Chapter 1: Prologue
Colorless sunlight filtered down from an equally colorless sky, bleaching the forest into shades of gray. No wind rustled the branches of the towering trees, and save for the two figures trekking across the rugged ground, nothing moved. And except for the occasional whistling from one of said figures, nothing made a sound.
Except for Rhonda’s whimpers and her mother’s sobs, the town square was eerily silent as the second name was read out.
Dean’s stomach dropped before he consciously registered the words. His mouth went dry as the realization hit him along with hundreds of gazes from everyone around him.
“Man, if this is what District Seven looks like in person, I ain’t looking forward to visiting it.” Benny Lafitte paused in his whistling and twirled his bone-handled black blade, glancing upwards “The trees are too damn big here.”
A few paces ahead, Dean Winchester let out a snort. “Can’t argue with that. I like to be able to see the horizon, thank you very much.”
“Aw, well, it’s not so much all trees I mind. We got trees in Eleven. But I can understand you not liking any of them.”
Grinning, Dean looked over his shoulder to deliver a retort and froze. “Benny, look out!”
His father had always taught him to keep his chin up, to show no fear, especially when others were watching. Aware of the cameras, Dean steeled himself and walked slowly but steadily towards the stage, the crowd parting in front of him. He couldn’t give them anything to use against him. He wouldn’t.
His resolve all but shattered the moment Sam started screaming his name.
Benny ducked and spun around, avoiding being beheaded by less than an inch. The girl from One let out a frustrated roar, shoving her matted blonde hair out of her wild eyes as she lunged forward again.
Dean didn’t see what Benny did to counter her attack; the hulking boy from Two was upon him, teeth bared. They both swung, their near-matching blades connecting with a jolt that sent sparks of pain shooting up Dean’s right arm. Stumbling back, weakness brought on by nearly three weeks of hunger and exhaustion slowing them, they locked gazes as yells echoed from the parallel battle nearby. The Two recovered first, springing forward with a yell.
“I’m going to fillet you, Nine,” the male tribute from Two snarled as he pushed himself up from the mess of practice climbing ropes.
“When? You can’t touch me here.” Dean smirked and toyed with the knife in his hand.
“Just wait for the arena, you filthy farm boy.”
“You’ll have to catch me first.”
Some of that damn Career training must’ve paid off for the Two, because next thing Dean knew, he was flat on his back with blood gushing out of his left forearm and his weapon useless on the ground beside him. The boy from Two paused for a second, a triumphant grin flitting over his face as he raised his arm, the jagged edge of the black stone blade gleaming in the ashen light.
With a growl like an animal, Dean reached for his weapon and launched himself up, barreling into the boy from Two and slamming him to the ground. A single blow later, he was scrambling back to his feet, the Career’s blood dripping off his face and hands as two cannons fired in quick succession.
Dean struggled to his feet, breathing heavily and moving away from the fresh corpse, weapon at the ready.
The other teenager raised his hands and half-smiled through a very short, scruffy beard. “Whoa there, brother. Is that any way to treat someone who just saved your life?”
“You’re not my brother,” Dean spat.
“Well, I guess not, but the way I see it, we’re two underdogs from outlying districts with just about no chance to win this thing alone, and there’s a Career pack snooping around. Two people would do better against them than one. You interested?”
As he turned, Dean’s burning sense of triumph died in an instant. The girl from One was dead, her head nearly severed from her body, and Benny was on the ground next to her, a silver knife, a pretty one that had to be a sponsor gift, jammed deep into his abdomen.
Before he knew he was moving, Dean found himself standing over his ally, mumbling, “No, no, no,” over and over again. This wasn’t supposed to happen. It wasn’t supposed to end like this.
Benny only grinned weakly up at him. “Guess this is it for me, brother. Make it quick, will you?”
“No, Benny, I...It wasn’t...” It wasn’t supposed to be down to the two of them. They hadn’t even talked about it coming down to the two of them.
“If you won this thing, what would you do with all the money the Capitol gives Victors?”
“I don’t know; I don’t need much. Maybe I’d use it to somehow get back at those bastards who call themselves my family. What about you?”
“Probably get my dad’s car back from the Peacekeepers...they took it when he disappeared; I couldn’t pay the tax...and then I’d buy Sammy all the books he could ever want.”
“Dean...” Benny tried to push himself up on his elbow and gave up with a pained grimace. “I’m going to die anyway, and I don’t want to hang around and wait for the internal bleeding or whatever to get me. Besides...” He smiled again, only this time it was full of sadness. “The girl I love is already dead, and I got no one else I give a damn about. But you do. End this, Dean. You’ve got to, or they’ll send more mutts, and we know how that goes.”
“Benny, I can’t,” Dean said, ignoring how his voice cracked, but Benny just gave him a look.
“Please, Dean. Just do it fast. Go home to your little brother.”
“Sammy, listen, you need to stay strong, okay? No taking out tesserae, no doing anything stupid, you hear? Promise me, Sam!”
“Only if you promise to come back!”
Shaking and swaying on his feet, blood still dripping from his other arm, Dean hefted his weapon and swallowed. “I’m sorry,” he whispered, and swung the blade down.
It always ends this way.
Cannon. Trumpets. Announcement.
“Ladies and gentlemen, I give you the Victor of the Sixty-Sixth Hunger Games: Dean Winchester of District Nine!”
Chapter 2: Your Life Is What They Make It
(9 years later…)
Storming into the lavishly-furnished train car, Dean made a beeline for the drinks table, bypassing the glasses in favor of swigging the best-looking amber whiskey straight from the heavy crystal bottle. Wincing at the burn as it went down, Dean paused briefly for breath before downing another gulp.
“Are you going to drink that whole thing today, Mr. Winchester?”
“Shut up, Billie,” Dean snapped as he slumped down on the nearest sofa and took another drink.
The unusually normal-looking-and-sounding tribute escort watched him from her seat by the dining table. “You’ll be drunk long before the recap if you keep doing that.”
“What do you care?”
“I’m not paid to care, Dean; I’m paid to get people from point A to point B with a minimum of fuss. Today, one of those people just so happens to be your brother.”
“Excuse me? Do I look like the one who came up with the latest Quarter Quell twist?”
Dean ignored her, turning back to the alcohol only to have it snatched from his hands.
“What the hell do you think you’re doing, boy?” Bobby Singer, Nine’s oldest Victor, slapped him upside the head and took the whiskey back to the drinks table. “Sam needs you sober, not drunk like some Capitol butterfly at her first society party.”
“Bobby’s right.” Nine’s second and only female Victor, Jody Mills, entered the room. “Both of them need us all to stay clearheaded.”
“Them” meant Sam and Jody’s niece Alex, who was an indisputably tough kid. Growing up with only a drug-addled mom had granted her some decent survival skills. But Sam’s the one everyone will be looking at. He’s a freaking giant with puppy eyes and people skills.
That should have been a comfort, but Dean was still beyond pissed that he had to think about it at all. He was supposed to be safe. Even if Victors’ siblings weren’t already protected...He was four years past Reaping age. He was supposed to be safe.
He had been safe. Then, a few months ago, that had all changed with a single mandatory broadcast.
“This year, in recognition of the Third Quarter Quell, and as a reminder that the choices of the rebels affected not only them but their families, the tributes will be reaped from among the close family members of each district’s Victors, whether the individual Victors themselves be alive or dead. The relatives eligible will be all siblings, children, nieces, nephews, and cousins, regardless of age or state of health. Furthermore, no volunteers will be allowed."
“I’d give both of your tributes better odds this year in any case,” Billie commented. “With the volunteer system suspended, the Career districts are...concerned.”
“Doesn’t change the fact that a lot of One and Two Victors have close family members who also have Career training,” Jody pointed out. “Their chances are still better.”
Yeah, way better. For instance, we only had two people who fit the bill for eligibility. Dean wondered if Jody was happy that her son Owen had died years ago and immediately felt guilty, stopping himself short of wishing the kid was still alive so that Sam would’ve had a chance to avoid being Reaped.
He really needed to stop thinking like that. Unfortunately, the next topic his mind seized upon wasn’t so great, either.
“How’s your cousin holding up?”
“He has been consuming copious amounts of sugar for the past few weeks. Admittedly, that is not so unusual for him.”
“Well, the odds of him getting Reaped are pretty low. Isn’t there like fifty eligible Ones this year?”
“That’s an exaggeration, Dean. There are only forty-three, and the majority are female.”
Dean really didn’t want to think about Gabriel Novak’s odds of becoming District One’s first tribute who was also a candy shop owner. For all that Cas complains about him, they are family. Fuck, I hate this.
This had already been the worst time of the year.
That afternoon passed with a lot of awkward silence between the escort and the Victors, along with nibbling on fancy food that Dean both enjoyed and loathed. Bobby and Jody wouldn’t let him have any more alcohol, and the tributes only emerged from their rooms when an early dinner was announced. Alex’s eyes were red-rimmed and Sam wasn’t meeting anyone’s gaze.
Dinner was only made tolerable by Jody and Billie’s ongoing argument over whether soup or salad should be served first. It was extremely boring, but at least it broke the strained quiet that threatened to settle over them all.
Bobby always says strategy shouldn’t be discussed right away, wh ile the shock of being Reaped is still wearing off. But we all knew this was coming months ago, so what gives?
After dinner, they all gathered around the best television set on the train for the recap, and within the first few minutes, Dean felt like vomiting when District One’s escort followed up the Reaping of some pretty cousin of Victor Amethyst Moore by babbling, “Gabriel Novak!” into the microphone.
Shit. He automatically sought out Castiel Novak in the row of Victors as Gabriel bounced up on the stage, winking exaggeratedly at the cameras and making the escort blush under her facial tattoos as he kissed her hand. Cas had gone white, but when the cameras focused on him and the commentators chattered about the Reaping of his cousin, his expression was blank.
“Doesn’t that idjit run a candy store?” Bobby said, referring to Gabriel.
“Yeah.” Dean looked for Cas again. “He’s not much of a fighter.” Not much of a threat. But he’s Cas’s family…
“The girl doesn’t look too frightening, either,” Jody said, reaching over to give Alex’s hand a comforting squeeze. “One’s not looking its best this year.”
When the screen switched to District Two, Dean glanced up and found Sam watching him with narrowed eyes which quickly flickered away.
The middle-aged yet powerful-looking daughter of District Two’s first Victor...who was currently deceased...was Reaped next, followed by the slightly younger, sneering brother of one of the district’s most famous...or infamous, depending on who you asked...Victors.
Michael’s bad, but this one looks somehow even worse, Dean thought. And if the gossip the other Two Victors spread around about him is to be believed...
Jody was clearly thinking along the same lines. “Alex, Sam, if Lucifer Rex so much as looks your way, run as fast as you can in the other direction.”
The Reaping of an energetic redhead girl...some cousin-or-other to Ezra Bradbury...and Linda Tran’s teenage son Kevin was shown next. This was followed by District Four’s Reaping, in which the escort remained chipper while reading out the name of a teenage girl, then came close to tears as she stammered, “Benjamin Braeden.”
“Fuck!” Sam burst out, speaking for the first time in hours. “That kid’s...what? Twelve?”
“He’s ten,” Dean said as Ben began shrieking and Lisa burst into tears.“Any other year, his name wouldn’t even be in there.” At least we’re not alone in thinking it’s wrong, he thought as he noted the sickened expressions on just about everyone in the crowd. There were even a few shouted protests which made the Peacekeepers lining the stage look uneasy.
Two’s scary as ever, but Jody’s right; the other Career districts aren’t looking so great.
District Five was next, and the minute the cameras focused on the stage, Jody said, “Good grief, how does Rowena look younger than last year?”
“Capitol treatments or witchcraft; pick one,” Bobby said. “You know they’re both equally likely.”
Five’s first Victor did look about the same age as her own son, Fergus “Crowley” MacLeod, who Dean had spent many hours with in the past, drinking and exchanging increasingly dirty insults. Crowley's son Gavin was Reaped alongside Anna Milton’s oddly porcelain-doll-like step-sister.
“She’s nuts,” Dean said as the number of redheads on the stage increased by one more. “Anna says she talks to herself, and I don’t mean just normal rambling, I mean actual conversations with some demon she claims is possessing her. With her permission, of course.”
Bobby let out a sigh and cast a longing glance at the drinks table. Jody smacked his arm. “You and Dean have had enough for one day.”
District Six produced a pair of Victors’ cousins, one an admittedly hot brunette and the other a boy with light brown hair who looked to be in his late teens. Dean, Bobby, and Jody swore in unison when Ellen Harvelle’s daughter Joanna Beth got the short end of the stick, then again when Rufus’s nephew Terrence was called up. Meg Masters was sneering in District Eight when her little blonde sister Callie was Reaped, followed by Julia’s freaking nine-year-old son Jesse. The soft curses in the train car quieted as the familiar sight of District Nine’s largest town’s square appeared on the screen. The cameras picked up the quiet crowd, the dusty buildings, and even a bit of the rippling, golden wheat fields beyond the town proper. Dean felt a tiny stab of homesickness at the sight of the open space.
Alex’s name was called first, and though Dean remembered seeing her shaking, she did look strong and determined on camera. Sam was next, and one of the cameras had been aimed at Dean when Billie read the younger Winchester’s name.
“He’s not showing much emotion, is he?” one of the commentators said. “That’s Dean Winchester for you!”
“Still, it must be so hard for him!” the other commentator sniffled. “During his Games, he was so focused on getting back to his little brother, and now...”
And now my little brother’s going in to die because of Capitol bastards like you. Dean clenched his fists, fingernails digging into his skin almost hard enough to draw blood.
Gwen Campbell’s nondescript cousin Christian was called up in Ten along with some girl named Ruby, apparently another cousin from the other side of the family. When District Eleven came up on screen, Alex let out a sort of nervous giggle. “It’s Victor Victor,” she said.
Dean grinned at that, but it faded when Victor Henricksen's much-younger half-sister Ella was called, followed by some older black guy Dean couldn’t place. “Raphael Orchards? Who the hell is that?”
“Missouri’s estranged nephew,” Bobby said. “Better than some of her other relatives, but still...”
Frowning, Dean watched the man step onto the stage. Estranged, huh? But Missouri will probably still try to help him, and he sure doesn’t look weak…
Watching Twelve’s Reaping was almost always horrible, and it was worse this year as its only living Victor, Asher Gallagher, visibly struggled to hold it together as his niece Ava and his son Andrew had their names called. Then it was finally over.
Bobby turned off the television and turned to everyone else. “First impressions?”
Alex shifted in her seat and looked to her aunt, but Sam spoke up. “District One isn’t too much of a threat, though Jessica Moore could be a wildcard. District Two is to be avoided, Three isn’t a worry unless one or both of the tributes is a genius...”
“Which happens far more often than you’d think,” Jody interjected.
“...Four isn’t going to be a problem this year, unless Hael Fisher has some tricks up her sleeve,” Sam continued. “It’s hard to tell with Five. Six’s tributes look better than usual. Seven is a concern, I guess...”
“I’d recommend allying with Jo and Terrence before making them your enemies,” Bobby said. “Nine and Seven tributes often have a decent relationship.”
Well, as decent as it ever gets in the Arena…
“Right. Eight, not a problem. Ten, possibly a threat; both tributes look strong. I’d say Eleven is to-be-determined. Twelve, not a problem.” Sam stood, stretching his freakishly long limbs. “I’m going to bed.”
Dean jumped up and followed him out of the room. “Sam!” When he caught up to his brother, he began, “Are you...” then stopped.
I was going to ask if he was okay. But that’s a fucking stupid question if there ever was one.
Sam seemed to get it. “Dean, I’m fine. I’ll see you tomorrow, okay?”
With that, he was gone, leaving Dean alone, confused, and more than a little afraid.
We’ll be in the Capitol by tomorrow, and after that…
Dean had spent the last few months trying very hard not to think about that terrible after.
Chapter 3: Everyone Judges By The Cover
One look at Panem’s Capitol and Sam had to wonder if the city’s residents liked living in a place where all the buildings looked like display cases of the bright sugar candy Dean had used to steal pieces of when he and Sam were kids.
Then, when he saw the residents up close, he had to wonder if they truly liked making themselves look like sugar candy.
On people, it was kind of scary; his entire prep team were a testament to that. But as Bobby had told him before they left the train, he just did what they told him to and kept his eyes closed as much as possible, tuning out their chatter. At least they left his hair more or less alone.
His stylist, who introduced herself as Tessa, looked normal, except for the purple highlights in her hair. She didn’t stare at him for too long, either, which he appreciated. “Well, I’m glad I’ve heard about your height before. Otherwise I would have had to adjust the your parade costume to a ridiculous degree.”
“We’re not going to be loaves of bread, I hope.”
“No. Bread costumes are so last decade.” Her lips twitched into a tiny smile. “But let’s have lunch while we talk about that.”
A few minutes later, when they had been served crab cakes and salad that contained a rainbow of vegetables, and when they'd settled down in the single most luxurious room Sam had ever had the dubious pleasure of sitting in, Tessa asked, “What do you think of the Capitol so far?”
What do I think of the Capitol?
When Sam was a child, the Capitol had been a far-off, mysterious place. The city he glimpsed on the television seemed like a place out of fairy tales, full of wonder and fear at the same time. The Capitol had been land of shining castles full of curious-looking people and desirable luxuries beyond compare, and the place where two people from Nine went every year and never came back. As he grew older, the wonder faded into the background and the fear grew more palpable with every passing year.
When Sam was thirteen, the Capitol became more than a place. It became a villain, a crouching, glittering monster that took his older brother away from him. It was the cold smile of the president, the white-clad soldiers lining the square while the Games played out on a massive screen, the sparkling crowds roaring for the blood of the tributes...for Dean’s blood.
And after, when Dean came back with a smile that never reached his eyes and his nightmares that made him scream loud enough to wake Sam every night, and when they moved into the big house in Victor’s Village that echoed every time one took a step, the Capitol became the benefactor that Sam wished they’d never had.
Now, the Capitol was back to being the monster that wanted a Winchester broken and bleeding in an arena for their pleasure.
Sam forced a smile and said, “It’s much nicer than it looks on TV.” Then he stuffed a crab cake into his mouth to keep himself from saying anything else.
Tessa gave him a piercing look, but didn’t comment on his lie. Instead, she said, “Now, about the parade costumes...”
After some more eating and some fittings, and before the parade was due to start, he and Tessa met Alex by the chariots; her stylist was nowhere in sight. “He was way more interested in pizza than in me,” the eighteen-year-old said with a scowl.
