As soon as the opening ceremonies are over and the chariots have retreated into the Training Center the prep teams and Cinna and Portia are there, extinguishing their capes and telling them how wonderful they were.
Erik has little patience for that. He's pretending to listen to them but he's scanning the crowd, trying to see the District 11 tributes through the growing din of noise and people. Effie and Haymitch arrive, too, trying to usher them upstairs already. Since they're District 12, their apartments until the games begin will be the top floor of the Training center's tower.
Erik spots them, finally, the first to get to the elevators with their teams. The boy from 11 is still hovering closely to the girl from his district as if willingly trapped in her orbit. He seems eager to get her away from the other tributes.
But he looks up, finally, as the elevator doors are closing. The walls of the elevator are crystal clear and the boy holds Erik's eyes even as it begins to move smoothly upward. He's frowning, as if he doesn't understand what's happening here any more than Erik does.
Then they're too high, out of sight, and Erik has to remind himself that they'll see the other tributes at training in the morning.
"You keep staring at him."
"No, he is staring at us."
"At you," Jean retorts with a mischievous grin.
Charles lets out a breath and tries to focus on the fire he's attempting to start. He and Jean are from the agriculture district of Panem, and they know what plants are edible without thinking twice. Jean is fast, and she can hide, and Charles does well enough with these things too. But there are other survival skills they'll need, if they want to stay alive and away from the other tributes. At the moment the plan is not to engage anyone in the arena unless they have to.
Not that he doesn't plan to try to learn a few combat skills while he can, in case he needs them.
Jean speaks up again. "The District 12 girl looks like she knows what she's doing. Like she knows how to survive outside."
"I don't know…just saying. I might go over there for a while." She nods to the knot-tying station where the trainer is showing the District 12 tributes a snare, and Charles frowns.
"We need to stay together."
"So come with me."
Charles looks at Jean, and then across the training gym to the District 12 tributes again. He has noticed that they're the only others besides himself and Jean who are staying together—with their district partner. The others are all training relatively on their own.
He's wondering if that means anything when the boy from 12 glances their way once more. When he sees Charles looking at him he quickly turns away again.
The tingle in Charles's spine is coming back.
Or maybe making itself known again. He doesn't think it was ever quite gone.
"Come on, following them around for a while can't hurt. We might learn something," Jean says.
"I don't know…" He's seen Jean watching the girl from 12, and he's afraid she'll want to make friends.
They can't do that.
"Well I'm going. You can come with me or not." Jean turns on her heel and start to move off, but Charles catches her arm.
"Wait, wait." He motions to the table in front of him and what they've been working on. "We do need to know how to do this. At least wait until we're finished here."
Jean sighs, but she doesn't try to pull away. "Okay, okay…"
When they've successfully lit a few fires by means other than matches Jean breaks off in the direction of the knot station, and Charles follows warily. He doesn't quite know what to expect when they join the two who are there.
To be quite honest with himself, whatever it is that happened last night…between himself and the boy from 12…it wasn't unpleasant but it scares him.
Erik can't help watching the District 11 tributes on the first morning of training. Within a few hours the dynamic between them is obvious, even from a distance—the sibling-like bond. They genuinely have something like what Haymitch wants him and Raven to be projecting, by staying together during training. But he and Raven are only doing it because Haymitch told them to.
The boy from 11 catches him looking once, Erik is sure. But then he and the girl join them at the knot-tying station not long after, to the delight of the trainer at having more students.
Erik isn't sure what to make of that, but then he sees the District 11 girl drifting near Raven and understands that the younger girl must have taken a liking to Raven. Maybe she liked their entrance in the parade, or saw their Reaping coverage, or simply noticed what Erik already knows—that Raven knows what she's doing. Erik saw the girl talking to her district mate plenty enough across the room but she's more quiet now, just working on knots and watching Raven work with the new snares she's learned.
Erik is left at the other end of the table with boy that's been on his mind since last night. It takes a while before he clears his throat and manages to say anything.
"Charles, isn't it?"
The boy blinks and only half looks up at him, and he's nearly a head shorter than Erik is but if he remembers correctly from the Reapings this boy is actually a year his senior.
"Yes…I'm sorry, I remember the District 12 coverage, but I'm afraid I don't remember your name."
"Erik." He doesn't bother with the last name. Most of them will be dead soon anyway; what does a last name matter?
Charles licks his lips again, like he did last night, and their eyes actually meet this time. The blue is even more startling at close range. "Well I can't exactly say it's good to meet you, considering where we are," Charles says then, one corner of his mouth quirking up.
Erik laughs once, because it seems like the thing to do. "Good point."
Charles actually chuckles a bit in return, and the strange in Erik's chest only intensifies. After that they lapse into absent conversation at times and it doesn't seem strange—which is in itself strange, but there it is. The four of them move from station to station, picking up what skills they can in the little time afforded to them.
