Calling All The Monsters
Night Two

This wasn't part of the plan.

As trees blurred past her, her legs sprinting and pounding against the forest floor with a mind of their own, Anders barely saw anything. Hell, if someone walked five feet in front of her with a fucking gun pointed at her, she wouldn't have flinched.

None of the world around her felt real - only the mantra chanting in her head. This wasn't part of the plan. We haven't talked about this. This wasn't part of the plan. We never planned for this.

This is my fault. My fault, my fault.

Always my fault.

God, if she had just been better, if Anders had just fucking played the part and not fucked up all the fucking time, maybe their perfect, crystalline plan wouldn't be filled with cracks and breaks, on the brink of shattering.

And Anders was a lot of things, but she wasn't naive. Never the fucking dimwit - not like Kiani or Adela or fucking Nasali back in One. She didn't have the privilege to twirl her hair and let the world melt behind those curls, those protective strands of strawberry-blonde.

So she knew without a shadow of a doubt that this was her fault. That every misstep, every mistake, every error had been hers - Khiron had been picture-perfect, as usual. Measured, careful, brilliant.

He deserved better than her.

Even the fucking voice in her head that talked her down, talked her back to the world of swinging vines and branches and roots around her, was Khiron's. "Stop saying that," he'd groan, rolling his eyes. "You're so dramatic, Android - give me a fucking break."

And when she persisted, frantic, scared - god, how long had it been since fear gripped her so powerfully? How long since she created a mask that she glued so tight to her face she convinced herself it was her own skin? - Khiron would stay with her. "Hey, hey. Look at me. We've got this, alright? You and me - we can do anything. We can fix anything."

"We can fix anything," Anders echoed aloud, wiping away tears she didn't even know she was shedding. "Khiron can fix anything."

And nothing was broken - not yet. All Anders knew right now was that there was an explosion, and there was a cannon, and then silence. No Aristide, no Adela. She fucked that up, too. Couldn't even catch a six-foot giant and a mane of reckless, traitorous, good-for-fucking-nothing brown hair. They could catch them - Anders would fucking fix them.

Maybe she hadn't been perfect as of late, but she would be perfect with the fucking rebels. She would make everything perfect once more.

So as she reached the edge of the clearing of the Cornucopia (a true fucking miracle that she managed to find her way here amidst the swamp of bitter thoughts and self-directed insults whirling in her mind) with a newfound sense of redemption, Anders mustered on a smile.

For the cameras, sure, but mostly for Khiron. To show him that she was alright - that they'd be alright.

When Anders noticed that the uniform tatters cascading down from the sky were purple, her smile broke. When she saw the clumps of - of meat and blood and brown hair that painted the ground red, something inside of her broke, too.

As Anders emptied her tear ducts and her stomach for what felt like fucking hours, the mantra returned. It was relentless, endless, deafening. Later - sooner than you'd think - there would be screaming and plotting and swears of vengeance and lots and lots of crying, but now there were only the words dancing in her head. Reminding her. Punishing her for her crimes.

This is my fault. This is my fault. This is my fault. This is my fault. This is my fault.

This wasn't going to end well.

As much as Kiani wanted to bring something good and happy into the world to karmically counter the carnage and pain she just brought onto Khiron, onto Anders, she knew that shit wasn't going to go down like that.

But Kiani was a lot of things and realistic and grounded weren't exactly her speed, you know? That was why she was here, with her allies a good ten yards behind her and a rabid boy-thing (not to be confused with a boy-toy) a foot away from her.

And it was more than just sporadic energy and opportunities for gallows humor that brought her here - it was hope. A quiet, tiny flicker of hope to be a part of something good and happy and worthwhile. That was what drew her to the pair from Five (aside from the conversation that didn't make her wanna stick her hand in a blender for a couple of minutes).

They were good people. Maybe you couldn't see it now, with the feral look in Kosmin's eyes and the foam bubbling out of his mouth, or the fear and panic and rage that simmered behind the pain in Kendra's face, but Kiani remembered.

Victors back home always talked about their lives flashing in their eyes during close calls or whatever, but Kiani wasn't really thinking about herself.

In that split second, Kiani went back, back to the training center where the clumsy, kooky boy from Five gave her a lop-sided grin as they sat at the edible flowers section. Back to the interview room, where the same boy welcomed her with warm eyes in spite of the deathmatch that was edging so, so close. Back to the train, where she watched as Kosmin Noakes proclaimed his love for one Kitsey Balfe.

And in that moment, Kiani smiled as she lived out the precious moments she'd gotten to share with someone good. Someone worthwhile. Someone who deserved so, so much better than this.

And she said goodbye.

"Kendra, we have no choice," Kiani yelled hurriedly, slashing her machete to hold Kosmin back. The boy from Five - what was left of him, anyway, growled with such malice that Kiani knew: there was no coming back from this. Kosmin was gone.

Kendra shook her tear-stained face. "I - there's no way - "

With a swift kick, Kiani sent Kosmin barreling to the ground, his head thudding against a stray rock. Fucking finally, Aristide and Adela stepped up, pinning Kosmin to the ground with the hilt of their weapons. "Kiani?" Adela called out, something akin to confusion laced with panic in her voice.

Raising a hand in her general direction, Kiani stayed trained on Kendra. On Kendra, who once upon a time was filled with fire and life and lightning. There was no spark in her eyes now - just cold, cold fear. "Kendra, that's not him. Do you hear me? That's not him. He's not coming back, he's not getting better."