“He can be like that,” Tessa said vaguely as ushered them towards their chariot and its golden-brown horses, giving the tributes a final look-over. “Okay, I think you two are good to go. Just remember to smile and wave...and don’t fall off of the chariot...and you’ll do great.”
She seemed to vanish a second later, leaving Sam and Alex alone among the throng of stylists and other tributes clustered around the chariots. Glancing at his district partner, Sam said, “You look nice.”
“For a tribute on parade? That’s not saying much. But thanks.”
The costumes really weren’t bad at all, considering the parades of the past. District Nine’s last stylist pair had resigned after the Seventieth Games, and Sam felt grateful for that; Dean and his partner in the Sixty-Sixth had been forced to wear scanty outfits comprised entirely of miniature wheat sheaves.
These outfits, on the other hand, were tolerable. Alex wore a long dress with thin straps over the shoulders and a plunging neckline, while Sam had on a skimpy vest and pants. Both outfits were made of shiny yellow-brown material decorated with copious amounts of tiny, grain-shaped amber beads.
“They do know there’s more grains that wheat, right?” Alex said, fiddling with the fake gold wheat- spike-crown pinned to her braided hair.
Sam shrugged and gingerly touched his own crown. “Maybe. Capitolites are weird.”
“Yeah.” Alex’s gaze wandered over the other chariots, and she stiffened. “District Two’s looking at you.”
Sam glanced over to where the Twos stood by their chariot, clad in black and silver armor, and yes, Lucifer Rex was staring. Stifling the alarm bells going off in his head, Sam stared right back until the older man smirked and turned away to say something to his district partner.
Sounding nervous, Alex said, “Aunt Jody said she’s heard he’s a psychopath.”
“Right.” Sam looked back to her and managed a smile. “If that’s true, he’s probably been staring creepily at everyone.”
They shared a nervous laugh, then a voice boomed over hidden speakers, ordering the tributes to “mount up”. Sam offered Alex a hand; she nearly rolled her eyes but accepted the help, and he climbed in after her. The sound of Panem’s bombastic anthem began to echo through the space under the Remake Center and out in the streets as the giant double doors opened. As the roar of the crowd reached them, Sam and Alex exchanged a look that was a mix between panic and resolve.
Gripping the chariot railings, Sam plastered on a smile and tried desperately to remember how Dean had acted during his parade.
When the tribute trains first rolled into the Capitol every year, most of the Victors soon headed over to a reception hall in a hotel near the Training Center, where those not mentoring often stayed during the Games, for a little get-together usually referred to jokingly as the “Annual Victors’ Reunion”.
It was mostly an excuse for Victors to start on the excellent food and drink early and to bitch at each other about anything and everything, but Nine’s three Victors always went anyway.
The minute they entered the already-crowded room, Bobby and Jody headed over to talk to Ellen and Rufus. Dean was about to join them when a familiar affected accent drawled out, “Well, well, well. Look who made it to the party.”
Suppressing a smirk, Dean turned. “Hey, Crowley...and Rowena.” He hadn’t expected her to be hovering behind her son, but there she was in one of her signature sparkly gowns.
“Good day to you, Mr. Winchester,” the woman said primly, teacup in hand. What she had in said teacup Dean didn’t know. “Can we offer you a drink?”
“I’ll get him one.” Crowley waved his hand a nearby server, who came scurrying with a tray of assorted hideous cocktails. “Not your usual rotgut, Dean, but I expect you want to stay at least a little bit sober over the next few weeks, for poor Sammy’s sake.”
“I see you’re not bothering,” Dean said, taking one of the least colorful cocktails for the sake of the waiter and gesturing with it towards Crowley’s large glass of whiskey. “Oh, well, it’s just your son’s life on the line.”
Crowley snorted and lifted his glass to his lips. “Gavin hasn’t a snowball’s chance in hell, anyway. Why waste the time?”
“Now, now, Fergus,” Rowena scolded. “No need to be a right bastard about it, even if that is what you are.”
Sometimes listening to Crowley and Rowena bicker is funny, but other times, it’s annoying as hell. Today is one of those days. Dean sipped his cocktail and made a face at the flavor. “So, what do you make of this year’s batch of tributes?”
“A mix of good, bad, and horrendously pathetic, as always,” Crowley said. “Our district is no different. For all his faults, at least Gavin has some semblance of sanity in his tiny brain. If I hear Josie having one more conversation with that Abaddon of hers...or I am forced to have a conversation with that imaginary being...I’ll gut her myself.”
“Oh, it’s not that bad. I find it a wee bit amusing, really.” Rowena smiled at Dean and drained her teacup. “I’m going to get a refill. See you boys later!”
Crowley scowled after her. “Forget Josie; one of these days, I swear I’m going to...”
“Come on, Crowley, she’s your family. She’s supposed to get on your nerves.” Dean scanned the crowd, picked the fruit-laden toothpick out of his drink, and downed the liquid in one gulp. “I’m going to say hi to Anna. Catch you later.”
Leaving Crowley still muttering about “thrice-damned” relatives, Dean headed over to the appetizer table, beside which Anna was talking to leather-clad Meg Masters. The brunette spotted him first. “Hey, Dean; how’s the weather in Nine?”
Giving Anna a quick grin, Dean said, “Not bad, Meg. Is it raining soot in Eight yet?”
“Oh, all the time, hotshot. All the time.”
“Hi, Dean,” Anna said with a warm smile. “How are you?”
“Holding up,” Dean replied, because that’s what Victors did. We “hold up” and hope for a better year, every year. “How are Josie and Abaddon?”
“Oh, God!” Anna all but wailed, burying her face in her hands as Meg cackled. “I’ve never had to spend so much time in close proximity to Josie without sufficient backup...her mom doesn’t like me, you know...but in the last twenty-four hours I’ve gotten to hear about all how Abaddon wants to rule Hell, how Abbadon thinks humans are stupid yet tasty, how Abaddon wants to flay Crowley alive...”
“I’d help with that,” Meg said, punching Dean on the arm.
He hit her back and said, “Just let Rowena handle her, Anna. Just because she’s your step-sister...”
“I don’t dare do that, Dean. Rowena encourages her.” Anna dragged her hand through her hair. “Probably because Aba-damn-it wants to murder her son...You know, until a few years ago, Josie was the sweetest and funniest person around. We weren’t close, but we got along okay. Now she’s...”
“Got bats in the belfry?” Meg suggested, and Anna nodded, swiping a glass of something blue and bubbly from a passing waiter.
Seeing Lisa and Julia huddled together in a corner, Dean excused himself from the conversation and went over to say hello. He didn’t know Julia well, so their exchange of greetings and veiled condolences was stiff and awkward, but he gave Lisa a tight hug. “I’m so sorry,” he said quietly.
Lisa gave him a pained smile. She was older than him, but they were friends, and yes, they’d hooked up a couple times the year after Ben was born and his father had disappeared off the face of the earth. He knew she meant it when she said, “I’m sorry, too, Dean.”
He left the two mothers alone again, nodded at Henriksen and Cole from Six, and was looking for Bobby and Jody when someone behind him said, “Hello, Dean.”
Most of the time, just the sound of that particular gravely voice was enough to bring a smile to Dean’s face, but even today, his heart gave a little jump as he turned. “Hey, Cas, I was just...” He was cut off by Castiel enveloping him in a tight, clumsy hug. “Oh. Okay.” Hugging in a public place. This is new.
When they pulled apart, Cas looked at him with those bright blue eyes and said, “Dean, I am so sorry about your brother. How is he?”
“He’s doing...okay.” Honestly, Dean wasn’t sure about that, but he’d try for optimism. “How’s Gabriel?”
Castiel’s expression darkened. “He is refusing to take any of this seriously. It is...disheartening.”
Tributes who don’t take things seriously usually don’t get very far. “I’m sure he’ll wise up when he needs to. He’s not a kid; he’s older than you!”
“Yes. But ‘wising up’ is not how Gabriel likes to live his life.” Cas sighed, moving seemingly without conscious thought into Dean’s personal space. Dean let him. “It’s good to see you, Dean.”
“It’s good to see you, too.”
They stayed together for the rest of the “reunion”, and sat together in the reserved stands by the Training Center for the parade a couple hours later.
“The noise is already deafening!” Cas shouted into Dean’s ear about fifteen minutes before the parade was supposed to start. The anthem had not begun to play, but the entire city was lining the streets with banners and streamers and their loud, accented voices.
The noise level only rose when the anthem began to blare, and everyone’s eyes immediately went to the screens where the first pair of tributes could be seen riding out of the Remake Center.
The District One stylists had, predictably, chosen flashy to start off the parade. The tributes were painted with swirls of gold and silver and wore jewel-studded garments covering what was necessary and nothing else.
“Seeing my cousin half-naked and spray-painted is something I could have lived without!” Cas commented at the top of his lungs, and Dean saw several nearby Victors smirking, including that District Two asshole who liked to act like a One, Zachariah. Dean flipped him off and turned back to the giant screens above the crowds.
The District Two tributes looked fearsome in their sleek yet imposing armor. The Threes were done up in what looked like giant circuit boards. Dean had to admit, the redheaded female was freaking owning it with a big smile, though her district partner looked lost. The Fours were dressed up as a mermaid and a merman; the girl was trying valiantly while Ben looked miserable.
When the Fives rolled out, Dean was caught between wanting to wince and wanting to laugh. For what must have been the tenth year in a row, Five’s stylists had gone with solar panels as inspiration...At least it’s eye-catching; I’ll give them that...but the real showstopper was Josie Sands, who was balancing on the chariot railing with a shit-eating grin while Gavin looked ready to pass out behind her.
Well, that’s new, Dean thought as the crowd went wild and Anna bellowed several swear words a few seats over. I bet her step-sister is feeling like Abaddon right now.
Six’s tributes weren’t much to look at, though the hot chick...Right, Bela Talbot...was giving it her all and her district partner...Aaron? Alan?...wasn’t doing too bad, either. The Sevens were trees...Yet again; wow, Jo sure has Ellen’s “so-done-with-your-bullshit” face down pat...and the Eights, both young and clearly frightened, looked like the victims of a ribbon bomb.
Dean breathed a sigh of relief when he saw that Sam and Alex looked good...Tessa’s so much better than our last stylists...and were giving it their all with the smiles and waves. Towering over pretty much all of the other tributes, Sam was surely catching a lot of eyes. He’s a good sponsor for candidates. Alex, too; when she’s smiling she is really pretty and she can act likable.
The Tens were...well, Dean thought they were cows, but it was hard to tell. Could be goats. Guess we’ve found this year’s biggest costume fumble...The Elevens followed in autumn-themed coveralls and the Twelves didn’t look horrible in shiny all-black costumes.
When the chariots arrived in the City Circle and halted in formation in front of the Palace, the President of Panem since right after the Sixty-Fifth Hunger Games stepped up to the podium.
Dean distinctly recalled Rowena saying once, to a roomful of Victors during a presidential broadcast, “Shouldn't we sensor the man? He’s a dick after all.”
As Richard Roman began his usual spiel, plus some extras for the Quarter Quell, Dean ignored him in favor of watching Sam down below. Of course, the younger Winchester looked like he was paying attention.
Stay strong, Sammy. So far, you’re doing great.
Chapter 4: Opposites Don't Stick Together
Sam yanked the wheat crown off his head as he left the crowded dismounting area and entered one of the even more crowded elevators, Alex’s words circling through his head.
“Don’t pretend that I have a chance! The Capitolites like you better already, and our Victors...They say we’ll be a team, Sam, but...but they’ve already picked you.”
Finding a spot next to the gorgeous blonde girl from One, Sam resisted the urge to slump against the wall. Why did I say anything besides “Let’s go upstairs; I’m starving,” when we got off the chariot? Why did I have to go put my foot in my mouth? He tended to do that a lot.
“This is your fault, you know!”
“My fault? It’s my fault that I won the Games and put you in this position now, Sam? Because I won for you! I’ve always had to live for you!”
The elevator whisked them up the first floor of apartments, where Jessica Moore made for the door, jostling Sam on the way. “Sorry!” she said, giving him a surprisingly open smile, which he returned.
The rest of the elevator ride was mostly silent, and soon Sam found himself alone with the jittery pair from Twelve, who kept giving him nervous looks and whispering to each other. He was relieved when the elevator halted on the ninth floor.
He wasn’t paying much attention to where he was going when he opened the door to the main apartment and, as a result, almost crashed into the person going the other way. “Who the hell are you?” he demanded, then instantly felt like the world’s biggest idiot, because who didn’t know who this person was?
When the nation’s television screens had shown the first visual sweep of the Sixty-Fifth Arena, even those used to seeing beautiful things every day had let out gasps of wonderment. The Gamemakers had outdone themselves that year, with miles of lush gardens, clear shimmering lakes, and marble walks and pavilions, all raised on a plateau surrounded by shining clouds. It wasn’t the first paradise-themed arena, but it said to be the best, which made the drastic contrast of the next year even more interesting.
The Sixty-Fifth Games also landed right in the middle of an odd phase where the Gamemakers kept supplying only one type of weapon per arena. Several tributes, including some Careers, had been caught on camera complaining about the triple-edged silver daggers in the faux paradise. Sixteen-year-old Castiel Novak had not been one of those people. He had used one of those daggers to tear his way through no less than eight opponents over the course of one week.
The Capitolites, with their penchant for silly nicknames, had started calling him “The Warrior Angel”, for a variety of reasons Sam had never bothered to list; at the time he'd been more concerned as to where his father had disappeared off to. The Capitol obsession with Castiel had died down a bit after the Games, however, when it was discovered that his blunt manner and apparent disinterest in most other human beings was not an act. He hadn’t even pretended to be triumphant or grateful after he was crowned Victor, and that set him apart.
In the outer districts like Nine, when he came up in discussion, people remembered that, but mostly just shrugged and said, “At least he made his kills quick.” Plenty of Careers didn’t.
So, yes, everyone in Panem knew who Castiel was, either as a disappointing Victor or a tolerable one. Personally, Sam knew him as that weird District One Victor who Dean mentioned all the damn time and, in the last year or so, spoke of with a faraway look in his eyes.
Speaking of eyes, Castiel’s are kind of scary up close. Does he ever blink? Sam took a step back. “Sorry, I should’ve looked where I was going.”
“Sam Winchester.” Castiel tilted his head, not moving from the doorway. “Dean speaks of you often.”
“Yeah, he talks about you, too.”
“He does?” There was a tiny hint of surprise in the gravely voice.
“Of course. You’re friends, right?”
Castiel blinked. “Yes. Dean and I are friends.”
As if summoned by repeated use of his name, Dean came up behind Castiel and said, “Hey, Sam! You managed not to look like a total bitch out there. Cas, you’d better get back to your floor.”
“Yes, I should. Goodbye, Dean, Sam.” With that, Castiel brushed past Sam, headed for the elevators.
“Come on, it’s time for dinner.” Dean led Sam into the luxurious apartment, which probably would have been more impressive if the brothers hadn’t spent the last nine years living in a far above-average house. “So you met Cas, huh?” Dean said as they entered the dining room. “What do you think?”
Alex was already at the table, sitting between Jody and Billie, and Sam attempted and failed to catch her eye before saying, “He’s...Well, when you call him weird, you’re not wrong.”
“Can’t argue with that,” said Bobby. “Good job out there, boy.”
“You both did great,” Jody said with a smile.
Sam looked away. “Thanks.”
Tessa showed up shortly afterward, the other stylist didn’t…“He’s working,”…and dinner passed more or less pleasantly. The food was good, but Sam paid less attention to it than he did the conversation between the three Victors and the two Capitolites at the table. They seemed to be trying to keep it light, and failed within the first five minutes.
“So it’s true that Lucifer was in prison,” Jody said. “And he’s only out right now because of the Quarter Quell twist...”
“That’s right.” Billie sipped her wine and added, “Seventeen accusations of murder...most unproven, of course, so he kept going in and out. His brother helped put him back every time he walked. Stupid waste, if you ask me. If you put someone in jail, at least keep him there.”
“So Michael and Lucifer hate each other’s guts.” Bobby shook his head. “I’d say that’s a good thing, but if Lucifer’s killed people before, then it’s really not. Doesn’t matter how much his big brother might want him dead; he’s dangerous.”
“Yeah, but I heard his district partner hates him, so that’s a plus,” Dean said through a mouthful of steak. Sam gave him a look.
“Everything’s upside-down this year,” Tessa said. “The Career pack may be nonexistent, most of the tributes are unusual ages...”
“I’d say that’s a good thing,” Bobby interrupted. “The different ages, I mean. At least most of the tributes aren’t goddamn teenagers this year. Then again...Ben and Jesse. Just...that.”
Sam wondered if it saying disparaging things about the Games was a good idea in front of two Capitol employees, but Tessa looked sympathetic and Billie simply snorted and poured herself more wine before one of the Avox servers could do it.
“You know, Sammy...They cut people’s tongues out, in the Capitol. Then they make those people be servers for the rich. Hell, they do all the work in the Training Center...They’re like these red silent shadows, and they’re not supposed to look anyone in the eye...”
Suddenly all the rich food on the table didn’t look so good.
The conversation about the other tributes and Victors was still going on. “I’m about ninety percent sure Josie Sands doesn’t like Gavin...or at least the voice in her head doesn’t...so that’s another district team-up that probably won’t happen...”
“Ellen and Rufus said Jo and Terrence will stick together; so will the Twelves…Ruby and Christian, not so much, according to Gwen...”
“I’m not sure what to make of this Charlie character; I’d never heard of her before, but then again, Bradbury did die a while back now...”
“Bela Talbot’s already got sponsors eyeing her, but Adam Rosen isn’t much to look at...”
“His cousin Becky is hospitalized in Six...another mental breakdown...”
“Poor Becky...She’s fucking annoying when she’s on one of those emotional highs, but she doesn’t deserve all the shit her brain throws at her...”
“Dean, how many glasses of wine have you had?”
Sam couldn’t help himself. “Try four, Dean.”
“Shut up, bitch.”
The Winchesters grinned at each other, and for the first time in months, Sam felt like things were almost normal between him and his brother. We can’t keep blaming each other or ourselves, he realized, because that was exactly what he and Dean had been doing ever since the reading of the card months ago. His avoidance of Dean hadn't started at the Reaping. It’s not our fault, any of this. I don’t want to die while barely on speaking terms with my brother.
