Noises filtered in slowly and quietly. Everything was dark around him. And cold. Uncomfortable. He was lying in a cave of some sort, which considering that the last thing he remembered was getting eaten by a dragon, didn’t make any sense at all. He opened his eyes and rolled to his side gingerly. A small fire was burning a little ways off, and he could make out several shadowy figures.
For a second, he wondered if everything that had happened since Mordred stabbed him and he fell down the waterfall had been one long, fevered dream, but his wound was too healed for that to be the case, and however feverish he might be, he was pretty sure he wouldn't ever fabricate a dream where he was eaten by a dragon.
"He hasn't woken up yet," Merlin said (because that was definitely Merlin’s voice). "But I'm pretty sure he'll be with us soon. It was a harmless illusion."
"A harmless illusion that nevertheless managed to be corporeal enough to break several of Morgana's ribs, I understood," said a voice that Arthur didn’t recognise. It was male, and old, and exasperated. "Really, Merlin. I told you to be discreet. Do you really think the Gamemakers won't be looking into the unexplained presence of a dragon in their arena?"
"I think that all of those involved will deny they had anything to do with it, and that all of them will hint they did it. It would be some seriously advanced mutation work. They'd all love to be associated with it."
"You had better watch out for that head. If it gets any more swollen I believe it will be painful," said the unknown voice, and Merlin giggled. Arthur groaned.
"Oh, he's awake," Merlin said, then Arthur saw him put something down on the ground and scramble over towards him.
In his mind's eye, he'd remembered Merlin as reasonably attractive. But the face that appeared before him, bright and smiling, took his breath away.
"So you're alive," Merlin said, putting the back of his hand to Arthur's forehead. "And it doesn’t seem like you have a fever. Sorry I had to have you eaten—we had to explain the lack of bodies somehow."
Arthur looked closer at the figures around the fire. The tangle of blonde hair bent over something electrical-looking he quickly recognised as belonging to Elena, and the two bodies lying curled into each other—asleep, it looked like—had to be Guinevere and Lancelot. There was an odd sort of shimmer in the air around them.
"How—" Arthur began, then coughed through his sore throat.
Merlin laughed again. "Come on," he said. "You need to drink something. I couldn't fake all that fire, unfortunately, so I had to use some of what the Gamemakers had already put there. You've probably inhaled a lot of smoke."
"Hey, Arthur," Elena said, looking up from her work with an easy smile and giving him a short wave. Arthur wondered if the world had gone mad while he was out cold.
He sat down by the fire, and Merlin handed over some bread and cheese and a bottle of water. Then he picked up a flat bowl sitting on the ground and grinned at it.
"I'm back," he said. "Don't know about the smoke inhalation, but his system seems to have survived the shock."
"I can't believe you saved the Career," the bowl answered, clearly annoyed, and Arthur started laughing.
"What the hell has happened here?" he asked, slightly hysterical, as Elena looked up and frowned at him and Merlin looked puzzled. "Why are we all alive and where the hell are we and why," he finished heavily, pointing at Merlin, "are you talking to a plate?"
There was a short moment of silence. Guinevere—it was definitely her, Arthur saw now that he was closer to the light of the fire—stirred in her sleep and tightened her grip on Lancelot's shirt.
"I'm scrying," Merlin said finally. He held out the bowl; Arthur recoiled from it. "I'm contacting Gaius through the water. My mentor from Twelve. Look."
Arthur finally bent closer, and saw a face staring back at him from the surface of the water filling the bowl.
And just like that, it all made sense.
"Magic," he said. "You have magic."
"Yes," Merlin said, as though this was completely obvious. Then he frowned suddenly, and his face turned into one of concern. “Are you sure you’re all right? Maybe you hit your head on the way down here. I tried to move you as gently as I could, but, you know, dragon. Not the easiest form to navigate through small spaces.”
Arthur blinked at him stupidly. “Um.”
"And it's Uther Pendragon's son at that, how lovely," Gaius said. Arthur had only ever seen him keeping to the background during the Hunger Games, year after year, and so wasn't sure if his expression was disapproving or if that was maybe just his face. "Merlin, do you want the Capitol to find you before we even figure out how to get you out of the arena?"
"He was eaten by a dragon," Merlin said dismissively. "They won't go looking for his body, no more than they will for ours."
Arthur gulped down a few mouthfuls of water, swallowing past the burn in his throat, and repeated his questions.
"Where the hell are we," he said, "and what the hell happened?"
