"We could do it, you know. Why don't we do it? We could live out here, in the woods," Hank tells her. It isn't the first time he's said such a thing, but this time it's Reaping day.
This time it's Prim's first year eligible, and this time Raven looks at her bow and quiver on the grass beside them and their haul of the morning and thinks about it for longer than usual. They could. They could live out here, but…
"We couldn't take our families with us. They wouldn't make it out here, even with us. They don't know how."
"We could teach them."
"We wouldn't be able to teach them enough before that big of a group drew attention. They'd find us."
And that, of course, settles it, like it always does. Until the next time he brings it up, anyway.
And then Prim's name is drawn and Raven panics and volunteers, and she knows they should have taken everyone and left anyway.
If they'd left neither she nor her sister would be a tribute now, wouldn't be something less than a person as far as the Capitol is concerned. She wouldn't be on a train, hurtling toward the center of Panem to be one more body in The Hunger Games. She wouldn't be going there with the one other boy in District 12 besides Hank that she would really rather not see die.
Everyone thinks Erik is tough. He isn't a miner's son like everyone else—he's a baker's son. Everyone always seemed to expect him to overcompensate and he did it anyway, even though he didn't care. It was easy; his height and his chiseled face and his toothy grin that was apparently somewhat menacing no matter what he did helped.
Part of him thinks he would rather have friends than be feared, even though it's kept him safe, but it doesn't matter now. It became a pattern he was trapped in and now he'll never have the chance to get out of it. He may be strong but he isn't trained. He never really ended up in an actual fight with anyone. He can't win The Hunger Games.
Even his fellow District 12 tribute knows more of how to survive than he does. Everyone who isn't a Peacekeeper knows Raven hunts.
He remembers her. Of course he does. He's never had the nerve to talk to her but he remembers that day in the rain, outside the bakery. He doesn't know if she remembers him. It was more than four years ago, now. They're 16 now. And they're both probably going to die, but if one of them lives he knows it will be Raven.
He hopes it's Raven. If anyone from District 12 deserves to win, she does.
Moira is in tears when she comes to him, and Charles knows she didn't cry in front of her little sister. She would have volunteered if she weren't 19. She would have taken Jean's place. But she can't, and he couldn't because though he's 17 and eligible he's male and there has to be one of each. A boy can't volunteer for a girl, nor vice versa. Then he was chosen anyway. All he can do is hold his closet friend and promise he'll do everything he can to keep her sister alive.
Charles knows he isn't skilled at much, but he knows he'll do everything in his power to protect Jean. If he has anything to say about it, Moira will only have to lose one of them. He'll keep Jean with him and kill himself in the end, if he has to.
He doesn't tell her all of it, but Moira knows him. She knows he'll do it, and she's grateful and heartbroken at once, and so is he. She kisses him firmly even though they have never had that sort of relationship and would never desire to. It's a thank-you. It's a final farewell.
They say goodbye knowing for certain they will never see each other again.
Raven is wary of him from the beginning, and Erik wishes it didn't have to be that way but he knows it's only logical. Only one of them can live, after all. If either of them. He supposes, too, that she doesn't remember him. So much the better, perhaps. It will make it easier for her to kill him if she has to, and he won't stop her.
She has more to live for than he does.
They have somewhat friendly conversations aboard the train, but otherwise avoid each other. She seems ticked off that Haymitch appears to like him better, gives him more advice.
Erik's opinion is that Haymitch is sorry for him because he knows Raven has a much better chance. As far as Erik is concerned, that's the only reason for the extra bit of attention.
Not that Haymitch has much attention to give, even when he isn't drunk.
When they arrive in the Capitol they are cleaned and buffed and polished and polished again. Erik isn't sure how many layers of skin he loses. He doesn't particularly care. He's busy enough staring at his prep team and the other outlandishly-decorated people if the Capitol and wondering what sort of ridiculous coal mining outfit he and Raven will be forced into. It's always coal mining outfits for District 12, or something like it.
Then it isn't. Not this year. Portia, his stylist, tells him they're working closely with Raven's stylist Cinna and that this year will be much different. No one will overlook District 12 this year.
Of course not. They'll be wearing fire. Erik tells himself it must be safe. Surely Cinna and Portia know what they're doing. It can't be real fire. He tells himself that as he and Raven are brought to the stable at the bottom level of the Remake Center—the staging area for the parade of tributes that will begin the opening ceremonies of the Games. He tries not to pull at the black leotard or tug at the cape.
Raven is a little more talkative now. Maybe they're both just nervous, but they make whispered jokes about the fire plan, sure they're both going to burn to death. Erik is wishing again that he'd been able to talk to her since that day in the rain, but then again it's probably best he didn't now.
It's the last time he wishes such a thing so strongly. It's the last time Raven is the center of what's left of his universe, because when they reach the stable everything in his world shifts.
Jean is trying to keep him in good spirits. Of course she is, bless the girl. She's always been like that. To others she may seem quiet and shy but Charles knows otherwise. He's known her since she was born. Such a sense of humor and happiness and mischief he has never seen in any other girl of 12 years old. Certainly not in anyone at all from District 11.
She dances around the chariot and the horses while they wait for the parade to start and makes him laugh. He can't help but move enough at least to stay in close proximity, even if he doesn't dance himself. Her mood is infectious. She feels pretty. She feels like dancing. Though maybe only because she's choosing not think of what comes later. But she's 12. She's allowed to do that.
Charles is the one who will be protecting her. He can't do that. He has to think about all of it. He tries to smile for her but he isn't sure how well he succeeds.
And then behind them the District 12 tributes make their way to their chariot, and the boy from 12 accidently meets his eyes.
There is something there, something that shoots through Charles when their gazes meet, and the other boy seems to be taking in Jean and Charles's face and everything else and suddenly Charles is sure the boy knows exactly how he feels.
For a moment he is frozen. He can't breathe. From a handsome face gray eyes stare into his before breaking away to turn to the stylists gathering near their charges, but the connection isn't broken when line of sight is.
Charles feels the tingle in his spine long after.
Sapphire eyes. Chocolate hair in gentle waves and a kind face. Erik saw the boy from District 11 in the coverage of the other Reapings they watched on the train but he's even more beautiful in person. It's a strange thing to think, considering that for years he's been rather sure he wanted something to happen between himself and Raven if he would ever just speak up, but…
Those eyes meet his and it feels like they see right to his soul. The little girl from District 11 is dancing around him, trying to goad the other boy into her game, to cheer him up, it seems, and the pain behind the blue eyes and the small forced smile take Erik's breath away.
He remembers that Reaping. He doesn't remember much of the others but he remembers that one. It was the only one besides their own that did not go as per usual. The girl was chosen first, and she stood silently and stoically like so many do, looking so much like Raven's little sister it broke his heart when no one was willing to volunteer for her.
Then the boy. Charles, if he remembers the name correctly. It's one of the only names he remembers. They called him and he went up, stunned at first as everyone is, but he shook it off much faster than most do. He strode quickly toward the girl and she ran into his arms. They didn't remain in the embrace for long—they straightened and faced the crowd almost definatly—but they held hands after that, for as long as they were on the stage.
They know each other. They must have known each other for a long time. Watching them, meeting the other boy's eyes, Erik is sure that Charles will do anything he can to protect the girl from his district. He's resigned himself to death.
They have something fundamental in common, then. Erik has too. It reverberates between them in that brief locked gaze but there is more to it than that and Erik doesn't have time to make sense of it. The boy from 11 nervously licks his full lips and swallows, and then Portia and Cinna are there to give them last minute instructions and Erik has to turn away. Soon enough the parade has begun and the first chariots are pulling out of the stable.
Erik is already forcing a smile of his own for the crowd. Cinna tells Raven to smile. Their costumes are lighted and they do not, in fact, burn up. Whatever the stuff really is that looks like fire, it works wonderfully. It frames them and in the dimming evening Raven looks radiant, beautiful ringed by the flames, and an hour ago Erik would have fallen even harder.
Now, he doesn't know what's happened to him. He still cares what happens to her but the feeling isn't the same as before. It's shifted. It isn't the center of his thoughts anymore. Melancholy sapphire eyes occupy that place now.
Over the roar of the crowd outside Cinna yells something at them before they're brought out of the stable. He's telling them to hold hands. Raven looks from Cinna to Erik uncertainly, but he obediently takes her hand. One thing Haymitch did tell them was to listen to their stylists.
"Might as well. On the TV coverage it seemed to get the District 11 tributes lots of attention when they did it on stage. Attention can be good."
"Yeah, yeah, it can mean sponsors," Raven mumbles back. She squeezes his hand and then they're moving into the parade, and soon enough she's giving in to waving and smiling at the crowd and blowing kisses.
Everyone loves them—the fire, the united front, all of it. They're calling both of their names, but Erik knows everyone is really looking at Raven. The girl on fire, Cinna called her. Erik hopes it helps her.
