What it Means to Win - Chapter 2 - kaixina (2024)

Chapter Text

Winning wasn’t a foreign concept to Gen.

He won his first award in primary school from the talent show. Fifteen as the youngest rising star in the Capitol. Sixteen for the number one watched entertainment show in the Capitol. Seventeen for the top fifty most influential people in the Capitol.

Now at eighteen, he wondered if he would be adding Hunger Games Victor to that list.

(Somehow, he doubted it. Because just as winning wasn’t a foreign concept to Gen, neither was losing. And Gen was pretty sure his losses topped his achievements anyday.)

In the few months he lived in District 12, his clothes had long since been dusted with coal, the gray color lingering even after several washed. Nevermind his clothes, everything in District 12 was tinted in gray. The houses. The food. The people. There was something awfully jarring going from the flashy lights and bright colors of the Capitol to the dull the-best-of-your-life-is-behind-you District 12.

Now, Gen sat in one of the waiting rooms adjacent to the train tracks. The room reflected the rest of District 12: boring, unentertaining, functional. It looked to be once a nice cream colored wall, but now has faded to an ambiguous shade of gray. There were a few holes and cracks, too many to go unnoticed but too small to be repaired. Gen sometimes felt that way about himself. About who he once was. About who he was now.

There wasn’t really a point to thinking about it.

“Gen.”

He lifted his eyes, looking at the speaker from between his eyelashes.

When Gen was younger, he had a pet hermit crab. Animals were too expensive to take care of, and he had desperately wanted something to call his own. It was a funny little thing, the hermit crab, all shell with a hint of crab. Barely a pet. But that’s what Gen liked about it. It was more of a prize to show off.

His mother was a hermit crab without its shell. Under all the Capitol makeup and endless layers of clothing, she was nothing worth looking at. Nothing worth showing off. Nothing worth taking care of. Her hair, previously a deep blue, was now a sickly green throughout the length and gray where the roots were. She no longer wore makeup, her yellowing complexion exacerbated by the lights. Her lips, cracked and graying, fell into one thin line like ants marching to their colony. Gen could hardly conjure up an image of what his mother used to look like.

“Mother,” Gen said politely.

She didn’t sit next to him, instead choosing to look down at him, her shadow covering his entire body.

“Don’t call me that.”

It wasn’t that his mother wasn’t nice; she just hated being a mother. Gen supposed there wasn’t anything you could do to make a person be a parent. His mother only treated Gen two ways: an adult when she wanted something from him or a burden when she wanted nothing from him.

Today it was the latter.

“Aren’t you lucky to be returning home?” She pursed her lips.

Home. He’s never thought of the Capital as his home, more of a pit stop you make on vacation.

She leaned down until they were face to face. “I know you.” She said, breath hot against her face.

“You’re not going to make it through the games.”

Gen met his mothers eyes, fingers twitching. Eyes were supposed to hold an ocean of emotions, be the window to a soul, and yet his mother’s eyes carried none of that. They were the color of dried ink, black and permanent.

He smiled wanly. “God, I hope not.”

Her brows furrowed as if she was about to reprimand him. Until perhaps, the situation they are in finally dawned on her. Instead, she smoothed out her features giving him a proper send off.

“Goodbye, Gen.”

It took his mother six steps to exit the room, which was also how long it took Gen to leave half-moon marks around the inside of his palms. He could laugh right now. These days he felt less like a magician and more like the star of the world’s greatest comedy. It was as if the world was sending him some cryptic message and his decipherment was always wrong.

He doesn’t know how to move forward. What do people say? “One foot in front of the other.” Except he’s wearing rollerblades and the world was porcelain. His fingers only pressed deeper into his palms as he looked down at the ground. There was nothing to distract him. No cards to shuffle. No flowers between his sleeves. No rabbits in hats. The world wasn’t an oyster, more of an alligator ready to swallow him whole.

The reaping felt ages ago even though Gen knew it had only been minutes. Somehow in those minutes, his life already became dictated by the event. Fame, money, magic, and Asagiri Gen the celebrity were all bundled into a life from before the Reaping. Everything he knew about himself was seemingly a part of a different person.

Worse, he couldn’t believe it was happening for a second time.

His shirt suddenly felt too tight. Gen raised a hand to tug at the collar, resisting the urge to yank the entire piece off his body. The room was so small. Was there any air in here? He remembered the room being cold just minutes ago. Now, it was sweltering. God, was his mother right?

Gen inhaled sharply, stilling his twitching. Calm down. There were still things he needed to take care of. Asagiri Gen was many things, but a quitter wasn’t one of them.