With that in mind, he caught Dean in the hallway after the parade recap, when everyone was headed to their rooms. “Look, I’m sorry about...you know.”
“What? You being a complete bitch for months on end?” But Dean’s voice didn’t match his words. “Let’s just agree that we both messed up. I’m sorry, too, Sammy.”
“Okay. And it’s Sam. Who’s going to take me seriously if you go around calling me Sammy all the time?”
Dean snorted and gave him a shove. “Go to bed. Early day tomorrow.”
The gigantic gymnasium in the basement was always a jungle of terror and humiliation for almost everyone who wasn’t a Career tribute, but Dean really didn’t want to know what it was like this year. Between the murderers, the nutcases, and the kids under standard Reaping age...It’s going to be a nightmare.
He told himself Sam could handle it and tried to go about his own day without dwelling on it or his own memories of that gymnasium.
“Within four weeks, twenty-three of you will be dead.”
His day mostly consisted of going around to various private social gatherings, putting his best moves on, and tracking down potential sponsors and useful info. The Capitols liked to party during the entire Games season, and unless specifically banned from an establishment, Victors had open invitations everywhere.
Especially the young, good-looking ones, Dean reflected with a bitter smirk as he detached himself from yet another groping herd of perfume-soaked peacocks. He decided to concentrate on the good news. Lots of them are thinking about sponsoring my brother. As long as he pulls off a decent score and doesn’t botch his interview...
Having survived an arena where food was even scarcer than usual and literally all supplies except one type of weapon came from sponsors, Dean knew the importance of being likable around rich people.
He also knew the importance of keeping them happy, so when he got back to the Training Center and Billie handed him the first of what was sure to be many small sealed envelopes, he just thanked her and went to his room to check the appointment card. Not until tomorrow. Okay.
It was a bit of a relief to learn that Nine’s tributes had probably had a much better day in training than he had sucking up to wealthy Capitols. During dinner, Alex seemed a little more cheerful that usual, saying that she’d worked at some survival stations plus with a couple weapons and felt she’d done well.
The kinda-sorta training I know Jody gave her behind the Peacekeepers’ backs probably helped. I wish Sam had let me help with whatever he was doing...
Now Sam talked mostly about the other tributes he’d met.
Because of course Sam went into a room full of people who will try to kill him in a few days and tried to make friends.
“I worked on fire-starting with the Twelves, and they were both nice, though I think Andy was scared of me. Jo and Terrence were cool, too...”
“But you spent the most time with the Ones,” Alex said loudly, catching everyone’s attention. “Seriously, he abandoned the outliers right after lunch and spent the whole afternoon with golden girl and the Warrior Angel’s nutty cousin.”
All gazes went from her to Sam, who said, “What? They aren’t the usual brand of Career. Gabriel is really annoying, though; he kept calling me weird names, dropping candy wrappers, and intentionally screwing up whatever he was working on. Jessica was...okay. She wanted...wants to be a nurse, and she’s kind of sassy, but in a good way, and...I think we could’ve been friends or something in another life, you know? Still, she said that she really doesn’t like the Twos and Gabriel wants to make a go of it alone, so I was thinking...”
Dean slammed his fork down on the table. “No, Sam. Just...no.”
“Dean, it’s not like I’m flirting with her or...”
“Oh, he was totally flirting with her, and she was flirting back,” Alex said, but Dean chose to ignore that.
“Look, Sam, we agreed that we’re a team here...If you and Alex decide to team up, that’s okay." District loyalty still counts in Nine. “If you make some agreement with, say, Jo Harvelle not to attack unless necessary, that’s fine by me. But, harsh as it sounds, a bunch of allies who you actually like is going to do nothing but hurt you in the long run. So don’t go getting too cozy with this Jessica or anyone else! Especially people from inner districts!”
There was a moment of silence after his outburst, during which no one moved except Bobby, who sighed and reached for the nearest container of alcohol.
Sam’s jaw clenched, his eyes firmly on the tabletop. “Don’t make this about Benny, Dean.”
“Yeah, it is.” Hazel eyes snapping up to bore into Dean’s, Sam started to speak, seemed to think better of it, and went a different route. “Why should you care so much about me being nice to tributes from One? Isn’t Castiel your friend?”
“Cas and I weren’t in the Arena together.” Their arenas were different worlds; Cas was the murdering angel who fought in paradise, and Dean was the equally-murderous monster in purgatory. “The only reason to get an ally is if it’ll save your life in the moment. And you should ditch that person the first chance you get.”
Just a glimpse of Alex’s shock and Jody and Bobby’s matching expressions of anger and disappointment was enough. Dean shoved his chair back and left the room.
I’m going to get a drink.
Inhuman screams tore through the forest. His heart pounding hard enough to hurt, Dean raced through the trees, hearing Benny’s footsteps beside him and the snarls of the fanged creatures drawing close behind them.
Just get to the boulder pile, just get there...Dean reached the stones first, the nails on his free hand splintering against the rock as he scrambled up, Benny on his heels. They reached the top, turned around. The humanoid mutts...five, six, seven...crowded close.
Jump. Blood. Teeth. More screams.
Aching all over, weapon dripping, Dean turned to Benny with a grin.
Benny smiled back, but it seemed to grow too wide, and suddenly his entire face was a gaping hole full of black-lined teeth…
Dean jolted upright, trying to stifle a yell and turning it into a strangled noise. When his heart rate slowed, he dropped his aching head into his hands. Fucking nightmares. Then, I screwed up again.
There was a phone by the bed, as typically provided for mentors. Sammy always wants me to talk...He reached for it, dialing in a floor and room combination as he sank back against the pillows. “Hey, Cas,” he said when the call was picked up.
Chapter 5: Treat Others Like You Think They'll Treat You
“I’m surprised they don’t have a force field up there.”
Sam yelped in surprise, dropping the spear he’d been preparing to throw. “Shit!”
The young woman from Three gave him a sheepish smile. “Oops! Sorry, didn’t meant to freak you out.”
“Uh, yeah, okay…” Retrieving his spear, Sam looked around to check if anyone had seen. As it happened, almost everyone was too busy watching several training assistants trying to get Gabriel untangled from the climbing net. He definitely did that on purpose. Only Bela Talbot, who was at the knife-throwing station and acting above it all, and Lucifer, who was smirking at Sam for the umpteenth time, were not watching the intentional train wreck that was District One’s male tribute.
Turning his back on Lucifer...Who never seems to do anything until he feels like tearing a dummy to bits in thirty seconds flat...Sam looked at the redhead next to him and asked, “What were you saying? Force fields?”
“Up there.” She pointed to the Gamemaker balcony. Most of said Gamemakers were either eating or watching the mess at the climbing station with looks of amusement and/or exasperation. “You’d think someone would’ve thrown or shot something at them ages ago. I mean, what would any tribute have to lose? Well, lots of them might not have anything. I’m Charlie, by the way.”
“Nice to meet you. I’m Sam.” He glanced at the balcony. “How can you tell that there’s no force field? Wouldn’t it be invisible or something?”
“Yes, but I’ve been watching for a while. There’s no...there should be a...a visible ripple every so often. It’s kind of hard to describe. But there’s nothing, just air.”
Of course a Three would notice something like that.
When lunchtime rolled around, Sam convinced Alex that they should sit with Charlie and her district partner Kevin, who was seventeen, seemed smart but shy, and only became involved in the conversation if he felt he knew the subject. He’s a far cry from his mom, Sam thought. Dean always described Linda Tran as being more than a little scary and anything but shy.
The conversation did veer towards family members eventually. “I never really knew my cousin Ezra,” Charlie confessed. “Not a close-knit family, if you get what I mean.”
“What about your parents?” asked Alex.
“They’ve been...gone for a long time.” Charlie smiled a little too brightly. “What about you guys?”
Kevin mumbled something about not knowing his father…“Either he’s a jerk or he’s a Capitol, just not sure which,”...while Alex mentioned that her dad was dead and that her mother had eventually succumbed to her drug problem. “Last couple years, I’ve stayed mostly with Aunt Jody.”
When they looked at Sam, he said, “Mom died when I was a baby...house fire. Dad moved me and Dean around a lot, as much as he was allowed to. He was a mechanic, so there was usually work...”
“He’s not still around, is he?” Charlie said as Alex made an awkward noise.
With a sigh, Sam said, “He disappeared during the Sixty-Fifth Games. Just up and left one day. We never found out what happened to him. My brother and I were living in the Community Home when Dean was Reaped.”
“That must’ve been rough,” Kevin said quietly.
“Yeah, well, Dean survived and we’re better off now than we ever were with Dad...Anyway, you guys seem trustworthy; any of you do some...ahem, ‘illegal training’ before coming here?”
They all let out nervous chuckles. “Mom’s been teaching me stuff for months,” Kevin said. “Ever since the announcement, but everyone knows Threes win due to brains not brawn...Not sure how far that’ll get me with some of the crazies around here...” He nodded meaningfully at the table where Lucifer and Raphael Orchards were sneering at each other.
The former is a murderer, and the latter...I really don’t have a good grasp on him yet. He’s strong and competent...other than that...
“My aunt showed me some stuff, too. If the Peacekeepers noticed, they looked the other way.” Alex pushed the remains of her lunch around her plate. “Sam tried to teach himself.”
Huh. I didn’t notice that she noticed. It’s not like we’re close...“I did ask Bobby for advice a few times.”
“Not your brother?” Charlie said curiously.
“He and I...had a fight and kind of didn’t talk much for a few months. Blaming each other for stuff and...yeah. If I’d asked, he would’ve helped. Probably.”
When the lunch hour was over, the four stuck together. As all the best weapons stations happened to be in use by the Twos...Why the fuck is Lucifer watching me again...the Tens...Okay, definitely watch out for Ruby if she has a knife...the Sevens...They might be the best district team-up this Games...and the Sixes...Come to think of it, Bela and Adam might be the strongest tributes from Six in years...Sam, Charlie, Kevin, and Alex ended up at the knot-tying station. The Threes, predictably, far surpassed the Nines in the art of turning ropes and rope-like material into traps.
Sam didn’t mention being allies, because, frankly, he didn’t know what to do about that, a bit like how he didn’t know what to do with his instinct to protect the youngest tributes even though he didn’t dare approach them. Can't risk it; Dean's got something right. It was both comforting and painful to see Jesse, Ben, and thirteen-year-old Callie sticking together all during training.
It’s sick. This whole game is sick and always has been. But it was also just part of life in Panem, wasn’t it? So many awful things are.
On his way to take a shower before dinner, Sam ran into Dean in the apartment hallway. “Hey, Sammy! How was it today?”
“It was okay. Apparently Charlie Bradbury finds it funny that there’s no force field between the Gamemakers and the tributes. You know, ‘nothing to lose’ and all that.”
Dean frowned. “Huh. Never thought of that. Smart chick, that Charlie.” He gave Sam mischievous look, but Sam’s eyes had been drawn to the three small envelopes in this brother’s hands.
“You don’t know what you’re talking about, Sam!”
“I’m not a little kid anymore, Dean! I know what they make you do!”
“I wish you didn’t have to...” He stopped himself before he could finish, and Dean grimaced.
“It’s not that bad, Sammy. Hell, sometimes it can be fun.” Dean grinned, but Sam saw right through it.
“Doesn’t matter. It’s still wrong.” You still don’t want it.
“We’re not having this conversation again.”
Sam’s simmering anger, aimed towards the Capitol, barely faded during dinner, when the private scoring sessions came up. Tomorrow afternoon, Sam realized. Then there’s a day for interview preparation, then the interviews...Then the Games.
He almost missed what Bobby was saying. “Most years, three’s the lowest and ten’s the highest. This year, though, a lot of things are going all sideways, so just do your best...but nothing stupid.”
“You’d think someone would’ve thrown or shot something at them ages ago.”
Sam looked at his brother, who had decided to launch into a play-by-play of how he earned a ten. But underneath the broad grin and dramatic gestures, Dean looked exhausted in a certain way that Sam had seen before and hated.
Maybe Dean did sometimes enjoy what he had to do; he’d always liked sex in general, hadn’t he? But that didn’t make it right, that didn’t make it his choice, and Sam knew enough about the Capitol in general to know that some Capitolites were utterly disgusting, and not just because they regularly gorged themselves on every imaginable delicacy while district people starved.
When asked, Sam said that he had a plan and refused to elaborate. “It’s a surprise...and no, Dean, I’m not giving a hair-braiding presentation...”
Later, after a dream of running and then falling into a bottomless pit woke him, Sam decided to take a short walk around the apartment and heard something while passing Dean’s door. Recalling too many nights listening to Dean’s screams down the hallway at home, he paused to listen.
Dean was talking. He was just talking, albeit not loud enough for Sam to hear and apparently over the phone, as he kept pausing. Once he even laughed softly, following it up with, “Seriously, I feel bad for Anna, but that’s just too crazy...” His voice trailed back into mutters, and Sam continued on his way.
He’s probably talking to Castiel. Back in Nine, Sam had found Dean on the phone with the other Victor several times. They’re friends, for some reason, but that’s good. Dean’s going to need friends if I don’t…
Sam stopped dead, feeling suddenly weak as he admitted to himself what he hadn’t dared to before. If I don’t live through the Games.
Yes, he was taller than the rest of the tributes and strong, for all Dean’s claims that he did nothing but stay at home and read. Yes, he was smart enough, and had watched multiple recordings of old Games to think up good strategies for survival. But twenty-three other people would be in the arena, too, and this year, most of them weren’t malnourished, frightened teenagers. Some were kids, but other were killers.
Yet, during every year, the strongest tributes didn’t always prevail.
And I’ve always known who really wins, every time.
With that in mind, Sam went into his scoring session the next afternoon with a smile on his face, which grew wider when he got a good look at the Gamemaker balcony. Looking around, he made a mental list and went over his plan again. Knife, sword, spear. And slingshot. I don’t think they’ll see that coming.
Dean Winchester had been a good tribute.
Sometimes, when the shine of the Capitol wore off and he was left with nothing but the ugly truth and his anger, he was embarrassed to realize that he’d played by the Capitol’s rules the whole time. Some people didn’t, and got away with it, like Castiel. Others suffered for their efforts. But at least they did something.
But I didn’t. Dean had smiled and waved during the tribute parade despite that horrid costume. Dean had shown off as much as possible during training, earning himself a Career-worthy score. He’d played cocky, flirted with the crowd, winking and joking his way through his interview. Except for that one moment...But that had probably helped in the end.
The only time he hadn’t given the Capitol a good show was probably when he mercy-killed Benny. The Capitols liked it when there was extra blood and pain at the end. Dean hadn’t had the stomach for that, but the Games had been just about over and when he grinned and blew kisses at the crowd from the stage afterward, and again during his Victory Tour, that one action of his hadn’t mattered to anyone but him.
It was all for Sammy, he always told himself, and that was the truth. He had played by their rules because it had been the only way for him to get back to his little brother, and when it came down to it, his duty to what was left of his family would almost always outweigh his regret.
Still, his Games had been typical. Only the insane collection of mutts that year, plus Dean’s status as an “outlier”, had really set the Games apart. It had mostly been a bunch of kids hacking each other to death in a forest in between getting eaten by vampire or werewolf or other monster mutts.
A Quarter Quell, on the other hand, was not supposed to be typical. This Games was already different due to the rule change, and now it was becoming clear that many of the tributes were not going to play normal.
Sitting in the District Nine apartment’s living area with Bobby, Jody, Sam, Alex, Tessa, and Billie, Dean stared blankly at the screen in front of them. “What the actual fuck?”
No one had an answer, and Jessica Moore’s following commendable nine went unremarked, because Gabriel Novak had just become the first tribute in Hunger Games history to score a zero.
Then Lucifer Rex’s score of eleven popped up, and another chorus of expletives erupted.
“Either they want him to win or they’re trying to kill him,” Bobby said as Jemma Torrent, District Two, received a ten. “I’m hoping the latter.”
Dean noticed Sam shifting uncomfortably and narrowed his eyes.
The next few scores were predictable, at least. The Threes got a three and a five respectively, and the Fours a six and a two. Five, where the average score over the years was literally five, had an upset with a three for Gavin and an eight for Josie.
“These are the best scores Six has had in years,” Jody commented as Adam’s eight was followed by Bela’s seven. “Becky herself only had a three.”
Terrence Turner got a nine, and Jo Harvelle a ten. “Rufus and Ellen should be happy,” Bobby said. “Good for them.”
As poor Jesse’s one was followed by Callie’s four, Dean leaned forward in his seat. Here we go.
Sam Winchester received...an eleven.
“Holy shit, Sammy, what the hell did you do?” Dean burst out, only for Sam to shush him and point at the screen as Alex’s score was revealed to be respectable seven. Her relieved smile soon faded, and Dean barely paid attention as the last three districts flashed by with an eight and nine for Ten, a six and a nine for Eleven, and a pair of fives for Twelve. The seal was displayed, and the broadcast ended.
Jody gave her niece a hug as Bobby turned to Sam. “All right, boy, I’m with your brother here. What did you do?”
Dean had been reading his brother’s facial expressions since Sam was in diapers, and the one he saw now was definitely forced nonchalance. His gut was already churning before Sam said levelly, “A few things, actually. But...at the end, I knocked over their fruit tower.”
“Their...fruit tower?” Bobby said slowly.
One of those stupid things that they barely eat off of...and didn’t he say that girl from Three pointed out yesterday that there was nothing between the tributes and Gamemakers?
“It might have had candy in it, too, the tower.” Sam wasn’t looking any of them in the eye. “First I used a knife and a sword on a dummy, and did some spear throwing...It went well. Then I picked up a slingshot, and they seemed to think it was funny, a big guy like me with a little kid weapon.” Something flickered in Sam’s eyes, and his voice tightened as he went on, “They didn’t see the rock coming, but it’s okay. I didn’t hit any of them, and now I’ve got the top score.”
“No, you idjit, you’ve tied for top score with a psycho.” Bobby groaned. “Are you trying to get killed?”
Sam shrugged. “It’s a one-in-twenty-four chance already, isn’t it?”
Bobby turned to Dean for backup, but all Dean could think at that moment was, I always played by the rules.
But my little brother just tried to break them.
Chapter 6: Always Say Never
“So, Mr. Winchester, a couple more questions before we have to let you go...First, what is it that drives you, that motivates you to do your very best in these Games?”
