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Oh, Oh, People of the Earth; Listen to the Warning

Chapter Text

Hello lovelies,

Having just completed my first Queen series I was a bit distraught, and of course when one is distraught one watches a sad movie series (or at least I do). Saw the Hunger Games, and of course my mind put Ben, Joe, and the other lads therein. Got Queen and BoRhap on the brain!

My question to you is, would any of you be interested in reading a story set in a variation of the Hunger Games universe with the Queen men and Bohemian Rhapsody lads, or have I finally gone completely and utterly insane? (Perhaps both?)

Please leave a comment to let me know what you think, darlings. And thank you <3

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Edit: Due to all the support I shall be going forward! Thank you so much, darlings <3

Chapter Text

Happy Hunger Games! And may the odds be ever in your favour.

Joe likes odds. He likes positives and strong thinking and getting a good bow shot when out with his sister Mary so he can bring home supper. He likes picking flowers for his mom and playing catch, taking care of (i.e. raising Cain with) his serious little brother. Gotta get John to have some fun.

John has always been the serious one and Mary is calm and even-keeled. His parents always used to joke that they didn't know where they found Joe. Couldn't even blame a switch at the hospital though--he looks every inch a Mazzello. "Joey's a changeling, eh, Virginia? The fairies gave us a fabulous chance," Dad would say, and his mother would laugh, beaming all over her face as her husband took her hand and danced with her around their tiny kitchen.

She doesn't smile or laugh like that anymore, not since the love of her life passed on. They were all certain that his cancer manifested as a result of his work in the mines, but could not prove it and the Capitol didn't care. No; the only thing they want from the districts is produce of whatever sort they can get.

Produce, and tributes.

Today is Reaping Day, serious little John's first one, as he'd recently turned twelve. He stands stock-still for his washing in the frigid water, toes curling against the rough wood grain of the bucket he stands in. He allows his mother to brush and part his hair just so. His sister helps him with his pants and button-down. It is only when Joe kneels before him to help John with his tie that the little boy breaks. His thin hand reaches out and grasps Joe's lapel tight. "Joe, I don't wanna get picked," he whimpers. "Please, please don't make me go."

Joe's wide lower lip trembles as he tries to straighten the knot of his brother's tie, blinking rapidly. He takes the other's shoulders and tries to smile at him for reassurance. "Johnny, it's gonna be okay. I believe that. Your first year ...well the odds are pretty good that ya won't be picked, kiddo." Joe nods encouragingly and squeezes his brother by the shoulders. John smiles back before throwing his body at Joe in a hug, and Joe clutches him tight, burying his face in John's neck, squeezing his eyes shut and praying he's right about this. "Okay," Joe shifts back at last and stands, wearing his brightest smile again so as to keep John's spirits up. He gives his mother a kiss and Mary presses his hand. "We gotta get goin'."

His eyes fill with tears as his mother swoops John into her arms and murmurs "I love you, baby boy," the way she always does. But today it means more; the weight is different as she adds "So much." Before gazing at Joe. "I love you, Joe."

"Love you more," he says back to her, and waves, attempting to be jaunty. "See you out there after."

***

Crowds mill in a serpentine clump at the District Square. This is the only time everyone enters it at once, the men with their faces grey and drawn from the mines, eyes pinched in the brightness, trying to look presentable in patched shirts and ragged pants. Women and girls' faces appear just as pinched. There is always a hubbub because apparently the politicos have been lobbying to get females out of the Reaping for years. Too much danger to unborn millions if they are always to go into the Arena to be killed. Joe thinks that's kind of sexist, no one should have to go be killed and it's a woman's decision whether or not she wants kids anyway, but whatever. Seems like this is the year they got their wish--just guys are being Reaped. And there are still two pots, over teens and under. Great. Get a bunch of forty-year-olds in the arena and they'll be moaning about their jobs and wanting to watch a ball game.

But he and John get signed in, and the Capitol stooge comes up beaming after the mayor says some sickly-sweet thing about being so grateful for the Capitol's support of District Twelve, yada yada. Joe just wishes he could be standing with his brother right now. John fidgets with his clothes when he's nervous, and his shirt is already ragged enough at the cuffs that if John pulls on one it's going to go.

There is shuffling, and silence. The Capitol presenter pulls a name from the teen-and-under basket and calls out "John Mazzello!"

Joe's body jerks, his eyes bulge. No. No no no, that isn't possible. No way. He thinks he hears his sister gasp behind him as he looks around wildly to see John, sweet tender little John, doing his best to square his shoulders and blink back tears. Hell no. "JOHN!" Joe calls out, screeches, running toward his brother, who turns.

"Joe--?" Terrified eyes catch Joe's as the soldiers stop him. They're always here, damn, coming out just in time.

"I volunteer!" The elder male Mazzello bawls out to the guards grabbing him and to everyone else there. They will not take his brother. His voice cracks as he screeches: "I volunteer as tribute."

"No!" John gasps, already crying, tears tracking down his cheeks as he tries to grab Joe's hand. Joe is frog-marched up to the stage as Virginia swoops in and scoops her youngest into her arms, Mary close behind, face stark white and stricken. Joe feels as though his heart is breaking--for the second time in his life--as he looks into their faces from his place beside the podium. They had already lost his father, now they are probably certain to lose him too. Oh, no.

But Joe goes up, the first volunteer in this new system of Reaping, and he speaks his name into the microphone, saying yes, that's his brother he volunteered for. And then the other name is called: "Benjamin Jones."

A muscular guy with blond hair and a round childlike, cherubic face comes up the stairs to the stage. His sea-green eyes are enormous, the expression in them is one of fearful, dawning terror mixed with shock. Joe too is stunned, but smiles at the other as they are exhorted to shake hands--an automatic impulse to be friendly and to calm himself as well as potentially comfort the other man. Every little bit helps, right?

But Benjamin's body jerks as if Joe has stabbed him. "Why in the world are you smiling, mate? We've been given a bloody death sentence," he hisses as they are both turned about in order to be whisked away. His voice is rough and deep and the sound of it draws Joe in despite his angry words.

"--I think of it as a chance for us to survive," Joe responds cheerily, or with as much happiness as he can muster. Because his family is back there, and will be coming to say goodbye; and he has got to put on a brave face for them. He's got to.

Chapter Text

Ben is shoved unceremoniously into the ready room. The goodbye room. Bit of a shitty name, as no one is coming to say farewell to him--his family had done their nodding outside. No hugs or streaming tears, that isn't how the Joneses show emotion. Not that he NEEDS all that or anything, but it would have been nice to know before he went, that at the very least he will be missed if he doesn't come back.

He has no clue how that other bloke--Joseph Francis Mazzello the Third, as he'd introduced himself on the mic, wow what a name--could legitimately smile whilst meeting him, or shaking his hand, at least. Hadn't really met officially. Ben's ears had been ringing with the shock of getting called, and his cousins and parents and so many other people were just... staring. He doesn't blame them; every year there is a sense of disbelief when the Reaping is happening, along with a rush of relief when it doesn't happen to you. Ben knows the drill; he had been lucky so far.

Apparently his luck ran out this year.

Maybe they had followed him, known his doings. Ben is a disgruntled baker's apprentice, he does the cakes but notices what is going on in Panem and wishes for an uprising of more than simply baking batter. He wants to fight back against the Capitol--well, has heard some small bits of talk and is impressed by it, intrigued. Wants to throw in his lot with those chatters but does not quite know how. He also does not want to jump in headfirst without insurance or knowledge.

Ben's only sure knowledge right about now is that he is going to be on a bullet train for several days with a seemingly boisterous, happy guy who volunteered as tribute either because he is a psychopath or because he really wants to protect his kid brother. Ben wouldn't know what that is like. Anyway. "This ought to be good," Ben mutters to himself as another guard appears to usher him onward to the platform to wait for the train.

He wishes he could say goodbye to Gram, but she was feeling poorly and had been advised to stay in the house. Doctor's orders. Wouldn't have even seen the Reaping unless she turned their projector on; but knowing Gram, that's what she had done. Ben smiles at the thought of the stubborn sweet lady. He is really going to miss his grandmother, and his dog. If he just had another moment with them.... Wavering for a moment, smile gone, he nearly turns back and breaks away, begs the guards to let him go at least so he can say goodbye--but he hauls in a lengthy shaking breath and the moment is gone.

***

Soon as Joe is herded into the tiny dark room in the Municipal Building, the door is flying open behind him and John is hitting his legs, wrapping himself around Joe and sobbing. Mary is next, catching him round the head and kissing his hair, and his mother stands back with her hands over her mouth to stop her own cries. "Hey," Joe croaks, trying to smile. "It's gonna be okay, guys. It's hunting, right? That's all it is. Hunting and--maybe making friends. Maybe I won't have to hurt anybody, ha ha." His trembling fingers clutch his sister and he presses his face into his brother's hair. "It's gonna be all right, though. Mary, you'll get game and watch out for everybody."

His sister nods into his hair, still holding on to him. "Of course, Joe."

"And Mom, no crying," he admonishes her. "You just keep teaching dance lessons, and uh. Keep that co-teaching spot open for me, I'll be back."

His mother's lips wobble as she blows him a kiss and then steps forward, cupping one hand around his cheek and stroking his face with her thumb. "Oh, Joe...,"

Joe tries to grin at her, so hard, even as his voice is wobbling and tears are filling his eyes. "And John," he whispers, kneeling down. His brother lets out a wail and buries his head in Joe's shirt. "Hey, little man. Shh, look at me." He lifts his brother's chin and speaks seriously "Watch out for yourself, and Mom, and Mary. And I promise we are going to play some catch when I get back. Okay?" John bites his lip, entire body trembling like a leaf. Joe is crying in earnest now, but he pushes through. "Okay?" He repeats. "C'mon, say you believe me, Johnny."

"I... I believe you," his brother whimpers, wiping his face.

Joe shakes his shoulder gently. "Good man! Now gimme a hug, all of you," and they do, coming together as one. "Us Mazzellos have got a lot going for us. We're gonna be all right." Joe tries to make his voice light, keep it buoyant. He does. He has to hold himself together, and then the guard comes back in.

"It's time," a heavy voice says, and the words along with the sound, the finality of it pierces through Joe's heart. Mary starts sobbing now, and John buries his face in her side as Joe gives them both a kiss and his mother a final back-cracking hug.

"Take care of them," he whispers to her. "I love you."

"Oh, I love you, my little Joey," his mom holds his face in her hands. "Please be safe."

Joe closes his eyes and grabs her hand where it holds onto his cheek, committing the feeling to memory before opening his eyes again. "I will, Mom. I'll try." I promise. Her smile is heart-rending as she kisses his cheek a final time and is corralled out of the room with the others. "Bye!" Joe calls. "I'll--see you soon!" He tries, voice cracking. See them soon, yeah, right. How can he even make a promise like that? He hopes they didn't hear it, even as he aches and wishes they had. Joe feels cold and so so small as he is led out onto the platform, seeing the other tribute again. Benjamin. He looks pretty composed, which makes Joe feel even worse even as he's also kind of impressed. He wishes he could control his face like that, but has always worn his emotions on his sleeve.

Joseph's eyes are red-rimmed and tears still trickle down his cheeks. Ben gives him space, but feels a sick curl of envy and sympathy warring inside of him. What he wouldn't give for his own family to come and say goodbye to him as he is certain the other man's had just been doing. They certainly demonstrated their love when he volunteered. But Ben's family had not. They are not going to and he is leaving, so he has to move on. This is a beginning as well as an end.

He climbs onto the shiny silver train with Joseph behind him.

***

The excitable presenter, gushing about them being chosen (or volunteering) to go to the Capitol and how wonderful it is, listing all the things they might see there, is really grating on Ben's nerves. His fellow tribute is nodding and smiling--again--but if Ben didn't know better he would say he spots a weary emptiness in the demeanor of this bouncy dude. It makes a surge of compassion twinge within his chest and he speaks up "Oi, that all sounds great, but d'you mind laying off and just letting us be for a while? This day's been a bit, uh."

"--Overwhelming?" A new voice cuts in gently, emanating from a tall thin man with long dark curls and kind, sad eyes. He wears a shimmery silky shirt and dark tight slacks, but the only bit of attire that seems truly Capitol-esque is the eyeliner and eye shadow that makes his hazel orbs stand out. He comes over to them both and shakes their hands with strong, lengthy fingers. "I imagine that it would be. My name is Brian May, and I'm here to make your stay in the Capitol as comfortable as I can, before--" his voice chokes a bit and tears, actual tears fill his eyes. "I'm sorry," he apologises. "You probably don't want any sorrows from someone you don't know, but I am truly sorry that this happened to you. To you both." His eyes shift from Ben's to Joseph's. "But that was a very brave thing you did to volunteer." Finally backing up a bit, Brian blinks and tries to smile. "I... shall go and get your mentor. He should be ready by now, somewhere. That will be all," he dismisses the presenter, who inclines their head and exits the train as it begins to move. Brian looks back at the two young men as he prepares to exit the compartment and his long teeth catch upon the flesh of his lower lip as he adds softly "Oh, where are my manners? Please feel free to have a seat anywhere you like. I will be back."

Ben flicks his eyes around the compartment. Everything is so blasted shiny and clean. Pristine. He is half-afraid he somehow has flour on his clothes from the bakery and that when he sits down it will disperse everywhere like a cloud of smoke. He shuffles and eventually decides to sit on the end of some green Plasticine chair. Joseph plops in one right NEXT to him. Bloody hell.

"I don't think we were properly introduced earlier," Joseph intones with an expression in his eyes that Ben has a difficult time looking at for some reason. "Ya seem pretty cool, but I don't know that Benjamin really works for you. I'm Joe."

Ben's head shoots up at those words and his face hardens. "Excuse me?" he snaps. "What's wrong with my name?"

Joe blinks. "Nothing, man. I just thought you might have a nickname, or go by something shorter. Nobody calls me Joseph unless things are really serious. It's how I always knew when I was in trouble growing up. It's still how I know, sometimes." He chuckles, extending his hand expectantly. "So what about you?"

Ben flushes in shame. His hackles are so high he is snapping at this guy for no reason, and here Joe is just being nice. Ben doesn't get that often. So "Ben," he clears his throat, voice cracking a bit in embarrassment. "My name's Ben. Only... my parents and everybody actually DO refer to me as Benjamin, but Ben's what I'd--what I like to be called."

"Okay!" Joe chirps brightly, again shaking Ben's hand, eyes dancing, skin crinkling at their outer edges. "Ben. I can do that. So, Ben, have you ever met him? Our mentor, I mean. Uh, he's--"

"Roger Taylor," Ben supplies, running a hand through his hair. "I've never met him personally, no. But he gave my parents an earful one time in our bakery. Lot of profanity was flying around apparently. He's a pretty intense bloke from what I've heard. Intimidating."

"Oh." Joe's voice is small for a second. Ben looks over, concerned, but then Joe's buoyancy bounces back. No idea how he can do that. "We'll just have to make friends with him, then."

Ben snorts. "Easier said than done. I--don't make friends that easily."

"Well you're in luck today, Benny!" Joe nudges his shoulder. "You've got me and I like talking to everybody. My sister Mary says I could have a conversation with a stump and make it interesting for myself." He laughs. "Don't know what that says about me, but." Ben does not doubt Joe can do that. He has never met someone like this man, so gregarious and full of life. He starts to tell Ben all about his family as they wait: his sister Mary, brother John, and his mother Virginia. "She's great," he enthuses. "Even during the bad times she runs a little dance studio that she and my dad started. 'The world is dark, and in a dark world--'"

" '--Every bit of light is precious'," Ben whispers, his eyes wide. Joe squints in response.

"Yeah, that's what she always says. Are you psychic or something?"

"No, I just... I think I might've gone to some classes there. When I was little," Ben licks his lips, leaning forward, waving a hand. "Does your dance place have a, kind of a slanted wooden floor? And the mirrors never hung straight--"

"--Because of fissures in the walls due to sunken ground from the mines," Joe says, brightening. "Oh my god, yeah, that's our place! Dad always told us there were trolls burrowing beneath us, making caves that the fair folk would lead 'em through, and they were pulling down the ground to make holes so they could have some natural sunlight. Everybody needs to see the sun, he always said." Joe's smile is wistful now, and his eyes are far away. Recalling happier times, probably. Then he shakes his head and focuses back. "That's crazy though, that you went to our studio and that you remember those words! Mom still says 'em every day." Joe's lip trembles. Even after she's lost so much, and may yet lose him. He shuffles his shoulders, clenching his fingers together, feeling awkward in his sorrow.

But "Yeah, exactly," Ben speaks warmly. "I definitely remember, and those words helped me out a lot back then. I was a quiet kid, kept to myself. Needed some light in my life. Probably still do," the warmth and brightness in his gaze have faded. "A bit late for that though, I expect."

"No, it isn't," Joe responds firmly, turning to face him. Ben is startled by his vehemence. "It's never too late, Ben. We can find some light til the very second our cannons go off in the arena! I-I mean," he stutters to a halt at Ben's wide-eyed expression. "Sorry, I was getting all hyped up and that probably ruined it, huh?"

Ben cannot contain a chuckle. "Might've been a tad morbid, yeah. But that's alright, I got what you meant."

"Yeah? Okay, good." Joe's breath whooshes out in relief that he had not gone too far.

"I did as well," comes a new voice from the compartment door, high and a trifle husky. "And it's a good thing you can laugh at the probability of your imminent demise. Humour is important." A thick cloud of tobacco smoke precedes a shorter figure into the room, followed by the lanky limbs of Brian. The shorter man has blond feathery hair, spiked up a bit. He wears a pair of round sunglasses on his finely-boned face and his teeth are blinding as he bares them in a sardonic smile before flopping himself into a chair across from the two tributes. "Because you lads--" flicking his fingers between Ben and Joe, the man continues "--barring a stellar performance or a bloody miracle, are very likely buggered coming here." He raises pale eyebrows, expressing every word and blows a smoke ring from a drag on his cigarette before adding sardonically, "Cheers."

"Cheers," Ben automatically replies, feeling numb. That's it then. They are screwed. Not much of a loss for him, really; but Joe, he's got people waiting for him at home. Good people from what Ben is hearing and remembering. He clears his throat, leaning forward a bit. "Mister Taylor, erm--"

The other chokes on smoke and waves a hand. "Whoah now lad. Bollocks to Mr. Taylor. That's my father and he was a right bastard. Call me Roger."

"...Right. Well, Roger, I do think it'll be hard for us to stay alive, and, but maybe it'd be easier if you could lend us your expertise to...help?" Ben's low voice breaks higher at the last bit in nervousness, making his words come off like a question. God, but this is terrifying. Roger's bright blue eyes are now fixed on Ben, as he has ripped his sunglasses off and leaned forward as well.

Ben tries incredibly hard not to squirm or sweat or run away. And then, mercifully, "I agree with Ben on this," Joe puts in brightly. "I mean, you made it through the Games, Roger. There's gotta be something you know that'll help us, at least a little."

"Roger," Brian puts a long hand on the other's shoulder in a placating gesture as Roger visibly tenses. The blond grumbles and attempts to shove him off, but Brian hangs on. "They both make valid points, Rog. You DID once win this thing."

Roger snorts, hair whipping as he jerks his head up, locking his eyes on Brian's. "That was ages ago, Bri!" He explodes. "And it was--I was lucky, really. Had idiotic, run-of-the-mill strokes of luck. Couple'a sound waves and some drumsticks." He takes a long drag on his cig and shakes his head. Ben and Joe share a glance with one another. They cannot tell whether or not Roger is serious, or what he means. Full tapes of previous Games are sealed until each Quarter Quell, or unless a news outlet or training school is given EXPRESS permission to view a tape from the President himself.

Brian rubs Roger's arm soothingly, but the other man is not soothed. His lips press flat together and his eyes blaze. "No!" He shouts, boiling to his feet, at last forcing Brian to let him go. "I'm not gonna bloody do this again, Brian! I can't." He looks at the two young men sitting before him, startled and frightened and despondent, and Roger cannot handle the sight. His mouth works and he shakes his head, eyes fractured as he strides back out of the compartment and tosses the end of his cigarette out the window.

After the door closes only silence is left behind. Brian smiles apologetically at Ben and Joe, features kind yet sad. "I'm sorry, boys. Roger has... troubles, sometimes, and he lashes out."

"Yeah, no kidding," Ben mutters before he can think. Joe lets out a tiny surprised laugh and even Brian's lips quirk up.

"Right. Well, having known him for quite awhile, I can say that he will come round when provided with a reason."

A reason. Joe scrunches up his lips, taps his thumbs together, and stands. "Okay then I"m gonna go give him one."

"Right now?" Ben stares askance. "Joe, are you sure?" He would be much more inclined to let Roger cool off first, and then talk to him. Or maybe never talk to him. But that isn't Joe's mentality, apparently.

"Yep, I'm sure. There's no time like the present." Joe slaps Ben on the shoulder lightly in a friendly way and adds "I'll be back... soonish, hopefully." He waves and follows Roger's egress, leaving Ben and Brian to sit a trifle awkwardly.

Brian bends his long limbs and rests one ankle on the opposite knee. "Admirable fellow," he says quietly with something like awe in his voice after a bit. Ben nods.

"Yeah," A lump fills Ben's throat as he swallows. Even not having been around Joe all that long, though a few old memories are resurfacing, he is very much inclined to agree with Brian. "He definitely is."

Chapter Text

The bullet train passes swiftly through the districts. Time passes swiftly too, like a mockingjay on the wing. Ben is utterly exhausted from the day and turns in early to find his sleeping compartment. He hardly has time to pull his shirt over his head before he's asleep and snoring, face planted into the pillow upon the absurd bed that is his.

He wakes the following morning muzzy-headed, unclear as to why his father has not shouted "Up and at 'em, Benji boy! You're burning daylight!" at him as of yet. He at the very least expects his gram to get him upright with a gentle shake, but no one does. Not even Frankie appears, crawling on top of him to press her cold nose in his face, tail waggling her entire body as she begs to be let outside. Ben stretches and sits upright, and with that everything comes crashing back into his head: the Reaping ceremony, his name being drawn, stilted goodbyes as he walked to the podium, the fact he had not said goodbye to Gram. And there is his fellow tribute.

