Walt doesn’t eat the morning of the Reaping. He never does.
His mother watches him with worried eyes, but she doesn’t do more than brush her fingers through his hair and try to smooth it down. She’s already laid out the clothes he’s going to wear, a pair of slacks that need to be let out in the legs and a shirt that belonged to his father, but Walt hasn’t put them on yet.
Today is the day of the Reaping, but Walt’s world doesn’t stop because of it. He’s already been out to feed and milk the thin cow Ray won him in a poker match; Ray tried to keep it himself, but there’s no room at his place and Ray doesn’t know the first thing about animals. The garden has been watered, but nothing wants to grow in the hard soil.
Walt’s mother licks her thumb before attempting to wipe a smudge of dirt from his cheek. Her hands are warm, and Walt doesn’t try to push her away. He should, maybe, but this could be the last time she has the chance, so he lets it slide. “How many times is your name in?” She asks quietly.
”Four,” Walt lies. He always lies, because he doesn’t want her to feel guilty. He knows she knows the truth, that he’s taken tesserae for the both of him since he was twelve. His name is in the pot twelve times this year, and they both know it. “I’ll be okay.”
There’s a look on her face, like she wants to say more, but she bites her tongue. She won’t let herself cry while Walt is watching, and for that he’s thankful. “Go wash up and get dressed. It’s almost time.”
It’s almost time. She doesn’t need to elaborate for either of them to know for what. It’s easier this way, maybe.
Walt tries to smile. “Yes, momma,” he says, and he doesn’t let himself linger before he obeys.
They don’t find each other until after they’ve registered and been urged to join their age groups. Ray is hard to miss in a crowd, short and wiry and sporting bruises from one fight or another. There’s a fresh split on his lip, but when Walt opens his mouth to ask what happened, Ray just grins and shakes his head.
”For the record, the new Peacekeepers don’t like it when you count cards,” Ray says. His tongue flicks out to wet the cut, grimacing slightly at the touch. “That being said, I got away with enough coins to get some of those sweet rolls you like later.”
Ray says later like this is no big deal, like there is nothing special about today. The pants he wears are torn at the hems from his boots catching against them when he walks, and his shirt is rolled up to his elbows and stained with who knows what. How his mother let him come to the Reaping dressed like that, Walt will never know.
Walt forces himself to smile and says, “okay.” He sucks the pad of his thumb and tries to wipe a dark mark from Ray’s chin; it’s a bruise, but Ray barely flinches when Walt touches it. “Sorry.”
”Don’t worry about it.” Ray loops a thin arm around Walt’s neck and drags him in close, holds him in place while the representative from the Capitol has quiet words with the Mayor before they begin. His breath is hot against Walt’s ear when he whispers, “where’s Wynn gone off too?”
Sure enough, Mike Wynn isn’t up on the stage in his usual spot as a previous Victor. Nate Fick sits alone, in an impeccable suit with a distant expression on his face. It’s strange, but not unheard of, Walt supposes.
Pressing his cheek against Ray’s arm, Walt sucks in a breath and bites his tongue. Ray’s clothes smell like the sun and wind, his skin of dirt and sweat, but it’s familiar and comforting. He closes his eyes and thinks, please don’t let it be me. Don’t let it be him. Let this be over.
Walt should know better than to make idle wishes, for all the good they do.
When Ray’s name is called, it’s like a punch to the gut. His arm is still around Walt’s neck, their bodies pressed together from hip to chest. For the first time since Walt’s known him, Ray freezes up.
”Joshua Ray Person?” Their representative asks.
The crowd parts around them, the boys they’ve grown up with stepping back and leaving them completely exposed to the eyes of everyone, here and in the Capitol. Ray’s arm tightens around Walt’s shoulders in response, drawing him in closer and holding him tight.
”Ray,” Walt whispers. He curls his fingers into Ray’s shirt in sudden desperation, trying to keep him close. He doesn’t want Ray to go. This isn’t how this is supposed to happen. “Ray, no. I won’t let you.”
”I have to,” Ray says. He’s staring at Walt, like there’s something he’s trying to say but Walt doesn’t get it.
Right now, nothing matters more than the fact that Walt’s best friend is being led off into a death trap and Walt can’t let that happen. His hands drop away and he takes a step away from Ray’s warm body. “I vol-“
The blow is sudden, startling Walt and knocking him flat on his ass. The pain is searing hot, the snap of his nose echoing in his head and Walt sputters through the blood leaking down his face. He’s caught completely off guard and has no idea what the fuck he’s supposed to do. Ray hit him.
The Peacekeepers come closer to intercede, but Ray waves them off. “I’m coming,” he says, cradling one hand to his chest. There’s blood on his knuckles and it stains his dark gray shirt. Ray walks away without sparing a second glance at Walt.
Walt has no idea what happened, but he’s pretty sure his world just ended. He can feel the hands pulling him to his feet, but Walt doesn’t want to be moved. He can’t take his eyes off of Ray’s slumped shoulders, his slow, solitary march up the steps in front of the Justice Building.
Vaguely, Walt feels a prickling sensation on the back of his neck like he’s being watched, but it doesn’t make sense. Everyone is staring at him – everyone but Ray, anyways. Then, out of the corner of Walt’s eye, he notices it.
Staring at him intently is Nate. It’s the first time he’s shown any sign of being alive since he got up on the mock stage. It kind of scares Walt, the intensity Nate is watching him with.
Just as suddenly as it started though, it’s over. The representative from the Capitol draws the attention back to the proceedings and the cameras pull away from Walt. No one even remembers he exists.
No one but Nate.
Walt ignores him as best he can.
