The River Ride Home
Day Two/Night Two

And then the alarm went off.

There was a split second where Kosmin couldn't move, where the blood in his veins froze at the still-chanting voice that echoed against the zoo's walls (it must've been a zoo, right? A really shitty zoo? A really shitty zoo in need of a good exorcism?).

In that second, Kosmin wasn't thinking of dying or mutts or the Games at all - he thought of home. Of what Kitsey was doing, of who was taking care of his grandpa in his absence. Kitsey, no doubt.

She'd be pissed - probably high as shit and still pissed - but she'd be there, scrubbing and cooking and probably yelling the whole time. Kosmin didn't have a doubt in his mind.

It was almost nice. It was nice. To be far away from the arena, from the alarms, from everything. For just a second, Kosmin's thoughts were with the person that made him the happiest.

And then he was back.

Sprinting, pounding his feet against the grey tiles of the zoo, everything blurred together. Somewhere behind him was Kendra, yelping and huffing and, and screaming.

"Kosmin, duck!" she yelled.

By instinct and by faith, Kosmin dropped like a rock, narrowly dodging the first swing of a tiger whose paw was - oh no. His paw was wildly flailing outside of a tear in his force field. His force field, which was now melting, dripping and sticky like honey.

Kosmin didn't have to look at the other suspended pods around him to know they were all melting.

There was another second - no warmth this time, just fear. Pure, unadulterated fear. Now, Kosmin thought of his death. He could see it so clearly. He thought of being torn limb from limb, and he thought of Kitsey watching in horror, he thought of his grandpa watching in indifference, and -

"Wake up!" Kendra hissed, yanking Kosmin by the arm as she ran ahead, dodging and ducking and flinching at the cries and roars of the animals all around them. "We're almost there - don't fucking roll over."

"I'm sorry," he answered, wincing, but there was no way Kendra could hear him over the rabid parakeet that screeched just to their right. "I'm sorry!" he yelled louder, but it was no use. The chorus of creatures was deafening, to the point where Kosmin couldn't even hear himself.

But it didn't matter - Kosmin could tell her after. When they were out, because they were so close to being out. Only one last corner, and down the stairs, and Venezia would be waiting for them at the door. Everything would be fine.

A rabid gorilla was chomping away at his dissipating force field at the last turn, but he wouldn't have enough time to break free before they were down, Kosmin realized with something akin to relief.

The closest you could get to relief when you couldn't hear anything and every living creature in sight except Kendra was trying to eat him. It was the feeling he'd gotten after falling off his bike as a kid and seeing that he'd skidded his leg but it wasn't shattered.

When they turned the corner, that mutant relief evaporated.

Because as the force fields holding the monsters at bay melted, drop by drop, Kosmin saw the door to the zoo.

Latched. Locked from the outside.

And Venezia was nowhere to be seen.

Kosmin silently prayed that Kitsey wasn't watching.


Kendra refused to believe it - no. Barreling down the stairs with her hand firmly around Kosmin's wrist, Kendra still couldn't make sense of it. Why had she left? They all could've gotten out just fine. It wasn't even close - they would've had enough time to knit a fucking sweater and get out if the door was fucking open.

Why? Kendra thought bitterly, biting down on tongue to keep the tears welling in her eyes at bay. What did we do wrong? What did I do wrong?

"Venezia!" she screamed, banging on the door that could only be unlocked from the outside. "Venezia, please! Venezia, we're going to die! Please!" The tears were streaming down her face now, but any whisper of pride all but vanished with the crescendo of animal cries behind her. Her screams fell to murmurs as the roars only grew.

"Please," she whispered, hoping against hope that somehow, Venezia would hear her. Maybe she was just outside, maybe she was having trouble with the latch, maybe she just needed another second.

But it was pointless. The howls and hisses and roars would drown out anything, everything, she tried to do. And there was no one coming to save her. Venezia hadn't just left, she'd locked them in. She'd condemned them to die. They were supposed to die now. Kendra knew that.

Too fucking bad, Kendra growled in her head, sneering at both the cowardly, pathetic excuse of a person Kendra had trusted and herself for being so weak when shit got real. That wasn't acceptable. That wasn't who her father raised her to be.

If Venezia was scared of some fucking cats and roosters, she'll be terrified when she sees us, hunting her down after we get out.

We have to get out.

"Come on!" Kendra yelled, slow enough for Kosmin to read her lips, not that she waited for a go-ahead before she dragged him back up the stairs. The gorilla they'd passed easily on the way down was now swinging wildly, the force field shrunken enough for his behemoth arm to fit fully through.

The fear that seized Kendra's heart bled into fiery rage as she pictured Venezia, faraway, safe.

When Kendra was little, she'd been quite the target for the punks on the playground to tease and poke and push to the ground. And obviously, she'd swung back. Wildly, passionately, angrily. But she lost - they boys were bigger, faster, meaner. And every time, her dad would come home at night to a bloody eye or a bruised lip or both when he was really lucky.

"I don't want you to keep getting in fights," her father had said one night, eyebrows knitted as he messily ran thread through his messy stitch. "But if you're going to be in a fight, I don't want you to keep losing, yeah?"

"I'm not trying to lose," she'd answered, pouting, turning away from him.