Joe. Whom he'd met and remembers from before, years ago at his parents' dance studio. As well as from a far more recent memory that surfaces and is instantly cut off. Ben stops the thought before it can really begin; he had not mentioned it to Joe, not wanting to embarrass him--though even knowing the man for so brief a time, Ben wonders if it is possible to embarrass him. Joe appears to be so confident, so comfortable in his own skin; Ben admires that and envies it a bit. Joe knows exactly what he can do--he will be set in the Arena with his shooting skills alone. Ben, well. Unless there are ingredients to bake a poisoned cake, he's pretty sure that he'll be screwed. Especially if Roger will not help... Sighing as he rises, the blond locates clothing, which has been placed in his room for him--the Capitol must have gotten his sizes, which he finds downright creepy--and heads back along the corridor of the train after washing up and dressing. He halts outside the door of the compartment wherein they sat yesterday.

Inside Joe speaks animatedly to Roger, waving a fork about. Their mentor appears far less irascible today than he had before; his gaze is serious as he leans in towards Joe. They appear to be eating breakfast together, and Brian's curly dark head is bent over some sort of sheaf of curling paper in the background. Ben feels his stomach twist. What if he is missing something crucial? Why hadn't they woken him up? Already at a disadvantage, he is sure. Stomach souring now, Ben shoves open the compartment door with a little more force than is strictly necessary.

Joe's eyes instantly rise and brighten as he sees Ben, and the other feels his stomach leap and roil in shame and something else as he does his best to smile at his fellow tribute before walking round the table behind Roger. "Morning, sunshine," the mentor quips. "Nice of you to join us." Certainly chipper, a far cry from before. Wonder what Joe said to him. With a sharp breath expelled from both nostrils, Ben sits beside and nods to Roger.

Joe offers him a plate of eggs. "Hey Ben," he greets easily. "Roger was just telling me why it's a really dumb idea to light a fire in the Arena." Leaning over he adds in a stage whisper "Here's a hint--people are gonna see you." Body shifting back with a wink and a grin, Joe adds "...he was just about to tell me a good way to find shelter."

Ben accepts the eggs and sets them down, turning his face towards Roger's. "How do you find shelter?" He inquires of their mentor.

Shifting his glasses up so they rest in his hair and rubbing a hand across his face, Roger groans. "Fuck, I'm not awake. Pass that marmalade, wouldja mate?"

Ben makes no move to do so. "How do you find shelter, Roger?" he repeats, voice low.

Roger growls with a roll of his eyes and reaches across the table. Ben moves quickly and slams his arm down on top of Roger's in just the right way that, if he had thrown his weight a little harder, Roger would now be sporting a broken arm. Joe lets out a tiny screech and Brian shoots upright as a teacup wobbles and hits the floor with a crash.

Ben's sea-green eyes stare into Roger's blue ones, and eventually he lifts his arm enough for the mentor to withdraw his. Shaking out and massaging the muscles of his forearm, Roger glares pointedly at Ben. "The THING about shelter is you've got to find yourself a vantage point in order to avoid any... nasty surprises." He snaps, gaze flickering to Ben's arms as he snatches up the jar of marmalade. "Another vantage, or advantage, I should say, is procuring sponsors." Roger scoops the butter substitute and spreads it across his bread deftly. "Getting people to like you is important, and having some sort of marketable quirk works wonders. You, now," Lifting his eyebrows and tearing a chunk of bread with his teeth, the mentor chews thoughtfully as he stares Ben down. "...you are not off to a stellar start on that, my friend."

Ben flushes bright red. He opens his mouth to apologise, or--he doesn't quite know what; his temper had gotten the best of him and truth be told it is still flaring--Joe lets out a second strangled sound, however, and leaps out of his own chair. "Look, there it is!" He rushes to the window, eyes wide. They are coming into the Capitol. "Wow, it's friggin HUGE! Get a load of this, Ben!" Ben shudders and remains seated as on the train platform, he sees hundreds upon hundreds of brightly-dressed folk, gaudily coloured in outfit and makeup and hair, looking like peacocks with the brightest possible plumage. They come into view waving and roaring their approval. Joe waves back with a bright smile.

"Better keep that wrestling move," snorts Roger, leaning towards Ben with a jerk of his head at Joe. "That lad there knows what he's doing."

Ben has no witty response to that.

***

They are herded into an enormous space just off the train, in a building where they are separated. Joe waves, as cheerful as always. Ben nods to him, but feels his level of comfort diminishing as the other moves away. Ridiculous, they can't be together all the time, and they're not coming here to be friends! Come on, Ben! He shakes his head at himself and allows people to lead him away.

The area Ben is led to looks like a gigantic laboratory or perhaps a washroom. Its walls are shiny and made of something akin to chromium. People with garish shades of makeup and hair, but clothed in nondescript white, march him to a tub alongside a table. They douse Ben with some liquid that vaguely stings and scrub him furiously all over with a rough stone-like object. They soap up his hair before rinsing it and him, spraying a strong-smelling substance over his body. Shining a bright light into his face and over his skin, they appear to be checking his pores, and roughly tip his face from side to side a few times. Pluck hairs from around his eyebrows, smooth the already-soft skin of his chest.... Finally, they are done, leaving Ben feeling almost flayed as he waits wearing a thin gown for the arrival of his stylist.

Ben's stomach clenches into sickly knots at the prospect of having to introduce himself to someone new so that they can pretty him up and show him off before his untimely murder. Great. His concerns are greatly eased when a familiar head of midnight hair enters the room and comes up to him. "Brian!" Ben speaks gladly. "Are you taking me to meet my stylist, then?"

"Hullo Ben. Actually, no. I am your stylist," Brian smiles. "it's a bit of an... irregular arrangement, but. With Roger being, well, Roger, I am one of the few stylists and people he can apparently stand. So I've been tasked as your major-domo and your stylist as well. I'll be working with both you and Joe. That's alright, I hope?" the tall man asks, seeming worried that it may not be.

"Oh! Yes, of course it is," Ben hastily nods as he realises his frozen expression might be taken as disagreeable. "A little shocked, but I'm honestly relieved. Figured I'd be put on display for a load of people while someone shouted at me that I'm not embodying their, erm, Look."

Brian laughs. "Oh, well I'm not that kind of stylist. Though there are others who are, trust me. But yes, I'm happy to make you feel as comfortable as you possibly can while wearing my creations. As comfortable as you can be in a place, a situation like this..." His head dips and lips tremble again, sorrow etched plainly into the lines of his hands, the crinkles at the corners of his eyes. Ben wonders what made Brian like this; he certainly is compassionate, but it seems there is something more to the compassion than simple sympathy. As if his sorrow is a personal one. Ben shakes himself free of the wondering as Brian looks into his eyes and intones "But you will be in front of loads of people for your interview after the Tribute Parade and your first training session, all beginning this afternoon and evening. I'm sorry about that, but it can't be helped."

Ben feels his stomach sink into his feet but attempts a smile. " 'S okay. I'll have you to help me, yeah? You, and Roger, and Joe." He puts Joe's name on the tail-end of the phrase automatically, though technically they are competitors. Somehow it makes him feel safe.

Brian nods seriously, reaching out and squeezing Ben's shoulder with his long thin fingers. "Yes, Ben. You will."

Chapter Text

The training area is underground. That's what Brian says. It seems ludicrous to Ben that they have just been dolled up and poked and prodded only for his stylist to hand him an outfit that looks like a jumpsuit--comfortable, actually, and shimmery grey, like the specks of coal he sees in granite as he walks home past the men hauling rocks up out of the mine shafts--and lead him to another room where Roger and Joe are waiting for them.

Joe is dressed in the same garb as Ben, and the blond's heart lifts as he sees Joe waving his pale animated hands about. He seems to be miming his experience with the beautifiers (Ben figures that is what they would be called, or even what they may actually call themselves. Beautifiers of the ugly inhuman tributes). A smile shoots across Roger's mobile emotive face, chasing away the typical sullen fury or seriousness that Ben has thus far seen there. The mentor puts a hand on Joe's shoulder and laughs, and Brian seems to be gladdened by this sight as well; the tall man's shoulders lose their stiffness and his facial expression relaxes ever-so-slightly as he and Ben come up to Roger and Joe.

Joe is relieved to see them. Though he has been trying to prepare himself for what is to come, even his jokes are laced with desperation. But Ben's presence calms him down, grounding him by virtue of the other tribute's quiet warmth. Maybe it is because of what Ben had done for him before, or their shared state now; all he knows is that he means the smile that stretches across his face as he grasps Ben by the shoulder. "Good to see you in one piece after those tortures, Benny. Ready to train?"

"Not at all," Ben blurts out honestly, half-expecting Joe to laugh. But he only receives an empathetic glance as Joe squeezes his shoulder.

"Yeah, me neither."

"Well boo-fucking-hoo, better cry your rivers now and get ready, lads," Roger snaps. "This isn't the time for hand-holding. People will be sizing you up in Training--Gamemakers and other tributes. You need to project an organised front here, as Bri's started with those outfits," he points to each of the young men, who nod silently. "Unite yourselves as he and I do." Roger's glance at the tall stylist twinkles and Brian rolls his eyes fondly with a small smile, putting his hand on Roger's shoulder. "You'll do this to confuse the other tributes, put 'em off balance, like. But keep your focus on picking up skills to keep yourselves alive." Folding his arms across his chest their mentor adds "Now what are you both best at?" Ben and Joe look at each other and then back at Roger, who expels an explosive sigh. "Anything? Come on, now's the chance for you to brag about yourselves. What can you do to survive?"

Again Joe glances at Ben before looking down. What can he do? Well he knows he has always needed help. Ben's jaw clenches a bit, and then he is the first to speak. "Joe's an amazing shot with a bow. Excellent, truly. My father buys his squirrels, says he hits 'em in the eye dead-centre every time."

Joe shuffles his shoulders and rubs his hands together, awkward in the face of such glowing praise. "Well Ben's strong," he says suddenly. The blond ducks his face away. "I've seen him haul two fifty-pound sacks of flour into the bakery and carry them all the way to the back ovens. You also climbed up on the runaway bread truck that one time, remember?" Joe whistles. "Crawled on the top and leapt off the side to slow it down enough to stop. Crazy stuff goes down in District Twelve."

"That only helps me, erm." Stumbling over the words "...It means I can move a bit," Ben says. "Joe's got endurance, he's fast and flexible."

"Dancing," Joe waves that off. "That's what that's from. What'm I gonna do, get into a dance battle with everybody in the Arena?"

"No, you'll be climbing trees and picking off people from a distance and eating squirrels," Ben begins heatedly. He glances at Roger. "Right? If he gets to a bow--"

"You'll be rocking hand-to-hand combat, Ben. Just decking people with your super strong fists and gigantic fifty-pound rocks. If I get jumped it's bye-bye Joey." Joe shows off his thinner arms, making a joking face that contains real sincerity underneath.

Ben explodes. "Come off it, Joe--you're so much more amply equipped than I am, you could win this thing! I have no chance!" Something sparkles in his eyes. Tears? Ben sniffs, swipes hard underneath his nose. "My parents didn't even tell me goodbye, alright? What's that say about my chances? Your family KNOWS you're gonna be back, you've got to be!" He clenches his fists and turns away. "Why d'you think--?" Ben cuts himself off and licks his lips. Brian puts a soothing hand on his shoulder and Ben leans into the touch. Joe does not know what to say in the face of his fellow tribute's sudden burst of furious anguish.

"Well," Roger clears his throat. "Now that's sorted we know you both have strengths, so my advice is don't show them off in training. Doubt I have to worry about that since you were both so forthcoming about yourselves just now," he utters the last sardonically. Brian shoots a reproving glance his way, and the shorter man lifts one shoulder, wishing he had a cigarette to steady himself and hating this duty. Roger roughly pushes his fingers through his hair, spiking it up even higher than before and then clapping a hand on Joe's tense shoulder. "But just--learn all you can while ya keep some surprises at bay. Bastards don't need t' know everything about you right away." Keeping hold of Joe's shoulder and looking at Brian and Ben, the mentor intones "Be yourselves, just know that you're bein' watched." Wow, great pep talk Roger. The irascible man attempts to soften those words with a smile as he relinquishes Joe.

"We'll be rooting for you, boys," Brian says. The two walk over to the opposite wall of the room they are in, which lifts to reveal an elevator, for which its single stop is its destination of the training room. "Good luck."

"Thanks Brian," Joe replies for them as Ben has not looked at anyone; he is wiping tears unobtrusively from the curves of his full cheeks. "Thank you too, Roger." Roger nods, lifting a hand to them both as Joe and Ben step into the lift. Ben's movements are jerky as he turns around to face their mentor and stylist with a nod. "Are you ready for this, Ben?" Joe asks gently, seemingly worried as Ben catches sight of his serious expression and the wrinkle between his eyes as the elevator door closes and they begin their descent.

Ben's heart lurches but his deep voice is flat. "Ready as I'm gonna be, Joe." He rolls his shoulders and bounces a little, trying to psych himself up and listen to Roger after he'd blown up like an idiot back there. It's the least he can do. "Let's rock 'n roll."

***

A lithe Capitol specimen intones the rules of training as all of the tributes gather together in the enormous room. Groupings of tables and ranges and bins are spread around the space in what appears to be stations. There is to be no fighting between or among tributes here; they are meant to work. "Save your energy to kill each other for the Arena," the eyes of the training director sparkle and Joe figures she will be one of the first people in line betting on the Games. He swallows and glances at Ben, who is staring fixedly at her. If looks could kill.... "In less than a week twenty-three of you will be dead. A larger percentage from reasons one may not consider as being a part of the Arena, such as starvation or exposure. Nevertheless, that will be the case. Learn survival skills as well as how to kill each other, do as your mentors have instructed, and may the odds be ever in your favour." She nods sharply and ceases speaking.

Ben looks at Joe and lifts his eyebrows. "Happy happy Hunger Games," he tosses out softly in a droning approximation of their district presenter, and Joe lets out a hearty guffaw before he can stop himself. Other tributes whip around to stare, but Joe only finds it in him to be delighted by the answering smile that lights up Ben's eyes and fills his round face with sweet shyness, as if he cannot believe he was able to make Joe laugh.

Joe nudges him conspiratorially. "Okay, just for that Benny boy, you get to choose where we train first. C'mon."

Ben flushes, biting his lower lip as he smiles again, his cheeks and ears reddening. "Alright, erm. What about... ropes, or something?" He points out a knotting station that is empty as the other tributes have shot off to more glamourous things, like learning to make explosives. "You can--you know how to make snares already, right?"

"Yeah, but this isn't about you picking something you know I can do, Ben," Joe reminds him.

"Right, well, maybe I'm doing it to get you to learn some more as well as figuring out how to lay traps myself," Ben replies. "You might not be the BEST at snares."

He freezes, wondering if his teasing was too much; he doesn't know how to do this. But Joe nods at him. "Touche."

As the two tributes from District Twelve work diligently with rope, they spot deadly accuracy with spears and knives, feats of incredible terrifying strength from a large Career boy from District One and a girl whose knives never miss their targets. One of the tributes from District Four hurls a spear completely through a test dummy's head with such force it rips off at the neck. He looks around as though hoping no one else had seen, and Ben is struck by the haunted expression in the tribute's blue eyes--as though he never wants to make such a throw again.

Joe of course rocks the ropes and knows about all sorts of edible plants. One of the District Eleven tributes, a medium-sized young man with a darker complexion and wide grey eyes aces the healing herbs station next to the plants one. Ben follows Roger's advice and steers clear of weight training as Joe dodges past archery, but the baker boy excels at camouflage. "This is why I do the cakes," he cracks, dabbing bits of mud and clay and crushed berries and leaves to show the dappled forest sunlight upon the trunk of a tree. The appearance of wood extends from his fingertips all the way up to his shoulder when he's done. "Guess frosting art is good for something."

"Holy cow Ben," Joe's eyes are wide. "That's way better than good, if you painted up your whole body like that and stood super still I'd think you were a tree! The sexiest tree," he adds before he can stop himself. He expects Ben to be repulsed by that, or at least uncomfortable, but the blond only smiles.

"I appreciate that, Joe. Now if only there were ingredients to bake a poisoned cake in the arena..."

"Well I don't know about poisoning one, but heck I'd be up to eat a regular cake you made and celebrate every moment I wasn't dying! I mean," Joe gulps, squeaking on the last couple of words. He really has to get better at not constantly joking about certain heavy topics... but Ben puts a hand on his forearm, his green-blue gaze gentle and open with warmth and understanding.

***

After cleaning up from Training and getting a bite to eat, it is time for the Tribute Parade that night. Ben and Joe are given dark slightly shimmery outfits, on which neon, copper, and other alloys will infuse flames that engulf their shoulders. Brian enjoys both pyrotechnics and the photographic looks of various elements. "And District Twelve is the district of fire, is it not?" He says, hazel eyes twinkling. "Fire is used to heat the coal you mine, yes?" Ben and Joe nod and glance nervously at one another as Brian continues "A dear friend used to tell me, 'Make everyone's eyes pop, darling! Put on a show!' so that's what I want to do here. Do you boys trust me?"

Again Ben glances over at Joe, who is nodding, before looking back into the gentle gaze of this tall man who has never offered anything but kindness and support from the first. "Yes," he speaks firmly. "I trust you." And if anything goes wrong, he can just ask Joe to rip off his top and vice versa... focus, Ben. "I trust both of you," he bumbles as Roger has trotted over as well. "All." He includes Joe, of course he includes Joe. This is ridiculous Ben, come on.

"...Doing that might be a mistake," Roger quips, "But hey, Bri's idea could really scare the piss out of some people and I am all for that. Bloody vultures," he growls the last phrase in a tone low enough for only Ben to hear, as Brian has begun fussing over Joe's outfit and smoothing down his hair, perfectionism at work. Ben nods at Roger in solidarity. He is tired of these people too; their hungry gazes plotting, betting, coveting and then somehow being more than willing to cheer as people are forced into an arena for slaughter. It is all sorts of messed up, really.

Ben feels the injustice of all of this burning in his guts like the fire Brian says is, will be chemically bound to their suits once they press the button to ignite it. "It won't catch your skin or hair ablaze because of the way the chemical composition has been calibrated," he assures them. "May be a bit startling when it first flares, though." Roger lets out a chuckle and rubs his hands together as Brian turns to fold Ben's collar now and hands him a tiny remote control, its button attached to a ring. "Put this on and push it when you're both ready," the stylist tells the two. "Rock and roll."

"Let's show these bastards what District Twelve is made of!!!" Roger crows. Joe whoops and Ben climbs to leap up beside him into the chariot that pulls them onto the track for the parade.

Roaring crowds, bright colours. That is what they see first. The sound presses on Ben's ears oppressively so he focuses on the other tributes and their costumes in an attempt to block out the overwhelming amount of noise.

Districts One and Two glow with bright fanciful designs, fluffy cravats and spiked collars and trailing scarves. Three utilises a dark metallic finish on clothes with sharp edges wherein tiny electrical flashes spark intermittently as they ride in a mechanised chariot. Little light-bulbs they have, with wire paneling along the sides. Ingenious. Shimmering blues abound in the flowing dress-like robes of the tributes from District Four, setting off the blonde hair of the female tribute and showcasing the sparkling blue gaze of her male companion. They both have hempen belts of silvery white, woven in the style of a fish net; hanging at her hips and around his waist behind his legs, flaring like skirt and coattails.

District Five has a similar style to Three's, but enormous collars resting upon its tributes' shoulders represent solar panels, so it seems. Miniature nuclear reactors whir and buzz, adorning their leggings. Districts Six through Ten have trouble; Six, Seven, and Ten get the worst concepts: lumbering automotive industry, lumber itself, and livestock. The tributes from Six are lucky, wearing sleek silver robes a la the bullet trains. Seven, well.

"They coulda really used your sexy tree-painting skills, Ben," Joe whispers, snickering. "Because oh my god."

"...I think I'd rather look like a tree holding a hatchet than a bovine though," Ben murmurs back. "Those poor people from Ten."

"True," Joe gasps. "PLEASE tell me those are not stylised udders!"

"No," Ben closes his eyes briefly in horrified second-hand embarrassment on behalf of the other tributes. "Mate, they CAN'T be."

Joe leans forward squinting as their chariot comes up just behind Ten's while Eleven moves alongside in the tunnel where they wait to ride into the Parade Circle and see the President. He lets out a shout of laughter. "It is! They are! Hold me, Ben, I can't deal with this." Joe leans his head against his fellow tribute's shoulder, making Ben's heart thump. If he leaned his cheek in Joe's hair and put his arm around....

"Thank goodness for our stylist," Ben utters with a cough as Joe mercifully straightens up again. He holds up his hand, the second finger upon which he'd slipped the ring Brian gave him. "You ready to do this?"

Joe looks at the remote and nods. "Yeah buddy, let's go!" He screeches as Ben bares his teeth in a grin, pressing the button as they ride out of the tunnel. Even as the tributes from Eleven hold their heads high wearing crown like apparatuses woven from what looks like wheat stalks and the leaves of apple trees, both do a double-take as the pair of men beside them explode into flames. Colours of red and orange, yellow, blue--even green from the copper flash out of the tongues of fire that lick across black attire.

Joe seizes Ben's hand and thrusts their combined fists into the air as they show the roaring crowd they are here; do not count out District Twelve, do not ignore us--we are human, we are alive. LOOK AT US, PEOPLE OF THE CAPITOL, AND SEE WHAT YOU HAVE WROUGHT! On the television screens the twelfth district is getting far more than its share of airtime--their fire has lit up the airwaves, so to speak. Spreading the news.

"Fire suits you," Ben gasps to Joe at the end of their trek around the circle and the conclusion of the parade. He squeezes the other man's hand, feeling dizzy from the lights and movement and sound, of course, that must be it; but the flames had bequeathed a shine onto Joe's fair skin and accentuated the dark rich auburn-brown colours of his hair. His hazel eyes are bright and dancing as he looks at Ben. But no, the warmth in Ben's chest is just from all of the excitement. Has to be. It is absurd how happy he feels as Joe responds

"Ah, Ben. In the light of those flames, nothing compares to you."

Chapter Text

Mike Myers adores his job. He is the darling of Panem, their information guru, the greatest newscaster. And he of course hears ALL the juiciest gossip. Tribute time is no exception. After the first day of training, when the Gamemakers murmur their initial impressions and the stylists all preen and hiss at each other to showcase their most fabulous work-- then comes the real important bit, the interviews. He is ready and raring for the interviews.