At midday, when everyone is herded into the lunchroom off the gym, Charles looks for a moment like he might pull Jean away for the two of them to eat on their own—Erik has learned the girl's name by then—but he doesn't. Charles clutches at her arm for a moment but then he lets go, and all of them follow Raven to a table at the back of the room.
They're the only group that eats together that rivals the size of the group at the Career table. The Careers—1, 2, 4, and sometimes others by invitation, but not this year—are always a clan at the games. Most of the other tributes eat alone.
Haymitch wants them to appear friendly so Erik holds Raven in conversation through lunch, but it can't hurt that Charles and Jean are there, too, right?
Erik doesn't really care. He wants them there. He knows they shouldn't be doing this…they shouldn't be making other friends. He doesn't think even Raven is doing anything more than pretending.
But he watches Charles laughing at something Jean said, the way his eyes light up when he's amused and his hair falls into his eyes, and Erik can't help how he feels. He doesn't want the other boy anywhere but near him.
This can only go downhill, and he knows it.
Jean is still in his room after dinner on their floor is over. Their stylists and everyone else have left or gone to sleep they should be in bed. But the lights are on and Charles is staring out the plate window.
"Can we train with them again tomorrow?" Jean asks. She's on the edge of his bed, swinging her legs.
"Wasn't one day enough?" He can't get Erik's face out of his mind, and he knows the strange feeling in the pit of his stomach will only get worse if they continue to train with the District 12 tributes. He glances back at Jean and she only shrugs, but he can tell she wants to say something else.
She shrugs again, and there's silence for a while. Then she smiles and looks up at him, apparently over caring whether or not he wants to hear what she has to say. "You like that boy."
Charles scowls and turns back to the window. "What are you talking about? That's ridiculous."
"You were looking at him the way Sean and Moira look at each other. All day."
"I was not!"
"And he looked at you that way too. More maybe. No, definitely more. He definitely likes you."
"Stop, Jean. It doesn't matter."
"But he does!"
"Jean! Stop!" Charles spins around angrily, striding quickly back to where she is to face her. "Just stop! It's doesn't matter!"
"I'm sorry…" She looks hurt now, and he feels awful.
He drops to one knee in front of her, clutching at her shoulders. "No, I'm sorry. I shouldn't have yelled like that." He reaches up to brush her red hair out of her face. "It's just…you know it doesn't matter. Not for me. It's my job to make sure you get home." He swallows. "You know what that means."
Jean chokes back a sound that tries to make it out of her throat and throws her arms around his neck.
The next day Charles and Jean don't join them, and after an hour or two in the gym Erik tells Raven he'll be back and goes to find them. Jean is shooting up a climbing wall and Charles is watching her.
Charles doesn't look at him. "Hello, Erik."
He isn't sure what to say. Is everything all right? No. Of course it's not; they're here. Why are you over here and not with us? Because they'll have to kill each other in a few days.
Erik lets out a breath and scans the training gym with his eyes, looking for somewhere the cameras might not reach. Somewhere easier to talk.
Charles is glancing at him now. "What?" he's asking. He's trying to appear annoyed at being disturbed, but it isn't working. Charles's face doesn't seem to do annoyed or angry very easily.
"Nothing…it's just…yesterday, and…" He makes a general motion that's probably useless, but Charles understands. He turns away again.
"Do I really need to explain?" the other boy asks wearily.
Erik's jaw clenches, and he has to force it to relax. "No…not really."
Charles only nods at that, and then he's silent, and Erik is through with this. He lay awake long enough last night trying not to think about Charles to not know what he wants. That doesn't make it any less stupid in the situation they're in, but he knows. He's always known.
Without a word he snags Charles's arm and drags him into the narrow space between the climbing wall and real wall. Trying to make sure neither of them trips over scaffolding and trying to get them out of sight quickly enough all at once is something, but he's relatively sure he pulls it off. And there shouldn't be cameras back here.
"What are you—!"
Charles begins his protest too loudly, but it doesn't matter. Erik presses his shoulders into the wall and silences him with a kiss.
He promptly receives a sharp shove backwards, and barely misses knocking into the back of the climbing wall.
"Have you lost your mind!" Charles hisses. At least he's caught on to the need for quiet.
Erik makes a face. "Probably."
The other boy is looking at him incredulously. "We'll both be dead within two weeks! I'm here to keep Jean alive, and I think you'll do the same for Raven; there isn't any getting out of this for us."
He says it like that means they should pretend they aren't feeling anything. The thing is, Erik knows he's right. But…
He steps closer again, and this time Charles doesn't push him away. He backs the boy into the wall again and Charles is looking up at him warily but he isn't moving. Erik takes his arms and tries a smile. "If we're both going to be dead in a few days why can't we do what we want now?"
Charles swallows. "It's…it would be a distraction. We won't be able to do what we need to do, later. We can't—"
"Can't what? Be dishonest with ourselves?" And Erik kisses him again, and this time Charles melts against him.
"This is not a good idea…" Charles manages. But then their lips are locked again and Charles's arms are around his waist, and Erik's taken Charles's face in his hands, and if they were anywhere else this moment would have been perfect.