From the moment that his name is called, he hears nothing. The sound of the blood rushing in his ears turns into a ringing that mutes the roaring of the crowd. He walks to the front feeling numb all over, none of their voices getting to him. The escort welcomes him onto the podium and shakes his hand, but he feels nothing. He shakes the female tribute’s hand, but he feels nothing. The floodlights are too bright and there is something that looks like a thin veil in front of his eyes, so he sees nothing either, nothing but lights and colours melting into each other.
His senses only start returning to him when he waits in a small room inside the justice building for his father to bid his farewell.
It isn’t a farewell.
He should have known as the son of a former victor. His father wouldn’t just watch him die, he would train him and then forever ask himself how he could have prevented his death. He doesn’t understand much about the Capitol, but he knows that they probably wanted a heartbreaking story to cry about to their hearts’ content. ‘Remember the victor who mentored his own son and had to watch him die?’ ‘Oh yes, what a pity, what a pity…’
At least he would never have to see the soul-crushing factories of District 6 ever again. Being a victor’s son saved him from having to work in one, but the victors’ village was surrounded by them and how could he ignore the army of workers with empty eyes and the peacekeepers with their clubs and whips and guns to keep them in check?
The escort (face painted white, golden tattoos winding around his eyes like filigree glasses) leads them into the train, quality engineering made in District 6. The interior was probably fabricated in District 1, as he finds himself hesitating to touch anything in the luxuriously equipped compartment. Panelling made from a dark reddish wood he had never seen before. Chairs cushioned with expensive and uncomfortable green velvet. Perfumed flowers in crystal vases are clogging his nose with their perfume-sweet scent.
The female tribute whose name he didn’t catch asks lots of questions and offers him a plate with cookies, but he’s not hungry and only stares at the landscape outside the window. Raindrops trail along the glass and he follows them with his eyes. They cross the district border and he feels like his heart is firmly clasped in a vice to get crushed to death ever so slowly.
They are introduced to the other tributes, if only on a screen. They will meet face to face early enough, Takumi thinks.
The first one his father shows them on the wall-mounted holographic monitor is the sharp-eyed male tribute from District 1. He looks like it is not difficult for him to kill. Takumi realises that any of the people he’s going to be shown could be the one to kill him. Even the one sitting next to him right now.
The first thing he notices when they reach the Capitol are the sheer masses of people in the train station. District 6 has empty train stations because the only trains that stop there carry freight.
“Smile and wave, boy. You need sponsors,” his father tells him and he waves, but he can’t bring himself to smile.
His skin feels like it has been scrubbed with sandpaper and he thinks that he has probably never been this squeaky clean in his entire life. His prep team hides the dark circles below his eyes under a thick layer of make-up and they fuss and chitter around him and tut at his shineless hair and tired face. When he leaves their care, he almost doesn’t recognise the person that looks at him from the mirrors. There’s a soft glow to his skin and the make-up makes him look at least three years younger than he is. Innocent and soft is what they went for, “The sponsors will love you,” one of the prep team has cooed at him. The Capitol wants someone they can pity and that’s the only thing he has going for him.
He's standing in the chariot and the ringing in his ears is back. His stylist has put him in a suit with shimmering silver lines all along his arms and legs that are probably meant to look like train tracks. The girl next to him wears a ballgown that glitters in a way that makes it look like it’s moving and it’s the only thing that keeps him from zoning out completely. “Smile and wave,” the girl whispers, and the crowd around them cheers when he raises his hand tentatively. He thinks about the melodramatic tears they might shed when he’s slaughtered, and he feels nauseous.
When they get out of the chariots after the parade, he notices the gold-clad male tribute from 1 giving them a once-over, probably attempting to estimate how much of a threat to his victory they will be. Takumi is almost sure that he will win because none of the other tributes, not even the careers, look like they could be any honest competition to him. He has learned from his father and the news coverage that he’s the younger brother of the victor from two games ago. He could swear that the guy’s eyes cling to him for the fraction of a second longer, but he’s glad when they move on. Takumi remembers his brother as handsome and adored by the Capitol, and he has no doubts that his equally as handsome little bro will have sponsors practically fighting over who gets to send him a gift first.