This year he is particularly excited about District Twelve.

In a flashy aqua suit with flowers on it, the brightest possible attire; go-go boots and curly bouffant hair abounce in his excitement, the interviewer bares his teeth in a grin as he slaps his hands on his arms and cries "There we are, just for funsies! Right! Now," he zeroes in on every tribute, all enormous sunglasses and teeth and hair.

He asks questions that pertain specifically to each tribute; clearly he has done his homework. Teases the girl with knife skills about how sharp she is, and the young man from District Four he asks what about fishing will be an asset in the Games?

Stroking his dark beard in thought, that particular tribute says "Well Mike, that's a good question. I think for me, it'd have to be the fact that I'm quite good at spearing fish. So if anyone is wondering, I can harpoon, and have harpooned, large things. That means at least I won't go hungry!" he adds after an extended moment wherein the crowd sucks in its breath.

Myers laughs, clapping the other on the shoulder. "Good for you! You heard it here first, folks--Gwilym will be hosting a fish fry."

Blue eyes crinkle. "Well I didn't say I was a good hand at cooking fish, but alright, thank you, Mike."

Tributes from Five and Six seem frightened; Seven resigned. Various levels of sullenness and anger abound, and one girl bursts into tears. The District Eleven tributes are smiling and appear quite engaged with the questioning, however, and that startles almost everyone.

Until of course it's District Twelve's turn. "So," the interviewer leans in. "Joseph, you came out swinging with that fire, didn't you?" He raises his eyebrows at the audience. "So tell me. Was it real?"

"Oh, yeah," says Joe. "Yeah, it was real. And terrifying," he adds, hamming it up and clutching his chest. "My heart practically stopped. I thought we were gonna have Roasted Joe for a hot minute there." The crowd roars in approval and laughter.

"A hot minute, hahahahaha, well we are all EXTREMELY grateful that didn't happen, aren't we, folks?" Another roar goes up from the crowd.

"So'm I," Joe cracks. "Our stylist is pretty great. It's a shame I didn't have the chance to bust out my cool down moves, though."

Myers raises his eyebrows. "Oh? Cool down moves, what are those? It looks like he's going to show us!" He holds up his hands and whistles as Joe rises and sticks out his behind, hopping backwards before dipping and swinging his head, stepping sideways and turning in a dance that is actually quite good. Ben, glancing up at the monitor backstage, guffaws and feels light spread through his entire body. He is so impressed by how positively expressive Joe is. Honestly it floors him. "Wow wow wow!!!" The interviewer enthuses as Joe grins and bows after his dance. "You have quite the dance moves there, Joe!"

"Thanks Mike," Joe gasps as he sits down again, dramatically wiping his forehead. "My little brother is gonna be so embarrassed seeing that. Sorry, John. Love ya kid." He blows a kiss.

"...Speaking of your brother," The interviewer now speaks intently, leaning in. "On a serious note. We were all moved, seeing you volunteer for him like that. Nobody has done it before. Nobody!" Joe nods as he listens, swallowing. "And I imagine that he came and told you goodbye, yes? What did you say to him?"

Joe smiles as best he can. At the broken, helpless expression in his fellow tribute's eyes as the camera zooms in, Ben realises with a shock at how stupid he'd been not to see it before-- Joe smiles sometimes to keep himself from crying. "I told him I'd be back to play catch," Mazzello's voice cracks but he continues, tone growing stronger: "And I meant that, so don't anybody count me out."

"We won't," Myers says, pumping Joe's hand. "And try you will. Joseph Mazzello, ladies and gentlefolk!" He rises and roars, and the crowd enthusiastically responds.

"All right!" Roger intones as Joe comes backstage. "That was bloody good, they certainly noticed you, Mister Class Clown. Ben, you're up."

Ben breathes sharply and gives their mentor a curt nod. Joe shoots him a thumbs-up as he squares his shoulders and jogs out to sit with Myers, already sweating before the questions begin.

"So, Ben," the interviewer purrs after their exchange of pleasantries. "Do you have a special someone back home? I mean, the way you look people ought to be lining up in DROVES. Am I right?" He puts the query to the crowd and there are some incredibly enthusiastic screams.

Ben swallows. He has been thinking on this and decides to be honest. What could it hurt, really? He's on his way to a probable death, anyway. "Not really," he replies. "I mean, I've always felt that... a sort of longing for someone to love, you know? But no, there's no one waiting." There are sighs. "...There is someone I've got feelings for," he admits, palms sweating as he presses them together. His heart thumps. "Just--I don't think they really knew who I was before the Reaping." He was just the baker's boy and that was all.

"Ohhh," the interviewer is nodding sagely. Like he's ever been in this situation, smug bastard. "Well here's what I think--you go back home after winning this thing, make your declaration of love, and this person will HAVE to go out with you. Hahaha, problem solved!" He spreads his arms like he's a magician who has conjured the perfect plan for Ben just like that.

"Heh, well thank you, but I don't think that'll help," Ben croaks. He feels himself getting emotional and tries to stop and control himself. Deep breaths, Ben, come on. Just because you've started recalling what happened when you met before.... This is awful, it's so hard.

The interviewer has leaned in, shushing the crowd, all sympathy. "Why not?" He asks.

Ben clears his throat and wipes his face. Looks out over the crowd but does not see them. He sees only an expressive face with a beaming excitable grin and kind hazel eyes. "Because... because he came here with me."

Chapter Text

Joe stares at Ben in silence as he comes down the stairs backstage after his interview has finished, nodding to Roger and giving Brian a small smile as the stylist pats him on the shoulder. He had faltered upon the stairs as he caught Joe's eyes but does not look at him now, and for once in his life the young Mazzello man cannot find any words.

The only emotion he is certain that he feels right off is regret, to know of Ben's feelings only now when they are headed for death. Is that why Ben had spoken up, last hurrah, no holds barred, it's cards on the table time? Joe wonders. Yet if that is the case, why had Ben showed his hand to everyone just now rather than coming to Joe himself, directly? Sure, such an admittance could be hard, but no more difficult (or downright terrifying) than admitting your feelings to thousands of people on air. Shock and confusion and, okay, a bit of hurt have started whirling and crashing around inside of Joe's head and heart as he thinks on this. And so he says nothing.

Ben has blown it. He is certain of that as soon as he gets a look at Joe's stupefied face when he comes down the stairs backstage. Forget the serious suave love confession or the power of a love story; Ben just looks like an awkward idiot who blurted out his affections on live TV. Great move there, Benjamin, a real smooth operator you are. What even is this, anyway? A crush? Long-term affection from afar coupled with the memories of Joe he has, and the heightened nature of their current connection? Yeah, Ben is certain now that he was and is an idiot.

Roger does not appear to think so. He is smiling. He had told them to be likeable, quirks get sponsors. "Everyone likes vulnerability, Ben. And gossip. Never mind the thought of such a heartthrob being insecure about his feelings-- well done, lad. Sponsors are going to be lining up for you!" Their mentor beams and hauls Joe over as well. "For both'a you, now."

Ben glances at Joe, who looks away as though embarrassed or... something. Ben's chest clenches and a lump fills his throat as Joe inquires "'Kay, what exactly does this do for me, Roger?" With an edge to his voice.

"It makes you seem desirable in more than just the boy-next-door class clown kinda way you've been showcasing. Now there's an unattainable factor thrown in, which is sexy." Roger waggles his eyebrows as Ben flushes bright red. "We can work with this, trust me. Use it for some good things."

Use it? "...Okay," Joe responds slowly. He notices Ben flinch and a pained expression crosses his face, letting Joe know that not only are his feelings real, but that Ben is uncomfortable with using them as an angle for the Games. Joe holds his breath, wondering if the other will speak up against the idea.

But Ben is not going to argue with Roger, he knows the drill here. So he nods as well. "Right." Ben says. "Do what --we need." And then "I think I'm going to head on, get to bed so I'll be ready for more training tomorrow. And we'll be showing our skills soon, yeah? Good night," he says after receiving an affirmative nod from their mentor and stylist. "Your clothing designs were really something," he tells Brian, shaking his hand and then Roger's. He still does not look at Joe, though the other does try to catch his eye.

"Good night Ben," Joe sighs loudly as the other starts to head for the elevator. Ben freezes for an instant, his head and shoulders dropping.

Low voice rough and quiet, "Sleep well, Joe," Ben replies and rushes into the lift and away before anything else can be said.

***

Joe is amply prepared to be cheerful and civil the next morning as they continue training. He figures best-case scenario is to continue on as before, because hey, it is actually a compliment for Ben to like him so much. And he really does appear to mean it in an awkward not-gonna-meet-your-eyes-now-Joe kind of way. Joe will just have to convince him that it's fine, no need to be embarrassed, they are friends. Means they can go on being friends, or whatever else Ben wants them to be, barring the occasion of their grisly deaths in the Arena. ...Yeah Joe is probably gonna need to reword that last part.

But Ben doesn't give him the chance.

Roger comes in to eat breakfast with Joe and Brian arrives a few minutes later. The mentor goes right into talking about Training Day Two and the fact that "The meeting you'll be going to show off your skills for the Gamemakers is tomorrow morning, and by afternoon you'll know your lethal game score before the last big bash. So first things first--"

"Uh, Roger, I don't wanna stop you, but shouldn't we wait for Ben to get here?" Joe interrupts. "I mean he's doing all of this too." Brian and Roger share a significant glance with one another that Joe sees. His heart bumps. "He is, right?"

"Yes," Roger speaks slowly, something flashing in his light eyes that Joe has never seen before. Is that uncertainty? "He will be, but."

"But what?" Joe's voice goes up. He can't help it. Can everyone just stop with the crazy revelations, please? "What's going on?"

Roger looks to Brian for help, and the stylist gently says "Ben came to us," his voice is soft and sweet, but Roger's is strident and matter-of-fact.

"He asked me to coach him separately these last two days." Attempting to soften the blow, the blond man's high voice grows quieter in an attempt to be gentle: "--At this point, this usually happens. You won't be going into the Arena as mates...,"

"--He'll be coming to the tribute celebration tomorrow night," Brian hurriedly continues as Joe flinches whilst he listens to Roger's words. Roger shrugs as Bri shoots him a reproachful look in response to the bluntness of his revelation. Joe has to know how things stand. "So you'll see each other there. And here, of course."

"Yeah, of course," Joe nods. "Why would I be upset about this? It's not like we can both win the Games, can't go in there just focused on--whatever our relationship is." Why would Ben say he has feelings for Joe before pulling this crap, though? "He says he--likes me, and the next thing is that we can't train together?" What does that mean?! "But fine, it's fine." Joe nods sharply, grabbing a bagel and spreading cheese spread across it with a few sharp jerks before stuffing the bread into his mouth. Its taste makes him recall warm light, bare flour-dusted shoulders, and hope. Hope and help given in and bequeathed upon Joe in his darkest time. So much for that now.

Joe stands up abruptly, Brian's gentle worried eyes following his movement as Roger raises his eyebrows. "I'm heading to train," he says, tone of voice a bit strangled even as he attempts to remain calm and boisterous and friendly. He's the boy next door with the sexy unattainable vibe, got to remember that. "Alone now. See you later Roger, Brian. If you see Ben," He pauses, voice nearly breaking. Come on, keep it together Joe. What did you honestly think was going to happen here? It's the Hunger Games. He swallows his emotions and his breakfast, yearning, aching to be back home. "Tell him I said-" I wish this wasn't the way things were, I really like you too and maybe we could have a chance at getting to know each other better, having something more if we weren't here. But we are here. There's the rub. "Good luck," Joe finishes.

Chapter Text

Ben receives Joe's message of luck from Roger in matter-of-fact fashion after the mentor is exhorted to speak by Brian, and the tribute feels awful. He had been certain Joe would not want to deal with him after his ridiculous confession. ...Truth be told, Ben had panicked when he returned to the penthouse alone. Used to being alone, he'd been hit suddenly with a thought that, like a sucker punch directly to the gut, took all his breath away. Already, opening up his heart to Joe has opened Ben up to be even MORE alone in the Arena. The Games are played (and won, as well as definitely lost) alone.

He sucks in a huge heaving breath and feels a stabbing pain flare within his chest. This is the right thing, it will help them both, the distance. They cannot be friends --never mind anything else-- in the Hunger Games. But oh, how that realisation hurts.

Ben had come to eat breakfast after Joe left alone for training, like a bloody coward, and he returns to his sleeping area to dress for his own trek to the training room. Really it's because he cannot look into Roger's face, cannot bear to see his set expression and hear him say "This is how the Games go; this is how things have to be," though Ben knows Roger is right, logically. Yet feelings are not logical, of course.

Ben bends over the chest of drawers that strangely has all of his clothing sizes--not so strangely, perhaps; knowing Brian as he now does, Ben understands in this case having clothes made for him is intended to be comforting--and hears a knock upon his door. Speaking of the stylist, "Ben?" The gentle tenor voice of Brian May calls. "Are you alright? Ready to go to training?"

Ben closes his eyes and clenches one hand atop the mahogany surface of his dresser drawers. His Adam's apple bobs as he swallows and tries to answer. "Yeah, Brian, I-- I'm coming," he gets out, but his voice breaks and cracks as he turns, it goes high with emotion, and suddenly Ben collapses to the floor with a sharp thud.

He hits arse-first, so that's a blessing, but his body is shaking and he clutches his hair in both hands, gasping like some pitiful child, and he hears the door open before swift footsteps move over the floor to him. Ben closes his eyes in shame and presses his reddening face into his knees as "Oh, Ben," Brian's voice says, and a long arm wraps round Ben's shuddering shoulders, fingers stroking his hair. "There now."

Ben feels Brian beside him, the tall man having bent his long limbs to crouch and then sit down on the floor next to the younger man, arm still resting atop Ben's shoulders with a comforting weight. The care this stylist is taking of him only makes Ben shake harder, tears filling his eyes and pouring down his cheeks. How pathetic is this, him coming here to the Capitol to die and only NOW finding someone to love as well as people who genuinely seem to care about what happens to him?! This situation is all so screwed up. "Brian," the blond sobs, turning into the stylist, who instantly pulls Ben to his chest, wrapping both arms around him and holding tight.

Keeping Ben pressed securely against his smooth skin, for he still wears an open shirt that Ben's tearstained cheek now rests next to, Brian bends his curly head over the other's and rubs his back. The stylist softly begins to sing words about someday, one day coming home. His voice is clear and sweet and melancholy as he holds the tribute close, and again Ben wonders with a sharp burst of curiosity what has caused Brian to be this way. Yet he cannot ask why the man is so compassionate; he simply remains with his face buried in Brian's chest until he has cried himself out.

As Ben shifts and takes his face away from the other man's front, cheeks flaming with embarrassment when his damp cheek sticks to the material of Brian's shirt for a brief moment, the stylist wipes tears from the tribute's face with one hand. His hazel gaze is full of pain even as he tries to smile at Ben. "Feel any better for the crying?" He asks quietly.

Ben clears his throat. "I, uhm. I'm sorry," he instantly apologises, curling in on himself rather than answering. Shifts away as he aches under Brian's calming touch, yet immensely appreciates his presence. "You shouldn't… have to see me this way."

"Why not?" Brian inquires, eyes crinkling a bit. "You have been chosen to go to a place of death. I've seen so many people have this moment of feeling, and honestly you've kept yourself together admirably thus far, Ben. That isn't to say this is in any way less admirable for you to break down," he adds hurriedly, black curls bouncing as he shifts his face to catch Ben's lowering eyes. "Not at all. You have every right to feel strongly about all that is happening to you. I want to help, I only wish I could do more." Brian presses his hands together, eyes aching with sincerity and sorrow. He appears as though he may cry too. "Every year this gets harder…," he murmurs now, almost under his breath. His fingers clench each other tight, knuckles bulging.

"Why do you do it, then?" Ben asks, voice rough, aching. He sniffs hard and wipes at his eyes furiously. "This is terrible, and ugly, and you seem to be really affected by it. Why can't you, I dunno, just stop?" His voice rises now. "If EVERYONE just stopped contributing, and watching, maybe there wouldn't be any more hunger games! Maybe they'd free us, and we could all go-- go back home--" Ben stops as Brian is crying now, face puckered, tears dripping silently down his lean cheeks.

"Why can't we do it?" The stylist whimpers. "I don't know; oh, they should have, they never got to go home…."

Ben can tell Brian is referring to someone specifically so "Who?" He asks, low voice now mostly steady. "Who are you talking about, Brian?"

"My mates," Brian says, wiping his face. "I had… two dear friends who went into the Arena. Years ago." His haunted gaze rises to Ben's, and the tribute gets a chill. "You wonder why this is personal for me, why I care, well. That's it. I lost them." He has ceased crying and relaxes his hands a little. "And so I do this because I care and want tributes to have someone care, try to look after them. And I hope someday, one day…," his voice trails off before he adds "...to witness the greatest outcome of any Hunger Games."

Ben's head shoots up and his jaw clenches, but he knows what Brian is doing. Covering as best he can, keeping things ambivalent enough that if others were to hear their words, his would seem like loyal ones-- a Capitol stylist yearning for the most spectacular Hunger Games rather than for a different outcome entirely. Somehow that makes Ben feel stronger. He is not alone if other people feel the injustice too. He stands up now and offers Brian a hand. The stylist rises, holding Ben tight and giving him a nod.

Brian reaches round to the half-open drawer of the tribute's clothing chest and says "Here, I think this suits your last day of training." It is an orange shirt, the colour of flame, and dark grey trousers of strong breathable fabric. "It's made of strong stuff," he adds, placing the outfit into Ben's arms and squeezing his hands, studying him closely. "Just like you." Brian's lips tremble and he blurts "Bless ya, Ben," before letting go and departing the room at almost a run. He closes the door before Ben can thank him or say anything. The young man undresses and pulls the fabric over his head.

He has to be strong. Strong as Brian believes he is-- stronger than the Games.

***

Joe itches to go to the archery range when he reaches the training room. He knows that Roger told him not to show his strengths, but right now he really needs to shoot things that won't run or die or shoot back.

Luckily no one is really nearby when he walks quickly to the range along the rear wall. The Gamemakers aren't watching today either; readying themselves for the skill showcase. What do they have to do to get ready? Put on some swanky suits and exercise their eyes since they'll be watching twenty-four people prepare NOT to suffer immediate demises? Joe snorts. He yanks the bow out of the case of weapons, thinking about the crazy sword hacking and spear throwing he'd seen before. Settling his shoulders and picking up an arrow, he nocks it to the bow and lifts, pulling the string back to his ear and breathing.

He had learned to shoot when he was young; on the weekends his father got off work in the mines, he would take his own bow and Joe and Mary with him into the woods around the district. Somehow shooting and finding tasty herbs for squirrel or rabbit stew became a bonding activity for them all. Joe's father always, always stressed shooting ONLY when there was a shot: "to put down your target quick. We aren't out here to cause pain or to take more than we need." He always smiled and picked a bouquet of flowers for his wife after shooting their supper. "We are here to spread a little joy," he told his children. "And we do all we can."

We do all we can. Joe hears those words pounding through his skull as he sends arrow after arrow down the range until he is shaking and gasping, tears blurring his eyes. He drops the bow to his side and wipes at his face, preparing to go down to retrieve the arrows. That was something else hs father always said, don't leave waste behind--but when Joe finally opens his eyes after composing himself, he sees the dark-haired tribute from District Eleven, the one with grey eyes, laying all the spent arrows near him at the entrance of the range.

"H-hey," Joe blurts, voice coming out strangled as the other has already turned to go. His hair bounces a bit as he pauses and looks back, and Joe is struck by those eyes: enormous and gentle and kind as their owner presses his lips together and watches Joe. "...Thank you," Mazzello says, and a soft smile brightens those gentle eyes as the tribute nods and disappears.

Joe stands still, wondering what all the other had seen, and why he'd gotten Joe's arrows for him. Whatever the reason, he is immensely grateful. His heart swells as he thinks of his father, who would have been not at all surprised by what just happened to Joe. He always had such faith and belief in the goodness of people. Joe believes too, he does. And this is proof: there are still kindnesses possible even in the hellish avenue of these games. Thinking of kindness makes him think of Ben. What he had done for Joe ...well, it outweighs the circumstance in which they find themselves now. His father would certainly say so if he knew what the baker's son had done for his. Joe lifts his head and decides that as he takes the bow and arrows back to where they go. It isn't Ben's fault they are both here, after all.

Having decided that, Joe heads to complete his individual training with a lighter heart and a spring in his step.

***

Soon enough (though it is hours upon hours later, actually-- time gallops along but also seems to crawl) training ends for the day-- and for good and all, officially. It is time for the Gamemakers to assess the tributes' skills.

Being from the twelfth district, Ben and Joe will be rated last. Joe pauses upon entering the waiting area outside the showroom. He sees Ben down at the end, elbows on knees and head dipped forward, seeming pensive in his bright orange shirt and grey trousers. Joe has the opposite look: dark grey t-shirt (that accentuates his paleness, thanks Brian) and bright orange pants. Again they are the only two tributes with matching colour schemes outside of the Tribute Parade. Keep up the united front, he can hear Roger's sharp voice reminding him of that. Feeling eyes on him, Joe starts walking.

Some of the other tributes seem to be sizing him up. Well then. As he gets close to the seat where they are both to wait, his eyes catch Ben's.

The automatic worry and sorrow and fear he sees, coupled with Ben's ever-present awkwardness that Joe cannot comprehend; doesn't Ben SEE himself? Makes Joe's lips lift in a smile and the other returns it. He really does like this guy a lot. "Hey Benny," Joe speaks softly as he sits down, automatically reaching out and taking Ben's hand to give a reassuring squeeze. "I missed ya in training, man. How are things going?"

Ben's heart lurches. He cannot believe this sweet man is being friendly towards him again, after what he pulled (could be because Roger had told them to look unified, but the real tenderness in his face and tone as he took Ben's hand, that is, has got to be more than Joe just playing the game, right?) His lips tremble as he squeezes the other's hand in return. "Hey, Joe. I'm-- sorry about the switch for training, I just..." honestly figured you'd want nothing else to do with me, and my feelings confession pretty much blew up in my face... "I couldn't look ya in the face," the blond mumbles, relinquishing his hold on the other's hand. "And besides, we're competitors." Joe stiffens. "Even though I wish we weren't," Ben's eyes are bright and wistful as he catches Joe's again. Joe is very glad they are no longer avoiding eye contact. "God, I wish--" Ben's deep voice cracks.