But even as he holds her hand through the chariot ride, he can't help watching the chariot in front of them and the boy from 11 with his arm around the shoulders of the little girl beside him. Erik can't help wishing he were holding one of those hands instead.
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.
It isn't Charles's first kiss—and neither was the one Moira gave him before he left District 11—but it's the first one that's felt like this. He doesn't know what it means, exactly, but the feeling shooting up his spine is so strong now he can't breathe. Neither of them are quite thinking about air, either, and that doesn't help. Within moments he's slumped between the wall and Erik, held up by both of them, and Erik gives him a few seconds to breathe but the taller boy's hands never leave his face.
Erik is staring at him intently. It's intimidating and invigorating all at once, and Charles isn't sure what he'd doing when he surges back up to claim Erik's lips again as soon as he has enough air. His hands push up to clutch at the other boy's shoulders rather than his waist.
He doesn't know how long it takes, but finally an alarm goes off in his head. "We can't stay back here," he gasps, abruptly pulling away. He doesn't get far because Erik is holding onto him too tightly and the wall is still there, but Charles repeats what he said. "Someone will be looking for us soon enough."
Erik lets out a breath of frustration. "You're right." But he doesn't let Charles go. He seems to be thinking.
"There should be a door at the end of the hallway on your floor. It looks like a utility closet or something, but it's not. It's a stairwell. The stairs go to the roof."
"Are tributes allowed up there?"
"The doors aren't locked. Raven and I were up there last night. Her stylist showed us how to get up there. Meet me there tonight."
Charles swallows. He knows that letting this go any farther is…incredibly stupid, but…Erik is looking at him, silently pleading with him, and he can't say no. "All right," he breathes.
Erik finally smiles again. "Will you and Jean join us now?"
"If I follow you back now it might look strange. I'll go out first, and you wait a moment. Jean and I will wander in your direction once we're through at this station." Erik nods once in understanding, and Charles wriggles out from behind him and hurries back out onto the gym floor before he can change his mind.
Haymitch is waiting for them when they return to their floor for dinner that afternoon, and he doesn't look happy.
"What the hell were you doing down there today?" The question is directed at Erik; he isn't paying Raven any attention at the moment.
Haymitch stalks up to him, clearly lacking enough alcohol to be anything but angry, and he isn't any taller than Erik is but they're relatively nose to nose. "Yeah. You. What were doing? Just because you were right about there being no cameras behind that climbing wall doesn't means the others didn't catch you disappearing back there with that other kid. So what were you doing? Are you trying to ruin my plans here?"
"What plans?" Erik growls. "You've hardly given us any advice at all!"
"I have a plan, okay? Now tell me what was going on down there."
"It's none of your business."
"Keeping you alive is my business, and to do that I need to know everything!"
From the corner if his eyes Erik can see Raven is watching them, head snapping back and forth as if watching a sports match. From the look her face it's clear she wants to know, too. She must have noticed something as well.
Erik's jaw clenches. "No, you don't." No one needs to know what happened back there. And how could it interfere with any of Haymitch's supposed plans, anyway? What is he planning?
"Do you want to live?" Haymitch questions loudly.
"I'm not going to!" It's out before he's thought about it, and then Haymitch and Raven are both staring at him and he realizes Effie is there too, across the main room, but it doesn't matter. It's true. "Everyone knows it," he adds for emphasis. Then he retreats to his room until dinner, and no one bothers him now.
Dinner is long, and Haymitch and Effie spend it grilling both of them, telling them both what to do and not to do in training, but no mention is made of what happened when Erik and Raven got off the elevator. Erik is relatively sure Haymitch is sneaking dirty looks at him, though.
He doesn't care. He escapes to the roof when they're finally released from the dinner table.
When he gets there the fresh air helps, but really it's the figure leaning over the railing that calms him.
"Don't lean too far."
Charles's straightens quickly and turns to look at him. "Hmm? What? Why?"
"There's an electric field…keeps anyone from going over the side."
"Ah…" Charles makes a face and leans back against the railing now, rather than over it. Erik goes to his side and does the same, looking back over the city along with him.
"So you found your way here."
"Yes…though it was an incredible hassle getting away from Jean. She refused to stop asking questions."
Erik doesn't have to ask what the questions were about. "She's something, that one."
That sad smile again. "She is."
The sadness may have been part of what caught Erik's attention the first time he saw Charles, but he can't bear it now. He doesn't know what good it will do, but he kisses Charles now and the other boy doesn't resist. This time it's soft and gentle, nothing like this morning, but it's just what's needed now.
They talk about things that actually matter this time—things that they never would have dared talk about in the training gym or at lunch. Things like their families, and the lives they'll never return to now.
Erik has his parents, and his brothers, but he isn't particularly close to any of them. He's never been particularly close to anyone. Charles has no parents. Not anymore. He has two friends—Moira and Sean. He's lived with Sean's family since his mother's death two years ago. His father died when he was young.
"It's almost a good thing. I'm glad they're not here now…that they don't have to go through this." It's what Charles says when Erik tell him he's sorry. "They would know just as well as Moira and Sean do that I won't let anything happen to Jean. They would know I'm not coming back."
Erik's hand finds Charles's at their sides and squeezes. Their fingers twist together and this time it's Charles who turns to him for a kiss.
A footstep behind them and they jerk apart, but it's only Raven, and she's already backing away. "Sorry…couldn't sleep…I'll just…" She retreats to the other side of the domed room that covers the exit onto the roof, out of sight. The garden is on the other side, and Erik wanted to show it to Charles, but he supposes that can wait until tomorrow.
Charles is wide-eyed. "Will she…?"
"She won't say anything to anyone." She still doesn't seem as if she really wants to be anyone's friend—which is understandable—but he knows she won't say anything. He's been watching her long enough to know what sort of person she is. He's watched her long enough to know she's a good one.
Charles relaxes. "Not that it really matters, I suppose. It's not as if anyone can make our lives any worse now."
"Why would they care about us, anyway?" He doesn't mention Haymitch confronting him. Charles moves into his arms and Erik holds him. He holds on for a long time.
Us. He said us, he realizes. And Charles didn't object.
He's still trying to figure out if finding this boy here is a blessing or a curse, but either way he can't let go.
When Raven goes back downstairs Erik and Charles are still on the roof. She lies awake in her room, listening for the sound of the stairwell door that will tell her Erik is returning. When he does, she pulls him into her room and shuts the door behind him.
"What was that?"
Erik glares at her. "Do I have to tell you what I told Haymitch?"
"You're crazy, you know that?" She doesn't need him to say anything to know the answer to her question.
"Do I look like I care?"
"He's a distraction, Erik."
"I'm going to die anyway; what does it matter?" He shakes his head. "And you don't have to pretend like you care. Not here; there's no one else here. Haymitch only asked us to pretend in public."
He's right. She doesn't have to pretend here. And just because Erik saved her life once doesn't necessarily mean she has to care, especially in this situation, but…
But she does care.
Not that she can tell him that, especially now.
"Good night, Raven," Erik says wearily. He leaves and closes her door again for her on the way out.
They part in the stairwell at the door to District 12's floor, and Erik steals one last kiss before letting him go. Charles continues down to his own floor and slips quietly into his room, changing and climbing immediately into bed.
His heart is still pounding in his ears, remembering the slide of Erik's lips against his and warm arms around him.
"Are you awake?"
The quiet voice startles him, and Charles sits straight up in alarm but the short silhouette in the doorway reminds him of who it is. "Oh…Jean. Yes, I'm up. What is it? You should be asleep."
The girl comes to the edge of the bed and crawls onto it, sitting atop the covers and pulling her knees to her chest. "I know. I can't."
She nods, and it's quiet until she speaks up again. "The private sessions are tomorrow."
Charles's heart sinks immediately. He hasn't any idea what he's going to do during his own. "I know. You'll do fine. Show them how fast you are, and how well you can climb. Those slingshot skills couldn't hurt, either. Perhaps you can't exactly kill anyone that way, but you can feed yourself. Even if something happens to me you won't go hungry, and if they know that it will help you.
Jean doesn't comment on the part of that she obviously doesn't like. She merely scowls. "What are you going to do?"
He was hoping she wouldn't ask. "I don't know," he admits.
"You're smart. Show them how smart you are. There's the computer stations—all those tests and stuff. Do that. You'll just fly through them and everybody'll be amazed."
Charles chuckles quietly. "I don't know about that, but I suppose I can do my best." It's the best suggestion he's heard all evening, anyhow. Their mentor's ideas weren't very promising. "Anyway, you should get back to bed."
But she doesn't move. "Can I stay here?"
Charles opens his mouth to protest—the bed is certainly large enough with plenty of room to spare, but it isn't precisely appropriate—but Jean won't let him get a word in.
"Please? You won't know I'm here."