As he took a long exhale, the door his mother exited, opened with a creak.

The light came in, illuminating a figure in a way where Gen had to do eye acrobatics to make out who the person was. Only when the door closed again, did Gen finally see.

Gen wasn’t someone who counted his life in Hunger Games, but he would never forget the 87th Game. That was the year District 12 won. Gen can still remember turning on the television and seeing a boy his age, caked with dirt and grime, cheeks gaunt, and blood smeared across the back of his hand.

The victor wasn’t the reason Gen remembered the Games, but there he was. Standing by the doorway wearing a surprised expression.

“They didn’t tell me a celebrity was in here,” he said a bit drily. “Sorry, you must be waiting for family.”

Gen schooled his expression appropriately, waving a hand dismissively. “You just missed them actually. I’m just warming the benches.” He paused, letting his heart settle. “Ishigami Senku, right?”

“Senku is fine,” he said, rubbing a hand against his neck.

Gen took note of three things: one, Ishigami Senku was wearing a lab coat in the summer heat; two, Ishigami Senku was shorter than he expected; three, Ishigami Senku had a face that belonged in a magazine. Dark ruby eyes contrasted by white blond hair with green tips. He was practically a walking Capitol advertisem*nt minus the bedazzle.

“I didn’t know dear Senku would be a fan of little old me!” Gen teased, effortlessly slipping into his character. This was easy. Gen could play the friendly tribute role well enough. “Do you think I should’ve brought a pen for autographs?” He whispered in mock seriousness.

“No one wants autographs from a trashy magician, Asagiri Gen.”

“Ah, it’s amazing how unsexy you make my name sound.” Gen drawled. “Please, just call me Gen for my heart’s sake.”

Senku gave him a mild look. “Is this really the situation to care about these things?”

“Names are important in any situation.” Gen’s finger found a loose thread in his pants, and he pulled, the sensation of unraveling thread emptying his head.

A pause, and Senku was looking at him with careful eyes, iron hot red seeping into the cracks in Gen’s carefully crafted character.

Gen raised an eyebrow. “What?” His voice seemed to echo in the small room.

“Nothing.” Senku turned his head to the side. “You’re just rather sane, for someone who just got chosen.”

“I think not being sane would be the normal…” Gen quirked a lip up. “…human, response. Don’t you think?”

“It’s a pointless response.”

“Fear does that, doesn't it?” Gen hummed, gears slowly turning in his mind, adjusting his character. “How does dear Senku suggest I survive then? I’m afraid I’m not a fast runner at all.” He said, smiling humorously.

Senku glanced at the door and then back at Gen, seeming to debate his options.

Meeting his gaze, Gen gently rapped his knuckles against the bench space next to him, not speaking. If Senku wanted to leave, Gen would let him, though something was telling him that Senku was lingering for a reason.

Gen was merely giving him a slight push.

After a few seconds, Senku dropped his shoulders, putting his hands in his lab coat. With a single step, he closed the gap between them, sitting down on the wooden bench next to Gen. Not skin to skin, but close enough for Gen to tell that he was warm from the outside air, smelling of chemicals and char.

“Well first, you would have to locate running water. Given the past arenas, I would say the probability that this year’s arena contains an obtainable source of fresh water is around 87%.” Senku’s voice was crystal clear, leaving a slight bit of echo in the small room. “Of course, the anomaly would be like the 56th Games where they utilized a desert landscape. Or the 80th Games’ artificial tundra. ” He paused, frowning a little. “Though since the ratings were low, I highly doubt a repeat. Next, I would say…”

This was not what Gen was expecting. It seems that Ishigami Senku was as eccentric as the Capitol painted him to be. As he half-listened, Gen found that his hands were no longer clenched and that his heart seemed to be beating normally again. He could feel the coolness of the room against his back. It was more or less akin to white noise with an extra fan in his ear.

“Are you listening ?”

Senku was staring at him again, eyes deciphering him like he’s an ancient rune.

Gen half-smiled. “Would you believe me if I said yes?”

“Not even a millimeter.”

It seemed Ishigami Senku was full of quirks. Gen chuckled. “Where did you get those numbers from?”

“What do you mean?” Senku’s voice held confusion. “I calculated them.”

Huh? Gen stared at him. “You…compared all 91 of the past Games?”

Senku gave him a strange look. “How else would you do it?”

Eccentric wasn’t the only word that described Ishigami Senku. The far more common one that Gen had forgotten was genius.

“Ah…” Gen faltered. “Of course.”