Merlin shot him an annoyed look and turned away slightly, cradling his bowl to him. Elena tugged on Arthur's sleeve gently.
"We managed to pull you out," she said quietly. "As far as the Capitol and the Gamemakers are concerned, you're dead. We're all dead."
Arthur frowned. "But how," he began, and then he realised something. He hadn't been insulted for several minutes.
He stared at Elena, stricken. "Oh," he said. "Oh, I'm so sorry."
She looked back at him curiously.
"Gwaine," Arthur said weakly. "I'm sorry, he must be—"
"Oh!" Elena exclaimed, and then she laughed. "Oh, no, Gwaine's not actually dead, either. In fact, he's the reason we managed to get all of you out. You know, he and I and Merlin fell..."
They landed softly, on some kind of cushioning material, and although stones and debris fell all around them, they managed to curl together to avoid the worst of it.
"So what was that about?" Gwaine asked. He stood up, holding a hand over his head to ward off any more stones, and looked up. The chasm had closed back up, high above them, and they were in some kind of cave or shaft. There were passages leading off in different directions, but they looked unstable and dangerous. "What’s their play now?"
A block of stone moved aside suddenly, revealing a new passage. Merlin and Elena stood up, too, and the three of them drew closer together as two men and a woman in Hunger Games uniforms stepped out.
"Gwaine McCahn?" the woman said. "Come with us, please."
"What?" Elena said, taking a step forward and in front of Gwaine. He put a hand on her shoulder, holding her back.
The woman sighed and pointed a device at Gwaine's face. There was a sharp noise, muffled down under the earth but still recognisable as a cannon shot.
"Gwaine!" Elena exclaimed, turning towards him. He looked back, shocked, scrabbling with one hand at the back of his neck.
The woman sighed again, crossing her arms. "I haven't done anything to you. I've merely disabled your tracker. To those running the Games, it'll seem as though you died down here, out of reach of the hovercrafts."
Merlin frowned. "What about all the—um, the—" He lowered his voice significantly, waving a hand vaguely around him.
"No cameras down here," the woman said shortly. "Not this far down."
Gwaine still looked taken aback, but much calmer. "Why are you doing this?" he said cautiously.
"An offer has been made," the woman replied. Her voice was clipped and emotionless. "Artema Gildemeister has bought your way out. You'll be taken to the Capitol, to live as her full-time companion."
A stunned silence followed. Then Elena took another step forward and crossed her arms. “You can’t just buy a person.”
The Capitol woman looked at her like Elena was truly simple. Elena stared back defiantly, until Merlin cleared his throat pointedly.
"And what about us?" he said.
The woman shrugged. "You were not meant to be part of the extraction, but unfortunately we had a very small window of opportunity. You two are free to continue the Games from here, and try to get back to the arena above on your own. Needless to say, this extraction is not approved by the Hunger Games at large, and if either of you should make it to victor," she looked them up and down, in a manner that made it very clear she thought it unlikely, "you will be expected to mention nothing of this incident. Gildemeister is a woman of no little means or influence in the Capitol. I'm sure you understand."
Gwaine wasn't saying anything, so Elena said it for him. "What if he refuses to go with you?"
The woman gave her a cold look. "Then the Games end here and now, for all of you." She consulted a wristwatch, then held out her hand. "Mr McCahn. Come."
"Wait," Gwaine said quickly. "Wait, can't I at least—can't I just say goodbye?"
The woman rolled her eyes. "Make it quick."
Gwaine turned to Elena and Merlin. "This is my best chance to survive," he said, taking each of their hands in his. "I have to take it."
"Gwaine," Merlin protested, "you can't do this. There are other ways. You don’t need to—"
Gwaine smiled sadly at him. "I’ll take my chances." He stepped back a pace and pulled his necklace over his head, then closed Elena's hand around it. "Keep this. And you win for both of us now, all right?" He cast a look over his shoulder at the Capitol people waiting for him. "That has to be all right. She can take my token if she wants, right?"
"Whatever," the woman said. "Just hurry up. We're on the clock."
Gwaine bit his lip. He hugged Merlin quickly and awkwardly, then crushed Elena to him, burying his face in her hair.
"Time's up," the woman said.
Gwaine untangled himself with obvious regret, then stepped quickly over to the passage.
"You win for us both, yeah?" he repeated, looking straight at Elena and avoiding Merlin's eyes. She nodded grimly, clutching his necklace to her.
The passage closed, and Elena dropped to her knees.
"Elena," Merlin said quietly, sitting down next to her, but not within reach. "I'm so sorry. And I have something to tell you."