"You don't know that," Kendra whispered back, her voice defeated and wavering and so sad. "You can't know that."

Pulling Kendra into a hug, Kiani closed her eyes to stop the tears that slipped out anyway as the girl from Five sobbed so hard in her arms that she shuddered. The life was draining out of her, leaving behind the void that Kiani had seen so often back in Two. Trainees who saw too much, who watched their friends die in a fucking recap on the daily.

It was what made her quit when the Academy picked her the first time. This moment, these tears. It was too much for her then, just like the constant fighting and berating and pressure from her parents and everyone she fucking knew was. Kiani had figured that this would be easier for her to overcome than a lifetime of being a pariah, a failure.

Now, she realized she'd been wrong.

When the sobs finally subsided and Kendra found the strength to pull away, to stand on her own again, she still had to use Kiani's eyes as a crutch. She wouldn't - couldn't - look at him. Hearing him growl was too much, already.

God, she couldn't do this. Kendra couldn't fucking be here - they were fine two hours ago and now Elorah was gone and Venezia was gone and Kosmin was gone and where was she?

Why was she still here?

"Do you want me to do it?" Kiani whispered quietly, just loud enough to graze Kendra's ears.

Yes. A cacophony of voices echoed in her mind begging, yelling, for her to concede. She'd spent a lifetime of fending for herself - maybe it was finally time to let someone else fend for her.

But something wouldn't let her. And not even just obstinance - loyalty. This wasn't about Kendra, or about any of the fucking Careers around her. This wasn't about how this would impact the Games or their lives or fucking any of it.

This was about Kosmin, and for every second that Kosmin made her smile and feel at-home and safe and somehow fucking happy, Kendra owed him. She'd never be able to repay him in full, she knew that.

Because even though they never said the words, it'd always been Kendra's job to protect him. To protect them all. And she failed them all - Elorah, Kosmin, even fucking Venezia. But Kosmin stung the most because she could've stopped it. Should've stopped it.

This was the least she could do. It was the only thing she'd ever be able to do.

"No," Kendra said, her voice shaky and cracking but not broken. She cleared her throat. "No. This is my job."

Kiani caught her arm as Kendra took the smallest step forward. "Kendra, if you're not - "

"I have to," Kendra cut her off, the desperation in her voice clear to the thousands of people watching, but clearest to the girl in front of her. It was only now that Kendra realized Kiani was crying, too. "He was my friend, Kiani. I have to."

With a small nod and a sniffle, Kiani was out of the way. There was a second where Kendra almost called her back because it was too much now - his face was too real, and the thought was too real.

Another step forward took her ages, but she took it. One after another, until she was right in front of him. The growls had subsided, but the yellowness in his eyes persisted. The foam was relentless. There was no chance.

Kendra supposed there never had been a chance.

"I'm so sorry, Kos," she whispered, dropping the knife and caressing his face, wiping a line of blood off of his eyebrow, pushing a stray lock of hair out of his eyes.

The boy from Two - Aristide - stirred. "Listen, I don't know if that's - "

Behind her, Kiani shook her head. "Aristide."

But Kendra hadn't really heard the whole encounter - she didn't really hear anything. Nothing outside of the weak whine that slipped out of Kosmin's mouth. The hum of pain and desperation that flitted beyond his lips.

"I am so sorry," she whispered as her hands found the cool plastic of her knife's hilt. "I'm so sorry, I'm so sorry, I'm so - "

And then the cannon.

Instinctively, her hands flew to her ears and her eyes slammed shut because Kendra just couldn't take any more. She couldn't see the way his body slumped, she couldn't hear his last breath, she just couldn't be here anymore.

She'd pleaded and begged that her words would drown out the cannon, that her thoughts and wishes could drown out the world around her, but no. Kendra was still there.

Even with the three people around her, their voices garbled and muted behind the iron grip her hands had on her ears, Kendra had never in her life felt more terribly, horribly alone.

For the first time pretty much all day, Deidra spoke to him when they reached the crossroads between biomes. "Beach or orchards - you have a preference, Em?"

Em. That used to be so affectionate, so warm. This was the girl that sat down with him and Isobel and saw him, the girl who wrote with his pen instead of chatting away to give him a second of normalcy, of conformity.

Now, the nickname was just… efficient, maybe. Like saying the rest of his name was a luxury that Deidra couldn't afford. Like he wasn't worth the oxygen that she was storing for winter or some shit.

Emeric had half a mind to tell her to stop, that he didn't want to hear that name, that little syllable, anymore. But if he was being honest, that didn't feel worth it to him. He and Deidra weren't friends, acquaintances, anything. She was just someone who kept watch while he slept.

Full transparency, Emeric had spent a lifetime doing everything to make everyone else's lives easier because he was such a burden to be around. Smiling wider so no one had to question how he was feeling, disappearing when someone threw a pointed glance his way.

He wasn't stupid - Emeric knew that odds were his days, hours, minutes were counting down. And knowing that his time was ticking down made him realize how little he'd lived for himself. So even if it was just Deidra and even if it put more strain on their alliance, Emeric was sick of trying to make his existence bearable for other people. She could fucking deal.

They barely talked, anyway - why did it matter what she called him?

"Orchards," Emeric scribbled on his pad, nodding away from the sandy dunes to their left. "Maybe there'll be fruit."