The Peacekeepers don’t want to let Walt in to see Ray. They know him on sight, from the dark swell of his nose to the blood staining his shirt. His nose isn’t bleeding as profusely, not since the Doc set it. It hadn’t even hurt much, hadn’t been more complicated than a quick tug in the dirty town square.
”Please,” Walt begs, eyes wet from physical pain and emotional despite the fact he’s trying so hard not to cry. He’s not a little boy and he should have been prepared for this opportunity. He knows that. “Ray’s my best friend.”
Whatever it is the Peacekeeper sees in Walt’s face, it’s enough to let him pass. He’s let into the room that Ray is trapped, sitting on a stool and chewing his nails down to the quick. Ray doesn’t look up when Walt walks in and Walt doesn’t know what to do.
”Ray,” Walt starts, but his breath catches in his throat and he forgets what he intended to say. Maybe he never knew what he wanted to say in the first place. He doesn’t have any advice for a situation like this. There’s no promises he can make or any way for him to make it better.
Ray looks just as lost as Walt does, but it isn’t a comfort. He stands up slowly, practically bounding across the room to see Walt but catching himself when he’s an arm’s reach away. “Walt – “ he starts, licking his lips. His tongue touches the slit and he swallows. “I’m sorry.”
Even without any clarifications, Walt knows Ray means for everything. It’s Ray. Walt knows Ray like he knows himself.
”Don’t,” Walt whispers. He takes a step closer, and when Ray doesn’t stop him or step back, Walt closes the distance between them and holds Ray tight. “Ray.” He wants to say please don’t go and I don’t want you to die, but neither of them is enough. It’s not the ache that’s making Walt’s heart pound in his chest and the wetness in his eyes threaten to spill over.
The pads of Ray’s fingers rub gently along Walt’s hairline, holding the back of his neck with surprising gentleness. His breath is warm on the inside of Walt’s neck, his wet cheeks pressed against Walt’s own. “I’m coming back,” Ray whispers in a shaky voice. “I promised you sweet rolls, remember?”
Walt couldn’t care less about the stupid sweet rolls at this point, but he doesn’t tell Ray that. He knows what Ray meant. Walt wraps his arms around Ray’s body tighter, fingers tight in Ray’s shirt, and tries not to fall apart. He wants to remember Ray forever, just in case he doesn’t come back.
”Walt,” Ray whispers, like something sweet. His voice so small and scared though, and Walt can feel his heart breaking in his chest, the pain sudden and a million times worse than the sudden break in his nose. “Walt,” Ray says again, and it’s all Walt can do to never let go.
Walt’s bed is little more than a battered mattress in the corner, but he doesn’t move from it for the rest of the day. He’s grateful that his mother doesn’t make him, but he kicks off the quilt she attempts to drape over him and ignores the glass of water and thin slice of buttered bread she brings him for dinner.
Comfort is the last thing Walt wants right now. His best friend is being led like a pig to the slaughter, and there’s absolutely nothing he can do about it. Walt keeps playing those moments over in his head, wondering what he could have done differently to change this, but nothing comes to mind.
The fact is, Walt is useless. He should have volunteered despite the punch to the face, but he didn’t. Walt was scared. He’s a coward and a terrible best friend. There is no avoiding these simple truths.
So Walt doesn’t even bother trying. He lays in his bed, ignoring offers of comfort and cheap platitudes. Walt doesn’t want or deserve them. Walt’s not even sure he wants to exist in a world where Ray isn’t by his side, day in and day out. They’ve known each other since before they could walk, have played and fought, shared secrets and lied to protect each other for as long as they’ve been alive.
Walt and Ray were meant to be together. It’s as simple as that.
No one Walt knows in District 11 owns a TV of their own. He reckons Nate and Mike might, them being Victors and all, but he has no proof of that. The Mayor and Peacekeepers probably do, too, but Walt doesn’t spend much time with any of them. There’s a rumor that Schwetje trades coins for sex, but Ray made Walt promise he’d never do that and Walt never breaks his promises.
Ray doesn’t break promises, either, but Walt doesn’t think he’s allowed to blame Ray if he does just this once. No one expects Ray to come home in one piece, as much as they want him to.
After Ray is taken, Walt tries to forget about him. It doesn’t work, even with a lack of a TV at home to remind him. Everything reminds Walt of Ray and his stupid smiles and the dimples in his cheeks, his quick wit and the unnerving way he knows how to get under Walt’s skin.
Walt doesn’t need to see Ray in the stupid opening parade to know that he looks good, despite the fact he’s dressed as a farmer. Ray’s never worked the fields because he makes his money counting cards and doing things he made Walt promise not to ask about. His female companion, Sierra, Walt thinks, looks just as out of place as Ray does.
The parade is a mockery of everything Walt’s ever known about Ray. Ray doesn’t get to shine here, despite the fact so many millions of eyes are trained on him. This isn’t how Ray works. It never has been.
The solo interviews with Caesar Flickerman are another story though.
Caesar is amicable, despite the rosy sheen to his hair and skin. He laughs when Ray says he looks like a pastry, but Ray’s tone isn’t demeaning and Caesar doesn’t take it to be such. Their banter is light hearted and Ray is nothing like Walt remembers him being those last few moments before they were forced to separate.
The Ray that’s being interviewed is intelligent and quick to grin, flashing his dimples to the world at large. It isn’t the Ray that Walt knows though, he’s lacking the bitter bite in his judgments and the quiet snark that makes Walt either want to laugh or hit him.
Nate, Walt thinks idly. It’s Nate. He’s supposed to be there to guide Ray through these ceremonies, to help him get out alive. The Ray that Walt knows and loves is apparently not fit for these kinds of situations, but it astounds Walt that Ray is willing to play along. Whatever Nate said to him must have been powerful.