"Of course not, champ," her dad responded, grinning. "But if you wanna win, you can't pull your punches. And I know you're not trying to, but it's only natural to. Because we don't hate a lot of people in the world. Not enough to swing with everything we've got. Right?"

Kendra frowned. "I guess."

Her dad grinned. "So instead of just tryna punch those boys at school, think of someone worse. Someone who hurt you worse. And picture them, instead. Got someone in mind?"

"Yeah," she murmured.


She shook her head, turning away again.

It had been her mom. Her mom, who Kendra barely remembered in the three years they were both alive, but hated nonetheless. She hated her for leaving them alone. She hated her for letting her fucking stepmom take far too many steps into their house. She hated her so much for dying.

And now, as Kendra unsheathed her machete and plunged it without a moment's hesitation into the gorilla's chest, she thought of Venezia. The incessant swinging and growling sharply stopped as Kendra cleanly dragged the blade out of the creature's chest.

When she turned back to Kosmin, he was already staring at her. Frozen. Afraid. Of the rabid animals and the arena and the Games, but also of her. Of what she'd done, of what she was becoming.

Maybe Kendra should've been afraid, too.

"Keep going!" she yelled, swinging her machete forward wildly to compensate for the fact that Kosmin definitely couldn't hear a fucking word she was saying. "Back up!"

There was a second of hesitation, where Kosmin scrunched his eyebrows and a quiet concern stirred underneath his brown eyes. Kendra didn't blame him - Venezia had betrayed his trust. Their trust.

The difference was - Kendra wasn't a fucking sell-out. As they ran and swung and squeezed their way through the narrow corridor filled with melting pods of howling hyenas and feral seagulls, Kendra stayed with Kosmin as best as she could. She wasn't going anywhere.

And finally - finally - they reached it. The sliding doors whipped open as Kendra and Kosmin returned to the room. The room with the bread.

And the room with the voice. "Oh?" it bellowed, a haughty surprise coloring the demented voice. "Are my little piggies not fattened up enough? Eat some more, sweetheart! Eat up - on the house! 'Til the house burns down!"

"Fuck you," Kendra whispered hastily as she dragged Kosmin all the way to the stained glass windows opposite the sliding doors. "Help me break this!"

After watching her strike at the glass with the butt of her blade a couple of times, Kos finally caught on, pulling out his own dagger and swinging with all he had. Slowly, this plexi-glass shit finally started giving, tendrils of webby cracks forming on the surface.

And just as the glass finally shattered, hell broke loose. The sliding doors slid open once more, but not for them - for the animals. First was a little mouse, its beady eyes half-yellow, half-black.

Kendra couldn't stomach looking beyond it. She couldn't stomach looking down the two-story jump, either. So she didn't look - Kendra closed her eyes and jumped.

And then she was flying - wildly flailing her arms and screaming and sobbing as her feet hit a bush on the ground, faster than she'd imagined. As the pain recoiled up her legs and into her chest, Kendra turned up, watching as Kosmin turned to follow her.

She watched as he screamed - screamed - as a bobcat bit into his leg. And for a second, Kendra thought it'd be over then. A floodgate broke, and all at once she remembered the boy on the train, the boy who'd been there when didn't have to. She would have to say goodbye.

But with a sigh of relief, Kendra watched as Kosmin swung, cracking the bobcat's skull and managing to tumble out the window, unceremoniously thudding as he landed in a bush beside her.

Ignoring the pain that jolted up her back and the tears streaming down her face and onto her neck, Kendra crawled over to him, pulling his weakly moaning head into her chest. "You're okay, kiddo. Hey, can you hear me? I'm not going anywhere."

Why weren't they back yet?

Anders scowled as she paced around the Cornucopia - she wasn't one for waiting around. She was all for being a team player and a good sport or fucking whatever, but she hadn't trained and sweat and gave up her life to play guard dog.

Kiani, on the other hand, was clearly comfortable with coasting. The girl from Two had slept (and snored) like a fucking baby and was now sifting through their baby stack of salvageable food to cook herself some brunch. God, why didn't she just stay in Two? She wasn't a Career, she was a basic bitch. Bitch was probably making avocado toast.

Underneath her anger, Anders knew why Kiani bothered her so much - she'd always known. She was just like all the girls from home, the ones who had it all. They trained and excelled but were also popular and flirty and funny and all the boys loved them and all their friends adored them, and they all hated Anders.

No, they didn't hate her. Worse - they barely saw her. A blip on their screen. A simulation glitch. That was what they treated her like when they were forced to see her.

Anders fucking hated avocados.

"Did they not understand 'be back by sunrise?'" Anders growled. "Clearly not, considering Shoal decided to fucking die," she added, muttering the last part under her breath.

Kiani turned to her slowly. "What was that, Andy?"

"Don't call me that. And I was just saying that they're late. We're sitting ducks out here."

Laughing a little as she examined an apple that was half-burnt, Kiani turned away from her. "And who's going to come charging at us? The infant from Three or the fashion queen from Eight?"

"If you think you're - we're - invincible, you're mistaken," Anders responded, cursing at herself for being so careless with her words. Khiron would never have made that mistake. It was always her that dragged them down, always Anders that messed things up in training. She couldn't get the words right. She didn't look right.

She wasn't right.