Takumi tries broadswords and spears at the training center, but he’s the best with a crossbow. His father had told him to concentrate on survival tactics though, because he’s “a lousy fighter and shouldn’t let the others see it”. It takes him a while to figure out how to make a decent trap, but once he’s got the basics down, he gets quite good at crafting them.
“You should go check out the station about treating injuries. You’re going to hurt yourself with those,” a voice behind him suddenly says and he whips around to see the guy from District 1 staring down at him. Before Takumi finds anything to reply, the other leaves without any further words. Takumi frowns at his retreating form. He regards the trap he has built and the tools in his hands, places them back where he found them and moves to the first aid training.
“That Keisuke guy from 1, he volunteered,” his father explains later and shows him the footage after Takumi told him about the meeting, “Even though that happens a lot in District 1 and a lot of mad idiots over there want a chance at fame and glory, absolutely no one dared to compete with him for the position. He has a reputation, and not just because of his family. There are rumours that his brother didn’t approve of him volunteering, but that doesn’t matter now as he’s his mentor anyway and I’m sure that he’s going to teach him all of his little tricks. You have to be extremely careful. You’ve seen the games two years ago. There’s no point in directly competing with this guy if he’s even just half as good as his brother.”
Takumi nods, how could he forget about that. Ryosuke Takahashi is a legend among victors, first career in many years not to enter an alliance and instead taking out other tributes one by one, career or not. His looks, skills and charm captured the Capitol’s attention in no time and he’s one of the most celebrated victors Takumi has ever seen. He has also never seen one kill with such efficiency. If he is to die at Keisuke Takahashi’s hands, Takumi hopes that he fights like his brother and makes it quick.
When he’s up for evaluation, the room shows no signs of what the tributes before him might have shown. The Gamemakers look at him expectantly amidst their champagne and lavishly arranged food. “Takumi Fujiwara, District 6.”
He picks up the crossbow.
“Ten!” The announcer exclaims his score and Takumi is confused while everyone else (except for his father) cheers and congratulates him. He hadn’t been that good, had he? “The score means nothing,” his father said gruffly, “One tribute in the Games I fought had a five and she nearly killed me.” But he can’t dampen the moods of the escort and prep teams, and Takumi just shrugs. Keisuke from District 1 has an eleven and he’s pretty sure that does mean something.
He had expected that the numbness would follow him to the interviews, but instead he is nervous like never before. He won’t get away with “smiling and waving” this time. He’s wearing a suit again, simpler this time but still adorned with stripes like in the parade, and it feels too stiff to be comfortable. The escort tries to give him advice on what to say, but he can’t concentrate on what he's telling him.
His eyes wander around searching for someone and sure enough, there he stands, dressed in an impeccable black suit with yellow trims and his intense blue eyes accentuated with black eyeliner. It should be incompatible, the prim and proper outfit contrasting with his hair which is bleached blond and styled into wild spikes. But of course, the look fits him perfectly like everything else Takumi has seen him wear until now. He probably wouldn’t look out of place on the streets of the Capitol, Takumi thinks. The colour combination of black and yellow startles him because of the associations it evokes in his mind (a traffic cone? a wasp?), but then again, District 1 is the flashiest of them all, and apparently the designer wanted to evoke that.
Keisuke catches him staring and the piercing, scrutinising glare from sent his way specifically makes Takumi do a mental double-take. He is a target. His score has made him a target.
Now it dawns on him. Maybe it’s stupid, but he realises that the other is wearing warning colours. Both traffic cones and wasps wore black and yellow as warning colours. His entire appearance is telling everyone who dares to look that he is danger, and now Takumi is right in his crosshairs.
Keisuke is the second one to be interviewed and Takumi feels thankful when he’s gone. He’s trying not to let his panic show because this is the first time that the knowledge that he’s going to die really hits him. In a few days he will be dead and never see his father or his home again.
