Ainsley Platte, 14

District Nine Female

Sometime early in the morning, when the sun is barely peeking over the faux mountains in the distance, Ainsley is shaken awake by a nightmare. She bolts upright, only remembering vague sounds of screams and blood splatter, but it's enough to unsettle her anyway.

Clumsily, she gets to her feet, squinting against the neon lights decorating the street beyond her shelter. This land she's stumbled upon may be the weirdest yet, if the giant orange cones are of any indication. It doesn't matter, though—the cones make a good hiding spot for the night. She thinks they're supposed to be food stalls, but the floor is clear enough that she could sprawl and get as comfortable as possible. Of course, it wasn't easy, but Ainsley's exhaustion easily won out.

The nightmares apparently beat even that.

Ainsley presses her fingers against her eyes, trying to force the images out of them. More of the nightmare comes back to her as she leans on the counter.

—Ashe, killing Lyndie instead of Navarro—

—Lana's bones splintering with a deafening crack, backdropped by her agonized screams—

—Ashe on the boat, except this time she stabs Ainsley instead of tying her down, making her bleed red into the water—

Her grip around the counter tightens as she attempts to batten down the horrors swirling in her head, reminding herself that this is a terrible place to do this. Once she wins, she'll have an eternity to deal with all of this. But right now, she needs to shelve it all and keep it together.

(It's easier said than done.)

But she can keep herself from falling apart, even if only with tape and visible cracks. If that's what it takes to win, then she'll do it. If that's what it takes to…to go home? Is that even what Ainsley wants?

Well, of course it is. Anything is better than here, stuck in purgatory, waiting for her time to be up. But her home is not home, not really. It won't be the joyous homecoming she's seen so many Victors have in the past. Besides, what is she even going to do? It's not like she has a lot of friends who miss her or something.

It's not like she won't spend the rest of her life aching for those training days, where all of her allies were alive and well, and she could pretend they were just a normal group of friends.

She misses them so much it makes her head hurt. They barely knew each other for a few days, but Ainsley has never felt closer to anyone.

And now all but one of them is dead. Ainsley's grip tightens further, and she grits her teeth in anger. All but one of them are dead, and if Ainsley has anything to say about it, she will be the last one standing.

Ainsley slowly sits back down, suddenly feeling shaky on her feet. The sun is climbing higher, bathing the arena in early morning light, and Ainsley stares out the front of the cone and watches the stars disappear.

After a while, Ainsley drifts into a light doze. However, she barely manages to sleep for a few minutes before being woken up by the sound of approaching footsteps. She waits for a moment, trying to parse knowledge out of the sound of the footfalls, and comes up empty. So she carefully peeks over the counter, eyes landing on the silhouette of the boy from Five, standing a few feet away facing one of the other cones. She can't see his face, but she can see that he's carrying a weapon. It looks like some kind of sword, and Ainsley knows enough to know she doesn't want to fight him unarmed. She doesn't want to fight him, period. There's only one person in this arena that Ainsley wants to kill, and it certainly isn't Sterne.

(And God knows she'll run from Ashe too when the time comes.)

So she has two options: either stay put, and hope he doesn't notice her, or try to sneak out around the back.

Neither seems very safe, but Ainsley is unarmed. And she's far better at running than she is at fighting.

She's tired of running. But it's all she knows how to do.

Sterne moves toward one of the other cones, leaning over the counter and rummaging around inside. He hasn't seen her. She needs to run, or she might lose her chance.

Ainsley quickly gathers up her meager belongings and heads to the door at the back of the cone, still crouched low in case Sterne comes back this way. She turns the doorknob slowly, nudging the door open in an attempt to be as quiet as possible.

The door squeaks loudly, and Ainsley freezes with her foot halfway off of the threshold.

Footsteps echo closer, and Ainsley makes a split-second decision: she throws the door open and runs.

(So she's going to run again. Like she ran from Lyndie. Like she ran from Lana.)

Apparently, Sterne was close enough that the door smacks him in the face, giving Ainsley an extra second to escape. The sound of Sterne cursing is quickly replaced by the sound of him running, however, and Ainsley knows she needs to find somewhere to hide.

She's coming up on a fork in the road, which leaves her with two options once again: run toward the city, or run toward the mountains.

The mountains seems like the better choice, but it's not like she has long to think about it. But she might be able to make it around the corner before Sterne catches up, which may just save her life.

She follows the curvature of the path, running parallel to a river, and chances a glance over her shoulder. Sterne isn't far behind her. Finding somewhere to hide isn't going to happen, they're too close—so she needs to lose him.

(Again, it is easier said than done.)

Ainsley runs past a wooden overhang and considers jumping the fence and trying to lose him in the woods. However, the thought never comes to pass, as the boy from Four steps out from under the overhang and straight into Sterne's path.

