Disclaimer: I don't own The Hunger Games.
Note: All right, this one's the last chapter, but definitely not the end. This 'verse will be back; I've opened too many side-plot-threads to leave it alone now, and I'm excited for Barlen to take his place as a Victor I'm going to have a lot of fun writing in the future. So yes, there's another SYOT in the works, probably with a little one-shot in between like last time, so I don't end up with a monstrously long prologue explaining what's happened in the interim. So that's a thing that'll be happening.
But not yet, because what's up next (aside from What You Fight Against, which is creeping its way towards the Games) is a collaboration with my brother, Howler33. We expect to have a prologue out relatively soon, so for those of you who like to plan ahead, we're writing the 11th Games (obviously not in the same 'verse as this one). More details will be coming soon, but for now, let's check in with some Victors and wrap this one up...
District Nine Mentor
You won the Hunger Games.
Barlen took a deep breath, running his fingers over the words on his arm. The tattoo had been his idea; now he wouldn't have to worry about remembering to rewrite the words every time they started to fade. Most of the time, he remembered, but it was still comforting to be able to look down at the words and remind himself. Remind himself that he was safe now.
Basil gave his shoulder a squeeze as the pair of them took their place onstage with the other Victors. "Good to see you, Eloise," Basil nodded. "Crispin. Tobiah."
As the other Victors nodded back, Barlen couldn't help a smile. Basil had done that for him, assuming that he probably wouldn't have remembered their names on his own. Tobiah kept mostly to himself, and Crispin and Eloise had families of their own. Basil was the only one he really knew well.
Basil had a family, too, of course – a few older brothers, he was pretty sure. Barlen's family had moved in with Basil's in one of the other houses in Victor's Village a couple months after the Games. It was a compromise of sorts. They were still close enough that he got to see them, but they could still keep their distance. They would still be safe.
And Chita would be safe – as safe as she could be, at least. Because of him, she would never have to take tesserae. Her name would only be in the reaping bowl once this year. He glanced out at the crowd, hoping to find her, but there were too many faces, and from up here, they all looked too similar.
Basil gave his hand a squeeze. "You can find her after the reaping, if you like."
Barlen shook his head. "I said goodbye last night. I think they tried to talk me out of it – mentoring, that is."
"I'm not surprised."
"You're not going to try, are you?"
Basil smirked. "Not a chance. There's no one I'd rather mentor with."
A smile crept across Barlen's face. "You really mean that."
"Would I lie to you?"
No. No, Basil never lied to him. That was the deal they'd made, and as far as he knew, Basil had always held up his end of the bargain. Barlen took a deep breath, tracing the words on his arm again as District Nine's escort joined them onstage. "Hello, District Nine! I'm Gladys Howell, and I'm delighted to be here again."
Gladys. So that was her name. She quickly made her way to the first reaping bowl. Barlen held his breath, his heart beating faster. Not Chita. Just not Chita. "Emilia Nettle!" Gladys called out, and Barlen let out a deep breath as a girl from one of the older sections made her way to the stage. The boy, Issachar Landry, was a bit younger – fourteen or fifteen. Barlen wasn't entirely sure which section was which, or where they ended.
Then it was over. Barlen relaxed a little as he turned to Basil. "How do you spell Issachar?" he whispered, reaching into his pocket for a pen and a small notebook. His fingers brushed against his knife, but he resisted the urge to pull it out. These were tributes, yes, but they weren't trying to kill him. He had already survived the Games. He was safe.
Gladys turned and handed him both slips of paper. "Here."
Barlen took the slips and quickly copied both names down into the notebook, making sure to leave a little room for more details he might need later – how old they were, who their allies were, whether they were still alive.
Barlen swallowed hard. At least one of them was going to die. Maybe both of them. "You sure you're ready to do this?" Crispin asked once the tributes were gone. "Eloise or I could…"
Barlen shook his head. "No. No, I want to do this. I owe it to them."
"You don't owe them anything. You don't even know them."