“Besides all these beautiful Capitol women?” A pose, a grin, a wink at the crowd. “Well...to be honest, sir, it’s my brother.”
“The one we got a glimpse of during your Reaping?”
“Yes, the scrawny, bitchy one. Only brother I’ve got.” The smile’s gone now, along with the posturing. “He...He’s all I have, honestly. It’s my job to take care of him, always has been. I’ll give it all I’ve got if it means I can get back to him.” Then, softer, “I promised I’d get back to him.”
“Of course. And if he were here, right here, what would you say to him?”
A look, directly at the nearest camera. “Hey, little brother. Just hang on, I...I’m coming home soon, okay? I’m winning this for you.”
“Drinking away your sorrows already, Dean?”
The lounge that served as a waiting area for the Victors before the interviews was blessedly private and, even better, supplied with a functional bar. Currently, the atmosphere was quiet as elsewhere in the Training Center, the stylists worked their magic.
Taking his time, Dean set down his empty shot glass and glanced over at Crowley. “Have you stopped yet?”
“I contend that I have no sorrows to drink away.” Crowley raised his glass and downed his shot in one. He’d brought his own bottle of extremely high-end liquor. “What happens will happen. I didn’t see you at the hotel yesterday.”
There was a bar there, too, and when not occupied elsewhere, most of the Victors ended up at it at some point. “I was busy.”
“Yeah. And I had to tutor Sam in how to get through an interview with Metatron without laughing at his name or his sweaters.”
“Oh, yes. I had to deal with Gavin, myself. What is your precious moose brother’s angle, then? My son’s is ‘anything but a complete and utter idiot’.”
The Avox bartender poured Dean another shot and he nodded in thanks. The Avox ducked his head and scurried away, leaving Dean to glare down at his drink. “Strong but likable. People tend to love Sammy. He just needs to be himself and we’re good.”
“Naturally. I suppose he’s not going to bring up that dead girlfriend of his, then? Madison, right?”
“When did I ever mention Madison to you?”
“Oh, sometime. When you were drunk.” Crowley smiled beatifically and poured himself more whiskey. “She was...what, seventeen? Same age as him? Unprotected by a Victor sibling and not so strong or popular as the mighty Dean Winchester...”
“You know what, Crowley? Go screw yourself.”
“Should I say ‘with pleasure’?”
“You outliers and your crude humor.”
Dean froze as Michael Rex stepped up on the other side of him, shooting a glare in Crowley’s direction. “Run along, Five. I think your mother is looking for you.”
With a dirty look and a dirtier insult, Crowley moved away, leaving Dean more or less alone with Michael. “What do you want, Two?”
“I want to talk.”
“About our brothers.”
Forcing a nonchalant pose, Dean looked at the other man. Michael was around his height, with dark hair threaded with gray and piercing eyes. He held a combative stance even two decades after his last real fight in the Fifty-Fifth Games. “What about our brothers?” Dean said.
Eyes rolling heavenward for a brief moment, Michael said again, “You outliers. Here are the facts, Nine. Your brother and mine have tied for the highest training score. They are both favored tributes. You want your brother to live. I want mine to die.”
Wow, they sure don’t pull punches in his family. “If you want him dead, why haven’t you killed him before?”
“I said I wanted him dead; I didn’t say I wanted to kill him myself. I have tried...” Michael trailed off, looking for the first time a little uncomfortable. Blatant murder and murder-by-hire, when caused district people Victors or not, tended to fall under suspicion. “He is clever, my brother. And he is obsessed with yours.”
Just great. “Why?”
“He...gets that way, when he sets his mind on someone.”
“He gets obsessed when he decides he wants to murder someone? Awesome.”
“So you know something of his...exploits. But I’m sure you have never heard the full story of what he likes to do with his victims...before and afterward.”
Dean’s skin had already been crawling, and with Michael’s confirmation of a distantly-lurking hunch, he felt nauseated. “Your point, Michael?”
“I would like you to suggest that your brother target mine in the Arena. It will be quite the rivalry...good for ratings, good for odds...and if your brother wins...”
“What if he loses? What if you’re brother has got too many tricks up his sleeve? What if Sam’s best chance to survive his to avoid your brother like the fucking plague?” Dean snorted and downed his previously-forgotten drink, slamming the glass onto the bar. “Piss off, Michael. Sure, if Sam runs into Lucifer and there has to be a fight, he’ll give his all. But I’m not sending him after the family business you should’ve taken care of long before now just because you asked so nicely.” He spun on his heel and strode away.
Hopefully the interviews will go well.
The interviews didn’t go all that well. At least, that was what anyone involved in the organization would likely be saying by the end of the night.
And the Victors got front row seats to the whole thing.
Unlike with the training scores, it was ladies first during the interviews, so first up was Jessica from One, looking stunning in a classy black-and-silver strapless number. She played up the “sexy yet smart” angle, being a bit flirtatious but also chatting openly about her “dear cousin Amy”, her other relatives, and her dreams of being a nurse in one of One’s best hospitals...a dream she was still holding on to. Dean could see why Sam was attracted to the Moore girl, and all in all, it was a good interview.
Then Gabriel came out.
The last couple nights, Dean had spent hours locked in his room talking via phone with Cas, who had been distraught over Gabriel’s score and attitude. Not that most people would know a distraught Cas from a mildly annoyed one, but Dean could tell.
“He won’t even tell me what he did, Dean!”
The first thing Metatron asked Gabriel was, naturally, “How on earth did you manage a zero? It’s an historical event!”
“Well, I don’t think I’m supposed to talk about it...” Gabriel smiled lazily up at the Gamemaker seats, and Dean knew what he was about to do. “...but what I did was very simple, not worth the secrecy. In summary, I asked why I was there, they said it was in the rules and that I should be honored to be a tribute, and I told them to go shove their honor and rules up their asses.” The gasps of the crowd almost drowned out Gabriel as he added, “I also told them to go fuck themselves instead of all the Victors they claim to care about, and...” The smile was gone, replaced by one of the most terrifying expressions of rage Dean had ever seen on a person’s face. “...all you Capitolites can go fuck yourselves, too. Goodnight.” He stood up and walked off the stage as the audience erupted in horror and Metatron spent several minutes gawping like a fish.
Dean looked at Cas, who shut his eyes for a long moment. “He’s going to die,” the blue-eyed man said flatly when he finally looked at Dean. “They’re going to kill him, and they’re going to do it in the worst way possible.”
Eventually, the crowd was calmed and the interviews continued, behind schedule. Jemma Torrent answered everything in one or two curt words. Lucifer’s responses kept verging into disturbing territory involving cages, torture, and how it might theoretically feel to wear a dead person, and Metatron had to struggle to keep him on track. The crowd didn’t seem to know how to react to a too-sadistic tribute.
Moving along, Charlie from Three seemed to get stage fright, which was a pity because from what Sam and Alex had told Dean, the girl was quite clever and likable. Kevin mumbled through his interview, only gaining a little confidence when talking about the strength of his mother. Hael was uninteresting except for her weird blank stares at the crowd, and Ben tried his hardest even though he kept slipping in, “I don’t understand. I don’t have a chance, so why?” Metatron, probably for the first time in his career, seemed truly sympathetic, but what could he do?
Josie Sands sailed through her interview with an air of confidence and a sexy smirk, right up until the grin dropped in an instant and she started screaming about how Abaddon was possessing her and it would soon be too late for everyone. She had to be escorted offstage a full minute early, and her district partner, perhaps in reaction, fumbled miserably through his turn. Dean looked at Crowley during it and saw the older man drinking straight out of a bottle of his favorite whiskey.
Bela Talbot played up the sexy angle and succeeded, and Dean was just beginning to feel as relaxed as he could be in this situation when Adam Rosen got onstage and started turning every question he was handed around, pulling out an unexpected manner of calm, stern authority that left Metatron and the audience visibly discomfited while Dean kept being nagged by a feeling of odd familiarity.
Jo and Terrence made it clear that they were allies from the get-go, and both proceeded to cuss their way through their interviews, calling out Metatron’s bad sweaters and the general excesses of the Capitol alike. Dean caught Ellen and Rufus sharing proud smiles.
Callie Masters, despite who her sister was, acted like a timid mouse. Jesse Turner started sobbing and couldn’t stop, and his mother joined in from the audience. Both of them had to be removed from the area.
After that, Dean exchanged now-familiar looks with Bobby and Jody. Our tributes are up.
Alex’s stylist must have been good for something, because she walked out looking beautiful in a dark blue dress tripped with hundreds of tiny golden “grains”. She was determined, prepared, and altogether lovely, and after so many disappointments, the audience soaked it up.
Though he was glad to see Jody look so proud and hopeful, Dean’s stomach clenched as Metatron announced the next tribute. “Now, ladies and gentlemen, the famous little brother of the bold Victor of the Sixty-Sixth...Please welcome Samuel Winchester of District Nine!”
Sam strode out, towering so far over Metatron as he shook the interviewer’s hand that it was close to comical. They sat, and Metatron said with a laugh, “So, Samuel, you have quite the grip! Seems to be a common thing from the farm districts!”
Smiling, Sam replied, “Please just call me Sam, and actually, I’ve never done a single day of real farm work.”
“Oh, I see! Then what do you do? You’re...twenty-two, correct?”
“I, uh, don’t actually have a job, currently. I’ve tried to get one, but Dean keeps being an overprotective older brother and complaining that if I start working, I’ll leave his house and then he’ll have to drink alone.”
Dean rolled his eyes as the cameras focused on him for a moment. We talked about this. Forcing a grin, he called, “Shut up, bitch!”
“Jerk!” Sam shot back, and the audience laughed and clapped. When it died down, Metatron said, “Oh, siblings will be siblings. But, in all seriousness, is there a career path that appeals to you most, Sam? Something you’d like to do when, perhaps, you win the Games?”
“Well...” Sam grew serious. “I love to read, and if I were to win...I think I’d like to study in the Capitol.”
Okay, we did not talk about this part…
“I’d like to learn more about the laws of Panem, about the nation as a whole...Then I’d like to apply what I learn to help my district, and others. There’s a lot of problems in the districts, you know.”
The ensuing quiet felt strained, and Metatron took a moment to stammer, “Well...Those are all very noble sentiments, Sam...”
“Of course,” Sam talked over him, “That’ll only ever happen if I were to win the Games, which is usually a long shot for anyone regardless. Funny, actually, you mentioning my age...and the fact that my brother is a Victor. I shouldn’t be here, period. This year, everyone’s breaking the rules of the Games, aren’t they? Even the ones putting on the show.”
The buzzer went off, though Dean could swear it was too soon, and Sam smiled sweetly, shook Metatron’s hand again, and walked offstage with his back straight and his head held high.
Dean didn’t know whether to be proud or devastated.
In the end, he was both.
The rest of the interviews weren’t anything to write home about, though Ruby from Ten was a sassy spitfire and Raphael from Eleven came off as an asshole, so much so that Missouri actually yelled at him to knock it off midway through his three minutes.
Dean stopped caring much after Sam’s interview.
Mentors don’t see their tributes in the morning, Dean kept thinking as he pushed his way through the crowds of people including his fellow stressed Victors. I have to say goodbye tonight.
By some miracle, his elevator emptied before the ninth floor, and he leaned heavily against the wall when the doors slid shut.
I’m not fucking ready for this. I could never be ready for this.
Over the years, when he didn’t have nightmares about the Arena, he had nightmares about seeing Sam in the Arena. There had been several nights, mostly in those first couple years after, when he’d gotten out of bed and gone to his brother’s room to make sure the kid was still there. He’d try not to wake him and usually fail. Because Sam was a good brother, he’d let Dean take half the bed and sleep within arm’s reach. It probably helped both of them.
Billie passed him on his way in to the apartment, giving him one of her slight smiles that could’ve been vindictive or sympathetic or both. The others were in the living area, and Dean hung back as Jody embraced Sam and turned to her niece, pulling her aside for a semi-private goodbye.
Looking away, Dean watched Bobby talk to Sam. “Listen, you idjit, you’ve got a good head on your shoulders, even if you never use it when you should. Don’t play hero, and, for the love of everything that’s holy, don’t piss off the Gamemakers any more than you already have. It’s not worth your life, and we’re determined to bring at least one of you kids back.”
Sam looked ready to disagree, but he only said, “Thanks, Bobby.” The older man just grumbled something and pulled Sam into a tight hug.
After Jody and Bobby had finished with their goodbyes, Dean gave Alex a slightly awkward hug and said, “Watch yourself, kid.” She nodded up at him and hurried out of the room. The two older Victors left out the other door, leaving the brothers alone.
Stepping up close to Sam, Dean said, “You know the plan?”
“Alex and I know the plan, Dean.” Sam took a shaky breath. “We’re ready. I’m ready.”
Dean looked up at him...my smart, strong, too-kind-for-his-own-good brother...and swallowed. “You’re going to hate what you have to do in there.”
“You need to look out for yourself.”
“I know, Dean. And you need to do the same. If I don’t...”
“Sam, don’t you dare...”
Sam forged onward. “...If I don’t make it, Dean, you need to be okay. Don’t you dare give up on life because...because I died. Don’t you dare. Promise me.”
“What if I can’t promise that?”
“Then I’ll haunt your ass.”
Dean laughed, but it hurt. “Get over here.”
The embrace lasted longer than most of theirs did, and it had to.
This could be the last time I hug my little brother. This could be the last time I see him face-to-face. This could be the last time...
They pulled apart, and Dean reached into his pocket. “Here,” he said, handing Sam the old deity-head pendant that he hadn’t taken off unless he had to since he was twelve and his eight-year-old little brother had given it to him.
“Take it. It was my district token; now it’s yours.” Blinking back tears, Dean clapped his brother on the shoulder. “See ya, Sammy.”
He was already walking away when he heard, “Goodbye, Dean.” He wanted to stop, to look back.
Chapter 7: Cross The Bridge Early
(10 years ago...)
Working on a tractor was far less pleasant than working on a car, but Dean would take it over working in a field any day. Even if the tractor was really a piece of crap.
Humming to himself, he slid out from under the clunky, rusted vehicle and fumbled around the grease-stained toolbox for some pliers. The stairs up to the apartment above the garage creaked as he rolled the creeper dolly back under the tractor. “Hiya, Sammy,” he said as he went back to work. Seriously, what did someone shove up into this thing? A crowbar? “Did you bring me breakfast?”
Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Sam’s battered shoes approach and come to a halt a few feet away. “Dean, where’s Dad?”
“Isn’t he upstairs?” Dean hadn’t been up there yet this morning. Last night, another one of Sam and John’s fights had erupted, driving the youngest Winchester to the garage. After a couple hours, Dean followed him, hoping to convince him to come back up but carrying a couple blankets just in case. They’d spent the night in a car. “I didn’t hear him leave last night.”
“Maybe he went out the fire exit. He’s not upstairs, Dean.”
The amulet hanging from a leather cord around Dean’s neck twisted around and clicked against the ground as he rolled out from under the tractor. He stuffed the trinket back under his shirt as he stood. “Maybe we just didn’t hear him leave. He’s probably sleeping off a few drinks above Sickle’s bar.”
Sam looked up at him, his twelve-year-old face twisted into an expression of I-can’t-believe-you-just-said-that. “It’s Games season, Dean. There’s a curfew, and if he left after you came downstairs, then he’s probably in jail.”
“Come on, Sammy, Dad’s smart enough to avoid Peacekeepers, and you know how he is.” It’s not he first time he’s disappeared. Though usually he asks us to cover, and he hasn’t been gone for longer than a day since before we moved to town…“Let’s not worry about it yet. He’ll be back.” Dean’s stomach growled then. “How about breakfast?”
They ate lumpy oatmeal while Day Five of the Sixty-Fifth Games played out on the choppy screen of their old television. The Careers had finally tracked down the year’s youngest tribute, a twelve-year-old from Eleven, in a hedge maze. Making Sam move around to the other side of the living room table so he wasn’t facing the screen, Dean muted the sound as the pack moved in. He did note that for the first time so far, the District One male held back and let the others take the kill.
Since there was no school, they mostly hung around the garage on the dusty backstreet of District Nine’s central town. Dean moved the television downstairs so they could keep an eye on the Games while he tried to teach Sam how to tune-up the car.
The black car, an old model supposedly based on an even older version, was a constant in the Winchesters’ lives, the one thing John Winchester had held onto after his family’s original fall from the district’s middle class. Merchants and those in more genteel positions tended to own cars, though not many of them brought their vehicles to the Winchesters.
“They prefer the shop near the town center,” John would say. “The one run by the family who’s been around and played their popularity game for years." He wasn’t wrong, which was why the nearest farm sectors tended to send him the worst old tractors for repairs.
Their father didn’t come back that night and he’d said he would stop by the shops that day, so Dean made mush from tessarae grain and told Sam to suck it up and eat it. “And before you say it; no, you’re not taking out any tessarae next year or any other, so shut up.”
Day Six of the Sixty-Fifth Games passed, and Dean checked the bar, the black market, the jail, and even the Peacekeeper’s barracks as best as he could without giving anything away. He was only sixteen, and if their father was gone, he and Sam would be headed straight for the Community Home. No one wants to end up there.
But he must have given something away, because the Peacekeepers showed up on the evening of Day Seven.
They took Dean into the tiny kitchen and grilled him about his father’s whereabouts while Sam watched the finale of the Sixty-Fifth in the living room. Dean pleaded and got them to agree to a “grace period” of three more days. After that, the rent would be due and he and Sam would have to leave.
As they went into the living room, Sam looked up at Dean with wide, frightened eyes. On the screen behind him, Castiel Novak stabbed his district partner Rachel in the heart.
The trumpets sounded.
(11 months later...)
The summer sun beat down on the town square, making the buildings shimmer in the heat. Sam squinted up at the cloudless sky, wondering if the rumors of the drought were true, if the rains wouldn’t come until late. But the crop’s supposed to be healthy so far this year, so that’s good.
He wasn’t a farmer or field worker; even if he had grown up in several tiny farm sector settlements, his family would always be townies. But when the crops didn’t turn out, the Capitol cracked down, the district starved, and everyone suffered.
“Whoa, Sammy, watch where you’re going.” Dean grabbed his shoulder, snapping him out of his thoughts and steering him through the crowd of people trudging to the square. “You know which line to get into?”
“Yeah, Dean, it’s not my first year.” Sam shook off his brother’s hand as they approached the square, where several tables were set up in a row, each manned with Peacekeepers and labeled for a different age groups. All around them, the crowd began to filter, with adults and little kids heading directly into the square and the others joining the lines.