He’s still trembling when his name is called and he steps onto the stage.
Smile and wave.
He’s sitting in the hovercraft, thinking he is prepared. He is well-rested. He had breakfast. He has a strategy.
He doesn’t even flinch when the tracker is injected into his arm because he’s concentrating on the person sitting opposite to him, the male tribute from District 6 who’s just staring at his hands. Takumi Fujiwara, the thoroughly nondescript guy who was the only one to come close to his score in the evaluation. Maybe he’d learn in the arena how he managed to get a ten. Keisuke would like to see him fight. He’s… interesting.
But Keisuke is here to win. By conclusion that means that everyone else has to be here to die.
He is about to step into the elevator, but his brother holds him back with a hand on his arm. “I have one last piece of advice for you,” he says seriously.
Keisuke glances at the clock. Thirty more seconds. “And that is…?”
“When you kill someone, don’t look them in the eyes.”
Keisuke lets out a short laugh but stops himself when he sees the expression on Ryosuke’s face. His eyebrows are drawn firmly together, and he wears a look of anguish that doesn’t suit him at all. Keisuke is filled with dread all of a sudden. What is his brother meaning to tell him?
“Twenty seconds,” says a monotonous voice.
“I better get going now,” Keisuke whispers. Ryosuke loosens the grip on his arm, but his hand remains there for another moment. Then he does something even more baffling and disconcerting than the look of anguish had been: He pulls his little brother into a tight hug.
“Please make sure to return to me.”
Keisuke swallows the clump of dread in his throat, not finding the strength in himself to return the gesture.
“I will. I promise.”
Ryosuke lets go of him, and he quickly steps into the elevator shortly before the glass door can close. He never understood why his brother didn’t want him to volunteer, and therefore did it anyway. He gets the feeling that he will soon learn why he always tried to keep him away from the Games.
3… 2… 1…
The gong sounds and everyone’s running. Keisuke runs in the direction of the Cornucopia, bends down for the first weapon he comes across, which happens to be a spear. The female tribute from District 4 runs towards him, sword in hand, and he fends her off with ease. He slices her arm and she decides to flee. Keisuke continues towards the Cornucopia and slings a backpack over his shoulder that can somewhat protect him from arrows or knives from behind. The two tributes from District 2 join up with him, they’ve apparently decided to form an alliance with him. Keisuke will tolerate them for now. He will keep his eyes open, but he knows that he could fight both of them off if he had to. He lodges his spear into the heart of a tribute who suddenly appears in front of him and the boy collapses soundlessly over the supplies he tried to take. It’s easy to kill if it’s for your own survival.
The gleaming blade of a gladius catches his eyes and he picks it up, swinging it once to test its balance. Satisfied with what he finds, he turns around just in time to dodge a throwing knife aimed at his head, thrown by the male from District 9. The girl from 2 gets him with a bow and arrow before he can attempt to flee. The girl that came here with him from 1, a chick with a stupid name and big round eyes that belie her intelligence, has also joined their alliance by now and is currently fighting the increasingly panicked-looking girl from 8. He and the other three (the boy from 4 has also appeared at some point, apparently not following his District companion’s strategy of fighting alone) efficiently hunt down everyone still in close range of the Cornucopia.
Four tributes wait for him to tell them how they will proceed. He’s calling the shots now, and it feels great. He faintly wonders whether the boy from 6 has gotten away.
The cannon sounds fourteen times.
The bloodbath is over.
The Cornucopia lies lower than the surrounding areas and they move away from it into one of the ruined buildings that form a circle around it. They’d be vulnerable to attacks in the metal structure, but they leave a few supplies, mainly food, to maybe lure other tributes in so 2 can get them with her arrows. As far as Keisuke can see, the small ruined village is situated right in the middle of the arena and around it are wide plains with high grass, and a forest in the Northwest. Most other tributes probably seek refuge in that forest.
Keisuke has personally checked all the supplies and weapons they have, and it’s a satisfying haul. The food will last them for three days if they’re resourceful about it, and Keisuke doesn’t plan to stay in the arena much longer than that because three days were all his brother needed.