Even though he can't see her face clearly in the dimness, he knows what her pleading expression looks like. He knows, too, that she's asking because she feels safer with him, and he can't say no. He lets out a breath. "All right…"
Jean crawls around him to the empty side of the bed and burrows under the covers. She's asleep almost before Charles has settled back down himself.
"Good night, Jean," he whispers.
In the first two days they've been to every station but archery and weights, because most of the time they were with Erik and Raven and the two of them avoided those two stations. Charles had assumed they were saving those things for their private sessions—their strengths—and considering Raven's other skills and the way Erik is built he's relatively sure which belongs to whom.
It doesn't matter to Charles or Jean that they haven't been to those stations; neither of them is large or strong enough to do well with those things, so when Erik and Raven continue to skirt them on the morning of the third day it's all right. They stay together most of the hours before lunch, going back over what they can on other weapons in case they have the chance to use them in the arena.
They separate only for a while, Jean continuing to shadow Raven while Charles drags Erik back to the edible plant station. Charles makes him take the test until he passes it more than once. The last thing he wants is for Erik to starve, and if…well if, god forbid, something happens to Jean it will be his duty to win if he can—to gain the extra supplies for his district for the next year—but if something happens to both of them he would rather Erik win than anyone else.
Neither of them say anything, but Erik seems to understand this. He does what Charles wants without complaint. They go back to knot-tying too, and Erik proves he can handle a simple snare.
They rejoin the girls after that, back to combat and weapons training, until lunch comes and group training is over. The private sessions will happen after lunch. The four of them eat together again.
The easy conversation dwindles as the lunchroom empties out, the tributes called in order by the boy and then the girl of each district, starting with 1. Charles doesn't realize his fingers are tangled with Erik's under the table until they call his name and it stops him from getting all the way to his feet.
Erik releases him, gives him an encouraging smile, and Raven gives him a nod. Charles looks at Jean and she mouths you're smart. Then she smiles, too.
He walks out into the gym, and despite how hard he's thought he has no other plan beyond Jean's suggestion. He goes to the computers and he takes the tests—edible plants, dangerous plants and animals and how to avoid them, which animals and insects are better for nutrition, problem-solving—and whichever station he's using is automatically routed to the larger screen on the gymnasium's wall for the gamemakers to see easily.
Charles quickly passes all of the tests with flying colors, just as Jean was sure he would, and when he glances back at the gamemakers most of them are at least paying attention now. Some of them seem a bit impressed. It's certainly better than nothing. But it hasn't taken as long as he thought and he hasn't been dismissed yet. There are no more tests to go through, so he settles on the only thing he's almost as good at as Jean. He's just reached the top of the climbing wall when they tell him he can go.
He's directed to the elevators, and Charles leaves feeling a little better about himself than last night.
Now to wait for the scores this evening.
Erik throws heavy things around for a while like Haymitch told him to. By the time he gets there none of the gamemakers seem incredibly interested in anything, but…well, whatever. He doesn't really need their attention. He doesn't plan to win. Raven will need their attention, but he's also sure she can get it if she wants it.
When they tell him he can go he goes back to their floor and waits for Raven, but she doesn't talk to him or to anyone when she comes up. She runs to her room and slams the door, and he doesn't know what on earth she could be so upset about but she is obviously more than little rattled.
Haymitch and Effie knock on her door and call to her and Erik stands back and watches, hoping she'll come out, but she doesn't. When Haymitch and Effie give up Erik hesitates but then he tries, once. He gets the same angry request to buzz off that she gave the other two, and retreats to his own room until dinner.
The tributes will all be watching the announcing of the scores after dinner with their mentors and stylists; he and Charles agreed to wait until after that to meet on the roof again, so he has nothing else to do. Because he's not the one who seems to have a particular problem at the moment Effie tries to draw him back out to the sitting room, lure him to be social, but he politely declines.
At least she seems mollified by the fact that he turns her down nicely, though he's not sure why he does it. Maybe Charles is having an effect on him.
They find out what happened in Raven's session at dinner. She tells them, about the arrow and the pig and the apple. Effie is horrified, but Haymitch finds it incredibly amusing. Cinna and Portia are somewhere in the middle. Erik can't help grinning, and by the end all of them are laughing and even Effie is at least smiling.
They all move into the sitting room after dinner. The scores are announced on television, beginning with District 1 again. The Careers, of course, on a scale of one to twelve, all average high, around ten, with most of the other tributes coming out around five. Five is exactly the score Charles is given, and Jean pulls out a seven. Neither are bad scores, and Jean's is more than good for someone her size. The two or three others almost as small as her only bring threes and fours.
District 12, of course, is last. Erik is surprised enough by his own score of eight, and Effie tells him they can work with that, but Raven…
Well, Raven somehow comes up with an eleven.
Erik congratulates her and slips out while the others are doing the same. He's the first one on the roof and he looks down over the city, watching the people in the streets still excited over the scores and already making bets, no doubt. Or beginning to decide whom they're going to sponsor. The interviews are still to come, but the scores are usually a part of it.
He pulls away from the railing when he hears the door out onto the roof open and close behind him, and he meets Charles half way. The other boy holds onto him tightly, face buried in his shoulder, and Erik waits until he says something.
"You did well," Charles says finally.
"You did just fine," Erik answers quickly.
Charles snorts. "No, I didn't. You don't need to lie to me. Apparently being able to think isn't worth as much as Jean was sure it would be. Not that it matters; I had nothing else. School is the only thing I've ever really been good at, and what use is that in the arena?"
"Plenty. Outthinking everyone else is half the battle."
"Half," Charles grunts.
Erik pulls back enough get a hand between them and pulls Charles's chin up. "The important half. You can do it. You can outsmart them—stay ahead of them, away from them. Stay alive. That's all you have to do and you and Jean will be fine." Erik kisses him, and Charles responds at first but then he's pulling away entirely.
"What are you doing! Why are you giving me advice?"
Erik frowns, left almost off-balance now that him arms are empty. "What do you mean? Why shouldn't I?"
"Only one person can come out of the arena, Erik. I want it to be Jean. You want it to be Raven."
"If it was going to be one of the two of us I would rather it be Raven than me," Erik corrects. "But that's not up to me. She can take care of herself. She doesn't want help or protection from me. Jean does want it from you. She needs it."
"Or does she?" Charles asks weakly. "She seems much more adept at taking care of herself than I am at taking care of her. The scores seem to prove that."
Erik steps closer again, and this time Charles doesn't back away. "Seem to. That doesn't mean they do. It doesn't mean she doesn't need you."
Charles grimaces and looks away. "But I've failed her already. My score isn't going to inspire sponsors easily, and what if we need them?"
"If not you I'm sure someone will want to sponsor her, and besides…" Erik takes Charles's face in his hands like he did behind the climbing wall. He smiles fondly. "Look at you. Who wouldn't want to help you?"
Charles blushes furiously at that. "Now you're not being fair."
"I'm just telling you what I think."
"Shut up." Charles kisses him now, and this time it last a little longer before he break away again. "What are we doing?" he gasps. Confusion is clear on his face. "We know this is only going to make things harder in the Games. What the hell are we doing? What happens once we're in the arena?"
"Do we have to think about that?"
"I think we have to."
Erik lets out a slow breath. He hasn't wanted to think about it, but that doesn't mean it hasn't crossed his mind. "I don't know. What happens then?" He knows the answer, but he doesn't want to say it.
Charles swallows, looks down. "I think we should stay away from each other, in the arena. It's the only thing that makes sense."
Erik nods numbly. "We uhm…we take advantage of what time we have before, and then…"
"This ends before we leave the training center," Charles finishes quietly. "We can't be allies in the arena, and we can't do anything there based on…on how we feel. It would only end in a worse way than it already has to."
Then Charles is on his toes, arms around his neck and kissing him again, and all Erik can do is answer him and hang on for dear life.
What of it they have left.
The next day is long and arduous, spent trapped on their floor being coached by Haymitch and Effie for the interviews that will take place the next evening. He doesn't see Raven much; they take turns. But he doesn't think she's having any better of a day than he is.
He picks up what Effie tries to convey about presentation well enough, and she doesn't seem entirely disappointed with him. Haymitch, though, is already angry when they begin. Erik suspects the content talk did not go well with Raven.
"Please tell me you plan to cooperate here," Haymitch snaps out immediately.
"Sure…" Erik says warily. "What did you have in mind?"
But he doesn't like it. It appears there was a reason for all of the togetherness Haymitch and Cinna have been promoting between himself and Raven since this began. "I told you I had a plan," Haymitch tells him once he's explained it. "And maybe you don't care if you live, but I think you want her to. If you do, you'll listen to me. This could get you—both of you—a hell of a lot of sponsors."
"But it isn't true. I'm not in love with her. I care about her—I have for a long time—but it's not like that." Or it isn't anymore. Not since he laid eyes on Charles.
"Then act like it! You can act, can't you?"
"I am not going to lie."