The last question Caesar asks breaks Ray’s façade though, his smile faltering and his hands freezing mid gesture. “I think, the question we all want to is this one,” Caesar starts, “Why did you punch a boy during your Reaping?”.
Just for a second, Ray’s pain is obvious. Walt sees him as he’s always seen him; a scared boy just trying to get by. To survive. Ray isn’t scared now though, just hurt, and Walt yearns to comfort him.
”That was, ah, Walt,” Ray says. His voice is different now, like somehow talking about pastries and card games is so much more effortless than saying Walt’s name. “He’s -” Ray licks his lips, and it’s only then Walt realizes the split is gone, already healed. “He’s my best friend. The idiot was trying to volunteer in my place. I had to shut him up.”
”So you hit him in the face,” Caesar says gently. His tone isn’t judgmental, not really. He knows that Ray saved Walt’s life by doing it, even if he doesn’t say it aloud.
Ray doesn’t say anything else and Caesar doesn’t ask him to. There are two more tributes to interview and they were running out of time in the first place. When Ray walks off the stage, Walt wishes desperately he would stay.
The next time Ray’s face is blown up all over the TV, it’ll be the start of the Hunger Games and Walt isn’t ready for that. He doesn’t think he ever will be.
He’s not sure how it happens, but somehow Walt ends up in the Victor’s Village after a day spent in school and an afternoon working in the fields. He’s lucky that he spends more time wrangling animals than breaking ground, but he’s sore from taking care of horses and he’s sure he reeks of them.
If Walt was Mike, he’d turn Walt away at the sight of him. It seems impossible that Mike would just look at him with quiet understanding before stepping aside to allow him into his home.
Mike’s house is huge and is easily larger than the one Walt grew up in. It’s a shack in comparison, really, but that shack is Walt’s home and he still thinks of it with warm fondness despite that fact. It isn’t nearly as clean as Mike’s, either, and Walt is a little terrified to touch anything or sit on one of the wooden chairs in the kitchen.
”Was wondering if you were gonna come by,” Mike says gently. He pours Walt a glass of water, cold and crisp and clear, before sitting down opposite of him at the table. He doesn’t say anything when Walt toys with his glass, leaning back in his own seat and watching the sky outside the large bay windows.
”I’m not even sure why I came,” Walt responds. Only, the more Walt thinks about it, the more he realizes that’s a lie. His fingers curl tightly around his cup and he takes a drink of water just to keep from crushing the glass in his hands. He wets his chapped lips and tries not to be too relieved at the sensation. “Why did Nate go and not you?”
”Nate was requested,” Mike replies simply. His easy smile fades into something grimmer, a tight lipped thing that makes Walt uneasy. “He’s a brilliant boy. Quick on his feet and one of the brightest people I’ve ever had the fortune to meet. Pretty, too.”
There’s something that Mike’s not saying that Walt doesn’t understand. Walt doesn’t get why those traits have anything to do with why Nate was asked to be the Mentor instead of Mike. Mike has done it for longer, has proved he knows how to get Sponsors and coach at least one Tribute into coming home. Nate only won the Game four years ago and he’s never been a Mentor.
”If anyone can bring your boyfriend home, get him the Sponsors he needs to stay alive, it’s Nate,” Mike says. This time, he sounds almost reassuring. His faith in Nate is earnest, despite the judgment he was passing earlier. “Ray’s a bright kid and knows how to get out of tight spaces. Everyone in the District knows he’s a weasel.”
”Ray’s not a weasel,” Walt snaps. He has no idea what’s going on here and he doesn’t like Mike talking about Ray like this, like there’s a chance he’s not going to make it home. Even worse, Mike honestly believes Ray could come home and Walt doesn’t know if he can live with the inevitable disappointment if he allows himself to be believe it as well and it turns out not to be true.
Mike quirks an eyebrow, but his expression is soft. “I just meant he knows how to get out of tight situations and he knows how to disappear. That could save his life.”
Walt doesn’t know what to say, so he settles for taking another drink while he tries to force a lid on his emotions and gain control of this conversation again. Walt can’t be like this, not if he expects to survive. He needs to be prepared to lose Ray, even if the very thought kills him. Ray only scored a seven, and he’s one in twenty four. Walt might not be the best at math, but he knows how to figure those odds.
”I miss him,” Walt whispers. He can feel a lump forming in his throat and his eyes getting wet, but he doesn’t try to wipe his eyes to hide it. He can’t quite make eye contact, but he doesn’t think Mike expects him to.
”You need to trust that he wants to come home to you, too,” Mike replies. His tone is soft, but not placating. He isn’t trying to soothe Walt’s broken heart with falsetto promises like his mother and the kids he goes to school with. He was a Tribute once, he’s probably the only person who knows what he’s talking about. “Nate will try to bring him home.”
It isn’t much, and it’s nowhere near enough, but Mike is gentle and doesn’t say a thing when Walt’s forehead drops to the tabletop and he starts to cry. His chair scrapes the ground when he moves closer to pat Walt’s back soothingly, and for once the comfort is something Walt doesn’t mind.
The first ten minutes of the Games are a massacre. Walt watches the daily recap on Mike’s sitting room couch, teetering on the edge and staring in rapt attention. He’s horrified and sick to his stomach, but he’s grateful that Mike senses enough to know Walt doesn’t want to be touched right now. The thought of it sickens him, even.
Eleven Tributes die in the first half hour. Ray isn’t one of them, thankfully, but Sierra is. She takes an axe to the skull and her body collapses into the sand the next second, the dry earth sucking up the red stain easily. Whether her and Ray had a plan to stay alive together doesn’t matter anymore.