The alliance breaks sooner than Keisuke expected. On the late morning of the second day, the boy from 2 and the boy from 4 fight over a broadsword and it turns out that the two tributes from District 4 did plan to work together after all. Keisuke is not very surprised and slits the throat of the girl. The boy manages to kill the girl from Keisuke’s district before he is lethally injured by the boy from 2. They leave him to bleed out. The pair from District 2 grab the first supplies they can find and flee. Keisuke calmly packs the most useful things into a backpack and leaves for the forest after ending 4’s suffering by stabbing him through the heart. He’s on his own from now on.
In a small cave in the forest he finds the remains of a campfire and tracks down the ones who left them behind. It’s the boy from 8 and the girl from 12 who, for some reason, have decided to stay together. He kills them easily and sets up his camp in the deserted cave.
The second day ends with four more faces being projected into the sky. Now there are six of them left. One of them, Keisuke can’t help but notice, is the boy from District 6.
At dawn of the third day, Keisuke goes outside to hunt. He almost doesn’t hear the person coming for him from behind. He dodges the sword of the burly guy from 10 in the last possible second, but it leaves a shallow cut on his shoulder. 10 is stronger physically, but Keisuke is faster and more flexible. He doesn’t get hit, but he can’t manage a decent hit on 10 either. He starts sweating because by now the sounds of their swords clashing has probably alerted all animals and other tributes nearby to their position. He needs to end this fast, but he can feel himself getting tired blocking the other’s powerful blows.
Suddenly the other stiffens and falls forward with a wide-eyed expression on his crude face. Keisuke sees the bolt of a crossbow lodged between his shoulder blades and drops flat down on the forest floor out of well-trained reflex. He pulls a throwing knife out of his pocket. He knows that he’s completely exposed to a second attack from the trees, but no second bolt follows.
Instead, a figure slowly steps out of the thicket. It’s the boy from District 6… Takumi Fujiwara. He holds his crossbow ready to defend himself, but he’s not aiming it at Keisuke. Yet. Long-range weapons suit him, Keisuke thinks.
“Are you okay…?” Takumi asks hesitantly as Keisuke gets up slowly, holding the knife ready to throw even though he knows that the other would be much faster. They stay a good distance apart and just stare for a moment, trying to figure out each other.
“You saved me,” Keisuke says, finally.
Takumi nods and walks closer, letting his crossbow sink. Keisuke lets his knife sink, too, because it would be completely foolish of the other to lessen the distance between them and give up his advantage if he wanted to kill him now.
A part of him shouts that this is a terrible idea, but Keisuke blames his fascination with the boy from 6 when they form an alliance.
“It’s a good thing that I sent you to the first aid station in the training center, huh?” Keisuke jokes as Takumi spreads some sort of healing salve on the cut on his shoulder. Takumi glares at him, and it looks so adorable that Keisuke has to laugh. The salve leaves behind a pleasant tingle on his skin.
Neither of them is really that good at hunting animals, but Takumi manages to catch a rabbit in one of his traps and a parachute brings a salty loaf of bread right as they want to start eating. While Takumi divides the bread, Keisuke reads the little note that was attached to the parachute:
His brother tends to be right always, but Keisuke knew to be careful already. He folds the paper and stuffs it into his pocket, not missing Takumi’s curious glance as he hands him the bigger part of the bread.
They talk about home while eating, and Keisuke can’t help but notice the way that the light of the fire reflects in Takumi’s hazel eyes. When he asks him why he's saved him, he tells him, "If I can't get out of here, then I think I want you to win."
The night is cold and the two of them huddle together in the cave. They are both hesitant about doing this, but once they overcome their doubts it feels like the most natural thing in the world.
In the middle of the night, Keisuke wakes up from the distinctive beeping of a parachute. He carefully pushes the fast-asleep Takumi off his chest and crawls outside. He sees the starry sky above him and the parachute caught in some foliage. Attached to it is a pair of matching shortswords, expertly crafted and with curved blades that gleam wickedly in the pale moonlight.