Deidra turned away from him as soon as she could. I'm so fucking sorry you have to look at me to understand me. My fucking bad. "Sure."

The sight of Deidra walking away from him as she led the way into the bushy orchards was one that Emeric used to fear. Just hours ago, that fear of being abandoned like they'd done to Luca, like people had done to Emeric for his entire life starting with his good-for-fuck-all biological parents, gripped him as he slept and in every step he took.

It was like he was chasing them, begging them to see that he was worthy of keeping. But now, Emeric felt nothing. He felt nothing as he stopped to bend over and retie his shoes and the distance between them blossomed.

Deidra didn't even notice.

For a moment, the idea of letting her go on, letting her get lost on her own was appealing. There was no way that this loud-mouthed creature could possibly be as well-versed in isolation as he was. It could've been justice, really. A sentence against Deidra for all the crimes that anyone had ever committed against him.

But something called him up, something made him get and jog back behind her. Not friendship or loyalty or anything that might've brought him back in Nine - no. Not even that fear of being alone.

Something darker called him. Practicality. There was no use in letting Deidra go scot-free, right? It was clear that Deidra (just every fucking ally that had looked Emeric in the eyes and told him they hoped he'd win if they didn't) was in this for herself and didn't give a flying fuck what happened to Emeric so long as she got further.

So maybe it was time for Emeric to do the same. To take advantage, to step on people that didn't know what the bottom of a boot felt like.

Glaring at the back of her head, Emeric nodded to himself. At the first sign of trouble, Emeric would be gone. And more than that - Deidra would be here, still. Surrounded. Cornered. Terrified. With who she'd become, she deserved it.

Watch your step, Deidra.

In a twisted way, Lycus got exactly what he had asked for.

After a silent, tear-free night, he'd woken up to a different person keeping watch. The Tegan that either dozed off on her watch or disappeared to cry in the woods on her own was no more - the girl he woke up to now was wide awake. Tired, empty, broken, but effective, nonetheless.

But he couldn't relish this change. He wasn't proud of himself, he wasn't patting himself on the back. This wasn't what he wanted - he just wanted her to stop crying, and when that didn't feel plausible, he just wanted to be on his own. Nothing against Tegan, nothing to make her any less of a person than she was before.

And Lycus would be lying to you if he said that the girl in front of him wasn't less alive than the vibrant girl from Eight he'd met just a week ago. No, this girl in front of him looked sharper but was missing the life that'd been so deeply safeguarded by her spirit.

Her eyes were glassy, empty. Her words weren't filled with the same hope, and the absence of it didn't bring sadness or anger, nothing. Tegan Rask forfeited herself in front of his eyes, and it was because of him.

Lycus wished he could take it back.

So when his eyes opened to Tegan staring back at him, knife in hand, Lycus looked away. "Hey."

"You should get up soon," Tegan answered, turning away from their camp on the sandy beach. "Before the octopi come back."

Lycus shivered at the memory of the endless army of tentacles and the weird fucking suction cups that drained the blood from his skin, stealing a glance at the bloody circles that dotted his skin. But more than that, he shivered at the memory of Tegan, hot, angry tears spilling over her eyes as she butchered that endless army to tatters.

Because in that moment, Tegan wasn't just Tegan. She was Elorah, swaying from side to side in the gore and guts of the octopi corpses surrounding her. She was his sister Ciara, painting the tan sand with reddish-purple blood before turning the blood onto herself, making herself into a bloody mural.

Everyone wanted to go home (that wasn't exactly Panem's best-kept secret). But Lycus didn't just wanna go home and hug his family - he wanted to apologize. He wanted to apologize to the Hagans for ruining their goddamn lives, for not protecting their daughter like he could've.

He wanted to apologize to his sister for all the long nights where she'd stay up, wondering if that night was finally the night the Peacekeepers or some other dealer or just fucking karma caught him.

For so long, Lycus never had anything to say - he was more than happy to let his thoughts stay quiet, unvocalized, maybe tucked away for later. And now that his life had a clock attached to it, well. It was impossible not to play what if.

He shook his head. He was done playing games.

"I'm sorry, Tegan," Lycus whispered, forcing himself to look at her. To show her the tears, the pain, the regret. "I'm so - "

"Honestly, Lycus," she interrupted, her voice laced with not malice but sadness, "it's fine."

Every part of him wanted to stare at his hands, or at the beach, or anything besides Tegan, but he forced himself to be seen. Forced his sorry, sorry self to be seen for the absolute worthlessness that he was. "You could've died because of me."

Tegan shook her head. "If I died, it would've been because of me. Because I chose to be there."

She paused, rubbing the tips of her fingers into her temples. "And that's what I'm starting to put together, you know? Everything that happens to someone - it's because of them. You own everything you do. And it comes back. Rion, and," she cleared her throat weakly, " - and Adaire, they died because of each other, sure, but also because of themselves. They killed themselves just as much as they killed each other. Just as much as the Careers killed them."

"And what's that mean for us?" he asked, hating the way his voice wavered and cracked but not stopping. He didn't have the right to stop.

Tegan didn't miss a beat, acknowledging neither his tears nor his weakness. "It means there is no us. There's me, and what I need to do and what I need to live with, and there's you, and the same for you."

Sitting up, Lycus breathed shallowly, blinking away the stars that blurred his vision. "And that's that?"

