somewhat detracted from by the red eyes and nose brought on from her crying. That, coupled with the fact that the conversation had taken a complete one-eighty, had Aubrey laughing.
“Hey, don’t laugh; I was trying to be hot, not funny,” Stacie pouted.
Aubrey only laughed harder, gales of laughter that rang through the air as a grin stretched across Stacie’s face. The brunette had to admit, being a victor so far had sucked, but right now, life didn’t feel too bad.