"I don't know why they'd waste a gem like Khiron by pairing him with her," Nasali, head fucking bitch of their year's Academy cohort. "Like come on! Look at her forehead! No one's sponsoring that!"

No more mistakes, she thought to herself. You can't afford them. Khiron can't afford them.

"I don't," Kiani said after a curious pause. "Just, like, realistically, no one's coming."

Anders knew that it wasn't worth it and that she just finished berating herself for making mistakes, but she couldn't help it - Kiani sounded too much like them, like Nasali and Ezralia and Nadine. She was too much like them. Careless because she was carefree because she could afford to be.

They were all the same - happy because the world fucking worshipped them, because everything fell into their lap. They didn't cry themselves to sleep, hearing the echoes of words spewed and spat at them for years, they didn't have to claw and bite and scratch for everything they had.

They disgusted Anders. They disgusted her, and Anders desperately wished all her life to be just like them.

"How do you think this ends, Kiani? Have you thought about that? If no one realistically comes, what happens to us, huh? We all just live to the end?"

Kiani jumped, a slice of brie falling off her makeshift charcuterie board. "I mean, we'll get there when we get there, right?"

Years of rage and red bubbled into Anders' eyes, and for a second, she couldn't see. Couldn't think. Couldn't stop herself. "You don't deserve to get there. Neither of you do."

Before Kiani could answer, voices pierced through the haunting silence at the empty horn - Adela. "Hello? Anyone home? Could use a hand here!"

"Fucking finally," Anders murmured, more to herself than Kiani. And as she got up and jogged over to the sound of Adela's voice, her smile faltered. Khiron looked like shit - he was slumped with all his weight onto Adela. "What happened to him?"

"I can still hear you," Khiron protested, groaning as he stood on his own, stumbling.

"The boy from Eight got a good shot in," Adela answered.

Anders scowled. "I didn't see his face in the sky."

Khiron shot her a warning look. "We did our best - Adela knocked out the trouble girl from Three."

"Nuria," Anders finished. "Wow, how hard did he hit you? Don't tell me you forgot her name?"

Adela stirred, cocking her head to Khiron. "I thought you didn't - " she started, pausing before shaking her head. "Nevermind. Do you have him?"

With a nod from Anders, Adela was off. All it took was one look at Khiron to know that she had messed up - bad. "C'mon, Android," he whined, "you know we've been over this. I'm not supposed to know their names. I'm not supposed to know anything about them."

"I'm sorry," she whispered, running a hand through her hair. "We're almost at fifteen - just one more. Then I'll be perfect." She turned away from Khiron. "I'm sorry."

Khiron shook his head. "I think we're going to have to adjust our plans a little."

Adela decided then.

It wasn't much, but Adela felt the tides turning, and there wasn't much time left to decide anyway. So in the moment she realized that Khiron lied to her - a brief white lie, a nothing lie, as Davos would call it as they trained the younger kids at their makeshift academy - Adela made her choice.

She knew for a fact that Shoal would've advised her differently - that she should stick with One because they were less coherent, less put-together, less of a threat. But what did that matter if Adela couldn't sleep without wondering if they were going to stab her in the back?

Shoal might've thought with his head, and that might've been what they taught at the real academy, but Adela had always thought with her gut. With her heart, if you'll accept the corniness. And her gut led her to the girl who held her district partner's head in the bathroom of the training center.

Kiani smiled at her as Adela walked over to her, casually taking a bite of her apple. "What's up? How was your night?"

"We need to talk," Adela whispered as she performatively sifted through their supplies for something to eat.

"We are talking."

"Alone, Kiani," Adela groaned, finding herself smiling in spite of herself.

"Can it wait a sec? I should go check up on Khiron, he looks like - "

"No," Adela said simply. Sharply. She almost didn't recognize herself. "It can't wait."

All this time, Venezia hadn't stopped running.

She told herself it was necessary, that the animals could catch her at any time if she stopped, but Venezia knew that wasn't what she was running from. Since leaving the zoo, Venezia had crossed more biomes than she had in the entire Games - woody briars, stony hills, black fields of wheat. And now, a hodgepodge of… fabric?

Whatever - it didn't matter. Wherever she was now, Venezia knew that the zoo animals wouldn't follow - that wasn't what she was running from.

She was running from the memory, from the sound of the guttural screams that had to be Kosmin and Kendra's. There hadn't been a cannon yet, and that almost made Venezia feel worse. Because she knew - she knew - that there was no way they'd get out of this in one piece.

And that was because of Venezia.

She'd known this moment would come - Venezia was neither stupid nor unaware of how she operated. She was a hermit crab, and she'd outgrown their shell. And she'd tried to hate that stupid fucking shell, blame it for the pain she'd gone through while she was there.

For a second, Venezia had thought it'd worked. She thought she'd tricked herself into hating them so badly that it'd be easy to leave, easy to turn her back in the name of self-preservation and book it.

Now, as her tears intermixed with the sweat that poured across her face, she knew she'd been so, so wrong.

Finally, as her legs gave out, Venezia stopped running. No, that wasn't quite right. It was more like she stumbled and collapsed onto the interwoven stitching and wool that covered the ground.

And as she laid there, Venezia couldn't help but think that she didn't deserve this. To be alive, for starters. But to be comfortable, to be lying on… was that silk?