"No, not the tributes. I owe it to…" His eyes flicked down to the names tattooed on his other arm. "I owe it to Leo, to Mariska, to Vashti. They saved my life. I want … I want to try to do that for someone else." He turned to Basil, who nodded and gave his shoulder a squeeze.
"Looks like we have a train to catch."
District Six Mentor
Duke fought back a groan as a girl made her way to the stage from the seventeen-year-old section. He'd told her not to. He'd warned her about what might happen. But she wouldn't listen. She never listened. She didn't care about doing the smart thing; she just wanted to do what she thought was the right thing.
Just like her sister.
Just like Nicodemus.
Maybe it was catching.
"Well, well, well, you look familiar," their new escort, Thessaly Calix, crooned. "Who do we have here?"
The girl swiped the microphone and glared at him. No, not only at him, Duke knew. She was really looking at Vernon, who just happened to be seated behind him. "Lana Khatri," she announced.
"I thought you looked familiar," Thessaly beamed. "That was your sister last year, wasn't it?"
"Care to tell us why you're following in her footsteps?"
Lie. Please lie. Duke held his breath, hoping she would have the sense to follow that advice, at least.
"I'm here to avenge her. District Two had better watch out this year."
Great. As lies went, it wasn't bad. The Capitol would probably buy it, at least. In fact, considering how they'd responded to his own feud with one of his district partners, they would probably eat it right up. But had she really needed to pick a Career district to antagonize? Sure, Etora had killed Lena, but she could also have made the argument that her death was Merrik's fault because he'd thrown her under the bus during the interviews. It would have made almost as much sense, and District Three would have been a safer target.
That would have been the smart play. Duke shook his head as Lana was joined onstage by a boy from the sixteen-year-old section named Carson Kent. He looked rather surprised – certainly more surprised than District Six's other recent tributes, most of whom had done something to deserve it. Or at least, something that Vernon had thought meant they deserved it.
Lana looked a bit surprised, as well, but she hid it well as the two of them were led offstage. Duke turned to Nicodemus. "I'll take Lana. She's still a bit sore about her sister."
Nicodemus nodded. "Fair enough."
No. No, it wasn't fair. Lana didn't blame Nicodemus or even Etora – not really. She blamed Vernon. She'd approached Duke a while ago and told him exactly that – and scolded him for not stepping up and taking a stand against the fact that the district's reapings were clearly rigged. Nicodemus' authority didn't exactly carry a lot of weight with the Peacekeepers or the Capitol or whoever else had needed to be bribed to rig the reapings, but Duke's influence, she'd said, had to be worth at least as much as Vernon's, and he had done nothing.
He couldn't tell her the truth – that he had done something. That this year's reapings hadn't been rigged, because he'd struck a deal with Eldred. President Brand, he corrected himself. That was going to take some getting used to. The whole reason she'd volunteered – to win, to earn herself the sort of influence that might be able to counter Vernon's – it was pointless. He'd already taken care of it.
But he couldn't tell her that, because that would involve revealing what he'd agreed to in return – or at least dodging the question and making her suspicious. He couldn't afford to make anyone suspicious. So he'd had to play along. Let her volunteer. Pretend it might change something. But it wouldn't. Well, it would for one person – the unsuspecting girl whose name had actually been drawn. But in the long run…
Duke shook the thought from his head. He couldn't worry about the long run right now. Right now, he had to focus on how to keep her alive. The rest would sort itself out in the end.
Right now, he had a job to do.
Do your job.
Tamika glanced over at Eldred as giant termite mutts drove the three remaining tributes towards the center of the landfill. The girl from Six and the boy from Seven had decided – for the moment at least – that they would have a better chance together against their remaining opponent, the boy from Four. "Sir?" she asked, in case Eldred hadn't heard her the first time. "Is there anything you'd like me to…?"
Eldred shook his head. "No. No, and you … you don't need to keep asking. Silas told me it was tradition, but … Well, maybe it's time to let go of that particular tradition. They all deserve a fair chance."
Tamika hesitated, but then nodded. He was the president. "It's just that the girl…"
Eldred nodded. "It's all right, Tamika. If she wins, I trust Duke to handle it."