"And that's that. Here's your machete."

And with that, they were off. Not silently, thankfully. There was this version of Tegan in Lycus's head that shut him out entirely, that hated him so much that she killed him in his sleep. And in that version of Tegan was also Elorah, her brothers, their fucking kids. Ciara. They took turns, passing the knife between them and yelling at him for everything, everything, every-

Lycus jerked his head sharply, willing the nightmares to stop bleeding into the day.

"Lycus." Tegan's voice was mostly steady with the newfound gravity it'd picked up last night, but Lycus had spent his life living in squalor and fear - he could hear panic a mile away. Horror, terror. It was like a dog whistle to him.

"I'm fine," he said instinctively, inhaling sharply and trying to steady his breathing afterwards. "I'm alright, it's just - "

"What?" Tegan turned back, confusion bleeding into the - yup, there it was - panic that had invaded her eyes. "No, I was - there's - there's someone there. I don't - there's someone there."

Peering over the sandy hill in front of them, Lycus saw them, too. He didn't know their names, didn't know who they were. But looking at Tegan, seeing the fear and panic and understanding in her eyes, Lycus knew a lot of things that were undoubtedly true.

First, he knew that the girl he first met, the girl who was so full of life, so excited to see the world and meet new people and just be, that girl was still there. If only in that moment of fear that poured out from her eyes, she was still there. Tegan was still alive.

Second, he knew what had to happen. The mutts were a warning sign as much as they were a punishment for his betrayal. The Gamemakers weren't known for making multiple warnings.

And lastly, he knew that Tegan knew, too. Without either of them putting the question into words, the answer floated between them in the pain in their eyes, in the fear that had spread from Lycus's head like bacteria and infested hers.

"Tegan - "

"I know," Tegan whispered, nodding and closing her eyes and trembling, but still nodding. "I know."

The orchards were trying to feel like home.

To be honest, Deidra hadn't spent much time in the fruit orchards - she was lucky enough to have never needed to work there. And that was exactly how her mother had always phrased it to her.

"We can afford not to, so we don't," she'd say simply as she combed Deidra's hair.

"I could always start working there, you know? Help put some more food or clothes - "

"We don't need anymore, baby," her mother would say, not interrupting her per se, but not entertaining the thought of letting Deidra leave her side at the cafe. "We're pretty good as is, right? Or am I getting too borin' for you to handle?" she'd coo, pinching her cheek and shaking her up before getting back to combing.

Even so, Deidra saw the fields from afar enough to pick out the differences from home and this… this shoddy replica. The orchards here weaved different fruit breeds together seamlessly - oranges and raspberries and grapes side by side. In harmony.

Harmony wasn't a commodity of interest back home. Efficiency, order, discipline. That was how the people of Eleven operated, and that manifested in neat rows of oranges, entirely disjunct from the grapes, miles away. And all of these orchards were even further away from the neighborhoods, the town square.

Separating your work from your life was a necessity because as soon as that hardship infected the little moments of joy - already so far and few between - there wouldn't be a reason to be alive. Breathing, eating, sleeping - all just motions without meaning.

Deidra never believed in that bullshit until now. Now, as she turned her back from Emeric - nice, sweet, soft Emeric - because she couldn't afford any more hurt to bleed into her real life. Her real life, waiting out of here, which could never, ever have Emeric be any more than a distant memory.

Forgetting him now would just make things easier down the road. Torrance - god, even thinking his name hurt her - already made her dreams so vivid, so painful. She couldn't take any more.

Silently, Deidra prayed that Emeric could find it in him to forgive her. She prayed that she was worth his forgiveness.

In the next couple of minutes, she would learn that she was not.

A branch snapped behind her, and even with how deep in wallowing Deidra was, she jumped. Whirling behind her, knife brandished, eyes crazed. That was who she'd become - every crack, creak, anything terrified her.

Because if she'd been just a little faster, a little more decisive or proactive or realistic when Shoal and Aristide attacked the first time, Torrance might still be alive. And they'd be tired and Torrance would still be hurt from that arrow in his shoulder, but they'd all be alive.

That was Deidra's fault. Her watch, her job, her failure. She wouldn't let that happen again.

"Did you hear that?" she whispered frantically, her eyes methodically training on the leaves of the orchard as they swayed behind her. "That branch?"

Emeric scrunched his eyebrows together. "I didn't hear anything, D."

"I swear," she started, but stopped herself. Get yourself together. "Nevermind. Sorry for the - you know." Deidra sighed, waving her hands in the air before running them through her hair nervously. "The dramatics."

With a tight-lipped smile, Emeric shrugged. "Happens to the best of us," he wrote, offering a solemn nod that Deidra only allowed herself to see for a second. He's just a memory - a memory in the making. He can't be more. I can't let him be more.

But it wasn't that easy. Deidra had been doing alright so far, but she wanted nothing more than to stop this bullshit, to quit all this acting and hug her friend, talk to her friend, be with her friend. Because she didn't have any other friends left. Isobel died. Torrance died. Luca was - well, he was somewhere, but there was no telling if he'd even speak to her. Maybe he'd try to kill her.

Emeric was all she had left, and she was ignoring him.

Who had she become?

That was when the footsteps pounded from behind them.

There was no mistaking it now, no doubt in her mind about what she needed to do. As Tegan and Lycus burst out of the orchard, weapons drawn, Deidra wasn't caught like a deer in the headlights - not this time. Not again.