Silence seeped in for a moment. Gen hummed quietly, his fingers drumming the back of the bench. He itched for a deck of cards. Senku sat almost motionless next to him, hands in his pockets. Finally he breathed out pointedly.

“I ask all my tributes this question.” He said in a way that suggested he was going to inquire Gen about the weather. “Who do you think will win the games?”

Outside, he could hear the rattle of the train tracks. Inside, Senku’s breath came out in twos, chest rising and falling steadily like a pendulum.

There were two ways Senku could have asked Gen: if Gen wanted to win the games or if Gen thought he could win the games. But he didn’t. It was just the sort of sneaky question a genius like Senku would ask, a subtle test. Not unlike the sort of question Gen would ask. He was almost amused.

“Dear Senku, did you ever watch my show?” Gen asked instead.

This made Senku frown, though Gen was hoping from confusion and not distaste for his show. “Magician’s Corner? Maybe one or two episodes if it was on. I don’t see how this is relevant.”

Like clockwork, Gen gasped dramatically. “You are a fan!”

Senku snorted, but not without humor.

“As you are aware then, at the end of the show, I always answer a call from a fan. The show is live, so we let the audience who have phones dial in.” Senku nodded, but his eyes flitted around the room. “This makes it risky when you think about it, right? How do we keep questions appropriate? How do we make sure they’re the right length? How do we make sure the voices are clear?”

“Well-” Senku began lazily.

“Shh,” Gen placed a finger in front of Senku’s lips. “The trick is: it’s fake! Bingo!” Senku glared at him, clearly already aware of the answer. “But we still receive hundreds of calls every night even though most people know they won’t get chosen.” Gen removed his finger, saying his next lines in a quieter tone. “People are silly like that. And aren't the Hunger Games the same? It doesn’t matter if you win or not. It’s in the name, the whole shtick is that you’re in a game.”

He glanced at Senku. “Does that answer your question?”

“…the opposite, really,” Senku replied, pursing his lips together. “There are still winners and losers in every game. That’s what fundamentally makes a game, a game.”

“Oh dear Senku, one would think we were talking about chutes and ladders,” Gen said airily.

Senku quirked an eyebrow at him, opening his mouth to respond, but the doors opposite from the ones Senku entered, opened. Blond hair popped out from the corner, falling in waves.

“Mr. Asagiri! The train’s here, are you ready to go?”

Minami Hokutozai stood in all her glory in a skin tight bright violet dress leaving rather little to the imagination for how much fabric it contained. Vaguely Gen remembered violet being this season’s color. He had been quite excited about it since the color choice may or may not have been his influence. Now, it just brought a bitter taste to his mouth. His fingers rubbed at his own purple hued shirt.

“Oh, Professor Ishigami. I thought you would be in the other room.” She said, before gesturing for them to get onto the train.

From beside him, Senku stiffened; a miniscule movement, but it’s caught effortlessly by Gen, who once made his worth by being able to catch tells.

“Gen is fine, Minami dear,” Gen said graciously, standing up and heading toward the door. He swallowed the bitter taste down. “Did anyone mention you look quite lovely in violet?”

A flash of emotion flashed through her eyes, before it faded into a half hearted smile. “A few.” She responded, tossing her hair back in a show.

The interior of the train was a palette of rainbow hues. Beautiful colored flowers were a crystal vase adorning a white marbled table. Rich maroon seats lined the walls. A mini chandelier hung above the tables. Bright and lavish, almost welcoming.

A girl was already sitting inside, which Gen quickly remembered to be the other tribute. She had the sort of face that belonged to bedside patient care, the sort you would want to wake up to after a five hour surgery. Her features were warm and soft like a fresh baked pastry. Only her round brown eyes stayed clear and they stared right at the man behind Gen.

“Senku.”

The train doors shut behind them in a loud clunk. Senku stood, expression unsurprised but definitely not pleased.

“Ah…Yuzuriha.” Senku coughed, eyes looking anywhere but the girl. He rubbed a hand against his neck. “How have you been?”

The silence was painfully awkward. Gen felt as if he had somehow ended up in the front row seats of an unrehearsed love confession.

“Everyone's rooms should be in the train cars behind this one,” Minami said hesitantly. “I’m going to head to my room, for now.”

Taking the cue, Gen also began to back out. “Lovely to meet you, Yuzuriha! I’m quite tired from the day, so I’ll be off to my room as well.”

Yuzuriha smiled politely at him, while Senku just stayed silent. God, Gen couldn’t watch for another minute. He quickly left.