"Me first," Elena said, feverishly untangling the ornament matching Gwaine's from her hair. "Gwaine just gave us our excuse."
Merlin frowned. "Excuse?"
"Yes, for killing each other," Elena said calmly. "He built it up just enough, asking me to win and barely looking at you. To those up above, we're dead already. The team that got Gwaine will think so, too, in a minute. Ha!" She finally got the hair clip loose and put it next to Gwaine's pendant, twisting the two tokens together. She stripped a few wires, connected them, then swore and redid two. Finally she sat back, satisfied, and then she looked up at Merlin with a bright smile.
"Isn't he a great actor?" she said. "God, I wish I was as good as him. I think there were even tears in his eyes. Do you want to die first or should I?"
Merlin stared at her.
"Oh, right! Sorry. This neutralises the trackers," Elena explained, gesturing to the combined token. "Gwaine and I have been calibrating it for everyone in the group. We can turn off our two trackers here, die out of the Games. Then we can try and find a way out of this place. Maybe we can even find a way to save the others and get them out, too." She smiled at him again. "What were you going to tell me?"
"Huh? Oh," Merlin said. "I was going to say I can do magic. But that doesn't seem as cool now."
"So we died," Elena said.
“It was very anti-climatic,” Merlin added.
Arthur looked from one to the other and then figured his best option right then was to simply surrender to the darkness swirling at the edges of his vision and go back to being blissfully unconscious.
The next time he woke up was because of a loud crash, and then some muted swearing. He lay quite still, not opening his eyes, and tried to figure out what had happened.
The first thing he was aware of was the smell. Even the most successful of potential tributes tended to spend quite some time in hospital during their training centre days, and the mixed smell of disinfectant and disease was one you could never mistake for anything else.
Arthur moved his head slightly, and felt crisp linen move beneath him. There was a needle in his arm, and he could hear machines beeping softly in the distance.
Which had to mean that he was in the Capitol, being taken care of in a hospital. And unless everything about the cave, Elena and Merlin talking to a plate had been a creative hallucination on the part of his brain, being in a Capitol hospital could only mean one thing: that they’d been discovered trying to break out.
He did not even want to know what would happen to them now. Dying in the Games was one thing; trying to run... to Arthur’s knowledge, no one had even attempted it before once they’d entered the arena. Trying to run from the Reaping Ceremony occurred with a tribute every few years, and was considered the ultimate dishonour. How much worse wouldn’t it be to, like him, have gone in a forerunner and then been caught trying to sneak out with his tail between his legs?
Arthur just hoped they would kill him quickly. Having to face Gloss and Cashmere, his trainers, or even worse, Uther himself, would be a lot worse than any torture the Capitol could think of.
He made a pained noise and someone gasped beside him. Right, District One tributes were always stoic. Then again, it wasn't like they'd be filming him now, anyway.
He opened his eyes to tell the nurse as much, and found Elena grimacing at him.
"Sorry," she said. "Didn't want to wake you, but these chairs are a nuisance. And, well, I’m a klutz."
Arthur stared at her, astonished. He tried to come up with something to say, and came up blank. Finally he managed to get a sentence together, and spat it out at her.
“What the hell are you doing here?”
“Merlin had to go and talk to the president or something,” Elena said, which really didn't explain anything at all. “I said I’d watch over you for him. Obviously, since I just managed to wake you up, I did a pretty shit job of it. Sorry again.”
Arthur tried to sort out his thoughts. “President—what—” he said, and then, “Oh. Medication.”
The only rational explanation was that he was having some sort of fever dream. They gave you the good drugs in the Capitol, he’d heard.
“Well, not really,” Elena said. “We’re not official Thirteen citizens, so they’ve been rather stingy with the drugs. But Merlin has been doing his, you know, thing.” She waved her hands around. “They can’t really say no to that, now can they?” She must have seen his panicky bewilderment then, because she suddenly leaned closer and took his hand.
“Arthur,” she said, calmly but firmly. “You’re not in the Capitol. Merlin saved you—saved all of us. He conjured up deaths for all of us, so we could escape the Games. We managed to get out and get to District Thirteen. The Capitol can’t find us here. We’ll all be safe.”
She gestured towards the other end of the room, and when Arthur managed to raise himself onto his elbows, he saw Guinevere and Lancelot lying in beds of their own. Neither of them was awake. Some thoughtful person had placed a chair between their separate beds for them to rest their hands on, still joined, even in sleep.
Arthur looked back at Elena. Some words of hers had filtered through.
