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Survivors

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"Ladies first!"

You won't get reaped, Temperance tells herself as the escort dips her hand into the glass orb with the name of all the girls in District Three who are eligible for tribute. Angela didn't get reaped, and now she can't be. You're eighteen. You'll be fine. This is the last time you'll have to stand here like this. You won't get reaped.

"Temperance Brennan!"

Her name echoes off the buildings in the square, the escort's shrill voice ringing in her ears in the silence that follows the collective gasp of everyone gathered to watch. Off to the edges of the square, she thinks she hears Angela swear, but that's probably just her mind playing tricks on her, giving her something to hold onto as she leaves the group of girls aged eighteen through the path her fellows have made for her.

When the escort calls for volunteers, silence persists. Of course. Who would step up and accept certain death for the sake of a smart but awkward girl who loves to cut up dead animals and rearrange their dry bones on the table outside her family's home? She's courting death, they used to say.

Temperance is not superstitious, but perhaps this once, they were right.

 




The District Three mentors have only one rule: tributes are called by their last names only. Caroline, at least, is past caring what the tributes call her, but Booth, still so young, is as firm as ever about his given name remaining un-uttered until the day he dies. He used to be friends with Russ, and even before he came back a victor, calling him "Seeley" was taboo.

No one ever asked why. It didn't matter.

"I won't mind it if you stop calling me 'Bones,'" Temperance tells him on the train, after dark, when the others have gone off to sleep or lie awake in bed. "I never liked it anyway."

Booth keeps his gaze on the dark sky beyond the window, on things she can't see and probably never will.

"Too late to change that," he murmurs, shrugging. His two years of post-Games retirement have done nothing to sap the strength from his shoulders.

With him and Russ around, she'd always felt safe. Now the only person from home she'll have available to rely on is a thin boy her age who spent half of dinner fiddling with a watch he pulled from his room's wall.

"Okay," she sighs. "Then... I suppose I should sleep." If they're not going to strategize, then she won't pretend she stands a chance at surviving. "Good night—"

"You can win this."

She freezes in her seat, gripping the armrests tight. If she'd managed to stand up before he spoke, she'd be back in the armchair again anyway.

"No I can't." Not against the Careers. She may be healthy and smart and relatively strong, but she hasn't spent her life training to win the Games. Even Christopher outclasses her as far as technical skills. "I'm not—"

"That's good. Deny it if people talk you up. Play up your nerves, the fact that you've always been 'Russ's sister.' Just don't let yourself believe it."

He's not looking at the window anymore, but he still hasn't looked at her. There's something sad on his face, softening the lines left by his scars, the ones he's acquired since coming back from the Capitol. They'd left his skin polished and perfect, and he'd gone and scratched it up again. She thinks she understands why—what's on a person's body says a lot about who they are.

"I—" She stops, pursing her lips. What does she mean to say? "Christopher is smarter than I am."

Booth shakes his head. "You're better rounded."

"You don't know that."

"I remember, Bones."

She tenses at the nickname, gaze flicking down to the fancy carpet on the floor. When she was younger, she'd felt like he was picking on her, until she'd gotten used to the easy way he said it, the smile he gave whenever he used it. She hasn't grown to like it, but she remembers it well, even though they've barely crossed paths since he came home a victor.

And now, hearing it for the first time in years, it wakes something in her that makes her want to believe he's right.

"Oh." She tucks one foot behind an ankle, forcing herself to stay seated when her instinct is to bolt to her room until her heartbeat settles back to normal. Despite the sudden discomfort, she chances a glance at him and finds him looking straight at her.

It doesn't last more than a few seconds, but she feels like they stare at each other for years.

"We'll talk strategy tomorrow," he says, breaking their gaze as he stands. He seems so much taller than she remembered, and so powerful. It's no wonder he won his Games. "Get some rest."

"Yes." She watches him disappear out of the car and waits a full five minutes before heading to her room, sliding the door shut with trembling fingers. Hours ago, she'd resigned herself to a quick death at the Cornucopia. Now, she wonders if she may in fact stand a chance.

 




Their costumes are made of reflective materials, hers a dress that makes her look gangly and frail, her fellow District Three tribute's a suit-and-slacks set that gives him an air of brilliant madness. Temperance goes with it, her big eyes wide as she takes in all the sights, gripping the front of the chariot tight like she's afraid she might fall.

For all that she's become quieter over the years, she is not shy. She is also a terrible liar, but she knows how to move and stand so that she projects an image, or so she blends and goes ignored, a non-threat among her classmates—and, she hopes, a non-entity in the arena.

Dinner in the suite is tense. Caroline keeps dragging her out of her thoughts, reminding her to eat in an irritated tone that almost completely hides the pity in her gaze. Christopher does not need such prompting, perfectly behaved in a way Temperance finds unnerving. It's like his costume seeped into him, warping his mind, giving him the angle he's going to use to try and win, or at least be memorable enough for a sponsor gift or two.

He retreats to his room after dinner. Temperance doesn't try to stop him.

"I don't like him," says Booth. He sits in the armchair next to her in the living room, where she's barefoot with her legs tucked up on the couch. "I don't trust him."