“Okay, so...You know the drill.” Dean gave him a strained smile and continued, “Just keep your head down; I’ll meet you here when it’s over, okay? We’ll stop by the shops and pick up something to celebrate. Even those dicks running the Community Home won’t be mad at us for that."
To celebrate not getting Reaped. Unless...Sam’s breathing picked up, and Dean understood immediately.
“Your name’s in two times, Sam. It’s not going to be you.”
Looking up at him, Sam choked out, “Yours is in...” He couldn’t even remember how many time. Too much.
“It’s okay, Sammy. Get into line; I’ll see you after.” Dean pulled him into a tight hug, ruffling his hair as he pulled away. Then he was off to join the seventeen-year-old line, leaving Sam to find his own.
“Hi, Sam!” Madison, a girl from his class and someone he considered a friend, got into line behind him. “I haven’t seen you much lately! Are you still okay at the Community Home? Do you get enough to eat? Is it...”
“Hello, Madison, and it’s actually not that bad.” Sam managed a smile. The Community Home really wasn’t terrible; the people running it were strict, the rooms crowded, and the food meager, but that wasn’t exactly new to him. There were some books there, too, and though Sam had read them all already...“Dean’s been in trouble for sassing the management a couple times.”
“Well, that’s normal, right?”
He and Madison chatted, a little nervously, until it was Sam’s turn to check in, which he did without looking the Peacekeeper in the eye. He waved at Madison as he moved off to join the other thirteen-year-old boys, craning his neck around to see if he could find Dean in the crowd and failing.
The Reaping was standard, with the speeches, the same film...narrated by a different president this year yet just as sickening...the same grinning escort they’d had for years, Nine’s two Victors looking exhausted, and a lot of people holding their breaths.
When the female tributes name was called, Sam winced. The boy next to him muttered, “You know her?” and Sam replied, “My brother went out behind the train station silos with her a couple times.”
The other boy snorted and then fell silent like the rest of the crowd.
It’s not going to be me, it’s not going to be me...Just a few more minutes, and we can leave. Just a few more minutes, and we can go get a treat with the pocket money Dean get from a source I don’t want to know about, and we can just mute the television whenever viewing’s not mandated and then it’ll be over until next year…
Later, Sam barely remembered what followed. He did scream Dean’s name repeatedly while being held back by Peacekeepers and hearing Dean shouting at him to Keep your damn mouth shut and Stop fighting and Get back, Sammy! They got maybe ten minutes for a goodbye...which Sam sobbed through...and then Dean was gone, just another tribute swallowed up by the glittering monster that was the Capitol.
Sam kept crying for days...while watching the parade, during the interviews, and between those times, right up until the gong sounded in the Sixty-Sixth Arena.
After that, he told himself that he should be strong. Like Dean.
Chapter 8: Angels Fear The Rushing Fools
The waiting...through the sleepless night, in the hovercraft, under the Arena itself...that had been the worst. He had caught himself shivering even though he wasn’t cold, had wiped his off his sweaty palms over and over again, and felt his breathing speeding into hyperventilation territory almost before he could control it.
In short, during all the waiting in the last twelve or so hours, Sam had been reduced to a fidgeting mess of turbulent dread and panic despite his best efforts. Nothing, not even Tessa’s kind smile and words of encouragement, had helped.
However, standing in the cool open air on one of the twenty-four pedestals surrounding the gleaming Cornucopia while a booming voice counted down sixty seconds, Sam’s mind went calm even as his heart raced.
Where am I, exactly?
Looking around, he saw that Terrence Turner was on the pedestal to his right and Callie Masters to his left; he couldn’t see Alex. The Cornucopia was set at the center of a wide circle of mostly bare ground. Beyond that, low rolling hills covered in grass and bushes stretched out for a distance. Judging by the mid-morning sun, Sam was facing west, so he could see a glimpse of sparkling blue water and dense trees to the south, more forest and long grasses to the north, and to the west, a sort of large plateau edged by high cliffs, with several spire-like peaks rising above.
“Thirty, twenty-nine, twenty-eight...”
Closer at hand, the Cornucopia was filled with general supplies and what seemed to be an unusually wide variety of weapons. Many of the tributes were facing the structure, ready to make the sprint and hope for the best, while others seemed to be facing away. Sam thought he saw Lucifer smirking in his direction again.
“Twenty, nineteen, eighteen, seventeen...”
Get supplies, find Alex, and get out. Some alliance would always want to claim the Cornucopia, even if the usual Career pack wasn’t up to par, so trying to take it was suicide. Running off without supplies could be suicide, too, and with his long legs, Sam had an advantage right from the start. Alex wasn’t a slowpoke herself. Just get away from the Bloodbath, and the rest will follow.
Taking a deep breath, Sam readied himself, briefly reaching up to touch the pendant hanging around his neck. You know what to do. You’re ready.
“Five, four, three, two, one.”
I’m not ready.
Yet when the gong sounded, Sam leaped off his pedestal and ran. He was the first to the mouth of the Cornucopia.
Unfortunately, while being first there meant having first pick of the supplies, it also meant that when said first person turned to run back out, he or she would meet everyone else rushing in head-on.
Knowing that, Sam went for a weapon first, sweeping up a long, thick-bladed machete resting on a crate inside the Cornucopia’s mouth. The weapon fit his hand well, and his next prize was a laden green backpack, which he slung over his shoulders as he turned to seek a way out.
The next thing he saw was Raphael Orchards shoving a spear through Gavin MacLeod’s torso.
There was a split second, between the appearance of Gavin’s shocked expression and his blood beginning to spurt, during which Sam froze. Then Raphael seemed to be having trouble getting the spear out of the other man’s back, and Sam seized his chance and ran. He veered right moments later to avoid the charging female tribute from Two, who seemed to ignore him.
He made it to the ring of pedestals before the sound of weapons clashing and the screams registered...screams both male and female. Alex. We’d said we’d team up at the start...Sam stopped, turning around and feeling a rush of relief as he spotted Alex near the mouth of the Cornucopia, dashing away with a smaller pack hanging off one shoulder.
The knife hit her from behind, and she fell to her knees. Josie or Abaddon or whoever the hell she was lunged up behind her, seizing the girl’s thick dark hair and drawing another dagger over her throat. The cackling laugh from Five’s female tribute echoed in Sam’s ears as blind rage drove him a step forward.
Then he saw Raphael crashing to the ground with a blood-splattered Lucifer standing over him, and all Sam could hear was Dean’s voice shouting It’s too late for her! Get the hell out, Sammy!
He spun around and ran.
He ran west, weaving his way through patches of brambles and other shrubs, until the sounds of the Bloodbath faded completely into the sounds of distant birds and wind rustling the grasses. He began to alternate walking and jogging, every so often rubbing his eyes to clear away the sting of tears.
Alex, falling, a knife in her back. Josie Sands, yanking Alex’s head back and carving a bloody slit into her throat. It played over and over again, interspersed with Gavin’s body jerking around Raphael’s spear, and Raphael himself hitting the earth perhaps a minute or two later.
His heart kept pounding, pumping adrenaline through his veins for what must have been hours, keeping him moving until he neared the plateau. Two rows of cliffs dropped down to merge with the rolling grassland, leaving a wide ramp of land that would allow easy passage up onto the plateau itself. But something about the seven towering peaks made Sam feel uneasy. Rather than go nearer to them, he started moving more south than west, heading for the shore of the massive lake that seemed to fill an entire section of the Arena. When he reached the rocky beach, sometime in the mid to late afternoon, he finally stopped.
Sitting down on fallen log, Sam slid his backpack to the ground and began to go through it. Two metal water bottles, empty. Water purification tablets. A small coil of wire and another of rope. A set of four six-inch knives. A box of matches. Several packages of dried meat, fruit, and hard crackers, along with two foil-wrapped chocolate bars. A well-stocked first aid kit. A black sleeping bag and a gray thermal blanket.
Considering the fact that Dean had gotten away from his own Cornucopia with only a water bottle and one of those crude blades, Sam felt like he was in the lap of luxury. Comparatively speaking.
His brief spark of humor flickered out as the images flashed before his eyes again. Alex, knife, Josie, blood.
Like most in Panem, Sam had seen dozens of people dying on television during the Games.
It feels different in person.
As the lake water looked clear, he filled both bottles with it and dropped a purification tablet in each. While he was giving them a little time to work, the boom of a cannon echoed through the Arena, followed by another, and another.
One. Two. Three. Four. Five. Six. Seven. Eight. Nine.
Nine out of twenty-four dead. Fifteen left.
He drained both bottles of water, refilled them, and kept moving along the strip of sparsely forested land between the cliffs and the lake, only pausing a couple times to drink more water.
The sun sank lower in the cloud-mottled sky, and when the air began to grow colder, Sam began looking for a sheltered place to spend the night. The tribute uniform this year was fairly standard...a dark blue hooded coat over a green shirt and gray undershirt, long black trousers, and sturdy boots...and between the clothes, the sleeping bag, and the blanket, Sam didn’t think he’d need a fire unless the temperature dropped below freezing. And a fire is basically a signal to “come get me”. Not a great idea on the first day.
He found a small, dense grove of trees near the lake edge that he could hide himself in, clearing out an almost too-small hollow in the ground. Only when he’d settled down with his refilled water bottles did he realize how shaky he was. I haven’t eaten anything since this morning in the hovercraft, and even then...He’d been too nervous to eat much.
The sun set and some stars began to show through gaps in the clouds as he ate a couple strips of dried beef and some crackers, forcing himself to chew slowly. When the first notes of the anthem began to play on some faraway speakers, he crawled out of his hiding spot and watched the faces of the newly dead projected across the sky.
The first was Hael from Four, followed by her district partner Ben. After that came Gavin...Josie’s still alive, then...followed by both tributes from Eight, young faces splayed in cold colors across the clouds before vanishing forever. Then Alex...a knot formed in Sam’s throat as her image remained a few seconds, soon replaced by the face of Ella from Eleven, then Raphael. Andy from Twelve was the last, and the Arena went quiet again.
So all tributes from District One, Two, and Three are alive, plus one from Five, both from Six and Seven, both from Ten, and one from Twelve. And me.
Somewhere, far away in the Capitol, people in wigs and makeup were no doubt celebrating a successful start to a Quarter Quell.
Somewhere, Dean’s probably watching and grumbling at me to get back out of sight. Bobby, too, for that matter.
He didn't want to imagine how Jody was coping.
Moving back into the cover of the trees, sight blocked and hidden by the encircling branches, Sam rolled out his sleeping bag, which proved to be a rather tight fit for his long frame. He found a semi-comfortable position inside and settle down with the thermal blanket pulled over him and his head pillowed on his pack.
His body’s exhaustion outweighed his swirling thoughts, and sleep came easily.
Sam was by nature an early riser, so he when the sound of a cannon startled him awake and he saw by the sun that it was already mid morning, he was more than a little surprised. As he hurriedly ate, drank, and packed up his supplies, his mind drifted to the cannon that had woken him. Ten. Fourteen left.
Whoever had died, they’d been nowhere near him. He kept going west between the lake and cliffs, moving slower than the day before, noting possible food sources and the occasional gurgling stream. It’s no Sixty-Fifth Arena, but this landscape is pretty. Dean often teased him about being a girl, calling him things like “mushy idiot” and “Samantha”, and Sam smiled wryly as he thought, It figures that Dean ended up in a dark, ugly arena and I got a nice one. So far, the weather was mild. Even with the creepy pointed peaks and cliffs, the landscape was filled with bright shades of green, plus the glittering blue of the lake and the bursts of rainbow colors from various patches of flowers. Sam avoided the white and purple ones he recognized from the plant training station as garlic. They stink.
The geography was certainly a far cry from the flat, grain-covered plains of District Nine. The closest thing to wilderness in Sam’s home district were the clusters of trees lining the stream banks between farm sectors. The sky goes on forever in District Nine. Here, not so much.
Early in the afternoon, after spotting a couple rabbits, Sam set up a couple simple traps just in case and found a large flat boulder on the shore of the lake to eat lunch on. It gave him a decent view of his surroundings. He saw no one, and ended up staying in the area, finding another dense stand of trees to hide in. One of the traps was tripped but empty, the other untouched, and he reset the one before retreating to his new hiding spot.
Stay out of trouble and avoid others as long as possible. He’d let the other tributes bring the fight to him; he had the machete and the knives and would be ready. Until then…I don’t want to hunt anyone.
Just before nightfall, another cannon fired. A few hours later, Sam watched the faces of the District Ten male, Christian Campbell, and the District Twelve female, Ava Wilson, flash across the sky.
Sam hadn’t spoken much to Christian, but Ava...she had seemed nice. Two more gone. Thirteen left. It’s going by quickly.
As he tried to fall asleep, the lack of other human presences and voices pressed in around him.
He woke up at dawn the next morning to find both of his traps still empty. Knowing his packaged food wouldn’t last forever, he packed up and went to see if he’d have more luck nearer to the cliffs. Said cliffs, steep and seemingly impossible to climb, didn’t seem so high from their base, maybe sixty feet at most. Wary of all hidden pitfalls, Sam poked around their base, looking for animal dens and every so often stopping to look around for danger.
Apparently he didn’t look hard enough, because when the mutt dropped onto his back from above, he didn’t see it until his machete was flying out of his hand and he was flat on the ground, helpless.
Chapter 9: The Best Things Can Be Bought
There were two Control Rooms in the Control Center, one for the Gamemakers, and one for the mentoring Victors. The Gamemaker Control Room was filled with screens, displays, and controls for every single thing in the arena, from the temperature to the release of mutts. The Mentor Control Room had screens and displays, too, but the controls were much more limited.
The Control Center as a whole tended to be crowded just before and during the Games; Dean showed up at six in the morning of Day One and the building was already buzzing with servants, Gamemakers, Gamemakers’ assistants, guards, and Victors. Per usual, the only room that would empty significantly within the next few hours was the Mentor Room.
Dean and Jody arrived together and immediately went to the District Nine station, one of twelve such stations lining both sides of the room, where individual screens on the wall fed them live footage and information on their tributes’ location and vital signs. Under those, two computers and phones were provided for the purpose of managing sponsor funds and gifts. Multiple screens were mounted on the wall opposite the main doorway to show the “best” part of the Games for everyone’s benefit.
Over the last few years, Dean had never taken full responsibility for mentoring a tribute. He was less experienced and was often requested elsewhere in the Capitol during the Games. This year, however, he’d be staying here as much as he possibly could.
The main screens stayed dark until the Games began, though Sam’s vitals, like those of the other tributes, popped up the moment his tracker was injected. Dean nearly worked himself into a frenzy when they fluctuated violently, until Jody pointed out that most of the others were showing the same signs. “Most of them are scared,” she said gently. “You were the same right before your Games; just ask Bobby.” It still took time for Dean to calm down somewhat.
The atmosphere in the room grew increasingly tense as the time grew near; the twenty-three Victors, the door guards, and the various servers who couldn’t talk anyway all went completely silent as a voice on the intercom announced that the tributes were rising up in the tubes and an aerial image of the Arena appeared on the main screens.
Dean took in the relatively clear central region, the expanse of forest that encircled three-quarters of the boundary, the lake that took up most of the south, the five wooded hills on the east side, the three rivers curving around to meet at the west edge of the Arena, and the plateau with the seven peaks on it. They made a weirdly varied landscape this year. Probably a Quell thing. He vaguely recalled that the Second Quarter Quell had taken place in a beautiful, poisonous meadow complete with toxic flowers and a volcano, and the First Quarter Quell Arena had been a haunted forest surrounding a creepy-as-fuck mansion.
Then the pedestals raised the tributes out into the Arena, the mentor screens went live, the countdown began, and all Dean cared about was keeping his eyes on Sam.
What followed was often the worst part of the Games for many of the mentors. Almost every single year, the most deaths occurred during the Bloodbath. This year was no different.
Gavin McLeod went down first, killed by Raphael from Eleven, and the only reason Dean actually saw it was because it happened right in front of Sam. He saw a look of pure horror cross his little brother’s face; then, thankfully, Sam ran. Crowley was out of his chair at the District Five station before his son’s vitals even gave out.
Dean was so wrapped up in Sam that he didn’t watch anything except his brother fleeing the Cornucopia until Josie threw a knife into Alex’s back. Jody let out a sharp cry as her niece’s throat was slit and her vitals beeped into nothing within seconds.
Sam saw it, and made as if to run at Josie, and Dean shouted before he could stop himself, “Sammy, don’t!” By that point, he wasn’t the only mentor yelling at the screens.
As if he’d heard Dean, Sam stopped, turned, and ran in the other direction. Dean let out a sigh of relief, which was lost in a wave of sorrow and guilt as Jody got up and fled the room. Eyes still on Sam, Dean swallowed hard and picked up the phone to call the sponsors already listed on the computer. Alex had had a couple, and he needed to know if they wanted to withdraw their funds or have them used for Nine’s surviving tribute. I won’t make Jody do it.
Sam went west, avoiding the others, so two or three hours later, Dean took his eyes off him long enough to watch the Bloodbath recap on the main screens with everyone else.
It had been brutal. Moments after Raphael had stabbed Gavin at the mouth of the Cornucopia, Lucifer had caught Jesse Turner as he ran past and snapped the youngest tribute’s neck in a single motion. Meanwhile, Josie had gotten hold of some knives and gone after Alex. Bela from Six and the District Ten male, in a surprise team-up, had attacked Callie Masters, who had put of a startlingly fierce fight while Lucifer had arrived, seized a sword, and gone after Raphael, whose arms he had hacked off before turning back to the others.
Callie had gone down as Ben disappeared into the Cornucopia itself. Lucifer had stabbed Hael as she ran past him, leaving her alive while he grabbed some supplies. Andy from Twelve had panicked over a backpack and gone up against an unarmed Terrence Turner; Jo Harvelle cut him down from behind. The female from Ten, armed with multiple knives, had caught up to a fleeing Ella Henriksen and killed her going on her own way. Jemma Torrent from Two had seen Hael on the ground and finished her off, while Lucifer left the area and Raphael bled out.
Along with the footage, several Capitol celebrities including Metatron provided a running commentary, full of dramatic gasps, cheers, and applause.
All living tributes save Jessica from One and Jemma from Two had fled from the Cornucopia within minutes, many seizing some supplies along the way. As the hours went by, the Sevens headed southeast into the thickest forest, crossing the collection of streams that flowed from the west edge of the Arena into lake. Josie and Ava from Twelve went south towards the lake, separately. The Threes stuck together, heading east. Bela and her District Ten ally went north into an area of head-high grasses.