They were ready, Emeric and her. They were ready, and they could take them, and -

And then Emeric knocked the air out of her from behind, burying his elbow into her neck.

As Deidra fell to her knees before twisting and landing on her back, she watched as her last friend ran from her, pumping his feet against the orchard floor with his back turned to her.

Just like hers had been turned to him. When he needed her most, Deidra had been nothing. A cold shoulder. A stony face. Nothing.

Deidra didn't have it in her to be mad. She didn't have the right to be mad. Because when it came down to it, she understood. In his shoes, she might've done the exact same thing. In fact, she knew she'd do the exact same thing. She did it to Luca.

She deserved this.

There was no fight - at least not one that Tegan and Lycus were involved in.

As soon as the girl from Eleven - Deidra - turned heel to face them, Emeric was on her in seconds. He didn't strike to kill - just to bring to the ground. Like cutting the fins off a fish and letting it flop around, hopeless, aimless, soon-to-be lifeless.

And Tegan knew that the smart thing to do - and that was all Tegan could afford to think about now, the smart thing - was to take the easy kill and keep going. Maybe they'd catch Emeric later, maybe he'd be wounded, too. Like a vulture, or a hyena, or whatever.

But watching Deidra hit the ground and watching Emeric run away, probably fucking smug with the slick little move he just pulled, Tegan saw everything at once. She saw Adaire throwing Rion to the ground, Rion clipping her heel to bring her down with him, Lycus leaving her to die.

And as all of those memories coalesced into the boy from Nine running with his fucking tail between his legs, Tegan felt her body shake but not in fear - in pure, unadulterated anger. The edges of her vision blurred with hot tears, and that was it.

Tegan wished that she could say that her body did more. She wished that she saw red or that she fucking blacked out or went full werewolf or some shit, but that wasn't what happened.

What did happen: Tegan ignored the smart thing to do as she sidestepped Deidra's helpless frame on the floor. She ignored Lycus's yells that tried to reason with her, tried to bring her back down. She ignored the part of her that was terrified about what she knew she was about to do.

And without too much trouble at all, Tegan Rask tracked Emeric down, growling like a mutt and screaming rancidly and swinging mercilessly as she tackled him to the ground.

"Who do you think you are, huh? Who do you think you are, and why the fuck do you think your life is worth any more than your friend's, huh? What was the point? Why did you fucking ally with anyone just to try to kill them? How are you going to live with yourself, huh?" she barked, slamming her fist into his cheekbone as the boy from Nine whimpered.

"Are you fucking crying? You don't deserve to cry! You don't deserve anything but exactly what's coming to you," she seethed, ramming her knee into his stomach and sending him into another silent cry.

That was when Lycus's hands found hers, peeling her off the bloodied and battered boy from Nine, and that was when she could finally hear anything but her own acidic words. "Teags, hey, Tegan. Breathe with me - in, yeah, you've got it. Tegan?"

Tegan got it. Breathing in and out, the world was restored and everything just… stopped. And she saw again. She saw the way Emeric breathed with such pain because of what she'd done to him. She saw the blood smeared against her own knuckles - not her own. She saw the fear in Lycus's eyes.

And she began to cry.

"Shhhh," Lycus whispered, pulling her into his chest. "Hey, it's alright. I know - hey. Everyone knows what you've been through. This - this isn't you."

Raggedly, Tegan pulled herself away. "This was me," she breathed out shakily, swallowing with such effort she was sure she'd just fucking choke and die. Maybe it'd be easier that way. "This was me, and I have - I have to own that."

She shook her head, forcing herself to look again, to listen to Emeric's sharp and effortful breathing. No cannon.

Lycus followed her line of sight before clearing his throat and standing up. "I can handle this."

"No," Tegan whispered feebly, wincing at her own fragility. "No," she echoed again, stronger. "This was me, and I have to live with this. The blood should be on my hands."

"Tegan - "

Lycus kept talking, but the words descended to meaningless, garbled nonsense. As she knelt beside Emeric, it was the same as it'd been before - she could hear nothing but the sound of her own voice as she spoke to me.

But this time, Tegan's voice was much gentler. Sadder. Kinder, even. "I was wrong to say that before - I'm sorry," Tegan whispered, letting the tear roll down her cheek as she unsheathed her knife.

"You don't deserve this. I remember you - from before all this. You were always smiling. I always wanted - ," she inhaled sharply, hiccuping into her tears, " - always wanted to talk to you."

She paused, closing her eyes, both to shield herself from seeing what was about to happen and to try and remember what it was like to smile like that. Without a worry in the world.

"I'm so sorry, Emeric. You don't deserve this. I hope you don't think I deserve what's coming for me."

Tegan would never know for sure, but she swore that Emeric shook his head as she plunged her knife into his heart.

Corvin winced as Emeric Melor's face illuminated the night sky.

"I'm sorry, Luca," he offered solemnly, nodding to the boy from Three who just shrugged in response.

"Just how it goes," Luca returned, smiling weakly before averting his eyes. "It just - it sucks. Emeric was a good person, better than I'll ever be. He didn't deserve this."

"None of us do," Novie whispered, nodding quietly to Corvin as he wrapped around Luca from the other side and rubbed his neck.

Luca shrugged again. "Him least of all, then."