“District Thirteen?” he said. “Oh, gods. District Thirteen is still active?”
Elena shrugged. “In an underground sort of way,” she said. “Apparently they’ve managed to plod along quite fine for the last sixty years or so. Wouldn’t ask them to bake a cake though. They’re not much for the luxuries of life.”
Arthur lay back against the pillows. Another word rang a bell.
“Conjured?” Then he rolled his eyes, feeling that this, at least, made a strange sort of sense. “Of course. So he got us all—”
Arthur stopped, realising. “I’m an idiot.”
“Oh no, I wouldn’t say that,” Elena said blithely, patting Arthur’s hand. “A bit slow on the uptake, maybe, but nobody’s perfect, after all.”
“Thanks,” Arthur said. “I feel so much better now.”
Elena just smiled at him and gave him another pat on the hand.
"So after we died," Elena told him later on, "Merlin started digging through the rock with magic. He found us safe passages that we could use to get around underground—maintenance and construction tunnels that were probably used when they were building the arena. There were no cameras there, so Merlin could scry safely with Gaius for some outside help as well. He was the one who set us up with passage to Thirteen. Don’t ask me how he knew."
"And the rest of us?" Arthur said, fascinated.
"We had the tracker neutraliser calibrated for all of you, of course," Elena said easily. "Once Gaius heard the commentators talk about the geyser plain for the showdown, he let us know, and Merlin and I hurried there as fast as we could. It was pretty quick going the underground route, actually, so Merlin had some time to prepare. He managed to tap into what the Gamemakers were likely to throw at you, so he had some idea of how to neutralise it without being obvious. Then it was just a matter of waiting for the right moment. Lancelot was scary, though. He really did get a knife to the chest. Merlin had to put some kind of stasis charm around him. I think he’s stable now, though."
Arthur tried to take all this in. "You had it calibrated for all of us?" he repeated.
Elena grinned at him. "Gwaine was against including you, of course," she said, "but I think mostly on principle. Anyway, he didn't grumble about adding Lamia, and look how that turned out."
"But Gwaine," Arthur said, hesitating, "he's still in the Capitol."
"Like he planned all along," Elena said softly. Arthur stared at her, so she went on, "He realised as soon as we came to the Capitol and saw all the LOVE YOU GWAINE signs that he could play that angle. We hear rumours in Three when we do our information monitoring training, about people who get out of the Games alive—tributes who are pretty or interesting enough that there’s some rich person who wants to get them out and keep them for themselves. A live tribute who's not a victor is something exotic and unique, and that's what the Capitol is all about, after all. They're like a living work of art or something, forbidden and exclusive. A naughty little secret."
She made a face, then continued, "It was just rumours, of course. We never really believed it before we were chosen as tributes. But then Gwaine thought that there was no harm in trying—if he was just a harmless pretty face, he might find someone who liked him enough to take him in. And better being some rich person's eccentric piece of art than getting killed in the Games. His plan paid off." She smiled gently. "You didn't really think Gwaine was as vapid as he made himself out to be, did you?"
Arthur didn't reply to that, because he thought the answer might sound insulting. "Still," he said. "The Capitol may not be that simple."
Elena shrugged, still smiling. "Gwaine can also hotwire practically any means of transportation. Someone broke a lot of rules to extract him from the Games. If one of their hovercrafts goes missing, I somehow don't think they'll report it.”
That made sense, of course, Arthur conceded.
"I expect that if he gets tired of being a conversation piece, he'll jack a craft and come join us,” Elena added. “I've already begun working on a beacon that he should be able to lock onto if he wants to find us. We made tokens like that for the tributes two years ago. Atto and Solder."
Arthur remembered. Not the names, but the district. Two years ago, the Games had been won by Kermes, two years above Arthur in the tribute programme, who had played a textbook game. Arthur had watched his Games until he knew them backwards.
That year, Boy Three had died a horrible death in the bloodbath, strangled slowly by the girl from Four who, as it would turn out later, was completely insane. Kermes had finally taken her down in a long and brutal knife fight, during which she had torn a chunk of flesh out of his arm with her teeth. They had fixed that up in the Capitol afterwards, of course, but Kermes had later got himself a full sleeve tattoo over the area, anyway. And he never sat next to Enobaria in victor photos.
The girl from Three had died from hypothermia, in her sleep, on day four.
"You made their tokens?" he asked, confused.