Sterne skids to a halt, but Ainsley keeps running, hoping that Bayou didn't see her and will be too distracted with killing Sterne to go after her.

(It almost disgusts her. That she's glad Sterne ran into a Career, because she's escaped him now, and he isn't her problem anymore. But it also doesn't matter that Sterne might die to Bayou. He has to die either way, and Ainsley would rather not have to kill him.)

Ainsley glances back again, and there is no one giving chase anymore. Still, she doesn't stop running, even though her lungs are starting to protest. She needs to get the hell out of dodge first. Whoever comes out of that fight alive may very well come after her, so she needs to put a hell of a lot of distance between them before that can happen.

So she runs, and pretends that it isn't what she's been doing for her entire life.

Sterne Colvin, 14

District Five Male

It's not actually a bad matchup, Sterne thinks as he hops a wooden fence and runs toward the river. He took down the boy from Nine a few days ago, what's the say he can't get a Career, too? Besides, Bayou looks pretty unarmed and Sterne is wielding a sword. It's almost an even fight.

(Almost.)

(Sterne won't pretend that his heart isn't pounding, his blood isn't pumping in his ears, that he isn't breaking out into a nervous sweat. Because he doesn't want to die. Not now. Not yet. There is still too much life ahead of Sterne for him to die so soon.)

But killing is what Sterne must do, and so he will not let the odds stop him.

Sterne makes it to the loading dock, where the floor spins and round rafts lined with seats slowly float by. He runs to the other end of the dock, where the rafts drop off into open water, and, without looking behind him, dives into one of the boats.

The floor of the raft is soaked and Sterne splashes into the standing water with a wet plunk. He clambers to his feet, holding onto to the backs of the seats, watching for Bayou coming after him.

Sure enough, he appears after a moment and jumps right into the water.

See, that was Sterne's first mistake. He brought the tribute from Four straight to a body of water.

In just a few short strokes, Bayou is grappling with the edge of the raft, trying to pull himself onboard. Sterne takes his sword and jabs wildly at Bayou's hands, trying to dislodge his grip. The boat spins, forcing Bayou to shimmy along the raft's edge to avoid being crushed against the wall of the canal, and Sterne moves to the other side, standing up on the seats to check where they are going.

Up ahead, there's a hill. A hill with a conveyor belt on it. He can see another, empty raft about halfway up the conveyor belt, but can't tell what is on the other side.

Bayou gets his feet on the raft. Sterne puts one of his feet on the back of a chair and jumps, landing hard on the stairs beside the conveyor belt. He hits the ground running, taking the stairs three at a time. A few moments later, a pair of footsteps start to thud after him, but he doesn't stop to look back at Bayou. There's no time. There's no point.

Sterne reaches the top of the lift hill, where the ground beneath him suddenly runs out, forcing him to dive for a raft once again. He crouches low in the boat, trying to hide behind the seats, although the raft spins in circles enough that he's fairly certain his attempts are useless.

The raft steadily picks up speed as the water battens it around a bend, and Sterne tightens his grip on his shortsword. There's a loud thunk behind him, and then Bayou is pulling himself onto the raft, waterlogged clothing dripping onto the seats.

Sterne scrambles backward, although there isn't anywhere to go. He scrabbles onto his feet, bringing his sword up to challenge Bayou. Just as he's about to strike, the river becomes choppier and they careen into a dark cavern.

The churning causes both of them to lose their footing as the raft bumps along the edges of the canal, splattering both of them with near-frigid water and knocking them around the boat. Sterne's sword clatters to the ground with a wet sound. They burst back out into the sunlight as the raft twirls in circles, jostling both of them as it careens around a corner. Sterne finally regains his footing, but is immediately pitched over the console in the middle of the raft, crashing into Bayou on the other side.

He reaches for his sword, managing to get his hand around the hilt. As soon as he begins to bring it up to attack, the raft plummets down an incline, splattering them both once more, and when Sterne wipes the water out of his eyes, Bayou is nowhere to be found.

Carefully, Sterne gets back to his feet, using the center console to keep him there while the current pushes the raft into another cavern.

He takes a moment to catch his breath and return his sword to his hand. Water drips from his hands, his clothes, his hair, his blade. For just a moment, exhaustion crashes over his shoulders, and Sterne wonders vaguely how long he can stand to keep fighting.

There is a lot of fight left him, but he does have a limit.

Everyone has a limit.

But he can't reach it yet, because—

Because—

And then Bayou is there, climbing back over the seats, water flying off of him with the speed of his movements. One of his hands slams over Sterne's wrist, wrestling the sword from his grip. The other goes for Sterne's throat, and Sterne throws up his own hand to block it.

Of course, Bayou is a well-fed, eighteen-year-old Academy trainee, which means he is far stronger than Sterne. Still, Sterne ducks, aiming a kick straight for Bayou's groin. Bayou yells in pain, reflexively letting go of Sterne's hands, and Sterne snatches up his sword and buries it into Bayou's side.