You will need these. Take care.
Keisuke flinches when he suddenly hears a scream echo through the night, followed by the sound of the cannon. He crawls back into the cave to wake Takumi, but there’s no need to. The other stares at him with wide eyes and takes an uncertain glance at the curved swords attached to Keisuke’s belt as the latter urges him to leave their hiding place. Keisuke gives him the gladius he doesn’t need anymore. They pack their things in haste and leave in the direction opposite of where Keisuke thinks the scream came from.
The boy from 2 stands in front of him. He has a bloody nose and a wild look in his eyes. Keisuke fights him and desperately hopes that the pained grunts from behind him belong to the girl and not Takumi who’s trying to fend her off. He doesn’t dare to look.
Someone screams and it’s not the girl. Keisuke glances over his shoulder, panicked, and sees Takumi who has dropped his sword and clutches his side. Keisuke lets out an angry roar and knocks the boy’s weapon out of his hand with a sudden surge of adrenaline-fueled power before turning around and lunging at the girl, who doesn’t even have time to raise her bloodied hatchet before Keisuke slits her throat. With a mixture of shock and triumph on her face, she sinks to the ground.
He whirls back around, prepared to kill the boy, too, but he has already grabbed his weapon from the forest floor and flees into the nightly forest.
A pained sob reaches his conscience through the ringing in his ears and he remembers that Takumi is wounded. He runs to where the other has dropped to his knees and hopes against all odds that the wound isn’t as bad as it looks. He pries Takumi’s bloodied hands off his side while the other’s heavy breathing pierces the crisp air, and there’s a sinking feeling in his stomach when he inspects the large gash in the boy’s side. The blood is dripping down on the forest floor and Keisuke tries to stay calm and help Takumi up. They need a shelter. Takumi looks like he wants to scream, but only a garbled noise comes out of his open mouth as his legs give out underneath him.
Keisuke half-carries, half-drags him to a rock ledge nearby that will give them at least a little bit of protection from the weather. Takumi is only half conscious by the time Keisuke gently lays him down on a thin blanket from one of their backpacks. He dresses the wound as well as he can, but he knows that Takumi has lost a lot of blood and is in no condition to move, let alone fight. It becomes scarily clear to Keisuke that the boy that he grew so attached to will die. He’s defenceless and there’s no medical care for him anywhere. He was doomed to die from the start. Keisuke had known it, hadn’t he? So why, why was he begging Takumi to stay with him now?
The fourth day dawns. Four people are still alive. One of them only barely. Keisuke inspects Takumi’s wound and is unsettled at the sight. The edges have taken on an angry red shade and Takumi howls in pain when Keisuke’s probing fingers come too close. It’s infected.
The air seems to stand still. The little stream near their shelter has dried out over the last few hours and the temperature is rising steadily. Keisuke sees the leaves of the trees turn yellow and wilt like they’re in a time lapse. The Gamemakers want it to come to an end.
A cannon sounds and Keisuke checks Takumi in a rush of panic, but the boy is still breathing. That means that either the boy from 2 or the other remaining tribute has died.
Sweat runs down Keisuke’s back as it gets warmer still, and Takumi whimpers in distress. Keisuke feels a sudden surge of hate for the Gamemakers. Can’t they see that they’re making it worse, that they’re causing Takumi discomfort? Except that he knows that they know, and don’t care. Takumi is a lamb for the slaughter. Keisuke is too, but he has promised to return home. Maybe Takumi had promised that, too.
A parachute drops from the sky through the almost leafless crowns of the trees. Attached to it is a container of vegetable broth. Keisuke reads the note that came with it.
Do it now, before it’s too late. Signed with R.
Keisuke looks at the unforgiving sky and sends up a soundless plea to be spared of this, but of course, there’s no salvation.