Silently, the three boys stayed in a sorta-halfway hug before breaking and returning to their trek out of the forest and into the train biomes, and it was almost comfortable.

For the better part of the day, it'd been like this - even amidst the cannons and the constant, looming threat of getting slaughtered, there was this aura of peace and easiness that floated between the three of them.

They'd been expecting tension after Nuria's death - Novie, especially. "We have to be careful with Luca," Novie had whispered hurriedly as Luca went off earlier to grab some water.

Corvin just shook his head. "He's just a kid, Nov."

"He could be an angry kid," Novie protested. "An angry kid who's always been on the bottom and is now keenly aware that he's on the bottom."

Corvin sighed. "It doesn't have to be so - so calculated. So long as we make sure he knows that we're here for him even if we've been together longer, it should be fine, right? Not like anyone else would treat him better."

"He does have allies out there - somewhere."

"Allies that left him."

Novie shook his head. "You're telling me if it'd been Nuria and Luca on the ropes instead of me and Nuria, you wouldn't have left him, too?"

As usual, Novie won their little argument.

At least in the moment, Novie had won. Now, things were looking Corvin's way. Like Luca wasn't some scheming mastermind, just a sad, lonely kid. A kid who knew he didn't have much time left and just didn't wanna be alone again in his last moments.

And if he was being honest with you, Corvin was there, too. Sure, he was bigger and stronger and probably had more sponsors than Luca, but Corvin wasn't dumb. There were still thirteen beating hearts in the arena, and at least three of those belonged to Careers. Pardon the cliche, but the odds weren't exactly in his favor, either.

So all Corvin could ask for - all any of them could ask for - was to die with people that mattered to them. To die with someone around them that could carry on some memory of them, however skewed and tiny.

Not that they'd be the only ones. There'd be his mother, his father, Trix. His mother, who'd never quite been able to swallow the pill that he fought people for money, his father who'd learned to accept the risk and the danger for a chance for all of them to be happy.

And Trix, who, as sad as it made him now, he realized he'd seen bits of in Nuria. Brazen, always picking fights she couldn't win, always promising to stop picking those fights because Corvin inevitably would get involved and have to punch some people sans pay.

"Listen, call it a friend tax, yeah? Like I put up with," she paused, motioning in his general direction, "all of that, and you smack a couple fuckers for me every now and then. Deal?"

Corvin rolled his eyes. "Fuck you."

Trix smirked. "That'll cost you extra."

And he'd let her fall to her death.

Corvin shook his head, correcting himself sternly in his head. Not Trix. Nuria. Not the same. You just did what you had to do… had to… had to do. No choice, really. Novie or Nuria, no choice. Just gut instinct. God, Nuria, I'm so, so -

Novie turned to him and tugged on the sleeve of his uniform, frowning. "All good?"

Gingerly, Corvin swallowed, letting his hand find Novie's arm for balance. "Yeah, just - I don't know."


Corvin averted his eyes, and that was answer enough. Part of Corvin felt like he shouldn't win, that whoever did win should be able to live - really live - and he wasn't sure he could do that. Not with the nightmares that'd already started, not with the guilt that already plagued him during the day.

"Fuck, Corv," Novie whispered, brushing away a tear Corvin only half-registered as it fell out of his eye. "Hey, c'mere."

It almost felt wrong to feel safe in the arena, but as Novie pulled him into his shoulder, that was what it felt like. Like he'd been half-submerged since the gong rang, and finally, he found air again.

"I just wanna say," Luca called out from up on the hill, "that if our sponsors waste our money on condoms instead of - I don't know - drinkable water, I'm going to scream."

"This little shit," Corvin muttered as he untangled himself from Novie's arms.

"I wouldn't mind some water," Novie said nonchalantly, grinning as he nodded his head towards Luca and the pair found their way back to their last ally.

Luca smirked as they finally reached him again. "Hate to break up the Hallmark moment, but I was feeling left out y'know?"

With another easy round of laughs, they stepped up the hill and into the train station, elaborately decorated with electric panels, all showing the same illuminated dots all over the arena.

Trains - District Six, Corvin thought to himself. It almost felt dirty to keep this secret from the others, but Nuria'd made him swear, and now - now after all this time, telling them would feel dirtier somehow.

"Thirteen dots," Luca started.

"Thirteen tributes," Novie finished, nodding as the two made eye contact.

For the rest of his life, Corvin would never forget the sound of the voice that bellowed from the sewers underneath them. Malicious. Excited. Maniacal.

And so, so close.

"Soon to be twelve, sweethearts! Don't take it personally, loves, it's just show biz! Just the business! Just for fun! Oh, silly me - you won't be needing THESE!" it screeched now, louder and louder and louder to the point where Corvin almost didn't hear all of the doors slam shut, all of the screens and lights and lamps in their vicinity go pitch black.

One-by-one, the screens flickered back on, much dimmer than before, but in the absolute blackness, they might as well have been beacons. Each one read the same, just in a different color, until every surface - even the floor - was covered in the words.


In Seven, the Tamaya legacy was known for their bright smiles (shoutout to the family dentist, whitening strips, and floss) and their sharp minds, and with that second one came the implied sense of quiet, decisive ruthlessness that was part of the Tamaya bloodline.

And no one, not even patriarch Marlow Tamaya could even dream of having the cold-blooded, quick-acting opportunism that coursed through Novie's veins.