He tears it back out, spraying his face and clothes with blood, and Bayou reaches out a hand to steady himself.

Sterne doesn't know much about stab wounds, but he knows with satisfaction that the one he's inflicted on Bayou is fatal. He stands there, watching Bayou press his hands against the wound, blood slipping down his side, and then—

Bayou rears up, blood-slick hands closing around Sterne's shoulders, and Sterne hesitates and—

—and Mercury tumbles to the ground, blood spilling out of his throat as his hands grapple uselessly against Larch's knife, mouth making words he'll never say—

—and Darwin stumbles blindly forward, babbling nonsense apologies to people who aren't listening, ignoring Sterne's pleas to stay with him, to not leave him alone here—

—and Everett lies prone on the ground, knife sticking out of his forehead, and Sterne regards him without care, with nothing but detachment and steps over him and—

And Sterne comes back to himself with his head plunged under the water, Bayou's red-stained hand tight around his throat, eyes stinging, lungs burning, unable to breathe.

Sterne thrashes as the raft turns, kicking his legs at nothing. And he chokes, coughs, breathes in water and splutters, unable to get his head above the water.

But he can't die. Not now. Not yet. Not when there are still so many things he wants to do. He always thought he would settle down one day, marry a nice girl, have a few kids, live the kind of life everyone is supposed to live.

He can't die. He's not ready to go yet.

Bayou's grip is slackening, but so is Sterne's grasp on reality.

The raft continues to tumble through the canal, waves crashing around above Sterne's head, but black spots dance in his vision and he watches them curiously. He's never seen anything quite like that, and it's fascinating.

And—

Ashe Illyrian, 14

District Eleven Female

Ashe peers over the top of bush in front of her at the sound of a cannon, carefully parting the vegetation with her hands to examine the scene before her. A bloodstained circular raft floats idly by, Sterne's drenched, blue-faced corpse splayed out across the seats and floor. Ashe watches it go by for a moment, but that's not the thing that worries her.

She looks further up the river for Bayou. After a moment, she spots him kneeling over the riverbank, looking pale and ill. She ducks back down behind the bush at the sound of a loud splash. A few seconds later, another cannon booms, making her jump.

Through the leaves, Ashe sees Bayou's body float by, face up, eyes staring up at the sky, mouth half-open. His hair is plastered to his forehead with a mixture of water and blood, dripping off of his chin and cheeks. The gaping stab wound in his side is still leaking blood, creating a mosaic of red in the water around him. He leaves a trail as his body drifts downstream and out of sight.

Ashe swallows hard, fighting back her gag reflex, and flees the scene.

She jams her hands into the pockets of her overalls, fingers brushing against the handle of the knife Shad gave her yesterday. She is still baffled by the interaction. If she went back in time two weeks and told her past self that she would meet the boy from One in the arena and he wouldn't even attack, let alone kill her, she never would have believed her.

It's a good thing. It means he's less of a threat.

Ashe walks a good ways away and waits for the hovercraft to take the bodies away. She blinks back the images of Bayou staring unseeingly at the sky, of Sterne's drenched body bent unnaturally around the seats of the raft.

It was a horrifying scene. But it gave her an idea.

Well, that's not really the thing that gave her the idea. She'd been there at the river long before Sterne and Bayou started fighting, toying with her options.

See, it all started last night, when she was camped out on the water tower. She'd been sitting there, staring out at the pier, thinking of home.

Or, more specifically, her older sister, Melody.

Melody used to babysit these two kids. Their names were Emmaline and Neo. They were two and four. One day, Melody had come home complaining that they had tried to electrocute themselves. Ashe had theorized that they tried to drop a toaster in a bathtub.

(As it turned out, the kids tried to stick forks into a power outlet. But that's not the point.)

And it gave Ashe an idea. If she could find something electrical—a portable appliance—she could electrocute the water in the arena. Initially, her plan had been to electrocute the water in the pier, but as she wandered in search of appliances, she discovered the river. Her plan became to wait for dawn to search for plug-ins along the river, but then came Sterne and Bayou, which threw a temporary wrench into her plans.

But now she's back on track, just a little bit delayed and slightly more traumatized than an hour ago. It's nothing, though. Ashe has seen worse than a couple of dead bodies.

So, once the hovercraft has come and gone, Ashe returns to the river and walks along the edge, climbing across the rocks when necessary. It becomes harder after the lift hill, but she's fairly agile. She very carefully skirts down the edge of the first drop, unable to avoid getting wet.

She could stop and rest. She could, but Ashe fears that if she stops moving, she'll burn up.

Finally, she discovers her prize. At the top of the second drop, there's a small, green hut. And on the outside wall, right beside the door, is a pair of plug-ins.