The only signs that Ray existed at all is a stolen knapsack and a lone track of footprints leading off into the desert.
Walt hopes he’s okay. The Game Makers have learned from their mistakes in the past, they know better to leave the Tributes without shelter or water. Surely that means Ray is going to be fine and will find some way to protect himself in the desert and stay hidden until nightfall.
Mike is there when Walt needs to clutch at his arm and sob his relief, shhing Walt soothingly and talking softly. “As long as he finds water and keeps running away, he stands a good chance of winning,” Mike says. “Ray will know that. He’s a smart kid.”
Walt can barely breathe through his tears, let alone respond. He doesn’t know how to say what he feels anyways. Even if he did, he’d feel like a terrible person. The only thing that Ray guaranteed by surviving the first major fight is that he’s going to have a target on his back and the whole District is going to suffer quietly as they root him on.
It isn’t Ray’s fault, and Walt knows that, but it still hurts. Walt doesn’t wish he would have just died, would never, but he thinks that maybe it would have been easier if he had died in the massacre at the Cornucopia. It’s always quick, in the beginning.
Walt hates himself more than he’s ever hated anyone or thing in his entire life, the Capitol and their damned Hunger Games included.
By morning, two more Tributes have died. Neither of them is Ray, but the thought that it could have been still has Walt throwing up his breakfast in the school bathroom. He cuts class for the rest of the day, education be damned, because there’s no way he’s going to be able to concentrate while Ray is fighting to stay alive.
When he shows up at Mike’s front door, his wife Tara lets him in without a second thought. Her hand is gentle when she guides Walt into the sitting room and offers to bring him something to eat. The words make Walt’s stomach gurgle in response, but he can’t bear to eat anything right now.
”Mike will be home in a few hours,” Tara promises softly. She soothes Walt’s hair and finds a blanket to drape over his shoulders. “Do you want me to call your mother?”
It’s only then that Walt realizes what he’s done. He’s skipped school and fled to the one safe haven he has, the one place that doesn’t remind him of Ray and yet, simultaneously, disallows him to think about anything else. “Please don’t,” Walt pleads. “She’ll worry.”
Tara just shhs him and promises not to call. Her thumb brushes Walt’s cheekbone gently, soothingly, but she dims the lights in the sitting room on her way out and lets Walt be to sleep.
He’s too exhausted and wired for any sort of sleep, too haunted by the thoughts of what Ray’s going through to even close his eyes, but he lays down to placate her and hopes it’s enough.
Ray is a mess. By the third day, his skin is blistering from sunburn and the clothes they’ve given him to wear in the arena are covered in sand and sweat. He manages to keep to himself until then, but he runs out of water and has to make his way back to the Cornucopia if he wants to stay alive.
Walt’s not entirely sure how it happens, because the playbacks don’t make since, but he’s pretty sure Ray saves another Tribute’s life. His aim isn’t perfect with the throwing knives he found, but the first one hits the chest of the boy from Eight and his second cuts right along his neck. There’s blood everywhere, and in the rush the tangled Tribute from Two manages to free himself.
It’s the first person Ray’s killed since the start of the Games, and when he realizes he’s alone, he almost looks shaken. It doesn’t stop him from taking the dead Tribute’s bag and gulping down a half bottle of water though, and he turns around and leaves the body in the sand without another thought, a canon sounding behind him.
Walt is horrified at it, and he can only imagine how Ray must feel. The sight of Mike’s eyes flickering shut and the soft sound of his breath as he exhales with a pained expression on his face only confirms Walt’s fears. Ray just killed a boy and that’s not something he’s ever going to get over.
”Nine Tributes left,” Tara says softly, squeezing Mike’s knee gently. She doesn’t need to keep count for them to know the score; there’s no way Walt could possibly forget how many people are standing between Ray and home.
”I saw your teacher in town today,” Walt’s mother tells him one night. Her voice is gentle, but it doesn’t cover the fact she’s confused and upset. “She said she hasn’t seen you in class in a few days.”
Walt could lie, but he doesn’t have it in him. “That’s because I haven’t been going.”
”Walt,” his mother says, her voice almost pleading. “You need to go to school. You’ll get in trouble if you don’t.” She doesn’t add that she will too, because she doesn’t need to. It’s an empty threat the Peacekeepers make though, punishing parents for truant kids. Ray skips class all the time and his family has never suffered for it. “You don’t have to pay attention, you just have to go.”
It’s a fair enough arrangement, Walt guesses. He appreciates the fact his mother understands he’s not going to focus anytime soon and he has no intentions of trying. For the next few days, Walt’s life is going to revolve around these Hunger Games. School and work will never be enough to distract him.
”I’ll try,” Walt says, but he doesn’t look her in the eyes when he says it. It’s easier to just stay laying on his back and staring up at the ceiling. He’s haunted by the thought of Ray killing someone and he’s worried about Ray’s safety. There’s still eight people left to kill him and Walt is helpless to do anything about it.
His mother leaves a plate by his bed and it smells strongly enough that Walt rolls over to check it out. It’s reheated pork and gravy, leftovers granted by the Mayor, who his mother serves as a maid for. Walt wonders if there was a special occasion in the family that he doesn’t know about or if the entire District thinks he’s broken by now.
Walt eats the food with his fingers, much to his mother’s chagrin, and he manages to keep it down for most of the night. When he wakes up in a cold sweat, shaking out of his skin, he throws it back up all over the wood floor, but it was good while it lasted.
”It’s going to be okay,” his mother whispers in the dark, rubbing a wet washcloth over his face. “Go back to sleep, baby.”