"You'll make a fine businessman one day, Nov," his father would say, the closest thing to affection that Novie had ever really gotten from his dad growing up. Not that it bothered him - if he was needing attention, Novie had plenty of desperate friends at his disposal. "Maybe even as good as me, huh?"

"Thanks, pops," Novie always answered, smiling in spite of the annoyance brimming under the surface. If you could just fucking die already, I could get started with my fucking dynasty.

It was that same harsh, meticulous opportunism that led Novie to the simple, emotionless conclusion that bubbled to his mind when the words started illuminating the panels, the ceiling, the floor.

When it came down to it, Novie's odds would never compare to Corvin's. He'd never be able to take him in the end - it was just a matter of choosing when to dispatch him and move on with this shit. He'd done it to Adaire, and that worked out just fine.

It was just another business decision, really.

"Luca…" Corvin whispered in his pathetic, shaky voice, his back turned to Novie and his arm outstretched to protect him. "Luca, I'm - you have to understand."

You see, Novie definitely saw the pros and cons here - Corvin would never hurt him, yadda, yadda, yadda.

But realistically, Corvin would have to. Sure, he was simping all over him right now, when that was an option. But when it was down to the wire, when it was time to decide who'd be standing in whose grave, Novie was certain that Corvin would choose himself. And his family back in Eight, the whole shebang.

"I - stop. Corvin, not another fucking step," Luca hissed, tears flaring in his eyes as he waved around his flimsy dagger that really looked pathetic as it faced off with the scythe that Corvin had pointed at him. "I'm not the enemy here - look at me! Look at me, Corvin! I'm never going to win. Never! I never had a chance! Stop - I could never, ever beat you. Stop, stop!"

Novie never missed a chance to move up in the world.

So when Corvin finally lunged forward, Novie moved with him, the cleaver in his hand not wavering for a second as it barreled towards Corvin's neck.


For a while, Luca tried to come up with something more substantial as to why Corvin's name left his mouth when it did, and ultimately, he always landed at the same answer.

It was Luca's instinct.

Not fear or strategy or anything else - just instinct that made Luca scream when the glint of metal emerged from Novie's jacket and towards Corvin's head.

Like obviously it wasn't strategy, right? Corvin was trying to make a kebab out of him, and still, he screamed his name. It wasn't compassion - the boy from Eight had been just kind enough not to kill him in his sleep like he'd more or less done to Nuria. Anything he could possibly come up with, he always shot down for one reason or another.

Just instinct and dumb, dumb luck.

As the yell pierced Corvin's ears, the boy from Eight - his ally, although it seemed like Luca was only good at finding ones that ended up wanting him dead - turned just in time for the cleaver to sink into his shoulder, not his neck.

And as Corvin turned, the blunt end of his scythe smacked Luca in the face instead of the blade. A nasty bruise, sure, but at least he was breathing.

And that was more than could be said for Novie.

Because when the cleaver missed its killshot on Corvin, something flared in his eyes. It was something Luca had never seen in him, but always quietly knew was there.

He saw it in the permanent cuts and scrapes and bruises that dotted Corvin's body from all the fights he'd won. He saw it in the way he subconsciously ran his hands against his calloused knuckles when he was nervous.

It was the same flare that Luca had seen every year from some of the Careers, from almost all of the killers, and always, always from the Victor.

It was Corvin's killer instinct.

And before the soft-spoken Corvin Gaer could really process what he was doing, his arm swung out, his muscles rippling as he launched Novie's wiry frame against the metal interior of the train station with a bang and a snap.

A lot of sounds happened at once. The bellowing voice from below came back, cackling and laughing and crowing maniacally. The echo of Novie's body slamming against the station's wall.

The cannon.

And then the doors sliding open.

Luca didn't hesitate. Before the doors had even fully slid open, his legs were pounding against the gravel, whisking himself as far, far, far away from the laughter and the body and Corvin's weeping.

"Oh, god, no, no, Novie - why - why did, fuck, Novie!"

Part of him wanted to feel bad for the bleeding heart that was Corvin, but another part of him would never, ever forget the way Corvin's eyes glinted as he stared him down, scythe pointed at his head. Or the way Corvin wouldn't look at him after letting Nuria plummet to her death. Or the way Corvin glared at him when Nuria first saved him from Bethan's grasp.

Spread your motherfucking wings, Corvin. Hope you crash and fucking burn.

As another cannon rang against the night sky, Han whistled. "That's three."

As they continued trudging across the new staticky biome they'd discovered once leaving the mess of cloth and fabrics behind them, Venezia simply nodded. "Glad to see the public education system taught you how to count."

Han frowned. "We didn't go to public school."

"Glad daddy's private school money taught you how to count," Venezia corrected, smiling lightly.

The pair from Six shared a little laugh, but the joy never permeated into either of their eyes. Venezia had been different since Han had saved her from the lizards - well not Han himself - but you get the point. Spacey. Tired.

And Han thought that was it - she'd clearly been through hell before the Gamemakers dropped a plague of cashmere mutts on her. She was just tired, probably.

When Kosmin's face lit up the sky and Venezia burst into non-stop, all-consuming tears - that was when Han realized it was more than just exhaustion and fatigue. It was guilt. The kind of guilt that weighed you down like an anchor and wouldn't unlatch until you'd long, long drowned.

Han just couldn't afford for Venezia to bring him down with her.