It was something Venezia had felt for so long with Jeanne - like she was living in a lie. And it had started there, for sure, and Venezia always told herself that it'd become something more, yadda, yadda, yadda.

But that didn't change the fact that she didn't belong at the mayor's mansion, or at extravagant balls talking about stocks and business and the newest up-and-coming watercolor painter. She belonged to dirt, to struggle, to thieves and to doing whatever it took to make it another day.

Maybe Venezia belonged here.

That was when she heard the footsteps.

In a second, Venezia was out of her pathetic, pity party, and she was up. That was how she was, Venezia thought bitterly, a moralistic damsel-in-distress one second, then the same ruthless machine she'd always been. She gave herself whiplash as she switched from who she wished she was and who she knew she was.

Fittingly, the cloth-lizard-mutt-things that crawled towards her were holding whips. A beautiful touch.

"I don't know what you want me to do," Venezia cried out, brandishing her hatchet and waving it haphazardly towards whichever lizard edged the closest. "Tell me what to do!" she yelled at the sky, begging, pleading, for a way out, for a hint to solve this puzzle.

"It's not a puzzle," she whispered as the pieces finally came together in her mind. "It's a punishment."

Betrayal was a fickle thing, and it only had Capitol support when it was purposeful, when it was to unlikable or boring or overly heinous tributes. Apparently, she didn't have the Capitol's support.

And maybe they were right to be against her, she realized. Maybe she deserved this, and the Gamemakers were just finding justice. They were just doling out the rightful sentence, they were giving the jury what they wanted.

And then the first lizard leapt at her.

Before it could sink its cashmere teeth into her neck, Venezia brought the hatchet crashing into its skull, sending a poof of red cotton into the air with a sickening crunch. The next one was flying towards her before she could even pull the fucking blade out of its head.

"Tell me how I can make it up to you!" she begged as the lizard pounced onto her, swatting its chiffon tongue at her face and splicing across her skin. "Tell me how I can be better!"

As Venezia shoved the handle of the axe against the lizard's mouth - the only thing separating her and those cashmere teeth from ravaging her face - she saw the others slither towards her from the corner of her eye. Slowly, they were inching closer, and there was nothing she could do to stop them from ripping her to shreds.

"Tell me what to do!" Venezia screamed, her voice breaking as she collapsed into sobs, her arms shaking against the pressure of the now-ravenous lizard on top of her. "Please, I'm sorry! I'm so sorry - please!"

The voice almost didn't sound real. Venezia wasn't sure it was real. Like maybe it was a figment of her imagination, like a coping mechanism to instill some hope into her dying moments. But as it repeated itself, Venezia heard it, no question.

"Save her!"

With the tears pooling in her eyes and the lizard still desperately trying to dig its fangs into her face, Venezia couldn't see what was happening, but she could hear it. The squelches and pops that the lizards made as they were pinned to the ground and knifed and axed and bowed to the ground.

Only when the purple suit of armor speared the lizard through its neck, the tip mere inches from her face, did Venezia finally see the world around her again.

"Hey, Ven," Han said as she pushed past the purple armor and knelt beside her. "Are you hurt? Can you stand?"

Venezia kept crying as she nodded, burying her head into Han's chest. "Shh, don't let them see you cry," Han whispered as she sobbed into him. "You're okay. You're safe. I've got you. Don't let them see you cry."

They let him keep watch.

Honestly, that surprised him more than anything they'd done all day. The way they neglected to mourn Nuria, the way they trudged forward. "We need to keep moving," Corvin had said, and Luca had gotten the message.

They wanted to move forward, to bury the past.

The callousness of it all had been expected, but it had still kinda stung. And the absence of reassuring lies - "we definitely would've saved you!" - was just the same: expected, but painful all the same. Worrying. Dangerous.

Luca could be dangerous, too. He wasn't in a position to do anything now and end up alone and vulnerable, and maybe that was why they slept so soundly as he watched over them. But soon. Soon the numbers would dwindle, and a little boy from Three could make it on his own.

They better fucking pray they were nowhere near him when that switch finally happened.

As Luca twirled the switchblade in his hand, his eyes wandered to the even hum of Corvin's breath, then Novie's breath, then Corvin's again. It was like they were dancing, like two halves of a whole. Matching pieces of a puzzle. A lock and a key.

The sad thing about tango partners or locks and keys or whatever was that they didn't leave room for more to join. They were exclusive. As much as they tried to convince you that this song, this dance was for everyone - it wasn't.

Luca had heard this song and dance his entire life - he knew when he was on the outside looking in. His older sisters Maryam and Alani outgrew him and their tight-knit trio. His friends always managed to grow weary of his antics, of the flashy show he put on in hopes of convincing someone, anyone, to stay for good.

It never worked, but it was the only song and dance he knew.

Not that Corvin and Novie really made an effort to convince him that they were with him, especially considering that he was only here because Nuria - the girl they left to die - saved him. It was no secret - they hadn't really wanted Nuria here, and they didn't want him here, either. Hell, they probably wanted him dead. Then and now.

No, he knew where his place was here. He knew that he sat at the bottom of the totem pole. Fuck, he might as well have been below the totem pole. And Luca knew that his time was running out.