The room he was in was less showy than the area he entered, but acres better than his living conditions in District 12. The bed was only large enough for one person, but Gen wasn’t planning for any guests. The pillows were fluffy unlike the sad thin pillows made from leftover fabric he had in his room. An retractable television was on the ceiling of the room, tucked neatly away as if a secret. There was a small bedside table with a vase filled with a single rose. Across from the bed, there was a closet with some clothes for the next few days of travel. He rubbed his fingers against the silken nightgown and soft cotton shirts. He missed this sort of luxury.

Opening the drawer he found a pen and paper pad embossed with the Capital’s signature. It’s the kind of paper that came with its own weight, not the flimsy sort of tissue that was used in the schools of District 12. The pen too, glided with the smoothness of dipping a spoon in jelly.

He closed the curtains, ridding the room of the bright golden shine that refracted off the surfaces. Then he sat on the bed, crossing his legs comfortably. In one smooth motion, Gen stretched, reaching his arms forward and twisting his fingers until a pop could be heard. He closed his eyes in a brief moment of respite, letting the full sway of the train roll over his body, clearing his thoughts. After a moment, he opened his eyes and grabbed the paper pad. He turned on the television, adjusting it until it was eye level and playing the rerun of the Reaping.

As the Capitol anthem began to play, familiar and taunting, Gen began to write.

Dinner would come at no surprise, with a heavy side dish of tension. Senku, as Gen came to learn, was unabashedly ignorant to the emotions of those around him.

This fact made dinner a very awkward affair for Gen and Minami, who tried their best to guide the conversation somewhere in between the Hunger Games and the trembling tension in the air. Although in hindsight, there really wasn’t any point in making small talk, Gen just found it surprisingly hard to turn off his automatic responses. He supposed this was what happened to one’s head when they attend too many dinners in the Capital.

Senku on the other hand, had neither the manners nor the grace of someone who has been in the Capitol spotlight for longer than Gen.

Case 1:

“- steak was actually basted in herb butter, a specialty mix from District 8. There’s added notes of -”

Senku began cutting the steak loudly, letting his metal knife grate against the porcelain plate. In a way where it’s clear he doesn’t want to listen to Minami’s ramblings.

“Ah…Senku dear, I believe Minami is trying to tell us about the food.”

“Huh? What for…? Meat is meat. The type of butter isn’t going to change my opinion on it.”

Minami pressed her lips into a thin line.

To which Senku returned with narrowed eyes. “I’m just saying. With all that’s happening, I think the herb notes or whatever is the least of our worries.”

Well, Gen couldn’t say he disagreed.

Case 2:

“It’s all about first impressions. Have you two thought about the interviews?” Minami asked, halfway through the meal. “I’d love to help!”

Yuzuriha chewed nervously on a piece of steak. “Actually, I’m a little scared about that. What if I say the wrong thing?”

Gen waved a hand, playing his role. “You’ll make a lovely impression darling Yuzuriha. If you go after me, you’re going to seem like a saint.”

“Oh, thanks G-”

“Hardly.”

Everyone at the table looked at Senku, who laid back in his chair looking unbothered. He had changed out of his lab coat into a navy robe which fit loosely against his lanky figure. “Well, statistically you’re more likely to choose people you’ve seen before, regardless of whether or not they’ve had a good impression.”

He looked at everyone’s now somber expression. “No offense.”

Yuzuriha put down her fork with a clink.

Which brings Gen to now, dessert on the table along with a slice of silence. The chef’s special was a fruit tart that was baby pink in color with a soft golden crust. There were a few raspberries on the side as garnish, glistening but dry to the touch. To his left, Senku was picking at his tart, rolling the raspberry under his fork. Across from him, Minami quietly ate the tart, looking down. Yuzuriha sat with her hands in her lap, dessert untouched.

The train swayed, barely noticeable before amidst the clattering of forks and knives but now Gen’s companions seemed to loll with each movement.

Gen hasn’t been an entertainer in a while, but that doesn’t mean he doesn’t have eyes and ears. It wouldn’t be too hard to pry things out into the open, though he debated the benefits it would hold for him.

On one hand, Senku’s tense relationship with Yuzuriha could allow Gen to slip in, both to get closer to his mentor and his fellow tribute. Perhaps he could even alienate the girl away from Senku. On the other hand, Gen had a feeling things were not as simple as Senku and Yuzuriha disliking the other.

“Ok, everyone! Shall we play a little game?”

The three look up with varying degrees of confusion apparent on their faces. Minami and Yuzuriha glanced at each other before both turned their gaze to Senku, who was now twirling the fork in his hand.