"Can't trust anyone in these Games, cher," Caroline says with a shake of her head. "He's a strong contender, which means he's got an eye out for the chance to kill your favorite."

"He's smug," Booth says, and Temperance finds she's grateful he doesn't address Caroline's observation about who he's siding with. "I've seen it too often in Careers. He'll do well, but he could end up screwing himself over."

"He made a toy helicopter at school once," Temperance remarks. "Remote controlled. It worked perfectly."

"And you kicked Howard Epps's ass when you found him about to tear a bird's wing off," Booth reminds her, voice as sharp as his gaze.

"So she's scrappy," Caroline says. "Not bad."

"No. She's smart."

"Look, Booth, I'm not gonna fight you. I'm not even staying up to strategize tonight. The way I see it, our district's got a better than good shot at bringing a tribute back home with us, and that deserves a stiff drink and a good night's sleep." She holds up said drink and nods at them both. "But don't you drink, cherie. You've got training tomorrow. Don't throw away your chance to live, unless you're sure you wanna die."

Caroline lowers her drink and walks off to her room. The suite feels massive without her, and Temperance feels like it might swallow her whole if not for Booth at her side.

Several long seconds later, Booth breaks the silence.

"Do you?"

Temperance looks up at him, forcing herself to hold his gaze. "Do I what?"

"Want to die."

"Everyone dies eventua—"

"In the arena, Bones."

So much for holding his gaze. She shuts her eyes and takes a breath. "No. But—"

"Then you won't."

Her eyes fly open. "You can't promise that."

"Tomorrow," he goes on as if she hadn't spoken at all, "learn survival skills first. Watch the other tributes and see what weapons they like. Make a mental list of which ones you think you'll be good at. We'll go over it when you come back and settle on one or two."

He's talking faster than she'd like, breaking the illusion of safety that the suite creates, sending her mind into the beginnings of panic. All the while, his eyes only leave her for a moment at a time, anchoring her to the spot in a way that feels like she'll still be standing if this building collapses all around them.

"Got it?"

She lets out a breath she's been holding for too long, but there's still tension in her shoulders. Even so, she manages to nod. It doesn't seem like enough, so she adds, "Yes."

He nods. "Now, go to bed. Rest well while you can."

That's easier said than done, but she doesn't say as much, tucking her feet into her slippers and heading off, mind abuzz with thoughts of what awaits her tomorrow.

 




"Knife-throwing is a good choice," Booth tells her the following evening, after he's talked to Christopher about his strategy so he can stand a chance too. Temperance had thought Booth might ignore him completely, but as angry and resigned as he seems, Booth can't just let a person die.

"I sense an 'except' coming," she says. She hopes she's wrong. Throwing knives will give her distance from opponents and the element of surprise, plus a better chance at close range. She knows where to cut a person to mortally wound them. Her father taught her how to prepare pigeons for stew, and she's watched enough Games in her short life to pick up a thing or two about the human body.

"Unless you lose track of your knives."

She twists her lips in an angry, childish pout. "So you're saying I should learn something else."

"I'm saying you need to keep track of your knives," he corrects her, and adds after a pause, "and learn something else."

"I have two days of training left, Booth. How am I going to—"

"Every second you spend wondering if you can do something is a second you leave yourself open to attack." His voice is hard on the words, but his gaze is insistent, not closed off. A moment or two later, he continues. "Don't go for a heavy weapon. You're not built for that."

"A bow and arrows?"

"Maybe."

"You can help me with it after training. That was your weapon in the Games."

"So they might expect you to learn it." He sighs, running a hand down his face. "Do you remember how to throw a punch?"

"Yes. I still think archery is a good idea."

"Fine. Okay." He nods absently, and then with a breath he's on his feet, focused like he's ready to fight. "Come on, stand up. We can start on your stance."

That's how the next two days go. Their escort complains about the pillows that get destroyed during post-dinner practice, but they continue to work on Temperance's aim and precision with knives. For archery, they build up her arm strength with lifting exercises.

It's still surreal to her that this is happening, but it's good to have tasks, to train her mind to focus on the things she can control. Otherwise, she'll lose it and die for sure. How Christopher manages to keep it together is beyond her, but as Booth reminds her, she is her only concern.

She earns a training score of nine despite herself, while Christopher gets a seven.

"So we've got a brainiac and a fighter," Caroline remarks. "Congratulations, you two. We can get you sponsors for sure."

For the first time since her name got called, Temperance feels she truly does stand a chance.

 




Interview day comes and goes so quickly she's not sure it actually happened, but her last night in the luxury of the suite finds her in a long, glittery dress and heavy makeup that makes her look mysterious and untouchable. In a way, Temperance likes the whole getup, so she stays in it through dinner and after everyone is in their rooms. That's when she slips back out into the dark living room, to memorize the way it looks with only the light from the city streets illuminating it.

When she was little, her mother told her stories about the pictures in the stars. Temperance pictured the castles and furnishings like this, in shades of black and grey with glittering starlike crystals for decoration. Her dress and jewelry blend in with the image, and she twirls, a galaxy spinning amid the deep night sky. Not used to shoes with tall, tiny heels, she wobbles when she comes to a stop, giving a quiet giggle that fades into nothingness as a strong, familiar pair of hands gently grips her shoulders and steadies her.