But he wouldn't have to lie. Not really. He doesn't have to say he loves her, and the rest is true. Besides that, he wants her to have the best chance she can have. In the end, he gives in, for her sake, but makes it clear that he will not bring the subject up himself and if it comes up anyway he will not say anything but the truth.
Haymitch is mildly appeased, but he's still drinking.
"Whatever. More progress'n I made with her."
"Does she know about this?"
"Hell no! The surprise'll be half the impact. And fine, do it your way, but whatever you do, don't screw it up."
"I'm only doing it for Raven. And I'm not going to lie."
"Erik, it's a good thing to do. It could help her. You shouldn't be worried about what I think."
"I just wanted you to know…"
The sun is setting over the Capitol, they've finally been released from coaching, and Charles is leaning into Erik while Erik's back is against the railing on the roof. The roof itself is warm and so is what's left of the fading sunlight. The sunset is a sight to see, and Charles is glad they were able to share it this once.
"I understand. I do. I'm hoping I'll be able to do something for Jean in my own interview."
"To do that you won't have to fudge the truth. What Haymitch wants me to do…even if I don't lie, exactly…it feels like I'll be betraying you."
Charles finds Erik's hand on his shoulder and twines their fingers together. "But this isn't about us, remember?" His chest aches, but it's true.
Erik lets out a breath near his ear. "Too well. I just wish…"
"Don't…" He turns just enough to catch Erik's lips with his own. Once they've kissed Erik is looking at him curiously. "Just this once, can we be happy?" Charles asks. "We've made the decisions we need to make. We've been responsible. Can we forget about all of it just for right now?"
There was nothing wrong with last night, or the one before. But the kisses they shared, the embraces, were all full of the truth weighing down on them.
Erik huffs a bit in amusement and affectionately brushes Charles's hair out of his face. "You never cease to surprise me."
Charles smiles back. "Is that a yes?"
Erik grinning and kissing him again is his answer.
The next day belongs to the stylists and prep teams. Erik had no idea it was possible to spend all day cleaning and prepping and dressing someone. But take all day it does, and he finds himself missing Charles like he did yesterday.
The idea that after tonight—after the beginning of the Games the next morning, when they leave their cylinders and go their separate ways in the arena—he may never see Charles again…it's suffocating. He knows how much Charles means to him, but he doesn't claim to understand how it could have come to be this way so quickly or how the feelings can be so strong.
He tries to shove it to the back of his mind, but something gets through because Portia spends all day attempting to cheer him up anyway. She doesn't know what it is that's wrong and she doesn't actually help, but she means well.
"What did Effie tell you? Smile, Erik. You and Raven are going to take the house down."
But he has to admit that the suit they put him in doesn't look half bad. The flame accents are a striking bit of color against the black, recalling their parade costumes, and it makes even more sense when he sees Raven in her jeweled dress that also mimics flames.
They look good together. That much he can't refute. But she's remained distant, for the most part, and it doesn't matter anymore anyway. Tomorrow they'll be in the arena, and even if Charles hadn't taken over his world it would be too late to make her understand what the last few years have been like for him. How he watched her and looked up to her and everything else he felt.
What he says tonight, if it comes up, will have to be enough.
The televised interviews take place on a stage on the city square in front of the Training Center. When all of the tributes are gathered in the Training Center lobby they're lined up by district—the girl first and then the boy rather than the other way around like for the private sessions—and Erik is last. He has a chance to smile at Jean in her fairy-like dress and squeeze Charles's hand before they're nudged into line and Raven separates them.
Then they're filed out of the Training Center and onto the stage, where they'll sit in an arc through the interviews and await their turns. Raven is hiding it well, but Erik is sure she's nervous. The same seems to be true of Charles, and he's just as good at hiding it.
They sit through twenty three-minute interviews until it comes time for any of them. The crowd is mystified and delighted by Jean, with her red hair curled perfectly and contrasting strikingly with the bright blue of the sparkling gossamer dress that is complete with wings. Caesar Flickerman, the host of the interviews, seems to adore her. He compliments her on the color, and it's clear why as his own hair is blue this year and the shades nearly match. They laugh at the coincidence and he compliments her on her training score.
"I'm fast, and I'm hard to find. If they can't catch me, they can't kill me. And if they do catch me somehow, I have Charles. So don't count me out!"
Caesar seems caught off guard by the bit about Jean's district mate, and it looks like he's going to ask when the buzzer signaling the end of the interview goes off. "Well I certainly wouldn't count you out—not in a million years," he smiles.
Jean all but floats back to her seat, the captivated audience across Panem watching, and Charles is the next to take the seat next to Caesar at center stage. His suit is no more complicated than anyone else's—maybe more simple, really—but it's cut well and the blue accents at the lapels and sleeves to match the color of Jean's dress bring out the blue in his eyes.
Of course what Erik notices is the eyes. It's been that way from the first moment.
Charles is boyishly good-looking and self-deprecating in his quiet humor, and the crowd loves him immediately. It isn't a surprise. He's charming in more of an adorable way than an outgoing way, but they don't care. They love it anyway. Erik imagines many of them of them want to take him home, and he can't blame them.
Caesar, though, doesn't waste too much time before picking up where Jean left off. "Charles, tell me, what is it that Jean meant? I can't help feeling it has something to do with the way you two acted at the Reaping. It seems to me you already knew each other."
Erik is watching the screens—he can't see Charles's face himself from behind—but the cameras are watching Charles and he doesn't think anyone misses the flicker of pain that crosses those eyes.
"Yes. I've uhm…I've known Jean since she was born, actually. Her older sister is my best friend—she was too old to volunteer for her, or she would have, I'm sure."
"I promised to protect Jean. Jean said she'll have me because she will. I don't plan to let anything happen to her. I promised her sister I would do everything in my power to see that she wins."
Caesar blinks, and he actually seems momentarily stunned by the force of this story. Everyone saw the Reapings—everyone saw Jean hugging Charles, and the two of them holding hands on that stage—but though everyone knew from the day of the Reapings that Raven Darkholme of District 12 volunteered to save her sister no one knew this. No one knew the story behind what they saw from District 11.
"Wow…that is something. That surely is something, Charles."
Everyone knows that what he's said means he already knows that he isn't going home.
And that just isn't discussed. Not in the interviews. It's been obvious from the looks on many tributes' faces over the years that they resigned themselves to death in the beginning, for various reasons. But never for something like this—to protect someone else—and never has it been spoken of openly.
There is a stirring in the balcony where the gamemakers are gathered, but Erik doesn't think Charles knows what he's done. He was only telling the truth.
"I'm sure Jean's sister is very grateful," Caesar continues. The cameras flicker to Jean, who is sitting up straight on purpose and her eyes are on Charles's back, but she's young and though she tries gallantly the sadness on her face is still clear.
Then the cameras are back on Charles, and he's forcing a smile. "I just pray I can do my job well," he says.
"I'm sure you will. I'm certainly sure you will. Best of luck to you, Charles Xavier—to both of you."
The buzzer goes off again, and the audience is still hushed from Charles's revelation when Raven takes the stage. Caesar cheers immediately to welcome her but then again he's been doing this for 40 years. He knows how to act.
With Raven's chair empty Erik is able to catch Charles's eye across the few feet that separates them. He mouths, I think you did what you meant to, and Charles's forced smile eases into something a little less forced. He answers with a mouthed thank you.
Raven gets on well enough with Caesar herself, though Caesar can find a way to get on with anyone. Either way, he and the entire audience are most interested in one thing—the way she volunteered for her little sister.
Raven tells them she promised Prim that she would try her hardest to win for her. To go home to her. Not all of it is actually said, but it's understood. This cultivates the audience's sympathy just as much as Charles's story, and this story they've had the time to ponder. They eat it up, and Erik wonders why she needs his help at all. She doesn't seem to.
By the time he takes the interview seat, Erik hasn't any idea what he'll actually say no matter how much he and Haymitch discussed it.
The first part of the interview he and Caesar go back and forth over the bit where no one believes he's a baker's son, the way he looks. Erik proves it by listing a few of his usual duties in the bakery, and no one can believe those either. Especially the cake decorating. There's more than one good laugh.
Erik is just starting to think he may not need to decide what to say about what he's worrying over when Caesar asks him if he has a girlfriend back in District 12. Erik tries to skirt the question, saying no dismissively and not caring that Haymitch will kill him later, but Caesar doesn't believe him.
"How can there be no one special? Look at you. There must be someone."
All he can do is stick with the question, and go with the plan. Do what Haymitch told him to do. Help Raven. Add to her story. But no lies.
"There is one girl…I guess I've cared about her as long as I can remember. But I don't think she knew who I was until the Reaping."
Caesar and the crowd are sympathetic. Caesar asks if the girl has another boy—tells Erik he should win this thing and go home and ask the girl out. Erik says that won't help him, and Caesar doesn't understand why.