Elena looked up at him, a guilty expression passing quickly over her face, then shrugged. "Doesn't matter if I tell you now, I guess," she said. "Ever since we were both old enough to go into the reaping bowl, Gwaine and I have been making tokens to use in case we were Reaped. When we weren't, we just decided to give the tokens to those Reaped that year. Atto and Solder got the beacons, to find each other—that was two years ago. Last year we made something similar. Those made use of the tribute trackers—let you know when another tribute was close by."
The Three tributes had survived a long time last year, Arthur remembered. And they had both died arena deaths—one from eating poisonous fruit, the other from being attacked by a Gamemaker mutt.
"You took a risk," he said. "What if the Gamemakers had found out?"
Elena shrugged again. "They did confiscate our first efforts," she said easily. "Or at least I guess they did, because neither Lemma nor Carl wore the tokens in their Games. To be fair, those were really clumsy. They were meant to help with night vision, but they weren't even very good. I was twelve," she added, apologetically.
"Huh," Arthur said, because he couldn't come up with anything better.
"Anyway," Elena continued, "we realised after last year that there was real potential in those last tokens, so we just kind of—thought bigger."
She gave him a bright smile.
"And it worked," she said. "These tokens were a gamble, sure, but since they only work when combined, we managed to sneak them past inspection."
Arthur lay back against the bed. For all their preparation and analysis of different tributes' strengths and weaknesses, he thought, his district had seriously undervalued District Three.
"So what happens now?" he asked, feeling suddenly restless. Apart from his throat, which still felt a bit like it had been scraped raw by something sharp and burning, his body seemed well recovered. Definitely more than enough for him to be doing something other than lying around uselessly in bed all day.
"I don't really know," Elena said, looking unhappy about it. "District Thirteen is really strict. They're not very happy we came here. Merlin is trying to smooth things over with them, and I suppose we're going to try to get some kind of asylum here or something, but I'm not sure about what's going to happen yet." She must have seen his expression, because she stretched out a hand and ran it gently through his hair—and he remembered waking up to her wiping his brow when he'd first joined up with their group, less than ten days and over a lifetime ago. She'd done her fair share of nursing, she'd said to him once.
"We’ll figure something out," she said. "We’re survivors, after all."
The next morning, Arthur was released from his hospital bed and given a set of drab and grey but reasonably well-made clothes. A pale man with pox marks all down the left side of his face took his details and then informed him that he had been given a temporary compartment on level eight. Thankfully, Elena showed up to guide him before he had time to admit that he had no idea what that even meant.
“We’re all next to each other,” she told him, as they stepped into an elevator. “Well, you and me and Merlin, at least. There are some empty rooms, too, so hopefully Gwen and Lance can join us here when they get out of the hospital. We’re eight levels underground, so don’t expect a view.”
She grinned, but it looked somewhat forced. As she raised her hand to run it through her hair, Arthur saw that she had been writing on her arm.
“A lot to keep track of?” he asked, nodding at the writing. She looked surprised for a moment.
“Oh! No, that’s District Thirteen routine. It’s my schedule for the day. They print a new one on your arm each morning.”
“They don’t trust you to remember?” Arthur asked, frowning, and Elena pulled a face.
“They don’t really trust us yet, period,” she said.
The elevator came to a halt, and she led the way down a corridor.
“Here we are—your compartment,” she said, stopping in front of a door marked 809. Then she smiled suddenly. “It looks as though someone wants to welcome you to your new home.”
There was a small bundle of flowers hanging from the door handle—fuzzy grey globes topped with purple. Arthur raised his eyebrows.
“Thistles?” he said.
“Burdock, to be precise,” Elena said. She gestured to the door opposite. “That room’s mine, by the way. And Merlin’s next to you.”
Arthur turned his head quickly, then felt incredibly foolish. “Where is Merlin?” he asked, trying to make the question casual. Elena shrugged.
“His arm usually reads meeting all the way to his elbow. The only time they let him out is when he goes to the hospital.” She looked at her own arm and scowled. “I have to go. I have training in five minutes. You’re completely free today, so just get settled in and I’ll come and pick you up when it’s time for lunch.”
District Thirteen, Arthur soon realised, was extremely disciplined. Apart from the fact that his schedule was printed on his arm every day, things were run a lot like at the training centre, which made Arthur feel a lot more comfortable than he probably should.
Because a district that had not only managed to fake its own death (so to speak) but thrive in secret for almost 70 years and build (from what Arthur could tell) a massive military proportionally to its general population during that time clearly did not lack either intelligence or determination. Which, in turn, made them extremely dangerous—and since there was no telling what their long-term agenda might be, the clean-cut discipline evident everywhere he went was starting to make Arthur very uneasy.