"Ven, do you wanna - I don't wanna pry, but do you wanna talk? About anything - we can talk about home, or - I don't know. Anything." He paused, scratching his head and opening his mouth to say more before stopping himself.

Venezia ran her hands through her hair as she smiled at him. A show smile, they called it back home. Convincing, but not quite the same as a real one.

"Yeah, and - thanks, Han, but can we rain check this? I just - I'm just tired, and," she paused, turning and squinting in the distance, "and there's a building over there, and we're - "

A voice cut her off. "It's a radio tower."

Before either of them could draw their weapons, the Rainbow Guard (as Han had affectionately come to call them) was surrounding them, ready to beat the shit out of whoever snuck up on them.

Peering just past Blue's chestplate, Han could make out a shock of blonde hair and a twirling arrow.

"Hi there. I'm Anders Andersson. Pleasure to meet you and… all of your friends."

More than anything else, Venezia had always been so careful.

There were certain thieves and beggars on the street that saw their predicament as a reason to play up risks - "nothing to lose!" - but Venezia saw it differently. It wasn't three strikes and you're out - it was one.

So even as her body trembled in rage and she so desperately wanted to sink a knife into the girl who slaughtered Elorah as they were running away from her, she stayed put. Venezia stayed safe, behind the soldiers that protected her.

"What do you want?" she growled, drawing her knife and sneering (as if the bitch could see her).

"I have a business proposal. And it's - well, I can't claim full credit for the proposal, exactly. Our mentors have done some colluding, I think. If you could come out and look - "

"Do you think we're fucking idiots?" Venezia barked, sharply aware of her heart pounding against her ribcage and the heat on her face soaring.

"Listen," Anders barked back, "if I wanted you dead, I could've killed you from fifty yards away."

Just as Venezia concocted some more venom to spew at the girl from One, Han stepped out from beyond their humanoid shield. "Alright, let's see it, then."

"Han, what are you doing?" Venezia hissed frantically. "Get back before she fucking spears the shit out of you."

"Glad one of you has a working brain," Anders glowered, stepping forward and rolling the arrow into Han's hand.

Peeking out, still well secured behind Green's body, Venezia stared as Elorah's killer and her district partner chatted, as Han examined the arrow that Anders probably would use to kill both of them. "What's this?"

"An arrow I just got from a sponsor gift. It has," she paused, taking the arrow from Han's hand and putting it up to his eyes, "trains on them. All six of them."

Han backpedaled. "And that's it? You thought this was a big message from all of our mentors that we're supposed to - what? Work together?"

Anders reached into her pocket, and it took every muscle in Venezia's body to stop her from booking it from the inevitable bang of a gun or thud of a knife that would echo through the arena as Anders killed Han.

But it didn't happen. Instead, she pulled out a slip of paper. "Find common ground and common enemies. You have many," Anders read aloud, letting the paper roll into Han's hands.

"So," the girl from One said, her eyes disturbingly even, calm, methodical. Almost mechanical.

"Let's chat."

"Congratulations, Ortega," Elari murmured as she wrapped an arm around him and rested her head on his shoulder. "Halfway there. Top twelve." She leaned in closer before saying the last words: "Almost free."

"We're going to be more than halfway soon," he answered, rubbing his eyes as he strained to focus on the screen again. God, how long had it been since he'd slept? Only two days, and it felt like a decade.

To be fair, he hadn't really ever slept soundly since he'd become Head Gamemaker, but that was more or less beside the point.

Elari hummed in agreement as Anders led the pair from Six and all of the Rainbow Guard into the radio tower. "Do you think she knows how to use it?"

Ortega smiled wryly at his wife. "I know we're simulating Three with this sector, but it really doesn't take a rocket scientist to figure out how to push a button, love."

"Let's rethink the tone, yeah, sweetie?" Elari teased back before shaking her head sadly. He could hear the thoughts flying around in her mind. How can we laugh when these kids are dying? God, that could be Levaya in ten years. This isn't okay, this isn't -

"My bad, El," Ortega echoed somberly, the little spark of happiness quickly fizzling out. He nodded as the girl from One took the microphone into her hand and pushed down on the button. "Let's see if she's figured it out, yeah?"

The entire studio recoiled as static feedback echoed across the arena as Anders daintilty tapped her pointer finger against the mic and cleared her throat. Han Delgado stepped out from beside her with an exasperated sigh. "It's already on, Anders."

She flicked him off as the rehearsed words flurried out of her mouth.

"Good evening, tributes. My name is Anders Andersson. Hate to wake you, but I just needed to get a message across - and if that doesn't pertain to you, mind your fucking business. Kiani, Aristide, Adela, and… Kendra. I'd like to speak with all of you. At the Cornucopia. Tomorrow, right at noon. Don't be late."

Anders brushed a stray hair angrily out of her eyes. "Say your goodbyes before you come."

howdy fellas! we're at the point in the games where i'll pretty much be able to touch up on every alliance/group in povs (each chapter before skipped out on sommeeeeone) and that's so EXCITING because we're ENDGAME BABYYYY. as always, thank you to the submitter(s) who lost the tribute(s) this chapter - these were really, really some of my faves :((

Have you voted in my poll yet? Vote on my poll! That's the question for this chapter.

now that you've voted in the poll,,, drop a review ahaha! love hearing from y'all just to hear from y'all at this point i miss talking to people that aren't my family owo

see y'all sooOOOOOOOn