Erik wishes he could be looking at Charles, to know he still understands that what he's saying is only part of a plan. But Charles is behind him, and he has to swallow and answer anyway. "Because she came here with me…"
The reaction from the crowd is more active than anything that's happened so far, gasps and murmuring and agonized cries, and part of him knows that's a good thing but another part of his heart sinks, hoping he hasn't overshadowed Charles and Jean.
This is driving him insane. Only one of them can win. He has long-standing loyalty to Raven, and a loyalty from birth to his district, but he wants Charles to live. But if Charles were to live that would mean something had happened to Jean, and Charles would be devastated…
The whole damn thing is a no-win situation. He feels torn in a dozen different directions. He still feels as if he's betraying Charles sitting here and saying these things, but he knows he's betraying his district wanting Charles and Jean to live too. He's lost enough in his own confusion that Erik hardly notices Raven's shocked face on the screens. The cameras focused on her when everyone realized whom he was talking about, but Erik isn't looking.
"Oh, that is a piece of bad luck," Caesar is saying. Like with Charles, and with Raven, there is genuine pain in his voice. The crowd is still upset. "Though I don't think any of us can blame you. It'd be hard not to fall for that young lady."
And if he's going to feel awful either way, Erik decides then that they should know the rest of the truth. The truth of how horrible what the tributes are put through is. How the Games can ruin everything. "You don't know the half of it," he mutters. He makes sure it's loud enough that Caesar hears.
"What do you mean?"
"I mean…" Is he really going to do this? He has to. "I mean, yes, I've cared about Raven since we were kids, and I always will, but there's someone else I don't think I could live without."
Caesar seems a little bewildered at that. "Then who is that? What makes them so special? Is it someone else who is back home in District 12?"
"No…" Erik swallows hard. "He's someone I met here; he's a tribute as well."
"He? And he's also here?" Caesar questions incredulously.
But his comment is hardly heard over the reactions of the audience. More cries of anguish and sympathy, and Erik hasn't even finished. The cameras are panning the tributes in their semi-circle, unsure of whom to settle on because this time the answer is less clear. But Erik has the rest of the question to answer. Caesar asked what makes this person that means so much so special, and damnit he's going to tell them.
Erik nods and goes on, not quite looking up but definitely not cowering, either. He wants everyone to know this. "He's different from the others…he has such a good heart, and people he cares about more than anything—people he's even willing to sacrifice himself for. Nothing is about him, and I don't see how anyone could not admire that, how anyone could not…love him."
And there. He's said it. They couldn't even say it to each other, but that doesn't make it any less true. And as the words leave his mouth what he's saying and Charles's reaction lead the cameras straight to him, and Erik finds those blue eyes on the screens. Charles's mouth is open as he stares up, dumbfounded, cheeks on fire and eyes damp. He clamps a hand over his mouth and ducks his head, but everyone has seen him. All of Panem has, just like they saw Raven.
The buzzer goes off. There's no time for Caesar to comment on the tragedy of this situation too, but he doesn't have to.
"Well, the best of luck to you, Erik Lehnsherr," Caesar says quietly. Again he is almost drowned out by the crowd, and Erik doesn't know what to do. He's frozen until Caesar finally calms them down, then manages a "thank you" and goes back to his seat. He almost wants to melt into the floor, but the anthem ends the night and everyone stands and respect is required and he has no choice but to hold up his head for the duration.
When he does he can't help but see that though the cameras try to pan to all of the tributes they focus on the four at the end of the arc more heavily than any.
It isn't the doomed love story Haymitch wanted. It isn't Erik and Raven, the doomed lovers from District 12. It's Erik and Charles, the lovers who are doomed period. Beyond that it's more a triangle, if anything, and not even that really. It's all four of them—Erik and Charles and Jean and Raven—because now all of Panem knows that their stories are hopelessly and tragically tangled together.
When the anthem ends the tributes are led to file off the stage and back into the Training Center lobby, but the line breaks up before they're inside and Erik finds his way to Charles's side. Charles presses into him without a word and takes his hand, his other arm around Jean's shoulders as they make their way back into the building. Raven, whom he expected to be angry, is not right on their heels but she's stayed near them nonetheless.
Erik glances back once, sees the screens, and the cameras watching the tributes leave and capping the program have focused on the four of them once again.
Soon enough they're back inside the training center, and everyone files into the elevators. The crowds outside slow the mentors and stylists and others coming from their seats, and the tributes are alone in the cars on the way up. Erik and Charles and Raven and Jean are all in the same car, of course, and the last of those with them get off around the seventh or eighth floor. Erik isn't entirely sure. He's not really paying attention to them.
He knows, though, when the four of them are alone, and as soon as they are he uses the hand he's holding to pull Charles closer and into his arms.
Charles doesn't resist, but he does remind Erik gently that he and Jean need to get off the elevator soon.
"No, you don't," Erik murmurs. The door to District 11's floor opens, and he doesn't let go. Charles doesn't move, and neither does Jean. The door closes again, and the elevator moves up to the top floor.
"You do realize we'll be in trouble the moment your mentor and the others make it up here," Charles mutters as Erik tugs him out of the elevator. The girls follow them, bewildered.
"They can get over it." It doesn't matter now. Everyone knows.
Charles sighs and holds onto him. "What were you thinking out there?"
"I really don't know."
"I think you're both insane, if you ask me," Raven huffs, hands on hips. "On the up side, Erik, adding the other bit you saved yourself my being furious with you. Not that I'm not. I mean, really? Of all the things you and Haymitch could have come up with? The part about me must have been what you two dreamed up; I doubt he knew about Charles."
Erik swallows and forces a glare at her. "I wasn't lying, if you must know."
That quiets her. The angry look on her face freezes, and her arms drop.
Jean is still quiet, hovering near Charles's other side and bouncing anxiously on her toes. In the sparkling dress with its wings, she almost appears to be flying.
That's when another of the elevator cars opens to expel Haymitch, Effie, Cinna, and Portia.
"What are they doing up here?" Haymitch snaps immediately.
Erik just makes a face at him, and the others are silent.
Haymitch growls under his breath and continues anyway. "Doesn't matter. Way I see it, you either royally blew it for all four of you or you did yourself a favor. We won't know until the sponsors show up or don't. So congratulations to you and your stupidity." With that he stalks in the direction of the dining room.
Erik tries not to let Haymitch bother him, but his heart sinks anyway.
He didn't think about it that way. What if the tangle of connections between the lot of them that he revealed is too much for the people of the Capitol? What if he killed any chance any of them had of gaining sponsors in one fell swoop? Of course, there is always the chance the Capitol is eating it up and they'll have sponsors lined up around the block, but he doesn't think there's a medium for them anymore. Thanks to him. Haymitch is actually right.
"Erik, it's all right," Charles is whispering.
Effie doesn't quite seem to know what to do. She's looking at the four of them, her mouth is opening and closing, but nothing comes out. Apparently her chaperone experience hasn't prepared her for something like this. Tributes from the outer districts never fraternize in any way. Only the Careers, and that isn't really a connection worthy of attention. It happens every year, and then breaks up as the Games draw toward their end. As the Careers start killing each other. Because usually they're the only ones left and there can only be one winner.
There can only be one winner. At least three of them will be dead within a week or two.
Erik shoves that thought away. For one more night he doesn't have to think about it.
"Well," Effie says finally. "I suppose we should eat." Then she hurries away. Portia follows her without a word.
Cinna goes to Raven's side to put a hand on her arm, presumably to assure her she did fine in the interview. She seems relieved to see him, and they're talking quietly as she follows him in the direction the others went.
She looks back once, and maybe Erik is fooling himself but he thinks the anger has been replaced by something like sympathy.
He doesn't want to think about that, either.
"I guess your own team will be looking for you," Erik says after a moment.
Charles nods, but it's Jean who speaks up. "I'll go down," she says. She looks at Charles. "If they ask, I'll tell them you're coming."
"Thank you," Charles answers. He smiles at her, and she smiles back. She even turns the smile on Erik, and he can't help but give her a small one in return.
Then she's gone, and Erik and Charles are alone, and Erik can't help but swallow again. "Charles, what if it's not all right? What if Haymitch is—what if I ruined everything?"
"I'm sure you didn't. It will be fine. It's all right."
"Saying it doesn't make it true."
Charles sighs. "I know that. But it's possible; we might as well believe it while we can." Erik opens his mouth, but Charles shakes his head and continues. "I don't know. Listen, I should go. But I'll come to the roof after dinner. We can talk then."
They'll have to talk then. They'll have to say goodbye then.
Erik can only nod, and Charles presses a brief kiss to his lips. He breaks away for the elevators, but he doesn't release Erik's hand until he has to.
Dinner is quiet. There will be a recap of the interviews on television afterward, but no one seems interested in revisiting that. Haymitch and Effie say their goodbyes, because they will be staying here in the Capitol at the games headquarters. It's Cinna and Portia who will escort them to the arena at dawn.