Feigning weakness only had one real purpose, after all: waiting for the opportune moment to strike. He tried to recall details about District Thirteen’s role in the war, came up mostly empty and wished he could kick dear old Professor Aredian at home for spending hours and hours during history lessons talking about the purge of magic, instead of things like district politics and ties during the rebellion.
Then again. Just how had Thirteen managed to stay hidden this long?
And where the hell was Merlin?
Since leaving the hospital, Arthur hadn’t seen Merlin once. Hadn’t even heard him move about in his compartment, even though it was supposedly right next to the one Arthur had been given (not that he’d been listening for him, or making up reasons to linger in the corridor leading to their compartments, or anything). Elena claimed to have seen him now and then, and Arthur didn’t think he was in any active danger, given how powerful he apparently was (a corporeal, firebreathing illusion; honestly), but still…
“You look troubled,” somebody said from behind him. Arthur turned around and felt himself smile for what felt like the first time in several days.
Guinevere beamed at him. “I was released from the hospital an hour ago. It’s still hard to walk. Apparently, I stepped into a geyser that wasn’t entirely an illusion. Extensive burns on both legs. They say my body went into shock for awhile.”
Arthur nodded. “I’m glad you’re all right.”
“Good thing I didn’t take your advise to drop Merlin,” she replied, laughing as Arthur winced at the memory. “Elena filled me in. I can’t believe he had magic all along and never told me. Though I guess it explains how his mother’s house always had a fire, even at the end of winter when everyone else was trying to save the little firewood they had left as much as possible.”
Arthur frowned. “You don’t look too shocked at the news that there are still people with magic around. I thought Twelve was purged just like the other districts?”
“Oh it was,” Guinevere said. “Long before I was born, of course, but there were still stories. You know, legends. Rumours about people who almost got through the Hunger Games. And there were all kinds of stories about Haymitch, but I think that was just because people were so shocked we finally had a winner. According to Merlin, he doesn’t have any magic at all.”
“You’ve seen Merlin?” Arthur asked, and then, when she smiled at him, wondered if that had sounded as plaintive as it felt.
“Not yet. Like I said, I have all my information through Elena.”
“So where is Elena?” Arthur asked, looking around. They were in the dining room, with lunch just finishing off, but he hadn’t seen Elena since that morning.
“Off with the president again,” Guinevere said. “She’s working on something communication-related, I think. She wasn’t allowed to tell me.” She shrugged. “They take rules very seriously here, it seems.”
Personal time was not a concept District Thirteen put much stock in. But Arthur did have half an hour’s “reflection” stencilled onto his arm after lunch, every day, which came in useful now to show Guinevere around the different levels, before they came back to level eight.
“My humble abode,” Arthur said, opening the door to his own compartment and indicating the room at large with one sarcastic sweep of his arm. It was a dreary place, without windows or decorations and with a very thin bed taking up most of the space. “Quite lovely, don’t you think?”
“Those are nice, at least,” Guinevere said, nodding at the burdock thistles standing in a jar on a stool next to the bed. They were still fresh, even days after he’d received them. “They can’t have been easy to find here.”
“Someone left them for me,” Arthur said.
“That was sweet of them,” Guinevere said, smiling at him. Arthur smiled back, although he wasn’t so sure. It was actually vaguely creepy. He wondered if District Thirteen was trying to butter him up. And then, with a sinking feeling, just what they wanted to ask him for that would require special treatment beforehand.
Two days later, there was an extra roll of bread next to Arthur’s plate when he sat down to lunch. The night after that, he came back to his room after a day of gruelling physical exercise and found that his pillow was several degrees softer than it had been the night before. The hot water in his shower started lasting longer, and after talking to a couple of District Thirteen citizens, he realised that he was sent on training in the open air, instead of on the underground training level, a disproportionate amount of time.
He could only imagine that District Thirteen were building up to something. They had made use of Merlin’s and Elena’s specific skillsets as soon as they were made aware of them; it only made sense that they would want to use Arthur for something as well. They were expected to work for their keep, that much had been made clear from the start. What worried Arthur was that they never seemed to get around to asking him for it.
What also worried him was wondering what they had Merlin doing that took up all of his waking hours.
Finally, Elena took him aside.
“Look,” she said, “I’m not really supposed to do this, but you’re looking more miserable by the day. I mean, you look more miserable than Lancelot, and he’s been banned from making out with Gwen until they take his stitches out.”