Sam, Ruby from Ten, Adam from Six, Gabriel Novak, and Lucifer all went west, Sam and Ruby veering more south as the day went on. Dean resolved to keep an eye on the District Ten tribute as well as his brother. It almost looks like she’s following him...
Before all the bodies were collected and the Bloodbath cannons could fire, Jemma Torrent found Ben Braeden hiding in the Cornucopia and killed him quickly and, for the Games, mercifully. Lisa got up and left, clearly holding in her sorrow until she was somewhere else.
The day wore on, and the most interesting thing that happened was the Threes coming across a stretch of poppy fields that blocked off an entire section of the eastern forest. The two swiftly realized that the poppies were poisonous; their scent contained a powerful sleeping agent that could stop a person’s heart if too much was inhaled, according to the lower-level Gamemaker the commentators were interviewing at the time. The Threes turned back, remaining a distance from the Cornucopia.
Betting and sponsoring increased after the Bloodbath, and the amount of money Dean received for Sam before the anthem played amounted to more than any District Nine tribute had received since Dean had made it to the final eight in the Sixty-Sixth Games. By that point everything was so expensive, but the food Bobby sent saved my life...
It had also saved Benny’s life at the time, but Dean couldn’t let himself think about that.
Once Sam, safely hidden and well-supplied, fell asleep, Dean allowed himself a break to stretch and eat some of the food laid out on a big table in the middle of the room. The remaining fifteen mentors all looked tired, regardless of how their tributes were doing, and some looked understandably worse. When he passed Asher Gallagher, Dean gripped his shoulder for a moment, and the older man nodded in return. At least his niece is still kicking...Asher was District Twelve’s only surviving Victor, and therefore the only available mentor. His son had died that morning, and he couldn't leave to mourn him.
“Hey, Cas,” Dean said as he filled his plate. Castiel gave him an unconvincing smile, and Dean added, “Looks like both of ours made it through the first day.”
“Yes. I have never seen my cousin run so fast.” Gabriel, despite his unimpressive stature, had gotten in and out of the Cornucopia so rapidly that Dean could swear that no one had even noticed him. “I wish he had gone a different direction than Lucifer, however.”
Dean eyed Michael speaking nearby to Zachariah, who was acting as Jemma’s mentor. “Yeah, I wish Sam wasn’t in the same area as that Ten girl. Did you see how fast she took down Henriksen’s sister?”
Some of the Victors took the relative quiet of the first night as an opportunity to take a nap on the couches in the anteroom, but Dean downed a couple caffeine pills and went back to watch over Sam.
Day One of God knows how many. Day One's over, and he’s still alive.
The next day began with Josie Sands catching Ava Wilson. Over the next hour, while Anna alternated between cursing and crying, Josie overpowered Ava, tied her up, and proceeded to kill her gradually, because it seemed that Josie didn’t want to do it and Abaddon did. She kept injuring the younger woman, stopping and arguing with herself, sobbing for a while, then starting it all over again. By the time she landed the killing blow and wandered off to take a swim in the lake, everyone except the Twos looked at least a little sickened. Asher left gray-faced, ignoring Anna’s desperate apologies for the horrible manner of his niece’s death.
Sam only woke up when Ava’s cannon fired...When he gets out I’ll tease him about that; he usually complains about how late I sleep in...and didn’t go far that day. His few movements just confirmed Dean’s suspicion that Ruby was a) a fantastic tracker, and b) was tracking Sam.
“I’m going crazy watching that bitch follow my brother,” Dean told Bobby when the older man came to check in on him that afternoon, sometime after Jessica and Jemma had left the Cornucopia and hunted down Christian Campbell; Bela Talbot had only escaped because the woman from One had almost become trapped by a hidden pocket of quicksand. Ignoring the current recap of that incident, Dean continued, “I wish I could send him a message, but...” Written messages are almost never allowed because it’s “cheating”, and I don’t think even one of Dad’s old code words would make it past the review board.
“She hasn’t attacked him yet,” Bobby said as he settled in Jody's abandoned chair. “Sam’s not an idiot; he’s been keeping a lookout. He’s armed and supplied, and he’s probably physically stronger than you were when you were in the Games.”
“Yeah, but I...” Dean stopped and stared at the main screens as they switched to a view of the Cornucopia and the two figures darting around it. An outburst of muttering from various stations fill the room. “Is that...”
“The Threes? Yep. Guess Jemma shouldn’t have convinced Jessica to leave the place unguarded after all.”
“Well, not like they had much of a choice.” They sat in silence for a while, watching Charlie and Kevin digging through the heaps of supplies and setting up traps to guard their new base. “Clever nerds. Anyway, how...how’s Jody doing?”
“She’s doing as well as can be expected. I told her to take some time.”
Bobby grunted and dug into his jacket pocket. “This came for you.”
Dean accepted the envelope and pulled out the appointment card. “Tonight? But, Bobby...”
“I’ll watch him, Dean.” Bobby’s expression softened as on the nearest screen, Sam began organizing things in his new patch of trees. “Family don’t end in blood, boy,” he said, not for the first time. “I brought one damn stubborn Winchester back from the Games; I’ll do my best to help do that again.”
Reluctantly, Dean stood, glancing at the screen and looking away with a grimace when he realized Sam was getting ready to take a piss. Fucking Capitol cameras, capturing every damn thing. “I’ll be back as soon as...”
“Do yourself a favor and get some sleep after you’re done with your...appointment.”
“Yeah, whatever.” Dean caught Castiel’s eye and gave him a tight smile; he got one in return. “I’ll be back around three or four, at the latest.”
The client was a rich, giggly young widow of an old Capitol politician, and the appointment lasted until close to midnight. Dean managed two hours of sleep and returned to the quiet Mentor Room before three to find many of the mentors gone and other Victors or district escorts in their places. Bobby was still there, sipping black coffee and bickering with Rufus Turner over...nothing at all, really, which was normal. “Nothing to report, Dean,” Bobby said. “Sam’s still asleep and hidden. Ain’t you back too early?”
“Nah, I’m good.”
Rufus gestured to the main screens, where the women from One and Two could be seen, taking turns keeping watch and sleeping among the long grasses north of the Cornucopia. “Usually the Career pack likes to hunt at night. This year, not so much. The night commentators are getting bored.”
“Nothing’s normal this year, Rufus.” Bobby stood, draining his cup. “You want to go to the next room and get some more sleep, Dean? I can stay a few more hours, no problem.”
“No, Bobby, you can go. Like I said, I’m good.”
He wasn’t, though, because he drifted off three or four hours later, and the next thing he knew, the commentators were babbling excitedly and Cas was yelling, “Dean! Wake up! It’s Sam!”
Eyes flying open, Dean jerked upright and blinked furiously at the nearest screen, unable for a moment to understand what he was seeing.
At the base of the plateau cliffs just north of the lake, Sam was on the ground, his pack and weapon scattered, and a mutt…a humanoid, skinless, black-eyed, horned monster...snarling over him.
“Fuck!” Dean bellowed, rising to his feet even as a wave of helplessness crashed over him. I can’t do anything. I can’t…
On the screen, Sam, breathless, struggled to move, to slide backwards towards his machete. But the demon was faster, advancing, hissing, with clawed hands outstretched and forked tongue tasting the air. It lunged, and Sam’s attempt to roll away caused the thing to rake its claws over his side instead of his chest. Sam cried out, the sound tearing through the speakers.
A yell split the air a second later, and the mutt whirled, missing a hit from Ruby’s throwing knife by an inch.
Chapter 10: Sorry Is Easier Than Safe
The demonic thing let out a rasping shriek as the tribute from Ten hurled another knife at it, this time successfully. It shrieked and stumbled back, the knife lodged in its shoulder and its black blood splattering on the ground.
Sam took the monster’s distraction as an opportunity to scramble for his weapon, but by the time he had it in hand, Ruby had pulled out a jagged-edged knife and gone in for kill. Pushing himself to his feet, weapon ready, Sam took a step back as the dark-haired young woman stood over the dead mutt, panting. “You’re welcome,” she snapped.
“Excuse me?” Sam said hoarsely, not lowering the machete.
“I just saved you, idiot.” Ruby wiped her oddly fancy knife clean with the edge of her coat. “You’re bleeding, by the way.”
Upon remembering the fresh claw marks on his right side, Sam abruptly felt the stinging pain. “Shit!”
“I hope demon mutt claws aren’t poisonous.” Shrugging, she went about collecting the other knives used in the fight. “You should probably check that out.”
When Sam didn’t move, she rolled her eyes. “Look, I just saved your life, and I’m not going to attack you. See?” She tucked her knives into her belt and held up her empty hands.
Keeping his eyes on her, Sam set down his weapon, unzipped his coat, and pulled up his shirt and undershirt, only then moving his gaze from Ruby to the four parallel gashes on his side. The demon’s claws had gone right through three layers of material, but the wounds themselves were shallow. “Well, my skin’s not turning green or something, so I’ll take that as a good sign.”
“I would. Those cuts still need some attention, though. Got any first aid stuff in here?” Ruby started towards his discarded pack and halted halfway there, lifting her hands again when Sam went for his weapon. “Hey, I’m just trying to help!”
“Why? We don’t know each other. I don’t think we even talked in the Training Center once. Why so helpful? And have you been following me?”
“Yeah, sort of.” She huffed out a loud sigh. “Here’s the thing, Nine. All I got from the Cornucopia was a water bottle and some knives, and while this arena isn’t exactly a wasteland, it’s not a garden, either. Plant roots alone don’t stretch far, and have you tried to kill a rabbit with a throwing knife? Not easy. They don’t teach that skill in the butcher factory. Point is...I could use an ally. And I think I just proved that you could use someone to watch your back.”
She’s got a point there.
Although he could practically hear Dean yelling at him that this was a stupid move, Sam relented and allowed Ruby to fetch the first aid kit.
The stretch of land between the lake and the cliffs only seemed to narrow and grow more treacherous -looking, and after some discussion, they turned around and headed east again, cautiously. “I don’t want to meet any more demon mutts,” Ruby said with a gesture towards the cliffs. “Those rocks make great hiding places. Anyway, have you gotten any sponsor gifts yet? You seemed pretty popular back in the Capitol. Most of the time, that is.”
“No, nothing yet. Guess I haven’t needed anything.” Sam frowned at her. “You don’t think you have sponsors? You did get a nine in training and your interview looked good...” Better than mine.
“Me? No, Gwen hates my guts, wouldn’t try to round up sponsors if my life depended on it.” Ruby laughed. “See, our mothers were sisters, and they hated each other. Gwen and me, we just carry it on. Even though she wasn’t officially his mentor, ever since the Reaping it was all about Christian. They’re related on her dad’s side, in case you were wondering.”
Sam hadn’t been, but said, “He died yesterday. Don’t you think...”
“No, I don’t. Not every Victor loves their relatives as much as your brother loves you, Sam. A lot of them don’t give a damn.”
As if to punctuate her statement, two cannons fired in the distance, one after the other.
Twelve. Thirteen. Eleven left, and it’s only Day Three.
“Hell, they’re burning through us fast,” Ruby said with a snort.
Despite her caustic personality, Ruby was another human being, another voice in the near-silence, and her traps, once she had the materials, were more successful than Sam’s. That evening, they risked a small fire in order to cook the rabbit one of those traps had captured. Sam had almost forgotten how much better fresh food tasted, even without seasoning, in comparison to dried provisions after nearly three straight days of the latter.
The combination of fresh meat and a warm fire relaxed Sam enough that he didn’t go for his weapon when Ruby sauntered up to where he sat and straddled his lap. He did, however, tense up and winced when the skin around the scabbing cuts on his side stretched. “What the hell are you...”
He trailed off as Ruby rested one hand on his shoulder, the other coming up to play with his hair. Leaning close, her face inches from his, she murmured, “What’s the matter, Nine? Never had a girl hit on you before?”
The kiss started as an automatic response, and quickly went further because damn, Ruby was a good kisser. But, even with the heat and Ruby’s obvious excellent experience, Sam caught himself after about thirty seconds and pushed her away. “Okay, that’s enough.”
Ruby looked rather put out and remained on his lap. “Oh, come on. You a virgin or something?”
“No, I’m not. I’ve had several serious girlfriends, thanks.” The last of which I broke up with the morning after the Quell announcement. “I just...You’re hot and all, and I honestly don’t think you’re trying to seduce me in order to murder me right now, but...I’d rather not.”
“Seriously, tributes have sex during the Games all the time! Well, sometimes.”
“I’m aware of that, Ruby.” Sam could recall hearing about one particular Games during which the future Victor, Balthazar from District One, had organized an orgy. That didn’t end well, but that’s not the point. “Other tributes can do each other all they want, but as fun as it would be to traumatize my brother, I’m not having sex on camera. You know they’d broadcast it.”
“Ugh, fine.” Ruby slid off of him and went back to her original seat on the other side of the fire. She looked over her knife collection for a few minutes while Sam checked his injuries again. Then Ruby said, “So...girlfriends?”
“Yep. Mostly when I was still in school.” Sam shrugged. “I suppose you’ve had plenty of guys chasing after you.”
“Can’t deny it. But I’m not a long-term relationship sort of girl. I bet you’re that kind of guy, though. Am I right?” Her dark eyes glittered, reflecting the dancing flames.
“Well...not always.” Sam thought about it. “My most recent girlfriend and I were kind of serious, until I broke it off...Then there was Madison. I really liked her, but we weren’t together long.”
“Why not? And why’d you break it off with the other chick?”
Capitolites love drama, Sam reminded himself. I think I’d like to tell them, anyway. Like with my interview...I want them to know the truth, even if they won’t face it. “I broke up with Amelia because...mostly because of the Quarter Quell announcement. And Madison...Seventieth Hunger Games. She went down in the Bloodbath.”
“Oh. I see.”
They fell silent, and both jumped to their feet a while later when eerie howls ran through the night.
“Wolves?” Ruby asked, gripping her favorite knife.
Sam listened carefully. “I’m not sure. They don’t sound like any other wolf mutts I’ve heard in the Games. Not that I can remember..”
“Yeah, you’re right.” A cannon fired, and Ruby shuddered. “At least they don’t sound close.”
The howls eventually ceased, and another cannon fired before the anthem played that night. Sam’s gut clenched when the image of Jessica Moore appeared in the sky, followed by Jemma Torrent from Two, then Bela from Six, and lastly, Terrence Turner from Seven. Twelve, thirteen, fourteen, and fifteen. Nine left, almost to the final eight…
This Hunger Games was going far more swiftly than Sam...and possibly everyone else...had anticipated; two weeks was the average, after all. “I’ll take first watch. Just in case whatever those howling things were are still out there.”
The next day started off nice enough, with no booming cannons or evidence of other tributes. Sam and Ruby continued east, not talking much, as the sun shone in a bright blue sky and warmed the landscape was the hours passed.
At first, Sam kept his thoughts on practical things, like the fact that the food that had come with his backpack was already running low with two people consuming it. On the other hand, another one of Ruby’s traps had caught a rabbit before they left last night’s camp...they’d cooked the carcass on the coals of the dying fire...and that was another example of why having the young woman from Ten as an ally was a smart move, for now. Alliances forged in the Arena could never continue forever, though some would last for weeks. But in this Games, with only nine tributes left on Day Four…
I can’t trust her, not really, Sam reminded himself as he sneaked glances at her. But she hasn’t tried to kill me yet. She’s helped me. She saved my life.
This was the Hunger Games, and survival by any means was the central concept of the thing. Along that line, Sam didn’t want to die in here; it was simple as that. Also…I meant what I said in my interview. I want to change things in Panem for the better, if that’s even possible. Whether it was or not, right now he needed to be like every other tribute before him. The goal is survival.
By noon, however, such thoughts had evaporated as the air temperature skyrocketed. The allies soon stripped down to their undershirts; Ruby even considered aloud the merits of going further and walking around in her underwear. Their overall pace slowed to near-nothing, and when they went to the lake to get water, they both ended up mostly naked as they took a swim, keeping an eye out for edible-looking fish or dangerous water mutts.
While still on the shore, Ruby suggested they head north and explore the plateau. “We shouldn’t get too close to the cliffs, of course, but we’d have the higher ground and the advantage against other tributes.”
“Not if someone’s already there.”
“So we go in carefully. With my knives and your brawn, we have a real chance. Besides, the team-ups we know about are over, because, you know, they’re all dead.”
Sam conceded the point, and off they went.
Heading north seemed like a mistake early on, however, because of the flies. So far, the most annoying insects Sam had encountered had been a few mosquitoes in the mornings and evenings. As if the searing heat wasn’t enough, swarms of black flies began to rise from the grasses, undeterred by slapping and swearing, landing on any patch of bare skin they could find and biting down with what had to be unnatural force.
Putting all of their clothing back on was out of the question in the heat...We’ll get heat stroke, and even if we could wear all the layers, the flies would just concentrate on our heads and hands...and Sam eventually lost it, stopping dead in his tracks and shouting at the sky, “We could use a little help here, Dean!” I really hope my interview didn’t drive all the sponsors away...I don’t think most of the Capitolites are smart enough to be too offended by what I said...
Sure enough, a few minutes later, a silver parachute labeled with the number nine came out of the sky, bearing small spray bottle of very potent bug repellent, which Sam remembered to thank Dean and his sponsors for. The flies let off after use of the repellent, and the occasional couple that landed could be handled. I think I’ll be dreaming of buzzing insects, though.
Sometime in late afternoon, the temperature dropped back to bearable levels, and Sam and Ruby, keeping a fair distance from the bottom of the cliffs, reached the “ramp” of land that led up to the plateau. The grass grew shorter and lighter under their feet. Feeling strangely uneasy as they approached the base of the nearest peak, Sam said, “It looks like a giant tried to build a toy skyscraper with bricks that didn’t fit together.”
“Silver pointy bricks, but yeah. What’s the matter, Nine? You don’t like mountains?” Ruby glanced over her shoulder as she spoke.
“I think you just answered your own question by mentioning my district. What does you district...”
“Sam, we have a problem,” Ruby said in a strained voice.
Turning, Sam stiffened, reaching for the machete in his belt. Demon mutts. Over a dozen of them approached in an uneven semicircle, beginning to hiss menacingly once they realized they’d been spotted by their prey. The muscles of their seemingly-skinless bodies glistened red and black, their eyes blank like those of creepy dolls in twisted, horned faces.