Ashe grins as she kneels down to inspect them. All of the pieces are falling into place, and Ashe sits for a moment to rest and bask in her stroke of genius. Because what does it matter if she can't outfight or outlast the others if she can outsmart them?

She sits with her back against the plug-ins, making sure to stay out of sight of the path up ahead. She's really not in the mood for a fight today.

Well, she's never really in the mood for a fight.

That's why this plan is so important. If it works, she'll be able to kill the other tributes without ever laying a hand on them. At least, if she can get them here first.

It can't be that hard. She's a fast runner. The hard part might be surviving to the top of the drop.

Whatever. She'll figure it out. She has to.

Home is so close Ashe can almost taste it. There's just five of them left, and if Ashe is being honest, she was never sure she would get this far. She's young, and her biggest strength is her brain, which isn't all that useful in a fight against an armed Career. But here she is, in the final five tributes.

She's so close. She's on the final stretch, and she can't back down now. Not after everything she's been through—everything she's done.

A raft twirls by, misting her face. It feels good in the early morning sun. Ashe closes her eyes and breathes in deeply, and pretends that this river doesn't remind her of the pirates ride, back in the original arena, where she left Ainsley to rot.

All in all, she doesn't feel bad about it. It was bound to happen. No matter how much she liked Ainsley, she has to die if Ashe is to win. Besides, she would have done the same thing to anyone else—Eris, Lyndie, Lana. It didn't matter who it was. At the end of the day, Ashe is looking out for herself, and herself above all others.

And it doesn't even matter! Ainsley found a key and a door all on her own.

Another raft comes by. Ashe peels her eyes open and stares down at the water, blinded by the image of the little sewn sunflower sinking into a dark canal.

It doesn't matter. Ashe did what she had to do. She didn't even kill Ainsley, didn't hurt her a bit. Ainsley is out there in the arena somewhere, alive and well.

It's not like Lana, crushed by spinning glassware.

It's not like Eris, neck cracked at an odd angle on the cobblestones.

It's not like Lyndie, knife sticking out of her forehead, bloodshot eyes staring out at nothing.

Ashe lifts her hands and digs them into her hair. The pain in her scalp grounds her, just a bit, and she takes a deep breath. She keeps her eyes open, because she thinks that if she closes them, she'll never be able to banish the images of her allies dead and dying.

The water rushes by, but if Ashe listens close enough, she swears she can still hear Lana's bones crunching, hear Eris hitting the ground, hear Lyndie scream.

Maybe she never should have made an alliance in the first place. Then she wouldn't be thinking about Eris or Lana or Lyndie or Ainsley. They would all be nothing but tributes; vague vignettes of people that she knows nothing about beyond their names, districts, and training scores. She could have killed them without second thought.

This must be worse. This feeling of—of burning, like her heart and her head are on fire, like the loss of her allies must be scorching a hole in her body.

(And she's only going to make it worse. Her plan to kill the rest of the tributes does not exclude Ainsley.)

Ashe's world is on fire, and she is running out of time. She has but two options left: attempt to put out of the flames, or grab a stick and play with fire. So she brushes off her overalls and gets to work.

A/N: Well, would you look at that. Not even a month between updates. I don't think this has happened since 2020. It might not last, because I started my junior year and I'm directing part of my school's fall play, so I haven't had a lot of free time. But I've set a goal to have this story finished by November, in time for my fourth anniversary of writing these SYOTs.

EULOGIES:

Seventh Place – Sterne Colvin, District Five Male. Drowned by Bayou Hacksom (D4M) in the Grizzly River Rapids.

Sterne is one of the tributes I am the saddest to say goodbye to. I really loved Sterne—he just came easily to me from the very beginning and he was one of the tributes I most looked forward to writing. Sterne is also different from a lot of the tributes in this story where my opinion of him never really changed. I started out loving him and, really, my love for him only grew as time went on. RIP.

Sixth Place – Bayou Hacksom, District Four Male. Stabbed to death by Sterne Colvin (D5M).

Bayou is a victim of my attempts to shorten the end of the Games. I cut out a few deathless days and condensed a couple of deaths. Bayou was originally supposed to make a couple more days before getting killed, but I decided to kill him off here because I liked this version better. Bayou himself has always been someone I enjoyed writing. He was unique and gave me a chance to do some District Four worldbuilding, and I love doing worldbuilding. His and Scoria's relationship is one of my favorites I've ever written in an SYOT, and I will definitely miss writing him. RIP.

ALLIANCES:

Going Soft (Good For Him): Shad (D1M)

BFF (Baby's Failed Friendship): Scoria (D2F)

Running: Ainsley (D9F)

Sticking Forks In Power Outlets: Ashe (D11F)

Sad Lesbian: Ishtar (D12F)

I guess it's not really "alliances" anymore, but whatever.

-Amanda