Arthur frowned at her, but she interrupted him before he had time to protest.
“Like I said, not supposed to do this. But here.” She handed him an access card. “Level seventeen. You can thank me later. Oh, and if anyone asks what I’m doing, I’m in my room for reflection and certainly not trying to contact Gwaine with a radio I liberated from the communications storage.”
Level seventeen was very quiet. The hallway stretched out before Arthur as he stepped out of the lift, with the doors on either side closed and no noise filtering out. Arthur walked slowly down the hallway, wondering just why Elena had sent him down here.
Occasionally there were windows, and he looked in curiously. The rooms inside were empty, but he saw rooms that seemed to be meant for strategic planning, filled with maps and models, and rooms that appeared to be some sort of research and development labs. One room was filled with electronics and communication systems, and he wondered if this might be where Elena spent all her time these days.
And then, finally, as he was beginning to tire of this whole exercise, he looked into a room and saw Merlin.
He was standing with his back to the hallway in the middle of an otherwise empty room, holding both hands in front of him and moving them in a slow circle. There was a shimmer in the air in front of him, like a heat haze or mirage.
Arthur stood quite still for what felt like several minutes, then stepped forward and opened the door.
As the door swung open, the haze in front of Merlin wavered and dissipated, and he ran his hands through his hair with an exasperated noise.
“Boggs, I have nothing new to tell you. How many times do I have to say this? I can’t just put force fields around people to protect them from gunfire. That’s not how it—you’re not Boggs.”
Arthur leaned back against the door, forcing his body to make the position look casual. “Well spotted.”
He was going to follow up by asking—casually, of course—how Merlin was doing, but forgot what he was going to say when Merlin practically threw his arms around his neck and squeezed hard enough that Arthur lost his breath for a minute. He wrapped his own arms around Merlin’s back in response, tentatively at first, then with more confidence. Merlin sagged against him, hiding his face against Arthur’s neck, and held him even closer.
“I thought you were dead,” Arthur said, feeling the words tear themselves out of a throat suddenly very tight. Merlin laughed weakly.
“I’m sorry,” he said. “I know it must have been terrible. I hoped you might think I’d done something, but I knew I couldn’t count on it.”
Arthur frowned, stepping back a pace. “Done something?”
“Yes, well, you know.” Merlin looked slightly embarrassed. “Something magic.”
Arthur laughed. “And how on earth was I supposed to know you were magic?”
Merlin stared at him. “But… I told you.” He waved his hands around vaguely. “Never mind that, you said you already knew!”
“Oh,” Arthur said. “Yes, about that.”
“I might have thought you were confessing to something else,” Arthur said.
Merlin frowned at him. “Like what?”
“Oh, you know,” Arthur said, feeling his neck start to burn in embarrassment. “The whole, you know—” He waved his hand between the two of them, hoping Merlin would catch on.
Merlin gave him a very blank look, which suddenly shifted into an expression so comically surprised that Arthur didn’t know whether to laugh or to cry.
“You thought I was telling you I was gay?” Merlin said, incredulous. Arthur straightened up, trying to fight down the disappointment.
“I may have been mistaken—” he began. Merlin stopped him before he could continue, putting both hands on his waist and pulling them close together.
“I kind of thought that part was implied,” he said quietly, his mouth very close to Arthur’s. “What with the whole me kissing you behind a waterfall and everything.”
Arthur opened his mouth to protest, because it had definitely been him that had initiated the kissing Merlin was referring to, and with the emotional stress of the Games, it wasn’t uncommon for tributes to react in ways they wouldn’t normally, so, really, Arthur’s arguments were completely—
Kissing Merlin proved just as blissfully effective the second time around.
The bunk in Arthur’s compartment had definitely not been made for two people, Arthur thought giddily. He currently had Merlin draped over him like a very warm and rather sticky blanket, which should have been plenty gross, but somehow wasn’t.
“That,” Merlin said, his voice slow and muffled against Arthur’s collarbone. “I don’t even—gnngh.”
Arthur turned his face so that most of what he was sure was a truly embarrassing smile wouldn’t be so terribly obvious. “Very eloquent.”
“Shut up,” Merlin said. “I’ll think of something better once I have my brain back.”
“So, in other words, never?”
Merlin started raising his head, then seemed to think better of it and bit down warningly against the skin of Arthur’s chest instead. “Prat.”
“You know, insulting people tends to be a lot more effective when you don’t sound like they just redefined your universe,” Arthur said, unable to help himself.