Effie actually seems sad to say goodbye to them. "Well tonight was…interesting, but…anyhow, the two of you are still the best tributes I've had the privilege to chaperone!" And she shakes their hands and leaves quickly.
Haymitch doesn't exactly try to make amends, but he offers final words of advice. Get out of there when the gong sounds. Don't risk the bloodbath at the Cornucopia. Find water and stay alive. He seems more concerned about Raven, but that's fine. Erik doesn't plan to make it out, anyway.
Raven retreats quickly to her room once Cinna and Portia have left for the night as well, and Erik goes to the roof. Charles isn't there yet, and he doesn't feel like listening to the commotion in the streets along—the capitol people excited for the Games to begin in the morning. He trails back down the stairs and sits on the last one before the platform at District 12's door.
Erik is on the stairs when Charles finally escapes District 11's floor, after dinner and declining the interview recap and saying goodbye to their mentor and chaperone and tucking Jean into bed in his room again because she refuses to sleep in her own.
"I hope I haven't kept you waiting too long."
Charles sits on the step beside him and Erik slowly comes out of whatever thoughts he's been lost in. "Hmm? Oh…no." Erik looks at him, and even in the dim stairwell Charles can see the remorse that is still on his face. "You really don't hate me, then?"
"For what? Telling the truth? Of course not," he answers gently.
They're quiet for a few minutes, and then Erik stands and offers a hand to pull him back up. Charles take it, but instead of leading him to the roof Erik leads him back through the door onto District 12's floor.
"Where are we going?" Charles whispers. Erik takes him through the first door on the left and shuts it behind them, and it must be his bedroom. It's nearly identical to Charles's own.
"It doesn't matter if you're here, does it? They don't broadcast 24/7 until the Games begin, and whoever it is keeping an eye on us while we're in the Training Center will know by now. We don't have to hide on the roof."
And then Erik is kissing him, and he remembers that this has to be goodbye. A quiet sob escapes his lips before he can stop it, and Erik holds him tighter.
"Do we really have to say goodbye now?" Erik questions then, almost desperately. "Everyone knows. Couldn't we just—"
"Nothing else has changed," Charles answers. "It still isn't a good idea."
Erik pulls him back enough to look at him. "I told you…Raven can take care of herself. I don't have to worry about her, and I don't think she wants me to. Why can't I stay with you and Jean? Two of us can protect her better than one—"
"Erik, stop," Charles interrupts quickly. "We can't do that."
His throat is clogged. "Because I don't want to see you die!" It barely comes out, and what he says next is hardly a whisper. "If we stay together in the arena it will happen at some point. It will have to. Unless I die first, and I just…I can't, Erik. I can't be wondering when I'll have to watch you die."
He isn't looking up at Erik anymore, but he can hear him, and he feels it when Erik's hands move from his shoulders to his cheeks. "Don't you think I feel the same?" he says softly.
"I know you do…so why are you asking that we stay together out there? You know it could only end badly…"
"I just can't bear the thought that this is it. It doesn't have to be. We could…we could separate near the end, or—"
"We wouldn't." Charles looks up again to see Erik's shoulders slump. Erik knows he's right. Charles feels no joy or triumph in being right. He wishes he wasn't.
"So what do we do?" Erik asks.
Charles pulls him back and claims his lips again. He isn't sure how long they're standing there or when they migrate to the bed, but they don't really say anything else. Nothing else happens but that their lips are scarcely apart but it's nice just to lie there in each other's arms and pretend they can stay here together.
"Erik," Charles whispers at one point. "What you said out there…I-I want you to know I—" I love you, too. We're going to die and it's stupid, but I do. But Erik silences him before he can finish.
They never say goodbye. Not in those words. Saying those words is unthinkable. But Charles stays until Erik falls asleep before slipping back to his own floor. He can't help pressing a kiss to Erik's forehead before he leaves and just looking at him for a moment. The pain they're both in isn't so obvious when he's sleeping.
He has to stop in the stairwell to collect himself, or he'll cry. Jean should be asleep, but if she isn't he doesn't want her to see him crying. There are a few tears. His chest heaves once or twice, but he reins everything in before he's really sobbing and stuffs it all away.
Jean appears to be asleep when he crawls into the bed, but once he's under the covers she moves closer. "Are you okay?" she asks.
"What? I'm fine…go to sleep."
She takes one of his hands and holds it while they fall asleep anyway.
Charles is gone when Erik wakes, of course. He doesn't even see Raven. Rather than Effie rousing them like every morning before Portia comes to lead him to the roof, where a hovercraft picks them both up to take them to the arena. Breakfast is in the hovercraft, and he doesn't want to eat but he knows he should—as much as he can, to keep his strength up, because he can't be certain when he'll see food again.
He eats like he should. The hovercraft drops them off, and they're deposited directly into a tube that takes them down into the catacombs under the arena. They can't see it. The tributes won't know what the arena looks like until they're in it.
Erik is directed to shower and clean up, and dress in what's been brought for him. Everyone will be wearing the same thing. The simple, sturdy clothes and boots seem to indicate…well, really, they could mean anything. He doesn't know. He doesn't care. He'll do what Haymitch said—run, as soon as the gong sounds. He'll stay alive as long as he can, just in case he has the chance to do anything to help Charles or Jean or Raven. And because he has survival instincts just like everyone else, of course.
"Erik?" It won't be long now. He's barely said a word to Portia, and she's looking at him curiously now.
"Do you think I screwed everything up last night?" he asks.
She gives him a gentle smile. "No…I thought it was beautiful, what you did."
"But it doesn't change anything."
She doesn't have an answer for that, but that she doesn't think he ruined everything helps, if only a little. They'll find out soon enough anyway.
Then comes the announcement. It's time. Erik is ushered onto a metal plate and Portia wishes him luck before a glass cylinder drops over him and begins to push him up into the arena.
Trees. He can hear them blowing in the wind before he sees them, squinting against the sunlight. Raven will be happy. So will Charles and Jean. They can climb. Erik finds himself relieved.
The tributes are on their metal plates in a semi-circle in a clearing around the opening of the Cornucopia that is piled high with supplies. That's the battle he's supposed to be avoiding. Erik doesn't bother examining what's there or the various other things scattered on the ground between the Cornucopia and the tributes. Nothing is close enough. He looks for Charles and Jean and Raven instead.
Jean is only two or three plates down from him to the left, but Charles is at least ten spots away in the other direction. That isn't good. It would be better if they were closer together.
Claudius Templesmith's voice booms across the forested arena. "Ladies and gentlemen, let the Seventy-fourth Hunger Games begin!"
They have sixty seconds.
Jean is too far away. Charles sees Erik, near her, and the other boy meets his gaze and his mouth is pressed into a hard line and he seems to understand that, too.
He also seems rather determined about something.
No no no, you don't have to do anything. Just run. Damnit, Erik…
Telepathy would be useful right now.
At least Jean knows what to do. They'd talked about it. Charles doesn't like the conclusion they came to, but Jean is smaller and faster. As soon as the gong sounds she'll come to him, and they'll go for the trees. He's hoping she remembers to run around the outside of the circle of plates, not inside. It will be safer outside. Not that anywhere is safe.
By the time he's exchanged a glance with Jean to be certain she knows where he is, Erik seems to be shaking his head at Raven, who is about halfway between them. Charles doesn't understand why until he sees the silver bow and quiver sitting on one of the piles of supplies at the mouth of the Cornucopia.
Then Erik meets his eyes again, and he still has that determined look on his face. This time he nods, almost imperceptibly. Charles shakes his head, but Erik isn't paying attention anymore.
And the gong goes off.
Erik jumps off his plate, keeping his eyes on Jean as she shoots off her own and sprints in Charles's direction—across the inside of the semi-circle. Erik can tell from the look on Charles's face that that part, at least, must not have been the plan. Instead of waiting for her he runs to meet her.
Erik half follows, half keeps an eye out for anything that might threaten her.
A spear lands in the ground at his feet. Erik looks over his shoulder, wild-eyed, and finds the boy from District 1 coming at him with two or three more in his hands. When he sees he's missed and Erik will have a weapon now he breaks off.
He's heading straight for Jean.
Erik knows it could be his last move, but he tackles the other boy. Marvel. The other boy is a little shorter than him, but well-trained, and a good throw with a spear, and it's a wonder Erik isn't dead already.
They go down in a tangle. Marvel loses his grip on the spears and they roll, the other boy trying to regain one of his weapons. They're somewhat evenly matched in strength—the only advantage Erik has is his size, and he doesn't have much of it on the other boy as it is.
Marvel finds purchase on one of the spear shafts and brings it around, but they're too tangled for him to shove the tip anywhere that will do any good. Erik finally manages to kick him in the face, and it stuns him just long enough that Erik can scramble back to his feet and get away.
Jean has reached Charles. She's scooped up a backpack from the ground somewhere along the way. Charles finds his eyes for a brief moment as they're turning to head for the forest and there is gratitude there. Erik nods quickly and keeps running himself, yanking the grounded spear from the dirt as he goes. He doesn't really know how to use it, but he's sure it will come in handy somehow.