Walt’s too tired to fight off her hands and lets himself be guided back to his bed. He doesn’t sleep, but it’s easy enough to even out his breathing and pretend while his mother cleans up his sickness. Walt spends the rest of the night trying to forget.
Representatives show up from the Capitol one morning, looking painfully out of place in District 11. They’re here because Ray made it to the final eight – or they suspect he will, because at Walt’s last count there were still nine Tributes. Surely it takes time to get from the Capitol to District 11, but Walt has never given it much thought.
He certainly never thought he would come face to face with any of them. Not since he’s never been picked as a Tribute anyways, thankfully. Still, Walt can’t comprehend why he’s being called out of his math class and ushered to the small home Ray grew up in with his mother. The building is tinier than even Walt’s home, and in desperate disrepair, but it’s Ray’s home and Walt finds comfort in that.
”I don’t understand,” Walt says as he’s guided to a seat at the warn, wooden table. He looks to Ray’s mother for answers, but she’s tightlipped and staring pointedly at one of the representatives. They can’t meet her eyes and Walt doesn’t blame them. “Ma’am.”
”It’s the family interview,” a woman with green hair explains gently. Her lips match her hair, but her smile is genuine. “We thought it would be nice if you were here for that, since you two are so close.”
Walt thinks she means after Ray punched him in the face and Ray mentioned him by name in is interview with Caesar Flickerman. Mike had warned Walt that the Capitol might be interested in him, especially if Ray does well. They like to know more about their Victors, but Walt feels incapable of comprehending anything these days.
Thankfully, the questions are simple. Tell us a little bit about Ray and you must be so proud and do you think Ray has what it takes to win? Walt doesn’t remember a word that leaves his mouth. The only thing he can concentrate on Ray’s mother’s hand in his and squeezes it reassuringly as she starts to get tense.
”Ray is coming home,” she snaps at the camera. “The damned boy spends all his time sneaking around and cheating at cards and never gets caught. He’s smarter than most of the people in this District and he knows how to handle himself in a fight. My baby is coming home.”
The words aren’t yelled, but Ray’s mother never yells. There’s still a tension in them, an underlying threat that Walt knows to look out for before she takes a swing, but he doesn’t let go of her hand.
The interviewer doesn’t so much as bat an eyelash at the outburst though. Her smile might be a little more forced, and she clears her throat before continuing. “What about you, Walt? Do you think Ray is going to make it home?”
Walt doesn’t know what to say. He doesn’t know how to tell the Capitol what they want to hear like Mike and Nate, hasn’t even had the same minimal coaching as Ray has had. So he squeezes Ray’s mother’s hand in his own and he tells the truth. “Ray will come back. He promised to buy me sweet rolls.”
Ray’s mother excuses herself then, kissing the top of Walt’s head roughly before slipping out of the back door. It leaves Walt to stare at the people from the Capitol in hopeless confusion, and he lets them out when it’s time to leave. He doesn’t know what he’s supposed to do, but it’s too painful to stand in the room Ray grew up in without him here. He locks up when he leaves and tries not to think of anything at all.
That night, another Tribute dies from a snake bite. The boy from Two, Brad, breaks his ankle tripping over old stone ruins. Ray is nowhere to be seen, but Walt is grateful. It means he’s still alive, and he’s safe.
When they play the interviews, Walt feels stupid for his responses. He’s monosyllabic and looks like a child, hair sticking up every which way and wide eyes staring forward. When he hears his own voice and the promise of sweet rolls, he feels shallow. Walt can feel his cheeks heat up in shame when Mike and Tara turn to look at him.
Inexplicably though, Mike just hugs him. It throws Walt off, and he wants to pull away because he doesn’t like being touched, not since he and Ray clung to each other and pretended they weren’t crying. Walt doesn’t though, and curls his fingers into the soft fabric of Mike’s shirt.
”You have no idea what you just did,” Mike’s voice says gruffly, but it doesn’t sound bad. He’s probably crazy, because Walt thinks he looks and sounds like a simpleminded child. He’s not the sort of person the Capitol expects Ray to associate with at all. Mike claps Walt’s back gently, and lets him go, and Walt misses his warmth almost immediately.
Tara offers to walk with Walt on his way home, but it takes almost an hour on foot and it’s dark. When she asks him to stay, just this one night, Walt has to remind himself his mother is probably worried sick about him and he has chores to attend to in the morning. Tara watches him go though, standing on her toes to kiss his forehead, and Walt finds he doesn’t mind.
At school, Walt has become a pariah. No one seems to know what to do with him anymore, especially after they aired the interviews with the Tribute’s families. No one seems to mind that Walt shouldn’t have even been there, because it’s just a technicality. It’s what the Capitol wanted and the Capitol always get what it wants.
Without Ray by his side, Walt feels lost. He wonders if Ray feels the same. They’ve never spent this much time apart in their entire lives, and Walt had never intended for any sort of separation to happen. Ray and Walt belong together. They always have.
Walt feels like he’s dying, and sometimes he thinks he’d be better off dead. There would be no Ray-shaped part of his heart missing, no dull ache persisting through every breath and thought. Walt doesn’t know how he’s supposed to carry on at all if this gets any worse, it seems impossible that it could.
Ray promised he would come home though, and as much as Walt hates it, there’s nothing for him to do but wait.
On the fifth day of the Games, Ray gets cornered by the girls from Five and Seven. Their alliance slipped under Walt’s radar somehow, but he’s had a hard time focusing on anything other than where Ray has been, what he’s been up to and who he’s killed.
When Ray goes down, Walt’s breath catches in his throat and he can’t remember how to breathe. The girls are armed with little more than rocks, can’t even be older than Ray is, but they pin him down despite it all.
This is when Ray dies, Walt thinks in horror, but he can’t look away.