This time, Merlin did raise his head. “Redefined—oh, you wish,” he said, glaring at Arthur in a way that made a great deal of very interesting ideas cross Arthur’s mind. “All right for a first attempt, I’ll grant you that, but it’s clear you need practice. A lot of it.” The last part was said with a very cheeky grin. Arthur had to bite the inside of his cheek to keep his smile in check.
He tilted his head and gave Merlin a considering look, then quickly shifted his weight so that he could flip them over without either of them crashing off the narrow cot and unto the floor. He ran a hand slowly down Merlin’s body, taking careful note of just where his touch would make Merlin’s breath hitch, his back arc to bring himself closer or—Arthur’s favourite part—a quick flash of gold appear in Merlin’s eyes. He lowered his head to follow the same path with his mouth, keeping his touch slow and deliberate until he got himself just where he intended to be.
The loud yelp of surprise as he twisted and simultaneously hoisted both of Merlin’s legs up to drape over his shoulders was highly satisfying. Even more as it ended on a tone Arthur could only describe as terribly needy.
Well then. Time to make another point.
“I take it back,” Merlin gasped, some ten minutes later, both of his hands tugging almost painfully at Arthur’s hair to try and bring him even closer. “You’re perfect and lovely, and—holy g—how do you even—”
Arthur counted that one as a win.
“These are not strawberries,” Arthur said, frowning at the piece of fruit he’d just taken a bite out of.
“Yes they are,” Merlin insisted. “Red, cone-shaped, green little leaves at the top. Strawberries.”
“It tastes like a plum,” Arthur replied, turning the fruit over. “I don’t think your magic works the way it should.”
“Hey, my magic saved you from certain death,” Merlin said. “It’s perfectly fine. Now stop being a baby and enjoy your juicy treats.”
“I’m merely helping you improve your skills,” Arthur replied, grinning at him. “Still, it beats District Thirteen gruel, I’ll give you that.” He took another bite. It wasn’t like some kind of weird, hybrid fruit would even make the top ten on the list of strange things that happened around him lately. Speaking of.
“Have you noticed how everyone has been given something to do but me?” he asked, keeping his voice carefully neutral as he scanned Merlin’s face for a reaction. “They assigned Lancelot to a unit before he was even out of the hospital, and I have fifty times the combat training he has.”
Merlin looked suddenly very sheepish, as well as a bit embarrassed. Arthur narrowed his eyes.
“Yes, about that,” Merlin said. “I might have asked them to leave you alone for a bit. Just until you got well!” he quickly added when he saw the look on Arthur’s face. “Also, I didn’t know if you’d be okay with—I mean, you’re from One, which is as close to Capitol as you get without being, you know, actually Capitol. And while the people here haven’t come out and said it, I’m pretty sure they’re not building a giant military and asking me all sorts of questions about magical shields and remote attack options just for the fun of it.”
He leant back a little, looking closely at Arthur. “Are you—um, you’re not saying anything.”
Arthur ran a hand through his hair. “I don’t—” he began, then paused.
“I’m not sure what their long-term plans are,” he said eventually. “They must be building up to something since practically everyone here is a soldier, but I don’t know what they’re waiting for. A spark maybe. Something to cause a power vacuum that they can exploit. It wouldn’t make sense to reveal themselves after having successfully kept off the radar for so long if they didn’t think they had a really good chance at getting what they wanted.”
“So what do you think they might want?”
“Power,” Arthur said simply. “In some shape or form. What else is there?”
“Um, justice,” Merlin said, like this was something obvious. “Equality, freedom for the districts, the end of poverty, little things like that.”
Arthur rolled his eyes. “You forgot never-fading rainbows and free puppies for all.”
Merlin looked at him. “For someone who grew up in a place where you could actually eat strawberries,” he said lightly, “you are a very cynical man.”
“I’m just saying,” Arthur said, “that whatever District Thirteen is gearing up to do, it’s naive to expect it won’t lead to a whole lot of trouble. I’m not saying I won’t work with them,” he added, just in case their compartments weren’t as private as they seemed, “I’m just saying we should be aware of the consequences.”
“So where does that leave us?” Merlin asked.
“Right now—in this room,” Arthur said. “We’ll just have to adapt as we go for the rest.”
“I can work with that,” Merlin agreed, then leaned in and caught Arthur’s lips in a sweet, lingering kiss.
Arthur let the half-eaten strawberry still in his hand fall to the floor, wrapping his arms around Merlin’s neck instead and pulling them both back down against the bed. Whatever challenges were coming their way next could wait until the morning.