Of course he did. Of course he trusted Duke. He trusted a little too easily, in her opinion, but she shook her head and let it go. She had a job to do. The Games were her area of expertise; what the Victors did once they won wasn't really her responsibility. Snow had thought it was, of course, but Snow had thought everyone was to blame for everything. Everyone except himself. Tamika turned back to her fellow Gamemakers as Eldred made his way out the door.
"Let's get this finale moving."
District Four Mentor
He would need to move quickly.
Imalia drummed her fingers on the table as her tribute, Angelo Ketch, ducked beneath Lana's dagger. Angelo already dispatched the younger boy Lana had been working with, but now he was bleeding from a nasty leg wound he'd gotten in the process. Still, Lana wasn't exactly in perfect shape either. A few days ago, her hand had gotten trapped when a pile of debris had collapsed, and after more than an hour of trying to wriggle her way free and hearing several other tributes approach, she'd sliced off four fingers on her right hand in order to free herself. That would probably have been the end of it right there, but she'd been able to stop the bleeding thanks to some generous sponsors.
Imalia's gaze strayed to Duke, and he nodded slightly. Just enough. No matter which way the fight went, this was their chance. Neither of them had been expecting it to happen so soon, but they were ready. All five of them – her, Duke, Tosh, Oliver, and Kyra – were in on the plan, but she was grateful that, at least this year, it was up to her and Duke. She trusted the other Careers, but two Career districts weren't as likely to be able to pull this off together, and Kyra was … young. No, she wasn't really sure any of the others would be able to pull this off.
Duke could pull this off.
Duke had to pull this off.
Or she had to pull it off, she reminded herself as Lana dodged Angelo's blow. It was just as likely at this point that things would go Lana's way, and then she was the one who would have to be convincing. It wasn't a guarantee, of course, that she would be the one who needed to make the plan work; that wouldn't be determined for quite a while yet, and it wasn't up to any of them. Today was a chance to get things moving; they would be playing the game quite a while longer.
Imalia cringed as the pile of garbage that the pair of tributes were standing on began to shake, knocking both of them off their feet. Lana managed to hold onto her weapon, however, while Angelo's spear slipped from his grasp and got caught up in the debris slipping down the pile. Lana saw her chance and lunged, driving her dagger through his chest, ignoring the fact that, at the same time, he had plunged a knife into her side.
It wasn't enough.
The cannon sounded as Angelo's body went still. Lana staggered to her feet as the voice boomed through the arena, proclaiming her the winner. Imalia took a deep breath. Okay, so we're doing this. She slammed her drink down on the table. "Damn it. He was this close."
Perfectly on cue, Duke turned to her, taking a casual sip of his drink. "Shoulda taught him to go for the heart rather'n the stomach."
Imalia glared. "I see you didn't hold back when you taught her how to manipulate those Capitol sponsors."
"No idea whacha mean."
"You really think she would've gotten that medicine to stop the bleeding if she hadn't been playing the I'm out for revenge angle? She didn't even end up killing either of the tributes from Two, but does it matter to them? No. Careers train their whole lives for this, and—"
"An' how much good does it do you, those fancy training academies of yours?" He snapped his fingers. "Oh, yeah. That's right. Yours burnt down. Shame about that."
Low blow. That was why she'd agreed to this, after all. Her own victory had somewhat revived the training program in District Four, but there was still a certain reluctance – a reluctance in the district, and a reluctance from the Capitol to see them as real Careers after what had happened with Misha. But if this worked … all of that would change.
So she would have to make it work.
District Five Mentor
They were actually making it work.
Harakuise leaned back in his chair on the other end of the room, watching the show. Duke and Imalia were pretty convincing, considering neither of them had experience with this sort of thing. Sure, they had both won the Games, but neither of them had exactly relied on guile and subtlety to do it. They were fighters, both of them, so it was a pleasant surprise to find out both of them were also reasonably good actors.