He walks back with silent, soft steps towards where Takumi is resting. The boy is awake again and Keisuke props him up against the rock and helps him eat the soup. When he’s finished, Keisuke puts the bowl away and gives his fellow tribute a long look. Something must have shown in his expression because he can see Takumi’s eyes widen slightly. Still, the injured boy doesn’t have the strength to draw back or struggle when Keisuke lays his hands around his neck.
“When we came to this arena, we both knew that one of us would leave it in the grasper of a hovercraft,” Keisuke explains quietly as he increases the pressure on the other’s throat. He presses down on his carotid artery the way he knows will lead to unconsciousness and then death in the course of just a few minutes.
This one time, he forces himself to look into his victim’s eyes. Takumi Fujiwara, who he had admired. Adored, even. During the time he spent with him, imagining a future with him tucked against his chest like that last night in the cave seemed just as desirable as returning to his brother with rightfully earned fame and glory, to show him that he could be his equal and that he could rely on him.
He feels strangely numb when he watches Takumi now trying to struggle against the surely painful hold on his neck and sees his eyes fill with moisture. One last time they look straight at each other.
A silent plea lies in those hazel eyes right before they close forever.
The cannon sounds.
Keisuke startles and lets go of the other’s neck as if he’s burned himself. It’s too late. It’s too late.
Don’t look into their eyes.
He feels nauseous but he cannot vomit; he feels devastated but he cannot cry.
He carefully carries the other’s limp body to a clearing and watches when the hovercraft picks him up. His heart shatters a second time when he sees Takumi hang in the grasper like a ragdoll. He takes a deep breath and raises a hand to his heart in a silent farewell.
Then he unsheathes his swords and searches for the last remaining tribute.
He is crowned the victor a day later, but he feels like he’s left the arena as a corpse, too. The golden wreath weighs heavily on his head when he is presented to the masses.
The interview afterwards is even worse. “District 6’s tribute, Takumi Fujiwara… What do you think about him, now that the Games are over?” the Master of Ceremonies asks.
Keisuke almost breaks down, almost. Somehow, the inquiring look of the interviewer and the tensely-silent audience makes him admit something out loud that he hasn’t admitted even to himself.
“I think… I think that I loved him,” he chokes, and a commiserative murmur goes through the crowd. His brother sits in the first row and gives him a very sad smile. He knows why, now.
The Victory Tour is even worse. When he comes to District 6, the crowd is completely silent. Not even the threat of the peacekeepers can bring the people to applaud. Takumi’s father, the only family the boy had left, shakes his hand with a stony expression on his face. Keisuke wishes the world had kept Takumi instead of him.
His brother doesn’t talk to him much. He wants to give him his space, but Keisuke needs his support now more than ever. He needs to hear that Ryosuke isn’t angry at him for almost throwing his life away, for almost destroying his happiness, for wanting to be on his level and close the distance between them. He finally corners his brother and mentor on the train back to District 1, but the words fail him and he can only cry into his shirt. His brother hugs him, just like he did right before the games started. It seems like years ago.
Keisuke opens the door to their house in the victors' village. He could have gotten his own house, but he couldn’t stand being alone. Ryosuke smiles softly and gently but insistently guides him to the living room with a hand on his back. Keisuke let it happen.
When they enter, there’s someone sitting on one of the couches. Keisuke doesn’t even register his presence at first.
He’s pale, but his eyes are very much alive. He’s sitting a bit stiffly because of the bandages around his torso and he’s moving his head very carefully, but it’s definitely Takumi Fujiwara. Alive and breathing.
Keisuke almost stumbles and his brother steadies him. He can’t tear his eyes off the boy.
“Am I hallucinating or something?” he asks fearfully, because this seems so much like a cruel joke life is pulling on him as a punishment for what he has done.
“No,” Takumi or his ghost or whatever says and smiles faintly, and before Keisuke knows it, he is already at the couch and pulling Takumi into a tight embrace. He feels very tangible and he winces in response to Keisuke’s too-rough hug. So he is alive, then.
Ryosuke lays a hand on his shoulder, and he understands. The soup. The hovercraft. The secrecy.
He finally allows himself to break down crying.