There wasn't a definitive clock as to when Corvin and Novie (but mostly Novie, if he was being honest with you) would use him for a shield or for a distraction or whatever they had in store. Deidra and Emeric had done it. Torrance, too. Luca had no doubt in his mind that if he wasn't in front of them when the bridge started going down, Novie and Corvin would've done it, too.

And that was who Luca was, now. He had grown to push himself faster, farther, better, because no one was going to help him. Where they had each other, Luca had no one.

Maybe it was sad, but that was just his life. And growing with that constant sense of isolation, of being unimportant - it made him stronger. Sadder, always tired, always desperate, always thinking, but stronger nonetheless.

He twirled the switchblade again. Maybe it was time for Novie and Corvin to be alone, after all. Maybe it'd serve them well. Like a rite of passage.

Maybe it was time for them to grow up. Spread their fucking wings a little, regardless of whether or not they wanted to. Just like Luca had. Or maybe they'd crash and burn without their other half.

Luca kinda preferred the latter - don't you?

For a scary second there, Kiani thought Aristide wasn't coming back.

It had been so long - well into the afternoon - and so much had happened. Anders's sharp, careless jabs. Her revealing jabs, about Kiani not deserving to live past her use, about them not deserving to make it out of the arena alive. And who else would be lumped in with her beside Aristide?

And then Adela, so frantic, so sudden. Pulling her to the edge of the Cornucopia pretending to laugh about food and whispering about conspiracies and cabals and backroom deals made behind her back.

All of the pieces and signs that Kiani hadn't seen, hadn't wanted to see, unequivocally coming together right in front of her. There was no way she could do this. Not without Aristide.

So when she saw him stumble out of the wheat, bloodied and battered and dusty, Kiani let out the biggest breath she'd ever held in her lungs - it was like she hadn't been breathing for hours.

"Thank god," she whispered, getting up from her makeshift lawn chair on the outskirts of the horn and jogging then sprinting into his arms.

"Easy, tiger," Aristide grumbled into her hair, wrapping his arm around her waist nonetheless. "You're going to break my creaky bones."

"Nice of you to grace us with your presence," Khiron called out, grinning as he and Anders - it was impossible to not see them together now - trekked over to them. "A little past sunrise, huh?"

"A lot's happened," Aristide conceded, smiling in thanks to Adela as the girl from Four passed him a canteen of water. "Shoal - "

"Yeah, what did happen to Shoal?" Anders interrupted, turning to Kiani. "We were pretty shocked when he saw his cannon."

Adela cleared her throat as Aristide leveled his eyesight with Anders'. "We can talk this over later," she said, hand guiding Aristide away from the pair from One. Away so she could brief him on… on her plan.

"No, let's get this over with now," Aristide answered, keeping his eyes locked with Anders'. "We were chasing Torrance and Deidra and Emeric and they led us to a power plant. Torrance blew it up, and Shoal got caught in the debris."

Anders cocked her head. "Thank god you made it out alive."

"Yeah. I was real fucking lucky, huh?" Aristide bit back curtly.

"Alright, let's take a five," Khiron interrupted. "I think we've all had an unexpectedly long day - Aristide, especially." Who were they trying to convince? Were they too dense to sense that Adela didn't want to be associated with their scheming, snake shit? "You want something to eat, buddy?"

"Don't call me that," Aristide answered, rubbing his temples. "And maybe later, thanks."

"Let's get you washed up," Adela offered, looping her arm around Aristide's and leading him into the treeline.

"Can we go in a little bit? I really just wanna - "

"We should get you cleaned up as soon as possible," Kiani interjected. "Bad look for the sponsors."

Aristide met her eyes curiously before turning back to Adela. "Alright, then. Let's go."

And off they went.

Undoubtedly, Adela was already dumping all the information that her brain had been hiding behind her mane of brown hair. Everything she'd already told Kiani - that Anders and Khiron had roped the pair from Four in at the fucking Chariot Rides, that Aristide had been right all along, and that they were planning on killing them in their sleep at the final fifteen.

In case you weren't counting, there were sixteen tributes left.

"We don't have much time - anyone could die any second and they'll be raring to make their move," Adela had explained, running a trembling hand through her hair.

"Are you sure?" Kiani had asked. Surely, Aristide would say the same. "Why fifteen? Why any number at all?"

"They're methodical, Kiani, they're not like us. They're careful and they play the odds and they know their shit. So maybe you and I don't get their little numbers game, but they clearly do, alright? I just need you to trust me," Adela had pleaded.

It hadn't been her words that had convinced Kiani - it'd been her eyes. So tired, so scared. So desperate. Unless sweet Adela was cruelly manipulating them into the pitfalls of their own deaths, why else would she go all this way? Killing in their sleep would surely be less stressful.

No, Kiani believed her. And this plan of hers… it was stressful, but at this point, it was all she could do. It was their best shot.

"Where'd Aristide and Adela head off?" Khiron asked as he approached her, arms crossed. He was frowning.

"I think Adela's trying to scrub some of the dust off of him," Kiani answered absentmindedly, subconsciously cursing to herself. She needed to be fucking connecting some fucking wires as if she was from Three or Five or something and here Khiron was, talking to her for the first time since they'd met.