"Easy, Bones," says Booth, voice soft, like the room has drawn him into its kids' story spell too and he doesn't want to break it. "Now's not the time to twist an ankle."

"I'm not scared," she says. It's not a lie. She's terrified, and she's sure he can see that when she turns and faces him.

That's when she folds under the pressure, when she drops the pretense of steadiness and gives in and hugs him tight. He's not her brother, but his embrace is somehow familiar, a comfort she never wants to be without.

"You can do this," he whispers, rubbing her back.

"I don't want to." Her tears carve a trail through her makeup, doubtless staining his shirt. "I just want to go home."

"I know. Trust me, I know. But you can do this. I'll help you from outside."

"Please—"

"I promise." He kisses her temple and leans his head against hers. "Trust me. Even when you feel alone in the arena, I'm on your side. I'm with you."

"Please let me stay with you tonight." It's against the rules, but she doesn't care. She doesn't want anything more than to stay beside him while she still can, and perhaps feel calm enough to fall asleep. "Please. I don't want to be alone."

"Yeah, of course." He pulls away and searches her face for who knows what, his own expression caught between small grin and grimace. "Get comfortable first. Wash your face," he says, brushing tearstains and makeup off her cheek with a thumb. "I'm right here."

Nodding, she steps out of her shoes, then picks them up, and goes to her room for a shower.

 


 

"Why don't you call me 'Temperance'?"

She's traded her dress for a cotton shirt and pair of pants, and she lies at his side, her head on his shoulder and a hand on his chest as he holds her.

"Really?" He snickers. "You were always playing with animal bones."

"No, I know that. I meant— you've never called me by my name. Why?"

"'Bones' suits you."

"No it doesn't. I don't even like it."

"I just think— it's a nice name, I like it, but it's so big. 'Temperance.' That's like calling me 'Courage' or 'Wisdom.' It's a lot of pressure."

"I don't think it is." She sighs, spreading her fingers over his shirt as his heart beats through the fabric and skin and bone beneath her palm. "I call you 'Booth' because you ask me to."

"Okay, how about you tell me why you won't let anyone but me call you 'Bones.'"

"Because I don't like it."

"No, no. If that were it, you wouldn't let me call you that, but you do, even though you don't like it."

"Well—"

"Why is it okay if I call you 'Bones,' Bones?"

This is it, peak ridiculousness. She laughs, the Games forgotten for the moment. It's all too short, though, and when it passes, she shuts her eyes and thinks it over, breathing slow and deep when he starts to stroke her back.

"I don't know," she answers. "I guess— because it's you. Because it's... ours."

"Exactly." He turns his head, kisses her forehead. "It's our thing."

Warmth swells in her chest. Her smile is gone, as if even that will shatter what they've woven together. "I like that we have a thing," she murmurs. "I think I always have."

"Me too, Bones."

It wasn't her intention to do more than sleep at his side, but when the threat of death looms just over the horizon, it's hard to find reasons not to follow impulses like this. So even though in a perfect world they'd explore this more before arriving here, she lifts herself up, meets his gaze for any sign that she should desist, and when she finds none, kisses him.

This too makes the world outside the room fade away. It's far from her first kiss, but it's still new, so she drinks it in with the same fervor she would most anything else. Slow and reverent, deep and intense, one kiss melts into another until she forgets that less than twenty-four hours from now, she'll be in the arena with twenty-three other people, fighting to be the last one standing. Here with Booth, the only thing that awaits her is life, the feel of tongue and lips, teeth and hands, at a pace she sets and within boundaries she draws.

It's so much less than they could have, but it's all she can stand to give and take. It's enough to know that they're together in this, like they're together in the hope she'll survive the long trial that awaits her.

She falls asleep at his side, to his reassurances that he's got her back, and dreams of being home.

 




Booth wakes her in the morning, minutes before sunrise.

"I hoped this was a nightmare," she murmurs, squinting against the sunlight, rolling her shoulders as she sits up.

"It is," he tells her, sitting up and tucking some of her hair behind her ear. "It's just got a ways to go before it's over."

"So this is it. This is good-bye."

"It's 'see you in a few weeks.'"

"I'll do my best." It's quiet and small, which is just the way she feels, as little as the boy from District Ten this year, barely eleven and brought here to die. "Thank you for helping me train."

"Just—" He shuts his eyes and shakes his head, and she knows right away he's remembering being in her place only two years ago. "Stay focused. As long as your head is clear, you'll know what to do."

"I will."

Once she's ready to leave with her stylist, Temperance hugs her friend and mentor and perhaps more still.

"Don't trust Pelant," he tells her when they part. "Don't trust anyone, but especially not him."

Temperance doesn't do intuition, but she does trust Booth, so she nods, tells him "I won't," and smiles. "See you in a few weeks."

She leaves in a plain tunic, her stylist completing the rest of the pre-Games journey with her. There's a final meal and a few last words, and then she steps into the tube and is lifted above ground, where the countdown to a long, bloody nightmare begins.