"It's okay," Joe says softly. "I totally get it, Ben. I wish things were different too."

They sit in silence together, and it grows comfortable for which Ben is relieved and grateful. Eventually Joe's name is called.

"Remember to use the weights," Joe speaks up louder now that no one else is in the room with them. "--and beat the crap out of something, Ben. Remember you're a sexy badass who bakes killer cakes." Tree. Sexy TREE, Joe. Oh well.

Ben chuckles, his features completely relaxing in the way Joe likes to see. "Thanks Joe, and you just be yourself. Shoot straight." His blond head dips, strands falling across his forehead as he mumbles something else that sounds like they're gonna love you, maybe.

"Love you" Joe hears for sure, and he shoots his fellow tribute a smile. "You got it."

Chapter Text

The gymnasium is still set up for training, or at least that is the way it appears to Joe. Only difference is all of the weapons have been gathered into the centre for ease of access. Due to his choice in that morning's training session, Joe already knows how one particular bow feels, and heads to grab it.

His hand is shaking so badly that he knocks a bunch of arrows to the ground. A hearty laugh gets him to look up with a smile and an offhanded shrug at the ready, but the guffaw is not directed at him. One--or several--of the Gamemakers have indulged in too much wine. Along the lines of some of Roger's indulgences, except Roger has not gotten sloppily drunk. One of these men has tripped over his heavy robes and is rolling around upon the floor of the raised platform where the Gamemakers are. Jokes, okay, Joe enjoys jokes too. "Hello!" He calls out brightly to let them know he's there. "Joe Mazzello, District Twelve." He scoops up the fallen arrows and readies himself to shoot. "Since you're falling all over yourselves already, I'm sure I can getcha to fall for me!" He winks but is waved off.

"Begin when you begin," speaks one voice. A craggy-faced grey haired man with intelligent eyes watches Joe closely. That is sad, a guy about the age of his father, or a bit older, is a Gamemaker. Joe shakes out his shoulders, shoving that thought away, and breathes. His first shot flies wide and his second does too, but he imagines Mary beside him telling him he's got this, and recalls the excitement on John's face the time he brought down a deer. Everyone in his section of the district ate well that evening.

Throwing himself forward with the strength of that memory, Joe rolls up onto one knee and shoots a practice dummy first through the heart and then through its head. He drops a hanging punching bag with a single perfect shot to its rope. Yet the Gamemakers are not noticing. Something else rip-roaringly hilarious is apparently happening, and no one is looking at him except for ol' Craggy Face. But there are twenty people up there. Joe's temper flares then. How is he going to get back home to play catch with John if he doesn't get a fair shake either here or in the Arena? Nocking a trio of arrows, Joe aims right at the wall just behind the heads of the Gamemakers where lightbulbs brighten the room. He rears upright and lets the arrows fly one after the other. Sparks shoot everywhere as the lights explode and Joe shoots one last arrow through the enormous bottle of wine, glass and liquid exploding over the table.

There are screams and stampeding. One Gamemaker lifts up a nerveless hand. "Thank you," Joe speaks loudly once again, this time with an edge to his voice. "Nice to have a captive audience." He bows deeply and flings the bow back into its place. "I appreciate your consideration," he adds, and with a smile worthy of Roger in its ferocity turns and exits the training facility with his head held high.

Joe's heart is pounding and he gasps as the heavy doors boom shut behind him. His eyes lock onto the green-blue gaze of Ben as the other tribute instantly rises, coming over to him. "Hey, mate. How'd it go?" He asks, and Joe makes a strangled noise. Without planning to do so, he grabs Ben and embraces him, pressing his body into the other man's. Joe feels Ben jump in apparent shock, but his strong arms instantaneously wrap around Joe's back and hold tight.

"Benjamin Jones, District Twelve," they hear the intercom voice call, and Ben's body jerks again as Joe lets him go.

"Good luck," Mazzello's voice remains strangled but his sentiment is sincere. He squeezes Ben's arm before practically running to the elevator, heart feeling like it's about to thump right out of his chest. Ben's eyes ask what happened? but honestly Joe doesn't know.

***

"I... snapped for a minute," he admits to them all once Ben returns to their rooms after his scoring. Joe looks apologetically at Roger and Brian. "They made me so mad, weren't even paying attention, so I uh. Shot some arrows at them."

Brian chokes on a sip of water that he's just taken. They have sat down to a meal to eat before the scores are announced. Ben thumps the thin stylist on the back as Roger's intent gaze narrows even further than usual. "What d'you mean, you shot at them?" He asks. "Were there casualties?"

"Oh! Oh, god, no. Not like that--they were just laughing and drinking wine so I shot three arrows into the lightbulbs and then I kinda shot the bottle of wine. It exploded," Joe confesses as he fiddles with the edge of the tablecloth like John does with his clothes. Consciously he folds his hands together in order to stop.

Brian and Roger share a loaded glance with one another. "What did you say afterwards, Joe, if anything?" Brian now inquires quietly, wiping one hand across his lips.

"I uh, said it was nice to have a captive audience. And I thanked 'em for their consideration before I walked out."

"Without being dismissed?"

"I kinda dismissed myself."

"Too RIGHT you did!" Roger crows after a moment of stunned silence. Ben is staring from Joe to him as the mentor bursts into raucous peals of laughter. "Oh, Joe, that's bloody stupendous! If I could have seen their FACES!"

"Roger," Brian expels a severe sigh.

"What, Bri? We aren't advocating that Joe murder the bloody Gamemakers, for fuck's sake, but he certainly got their attention! When you made those shots what were their responses like, eh?"

"Well," Joe ponders a bit, feeling his heart finally truly slowing down. They aren't angry with him. Roger isn't, at least; Brian is worried in his gentle way, but perhaps this isn't the end of the world. "The guy who was about to pick up the bottle of wine looked at me like I took about ten years off his life. And one lady actually fell off her chair."

Both Ben and Roger are laughing now, and Brian manages to crack a smile though his forehead remains a bit wrinkled with worry. "...I suppose the Arena will already be hellish enough. Surely-- I certainly hope they don't punish you any more because of your demonstration, Joe."

"If they punish him for it they'll be hearing from me," Roger growls, eyes flashing with fury. "Step up an' shit on my tribute--I'll rip 'em all new arseholes if they try, see if I don't." Brian's face lowers at that, but along with his concern, fondness in response to Roger's vehement words crinkles the outer corners of his eyes and softens the planes of the stylist's lean cheeks.

Joe feels a warmth in his chest, and he has calmed enough to realise he is ravenous. He begins tucking into their meal and Ben automatically begins handing over platters and tureens for him to fill his plate with the contents. Joe immensely appreciates that act, and smiles at Ben as their hands touch in the midst of catching the weight of an enormous salad bowl. Joe's eyes widen as he puts his fingers over Ben's, and the blond shoots him a shy smile before lowering his soft-cheeked face. Joe doesn't want to relinquish Ben's hands, but the audio and video feed begins blaring in preparation to announce the tribute scores.

Roger lets out an excited whoop and the two drop the bowl they hold, Joe letting out a screech of his own. Brian smiles at the pair of them now trading bashful glances with one another, and the stylist feels a pang of longing as he recalls his dear mates. Remembered sorrows notwithstanding, he hears the voice of Mike Myers begin calling out the tributes' names and rankings. The first two, and the fourth, districts are full of nines, tens, elevens. Ranking goes from one to twelve--one being the worst, the weakest; and twelve best or most dangerous in the eyes of the Gamemakers. Painting a larger target on someone's back, or telling other people whom to watch out for.

Ben's head jerks up as Myers intones his name and adds "Eight!" Which they can apparently work with.

Ben leans forward, breath whooshing out. "So that's alright then?" he asks their mentor doubtfully.

"Yes, Ben. Hell yes!" Roger cries.

"You were given quite a good score, Ben," Brian assures him. "Very solid showing." Ben expels another breath and slumps into the couch with relief, as they had all moved away from the table to face the projection directly during about District Eight. Joe grins and gives Ben a thumbs-up that instantly morphs into him grabbing at Ben's hand.

"Joseph Mazzello, District Twelve," comes up and Myers' poofy hair trembles in the excitement of announcing: "Twelve! Our only twelve of the year for our volunteer!"

There are gasps and shouts; Roger leaps up and grabs onto Brian, yanking him upright as well, and Brian spins the shorter man around with the force of his shocked excitement. Joe lets out yet another startled screech and stares at Ben, whose bright ocean-hued eyes are enormous. "...Congratulations," he utters, voice cracking. They will all be after Joe now.

"I don't know about that," Joe responds as he too realises what Ben has. What does this mean to be known as the most lethal tribute in the Games? It isn't great. "It's a testament to these guys, for sure," he says of Roger and Brian. "But also, oh my god, Ben."

The blond tribute continues holding the other's hand. To reassure himself or Joe, he is not entirely sure.

Oh god indeed.

***

Brian helps Ben with his suit, a glimmering opalescent garment that shimmers white but somehow also holds thousands more hues within.

This is ridiculous. They are going to a gala the night before the Games now that they have their scores, and everyone is invited: Gamemakers, tributes, the elite of the Capitol. It's the tributes' last chance to procure sponsors before the big day, Roger says wearily as he sticks his head into Ben's room. "--So that's why I'm going. Got Joe into his suit, Bri. Figure you probably want to make adjustments, though I DO know what I'm about fashion-wise. Fred thought so at least." The blond man flops onto a chair and takes a drag on a cigarette. He never doesn't have one round. Rog lifts his hand in a gesture like a toast as Brian moves away from Ben after a final tug on the young man's tie and smoothing wrinkles from the shoulders and pointed lapels of the tribute's jacket. "Ben, looking good, lad."

The curly-haired major domo slash stylist cups a hand round Ben's shoulder and nods. "You do look rather wonderful, Ben."

The young man flushes. "Thank you," He says. "And cheers--this'll do to get sponsors, yeah?"

"That along with my effortless charm, of course," Roger cracks. Brian rolls his eyes as a knock sounds upon the door.

Joe's voice calls out "Hey, feel like I'm missing a party! Everybody decent in there?"

"Uh, yeah," Ben smooths his hair and situates his cufflinks. "Yeah, come in, Joe."

"Cool, I will." The door opens and all coherent thought exits Ben's head. He almost forgets to breathe. Joe is standing there in a slim-cut suit that accentuates his torso and shoulders. His pale skin is set off by the dark rich colour of its cloth--violet, indigo, black pearl... rich hues of all those colours shimmer and shift in the fabric and disappear, moving as he moves like some hypnotising darkly scaled creature. In direct juxtaposition, however, are the animated features of Joe; his soft-seeming thin pale hands, always moving, gesturing, waving; his nose, the strongest feature of his face, mouth always smiling, beaming, really; over all the littlest things that somehow seem to possess the power to make him happy. His dark hair looks so soft, and his eyes...

...Ben recalls those same eyes, crinkled just as they are now in kindness and appreciation and joy in that little dance studio when he was around five or so. He had been afraid, taken to the studio by his father, but refused to relinquish his dad's hand and said he wanted to go home. "What if nobody likes me? What if I'm bad at dancing?" Ben had whimpered, and he recalls this little guy with dark hair and a big smile. Should have known instantly when he saw that smile beside the podium after he had been Reaped. All those years ago Joe came over and welcomed him to Ginny and Joe's with so much pride, and said he loved to dance, asking if Ben did. Ben had hid in his father's shirt.

"He's scared," his father briskly said. "Doesn't know anyone here." Ben still recalls the shame he'd felt at that, burning white-hot. He's scared, he's fragile, he is quiet. His father would always say things like that and his mum would tell him to grow up and be a man. But Joe had smiled and introduced himself, said now Ben knew someone, and tugged him into the studio onto the dance floor. Danced with all the bold composure in the world. Ben cannot believe he did not instantly remember all that upon seeing Joe again; he felt a shock in response to Joe's smile, and now he knows why.

...And here Joe is again, standing in front of him, smiling. Finally Ben remembers how to breathe. "Ben," Joe is now speaking, a hand resting on Ben's arm. "Are you all right, my friend?"

Ben realises he must have looked like an idiot. He was probably pop-eyed, staring. Flushes now--he's always blushing, come on, get a grip on yourself, Ben--and dips his chin a bit. "Erm yeah, Joe. I'm good. You look--you look fantastic."

"Ya think?" Joe does a twirl, toes pointed, perfect form. "Thank you. Took a WHILE to get me lookin' presentable; I'm sure Brian only needed about five minutes with you." Joe's eyes travel over Ben in his suit and Ben's breath hitches. Does he look like he'd rushed? "You're totally camera-ready all the time, like a male model," Joe continues, looking over at Brian and Roger. "Are there any jobs like that open in the Capitol, because uh, I think Ben could totally launch a new line: Tribute Chique."

"Oh, stop." Ben is laughing now, his embarrassment gone; or at least mitigated by Joe's banter. Good ol' Joe. "You'd have to join me."

"Oh god no," Joe dramatically widens his eyes. "Me in anything but a suit, people would keel over from the hideousness. Ooh, but that could be our tagline! Fashion good enough to die for, and a tribute to die from." He winks.

"Oh my god," Ben is laughing harder now as Brian smiles at them both.

It is Roger who stands, hauls himself to his feet with a grunt, his open shirt and flowered jacket baring most of his chest and midriff as he snuffs out his cigarette and says "Well, tomorrow you might just be dying, so let's get a move on while we all still can, eh?" That causes the laughter to peter out, and the jokes grow cold and harsh and not funny at all as they leave their penthouse, heading down the hallway to the lift that will take them down and out of the tribute building to the site of the gala.

Brian's eyes are reproachful, their hazel depths dark and scolding as he strides up next to the shorter man. Roger snarls "Leave me to my bloody business, Brian! Have YOU been in the Arena? No! I have! They need me to be fucking honest about all this shit, alright?!"

"I understand that, Roger, but I don't think you should remind them EVERY SINGLE BLOODY SECOND about the possibility of imminent death. I have faith in our boys," he says with a warm glance back to the pair, and both Joe and Ben feel a warm burst of affection for Brian. His tone is utterly sincere, and his voice starts to tremble as he adds "...And I cannot bear the thought of either of them dying, so please, spare us--spare me your macabre knowledge tonight!" Roger freezes, eyes bulging at the venom in Brian's voice. He spits out those words with an amount of vitriol that the two tributes have never heard from him and are surprised by as well. Brian's body shakes and Roger reaches out to curl a hand round his arm. "I'm sorry, Rogie," Brian chokes out. "I know that our reasons are different, but I hate this with as much passion as you do. Why--" he looks around wildly as they get to the lift. "Why must they do it? These poor young beings are SLAUGHTERED for what? Amusement?!? It isn't RIGHT!"

"Ssh, Brian," Roger lunges for him, free hand covering the taller man's mouth as his other still grasps his friend's arm. "I get it, alright? But you can't fucking say that. I'm the irascible chain-smoking drunk, nobody listens to me, Bri. But you're from the bloody Capitol."

Ben and Joe share a wide-eyed glance. Somehow they never seriously considered that Brian, sweet-eyed gentle-voiced decent-hearted Brian, had actually been raised up in this place of wealth and excess lacking in any real feelings. Because here he is feeling most of all. Maybe there truly is something to rebel for, Ben thinks as they enter the elevator and head down. If Brian feels so strongly and he is from this hellish place, perhaps there is reason to hope for change.

Chapter Text

As the four men walk up the drive of one of the enormous glitzy manor houses (that could be home to someone famous or important, yet looks as grand as every other building the two tributes from District Twelve have seen thus far) in the Capitol, both Ben and Joe, on the pathway to the front door, feel overwhelmed and very small.

"Well, it's not the mayoral palace," Joe cracks under his breath. "...but it'll have to do, I guess." Ben snorts with laughter. Their hometown mayor is absurdly proud of his residence and power, though being the mayor of the farthest, poorest district affords him basically none of the latter--he just has a pretty house.

"He'd shit a brick if he saw these furnishings," Ben mutters back as they are ushered inside. "Take a look and swear that it was gold."

Joe chokes on laughter. "Benny, oh my god that's beautiful. I always knew ya had a sense of humour inside somewhere." He reaches down and takes Ben's hand, tightening his grip on the other man's fingers. Ben freezes, figuring Joe is teasing him, and looks sharply at the other. Joe automatically moves to release his hold. If that was too much... but Ben recognises the sincerity of the gesture now, and flips his palm over, pressing it to Joe's and interlocking their fingers.

Their hands remain linked together as they enter the gigantic house. Into a cacophony of sound: clink and clatter and raucous laughter; all these glamorous people with their sparkling outfits and bright hair and various additions without a care in the world. Likely they are betting upon the tributes they're seeing, already putting money upon whom will die first tomorrow. Ben grips Joe's hand tighter before letting go as he--they both--begin catching glances from and sights of other tributes, facial expressions set into the same configurations as theirs', bearing smiles and dealing with whispers and stares. Some tributes they see are staring blankly; only the Careers--the tributes from the first two districts, who go to special academies in order to train specifically for the prospect of being Reaped--seem to be legitimately enjoying themselves.

"I need a drink," Ben utters. Roger has already disappeared, likely for a similar reason; Brian gives a smile to both tributes, assuring them they can leave whenever they like, just come and find him. Joe beams at the stylist and then at the buffet table, promising to meet Ben back on the dance floor later.

"Well, I know I'll be dancing whether you do or not," Mazzello says, and Ben wants so badly to tell him Joe, the last time I danced it was with you, and I'd love to again, but... but he's a bloody coward, yet again, and watches Joe go into the crowd to reach the table piled high with foodstuffs, all sorts. Ben sighs and runs fingers through his hair before proceeding in the opposite direction towards the drink table.

Joe moves past people, smiling and nodding and dancing a little too--come on, there's a beat in the air, music blasting above the chatter--to reach the buffet line. He gets excited upon viewing various sorts of meat. There would be a celebration day called in District Twelve if even the contents of one of these Capitol tables were to be handed out back home. Duck, turkey, chicken, quail... even a dove has been cooked here; a pair of them rest in the shape of a heart upon a plate. Joe shudders at that particular sight. "That's actually kinda gross," he intones aloud.

"Certainly creepy," a soft rich voice vocalises agreement from somewhere nearby. Joe peers around but cannot pick out who was talking; no one instantly appears close enough to have heard him or is looking in his direction. Several of the stylist assistants are gulping glasses of some fizzy purple concoction and cackling among themselves.

Joe shrugs and begins to pile a different variety of food upon his plate. "...Wonder if this is a metaphor for the Capitol killing love?" he mutters to himself slyly. "Or peace at the very least. Heh."

An exclamation of what sounds like amusement echoing his own emanates from behind Joe, and he realises it came from the other side of a curtain covering a window. The same voice croons "Can anybody find me somebody to love?" and a familiar dark-haired grey eyed face pokes halfway around the edge of the curtain. It is the tribute from District Eleven that had given Joe his arrows. Joe smiles; he recognises both the man and the song.

"Each mornin' I get up I die a little, can barely stand on my feet...," He responds, taking his full plate and going over to the curtain.

"Apropos, isn't it?" The other inquires softly before making a shy movement to stand and step slightly towards Joe as well. His outfit is not all that flashy, which might be another reason Joe hadn't immediately noticed his presence. He wears a dark-checked sweater and simple tan slacks. Excellent material that could sell for a pretty penny back in one of their districts. "It's impressive you know that song," he says. "We--sing in the orchards of my district when we're climbing trees. To communicate with each other and help pass the time. No one else really does though. I'm Rami," he adds, putting out a hand to shake as he introduces himself. "Rami Malek."

"Joe Mazzello," Joe shakes the offered hand with a smile. "Pleasure, Rami. That's awesome you guys sing. My parents, well, my mom--" he chokes on the change, even now it is hard recalling that his father is gone. But he continues "--she owns a dance studio. Which is a weird occupation in a district full'a coal miners, haha. Hard to explain that one." Rami laughs. "But anyway, we're playing music all the time, so I know songs like that one. Don't even remember who sings it. Bet nobody knows."

"Because music is between hair ribbons and rainbows in terms of usefulness," Rami quips drily. "I love it, but. I do wonder what people know and don't know here." He lowers his voice even further and shifts a bit closer to Joe. "But here they don't seem to have much use doing anything except, um...promoting the violent deaths of citizens. Happy Hunger Games!"

Joe guffaws. This guy has his dark sense of humour, awesome. He's got to introduce him to Ben. "And may the odds be EVER in your favour." Shooting another smile, Joe offers his plate to the tribute and says "Rami, you're great. What's a nice guy like you doing in a place like this?" He asks with lighthearted irony.

Rami smiles as he takes a piece of fruit with a soft "Thank you," to Joe. "Well my friend Allen and I got Reaped together," he says, biting into a brightly coloured berry and instantly blotting juice off his chin. Joe whips out the handkerchief he'd gotten as part of his suit--good old Brian--and offers it to the other man as well. "...Our district decided it was 'too dangerous' to keep reaping women, I suppose."

"Dangerous to unborn millions?" Joe asks with his mouth full. He smacks his lips and swallows. "Sorry, uh- that's just how my district described it. Politics to keep up the Games but also somehow save us, right?"

Rami sucks in his cheeks and raises his eyebrows. "Oh yes, it's saving people, certainly." The tone of voice he uses makes Joe bust a gut again. He feels actually, legitimately happy as they continue sharing food and talking. Sounds strange to say or think, but the night is looking up.

***

Ben is barely making it through the evening.

He doesn't like crowds at the best of times, and this is definitely one of the worst, as the majority of people here are either plotting creative ways to kill him--he'd seen a couple of Gamemakers in one corner already-- betting on how quickly he will die, as elite members of the Capitol do, the vultures; or maybe they want to help out, for a price. Sponsors. He catches sight of Roger Taylor, blond hair shining, drink in hand, charming smile in full force as he moves among clusters of people. Ben watches him wearing that mask, and then he catches Roger's eyes as the mentor moves away from a group to see their blue depths dull and flat, and the sight makes Ben's stomach lurch and exhorts him to get a drink to keep himself from being sick.

He rushes back to the drink table and gulps down the first drink he finds. He already had one before trying to melt unobtrusively into the wall, but now he stands at the table and gasps at the burn of alcohol. Ben's eyes blur and water as he hears a low chuckle next to him.