The pain in his side that Sam had been ignoring all day flared up again as he thought wildly, No cannons yet today...until now…?
“Fifteen against two,” Ruby said, her jagged-edged knife in one hand and two throwing knives in the other. “I don’t like these odds at all.”
Sam hefted his machete and forced himself to stand in his ground as the mutts began to close in, making excited noises as they bared their rows of alternating rotten and razor sharp teeth. They’re playing with their food before they eat it...Sam’s stomach seemed to flip over as a rotting stench reached his nostrils. They’re here to give a good show, and nothing else…
The foremost mutt tensed as if to lunge, and someone whistled. Not just any whistle, either...it was a full-on catcall. The mutts, caught by surprise, turned their black eyes to the newcomer stepping up behind them. Sam’s jaw dropped.
Grinning, Gabriel Novak twirled a three-sided, silver blade and said, “Need some help, kids?”
The demon mutt nearest to him snarled and leaped.
Chapter 11: Don't Speak Of The Devil
Day Three had been both exciting and agonizing, as Josie/Abaddon verged, loudly and visibly, on complete mental collapse, Jessica and Jemma ran across Lucifer and were both cut to shreds in approximately ten minutes, two groups of hellhound mutts on opposite ends of the Arena tore apart Bela Talbot and Terrence Turner, and Sam teamed up with the sly bitch from Ten, who had saved his life from the demon mutt.
Dean had seen and retained memories of a few things besides Sam: Amethyst Moore going into hysterics and slapping Michael after Jessica’s death, Zachariah’s frustration at his tribute's death at the hands of her district partner, the once-sexy Bela Talbot dying filthy and bloody, Rufus sitting at the District Seven station with his head in his hands for a long time after his nephew’s death, and Ellen struggling to console him while attempting to scrape up enough sponsor funds to send her daughter emergency medical supplies. Jo had slaughtered the hellhounds that killed Terrence, but she hadn’t escaped unscathed.
Mostly, though, Dean had been occupied with his brother, his brother’s alliance with Ruby, and every single move the pair of them made. For all Ruby’s posturing, the plateau was a fucking terrible place to be; the male from Six was there and going strong, Lucifer seemed to be attracted to those mountains, and Josie Sands had begun to wander in that direction.
Ruby’s not half as smart as Sam thinks she is. What the hell is he thinking, teaming up with her? She’s using him!
Still angry on Day Four, Dean had purchased the bug repellent as soon as the flies got bad, but held it back until Sam snapped and asked, plus a few minutes beyond that. Between anger at Sam and Ruby and sorrow for family and friends alike, Dean had had little room for anything else as the hours wore on. The bustle of the Control Center had gone on around him, and he’d ignored it.
Now, however, the entire room was quiet. The Capitol commentators had gone silent in shock. On the screens, Sam and Ruby took a ridiculously long time to gather themselves and launch into the fray.
Dean couldn’t say that he’d act any different, given what was playing out.
“Cas,” he called shakily as Ruby stabbed her first kill of the day, Sam beheaded his second, and Gabriel, still grinning, brought down his seventh. “Where the hell did your cousin learn to use one of those freaking daggers?” Where he got one wasn’t a mystery; it had been among the weapons at the Cornucopia, and when Gabriel had snatched it up, Dean had assumed he just did it as some sort of reference to Castiel.
But now, watching Gabriel cut down mutts, wielding the flashing silver dagger like it was part of his own arm…“Cas, seriously! Where...”
“I showed him,” Cas said confusedly. “I showed him the best moves, but I thought he wasn’t paying attention...He must’ve borrowed mine and practiced with it...But he’s still too good...”
Dean put aside the information that Cas apparently kept his blade from the Games in his house, and focused on the fight playing out. Between Gabriel, Ruby, and Sam, the demon mutts were dispatched in minutes, and Gabriel turned to the other two tributes with a smile that only looked a little tired. “Nice party you two seem to be getting on here. Can I join?”
“No!” Ruby said, and for once, Dean agreed with her. Now is not the time to be picking up more allies, Sammy, he thought as he saw his brother’s expression become one of consideration.
Gabriel seemed unfazed. “Would your answer change if I told you that I’m ninety-nine percent sure that the two best Careers of this year were killed by Lucifer? You two are tough, but you could use some help, I think.”
Minutes later, Dean was restraining himself from slamming his head against the nearest wall. Of course Sam’s agreeing to another team-up. At least Gabriel has a point about Lucifer.
The man from District Two, despite having a mentor who wanted him to die at some point, was terrifying. He didn’t seem to need or want any help. He just ripped through people when he found them, contriving to be brutally, painfully efficient.
Dean swallowed bile as his traitorous brain called up an image of Sam, hacked to pieces like Jessica had been by Lucifer. Maybe Gabriel can help prevent that. It’s not like he has much of a chance for winning, anyhow...So far, the candy shop owner had kept his head down, but everyone knew that by the end of the Games, he would be punished for his actions before the Arena. It was just a matter of time, and besides, he had already been declared the first District One male tribute to have zero sponsors since the sponsoring system had been installed.
Something Gabriel did have a capacity for was annoying the shit out of people. The allies spent the rest of the day traveling northwest along the edge of the plateau, and Gabriel didn’t shut up once. Probably making up for days of solitude with no one to listen to his babbling. He didn’t stop talking when they halted for the night and laced every other sentence with a lewd innuendo. He did take his turn on watch without complaining, but went riffling through Sam’s backpack just before dawn, and Dean sighed when his brother woke to find Gabriel devouring what was left of the last chocolate bar from the food supplies.
“What the hell? That’s mine, you asshole! The supplies are mine to share as I see fit!”
“Oh, come on, Samsquatch, don’t be so...Crap, you Nines and Tens probably don’t know what a Sasquatch is...”
“Can’t you mess with your own damn backpack?”
“It’s not as big as yours, now is it?”
The argument only ended when the male from District Six set his coat on fire on the south side of the plateau and the resulting column of black smoke became visible throughout the Arena. It seemed to be some sort of lure, and worked, as an hour later Dean watched Josie arguing with Abaddon one last time before Adam cut her down with his sword.
Day Five, and we’re at the final eight.
With Sam and his allies far away from that confrontation, Dean took a break and went to the snack table. Cas joined him. “Something’s wrong, Dean.”
Dean looked at the food and asked, “What do you mean, something’s wrong? Besides the fact that your fucking stupid cousin is being a nuisance to my brother...” He shut his eyes for a couple seconds. “Sorry, Cas, I have a headache.”
“Too many caffeine pills,” Cas said. “But that is not what I was referring to.”
Castiel looked around as if to check for eavesdroppers. Two people were also near the table: Crowley, who had been watching Josie for Anna until the madwoman’s death, and a bored-looking Cole from Six. Crowley was saying, “I’m so pleased to see that they thought to bring back the hellhound and demon mutts from my Games...new and improved models, of course...”
Right, Forty-Seventh, one of the hell-themed years. “What’s going on, Cas?”
“Something’s not right,” Cas said softly, gaze flickering to the guards by the door. “These Games...something doesn’t fit.”
“It’s a Quarter Quell, Cas, first that either of us can remember. It’s going to be weird. I’m actually surprised that it’s not weirder.”
They didn’t talk much after that, but when Lucifer approached the Cornucopia and everyone turned to watch, Cas grabbed Dean’s arm and muttered, “Becky Rosen doesn’t have any male cousins.”
That was all he said as Lucifer went charging in towards the Cornucopia, avoiding traps left and right. He killed Kevin Tran by shoving a sword through his head. Kevin’s district partner only escaped by setting off a freaking makeshift bomb, which ignited all of the supplies in minutes. She vanished in the smoke with a crossbow and some bolts, heading west, and it was some time before Lucifer gave up on supplies and left in the same direction.
Everyone seems to be heading west...Well, except Jo Harvelle. The girl from Seven had gotten her emergency med supplies, and she remained in the southeastern part of the Arena, living off squirrels and sleeping in the trees. Keep that up, and she might win by default.
Dean had an interview and two appointments that afternoon. While he was bullshitting his way through a conversation with Metatron and downing more caffeine in multiple forms in order to manage a grin and more for his clients, Sam, Ruby, and Gabriel came across and disposed of several more demon mutts as they explored around the peaks. Dean caught glimpses of them, but when he called Bobby, he was told to get some sleep. He tried.
The nightmare s are always worse during the Games.
Day Six dawned, warm and beautiful, and an exhausted Charlie Bradbury literally tripped over a slumbering Gabriel. Ruby, standing guard, lunged forward with her knife, but Sam caught her just in time. “Hey!”
Dean did knock his head against the wall of the mentor station a few times when Sam talked Ruby into not killing the girl from Three and more or less welcomed the redhead into the fold. She seems like a nice kid, but there’s only seven people left and if Sam keeps this up...What’s next? An alliance with the guy from Six? Dean swore to himself as the group went scavenging for food among the sparse vegetation around the peaks. Damn it, Sammy...
Cas’s comment about things not fitting made sense in this context. Alliances were supposed to dwindle, not grow.
And allegedly Becky Rosen has no male cousins…Plus, Cas has decided to stop talking to me…
But all that was forgotten as, that afternoon, Ruby led the group right to the edge of a cliff next to a little stream and announced that a break might be nice. Tired...and in the case of Charlie, sleep-deprived...the others agreed.
The anticipation levels in the Capitol shot up exponentially as other cameras picked up Lucifer, heading towards the alliance with no sign of tiring. Dean cursed at the top of his lungs when his caffeine-and-lack-of-sleep-addled mind caught up with what the man was doing.
He’s following a trail...a trail of little things, like broken branches and stacked pebbles...a trail that Ruby left.
When Sam, standing up from refilling a water bottle, saw Lucifer coming around a pile of boulders a few hundred yards away, he froze. “What the...Everyone, get up! We got company!”
Since he was four years old, there wasn’t a single person Dean spent more time with than his brother. He’d half-raised the kid; he’d seen him at his best and his worst. He’d seen Sam happy and sad and everything in between. And he’d seen Sam angry...at their father, at the Capitol, and Dean himself.
He’d never seen Sam like this.
There was probably some logical, semi-scientific explanation for the extremity of the reaction, likely involving lack of food, exhaustion, and survival instincts, but all Dean saw was the kind of cold rage he associated with himself when his father had abandoned them, when Nine’s tributes kept dying, and when the Capitol had claimed his brother for the Arena.
Still as a statue, eyes blazing, Sam said in a low voice, “Ruby, what the hell did you do?”
“What do you think, big boy?” She smiled up at him. “I made a deal. Lucifer’s crazy about you...not in a nice way...and I...Well, a girl’s got to look out for herself. He’ll probably kill the others fast...but you, Sam, he’s going to really have fun with you.”
Charlie squeaked and moved closer to Gabriel, who, for once, wasn’t smiling. “You honestly think he’ll let you off, Ruby?”
“For a short while, yeah, and that’s all I’ll need.” Ruby’s smile veered from smug to maniacal. “You idiots have no idea...”
Sam stepped forward, ripped her favorite knife from her belt, and shoved it into her chest.
In the near minute between Ruby hitting the ground and the cannon firing, no one spoke and Sam stood over her, breathing heavily and clutching her knife. Further along the cliffs, Lucifer had slowed his approach, but the cameras nearest him showed that he was smirking and still ready for a fight.
Seeming to see this, Sam turned away from Ruby’s body and said, “Charlie, your crossbow...”
“I’m a terrible shot,” she whispered. “It’s the only thing I could grab...I’m sorry.”
“Fuck, I’m no good with those, either. Maybe if...”
“Go.” Gabriel pulled out his three-edged blade, expression determined. “None of us can shoot that accurately, Lucifer is way faster than he looks, and one of us needs to delay him. Both of you run, now.” When they didn’t move right away, he smiled, his gaze tilting up for a moment. “Sooner or later, I’m going to die in here, and I’m okay with that. I was never going to get out. You two...you’re better than me. You deserve a chance. So run away and don’t look back.”
After a glance at Lucifer, whose pace was speeding up, Sam stepped closer to his allies. “Gabriel...”
Exchanging a look, Sam and Charlie obeyed. Gabriel gave his weapon a little twirl, put on a cocky grin, and moved to block Lucifer’s path.
Fifteen minutes later, Gabriel’s cannon fired and Lucifer, wincing from his first substantial injury in the Games, pressed one hand over the long, shallow gash in his stomach, picked up the silver blade with the other, and chuckled. “Finders keepers, I guess.”
Castiel’s chair hit the floor as he fled the room.
Several hours later, once Lucifer had made it quite clear that he wasn’t going anywhere that night and Sam and Charlie had holed up in a cave on the other side of the seven peaks, Dean left the Control Center and found his fellow Victor in the District One apartment of the Training Center, staring out a window.
He moved closer, reaching out hesitantly to grasp Cas’s shoulder. “Cas, I...I’m so sorry. I know how much your cousin meant...”
Cas spun around, taking Dean by surprise. The kiss was a surprise, too, plus it was sloppy and almost painful, but Dean didn’t let Cas pull away when they both finally paused for breath. “Cas, I...” I want this...fuck how come I didn’t know how much I wanted this...but right now...
“Please, Dean. I want...I need this.”
A deep breath. “All right, Cas.”
There was very little talking after that. And that was okay.
Chapter 12: Pray Before You Fall
It rained that night. After days of mostly clear skies and burning sun, clouds gathered in dark, fluffy banks and opened up the floodgates.
Curled up next to Charlie in a cave almost too small to fit them, Sam listened to the deluge outside and turned Ruby’s knife over and over in his hands.
I never trusted her, not really, so why was I that angry? Why…
It had always been temporary, because that’s how the Games went. But Ruby had saved his life. They’d worked as a team. She had been another living person in an enclosed world built for death.
Maybe I trusted her more than I thought. And I killed her. I killed someone. Not a mutt, not an animal...a person.
In the time leading up the Games, he wondered what his reaction to killing someone would be, if he ended up doing so. Dean had soldiered through his kills and the aftermath during the Sixty-Sixth, but Sam wasn’t his brother. He’d imagined that he would panic, vomit, feel something other than numb.
She betrayed us, led us into a trap of sorts...but she was a person.
Sam supposed that he should be worried that he felt next to nothing after stabbing a young woman to death. Even the recurring flashes of Alex’s death had stopped turning his stomach. He heard the anthem, but didn’t bother to look. Only one cannon had fired that day.
Gabriel was annoying and kind of perverted, but...he saved my life. Our lives.
He glanced at the young woman next to him as she jerked and cried out in her sleep. Her eyes flew open, and she went still when she glimpsed the knife in his hand.
He hastily put it away. “Hey, it’s okay. I’m not...” He trailed off, as he realized that he might have to hurt her, eventually.
Charlie nodded, sniffling and wiping her nose. “Sorry. I’m just a big fat liability, aren’t I?”
“No, it’s...it’s okay.” It’s not. “So,” he said, gesturing to the crossbow where it rested against the cave wall with its bag of ammunition. “You picked a weapon you couldn’t shoot?”
“I was trying to learn, you know, thought it’d be useful. Then Lucifer showed up and...Well. I didn’t have time.”
“Yeah.” Sam eyed the weapon. “Some of those arrows look different. Not mostly wood.”
“I think they’re called bolts for crossbows, but yeah, they came like that. Not sure why.” Charlie picked up one of the metal-covered projectiles and frowned at it. “Maybe they’re armor-piercing or something? But no one’s wearing armor.”
“Not yet, anyway.”
They both dozed off shortly afterward, and when they woke up, the sky had cleared.
Breakfast was the last of the crackers and some blackberries they’d collected yesterday before the shit with Ruby and Lucifer went down. Sam and Charlie sat on opposite ends of a large boulder while they ate, watching the mist rise off the sunlit grass. Charlie kept fingering the copper pin on her coat, which looked like a complicated knot cast in metal. Her district token. Sam pulled out his own token, running his fingers over the amulet as he remembered digging through a public trash heap in the freezing winter and being stopped by a burly figure in a fur-lined coat that smelled faintly of whiskey.
“Why are you sifting through garbage, boy? You should be at home, not out in the cold.”
“I have to find something for my brother. He...It’s his birthday in a couple weeks, and I don’t have any money. If I found something I could sell...”
“You’ll lose your fingers to frostbite, kid. Why don’t you take this fool thing instead? It’s just some trinket I’ve had lying around for a while, but it’s yours...and your brother’s...if you want it.”
“I’m going to the edge of the Arena,” Charlie announced abruptly. “I want to see how it ends. You don’t have to come; you’ve been too nice to me already.”
“No, I’ll come with you. What else am I going to do?” Lucifer’s still alive, and he’ll hunt me down. Sam couldn’t repress a shudder as he remembered the looks in the Training Center, and Ruby’s words before she died. “...he’s going to really have fun with you...” Sam chuckled humorlessly. Let him come, let all of them come. Charlie’s given me no reason to kill her, but just let the others try.
A river ran from among the peaks and over the western half of the plateau. Sam and Charlie followed it all the way to where it cascaded off the cliffs, joining a different river curving up from the south and another from the north in one long, roiling, roaring stretch of water that seemed to go...nowhere. On the other side of the water, the landscape stretched on to rolling grassy hills, but the view was...wrong. When Sam glimpsed the flicker in the image, he knew. “Force field?”
“Yes. This is it.”
Day Seven, five tributes left, and we’re at the end of the world. Sam held in his laugh, yet Charlie still watched him in concern and caution. I don’t blame her. “Let’s enjoy the quiet for a bit.”
The girl from Three kept a few feet between her and Sam as they sat on the edge of the cliff, watching the water churning below. After a while, a parachute emblazoned with the number nine floated down, bearing a single chocolate bar, one molded into fourteen little raised squares. Sam carefully broke it in half and handed one piece to Charlie. “Must’ve been the only thing Dean could afford.” Prices go up fast during the Games.
They savored the sweet candy, making it last despite their hunger, and Charlie took a break to say, “I remember watching your brother’s Games. All he wanted was to get back to you.”
“You watched them? Weren’t you a little young?” Sam teased.
“I’m twenty-one now!” She grinned, but it faded in seconds. “It was kind of heartwarming, you know. How much Dean was willing to give for you. How much he was willing to do. At the same time...”
“He had to kill people in order to win. That’s just how it works.”
“You haven’t made it much of a secret that you hate that.”