“...what?” He looked around before resting his eyes on Gen. They stared at each other for a moment before Senku sighed. “Alright.”

Gen clapped his hands in a show of enthusiasm. “I think it would be nice if we got to know everyone a little better. Each person can choose one person to ask a question to,” he glanced around to check everyone’s expression, noting that Senku was blatantly ignoring his gaze. “-and we have to answer honestly. Okay? This could be your last time getting to talk to some of us, which means… all your dirty little secrets are safe!” He put a finger to his lips, adding a wink.

“Minami dear will start!”

“Huh? Me?” She asked, sounding slightly flustered. “Uh..” Her eyes dashed toward Gen, making Gen freeze.

But then her eyes moved to the person right of Gen. To Yuzuriha

“Yuzuriha, what’s your favorite dish from tonight?”

“Oh!” The girl blushed slightly. “They all tasted really good…I guess the soup in the beginning? We never have that kind of flavor in District 12 –”

Gen felt his hands relaxing; he didn’t know when he started to grip the edges of the chair. He scratched the velvet, letting it gather under his fingernails as Yuzuriha’s voice filled the train car. It was easy to fall back onto his tricks – he wondered what that said about him.

“Ok next, I choose…” Yuzuriha began after answering Minami, lifting her head up, brown hair scattering over her shoulders. “...Senku.”

Senku looked at her with an unreadable expression likely swirled with displeasure. His hair, damp from a shower, hung down to his shoulders.

Yuzuriha’s quiet voice cut through the air like a scythe.

“Are you going to take this seriously?”

Nobody moved. The soft clacking of the train was the only thing that could be heard. Click-clack. Click-clack. Click-clack. Cli-

“Yes.” Senku’s voice was clear and low, as if divulging a secret. He had one arm popped up against the chair, chin resting on top of it. The lights in the train car gave his hair a ring of gold on top of the green tips. Despite his casual demeanor, Senku’s foot tapped rhythmically next to Gen like a metronome.

“Moving on, my questio-”

A chair scraped against the floor. Yuzuriha stood up, wearing an expression Gen didn’t know her face could make. Her brows were furrowed, creasing her eyes at the edges while her lips trembled, pale and pink like a crushed peony. Her hands were holding tightly onto the cloth napkins on the table, as if she was about to throw up.

“Does this matter to you, Senku?” Her voice was small. Gen could break it in between his fingers like hard candy. “Do you care what happens?”

“I–” Senku blinked, sitting up properly, eyes flitting between Gen and Minami and then back to Yuzuriha, clearly uncomfortable. Finally when the silence was beginning to grow too long, Senku sighed.

“Yuzuriha.”

She looked at him, her hair curling at the sides of her face to where Gen couldn't see her expression. Senku leaned forward, putting his elbows on the table, eyes serious. “Of course, I care. I want to bring you back.”

The words don’t tumble out as Gen expected, instead they’re steady and weighted. Somehow, that made it worse. He hadn’t quite pieced together the girl’s character, but he knew Senku was completely inept at emotional confrontations. An audience though, he figured, might elicit some reactions. The question fell well into the range he expected.

The answer, however–

His stomach twisted as if he swallowed a stone and it was building a wall inside his intestines. It took everything in him to not visibly let his lips curl downwards, because that would ruin the entire illusion, wouldn’t it?

Senku’s cough jerked him back to reality. “Well, thank you, Mr. Talk Show for that fun little game,” he drawled, full attention on Gen now. “But I think we’ve had enough for the night.”

Immediately, Gen slapped on a smile. “Of course! Though, I’m more of a mentalist than a host, a fan like you should know.” He stretched, slow and feline like before standing up. “I think I’ll head out. I only get so many days with a bed before I’m thrown to the woods..!”

There’s an unreadable expression on Senku’s face, but it quickly disappeared as he responded. “Alright…Mentalist. ”

Yuzuriha smiled kindly at Gen, “Thanks, Gen.”

Minami stood up quickly, “I’m also heading to my room.”

Gen and Minami walked out of the train car together. When the door slid close with a click, Gen breathed out. They were now in a walkway that connected the train cars together. He could hear Minami’s heels clicking with each step. In fact she was so close. Gen could catch a hint of flowery perfume.

“Gen.”

Minami put her hand on Gen’s shoulder. He glanced at it, freshly painted red nails on perfectly cuticled fingers.

“Can we talk now?”

What it Means to Win - Chapter 2 - kaixina (2024)
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