"That's certainly one way to go if you're on your way to drown all your sorrows, mate." A voice accented somewhat akin to his speaks up, and blinking away tears that come up in response to the strength of his drink, Ben catches sight of a tall man with dark hair and bright blue eyes standing beside him in a deep purple suit. He looks familiar; another tribute. "Gwil Lee," he introduces himself with a now-extended hand. "Gwilym. District Four."

Ben takes the proffered hand hesitantly. "Er-- pleasure," his low voice exits his throat roughly as he relinquishes Gwil's hand. He's got quite a grip. "Ben," Ben says back. "Twelve. You're from the fishing district, right?"

"More like the weaving fish nets and trying not to drown district, but yeah," The tall man's features split in a friendly smile. "And you're a coal miner."

"Yeah," Ben replies. "Well actually, no. Not personally, er, but we've got coal miners. I- I bake." Embarrassed by his profession's certainly frivolous implications, he blushes.

But Gwil only nods, eyes bright. He honestly seems interested, what in the world. "Really? That's cool. Me mam likes baking pies when she's not doctoring. Tried to teach my siblings and me how too, but I for one am rubbish." He laughs, spreading long hands to indicate his form. "This is not the composition of a pastry chef, let me tell you."

Ben smiles. He can't help it. "...I'm not much for pies either," he admits. "I mostly bake and frost cakes, muffins, stuff like that. Used to do the bread, but. Wasn't that good." He recalls blackened loaves and a wearied pale face and a box on the ear.... Shaking himself free from memories, Ben again attempts a smile, or at the very least to relax his face. Gwilym is nodding again, appearing sympathetic to Ben's poor bread-baking plight. Ben is suspicious, cannot help it. Look where they are, for cripes' sake. Licking his lips he softly adds "Hang on, isn't this frowned upon?" Flicking his finger between the two of them "Us chatting?"

Gwil shrugs easily. "Eh, I figured since they told us not to kill each other before we reach the Arena, that I might as well attempt to make a few friends."

Ben snorts. That is ludicrous; it'll only make things more difficult once the time comes, but the sentiment sounds just like... "Ben!" Joe's excitable voice screeches as his dark head bobs into view, leading another darker head through the crowd behind him. "--This couldn't wait for the dance floor. Scuse me," he says to Gwil, beaming at Ben as the tall tribute shifts obediently out of the way. "Benny, I made a friend. This is Rami Malek. Rami, may I present Ben Jones, awesomely strong man and cake-baker extraordinaire. Seriously, he can make frosting that looks just like a tree." Joe waggles his eyebrows. "The sexiest tree."

Ben blushes, yet again. "Hi," says Rami in a soft warm voice. His gaze is deep and gentle, eyes large and striking, blue-grey. Ben feels as though this man is staring into his very soul, and he is not entirely certain how he feels about it. "It's nice to meet you."

"He's from District Eleven, so we're basically next-door neighbors!" Joe bounces happily. "He and his buddy Allen both got picked, since they changed the rules there too. Too many mothers lost or something. But they sing up in the trees with mockingjays, isn't that amazing?"

"--We're different," Rami's voice remains musical, but has a slight edge to it. A sharpness. "And expendable; I've got a twin brother, however, so that might give my mom solace if I don't return." He sucks his lips against his teeth and adds "...I'm sorry," voice low. "that isn't something--you all needed, or wanted, to hear I'm sure."

The other three glance at each other and they all understand. "It's fine," Gwilym speaks up with a nod as he shakes Rami's hand and introduces himself, enveloping the shorter man's hand with a clearly gentle grasp. "Gotta get through this as we can, right? I'm Gwil."

"Yeah, we get it," Ben intones quietly, turns about and takes up another glass off the table, which he offers to Rami. "Drink?"

Chapter Text

The group of tributes end up sticking together for the night; Rami's friend Allen comes over as well, though he remains standoffish and aloof towards them--suspicious, for certain, as he hovers just behind Rami or stands at his side. Nobody blames him, really.

Gwil's fellow tribute from his district joins them also. Her name is Lucy. "It's so nice to meet you," she says to them all, seeming genuinely happy to do so, just as Gwil was. "I'm happy to be here so I can watch out for Gwilym, but seems he has ingratiated himself to you boys now as well." Eyes bright, the petite blonde leans into the side of her tall dark companion, and he puts an arm around her in a hug. She smiles fondly up at him. Rami swallows hard at this sight. He can't seem to take his eyes off Lucy, which Joe notices and finds incredibly sweet.

"Eh, he's alright," Ben says with a nudge to Gwil's ribs. The taller man grins. Both have discovered several shared interests; one of them being an enjoyment of teasing Joe, who gasps in faux-offence every single time.

"We might hafta ally ourselves together," Joe puts in. "MAYBE, okay--I don't want to jump into anything too fast, y'know. We only just met."

Gwilym waggles his eyebrows and smiles. "Aw come on, Joe--don't you believe in love at first sight, mate?"

Ben catches Joe's laughing glance as "Yes," he says, voice serious. Ben's heart stops. "-That's the way it was for my parents," Mazzello continues easily, and Ben's heart begins beating again, starting back up with a painful little thump. "They met when my dad was nine years old and he told me during his first dance class he saw my mom and said he was going to marry her someday." There are sighs of appreciation and gasps of surprise as well. "He never lost that same amount of feeling, doted on my mom. Brought her flowers every chance he could on his way home from the mines." Joe smiles thinking of his parents but his eyes hold immense pain as well; the agony of his father no longer being here, but also the probability of him going soon. If he only had more time....

He blinks as "Oh how lovely that is! I would be so happy to get flowers," Lucy says.

"I would bring you flowers," Rami tells her.

Lucy's eyes light up and on impulse she presses his hand. "Oh thank you. That's very sweet, Rami."

"I mean it," he tells her. "I'd take the bullet train to your district and everything. I've never seen the ocean before," he adds.

"Oh, it's quite beautiful. Some days it's the same lovely colour as your eyes."

"Whoah," Gwil whispers. Ben whistles.

"Smooth moves," Joe grins as Rami looks bashful and Lucy blushes. "Now if it was me, I'd wanna give the person I love a lot more than flowers." He beams wickedly as Gwil playfully shoves his arm.

"...Well then Lucy is lucky she's got someone classy to bring her flowers," Ben mutters.

"Ouch!" Joe cries as Gwilym laughs and instantly offers Ben a high-five. "I'm so hurt, I can't believe you'd say that, Ben. You know me."

"Not as well as I could, Joe," Ben replies. He wants to add: definitely not as well as I'd like; but cannot manage to force that sentiment past his lips. No one is really listening anyhow, Gwil is laughingly placating a dramatically sniffling Joe and Lucy and Rami are chatting to each other now, lost in their own little world. Ben envies that even as he wonders what will happen when they all meet up again in the Arena. Can any sparks of friendship last? He swallows hard and looks away from the group, catching sight of one of the Career girls who is standing across the room. She looks him up and down, licking her lips. Knife girl. Ben does his best to nod to her. He glances over at Joe--bright, buoyant, laughing Joe who'd be as good with a spear as he is with a bow, and he's as good a shot with that as anyone Ben has ever seen or heard of. He will be all right unless he gets cornered, but he's too fast for that. Ben is strong, he knows that; and fast in short bursts. But he needs protection, and he admits that Gwil's personality, even his self-deprecation about his own skills (though Ben recalls how prolific they are, hears the thud of a head falling as Gwilym pierced it with a spear in training) does not fill the blond with enough confidence to ask if they truly might be allies. He's got to do something, though.

So gulping the rest of his current drink, Ben wipes his lips and goes over towards the Career girl.

Joe doesn't see Ben leave; he assumes his fellow tribute went to get food, or perhaps to take a leak. He tries not to worry as Ben remains unseen, doesn't come back over; even exhorts the others to come and dance with him. He gets a hold of Lucy and discovers that she is quite a good dancer before a deep voice asks "May I cut in?" and a craggy face stares at Joe. "Tom Hollander. Head Gamemaker."

"Oh, Joe. Mazzello," Joe lets out a bit of a squeak, only a bit. Lucy curtsies and Hollander bows gallantly to her before an arm is offered by Rami, and she takes it. Gwil too stands by, and the knot of tributes glances at Joe in some confusion and concern for him, though they do move away as Hollander gestures to one side of the dance floor where another drinking station, this one a bar, stands. Joe swallows and looks to the Gamemaker, certain he is going to be chastised for his scoring performance. His heart drops as he wonders what the older man will say.

"Making new friends, are we?" The Gamemaker's voice is heavy and deadpan, making Joe unsure whether he is being criticized or asked an honest question.

So he tosses off "Yeah, I made it a rule when I was a little guy to make at least one new friend everywhere I go." Joe tries to smile. "Maybe you can be my fourth tonight, Mister Hollander."

"...That isn't really the point of being here, is it?" The craggy man asks, his eyebrows going up.

"Well, heh. No, I guess not," Joe says, rubbing a hand over his hair before trying to pat it down. "But this is a dark world, and every bit of light is precious." He smiles a secret little smile to himself as he intones those particular words.

"Just so," Hollander returns quietly, tone seeming fierce. There is an expression on his face that Joe cannot figure out. And then he adds "...Appalling how dark it is. And these Games make it even darker." He pauses before staring hard at Joe. "If only we could find another way, or perhaps create one."

It is Joe's turn to raise his eyebrows. "That--seems like a... very un-Gamemaker thing to say, sir," he speaks carefully.

"May be," Hollander draws himself up. "But does not make it any less true, or necessary." Stepping back from Joe with a bow as the loud song that had been playing over their conversation ends, he adds "It has been a pleasure speaking with you. When you are in the Arena, look to the skies, Joe." With that oddly significant-sounding phrase, he smiles slightly and disappears into the crowded darkness. Suddenly Joe really wants to locate Ben and head back. Or failing that, return to the penthouse on his own. He feels absolutely exhausted all of a sudden. Everything is crashing in, double meanings, secrets, thoughts of the Games....

Joe's new friends locate and come back up to him. He makes his excuses and says his goodbyes, which appear to be accepted for the most part--Allen still stands there like some suspicious shadow, but Gwil grips Joe's shoulder and Lucy kisses his cheek, wishing him luck. Rami stares with his warm eyes seeming to look straight through Joe and see everything about him and says, reaching out and clutching the other's hands, "If we never see each other again, know that I wish you every possible happiness, Joe Mazzello." He sucks in his cheeks and his voice catches as if he is going to cry.

"Ah, Rami. You too, buddy, of course." Joe smiles, squeezing Rami's fingers. "I wish that for you, for you all." It is a ridiculous wish, really--useless hope. They know where they are going in the morning, and all--or all but one--will soon be dead. But they can fight that darkness til the very last possible second. Joe believes that, as he said to Ben: fight for light until that cannon blows. He has got to.

They all must.

***

Joe does return to the tribute hotel alone; or rather, with Brian. Roger said he was staying out to get in good with a few more sponsors. He promises to keep an eye out for Ben. "Wouldn't worry about him, though," the mentor tosses out. "He's a smart lad. It's just his last night on Earth, so to speak, innit?" With a tipsy wave and an expansive grin, the blond slurs a bit. "Gotta make th' most, and can't say I blame 'im. Cheers!" Roger calls.

"Cheers," Joe murmurs back to him automatically.

"Be careful, Rog," are Brian's parting words.

"Yeah, yeah."

They head back from the manse to the Tribute hotel and into the elevator. As it ascends towards their floor, Joe peers sideways at Brian, whose lean face is bent forward, long curls obscuring most of it as he leans his arms back, hands braced upon the shiny wall. He thinks upon what the stylist said earlier, how truly desperate he sounded in his cries at the inhumanity of the Hunger Games. And though Roger has said multiple times that Brian never personally went through them, there remains history and pain. Joe can feel it. He wants to learn in order to know all that he can about these kind and brave men who have helped him and Ben. So, "Brian?" Joe queries.

The dark head tips and turns towards him, hazel eyes widening. "Yes, Joe?"

"Uhh, I don't really know how to ask this, and feel free not to answer if you don't want to, but. Why do you-- what made you hate the Hunger Games so much? I mean, besides the fact that they're pretty terrible in themselves," he huffs out a slightly sardonic chuckle as he looks at Brian. "No ball-throwing, no fouls, no good consistent rules," Joe tosses off the addition to be careful. Always careful. The walls have ears. "It just seems--I don't know, more personal for you I guess."

Brian nods, his lips pressing flatly together as the elevator stops on their floor. "I... you're right, it is personal for me, Joe. And I can tell you." They get into the common room and Brian turns audio on, soft music so they won't be easily overheard. "I had a friend years ago. His name was Freddie. He was...," Brian's voice grows soft with affection, eyes widening and brightening with what appears to be awe. "He was amazing. A glorious, glowing person. He was a stylist like myself. Well he was far better at this than I. The real thing. So artistic. He adored fashion and art." Brian walks with Joe to the sofa, ushering the younger man to sit first and make himself comfortable with a smile and a nod. Joe sits and listens closely as Brian continues, sitting down as well. "He was so kind, the gentlest and most generous person I have ever known. And the naughtiest," The stylist laughs. "I actually think the two of you would get on." Joe grins. "Fred loved everyone and wanted, yearned for someone to love him." Brian chokes a bit after those words. His eyes appear broken. "And oh, I did. We... went to the Academy together, with children from District Two. You've heard of these?" Brian asks. "Schools where children are taught how to be tributes? Disgusting. Anyhow, Fred went through the academy and so did I. But he--he also was sent into the Games twenty-odd years ago. Along with another mate of ours, John Deacon. A gentle quiet boy from District Two that we met in school. He was a genius with electrical things. Engineering and the like. Knew everything about machines, which was quite interesting to me how he got on that, being from a luxury district and all. But he went on trips to the power district just to learn more." Brian's features soften as he talks of John, remembering him too. His face trembles. "He and Freddie connected right away. They had this quiet understanding. John adored Freddie, and Fred said John was the little brother he never had. They meant everything to each other. And then--" Brian's entire body is trembling now as he utters "--they both went into the Games and worked together as allies, but John was killed. Freddie couldn't save him, and he --went berserk. Went slightly mad, I think." More than slightly mad. Brian recalls Freddie's features on the screen, ashen as he took down everyone, lithe body and face carmine-bright with blood. "He looked like he was wearing a harlequin suit, his armour was white but it got blotted red with blood. He won, but that--he never really got out of the Arena." Brian shuts his eyes and taps his fingers frantically upon the table, and a glass of water that Joe gets and fills for him. "Thank you, Joe." Brian sips water and wipes his face with a trembling hand. "After that-"

"Brian, you can stop." Joe's hazel eyes are huge and pained. He reaches out and presses Brian's shaky hand. "This is awful, I can tell how much it's hurting you, man. You don't have to say any more, I'm sorry--"

"No, Joe, I want to," Brian speaks gravely, his opposite hand covering Joe's as he looks into the young man's empathetic eyes. "Thank you for your concern, but I'm... I'm fine." His lip trembles, belying those words, but nevertheless the stylist continues. "I need to say this." He hasn't done so before; never verbalised anything that had happened. He needs to get it out.

So Joe nods and sits and listens as Brian tells how Freddie met Rog when they both were Victors, and they instantly got on. "Freddie started smiling again. He wasn't the same man, however, of course not; he still missed John, still wanted to know why he was gone. What made this all happen, what started the Games. He began to research the history of this country, the origins of the Games. Got all pale and thin, focusing so hard, running himself down. And one night--" Brian begins to choke up in earnest now, his shoulders shake violently. "He told me and Rog to come, that he'd found something. We were all mates at this point, working together. 'Come meet me at the Hanging Tree, darlings,' Fred said. We thought he was being typical dramatic Freddie, but Roger went. I was ready to follow behind," Brian hears the roaring of tires then, the trucks, the screeching mockingjays. "--They said it was an accident," Brian now whispers, head bowed, hands clasped together. "A tragic accident. Rogie was outside, on his way to Fred when the trucks came and said the victor Freddie Mercury had fallen." Brian whimpers. "There was nothing they could do, it was--"

"So tragic," A new voice intones, high husk laced with acerbity. "A klutzy fucking move, Freddie slipped and hit his head." Roger's eyes flash like two chips of ice as he comes round the couch and stares at Joe. Neither had heard him come in. "But dearest Freddie was the most coordinated, careful person I knew. He moved like a bloody cat, always landed on his feet. But I'm a raving drunk and I didn't see his body, so what do I really know about what happened that night? Nothing!" The short blond throws himself onto the couch cushions beside Brian with a dead-eyed stare. "Fucking nothing."

Joe presses his hands to his mouth as he swallows, eyes filled with agony and tears that do not fall as he watches Brian sob and look at Roger, who turns to him with an exhale and opening arms. The tall man buries his face in his friend's neck, and Roger holds Brian tight, jaw clenched, breaths coming hard. He closes his eyes and rubs one hand up and down Brian's shuddering back, the other clutching his thick black curls as Brian links his fingers around Roger's torso and cries, clutching him as though for dear life. Joe wishes he knew of something to do better than just sitting and watching them cry, but he can think of nothing to say, after Brian has wiped his eyes and leaned back, Roger clapping him on the shoulders. Nothing but, "I'm so sorry." Sorry for asking, sorry for knowing; sorry to be here, to continue this horrible, heinous tradition; there isn't a choice. Why isn't there a choice?!

Brian does his best to smile at Joe. "You're alright," he says, and the warmth and genuine gentleness with which he speaks breaks Joe's heart. "You and Ben are two people I definitely am rooting for, and betting on."

Ben. Where IS Ben? Roger looks up and tosses off "Ah, I saw Ben chatting up someone from-- John's district. Two. One'a the Careers. Said he would be back, but not to wait up." Stretching himself out, the mentor rises. "And I'm off, so good night." He pats Brian's shoulder and adds "And don't stay up ALL ruddy night, Joe. Prep yourself for tomorrow, and the--"

"Probability of my imminent demise," Joe finishes. Though his heart lurches as he realises exactly why Brian must hate that.

Roger winks. "Atta boy." At a sigh from Brian, he amends "Do TRY to stay alive, though, yeah? I know Bri here would hate to lose you." I would too remains unspoken, but he shoots a warm smile at Joe, all bright teeth and sparkling eyes, before departing the room.

"G' night Rog," Brian calls after his best friend's retreating back.

"Sweet dreams, Bri," Roger returns.

"Little chance of that, I'm afraid," Brian speaks softly with a gentle glance at Joe. "Can I do anything for you before I go?"

Joe's heart swells. This man might be the kindest person he has ever met or seen--he wants only to help people, to help Joe, after everything he has been through. "I'm fine, Brian, but thank you so much." The tall man smiles as he stands up, and Joe doesn't know what possesses him to do so but he stands as well and blurts out "Brian, wait."

The other turns around as he'd been about to exit the room, eyes crinkling as his brows slightly lift, and Joe throws himself into the stylist's chest, pressing his face against Bri's shirt and skin. He feels Brian's breath and hears his heart beat and the older man wraps both arms around him, pressing his lips to Joe's hair and hanging on. His lengthy fingers grip Mazzello tight and for the moment Joe feels safe, sheltered, loved. Almost like he had when his father would give him a hug.

But he has to let go, and he does. Has to get some sleep so as to be as ready as he can be for tomorrow's descent into the Arena. Yeah. It is nearly impossible for Joe to look at the other man and keep his voice light as he utters "Good night, Brian."

"Sleep well, Joe."

***

After Ben returns to the penthouse and takes a shower, he slides under the slick silky sheets of his enormous Capitol bed which is absurdly soft and comfortable. Too comfortable for him to fall asleep.

Ben tosses and turns, flinging himself back and forth as he thinks of the Career girl's eyes and lips and hands, how she had told him there was a way that he could go far in the Games--and then he thinks about Joe. He finds himself always thinking about Joe, after the admission he made to mad Mike Myers on air. He recalls Joe's wide shocked eyes after he walked back down, but he hadn't said anything. Boisterous, talkative Joseph Mazzello hadn't said anything. Not after the interview, and he wished Ben luck out of kindness for sure. He'd taken Ben's hand in excitement, and then tonight it was from being overwhelmed. Sure, he kids Ben, but come on. Even if Ben hadn't basically betrayed him tonight by talking to the Careers, though he'd done it for his own personal survival, he is kidding himself. How could Joe have feelings for him? No; Ben has only ever had himself, and that is how things are always going to be. He has always been alone. Staying alive in the Games is important to Ben, but not nearly as important as staying true to himself. He has to make his own choices.

Contemplating all of this he stands up, shoving the blankets off his body and padding out to the main room. He goes over to the window that looks out across the city; trying to pretend the flashing lights are stars, far away from him and he from them--removed from struggle and pain. Settling down and leaning his back against the jutting wall beside said window, Ben draws his knees against his bare chest and rests his chin upon them. What is he going to do? He doesn't know. Especially since he is sure Joe has what it takes to win, not him.

And as if thoughts had conjured him, the exuberant tones of Joe now greet him softly: "Hey Ben."

"Hey," Ben turns, light catching half of his face and shining on his bare shoulder and chest. Joe swallows, noticing the definition of Ben's muscles in contrast to the round softness of his cheeks and his young looking facial features, enormous eyes and large lips pursed perfectly. His eyes darken even as his shoulders appear to relax when Joe comes up beside him.

"Can't sleep, huh?" Joe passes, leaning on the wall facing Ben and forcing himself not to touch the other man's skin. Warmth seems to waft off Ben, though that is probably his imagination.

Running fingers through his blond locks, pushing at the rumpled spikes with a heavy sigh "No, of course not," Ben returns.

"Doesn't help how late the parties go here," Joe smiles.

Ben clears his throat and shifts uncomfortably, wondering if Joe is insinuating something about how long he was out and who he was with. But the crinkles around the pale skin of Joe's eyes exude cheerful kindness and naught else. "Yeah, and look at 'em, still going."

"Rooting for us to lose our lives, whoo!" Joe whisper-shouts sarcastically.

Ben snorts. "I just... don't want them to change me, y'know?" he speaks softly.

"How would they change ya? Besides making you dye your hair or get lion teeth or something," Joe teases.

Ben rolls his eyes. "Yeah, alright, Joe. I totally should've gone out tonight and gotten some lion fang implants." He grows serious, voice rough. "Just--I don't want to become someone that I'm not in the Arena. I've already got... just myself. I don't want to lose that." Rolling his lips and ducking his head, Ben feels his voice wobble. "I can't."