“Who outside the Capitol really loves it, though?” Sam looked back out over the false view. “I don’t want to kill anyone else, Charlie.”
“Yeah. I don’t want to kill anyone, either.” Charlie shrugged. “Even Lucifer...I mean, he’s kind of evil, but I don’t know if I could do it.”
“I could, but that doesn’t mean I want to.” Tilting his head back, Sam shut his eyes and let the sun warm his skin. “I almost don’t want to win. But winning equals survival, and I guess...I guess I want to survive.”
“I get that.” With a sigh, Charlie said, “But...it’s never been about winning for me.”
Something in the analytical part of Sam’s mind sat up and gave him a shove. That sounds…“What do you mean by that?”
Charlie just shrugged again and returned to eating her chocolate.
Sam’s thoughts drifted, muddling everything together. Crying when Madison died, playing with Dean in the river by one of the farm sectors, trying not to cry when Amelia did after the Quell announcement, stabbing Ruby, hearing Billie read my name at the Reaping, being yelled at by Alex, saying goodbye to Dean...It feels like forever ago...He wondered if he should’ve written a letter, maybe more than one, something to comfort Dean and Bobby and Jody and others he cared about if he didn’t make it out of the Arena. Should I make it out, though? I killed Ruby and I don’t feel anything. I can think about killing the others, even Charlie, without feeling too sick. Clearly, something was wrong with him. I’m not...good, anymore. If I ever was.
That sensible part of his mind piped up again, telling him to snap out of it, but he just couldn’t bring himself to care. Nothing seemed real anymore except the churning water, the taste of chocolate, and the warm sunlight in the Arena that might not even be real.
When Lucifer arrived, sword in hand, Sam got up and pulled out his machete, stepping forward to leave Charlie behind him. I’m done with this. I want it over.
“Ah, Sam Winchester. About damn time you paid me some attention.” Lucifer giggled, grinning through his scruffy blond beard. He swung the broadsword with the ease of someone trained for years to handle it. “I’ve been looking forward to this. Just me and you...well, that girl’s here, too, but I’ve seen her with that crossbow and she’d probably hit the wrong person if she fired it. So, for all intents and purposes...It’s just us.” He moved closer to Sam. Their eyes met, and Sam recognized the glint in them from the too many blood-hungry and deranged tributes he'd seen in past Games.
“I have to say, I don’t think this is a fair fight...”
Sam didn’t let him finish.
A sword against a machete wasn’t exactly a good match to begin with, but Sam used surprise and his superior height to his advantage, bearing down on Lucifer and driving him several steps back with a flurry of slashes and stabs that the older man just managed to block.
But Lucifer regained control and, moving with shocking speed, his sword a blur, drove Sam back, gaining ground twice as fast as he’d lost it. Sam knew it was over when Lucifer’s blade sliced over his right forearm and the machete fell from his grasp. Another slash across his ribs, and he was on the ground, head slamming against the soil, pain searing across his torso and arm as he heard Charlie screaming somewhere in the background.
“Oh, dear, I expected much more than that, Sammy.” Lucifer took a step back, swinging his sword again. “Guess I’ll have to...”
Somebody slammed into the man from Two, and both went down in a rolling heap of flailing limbs. Sam struggled to sit up, and suddenly it was his left arm that was throbbing as Charlie Bradbury dug a fucking knife into it. Sam yelled and tried to pull away, his vision blurring with black dots, and Charlie stepped back with her eyes wide and blood trickling down her own arm. “Sam, I...”
“Charlie, now!” an unfamiliar male voice bellowed. “Charlie, damn it, you...Ah!”
By some chance, Sam managed to located his machete and seized it, scrambling to his feet to find Adam Rosen from Six lying on the ground by the cliff edge, gasping in pain. Lucifer, dripping blood, stood over him, sword raised. “You filthy little...”
Adam knows Charlie. They have some plan. Charlie just stabbed my arm but didn’t kill me . Charlie's bleeding. Charlie’s fumbling with her crossbow again…
It could’ve been the blow to the head, but everything was starting to feel even more like a surreal nightmare.
This doesn’t make sense...
“No!” Charlie shrieked as Lucifer’s attention switched to her and her weapon. She was struggling to load the weapon with one of the thick metal bolts. The man sneered and stepped towards her.
Sam’s gaze moved to Adam, who was looking at him. The younger man mouthed something. Please. Stop him.
Nothing was fitting together, Charlie was yanking her pin off of her shirt, Lucifer was almost to her, and…
“...it’s never been about winning for me.”
The Capitol wanted their game. Somehow, this wasn’t it.
Fuck their shit.
“Hey!” Sam shouted, and Lucifer paused, looking to his favored prey.
Sam met Charlie’s gaze for an instant. “I’ve got him, Charlie.”
Dean, forgive me.
Lucifer was about three or four feet from the cliff’s edge. Charging forward, Sam seized the man’s sword arm to prevent being stabbed and threw his full weight into propelling them both off the cliff.
They fell. Someone screamed. The thundering water rushed up to meet them, and high above, the world exploded.
Chapter 13: You're Never Too Young To Know
One minute, Sam was facing down Lucifer and losing.
The next minute, Adam Rosen was fighting Lucifer and also losing while Charlie Bradbury cut out her tracker and went after Sam’s.
The minute after that, Lucifer was going after the tribute from Three while she did something with her crossbow and her district token that no one could get a good look at.
Then Sam pushed Lucifer off of the cliff, Adam started yelling and tried to go over after them, and Charlie finally fired her damn crossbow...directly at the force field surrounding the Arena.
Every screen in the Mentor Control Room went black at the same time.
“No!” Dean lunged to his feet, heart stuttering as Sam’s vitals, still being reported erratically from his damaged tracker, flattened into nothing. “Damn it, no!”
This can’t be happening. Whatever the hell this is, it can’t be happening.
He could hear the Ellen and Linda trying to make calls on phone lines that didn’t seem to be working, guards shouting and making calls via radios that were working, and Cole and Michael arguing at the top of their lungs. Looking around, Dean saw that only other Victor in the room was Crowley, who was calmly pouring himself another drink by the refreshments table.
Why is he even here? What the hell is happening?
The screens lit back up, but nothing but black-and-white static appeared. The guards had left, any servants had vacated the premises, and the other Victors were out of their stations, the sound of their frantic words flowing past Dean and leaving no impression. The overhead lights and computer displays flickered once, twice.
A Peacekeeper strode in alone, helmet-less but with an air of authority. He raised his hand, cutting off the clamor and any questions, and barked out, “Please take a seat. All six of you are being held here for the time being.”
“Are we, now?” Crowley, the nearest to the Peacekeeper, set down his glass and turned to face the Capitol man. “I’m sorry, but that interferes with my plans for the rest of the day.”
“Sir, you will sit down, now, or I will restrain you!”
“Oh, I don’t think so,” Crowley said, reaching under his long black coat. In a single swift motion, he pulled out a small revolver and shot the Peacekeeper in the head.
For a long moment, all Dean could think about was how out of place a pool of red blood looked on the white tile floor.
“What the...Help!” Michael roared, not daring to take a step towards Crowley. “We need…!”
He choked on the words, his entire body convulsing as he fell to the floor. Linda Tran stood behind him, wielding a goddamn taser. “Been wanting to do that for years,” she said, a bit shakily.
Crowley nodded at her, then glanced at the room at large. “Shall we be going?”
“What the hell is going on?” Cole said, though he didn’t look angry.
“I’m with him,” Dean said, forcing himself not to look at the dead Peacekeeper. Elsewhere in the building, he could hear alarms going off and people shouting. “What the actual fuck, Crowley?”
“This interruption in your regular broadcasting is what happens when the Arena’s force field is shorted out.” Still hefting the gun in a casual manner, Crowley smirked and said, “It’s called a statement, boys, and thus begins a revolution. Are you in? Because, if so, we need to leave right now.”
There were some things that Dean had always or for a long time known, in the same way one knew that the sun rose in the east and set in the west. His mother was dead and his father had abandoned him and his brother. Taking care of Sammy was his purpose in life. The Capitol ruled and would not be challenged. Hunger didn’t affect everyone but for most it was too be expected and endured. The Games existed, and around that time of year, District Nine and others had curfews and sometimes riots that never went anywhere. Fighting back against anything Capitol got you or your family killed. The Games were a show that only ended one way.
Yet these Games hadn’t. These Games were over with no final murder, no trumpets, no announcement. No Victor.
The force field’s screwed, Sam’s...gone, and this begins a revolution?
He distantly heard Ellen say, “Hell yes,” and Cole say, “Sorry, I have a family and I can’t risk it. Knock me out, please.” Linda obliged, and then Ellen had her hand on Dean’s arm. “Let’s go, kid.”
I don’t understand.
Nothing felt real as they left the Mentor Control Room and hurried through the maze of hallways, as they heard guards approaching and Linda pulled out a second taser and said she’d hold them off, as Crowley ushered Dean and Ellen into an elevator and shot the two guards that rushed forward to stop them. Then they were on the flat roof of the Control Center, sirens were wailing throughout the city, and gunshots rang out somewhere nearby.
The Games had ended, Sammy had fallen, and Dean didn’t understand.
When he saw the hovercraft, mere yards away with the end of its ramp a good three feet off of the ground, he balked. The last hovercraft he’d been on had lifted him out of the Sixty-Sixth Arena.
“Come on, you idiot, we have to leave!” Crowley shouted, and then Castiel was on that ramp, a red-tinged silver blade in hand.
“Dean, come on! We have to go!” He held out his free hand, gaze pleading, and Dean never remembered how he got close enough to take it.
The aircraft jolted alarmingly several times as Cas led Dean through its cramped corridors, and Dean’s stomach threatened to eject his lunch. Cas steadied him, urging him into a seat in a whole row of seats and helping him with the restraints as Crowley and Ellen joined them. Dean slump over once he was buckled in, head between his knees as he fought nausea, confusion, and the endless loop of Sam falling.
After what could felt like hours, the hovercraft seemed to level out and stop jerking around. Dean unbuckled himself when the others did so and followed them to some room filled with screens and loud voices and people. The voices dissipated somewhat as the four Victors entered.
“Dean!” Nine’s other two Victors spoke together, and Jody crossed the room to envelop him in a tight hug. “Thank goodness you’re okay!” she said.
Dean didn’t reciprocate, instead looking over her shoulder at the other people. Besides Bobby, there was an exhausted-looking Rufus, a strangely subdued Rowena, a couple gray-clad men he didn’t recognize, and…Hang on. That’s a Gamemaker.
It was a well-known fact that the current Head Gamemaker was a theatrical but useless overfed ass, so most of actual Gamemaking fell to his right-hand man, a diminutive bearded figure who mumbled, had a long name no one bothered to learn, and who liked to be called Chuck. “What the hell is he doing here?’ Dean burst out, managing his first coherent sentence in what seemed like a long time.
“He’s with us, Dean,” Jody said quickly. “Everyone here is with us.”
“Okay, but who’s ‘us’?”
“I understand that this is an unexpected turn of events, Dean, but...” Chuck was all but wringing his hands. “Just allow us to explain...”
“The Games were rigged from the start,” Crowley interjected. “District Thirteen...yes, it’s still alive and kicking, surprise...has been orchestrating a rebellion for years. What better way to kick it off than with a grand statement like, say, ending a cruel and unusual Games prematurely and with a bang?”
Nodding vigorously, Chuck said, “Yes, exactly. Two of the tributes...the girl from Three and the boy from Six...were undercover operatives from Thirteen. I and others smuggled in the necessary advanced, disguised tech, and assisted when necessary from the outside. The hope was that by destroying the Arena from within, more districts would join us right away.”
District Thirteen’s not a smoking hole in the ground, and the Games...It was never going to end normally. Charlie and Adam...they’re not any Victor’s cousins. Nothing was right. Nothing felt right. Nothing fit. Because it wasn’t supposed to.
Dean stared at him for a moment, then looked to Cas, who stood close by his side and who had been right the whole time. “Did you know about this?”
“I suspected something was off, but no, Dean, I did not.” Cas’s blue eyes looked hard, cold. “But I believe many of our fellow Victors did.”
“Why not tell us, then?”
“Dean...” Bobby looked about a hundred years old. “No one wanted to tell Castiel initially because...sorry, Cas, but you’re a One, and we couldn’t trust most of the Careers.”
“I think I get that, but why not me, Bobby?” Dean couldn’t figure out of he was still just confused, or betrayed, or furious, or some mixture of those. “Why couldn’t you trust me?”
Bobby looked him right in the eye and said, “Because of Sam. Damn it, boy, you’re both like my own sons, and you’re a good man, but I can’t deny that there’s probably nothing in the world, including a damn revolution, that you’d put in front of your brother.”
The sad thing was, he was right. If, for some reason, it had come down to a toss-up between Sam’s life and the revolution’s “grand statement”, Dean would’ve chosen his brother. I wouldn’t have sacrificed him. “Where is he? Where’s Sam?”
No one else seemed inclined to answer, so Bobby said heavily, “Charlie cut her own tracker out, and she damaged Sam’s. Adam didn’t get a chance to remove his own, and Jo still had hers...Ellen, I’m so sorry. It looks like the Capitol got her and Adam in different hovercrafts.”
“And Sam?” Dean demanded, because of course the tracker had been damaged, and if it were then the disappearing vitals would make sense even if…
“One of our hovercrafts picked up Charlie; it was chaos, and they had to flee or get shot down. From what I’ve gotten from inside sources...” Chuck shook his head. “No one’s been able to find Sam or Lucifer Rex. I’m sorry, Dean. He’s gone.”
He’s gone. He’s gone, and he never had a chance because...
He didn’t remember crossing the room or the punch he threw that landed the Gamemaker on the floor, he didn’t realize he was screaming until Cas and Bobby and maybe a few other people were restraining him, and he didn’t know he was attacking them too until someone jabbed a needle into his neck and everything went black.
He woke up in a sterile white room, bewildered.
I’m alive...my arm...I won...I’m alive…Benny...No...No, that was years ago…Everything hit him at once.
This wasn’t the hospital room from after his Games; he wasn’t even tied down. He was somewhere else, the Quarter Quell was over, some kind of revolution was happening, and Sam was gone.
He turned his head to find Bobby watching him from an uncomfortable-looking chair. “Castiel is fine,” the older man said, as if anticipating Dean’s next surge of thoughts. “He’s just gone to get some sleep. He didn’t leave your side all the way here.”
“Here?” Dean croaked, dimly recognizing the scratchiness in his throat as thirst. “Where...”
“We’re in District Thirteen. It’s all underground, since the Capitol bombed the surface all those years ago.”
Dean clamped his eyes shut and let out a breath. I still don’t understand. “Sam?”
Bobby’s voice was rough with regret and sorrow. “I’m so sorry, Dean.”
Refusing to respond to that, Dean said, “So...District Thirteen? Rebellion? Fucking spies in the Arena?”
“Yeah, well...They’ve got rebel operatives all over the place, have for years. Which leads me to...Dean, there’s something you’ve got to know.”
Suddenly tired and unwilling to think, Dean shook his head. “No, Bobby. Just...leave me alone...”
“He’s awake?” a low, shockingly familiar voice said, and Dean’s eyes snapped open on reflex. As Bobby began to protest the newcomer’s presence, Dean turned to the door.
When Dean was four years old, a house fire had killed his mother and broken his world. What he managed to rebuild began to crack around the edges twelve years later, and a year after that, crumbled entirely when he was Reaped. Things fell back into place with time, only to crack again when the Quarter Quell twist was announced, and when Sam was put in the Arena. Again, everything, right down to the foundations, was put into question after the escape from the Capitol.
And now, with two words and a look, Dean’s world flipped over and shattered yet again.
The man in the doorway gave him a pained smile. “Hello, son.”
A vulture wheeled high above the canyon-scarred landscape, the shadow of its wings cast against a background of red, brown, and off-white. Under the summer sun, almost nothing stirred except the scraggly shrubs as the occasional breeze brushed against them.
“Where do you think they put the arenas?”
“How should I know? Probably in one of the districts near the Capitol, so the tourists don’t have so far too go when they visit.”
“Huh. I thought that maybe they put them outside of Panem.”
The quiet of the landscape was broken by the sound of rocks clattering together. Below the circling vulture, a figure clawed its way out of a shallow canyon, a figure that was clearly human yet moved like a wounded animal. It collapsed, spread out on the cracked earth among the cacti and pale bushes, and the vulture swooped nearer.
“You know, I’m glad this place isn’t a desert. Desert arenas are horrible.”
“No one asked you, One.”
“Oh, I get it. You Tens are all about dust and sagebrush. It must be even worse for you Nines. Do you even have hills?”
“Would you please shut up?”
Two more vultures approached, remaining in the air as the first bird landed and hopped closer to the prone figure on the ground. Tatters of black, blue, green, and gray material, stained with dirt and blood, swathed the body. More blood oozed out of countless cuts and bruises seemed to stain every otherwise clear inch of skin.
Water everywhere, dragging him down, slamming him into things, pouring into his mouth, drowning him and spitting him out over and over.
He couldn’t see, he couldn’t breathe, and he was going to die.
Pecking experimentally at the nearest battered limb, the vulture jumped back when the body twitched. It fell still again, so the bird resumed its pecking as the other two vultures began to descend.
They swooped back upwards again as loud bang split the air, and the first vulture squawked and fell over in a pile of feathers.
Shadows long in the afternoon light, three figures approached, two tall and broad, the other short and slight, all moving with purpose. One of the taller ones picked up the vulture carcass and turned to the other tall person, who held a battered rifle. “Good shot.”
The smaller figure knelt beside the other body. A moment later, she looked up made a series of swift gestures with her hands.
“He’s still alive?”
“How? Who is he?”
The station was crowded, but Sam fought his way through as the train pulled in. Cheers went up as the newest Victor stepped out onto the platform, a smile on his face as his eyes scanned the crowd.
“Dean!” Sam shouted, ducking under the ropes holding the crowd back and dodging the Peacekeepers in order to reach the platform.
“Sammy!” Dean wrapped his brother in a hug so tight they could both hear their joints creaking, but it didn’t matter. Dean was back, and Sam felt safe again.
Even if he couldn’t breathe.
Long shadows stretched across the dusty plateau as three people, two bearing the heavy, awkward burden of a fourth person, moved across the desert towards the sunset.
I'm on spring break from college and having too much fun writing this AU to let it end here. The sequel will be up soon if anyone's interested :)