"Where's Anders?" she added quickly, doing her best to throw the scent off the others. Kiani frowned as she scanned the area. Where was Anders?

"I think she's sharpening her arrows for tonight's hunt. How do you think we should do the split?"

Something's wrong. He was doing the same thing that Kiani was - changing the subject. Hiding the truth. "However you want - maybe I'll go check on her and make sure my arrows are sharp, too. Which way did she go?"

Khiron nodded into the train biome without ever taking his eyes off of her. "Over there - you know what? I'll come with you. You have your arrows on you?"

Kiani smiled. "No, lemme grab them from the horn real quick. Wait here."

"Can do," he called out, shoving his hands in his pockets as she turned around to jog to the horn.

Only years of training made Kiani hear the whizz of the arrow and dodge it before it would've gone through her neck.

"What the fuck, Khiron?" she yelled, scrambling behind a charred remnant of the horn and running her hands over her belt and pockets for weapons. One throwing knife. She had one fucking weapon.

No, she realized as she turned and spotted the line of wire Adela had run around the Cornucopia earlier. She had two.

"Just business, Kiani," Khiron answered evenly. "C'mon, don't make this difficult."

"Yeah," she called out absentmindedly as she connected the wires. Red to green? Or red to blue? Blue, she thought. Adela had said blue. Something about blue fish. "Lemme just go out there and play target dummy for you. I thought we were just sharpening our arrows, baby?"

"Testing them out on you," Khiron responded. His voice was getting closer. You're running out of time. "Well, I'm testing mine out on you. Anders is probably getting some good practice on Aristide and Adela as we speak."

Fuck. "Well, that hardly seems fair, huh? Give a girl a heads up before you try to ice her." She just needed a couple more wires… where was the last one?

"I'm sorry it ended up with us on opposite sides. I always liked you, Kiani." His voice was practically on top of her. "So naive. So pliable."

"Aw, how sweet," Kiani replied as she hooked up the last wire. She hoped Adela was right about this. "Are you asking me on a date, Khi?"

"Afraid not," he answered coldly. "Say hi to Shoal for me, yeah?"

And then he was jumping beyond her border and firing an arrow, and before Kiani could dodge she felt the searing pain of the arrow digging into her shoulder.

"Little fucker!" she yelled, rolling in spite of the white-hot pain in her arm to dodge the next arm. Because, lo and behold, Khiron was stringing another, and another, and - she wasn't going to catch a break anytime soon.

Another arrow lodged itself in her fucking boot as Kiani swerved to keep it from going through her chest. And even though it didn't pierce her skin, the fucking boot arrow made her stumble and brought her down.

Down, where she watched Khiron string another arrow from the heart of the Cornucopia. Down, where she frantically fumbled for the remote in her hand. Down, where she squeezed the red button with all the force she could muster.

Down, where she watched Khiron's body blow up into little bits and soar up with the impact of the explosion before cascading back to earth in pieces.

Back down, if you will.

From his perch in the treehouse, Aristide watched silently as Anders shuffled after them, sword drawn.

"We're lucky it's her and not Khiron," Adela whispered. "He was with me when we went up here last night."

"Lucky us," Aristide mumbled back. "And we need to go. Kiani's all alone - we need to get back to her before they get to her. God, she should've just come with us up here."

Adela shook her head. "They wouldn't have let us all leave. And she needs to set up the wiring for the plate bombs, anyway."

"We can take Anders on," Aristide begged. "There's two of us - one of her. Plus, we have surprise on our side - Adela, we don't have time to wait for a perfect moment that won't ever come."

Again, the girl from Four shook her head. "We can't take her on. You're weak and tired. And I know myself," Adela continued, "and I can't beat her. Kiani can beat Khiron."

For a second, Aristide didn't know what to say. He hadn't ever heard a Career openly admit… fear. Of death, of embarrassment, anything. But Adela admitting that she couldn't beat Anders was something he'd never expected, not from a volunteer. Not from his little bubble of a world.

To his own surprise, it made him respect her more than he already did.

That was when the explosion went off.

The boom sent Aristide spiralling, frantically shuffling to the nearest exit so that he wouldn't get caught in the debris, he couldn't die in an explosion, not like Shoal, not like Torrance, god he wanted Kaede to at least have a body to mourn, not the melted wax that Shoal and Torrance were, oh god he couldn't die in an explosion like them, because of him, like them, because of -

"Hey, Aristide, look at me. Hey. You're okay. I have you." He opened his eyes to meet Adela's warm brown ones staring back at him. "Hey. Hey. Do you hear me? Nod if you can hear me."

He nodded.

"Okay, good. Hey, I know I'm asking a lot of you, but we have to go, okay? Clearly, there's been a change of plans. We have to go now. You said it earlier - our timing is sensitive here. Kiani doesn't have a lot of time. She must've been the one to set off that bomb. She must've been desperate. We have to go before Anders gets to her, okay?"

"Oka- Okay." Aristide mustered out, clearing his throat and wiping away the tears he hadn't realized he'd been shedding. "Let's go."

"Take a second," Adela warned, hoisting him up and holding his elbow as - yup - he stumbled and the world spun. "Compose yourself. Hey. You got it?"

"Yeah," he murmured, blinking away more tears. Stop fucking crying, you pathetic piece of shit. God, you're an embarrassment. "Let's go."