There is silence wherein Ben squeezes his eyes shut, and then a shifting sound precedes the feeling of an arm wrapping around his shoulders. Ben peeks up to see Joe looking at him steadily as he shifted to sit beside Ben. He wraps his other arm around the blond and with a soft look Joe says "Well, I don't wanna over state this, even though I'm pretty awesome," he grins before going serious again "But I'll do what I can to help you out, Ben. If you want that, I mean." He moves to relinquish his hold on Ben's shoulders, but Ben reaches up and grasps Joe's upper arm, holding onto him.

"That's-- a lovely gesture," the blond whispers. "Thank you, Joe."

"Of course," Joe replies. He leans his head against Ben's, seemingly shaking a little. Ben shifts himself to nuzzle his cheek against Joe's neck and shoulder in an attempt to comfort him and feels Joe yawn, his jaw cracking.

He starts chuckling in response, even as he still feels terrible for what he will be doing.... "Come on, mate. Let's get back to bed. Uh." Ben has started to stand and help Joe up, but freezes at the words he used. Joe doesn't seem to mind, however. He smiles up at Ben as the other pulls him to his feet. They head into their respective rooms, glancing back at one another. "See you tomorrow, Joe," Ben whispers.

Joe waves and nods. "Night Benny. See ya tomorrow."

Chapter Text

Roger stands with Ben in the ready room, out of which he will step onto the lift that raises him into the Arena. Brian is along the line with Joe.

Breakfast that morning had been a nearly silent affair; neither tribute was inclined to eat until Roger growled they'd need to keep up their strength; "--at least have enough sustenance to get a good start so as not to die too fast," he said. Brian let out a sharp cry, dropping a plate and shuddering all over, instantly trying to apologise to them. They all rushed to reassure the stylist then, and Roger is applying his particular brand of reassurance upon Ben now.

"Just try not to die immediately, alright?" The mentor snaps, both hands gripping Ben's shoulders. "There will be a lot of things in the centre of this thing--weapons, food, supplies. Don't fucking go for any of it unless you see something at the edge you can grab and shove someplace painful. It's a bloodbath, alright? They'll be wanting to draw you in, so get your arse outta there. Got it?" Ben nods, feeling sick. He should have eaten more, or less, breakfast.

"...Got it."

"Get the lay of the land, look for water and high ground. I'll see if I can't get any medical supplies sent in, but that's bloody difficult to do, so don't fucking hurt yourself, okay?"

A wry grin splits Ben's face. "Think I'll have a bit more trouble with other people trying to hurt me," he cracks.

Roger's eyes go wide and then he chuckles. "Getting that gallows humour I've been talking about an' working to instill. Good lad!" He pats Ben upon the shoulder as a countdown begins, shifting closer as something flashes in his light eyes. Ben sucks in a hissing breath and stiffens in response to Roger's expression as well as the count. "Okay, get in there." Roger clasps Ben's shoulders one last time and tries to relax his face to reassure the young man before relinquishing him, and Ben moves on shaky legs into the tiny propulsion lift that will take him into the Arena.

He tries very hard to exhale and not vomit on his shoes. "Oh, one more thing," Roger calls as a cylinder of glass closes Ben in "--don't step off your starting point til ya hear the whistle blow. There are mines planted all around to blow any false starters sky-high. Sick bastards," Roger mutters before giving Ben a thumbs up, trying to smile though his eyes are pained. "Keep your head up, take care, and you'll do alright. Luck!" His high voice cracks as Ben's lift begins going up, and the tribute's heart stutters as he sees first pitch darkness and then light.

White, searing light. Ben blinks his eyes and waits for the light to clear, or dim if it will, and finds himself no longer enclosed. He stands upon a raised platform on a grassy field. To his left and right, behind a ring of other platforms on which tributes stand, is a forest. Trees extend up a hill. Good, high ground. He sees water as well; what could be a river or lake in front of him, but closer than that is an enormous horn-like shape, seemingly made of metal and as large as a house. Tons of weapons and packs are clustered at and around the mouth of it.

Ben twists his head to spot Joe on a platform a quarter kilometre away, and there is Rami and the other tribute from Eleven. Allen. Gwil and Lucy are nowhere to be seen; they must be across the clearing beyond the horn. Closer to the Careers.

Beeps are counting down to start the Games. Ben glances one more time at Joe, who has lowered himself into a running stance as though preparing to run for the Horn. Ben catches his eyes and mouths 'no!' as an explosion splits the air before the starting bell rings.

Grass and dirt and burnt limbs are flying in a bloody mist; someone had stepped off their platform too soon. Ben hits the dirt and loses sight of Joe as he rolls and gets close enough to the Horn of Plenty to grab onto a spear. Shouts and screams are filling the air as the Hunger Games begin.

***

Joe is gone.

He had booked; been told by Brian to grab what he could "If there's anything at the edge of the clearing, but go, get out of there. Cut your losses and be careful," the stylist said. Begged, rather. Thinking on Brian's words to him the night before about John and Freddie, Joe had listened intently and grasped Brian's hands in his.

Joe grabs a backpack and lifts it as another tribute chucks a knife at his head. He shrieks as the blade sinks into the pack and then he is running flat-out into the woods. Crashes into someone full-bore, stares into a pair of petrified eyes before scrambling to his feet and running again. He screeches with pent-up emotions before going silent as the grave, no bad word choice, Joe--oh sugar honey ice tea! He runs and runs til he can't go farther and sinks into thick underbrush next to an enormous tree. Opens the bag he'd grabbed and takes stock. He finds:

First, about forty feet of rope, sturdy and thick
Second, a metallic water bottle (empty, but oh well, yay canteen!)
Third, a water-resistant and cold-resistant blanket slash sleeping bag
Fourth, flint for fires he isn't going to make
And finally, the knife he'd gotten chucked at his head.

As Joe repacks his bag he hears the boom of thunder from the clear sky, and sees a flash of lightning strike down near the starting point, the Horn. He hears terrified, agonized screams and seconds later the different BOOM of cannons. Seven occur in succession, and Joe's heart lurches as he thinks about the bloodbath.

He really hopes Ben is safe as he keeps moving, using his knife and some small sticks to create a falling snare, good food trap which is proven (luckily before sundown so Joe can make a tiny fire. "Sorry Roger, but I sadly cannot eat raw meat. I'm not that hardcore. Bet you were when you were in the arena though. You're not hardcore unless you live hardcore.")

Sated and making sure he puts out his fire, scattering the remains, Joe scans the forest around him and walks on to find an acceptable resting place for the night. It turns out to be a tree with a crook about halfway up that he can fold himself into, securing his body to the trunk with securely-knotted rope. Joe watches the darkening sky and sees no stars, remembering belatedly that he is inside a structure built by people; of course there are no stars. Oddly enough, even after the anthem is played and faces of the tributes killed--not Ben or Rami or Lucy or Gwil, thank goodness--are projected into the firmament, it is the fact that there are no stars here that is most upsetting to Joe. He cannot pretend he is under the same sky as his family, not anymore.

Curling up to be in as comfortable a position as he can as he lies pressed against rough bark, "Good night Mom," Joe whispers. "Mary, and Johnny. Sweet dreams. I love you."

Chapter Text

Ben meets up with the Careers, all four--two guys and two girls. Obviously the concerns about sexism or unborn millions aren't an issue in the first two districts. Their objective is to eliminate Joe, as he'd feared; strongest tribute in the Gamemaker showing, so biggest threat to them. The blond from Twelve leads the way up the hill into the woods, hoping to discover enough evidence of Joe's passing without leading the others directly to him.

Finds the remains of a snare and fire eventually; it is small, and scattered, and cold. The group continues to move deeper into the forest as darkness falls. Artificial light blooms across the sky, illuminating the faces from the districts who have fallen. Ben's stomach clenches. He sees the six from the bloodbath, another from that freakish lightning strike... And then as the light fades, but before his stomach eases, he smells it. Smoke. Sees a ruddy light flickering through the trees and closes his eyes.

"Smell that?" A career whispers.

"...Smell what?" Ben asks, stalling for time as his fist tightens round the haft of his spear. Maybe, if he plays dumb...

"Smoke, Twelve. No smoke without fire. Let's go." Ben nods, swallowing hard as one of the girls says she sees the fire and starts charging towards it, the others whooping and hustling after her. Ben's stomach flips as he follows, palms clammy around the spear now. He sees the girl tribute from Seven look up as they burst into her clearing, up to her fire. She is mousy, young. Large eyes bulge as she whimpers and turns to run, but the others catch her. She pleads for her life yet it is no use; her pleas fall upon deaf ears and screams fill the air instead, cut short by a single sword thrust.

The group continues walking. The Careers are louder now, bolder. Laughing about and mocking the girl's fear as she begged not to die at their hands. Taunting, uncaring, making Ben feel sicker by the second. That is even before he glances up and spies a figure curled up against a tree, nestled in a high crook. Light is bright enough for just a moment--one of the boys had taken a branch from the dead tribute's fire and lit the end of it like a torch--that Ben catches a glimpse of pale skin with expressive features, and the current expression etched upon them nearly causes the young man to be physically ill. He wants to denounce himself for his betrayal then and there, prostrate himself and explain everything.

But none of the others have noticed Joe, for that is who Ben sees, and so he moves on, hoping to lead them away, far away from him.

***

Joe stares, brought to wakefulness after a brief doze by screaming and movements and a cannon. He spies the group of Careers, and Ben. He takes in the sight in shock at first; bit of horror as well; and then wonders if, figures this was what Ben had disappeared for at the gala last night. Weirdly, it's a relief to him that the other had just been talking. Making alliances. Still doesn't feel GREAT, of course, but it is way better than what Roger had insinuated. He can handle the thought of Ben making an alliance much more easily than ...engaging in other activities--whoah now Joe. Calm it down there buddy.

That is the point he hears two of the Careers talking. About Ben.

"... Shouldn't we just kill him?"

Joe's heart thumps and he finds himself gripping treebark, holding his breath.

"Not yet. He's gonna lead us to Arrow Boy. THEN we can kill him when we've got both of them." Joe lets out a breath as quietly as he can. Wow, A-plus strategy for you, asshole, is his instant scathing reaction. These people are real winners.

Now, though, he's really worried on behalf of Ben. Hopefully he's got an exit strategy. Joe's own exit strategy is to legitimately walk to the edge of the Arena.

Early the next morning, he clambers down out of his tree, catches a fish at the little bend in the river nearby, locates some edible berries, and decides he would like to know exactly how big this place is. For science, and because the less time he contemplates the possibility of having to murder another human being, the better. Oh, and his family used to go on fun hiking trips, years ago, before his father took sick. What can Joe say? He's nostalgic.

The Gamemakers are obviously less so, they don't like his little burst of curiosity. What clues Joe in to that fact is a wall of electricity that shimmers along the far edge of the forest, at a cliff that drops out of the trees. Joe scoops up and tosses a rock, sees the spark and hears the buzzing sound it makes as it hits the thrumming force field to one side of him. A shock lights up the entire field at once then, and "Alrighty then," Joe says aloud. "I will be turning left. We shouldn't fight like this, sparks are flying between us. Clearly the chemistry is amazing." Joe is proud of his joke until a whoosh! of red-gold flames appears and begins consuming trees in front of him. "Okay, you're not into it, clearly I stepped over the line," he skids to a stop and turns. "I'm sorry! Let's just --uh-- talk about this!" He dives for the dirt as a fireball comes at him, filling his vision with orange.

Joe's face feels broiled, like he had dunked his head in scalding wash water or been out in the sun too long. Yet this has happened in the space of two seconds.

"AAAAH!!!" He screams, leaping over burning logs and waving his arms, feet skidding on fallen leaves--and then another fireball shoots his way as Joe reaches a steep hill, and he smells burning hair and feels heat sharpening to agony on his arm as he half dives, half falls down the hill, rolling and losing his air in painful bursts as he strikes roots and rocks on the forest floor, descending through smoke and foliage and fire....

And then Joe feels the blissful shock of icy liquid; he had thrashed and rolled himself down an embankment into a lake. He moves his arm, feeling a sharp ache and seeing reddening, shiny skin as well as spots of whiteness along the length. Blisters. He'd been burned. Joe almost gasps from the pain, but he hears voices. The Careers.

Tramping across some large flat rocks a couple hundred yards away, the group catches sight of him. As they look over and shout, Joe grins and waves weakly before flipping them off and splashing back to shore, hauling himself out of the water and heading in the opposite direction from them, back into the woods.

"There he goes, aha!"

"Where you goin', Arrow Boy? Where you gonna go?!"

"When we catch ya, won't be able to play any more ball with your brother!" Hearing that particular taunt almost makes Joe freeze, almost take out his knife, turn around, and gut that guy with it. Almost. But he hears Brian telling him to cut his losses, Roger saying to find high ground, and his mother begging him to be safe. So Joe keeps on running in a serpentine pattern til he finds a big tree. Tall, though not the tallest--doesn't want to risk a strange lightning strike coming down on him--but tall and sturdy enough for the purposes of climbing.

Joe's arm feels like it is molten, burning with agony from the burns on it, but he grits his teeth and clambers up the trunk of the tree, wrapping his legs round it and sliding upward as best he can. He looks back once, and down, to see them all come boiling out of the woods, the pack of them. Snarling and snapping, nasty and mean. Like wolverines or something. Ben is at the back of the group, eyes flashing with neither excitement nor bloodlust like the others. No, his eyes hold fear for Joe.

Joe makes it to a crook, the highest he can feasibly fit in, and hangs on for dear life as one of his pursuers shouts "I'm coming for you!" And attempts to climb the tree as well.

Joe presses his face against the bark, panting from exertion as well as pain as he hears "Get him! Kill him!" Which really makes a guy feel special, wow. Guy after him is either too big or unfamiliar with the fine art of tree climbing, because he grabs a branch, it snaps, and he falls. One of the girls slings a bow off her back. It's a beautiful bow; one Joe aches to get his fingers on, but she doesn't appreciate it, doesn't even bother to shoot as she breathes or allow the bow to become a part of her. Her initial arrow slices the air just behind Joe, and the second one she lets fly passes on the other side of the tree.

"Oh, give it here!" Snaps the one who tried climbing. Joe winces as he snatches the weapon so carelessly. His shot is just as careless: it curves wide.

"Bad break," Joe calls down. "Which is really a shame. Y'know, I could come down and teach you guys how to shoot if y'wanna be friends--" his suggestion is cut off by a snarl about how the only part of him they'd like to be friends with is his head on a stick. Joe's eyes bulge. These guys are not playing around. "All right then. Rain check on the making friends thing. Which is fine, I'm cool with hanging out up here." He shifts about in order to sit and tie himself in place for the night, only to have agony tear through his burnt arm as he moves. Joe cries out before cinching the length of rope around him, shaking so hard from pain that he can hardly tie the knot. "Oh, Roger, I could really use one 'a those strokes of luck you told us you had in your Games," Joe gasps.

***

Roger is getting on that. He sees Joe tying himself down, painfully, and winces sympathetically at the slow manner in which the tribute pours a bit of water over his wounded arm, trying to find relief any way he can. Tears are rolling down the young man's pale cheeks and Roger cannot take the sight. "Fuck this," the mentor mutters as he stomps out to speak to sponsors. "Hang on, Joe."

It is past midnight and lightning strikes again at the same area in the Arena as before. Joe jerks out of a pain-filled doze to see it, and is ready to drift off again when he spies a pale shape floating down from the sky into his peripheral vision. A soft beeping sound emanates from it. A sponsor parachute. Hits the trunk a foot or so above his head, and more flames of agony lick up his arm as he stretches to grab it. Joe shimmies up a bit, blood beading on his lip as he bites it to keep from making any sound, and his fingers catch hold of a tiny container underneath the parachute. A note is attached to the surface of a jar of what appears to be some sort of cream--a salve, if you will.

If you want to fight the bloody fire, rub this on your arm and keep yourself alive. ~ Roger

Reading that, Joe simply has to smile. With a slight grunt he settles down again and ties himself in place. Fingers stiffening a bit from exhaustion as well as cold--the temperature feels as though it has dropped at least twenty degrees since the sun went down--Joe scoops up some salve and slaps it on his arm. A cool tingling feeling makes him groan with pleasure as he rubs the cream into his blistered skin before scooping more. "Thank you," Joe whispers into the air after enough coats cause the pain to become nearly non-existent. He tucks the rest of the salve into a pocket of his backpack. "Thanks Roger," Joe murmurs before drifting off to sleep.

He wakes early next morning ready to take on the day and the Careers. He hopes. A thick fog settles over the trees. Misty tendrils curl upward as shadows of limbs and trunks catch Joe's eyes. Fog clears enough beneath him for Joe to spot the Careers (and Ben) all stretched out underneath his tree. Ben is the farthest away. Joe stretches as best he can, searching in his mind and in the surrounding area to discover some way to rid himself of them all.

"Psst!" Joe hears, and then rhythmic snapping precedes a quiet voice crooning "She keeps her moet et chadon in her pretty cabinet,"

Twisting his head to follow that though only recently met, an already familiar voice, Joe sights a pair of large eyes staring at him from another tree. His heart leaps gladly. "Rami, oh it's great to see you!" Rami nods and smiles at Joe, inviting him to continue the song, because he hears mockingjays beginning to mimic now, and if they fly over and sing loud enough it will mask any words Rami and Joe exchange. So "'Let them eat cake', she says, just like Marie Antoinette." Joe sings back.

Rami beams as the birds sing along with them for the next portion of made-up names and remedies: "A built-in remedy for Kruschev and Kennedy--and anytime her invitation you can't decliiiine...," With that Joe indicates the Careers below.

"Any ideas what I should do about them?" He calls softly, and Rami points over his shoulder with a nod.

A low constant humming pervaded the area, and Joe thought it was the electric forcefield, but the sound ebbed and flowed, and as he follows Rami's pointing finger with his eyes, Joe understands why. Out of sight in the dark, a bit above where he'd gotten his parachute last night, a bulbous grey mass is attached to a branch and buzzing dark shapes bob and weave around it.

Joe swallows. He is looking at an insect nest. Not just any insects live there, either; these are tracker jackers. Giant specially engineered wasplike bloodhound-esque insects. Their stings cause horrid hallucinations, agonising pain, and in extreme cases, death. And once they've got your scent they follow you. Now Joe gulps. "Extraordinarily nice..." he squeaks, untying himself and inching his way closer to the nest before withdrawing his knife from his bag, continuing to sing softly so as to calm his rising nerves. Rami is already moving out of his own treetop perch as Joe lifts his knife to saw at the branch onto which the tracker jacker nest is attached. "She's a killer queen, gunpowder, gelatin. Dynamite with a laserbeam, guaranteed to blow your mind--" he lets out a strangled hissing yelp as a tracker jacker buzzes past his hand. "Aah, anytime--!"

Moving the knife faster, luckily it is serrated, Joe saws deeper into the branch, hearing it crack. Humming becomes buzzing that rises to a roar as Joe feels a sharp sting upon the exposed skin of his neck, and another. One, two-- and then with a third sharp loud snapping sound the branch with nest attached to it falls, exploding onto the ground and the Careers far below.

Chapter Text

A scream like Joe has never heard before splits the morning air around him. It is a banshee's cry, the sound of a mother losing her child before her eyes, a dying scream. He nearly falls from the tree, a sharp pain dulling and expanding from the duo of places where he was stung.

More screams and the sounds of pounding feet emanate from below as all flee but the girl who had been resting directly in the path of the nest as it fell. Her agonized screeches are the ones reverberating throughout Joe's skull as he nearly falls from the tree, working to climb down carefully even as his world tilts on its axis. Sparks of pale light float across his vision, before what appears to be a black viscous substance, thick and oily, begins rising from out of the bark to coat his limbs. This makes Joe shriek and relinquish his hold, falling to the ground with a heavy thud that knocks all of the air out of his lungs.

Nothing is upon him; no black oil. Joe is scrabbling in pain and trying to stand as he sees that bow, clutched in swollen purple fingers, like plums. Bulbous and strained like the eyes, blood vessels standing out of yellowish irises--the body of a tribute who had been rather physically attractive, actually; her long hair is the only part of her recognisable after the swelling and other effects of the tracker jackers. This is the girl who'd slept under the nest. Her eyes now stare into nothing as her immobile, lifeless fingers clench round the bow.

Joe lets out a series of yelps and tugs at the weapon, hearing sickening crunching sounds from the fingers of the dead girl, and he hopes the sounds are more proof that he's hallucinating, like the sight of black goo, rather than legitimately occuring. "Oh god, I'm sorry, I'm so sorry...," He finds himself whimpering. Even though she had shot at him and showcased an amount of bloodlust the night before that was legitimately disturbing to Joe, she still had a life and a family, and he never wanted to kill anybody. But he had killed her.

Joe's apologetic mantra is cut short by the appearance of a wild-haired wide-eyed face. Blond hair, horrified sea-green eyes. Ben. "Joe, mate, what are you still doing under this tree? Get on, you've gotta get out of here-- go go go!" Joe stares dumbly as he hears shouts in the distance, muffled by the trees but mostly by the feeling that his ears are plugged with cotton. He sways, feels Ben's hands on his shoulders as the other drops his spear. Ben's grip feels like fire, burning--Ben is helping him up, taking the bow from Joe's almost-slack hand. Joe sways as he tries to grab it but Ben's hanging it with its quiver across his back, and he's so close...Joe looks into his face and suddenly it's grey and dead as his father's, teeth bared in a skull, and Joe shrieks and shoves away. He listens to what Ben said, turns and runs through the forest. Light leeches away to become grey and oppressive, black burned trunks...Joe is hallucinating, he knows he is in the small part of his mind that remembers he is in the Hunger Games. He sees pinpricks of light amongst the dark trees, hard hats and gaunt expressions. He sees his father, bright and laughing, and then as Joe runs to him his face gets sunken and he disappears. No! Joe tries to scream. Dad-- but roiling blackness takes him, swallows him up, and Joe staggers as he runs for his mother, his sister, his brother. He sees them; they need him. Suddenly blackened loaves of bread are chucked into his path by a shape with glowing eyes, and then the figure speaks: "Get out of here, Joe!"