He thinks he sees Raven making it to the woods. Good. He finds a single loaf of bread on the ground and takes it, too, and makes it there himself without any further incident. He purposely angles far away from the direction he saw Charles and Jean going. It hurts to do it, but he'll honor Charles's wishes.
"You were supposed to meet me on the outside of the circle!"
"We needed something! And I'm faster," Jean says, shrugging the backpack she picked up onto her back as they hit the trees and keep going.
Charles glances back before they're too deep in the woods and sees Erik disappear into the trees on the other side of the clearing. Thank god he's safe, after risking his life for them like that.
They keep running until they're sure no one is following them, and then pace themselves until they're even farther from the Cornucopia. As soon as Charles is comfortable stopping he eyes a good tree and ushers Jean up into its branches, following quickly. Once he's up on the thick branch with her she hugs him fiercely.
"I'm sorry. That was stupid."
Charles lets out a breath and returns the embrace. They stopped running long ago, but his heart is still pounding and it's still stuck in his throat. Those moments when he thought the boy from District 1 might kill her…
"It's all right. We made it. We made it…"
Thank you, Erik.
Now they have to survive the rest of it.
For Charles and Jean the first two or three days go about as well as days in the arena can go. They spend the first day finding water, and branch out to food after that. There isn't much in the bag Jean snagged on the way out of the clearing—some rope, a small pack of matches they're afraid to use for fear of drawing enemies by the smoke, some dried fruit, and two empty water bottles, one much smaller than the other. Only the food is useful at first, keeping them going until they've found a small stream and can turn their attentions elsewhere.
They keep moving, but they stay near enough to the stream to hear it. Though they don't stay on the ground. Or Jean doesn't. Unless there's a reason Charles makes sure she stays in the branches and out of sight. The girl is small and nimble enough to move from tree to tree up there. Sometimes Charles can, but not always. If he has to—or to find food—he's the one to come down.
"And if anything happens while I'm on the ground, I want you to get away as quickly as you can. Is that understood?"
The backpack isn't heavy, so Charles lets Jean keep it. He wants her to have the supplies in the event they're separated. He carries only the smaller water bottle, which is just small enough to fit in one of the larger pockets of his jacket.
They sleep in the trees, close for warmth and wrapped in the thin metallic emergency blanket that was the only other content of the backpack. They have to be certain they're under enough leaf branch cover before nightfall; it wouldn't do at all for moonlight to reflect off of the stupid thing.
Charles wonders more than once why one earth they would have included such a thing—and why the backpack was mostly fluorescent green—but then again they all knew from watching the Games since they were born that the supplies at the Cornucopia decreased in usefulness the further from the center. The bag Jean grabbed was from the outside. Of course it and its contents would have their frustrating quirks. Some of the other bags he'd glimpsed had been bright orange and pink and red.
But a little mud fixed the problem with the backpack, and as long as they stayed in the shadows at night they were able to use the blanket. That was good, as cold as the nights could become, they quickly discovered.
They found plants for food, mostly, seeing as they knew enough to keep away from those that could hurt them and it was simpler than trying to hunt or catch anything else. Once or twice they managed to catch fish in the shallower parts of the stream, and it was only time the matches were used and only in the brightest part of the day. The fires were quickly put out and their remains hidden before Charles took back to the trees and Jean with the cooked food.
All the while, when Jean looks at him Charles feels nothing but trust from her. She doesn't complain that he wants her to stay in the trees and she huddles close at night, as if telling him that she knows he'll protect her.
Jean DOES need you. No matter how competent she is on her own she "wants" you with her. She "wants" you to protect her.
What Erik told him won't stop rolling around in his mind, and whether he's remembering exactly the right words or not doesn't matter.
"Do you miss him?"
Jean catches him off guard the second night in the arena, asking such a question. He's been thinking mostly about how he can continue to keep her safe, but…he has to admit to himself that hasn't been able to banish Erik from his mind. Far from it.
"Erik. You miss him, don't you?"
Charles swallows and looks away, shrugging. He doesn't want to say anything because it hurts to even think about Erik now, as much as he can't help but do it.
It doesn't help, either, that it's the middle of the night and there likely isn't much going on anywhere. If they start such a conversation, every camera in the arena will be on them. He would rather the entirety of Panem not be privy to his heartache.
Not that he can blame Jean for bringing it up. She's only concerned for him, and likely she isn't thinking about the cameras and the broadcast and never will. One thing she seems extremely adept at is pretending that nothing is wrong or out of the ordinary while simultaneously being well equipped to deal with whatever happens. It's such a strange combination, but it's Jean.
And she doesn't stop talking—or whispering, rather. Well then.
"I'm sorry you got dragged into this too…"
Charles blinks and looks at her quickly. "Don't say such a thing. Besides, if only one of us had been brought here I'd rather it were me." Then she would be safe.
The girl sighs quietly. "Yeah…if you didn't have to worry about me you could just be with Erik right now. I'm just a lot of trouble, aren't I?"
"Of course not." He'd never thought of it that way—that if she weren't here he and Erik wouldn't have had a reason to stay apart in the arena. But it doesn't matter. He never thought of it that way because he has no reason to. He doesn't regret being here to protect her.
He lets out a breath and kisses her head. "I promised I would get you home, and I will." How many times will he have to say it before he believes he can do it? When he was with Erik believing was easy. It's not so easy anymore.
It takes more than a day from the beginning for Erik to find water—a small pool that he can't go far from once he's found it. He has no way to carry water with him and the objective, at least for a while, is to stay alive.
Long enough to be sure that at least someone he cares about will be the one to get out of this alive. Charles, Raven, Jean…he can't even think about which he would rather it be. He wants all of them to live. He would be with any of them now, protecting them with what meager skills he has if any of them would let him, but he knows none of them will.
So the idea for now is to stay alive, in case he has a chance to help any of them later.
As much as he hates the idea of fighting anyone, much less hurting anyone…he would much rather go down that way, keeping any of the others from harming Charles or Jean or Raven. He would rather that than to die uselessly of exposure or starvation or murder.
Then at least this will all have been for something.
By the time Erik finds water he's already weak from thirst, and it's good he has the bread. It takes a few hours for him to regain his strength, and by then the second night in the arena is nearly upon him. He manages to scavenge plants to go with the bread before night falls, and makes it up into a tree for the night. He feels safer there than on the ground, where he stayed covered by brush the first night.
He's lucky no one has found him by now, stumbling through survival as he has been so far. He won't be any use to anyone at any time if he doesn't get his act together. He knows that.
He hopes Raven and Charles and Jean are doing much better than he is. He remembers the strange glow of fire in the distance the first night, and hopes none of them were hurt. Then again, none of their faces showed in the sky during the death report tonight. They're all alive, at least.
Tomorrow he'll put the spear to good use. If he can set a snare or two it'll be useful—both for skinning whatever he may be able to catch and for starting a fire, maybe, along with a good rock to strike it against. Hopefully. He managed something like that once or twice in training, anyway…
But he'll figure it out. He has to. He has to keep his strength up. He may be needed. He isn't sure what he could do, but…well, it doesn't matter.
He'll figure it out.
"Well if we can keep this up, we may not run into any trouble at all," Charles says, trying to keep Jean's spirits up. She's good at doing that herself, but it helps him feel more useful.
"Maybe," she says vaguely. She smiles at him, and he can't help but smile back and he wonders again if he needs her more than she needs him. But Erik wasn't wrong, and he'll do whatever he can to stay with her.
It's late afternoon, the light is beginning to dim, and thanks to the food they've gathered they haven't needed to leave the trees yet today. They have some left, but since it's quiet Charles decides to make his way down to gather more before it's too dark. He spots a patch of edible berries from their vantage point, and lets Jean know he'll be back up as quickly possible and to keep a lookout.
It's a good thing there are edible berries. There's quite a bit of Nightlock in the arena, too, he's noticed. Likely there to trick those less knowledgeable.
Charles scarcely has one pocket of his jacket full before a sudden four-note call sounds from above him. Anyone else would mistake it for a bird—and, indeed, the mockingjays around them take up the call after the first warning—but Charles knows it's Jean. Their signal. A short call used back home in District 11.
He looks up quickly, hearing noise not too far away just as he spots Jean and sees that she's gesturing frantically for him to come up.
Damn. He runs the few steps to the tree and starts up, the sounds of approaching footsteps coming closer much too quickly. Running. Are they running? Has he already been spotted? He pauses, torn in indecision and trying to see who or what is coming himself. Whoever it is isn't being quiet. Likely it's the Careers, and if they've seen him he can't lead them to Jean.
"They're chasing someone else; get up here!" Jean hisses from above.
Then they haven't seen him. But if he doesn't get high enough for cover soon they will.