The girl from Five never gets the chance to bash Ray’s skull in. An arrow catches her in the forearm, causing her to howl in pain and drop her weapon. It’s as if Ray is forgotten in the struggle for the girls to get to their feet, to figure out where the arrow came from. They barely have time to register that they’re being fired on when the girl from Five takes a second arrow to her throat.
Brad is visible then, one eye closed against the desert sun and a third arrow already nocked. His form is amazing, his skill flawless. The girl from Seven gets an arrow in the eye and collapses in the sand with desperate howls, clawing at her face.
Ray bashes her in the head with the same rock they were trying to kill him with, and she finally stops screaming. He wipes his hands on the dark pants he was given to wear in the Games and his expression is carefully blank.
”That was unnecessary,” Brad says. His face is a careful mask and his tone is devoid of emotion. It makes Walt wonder if this is how he always is, or if the Games have already made him suffer in ways Walt can’t begin to imagine.
”It’s what she would have done to me.” There’s a callowness to Ray’s tone that makes Walt physically ache. Ray looks so broken, sunburned and blistered, covered in the blood of a dead girl as well as some of his own.
Walt would give anything to be able to wipe the sand from Ray’s face and hold him close one more time. His best friend, his Ray, is falling apart for all the world to see and there’s nothing Walt can do about it. Walt wonders if anyone even notices or cares, or if this is just an expected side effect from being a Tribute.
Something happens, something that Walt doesn’t quite understand, but Ray offers Brad one of the bottles of water he’s collected almost as an afterthought. It’s stupid and reckless and Walt is horrified, but even when Ray is close enough to touch, Brad doesn’t draw on him. He accepts the water graciously and drinks it carefully.
Walt registers Caesar’s voice, a hopeful speculation about an alliance this late in the Games, but it doesn’t click in Walt’s brain. It doesn’t make any sense. Brad could kill Ray so easily, will probably do it as soon as Ray’s back is turned, but Ray doesn’t seem to have any regrets in his decision. Walt might not understand what’s going on, but for Ray’s sake he tries to believe Ray knows what he’s doing.
Walt waits until he knows his mother is asleep before creeping back into their home. It’s easy to hide with the cow while he passes time, but as strung up as he is, he knows he needs to sleep soon if he has any plans of making it through the rest of the week. Walt isn’t alone in the dark, but it’s easy enough to pretend he is as soon as his head hits the pillow.
It’s impossible to think about anything other than Ray. It’s been like that for days, though it feels like a lifetime. Walt is haunted by the image of Ray bashing the girl from Seven’s head in with a rock, the simple way he says she would have done the same. Walt doesn’t even know her name and he’s torn between hating her for hurting Ray and pitying her for getting caught up in all of this.
It seems impossible the Capitol would allow this to go on year after year. Walt doesn’t understand. He doesn’t even know how he could have been so complacent about this in the past; it’s not the first time someone he knows has been chosen for Tribute but it’s the first time Walt has ever cared so much. It’s the first time it’s been someone he’s loved in more than just fleeting moments.
Walt hates that he’s reduced to tears so easily, despite the fact he tries to fight them and hide it. He doesn’t want anyone to know he’s so pathetic. He doesn’t even want to admit it to himself. Walt’s not the one being forced to fight for his life for the country to watch, he isn’t the one scared and alone and so far away from home.
The darkness is a blessing in that it hides his tears, and when Walt starts to get choked up, it’s easy to roll over and hide his face in his pillow. He wants to scream, but knows better than to try. He can’t afford to wake up his mother, not when she has to be at work so early. Still, Walt feels like he’s falling apart at the seams and there’s absolutely no way to stop it.
The only thing that’ll save Walt is if Ray comes home to him alive. It’s anyone’s guess if his odds of survival get better or worse as time passes and more Tributes fall, but Ray’s already killed two people, surely that means he has what it takes to come home after all.
Except, Walt knows things are never that easy. He remembers Nate before he was a Tribute, before the Quarter Quell that claimed him and his sister. Nate isn’t the same person he was when he left, not by a long shot. That Walt is clinging onto the hope that the same won’t be said for Ray is juvenile at best.
If Walt manages to catch any sleep that night, he doesn’t remember any of it. He feels just as wired now as he does when he laid down, lump in his throat and skin itching for something he can’t quite explain. He’s ready for it to be over and horrified at the prospects at the same time.
Tara says nothing when Walt shows up on their doorstep, but she’s accepted his presence easily and without much complaint. She understands what Walt’s been through and there’s a strange comfort in that. Her hands are warm when she guides Walt to the couch, and she fetches him a blanket, just in case. “Do you want me to stay with you?”
The question startles Walt, but it really shouldn’t. Tara is the mothering type. It surprises Walt a little that she and Mike don’t have children, but then again, it doesn’t. Walt is only beginning to understand the pain the Games bring. He can’t imagine what it must be like to send your child off into the suffering.
Walt closes his eyes long enough to suck in a deep breath and regain his composure. He’s fallen apart in front of Tara too many times as is, he doesn’t want her to have to see him like that again. “I’ll be okay,” Walt says. “I’m sorry – “
”Don’t,” Tara says. Her tone is forceful and she won’t hear any of Walt’s apologies. “You’re welcome here as long as you need it, Walt. I’ve got some errands in town, but you’re free to stick around. Help yourself to anything you need.”
He smiles politely, because that’s what he was raised to do. Walt has no intentions of doing anything but sitting here and starting at the TV until the daily recaps, but if Tara knows that, she doesn’t call him out on it. Walt is glad. He doesn’t need any more of his weaknesses dragged out into the light.