Joe scoops up the bread and looks at his family, but their expressions are all dead and empty even as they open their mouths and chant "Go, Joe, go!" Joe keeps running, legs pounding, lungs burning. His family disappears but he reaches the figure at last. Yet as he does, holding out his hands, the bread explodes as Joe falls forward and the glowing pair of eyes morph from green to grey. "Come on," he hears and as the figure reaches out he jerks into wakefulness instantly.

***

Joe wakes to find himself alone, beside a small rocky overhang, resting on moss and grass. He hears the trickle of water, a stream, he'd guess, and feels a breeze against his skin. His shirt is off, and he shifts, noticing a poultice of what looks like mud and herbs. Well, he notices three of them--one on his neck, a place on his chest, and over the burns on his arm. Joe puts his hands down to lift himself, body twinging.

"Careful," a soothing voice intones, and darker-toned hands are on his shoulders. He looks up into a pair of luminous grey eyes.

"Rami!" Joe cries, throwing caution to the winds as he flings his arms around Rami's shoulders. The other man hugs him back tightly. "Boy am I glad to see you. Didja follow me out of the tree?"

"Well, you were screaming and crashing through the woods," Rami's tone now holds a hint of dry amusement. "...I wasn't going to wait until somebody ELSE found you." He sits beside Joe now and nods at the poultices. "May I?" Joe nods and Rami carefully peels the dried mud and leaves away from Joe's neck, using a bit of water he had apparently gotten out of the stream that is running just beyond the overhang. "You've been out about three days," Rami tells him now. "I've changed these twice, but I think you're done with them now, which is good." He checks the state of Joe's skin. "Had to pull out the stingers," he winces. "Luckily you only got hit three times in all, or...." Joe clenches his eyes shut with a nod and a shudder. He sees the girl again in his mind's eye. Even if some of the way she looked was due to hallucinating, it still seemed like a truly horrific way to die. He shudders and listens as Rami continues speaking, cleaning his skin with more cool water before turning and getting Joe's shirt. "Here's your shirt back," he says. "Sorry for removing it," apologetically. "You were thrashing around and feverish from the stings, and I had to make sure I got all of them out."

Rami looks genuinely worried as he says all that, like Joe's going to be pissed off at him for saving his life. Joe's heart goes out as he pulls the garment over his head. He reaches over and squeezes the other's arm gratefully. "Nah it's cool, Rami. I'm fine with you seeing my bod, not waiting til I was awake to ask." Going serious, he adds "You probably saved my life by doing all this, so." He makes a goofy face and laughs. "Let's do it again sometime!" Rami's eyes widen and he adds "Jeez, can't stop making jokes, I'm so sorry. Hope you get what I mean though."

"I do," a small smile tugs at Rami's mouth. "I mean, I get that you're appreciative that I saved your life, so you're welcome, Joe."

"Yes!" Joe beams. "Thank you! And thanks for the assist up the tree in the first place. I, uh." He clears his throat and shifts uncomfortably. "Wasn't completely sure how to get outta that. Did--anybody else--?" He is having a hard time completing the question, feels tears prick his eyes. He hates doing this. He peeks over to see the other man looking at him with understanding.

Rami's voice is gentle. "Get killed from the nest?" He asks. Joe swallows hard and nods. "No, just the one girl. The rest managed to get away. Some of them might have been stung as well though."

Good, maybe their hallucinating made 'em a little more humble, Joe thinks. Wait. What about--? "And Ben?" He asks. "Guy from my district?"

"Sexy tree man, I didn't see him after," Rami speaks with another smile. Of course he remembers Joe referring to Ben as the sexiest tree. "I did see him roll and move when the nest hit the ground initially. He got away from the area pretty fast."

Joe exhales in sharp... relief, he thinks. Isn't quite certain what the feeling is, because he's confused as to whether or not he actually saw Ben when he was hallucinating or not. Seeing Ben allied with the Careers in the first place makes him wonder if the guy would come back at all. It's just that Ben is really cool, and nice, and attractive...oh god Joe what are you thinking? Sure he said he has feelings for you, but Roger is playing up that sympathetic, unattainable angle for sponsorship. Gotta give people something to root for, right? Joe gets it, but he also cannot help comparing feelings to the real love like his parents had. Still have, his mom will never lose it. Joe recalls his father's face suffused with happiness and his mother's eyes were just as bright. If that type of devotion isn't the sort to aspire to, Joe doesn't know what is. "...Wait, sorry, what'd you say?" He inquires of Rami, as the other man had spoken and looks at Joe expectantly.

"Oh, I asked if you wanted to get moving. I figure we may not want to stay here; can find a more secure spot now that you're better." There appears to be another question in the set of Rami's eyebrows and the curve of his mouth, but he doesn't ask it, not yet.

"Yeah, we should probably move," Joe agrees. "Hey Rami," he adds as the other begins gathering supplies, handing Joe his backpack. "This means we're pals now, right? Allies?" He feels a lump fill his throat as he thinks on what Brian had said about John and Freddie being allies, but pushes that back. This is different. Different Games, right?

And Rami looks so happy as he says "Yes, Joe, that's--wonderful. I mean I would really like to be."

"It's settled then," Joe hauls the straps of his pack higher in his shoulders. "Let's go my friend." Rami nods and moves in-step with Joe as they depart their camp into the blue and sunny morning, wondering what will be in store for them. Hoping for some good.

Chapter Text

Joe is incredibly pleased and proud to use his newly procured bow to shoot down some dinner. Rami's blissful expression after he mashes up some edible berries and herbs to eat with the meat Joe shot and cooked is one of the best things Joe has seen so far in the arena.

"My brother would be so grossed out," Rami says, licking his lips as he bites into a piece of meat, tearing it from the bone.

"By eating a well-cooked squirrel?" Joe inquires.

"By all of this," Rami supplies, waving a hand as grease smears across his mouth. "Mm, that's really good." He swallows and blots his lips clean as best he can with a leaf. "No, he--he's an interesting guy, my Sami. He'd say there aren't nearly enough pretty girls in here, and he'd also say these should be kissing games instead of killing games."

Joe snorts. "What, so like, the first tribute who makes out with everyone else wins? Wow." Ponders that for a minute. "Well I would personally rather have a dance off," he says. "Or a karaoke contest. But I'm sure Ben would be really good at these hypothetical kissing games."

"Oh, really?" Rami purses his lips to stop a smile as he leans in towards Joe. "Why, have you witnessed him kissing anybody?"

"No, but I--I bet he likes to kiss," Joe stammers. "Seems like he'd be a good kisser, he's got the lips for it." Rami smirks. "Not that I was noticing! I mean, not intentionally noticing, I just saw... what?" His companion is now laughing hysterically. "Okay, so I noticed," Joe humphs. "But that's a ridiculous idea anyway. The Kissing Games sounds like a bad television show." Rami's guffaws peter into giggles now as Joe shakes his head. "...Your twin brother sounds like quite a guy."

"He's certainly one-of-a-kind," returns Rami. "Even though we're identical twins. I even got my first kiss that way, which might be a bit--well more than a bit unethical now that I mention it." Joe raises his eyebrows. "But anyway, now I know the answer to my question," Rami says.

"What question?"

"The question of whether or not there are real feelings between you and Ben," Rami testifies warmly. Joe coughs. "I could tell his on-air admission was real when I heard it. I know it was probably hard to believe, though." Gentle compassion is writ all over Rami's face as he nods to Joe. "...especially being where we are, but I can tell you've got some feelings too."

Hard to believe? Try impossible; Joe still has trouble with the veracity of Ben's feelings. There was a valid reason to say nothing after the interview. This guy--kind, quiet, a killer baker (Joe has eaten some of his cakes before, he wasn't just joking about needing one in the Arena), beautiful--he would be a catch for anybody, and yet he likes Joe of all people. Poor, loud, grubby Joe, who wouldn't even BE here if it wasn't for help Ben gave him once.

Ben probably doesn't even remember. Why would he? It was after Joe's father died; his mother couldn't teach dance classes, couldn't bear to do it without her husband by her side. Mary was working as a seamstress but not enough income was coming in for enough food. John especially got so thin--always skinny, he'd been starving. And Joe didn't know what to do. He left the house one grey day, wandering through the district aimlessly. He got it into his head first to beg for a job and then, if that didn't work, to walk into the woods and leave so his food portions would go to Mary and John. They would be okay then, and so would his mom. But leaving... after his dad wasted away, after his mother lost the love of her life, Joe felt sick at the thought of her learning he had gone as well. His stomach lurched and he was ill beside the corner of a building as thunder cracked overhead and a deluge of rainwater suddenly poured down, washing his sick away before turning the ground to slop and muck. Joe sank into it, not caring; he curled up and lifted his face to the sky, letting his tears fall down with the rain.

He grew cold and then caught a scent of something warm, hearty, welcoming, bright--his stomach growled as he smelled bread dough, and lowered his head, wiping water from his face. He'd somehow managed to have his crisis at the rear of the bakery. Was sitting at the edge of an alley across from its kitchens. And shining in the window, bare arms outlined in the ruddy golden light, was the baker's boy, working the bellows for the fire. Strong and clean but for a dusting of flour on his sweating muscular skin, over which an apron was tied to cover the lower half of his chest and drape over his pants. Joe must have made a noise; involuntary, he couldn't help it--and a pair of bright blue-green eyes lifted and met his. Joe stared and swallowed and curled in on himself, shrinking back, for once unable to raise a hand and wave or to be boisterous in any form or fashion. He felt awful, small and cold and ashamed. And then he heard shouting and the young man's mother--she had the same round face, but with none of its kindness--cuffed him around the head. Joe saw her pointing outside and here her son, the baker boy came, bare-chested now as he'd flung off his industrial apron, still sweating from the heat of the ovens. He held two burnt loaves of bread in his hands. Hearty bread, only blackened slightly on the bottom and one side. He tore the black bits off and chucked them away, into a pigpen that stood beside the bakery. Biting his lip and glancing over, he chucked the rest of the bread towards Joe.

The loaves landed in front of him, and hope came with them. Joe scooped the bread up, feeling it warming his body as he ran, heading home. The baker disappeared inside, and Joe saw a plump bird hopping about, pecking at the burnt crumbs left in the muddy road. Joe could catch such a bird, or shoot it down; he could get his own food, for himself and his family, and for others as well. He knew then that he would be all right, and all that occurred because of the kindness of that baker boy. Ben. Joe swallows now, gathering up the refuse from another plump animal that he'd just eaten, focusing on Rami again and coming back to the present. All he can think to articulate is "...We have a bit of a weird history, Ben and I."

"Weird isn't necessarily a bad thing," says Rami seriously. "Weird is different, and different is beautiful. Which means you, Joe, are gorgeous." Joe flushes, face twisting. "I mean it," Rami speaks with utter sincerity as he pats Joe's hand before helping him clear away the signs of their presence. "I can tell."

Joe wants so badly to demand how Rami can tell, and what that means for him and Ben; but he figures he should just leave this be--doesn't want to press his luck in the Games too far, and Rami has already been super amazing at keeping him alive.

***

The pair of them get into a routine: Joe finds a big enough tree with enough foliage to hide them and let them sleep at least semi-comfortably. He hangs his waterproof blanket like a hammock when he can. Luckily Rami likes to cuddle and is pretty adept at it. Rami locates berries and water, and Joe traps or shoots a quail or a squirrel. Hasn't seen any rabbits or deer as of yet. Ooh he would LOVE some venison, but a blaze big enough to roast that would most definitely be seen. So he makes do with the small things.

One day Rami returns to their current camp with some nuts along with his berries, as well as some news. "I saw a clearing--the Careers have another couple of allies, I guess. Someone from the Power District for sure, because they've reconfigured their mines around this enormous pile of food and supplies. It seems like they're stocking up for something."

"The grand finale," Joe intones sardonically, in a pretty good impression of Mike Myers' dulcet tones. "Everyone MUST go!"

"Come on, Joe, I'm being serious," Rami shoves him lightly.

Joe bumps Rami's shoulder. "I know, so'm I. Sounds pretty tempting, maybe we should check it out, see if we can help them all..." he pauses and his lips twitch as his eyes brighten, preparing to make a pun. Rami covers his face.

"Please don't say it...,"

But Joe does. Of course he does. "Go out with a bang!"

Rami sighs and leads Joe back to where the clearing was. They see the food camp and one tribute sitting at the outermost edge of a pile--Rami was right, it is pretty gigantic, extending up at LEAST twenty feet. Boxes and bags of fruit, what looks like medical supplies, cured meat, weapons... "These cocky motherfuckers," Joe whispers in fury. Rami stares at him, eyes wide with shock. "What? I'm mad! People are starving back home and there's all this food and crap here, but why do WE need it? Oh yeah, as fuel to help us kill each other! Fantastic fucking plan, yo!" He lets out a strangled shout and Rami yanks him back into the forest quickly. "Sorry, I'm sorry," Joe breathes as they hustle away so as not to be seen. Hopefully no one's followed. "...I'm good."

"You're good?" Rami holds Joe's arm gently, rubbing it with a thumb.

Joe breathes, nods. "Yeah, I am. Thanks Rami." He smiles a little and focuses back. "Okay, I saw where they dug up and reburied their mines--looks like there are some pressure plates at intervals. We gotta step lightly," he cracks. "Or I just gotta get something to fall down on a pressure plate."

Curled up and sheltered that night, they go over their plan in whispers: Rami will start lighting giant fires around the woods so the Careers will leave their base to go on the hunt. "Like we're animals," Rami murmurs in disgust. Joe had told him about the fire on their first night. Joe winces now, recalling how he'd said this would be like hunting to his family. He had not meant it, not really; just being the jokester, as usual. But now... Now, it is all-too-real. "I'll get up in a tree and signal when the coast is clear. The mockingjays will hear me."

"And I'll signal back after I blow their shit up," says Joe, wrapping an arm around Rami and holding him close. "This is gonna be somethin', I can feel it. Gonna turn the tide."

Rami nods, his face pressed against Joe's chest as he wraps his arms around and holds his friend and ally tight. He admires Joe's optimism. "I hope so."

Chapter Text

Following day dawns bright, a sunny morn in the Arena.

After eating a meal and gathering as much green kindling that will smoke when lit, Rami and Joe share a tight embrace and make the promise to meet back up after signalling each other. Rami holds Joe as close as he can, pressing his face into the neck of his ally.

Joe feels Rami shaking and presses his face into the other's soft hair. He can't help but recall hugging his brother on Reaping Day before all this, and he feels his heart drop but tries to remain optimistic. "Hey, we're gonna be all right, Rami," Joe pulls back and holds onto Rami's shoulders. "Okay?"

Rami nods, trying to smile as he wipes his eyes. "Yes, Joe. I'm sure we are." He swallows hard, eyes huge. "I mean, I hope..." He shakes his head and sucks in a huge breath.

Joe rubs Rami's back. "It's gonna be okay." He smiles again before squeezing Rami's arms and letting go, giving him a thumbs up before diving into the trees and heading for the Career clearing.

He crawls under a low bush to watch the clearing, and soon enough hears shouts, rolling over to spot smoke rising. Rami has lit the first big fire. Hopefully he's moving to the second as Joe watches Sword Boy and his two friends say something to the tribute from Three. Joe shifts round to check on the pressure plates. If he could throw heavy things he would fling a rock onto the nearest plate and blow the whole shebang. But alas, he is not Ben. He hasn't seen Ben since the tracker jackers. Hopes he's doing all right.

Focusing back onto the supply tower, Joe decides he can shoot something off the side. He scans around and finds a bag of produce hanging off one end. Perfect. Sliding his bow off his shoulder and nocking an arrow, Joe stands and shoots, nicking the bag. Second arrow goes a bit wide, striking a box behind and humming as it hits and imbeds. For the third arrow, Joe brings up his arm and breathes with the release. Arrow catches the bag and rips it down the side, sending fruit rolling and bouncing down to stop on the metal plate and mound of dirt beside. A jet, an explosion of yellow and red and grey, black, brown loam sends half the tower into the air, and pieces of parts of the tower fly to hit the other plates, causing a chain reaction of explosiveness.

The blast of heat and sound sends Joe backwards, he skids into the underbrush and throws his arms over his face as debris continues to fly. He waits, ears ringing, and opens his eyes to see one Career return, followed by another. He sees their faces blanch, screaming, furious and horrified and Joe feels satisfied, pumps his fist in jubilation. Score one for the little guys.

Looking back Joe nods and heads on through the woods past their fires. He whistles their chosen song, and as the mockingjays take it and continue, Joe hears his name called out in anguish: "JOE!!!"

Rami's voice.

***

Joe hears the shout and runs, plunging blindly between the trees, arms up as leaves and vines whip at his skin. He explodes past a tree to find Rami caught in a net trap, a rope cinching tightly around his leg, cutting off circulation. His eyes are dilated in terror as he loses bloodflow. "Hey Rami, easy, easy. I've got this, I've got you, hang on." Joe drops to his knees and slings his pack off his back, unzipping it to withdraw his knife. Checks around Rami's leg as the other holds as still as possible, whimpering a little. Joe finds the slipknot and slices it. "There ya go, buddy," Joe rubs the other man's leg, trying to get blood moving again.

Rami clutches at him as they stand, Joe holding him to help his friend put his weight down. And then a sound behind him causes Joe to whirl. It is the third Career, moving, chucking a spear. Joe swings his bow off his back and hears Rami gasp like he's been sucker-punched. Joe goes to one knee and shoots an arrow through the Career tribute's neck, tasting bile as he does so.

"Joe," Rami gasps, and Joe drops his bow and turns to see the spear shaft lodged in soft skin just below Rami's ribcage. No. Oh, no no no. Rami's legs buckle and Joe lunges, catching his friend as he falls, going down too. Rami grasps Joe's hand as if it is a lifeline.

"Yes Rami, I'm here," Joe chokes.

"Hi," Rami breathes.

"Hi," Joe bends over him, helps extend his legs before stroking back Rami's dark hair. "Oh, Rami...,"

"It's okay," Rami gasps. "Did you--did you blow up the stock?"

"Yep," Joe nods frantically, sniffling and swallowing hard. "To smithereens. And smithereens of smithereens." He wipes his nose, trying to hold himself together as he cinches one shaking arm around Rami's shuddering shoulders.

"Good," Rami chokes, spittle congealing at the corner of his mouth as he fights to breathe. "That's-- really good, Joe. Means you--have a chance." Tears are filling his large luminous eyes now. "Will you... tell Lucy that I'm sorry? I--really did want...to give her flowers someday."

"Ah, Rami, you smooth sweet wonderful man." Joe is crying now, even as he wishes he was not. Wishes he could be stronger for his friend. But still he tries to smile, to assure "Y-you can tell her yourself. Just stay with me, Rami Malek. If you do that, everything's-- we're gonna be all right." He drops his head, shaking as he tries not to whimper. "Please."

"Joe," Rami looks up at him with desperate fondness and a heart-rending smile that makes Joe's stomach sink into his feet. "Can you--would you sing something for me, please?"

Sing. Oh, god. Joe sniffs and wipes one sleeve across his eyes and cheeks, hand now pressing ineffectually to the growing stain around the other man's abdominal wound, the spear shaft shaking with Rami's aborted breaths. Joe clears his throat and tries to sing, voice cracking:

"There's no time for us -- there's no place for us. What is this thing that builds our dreams, yet slips away from us? Who wants to live forever? Who wants to live forever?! Ooh -- there's no chance for us. It's all decided for us..."

Joe clenches his fist in Rami's hair, lifting his face to the sky with voice aching, teeth gritted now.

"This world has only one sweet moment set aside for us. Who wants to live forever? Who wants to live forever, who? Who dares to love forever, ohhh --WHEN LOVE MUST DIE?!"

Joe screams this last. Rami is panting, gasping for air, he's moving back and forth a little as he continues clutching at Joe. He is crying now as well, eyes and cheeks shiny and wet with tears. Joe dips his face and brushes his lips across Rami's cheeks as he whispers

"Touch my tears, with your lips. Touch my world with your fingertips...."

Lacing his fingers with Rami's and hanging on to his hand

"And we can have forever, and we can love forever! Forever is our today...,"

Rami gasps one more time before going utterly slack and still. The spear shaft ceases trembling. "Rami?" Joe croaks as he checks for a pulse. Nothing. No breath left. Dropping his face onto the other's still chest, Joe gasps "Who waits...who wants forever anyway?"

Smoothing back Rami's dark hair and closing his eyes gently with two fingers, Joe stands on shaky legs and rips the spear free from his friend's body with a moan. He's got to do something, something nice. Find flowers. Yes. Rami deserves flowers, like his father gave, like the ones he wanted to give Lucy...he needs something, anything nice in the hellishness of this Arena. And Joe doesn't give a damn if anyone finds him as he searches for flowers because he is burning up with enough rage and sorrow to go for anybody.

He couldn't even finish the whole song. Wasn't able to do that much. "Oh, Rami, I'm sorry," Joe whispers to his still friend after he finds flowers and brings them, arranging them around Rami's immobile face. "Oh, god, I'm so sorry."

Chapter Text

Nobody else does find him, though, and Joe remains with Rami for as long as he can, holding his frigid stiffening hand and jerking as he hears the cannon and then the sound of an air vehicle coming to remove the body. Before it touches down, Joe moves away, looking first at Rami on his bed of flowers and taking his dear friend and ally's cheeks in his hands to kiss him on the forehead a final time.

Joe blows a kiss to the sky then, too numb to consciously recall the Head Gamemaker's words to him, but people watching see and feel and react.

Riots rage that night across District Eleven.

Joe does not, cannot react anymore; he plunges blindly through the trees again, running into one and another as he uses the killing spear to keep himself standing. He couldn't simply leave it there for someone else to find after taking it out of Rami's body. Oh, god, Rami... Joe sobs again, running away. Until nightfall when he is forced to climb a tree and cinch himself against its trunk. Wrapping his legs round and pressing his face to the bark--splinters be damned, if he is going to die from a tree branch stabbing through his face, so be it--Joe shudders and sobs.

The way he felt in the aftermath of tracker jacker poison or the exploding stock is nothing compared to this. No; this is much closer to the way he felt after his father died. Added to the grief this time is that, any way one slices it, Joe got Rami killed. He should have gotten back to him sooner, or stayed with him in the first place; kept his eyes upon the forest around them, heard that bast-- that person--come up, should have stopped the spear. He grabbed it after, but too late. Too late. Too-- now Joe freezes, mid-thought. His innards turn to ice. Ben. Ben had that spear, it had been his weapon. The Career guy must've taken it. That has to mean...no. Ben is alive, his face hasn't flashed up during the cannon toll, Joe would have seen it! But....