Charles moves quickly, heart pounding. His mouth is dry now, and the moment he thought he'd been had made him sick to his stomach. He doesn't feel any better now. Jean stays above the leaf cover, and he can just see her. She reaches down for him as he comes up. He's nearly to her…
A faint snap. He's falling…!
No. He's not. His left foot and right hand find purchase quickly. Really he only slid a few inches.
Why is it hard to see? Why is his other hand clamped over his mouth? Why is Jean holding onto him, making sure it stays there?
Pain. He feels it now. He feels himself trying to scream into the hands muffling him, feels himself reeling, trying to catch him breath, blinking back sudden tears. He feels the trickles of something liquid down his lower right leg.
"Charles, hang on! You have to be quiet…! They're passing over there. Just be quiet and they won't see us, just hang on…" There's worry in her whisper, panic, and Charles does everything he can to make himself freeze. To keep himself quiet.
Slowly he's able to reconstruct it in his mind, while he's hanging there with his own hand and both of Jean's still clamped over his mouth because some of the quiet sounds of pain he can't stop entirely.
He tried to climb on what was left of a broken-off branch. He'd used it on the way down and it was fine, but it must have snapped. He slid. He didn't go far before he caught himself and Jean helped, but he slid quickly enough and slammed against the trunk with enough force that a sharp spike of the wood left cut into his leg. Glancing down momentarily confirms his suspicions. He looks up again quickly.
Too far. He looked up too far. He can see the tears on Jean's face now.
Charles settles somewhere in the middle, letting his eyes unfocus, waiting for Jean to tug and let him know it's safe to crawl up to the branch she's straddling—the one they've been sequestered on for most of the day. When she does she has to all but pull him up. His injured leg won't support him. When his mouth is released the pathetic sound that comes out of it scares him.
"Charles, I'm sorry! Oh…oh no, no…"
"D-don't apologize for things that…a-aren't your fault…god…! Ah…" She helps him settle back against the trunk of the tree.
"What do I do!" Her voice is still hushed, and Charles tries to keep his down after that. He's a bit too distracted at the moment to look for himself to find out how close or not the Career may or may not still be.
"I don't know…we don't have any medical supplies…"
"I know that!" Jean all but growls. Charles knows she right…he could have come up with a much more intelligent answer than that…but he's getting dizzy now…and…
Everything fuzzes out for a while, and when he comes to with Jean slapping at his face he realizes that she's tended to him as best she could. She's rolled up his pant leg, pulled her undershirt out from under her top one and tied it around the wound. The rope they haven't used much is tied around him and the tree trunk just tight enough to keep him from falling. The knot is at his waist where he can reach it.
"I've seen some of those leaves that can keep infection away around here, but I didn't want to go for them until you woke up and I could let you know."
His head is pounding and Charles swallows as what happened comes back. "No…it isn't safe…or have they gone?"
"Well…they're not gone entirely. They're just over that rise. It's the Careers, and they have someone up a tree. I can't see much from here, but there's smoke from over there now. I think they're camping out at the base." She's quiet for a moment. "And I think it's Raven they have cornered."
"What?" His heart sinks. He never had much of a chance to speak to Raven himself, but he knows Jean likes her and that Erik will be upset if anything happens to her. "Oh no…"
Jean lets out a breath. "Anyway, they're focused on whoever it is, and I'll stay in the trees until I have to go down for the plant I need. I can go in the opposite direction anyway. I'll be fine."
"You don't need to do that."
"Yes I do. And in the fifteen minutes you could spend arguing with me about it I could be gone and back, so don't. I'm losing what little daylight is left." It isn't even really daylight, with the sun below the horizon, and Charles scowls but he lets her go. "I'll stay in sight if I can," she promises.
She doesn't, but that's really only because it's getting darker. The glow from the fire over the hill doesn't help much, and thank goodness it doesn't. If it did, that would mean they were closer. But either way, Jean is back quickly, and she unties the shirt around his leg just long enough to press some of the crumbed leaves onto the wound under it.
By then it's too dim for him to really see much, and he can't tell how bad it is in the short time she has it unwrapped.
"How deep?" he asks.
She hesitates before answering. "Not as bad as it could be."
Charles frowns. "That isn't much of an answer."
Jean ignores him, tying the shirt back and drawing a sharp groan out of him when she tightens it. She winces. "Sorry." She stuffs the rest of the unused leaves into his jacket pocket where he can reach them easily. Already the leaves on the wound are helping some with the pain.
But that probably isn't going to help with whether or not he can use the leg. If he can't walk, he can't climb. If he can't climb, he can't get down from here.
If he can't go anywhere, he can't protect her.
He must still have that worried look on his face, because Jean is looking at him anxiously and he quickly wipes his expression and looks up at her again, pulling himself out of his thoughts. "Nothing. I uhm…I suppose we're sleeping here, then."
"I sure can't carry you," she answers wryly.
Charles tries to laugh, but it doesn't come out right.
No. She can't carry him.
There are still berries in his pocket, and other food in their backpack on Jean's back, but even though he feels a bit better thanks to the medicinal leaves, he really isn't hungry.
Jean waits until it's late—or early morning, rather—before moving. Maybe she didn't want to go for the leaves without Charles knowing, but then she didn't know how long he would be unconscious. He could have woken at any time and panicked. Right now, she's sure he'll sleep until dawn, at the very least, especially with that injury and whatever blood loss he sustained.
She's worried. She doesn't know what they're going to do now. It really did look bad, and with the wound caused by something as non-sterile as broken wood...
She shoves that thought away for now. Right now she's sure that the tribute the Careers have stuck up a tree over the rise is Raven, and she has to see if, maybe, there's a way she can help. Without putting herself in danger, of course, seeing as she doesn't want Charles to kill her himself. Well anyway.
She's sure she can be back before Charles even wakes. He'll never know she was gone.
A distant low buzzing and screams wake Charles just as the sun is rising, and as he straightens against the tree trunk he realizes Jean isn't with him. "Jean! Jean!"
He calls out before he can think it through, and there's a thump just above him. "Be quiet! I'm right here. Geez, you'd better be glad the Careers have other worries right now…"
Charles glares at her as she climbs down from the branches above him to sit beside him. "You should not have been gone and—and what on earth is happening over there?" The low buzzing hasn't stopped, thought it's becoming more distant, and the screams still punctuate the relative silence of the morning at intervals. He shivers.
Jean makes a face. "Tracker jackers. There was a nest above where they had Raven stuck. I pointed it out and she cut it down and let it fall on the Careers. Nasty, but not a bad plan, huh?"
Charles's heart jumps into his throat. "You went over there? Jean, how could you! If they'd seen you—"
"I stayed in the trees like always, and they were all asleep when I got there anyway. Only Raven saw me, and even she doesn't know where I went. I slipped away while she was cutting the nest down."
"That doesn't matter! You shouldn't have risked it—"
"But I saved her! They're off her tail by now, and—"
They both jump when the canon goes off, signaling that someone has died. Likely it's one of the Careers the tracker jackers chased. Jean moves into his side and Charles hugs her. "It's all right…" Not long after that is another canon.
They're both quiet for a while.
"What now?" Jean whispers.
Charles is really beginning to hate how often he doesn't have an answer.
Erik hears the commotion when he wakes up that morning, and he should have the sense to stay away but something makes him follow the noise. Carefully, but he does.
What he finds is Raven, stumbling through the trees and away from whatever happened back there, the silver bow and arrows from the Cornucopia clutched awkwardly in her hands. She doesn't even seem to see him. She's swatting at something invisible around her, twisting and grunting.
He sees the stings on her neck and arm then, swollen, and he doesn't know much about tracker jackers but he knows they're the only thing that would do such a thing so quickly and cause that strange green puss.
He grabs her arms and tries to snap her out of whatever hallucination she's trapped in, but she fights him. "Damnit, Raven—!"
He hears the crashing footsteps in the woods, and probably whoever it is is busy with hallucinations of their own—he heard the buzzing; there must have been a swarm—but he isn't going to take any chances. Maybe Raven is struggling, but she's also uncoordinated and weakening, and he's still strong even if he doesn't have many skills. It's easy enough to drag her with him and away from whoever else is out there.
When they're far enough away and he feels safe enough to stop he does, and finds a place to hide her, against a large fallen log with brush around it. He drags over limbs and other brush to complete the camouflage. By now she's unconscious, and he's able to look at the stings. She's already pulled out the stingers, and he doesn't know what else could be done for her anyway.
Erik drags the limbs and brush over her, making something of a low lean-to against the log. The brush on top makes it look like nothing more than a natural pile of leaves and plants crowded around the fallen tree.
He checks the supplies in Raven's bag, and finds her water bottle nearly empty. The pool he found isn't far, and he takes it there and fills it up before putting it back in her backpack and pushing the bag into her shelter with her, out of sight. The bow and arrows are already in there. He wonders how she got them.
He would stay with her, but he doesn't think she would take that well. So he doesn't. But he stays close.