The next five minutes were a haze. Moss. Trees. Tripping on branches. The smell of burning flesh - was that actually there or was that just a memory? Of Shoal? Of Torrance? Where was he?

And then Kiani.

"Thank god you're okay," Kiani whispered hurriedly, " - again, I guess. You're okay, part two," she laughed as she hugged him briskly before pulling away. "The remix."

"You're bleeding," he realized aloud as he saw the bloom of red staining her uniform, now staining his.

"Oh, shit, sorry," Kiani laughed again. She was pale, he realized absentmindedly. "Are you alright?"

"He'll be fine," Adela answered after a pause. "Both of you will be fine," she added as she took a quick glance at Kiani's bleeding shoulder. "C'mon, let's go, we can figure everything out - "

And then, screaming. God, where was he?

Adela turned back to them frantically. "Can you two fight?"

Aristide turned to her quickly, his field of vision blurring around her face. "Can't you?"

"Yes," Kiani said over him with a confused glare. "We'll follow your lead, Adela."

More walking. More screaming. God, he was so tired. Everything blurred, the moss into fields of grass, with two animals howling at each other, and - oh. Those weren't animals. Those were the screaming tributes.

"Kosmin, please!" the girl from Five - Kendra - yelled. "Kosmin, it's me!"

Kosmin was looming over her, bleeding from the machete cuts all over his body, but none of them were lethal. All superficial, like they weren't meant to kill him. Kendra's, Aristide realized. Aiming to stop, not kill.

The animalistic growl that came out of Kosmin's throat told him that he saw things very differently than she did.

"I can take care of both of them," Aristide whispered roughly, brandishing his spear and stepping forward.

"No," Kiani said slowly. "No!" she yelled, running past him and elbowing him back.

As the force of her elbow knocked Aristide to his feet and Adela rushed beside him, they could only watch as Kiani rushed behind Kosmin and knocked him off his legs and pinned his arm to the ground.

As if she wasn't also profusely bleeding, Kiani turned to Kendra and did a once-over of her injuries. "Are you okay, Kendra? What's wrong with him?"

The girl from Five burst into tears, sobbing uncontrollably, shaking her head. That was when Kosmin turned to face Aristide and he got a good look at the boy from Five. He didn't remember much about him from the Capitol, but he remembered Kosmin was nice. Funny.

And he definitely didn't have yellow eyes.

Lycus had no other choice.

As Tegan softly snored, new tears staining her blotchy cheeks even in sleep, Lycus packed up the last of his things and took one last look at her. There was no point in denying the truth.

And the truth was, this was the best choice. This was the best choice for people like him when it came to people like her. He was always going to leave. He was never going to be there for her, no matter how much he wanted to be better. He knew it. Hell, she probably knew it. She was just too good to call him out on it.

Maybe Tegan was better off without him, Lycus thought as he turned away from her, away from their little spot on the sandy enclave and toward the lights of the pier in front of him. At least this way, she could see it coming. It wouldn't be a blindside like him leaving her to die in a fight, or to get eaten by a mutt.

No, he was giving her a notice. A one-sleep notice. She was better off this way.

For a second, Lycus almost believed his own lies. As if Tegan wouldn't wake up in tears, distraught. As if she was capable of staying alive on her own - she just wasn't. People like her weren't cut out for the Games.

So then he came to terms with the real truth - this was better off for him. Lycus wouldn't have the dead weight. The constant tears, the constant sadness, the constant confusion. There it was. All his cards were on the fucking table.

Lycus Malvo fucking sucked, and he knew that. And he hated that. But he couldn't change it. Old habits didn't die hard - they didn't die at all. And leaving people when they needed it most? Lycus had that down a to a fucking tee.

As his footfalls went from sandy trudges to more solid steps on the wooden surface of the pier, Lycus sighed in relief. He hated the sand. It was so inconsistent, so unpredictable. The noise of it, even, bothered him.

He frowned. Why was he still hearing the sound of the sand?

Whirling back, he saw it. An octopus, maybe three feet tall, walking on two of its tentacles like legs. "Stay the fuck away from me."

It laughed.

The sound of its haughty laughter made him annoyed at first, but quickly that shifted to horror. Because slowly, the sound of its laughter became an orchestra of squishing, squelching octopus laughter and sandy, suctioned steps as dozens of octopi emerged behind it.

He hated himself for what he did next. Because he didn't deserve it - he was a bad fucking person and he didn't deserve mercy or pity or anything. But it was his only chance.

"Tegan!" he yelled at the top of his lungs as he pulled his cleaver off of his belt. "Tegan, help!"

It all happened so fast.

Tegan's eyes flashed open to the sound of her own voice - something about the gnawing sadness in her heart and the paranoia swarming in her mind suddenly made her a light sleeper - and she was up in seconds.

Back home, her mom used to have to physically shake Tegan to get her out of bed. "It's like I'm raising the dead," her mom would complain to her dad over breakfast, and Tegan would roll her eyes as they teased her and ruffled her hair as she stuffed another mouthful of pancake in her mouth.

Her mom would shake her head and laugh some more. "Not even like raising the dead - it's like I'm trying to give life to a slab of rock!"