They weren't the only two, of course. Tosh, Oliver, and Kyra were also in on the plan, and although the Games had gone in District Six's direction, there was no telling how things might play out next year, or the year after. He would have liked to have Basil on board to even things out a bit more with the outer districts, but after Barlen's victory, Eldred had been quick to let him bow out of the more dangerous parts of the plan. He could still help move things along, but he would be playing a supporting role. Barlen needed him too much to risk putting his life in danger.
The others … well, they knew the risk they were taking, and most of them weren't putting anyone else in danger. Imalia, Tosh, and Oliver had families, yes, but none that would be close enough to get swept up into the worst of what could happen. Kyra and Duke had no one.
No. No, that wasn't quite right, either. Kyra had Brennan; they'd moved in with him shortly after last year's Games, and while Brennan hadn't officially adopted them yet, he wouldn't be surprised if that was coming soon. And Duke had Nicodemus. But Brennan had agreed to the plan, and Nicodemus … He wasn't a threat. Even if he figured out what was going on, he wasn't likely to interfere. He trusted Duke to take care of himself.
Harakuise glanced around the room – a bit emptier than previous years, now that they were back to the standard twenty-four tributes. And Eldred had left his daughter, Ellery, in charge of the bar. Harakuise could see her watching the two arguing mentors, curious, trying to work out what was going on. She was smart enough, he knew, to figure out that something was out of the ordinary, but he also knew that Eldred hadn't told her exactly what. Because he needed her to tell him what she thought was going on so he knew whether the plan was convincing enough.
Harakuise held back a smile – a smile that might have given away just how jealous he was, how much he wished he could be a part of the action right now. But that wasn't the role they needed him to play – and not a role he could convincingly take on now even if Eldred had asked. No, they had made the best choices they could – the best choices available to them.
That was all anyone could really do.
District Twelve Mentor
"Are you sure you really want to do this?"
Brennan looked down at the boy in front of him, who nodded quickly. "Of course I am. You're looking at the Victor of the 54th Hunger Games."
"You could always, you know … wait another year."
Logan shook his head. "Why? This year's as good as any. Besides, Kyra won at twelve. I'm seventeen. I think I can handle it."
Brennan almost cringed, but managed to hold it back. There was that tone again – the tone of voice that was almost awe every time the boy talked about Kyra. Brennan hesitated. Maybe Kyra had been right about the real reason Logan wanted to volunteer. Brennan set his dagger down, and Logan took it as a cue to do the same. This really wasn't his area. It never had been. But if Logan had another reason for wanting to volunteer…
"Logan." He rubbed the back of his neck with his good hand. "Do you … like Kyra?"
Logan's face grew a little redder. "I respect her."
"Them," Brennan corrected gently. Word was still making its way around the district, but he knew that Kyra had told Logan.
"Them," Logan hastily agreed. "I respect them. I … I think they're very brave."
And you want to be brave, too? Is that it? Win the Hunger Games? Prove that you're worthy? But he didn't say it. "Have you told them?" he asked.
Logan shook his head. "I … I didn't want to make things awkward if … well, if I don't make it out."
Except they already know. Kyra was the one who had asked him to talk to Logan, to see if this was why he wanted to volunteer. "If you're worried you might not make it out," Brennan ventured, "you don't have to volunteer."
Logan's face grew redder. "But I want to. Isn't this what you wanted? Isn't this why you've been offering to train us? Did you think no one was ever going to go through with it? Did you think we'd all be too scared?"
Brennan froze. This was what he'd wanted, wasn't it? Twelve years ago, when he'd taken Harakuise up on his offer to send training supplies to District Twelve, what had he expected? He'd offered to start training these kids. What had he expected? Of course one of them was eventually going to volunteer. This was what he'd wanted.
And Logan was ready. About as ready as he could ever expect to be. He was pretty consistently beating Brennan when they fought, although Brennan was always quick to remind him that the other tributes wouldn't be in their forties and would probably be able to use both hands. Logan laughed it off every time, saying he couldn't ask for a better teacher.
Was this how they felt every year? The Career mentors? Knowing that they'd played a part in getting their tributes ready, even before the reaping? What if Logan didn't win?