The Games are moving too slowly for the Game Makers. The entire world must know that, because one minute the girl from One is trying to hack up a cactus to gnaw on and the next she’s being bitten by a giant snake. It’s the color of sand, except for the deep red in its eyes, and there’s no time for the girl to run. She doesn’t even notice it until it’s too late.
Snakes start erupting up all over the desert then, claiming yet another Tribute in a matter of moments. By luck, Brad and Ray manage to spot one before it can strike. There’s no time for Brad to nock an arrow into his bow, but there’s no hesitation in the way he shoves an arrow into the snake’s open mouth and through its upper palate.
Even Ray is stunned by Brad’s movements, but they don’t have time to waste. Two more snakes burst from the sand, larger than the original. Ray doesn’t hesitate in ducking under Brad’s arm, mindful of his weak ankle, and they run.
Caesar’s voice is excited as he narrates the recap, explaining how the Game Makers are using the Muttationss – the snakes, and Walt is strangely relieved that they aren’t real, even though they must seem very real to Ray and Brad – to lure the Tributes into a final fight. There’s only four Tributes left, two alliances holding them together. It’s anyone’s guess who will win.
They show the chase scenes, Brad and Ray struggling to stay ahead of snapping teeth while the girl and boy from Ten suffer about the same. It seems impossible that they’ll collide with each other before the snakes get them, but somehow they all end up back at the beginning.
The Cornucopia must be blinding in the sunlight, reflective metal hot to the touch. Ray and Brad back themselves against the mouth before they take their final stand. The boy from Ten attempts to scale the Cornucopia, but reels back as soon as his bare skin touches the metal. One of the large snakes lunges for him, mouth open wide, and his jaws snap shut easily around the boy from Ten’s shoulder.
The sound of his screams are deafening as the blood gushes from the open wound and the snake bites again, and Walt is horrified as he watches with his mouth agape. Even as he watches the girl from Ten bash in a snakes skull with a mace, Walt can’t think past the blinding pain the boy must be going through.
Brad and Ray fare little better, with nothing but throwing knives and a half dozen arrows, but they manage to take three of the large snakes down somehow before the canon goes off to signal the death of the boy from Ten. They retreat further into the Cornucopia, into the shade, but there are shields and blades and they aren’t ready to give up.
For the first time since the Games began, Walt thinks Ray might honestly stand a chance of winning. As the snakes fall back, circling the Cornucopia instead of actively attacking, Brad and Ray move forward cautiously. The girl from Ten looks as much of a mess as they do, but she holds her mace carefully and watches them with wary eyes.
For the longest time, nothing happens. Walt’s breath is caught in his throat and he thinks please let Ray be safe, don’t let him do anything reckless. Let her go after Brad and let Ray stab him in the back after. Walt is horrified at his thoughts, but there’s no time to dwell on that. Ray is so close to coming home to him, Walt can almost touch him.
The girl moves first, despite the fact she’s out numbered. She moves for Brad, quick on her feet despite her exhaustion, but when Brad lifts his bow to fire his final arrow, she feints at the last second. The arrow whizzes by her, missing by a hairsbreadth. Her mace swings out in a broad arc and there’s no time for Ray to dodge before it catches him in the ribs and sends him to the ground.
The sand turns red with Ray’s blood, seeping through the dark fabric of his clothes. Ray coughs, red spittle forming on his lips, and he tries to drag himself back through the sand. He watches with wide eyes while the girl from Ten lifts her mace again to crush his skull in.
Walt can’t see through the tears streaming down his face. He’s vaguely aware of the sound he makes – a strangled wail at the sight of Ray - his Ray – about to be killed in front of the entire country. There’s nothing Walt can do about it, yet he can’t bring himself to look away but he can’t watch any longer.
The final blow never comes though. Walt’s vision is blurry and wet, but it’s impossible to miss the sight of the mace falling in the sand and the sharp sound of bone breaking. Walt doesn’t understand, can’t make sense of it, but he wipes his eyes and Brad lets go of the girl from Ten; her body falls chest first into the sand at Ray’s side, eyes staring blankly up at the sky despite it.
The canon sounds again, signaling yet another death, and then there are only two Tributes remaining.
Ray stays down, one hand curled around his ribs carefully and he wheezes just to catch his breath. “If you’re going to kill me, do it already,” Ray manages, his words heavy with pain and exhaustion. He doesn’t try to flee or fight it; Ray has accepted his fate. After everything he’s been through, Walt doesn’t know if he blames him.
Inexplicably though, Brad does nothing.
Something happens, something there’s no explanation for. One moment Ray is on the ground, coughing up blood and waiting to die, and the next he’s on his feet and swaying just to stay upright. His fingers are curled around Brad’s bicep, around the hilt of one of his knives. There’s no resistance on Brad’s part, despite the fact he could easily fend Ray off.
Walt opens his mouth to ask what the hell is going on, but Mike silences him with a bark and there’s nothing for him to do but keep watching in rapt fascination. “Ray,” Walt breathes, a silent longing for him to just finish this already so he can come home.
It’s almost as if the word does the trick. Ray says something, the words muffled, and Brad’s hand comes up to touch the back of Ray’s neck. His lips move, mouthing something in response, and it’s enough for Ray to bring the knife up and stab it into Brad’s chest.
They struggle then, Brad grunting through the pain, but Ray can’t hold them both up. They fall into the already bloodied sand, Ray struggling to roll Brad off of him before he’s crushed. His bloody fingers slip on the hilt of the knife as he tries to pull it out of Brad’s chest, but he doesn’t drive it in again.
Brad’s eyes flicker and Ray slumps down into the sand, half on top of Brad and shuddering. A canon sounds.