"Surely, it's not that bad," her father would interject, chuckling.

"Marty, I'd love to see you try to get this child up and operational for school. I truly would love to see you accomplish that instead of doing the good ol' crossword. Yeah? How about we trade? I'm pretty good at crosswords."

And they'd laugh, and Tegan would promise to try to be less irritating to wake up in the morning, and she really did try, but nothing ever came of it. It was always like waking the dead, she supposed.

Crazy what pure fear could do to someone.

"Tegan, help!"

Frantically, she scanned around her, and - Lycus was gone. Well, that made sense seeing as Lycus was the one screaming. But before Tegan got her knife and ran to meet him, to help, to save him, Tegan realized something else.

He had been gone. None of his stuff was here. He was planning to be gone - for good.

There was a dark second where Tegan wondered if she should stay here. Or leave, but leave in the opposite direction. For herself. To think for herself, and not for people who didn't actually care about her. Like Adaire and Rion, killing each other. Like Lycus, leaving her.

But that just wasn't who Tegan was raised to be. It wasn't who she was.

Not yet, at least.

"Lycus!" she yelled, running blindly in the sand and towards the sound of his voice. "Lycus, where are you!"

"Here! The pier! Tegan, please hurry!"

And then she saw him - and all of them. Humanoid little octopus creatures crawling and walking and slithering around Lycus, the suction cups on their tentacles tinged with spikes. And the sand around Lycus, tinged with his blood.

And she ran into the fray, knife brandished.

It was like she fell asleep and someone else woke up inside her, took control of her limbs and went berserk. Because Tegan Rask - the one that scored a 2 in training - couldn't crack mutt skulls, screaming and yelling, like she was doing now.

But as she swung and buried the knife all the way to the hilt in yet another octopus's abdomen, Tegan realized it wasn't someone else - it was something else that was bubbling out of her.

This was rage. This was her fucking upset that everyone was so keen on hurting each other and killing people they were supposed to care about and abandoning people they were to be protecting. And Tegan wasn't stupid - it wasn't ever going to be forever. It wasn't even for a week, probably.

But it hadn't even been two full fucking days and everyone she knew had already gone out of their way to leave her to rot. She wasn't a self-pitying person, but here, Tegan couldn't help but call the truth what it was.

Ridiculous. They were being fucking ridiculous.

"Are you kidding me!" she yelled as the last octopus went limp in her hand, its blood splattered across her uniform. "Are you kidding me! You couldn't even say goodbye? You were just going to leave me to get eaten or murdered or worse, and - "

"Tegan, I'm - "

"Do not interrupt me," Tegan seethed, wiping a stray out of her face, staining her forehead with blood as she did. "I am tired of being left behind, Lycus. I am tired of these stupid lies and these stupid games, and I am tired of all of you."

She paused, her breath rugged and uneven. "If it were me instead of you out here, would you have come to get me?"

Lycus looked away.

"You want me to be honest?"

"For once in your fucking life, yeah," Tegan answered, a pleading desperation intermingling with the rhythmic war drum in her voice. "Do your best not to let lies slip through your pearly whites."

"Before this, no. I wouldn't have thought you were worth it."

Now Tegan looked away, refusing to let him see the tears that were welling up in her eyes. "And now?"


"And why am I worth it now, huh? Because you owe me? Because I saved your life and your twisted fucking morals hold that in higher value than someone's life to begin with?"

He shook his head. "Tegan, I'm not - I'm not like you. Adaire, Rion, and I were never like you. We're not - I'm not a good person. They weren't good people. It never had to do with lives or what was right."

"Then what? What's changed now?" she seethed, the hot and angry tears streaming down her face freely. As soon as Lycus shifted his weight, she growled: "Don't you dare lie to me again."

"You're capable. Strong enough to be… to be an advantage to keep on my side." She'd never heard his voice so small.

So afraid.

At that moment, something snapped in Tegan Rask. Because if the people around her were going to sacrifice their souls to get out of this arena, if they were going to make deals with the devils inside of them to live, how could she possibly stay alive if she didn't do the same?

She had no choice. Mom, dad, she thought, the voice inside her head much frailer than the voice she yelled at Lycus with. Please forgive me. I'm sorry for who I'm going to become. Who I have to become. Please forgive me.

Tegan swallowed shakily before nodding. "Well, that settles that, I guess," she murmured, turning around and walking away from the pier, careful not to step on the octopus guts all around her.

She turned back to Lycus with a blank face. A tearless face. "Are you coming or not?"

howdy fellas

Do y'all remember when I said "the next chapter will definitely be shorter. Definitely." Yeah, me neither! Anyway. Hope y'all had fUnnN with this because i definitely did! i've been studying straaaaight for my physics final toomoooorrrowww so this was a nice break!

As always, shoutout to the creator(s) of the tribute(s) that died this chapter - I really appreciate your submission and you following the story and hope you stick with us hehe!

Which three tributes do you think are in the most danger right now! I'm clearly running out of creative questions

anYwaY i put up a poll for which three tributes you think are going to be in the FINAL THREE O_O_O_O_O_O_O obvs just doing this for fun but i'd luv O_O for some O_O feedback

Speaking of,,, feedback,,, i luv me a good ol' review if you're keen O_O

Anyway! See y'all soon!