What if he did? Was he ready for that – for District Twelve to become a full-fledged Career district, with its very own volunteers every year? He'd wanted to give his tributes a better chance, but was this really what he'd wanted?
Logan looked up expectantly. He wanted an answer. Maybe he needed an answer. Did you think we'd all be too scared? But it wasn't about being scared. Everyone in the Games was scared. He'd spent a whole week in the arena, scared out of his wits. Brennan took a deep breath. "I know you're scared." He held up his hand before Logan could object. "If you weren't at least a little scared, I'd be worried. But if you think you're ready, if you want to do this … then I don't think there's anything more you can learn from me. This year's as good as next."
A smile spread across Logan's face, and Brennan wasn't sure whether he should feel proud or guilty. Instead, he just felt … tired. Tired and confused and completely unsure about what he wanted.
And the Games hadn't even started yet.
District Eight Mentor
It was already over.
Carolina shook her head. Sure, the Games weren't over yet, but it was over for District Eight – for this year, at least. And Six and Twelve, as well. The boy from Twelve had made it out of the bloodbath after joining up with the Careers, but it wasn't long before one of his allies had decided he was too much of a risk to have around. The Capitol had liked him, and whenever one particular Career began to stand out to the Capitol, it made the others nervous.
Her own tribute, Myron, had made it to the second day, but then the pair from Four had found him. Lander's tribute had died in the bloodbath. Carolina shook her head and reached for another drink. "It's not really any easier, is it."
Lander didn't have to ask what she was talking about. He rarely did. "You'd think it would be. Only two dead kids instead of three or four. But that doesn't really make it any easier."
"I'd be worried if it did," came a voice from behind them, and Imalia slid into a seat beside them.
Carolina raised an eyebrow. "What do you mean?"
Imalia shrugged. "Well, if it did make it easier, that would mean it was only ever about the number of people who died. Objectively speaking, yes, thirty people dying is worse than twenty, and twenty is worse than one. But even if only one person died … they'd still be dead. Twenty-three dead tributes this year or forty-five my year, the Games are still the same." She took a long drink. "Still too many."
Carolina glanced over at Lander. Something was off. Imalia wasn't drunk; she never drank too much while her tribute was still alive. But she was acting drunk. Why? What was she trying to—
Shit. This had something to do with whatever Eldred was planning. Carolina quickly got up from her seat, and Lander followed, leaving Imalia alone, mumbling to herself about numbers and training and … something. "Okay," Lander muttered once they were far enough away. "What was that all about?"
Carolina shook her head. "I'm not sure. But whatever it is, we don't want to get involved." Whether it was this year or the next or ten years from now, something was going to happen.
And it wasn't going to be good.
President Eldred Brand
This wasn't going to be good.
Eldred rolled over, reaching for the phone. Phones ringing in the middle of the night were never good news. Ever. Only a handful of people even had his home phone number, and all of them knew better than to call him at home unless it was a real emergency. Beside him in bed, Millicent mumbled something about calling them back in the morning.
It probably could wait until morning. Whatever it was, there wasn't likely to be anything he could do about it right this second. It wasn't something about the Games; they'd been over for three weeks now. It had been a close one, but the girl from Two had managed to eke out a win over her own district partner. The Capitol always found it particularly exciting when it came down to two Careers.
Eldred picked up the phone. "Good morning." Technically, it was true. Three in the morning still counted as morning, didn't it?
"President Brand?" The voice on the other end was unusually formal, but he recognized it anyway. Mags. But there had been something in those two words – almost as if she knew she was being listened to.
She probably was. At this point, it would probably be surprising if his phone wasn't tapped. "Go ahead, Mags."
"What about her?"
Eldred froze. He hadn't been expecting that – not really. He'd assumed it would be Duke. Part of him had been hoping it would be Duke. But this would have to do. He took a deep breath. "Okay." Imalia had been one of the options for a reason, after all. She'd already won the Games. She'd proven she could think on her feet, make quick decisions. Tough decisions. She'd already faced difficult choices once.
He would just have to hope she could do it again.
"When shall we three meet again?"