Walt is living in a haze. He doesn’t understand what’s happening, but he knows enough to know he should be feeling more than he does. He’s comfortably numb and that’s no fault of his own. Walt knows, logically, he should be crying or cheering or at the very least, returning all the tight embraces bestowed upon him. He can barely breathe though, so sure he’s living in a dream, that staying on top of the real world seems impossible.
As impossible as it seemed in the final minutes of the Game, the agonizing pain that filled Walt’s system when the final canon sounded -
Walt felt so many things in those precious few seconds that he thinks his body has short circuited. There’s no way that any of this is real. The stress has claimed him and he died of a heart attack on Mike’s couch. It’s the only logical explanation for what’s happening to him. Walt isn’t feeling things because he isn’t alive to anymore.
All of that changes when Ray makes an appearance on Caesar Flickerman’s show once more. His skin is tanned and there’s no traces of his sunburn left. It’s obvious he’s still mindful of his ribs, rubbing his fingers along them soothingly in an almost subconscious gesture. The dark mess of his hair remains untamed, his lips quirking up in a broken smile and his dimples show despite the fakeness of his grin.
Whatever is being said, Walt doesn’t process. He registers the sound of Ray’s voice, of his bitter laughter as he talks with Caesar, but the details escape him. The only thing Walt can focus on is the fact that Ray is alive and in one piece and he’s talking on National Television like it’s the most natural thing in the world for him.
All Walt knows for sure is that when Ray says I’m ready to go home now, whatever dam that’s been built around Walt’s heart comes crashing down and he’s been through too much to be ashamed of bursting into tears now.
They’re supposed to wait outside the Justice Building, but no one ever does. It’s so rare for a Tribute to come back to District 11 and when Victors emerge, they never want to give speeches and wave to the crowds. That might be how it’s done in the Career Districts, but not here.
Rumor is the year Nate won the Quarter Quell, he got off the train and spent a week in bed and didn’t talk to a soul.
Walt hopes Ray’s more sociable than that. There will be camera crews so he’ll be encouraged to say something, but Ray must be tired of everything representing the Capitol and it’s twisted Games by now. Ray has every right to just brush through the crowd and collapse on his bed in the one-room house he grew up in.
When the train is finally visible on the horizon, Walt pushes his way to the front of the crowd and is surprised that people let him, his heart stops in his chest. This is the moment he’s been waiting for for what feels like a lifetime. The idea that it’s all finally over seems so impossible to wrap his mind around.
Ray is coming home. Ray, who taught Walt how to throw a punch and didn’t laugh when Walt got knocked on his ass time and time again, is coming back to Walt. It’s been torture to keep them apart for so long, to put them through so much. Walt has no idea what the hell he’s supposed to say when the train doors open, but it doesn’t matter because Ray is home.
Whatever Walt was expecting, it wasn’t this. For the train to creep to a halt and for Ray to step out looking so fragile and small despite everything he’s been through – then again, maybe that’s the cause. Ray looks so out of place, blinking his eyes to adjust to the sun, lips parted and for once, at a loss for words.
As soon as Ray’s eyes focus though, they focus on Walt. Out of everyone to look at, the entire town to catch his gaze, he sees Walt. Ray doesn’t hesitate to come closer and Walt pushes forward to meet him halfway, and unlike the last time they met, neither of them bothers to stop.
Ray’s grip is tight, clutching Walt to him like they might be dragged apart yet again, and Walt leans into his warmth and clings just as tightly. His skin is silky soft and he smells like flowers Walt’s never seen, but his body is warm and Walt traces his fingertips along the curve of Ray’s jaw and the nape of his neck.
Something clicks in Walt’s brain and he doesn’t understand it but somehow everything makes sense. Ray’s breath is hot against Walt’s cheek, lips dragging dryly until they can press against the corner of Walt’s mouth. There’s no hesitation and Walt doesn’t push him away. Walt couldn’t.
Ray turns enough to wet his lips without his tongue touching Walt, but he doesn’t move far. It doesn’t matter anyways, because he presses his lips to Walt’s again in a proper kiss. His fingers tighten in Walt’s shirt, trying to drag him impossibly closer, and Walt wants to get lost in the feeling of having Ray so close and the way every nerve ending in his body feels like they’ve suddenly come alive.
”Ray,” Walt breathes, and Ray’s breath hitches in response. His lips move against Ray’s slowly, awkwardly, eyes slipping shut and he tries to forget. The only thing that matters is every point of contact of his body to Ray’s, but Walt can’t forget where they are. “Ray.”
”Don’t talk,” Ray whispers. He presses a soft kiss to Walt’s lower lip, to his chin. “You have no idea how long I’ve wanted to do that so please, just, don’t talk.”
”Your mom is watching us,” Walt whispers back. He can feel his cheeks flush as he says the words, and he curls his fingers into Ray’s skin tighter. “My mom is watching.”
The sound of Ray’s laughter is jarring, but it isn’t the same bitter sound he shared with Caesar. It’s a little hysterical, but it’s almost perfect none the less. Ray’s eyelashes flutter against Walt’s cheek and he presses another kiss to Walt’s jaw. “Fine. We should get some sweet rolls and then go back to my place to make out.”
Walt laughs, because he can’t help it. He can feel it bubbling in his chest, a little frantic and hysterical, but Ray holds onto him and whispers soothing words into his skin. Licking his lips, Walt presses his cheek to Ray’s and ducks his head, trying to hide his face against Ray. “I would like that a lot,” Walt whispers, and he can feel Ray smile against his skin.
”Lead the way,” Ray whispers, easing his arms down Walt’s side slowly but not quite letting go. It’s alright though, because there is nothing in the world Walt would rather do than hold Ray’s hand and take him home.