God, what if--? Joe cannot complete his thought before this night's cannon toll begins and he loses it as he sees Rami's gentle gaze one last time. Joe closes his eyes, face screwed up in agony, and then for the first time since he has been in the Arena, he hears a voice.

"ATTENTION TRIBUTES. THE RULING ALLOWING FOR A SINGLE VICTOR HAS BEEN SUSPENDED. AS OF NOW, TWO TRIBUTES--IF THEY HAIL FROM THE SAME DISTRICT--CAN BE CROWNED VICTORIOUS. MAY THE ODDS BE EVER IN YOUR FAVOUR."

As the artificial light winks out and the sound fades away, Joe snorts, wiping his eyes. Cruel bastards, coming up with this ruling now when he's alone. But no, wait, he isn't-- Joe hadn't heard his cannon-- hands trembling against the bark beside and rope around him, Joe calls Ben's name.

***

Ben is not feeling so great. An alliance with the Careers is not a stellar plan if one cannot keep up the act necessary for said alliance to work. So Ben is bleeding, feeling a molten shock of agony every time he moves. He's weak, and hopes no one will find him. Well, that the right person does; otherwise Ben just hopes whoever locates his trail, his presence, and sees his profusely-bleeding leg will have mercy enough to kill him quickly. Death may not be so bad; they say dying is to sleeping, after all. Nestling down farther into the area he has cloistered himself, Ben crosses both arms over his chest and shivers. He is incredibly cold and so does his best to cover his extremities with leaves.

Next afternoon, Joe is panicking. Well, panic might be a strong word, but after having an ally in Rami, he realises how little he enjoyed being alone. He goes back to the tree with the tracker jacker nest beneath, its lumpy grey remnants scattered across the forest floor, and spins around, closing his eyes and trying to remember from which direction Ben had come, and gone. Joe knows he had started hallucinating by then, so he is fuzzy on the details, but he thinks he's got the general direction.

Joe heads onward and reaches an escarpment overlooking a river, downstream from the pond where he had ended up after the fire in the woods. He stoops to check the lay of leaves and torn ground, remembering his father's instructions on finding a wounded deer. Mary was always better at noticing the evidence of their passing, she was much more patient than he. But here, now, a life depends --well, at least could depend-- on this. Joe squints, carefully studying the leaves, and jackpot! Underneath the leaves he brushes away there are some broken branches. Deep dark stains, rusty red, deep purple, are soaked into the surface of the wood and beneath. Joe's heart sinks. Blood. He stays low and follows the trail of scuffed leaves, sees some tracks where a body was dragging, but also areas where the leaves were pushed back across the scuffed-up ground. As though whatever had been dragging itself also attempted to cover its tracks. Not an animal, then.

Recalling what Roger had said to the pair of them about finding water, Joe sidesteps down, sliding to the edge of the river. A stand of trees hangs over the river from the bank, and Joe shakes his head. Could it honestly be that easy? Had Ben actually painted himself to look like a tree?

Ben wakes from a fitful doze, the light shining brightly enough to blind him. He feels hot, burning, and then frigid. He hears his heartbeat thudding loud, so very loud in his ears; and then he hears another sound. Footsteps. He clenches his hands, squeezes his eyes shut, prays to be mistaken. But no. The footsteps remain and sound as though they're coming closer.

Joe moves carefully over some flat rocks between himself and the trees as he spots more blots of blood and notices the swiftness of the river. If all that blood is Ben's, there is no way he could cross. And likely no reason to; sparks in the air across the river tell Joe there is another forcefield. Great.

As Joe's foot touches the edge of one of the rocks, something shoots out and grabs his ankle. "AUGH!" He screams, registering a grey-coloured ...hand. Shaded to appear slick and stonelike. Only one person he knows here has artistic skills like that. "Ben?!" Joe drops to his knees, eyes roving over the rock pile to see expertly-shaded bare skin. A pair of blue-green eyes blink open. "Oh my god, Ben."

"Hey, buddy," Ben breathes weakly, teeth flashing in a smile as his bleary gaze recognises Joe. He shifts and tries to move up, having clamped himself between the lip of the bank and a large rock. His torso, arms, hands, and face are all shaded grey and moss and dirt is clumped in his hair. Joe does not hesitate to wrap his arms around Ben and pull him in for a hug. Ben's face is muffled in Joe's shoulder, so his next words are inaudible.

"Oh it's good to see you," Joe's voice is cracking all over the place as he shakes, clutching his fellow tribute tight. "It's been a...rough couple of days."

"Tell me about it," Ben groans as he hugs Joe back. He lets out an involuntary yelp as Joe moves and unintentionally jostles Ben, which sends a burst of agony through his wounded leg.

Instantly Joe is concerned. "Where were you hit? Let's have a look. Oh, sugar honey iced tea!" He hisses as he sees the gash in Ben's trousers, deep in his leg. The skin around it is shiny from swelling, but the wound is crusted and oozing pus and blood. It looks deep, like Ben was struck to the bone.

"It's bad, isn't it?" Ben asks softly. His words are more of a statement than a question as he watches Joe's face. "I... didn't want to look," he admits.

Joe gulps. "Uh, no, no. It's--you're gonna be fine, Benny." The other man does not believe him. With forced nonchalance and widening eyes, Joe asks "...Just outta curiosity, what, what did that?"

"The sword." Ben sighs, brushing the last few bits of moss and loam out of his blond hair. "Hey, Joe--"

"Nope," Joe responds immediately, crouching and pulling Ben's arm around his neck. Their faces are very close.

Ben rolls his eyes. "You don't know what I'm gonna say."

"Yes, I do," Joe nods rapidly. "You've got that look in your eyes, the lost puppy look, and it's really cute, but ya only get it when you're being hopeless or about to talk badly about yourself, so no. I'm not gonna leave you here to bleed out all over these rocks, Benny. I'm not gonna do that. You're stuck with me now. C'mon."

With a grunt he hauls Ben upright-- or rather, Ben hauls himself to a standing position with Joe's help. Even after his extensive blood loss, Ben remains strong. They begin stepping together, Ben leaning heavily on Joe, searching for someplace relatively safe to go-- out of the elements and whatever else the Gamemakers decide to throw their way.

Chapter Text

The pair of tributes from District Twelve limp and haul themselves down the edge of the river, Joe utilising the spear as a walking stick, which Ben notices. He also realises something else. "Oi, Joe," the blond utters quietly, a smile stretching across his face.

"Yes Ben?" Joe glances at him as they move a bit farther out of the forest. He is looking for...well, he will know it when he sees it. He hopes.

"So, you think I'm cute, huh?"

"What?" Joe squawks and stops dead. Ben's smile slips just a bit.

"A little while ago, you said you thought I was cute with my, erm. Puppy dog eyes."

"Oh yeah, no, I said that EXPRESSION was cute. You are definitely not cute, Ben."

"Oh." Ben's smile is totally gone and he feels cold and a bit sick. More than a bit. Shouldn't have said anything, Ben, you idiot. "... Right."

Tightening his grip on Ben's wrist, the one of the arm around his neck, and rubbing circles on Ben's skin with a thumb, Joe starts moving again, murmuring "...No, you're really friggin hot, actually."

"What?"

"What?" Joe lifts his head, all innocent. "Did you hear something? Dang mockingjays singing again!" he grins and shakes his head as he glances sideways at Ben, whose own smile returns now in full-force if a little bashfully. Joe can hardly stand it. Even sweaty and still mostly grey from rock paint, visible skin pale from pain and loss of blood from his leg, Ben is still incredibly attractive, blond hair glowing in the light, oceanic eyes sparkling. It's enough to take Joe's breath away and stymie him, because seriously what the heck. He swallows hard and looks away, remaining distracted due to Ben's proximity and warmth, and somehow he smells good, has this fresh scent... "Aha!" Joe crows, spotting it, the perfect place for them to go, and thanking his lucky stars for noticing it. Especially now; he could certainly use the distraction.

"What is it, Joe?" Ben asks. "What's with the 'aha', mate?"

"This!" Joe veers off from where they'd been walking with feet dragging in the shallow water, just so Ben's tracks might not be noticed heading this way. So no one will follow, expecting an easy kill because he's injured. Cinching Ben's body tighter to his side, Joe helps him across some sandstone to a place where the layers part and show a little rock fall and the shadowy entrance to a cave that goes back a good bit. "Oh, yes," he bounces happily and crouches, Ben grunting and extending his leg as best he can. "This is awesome. Okay, I think you'll need to sit down and scoot in, Ben, but there's some open space in the back, I think. Here we go." Gently easing Ben down onto his bum at the entrance, Joe crouches and crab walks backwards, hands around Ben's ribcage as Ben grits his teeth and uses his arms and his good leg to move himself into the cave

Joe is right; though the ceiling is low, they brush against it if they try to move into a position any more upright than sitting-- the entrance widens out and a divot in the ground widens to allow Ben space to stretch out on an angle. A rock shelf exists on the right-hand side of the cave by the mouth, and a tiny vent in the rear allows sunlight to shine in. Just a bit, but it gives the cave airflow, keeps it from being stifling. Ben breathes easy, or as easily as he can with the pain; he shuffles to lie down, stretching his legs with a gasp and remembering "My shirt and stuff," he said. "It's--right alongside my rock fall, kinda tucked under,"

"Yeah I know," Joe's eyes crinkle. "Saw you being an exhibitionist over there. I got it." He unzips his backpack, into which he had stuffed Ben's shirt after seeing it upon initially standing up with him. He does his best to smile, handing the garment over. "Here."

"Thank you," Ben whispers as he accepts the shirt, fingers touching Joe's, and he catches hold of the other's hands. "Seriously, Joe. Thank you for doing this for me."

Joe shrugs. "Ah well what can I say? Can't let you walk around with your shirt off the whole time getting ogled, I'm a jealous guy." Before Ben can decide if he heard that right and whether the other was joking or not, Joe slaps his own knees and says "But I gotta get some water for you to wash off your war paint. That looks kinda itchy, is it?" He reaches out and touches Ben's skin with two fingers.

Ben smiles. "Yeah, it's-- augh!" Agony like a tongue of flame suddenly shoots through his wounded leg and he doubles forward, beads of sweat popping up on his forehead instantaneously. Joe shifts closer as Ben automatically grasped his shirt and dragged him in, responding to the pain.

"Hey Ben, it's okay. Here, squeeze my hand, all right?" Joe's voice is a tad wobbly for an instant but his eyes appear unfazed. Ben latches on to his offered grasp and clutches, shaking.

"It hurts, oh god it hurts," Ben whimpers, bowing his head with tears in his eyes. He is so ashamed, he hates this, even though it's a legitimate reason to be whimpering like a child. "It--the pain comes in waves, ever since about ...well a few hours after it happened. I wish it would hurt all the time rather than--ahhh!" Ben clutches Joe's hand and closes his eyes, trying not to shout too loudly, because who knows who might be listening. But he's in so much bloody pain.

He finds his forehead pressed to Joe's neck and shoulder, and the other man's free arm is wrapped around his dirty body, stone paint be damned. "It's okay," Joe soothes, rubbing Ben's shoulder. "It's okay, Ben, I gotcha." He knows not to say he's all right, that they're going to be; he can't do that, has learned, since Rami... Closing his own eyes Joe swallows a sob and holds Ben until his breathing slows down and he loosens his hold on Joe's hand. Does not relinquish it, and Joe feels him shaking and shuddering. "Ben, are you cold?" He asks.

"Y-yeah," Ben replies, eyes piteous. "Prob'ly because I'm n-not wearing a shirt though, right?" He tries to joke.

Joe smiles. "Yeah, that's it. Til I get water and you can put your shirt on, here." Opening his pack again, Joe pulls out and shakes open his blanket, tucking it around Ben as the blond shifts to lie back on the floor of the cave.

"Why...why ARE you doing this?" Ben asks in a small voice. "Why're you helping me, Joe?" After what he had done allying himself with the Careers, and ditching during training, and-- "Everything I've done to you here," his voice cracks.

Joe's hands still. Because-- you're awesome, and I care about you, and I always want to see your eyes looking at me the way they are right now... But most important: "You helped me once," he blurts out, voice a trifle strangled as he zips his bag up again and carefully lays it under Ben's head as a makeshift pillow after first withdrawing his knife and canteen for both safety and water-procuring purposes. "And a little help can mean so much. Here you're trying to survive, I get it. That's why you did what you did. But you helped me survive, before. Ya probably don't even remember...,"

Ben shakes his head fiercely. "No, I do. Of course I do." He couldn't believe his eyes when he saw Joe out behind the bakery that day, looking so pale and tired but sweet and hungry and-- "I should have brought you inside," Ben now says, furious at himself. "Should have let you get warm by the fire, or at least walked right up to you and handed you the bread in the rain rather than tossing it, but no. I was a bloody coward!" The blond clenches his jaw and turns his face away in shame.

Joe is taken completely aback. "What-- no, Ben, you weren't a coward at all, you were awesome! You-- you saved my life that day, got me up and going to help my family. You gave me hope." Ben makes a strangled disbelieving sound. "It's true," Mazzello insisted, leaning forward to look into Ben's eyes. "besides, your...your mom was already pissed, if you came out to me...,"

"I still ought to have done it," Ben gasps. "I love you, and when you love someone you do things for them all the time even if you suck at making bread, and can't talk to people or dance at all and--" he's rambling, babbling, pupils huge and dark, facial features sweaty, cords straining in his neck, and Joe puts a hand against his forehead in rising concern. He takes heed of those words as connection to Ben's shift in skin temperature.

"God, Ben, you're getting hot," he says.

Ben cocks his head as though confused, panting a bit. Like a little golden puppy, Joe cannot help but think. Oh, boy. "...Thought y' said I was already hot, Joe."

"True, but I'm talking about your temperature now," Joe flushes just a little as he pushes back the other man's sweaty hair. Ben closes his eyes at the touch, long lashes fluttering on his plump flushed cheeks. Oh, boy. Focus, Joe. "You've got a fever I think. Actually I'm positive, your leg--" he shifts the blanket to look at it, and feels the heat of the skin. Ben lets out a tiny cry as he touches the knee, nowhere near the wound itself, and Joe's chest clenches. He's in so much pain. It hurts to see, and he's reminded of his mother holding his father's hand, and him holding Rami's--no. He can't let Ben go like they did. Joe cannot bear it.

"What's wrong with me, Joe?" Ben wonders.

"You're fighting off an infection from that wound, I'm pretty sure. I'm getting you water and then-- I don't know, but I'll think of something, okay? We both will. Just hang on." Joe's tone of voice grows desperate, and impulsively he leans in and kisses Ben's flushed cheek. Ben's eyes widen in surprise. Joe is honestly surprised himself. "I'll be right back." He looks at Ben for another lingering moment and then crawls out the entrance of the cave, ducking his head to exit.

***

Joe goes out to the river and fills his bottle up, hearing strange animal sounds from the woods, screeching and screaming. "Glad I'm not in there anymore," Joe mutters. "Sounds like one heck of a party." He hears a human scream then, and the sound of a cannon. The anguished sound reminds him of Rami, puts him back in that little clearing in the woods with his friend's terrified grey eyes, and then his arrow through a throat, that spear through Rami...

Ben wakes up from the slight doze he'd fallen into to hear scrambling at the cave entrance. He recalls it is a cave as he opens his eyes and sees Joe, pale face almost glowing in the low amount of light, eyes stricken and haunted and pained. Ben tries to lift himself up, to ask what happened, but feels so weak and exhausted that he only licks his lips and stretches his arm out for Joe, to pat his shoulder or take his hand.

Thus Ben is surprised to hear Joe let out a cry and come to him, wrapping his arms around Ben and burying his face into the other's warm chest. Ben's feverish shakes have abated for the moment as Joe wraps arms and legs around him. He realises, and readies himself to let go, but Ben presses on Joe's rising back with one hand and whispers "You're alright, Joe." The expression in Joe's face, grateful and compassionate and broken all at once, makes Ben in his fever throw caution to the winds. He moves his grip from Joe's back to the side of his head and presses a long, lingering kiss to Joe's forehead and another to his cheek. They both move to lie flat and stretch out as much as they can, Joe remembering to carefully drip water on Ben to wash his body paint off, and watches the swirling colours leave his soft skin clean before Joe carefully bathes Ben's face in water as well, doing what he can about the fever. He reaches out to give Ben his shirt, but Ben says "Leave it," and pulls Joe back against his chest, strong bare arms wrapped tightly around him. Maybe it is the fever talking, certainly it makes no logical sense since Joe's looking after HIM right now, but "Easy, Joe," Ben whispers, lips brushing against the other man's hair. "I've got you, mate."

Joe, still shaking a bit with emotion, buries his face against Ben's neck and keeps his arms around him. "Thank you, Ben," he chokes. "And I--I've got you too."

Ben looks at him as Joe tips his face up, and deep voice warm with affection, Ben whispers "I know you do."

Chapter Text

Joe wakes sometime later to hear the steady beat of Ben's heart and feel the softness of his skin and the tickling of the fine hair on Ben's bare chest against his cheek. Ben's muscular arms are wrapped around Joe's shoulders, hands linked together at his back, and though sweat stands upon the skin of Ben's face, his skin feels cool next to Joe's. Carefully, moving as silent as he is able, Joe lifts his face and shifts one hand to put the back of his hand to Ben's forehead. He expels a sigh of relief as the skin is no longer scorching to the touch. And then he lets out a tiny sharp sound as he registers that Ben's eyes have fluttered open. "Uh, hi Ben," he says.

"Hi," Ben whispers, swallowing. His eyes rove over Joe's face and his arms tighten around him for an instant. Joe watches the flush crawl up Ben's cheeks and a look fills his eyes as if he cannot believe Joe is here next to him, holding on. It makes a burst of compassion bubble up in Joe's chest, warring with an intense amount of sadness; it truly sucks that Ben would not believe he is someone that another person would want to be, or wake up, close to.

"How're ya feeling, man?" Joe asks now, rubbing up and down Ben's side with his hand.

"I'm--" Ben swallows, shifts, takes stock. Winces, but his eyes are clearer than before. Much clearer. "I'm alright, yeah. Still in pain, but I don't feel cold anymore."

The skin around Joe's eyes crinkles and his mouth stretches into a gigantic, relieved grin. "That's amazing news, Ben. You don't feel like you have a fever, but we definitely still need to get you some medicine or something." He thinks of something and shifts a bit. "Maybe... I don't know if this'll work, but. I've got some burn ointment that's antiseptic. If I put a bit of that around your wound it might help a little." Joe sits up, Ben's arms dropping from their spot around his shoulders, and he carefully leans past Ben, under his head to unzip the pocket of his pack that holds the burn ointment Roger sent. He ends up with his face less than an inch away from Ben's, and sees Ben's eyes widen and travel over Joe's face, his eyes, nose, cheeks, and lips. Ben wets his own lips and then inhales sharply through his nose. Joe finds the small container and withdraws it, sitting up.

Ben feels a twinge in his chest as his head tilts forward, and he reaches up to rub at the back of his neck. clearing his throat before shakily tugging his shirt over his head. "Did you say-- did Roger send you that?" the blond inquires quietly as Joe opens the lid and dips his fingers into the ointment. Ben obediently pulls the material of his pants apart enough for Joe to reach the edges of the wound.

"Yep, he did," Joe nodded, reaching down and gently rubbing the ointment on Ben's skin. Ben gasps and shuts his eyes, and Joe sees pus and blood oozing out of the cut as he swirls his fingers, trying to rub as much ointment as he can without causing undue amounts of pain. He looks up at Ben, whose eyes are now closed and who is biting his lower lip until it beads with blood. "Sent it down the night after I got burned, when I was in the tracker jacker tree." Joe withdraws his fingers from the skin around Ben's wound and asks "Has he given you anything?"

Ben's eyes open again and he tucks his chin. A piece of light hair falls over his forehead as he shakes his head. "Nope," his deep voice is rough. Why Roger wouldn't help him, Ben doesn't know. Maybe he's too pathetic, maybe Roger's written him off, maybe--

His self-doubting thoughts are cut off by Joe putting the salve back in his pack and then telling him "Well I'm here to help ya, and he can work with both of us now. Should be easier for sure," Joe laughs. "You know he's gonna be so pumped about the possibilities for sponsors. If we win maybe we can start that Tribute Chique fashion line after all."

Ben chuckles. Good ol' Joe and his jokes. Lighthearted at the best possible times. Ben remains both astounded and impressed by that. "Yeah, and Brian could help us," he enthuses.

"Oh definitely. He'll make all the greatest designs for us to wear, and everybody will be swooning over you."

Ben shoots Joe a shy smile. "That--doesn't matter so much to me," he says softly. "I only want one person to swoon. I--I mean, not actually, nobody needs to legitimately pass out, I..."

"Benny," Joe puts a hand on the other man's shoulder, gaze warm and voice gentle. "I got what you meant there, buddy. Easy. Besides, have you SEEN you?" He waggles his eyebrows and fans himself now cheekily. "I'd definitely be swooning."

***

Joe heads out for more water and to see if he can shoot some food for them soon. He knows Ben needs to eat, though if he is still in so much pain, he might need something easy on the stomach. Which is not squirrel meat--that's tough, gamey, greasy. Joe is peering into the river to try spotting fish, wondering if he can shoot one with his bow (that would almost certainly be frowned upon in District Four, sorry Gwil), when he hears another beeping sound. A sponsor parachute.

This one holds a large container, about half the size of his head, and he hopes it might be medicine for Ben's leg, at least til he feels the warmth within upon catching it. "Soup," Joe says aloud, stomach grumbling. He's a little disappointed that it's not medicine, but soup will definitely do as an easy-on-the-stomach meal for Ben. Attached to the covered bowl is another note from Roger.

Alright, you ought to do more than SOLELY keep yourselves alive with this. Don't force me to find a way to send you lads a candlelight supper. Up the ante already! ~ Roger

Anything but subtle is their mentor. Joe puts the note away and shakes his head, laughing a little as he imagines Brian's gentle presence trying to soothe Roger, who of course would be sighing dramatically about how ridiculous they are. Need to do what they've got to do, and also keep the viewers interested. Slinging his bow back over his shoulder, he carries the gift back into the cave and ducks his head to crawl in. "Honey, I'm home!" Joe chirps in a sing-song cheery manner. "And I even brought us dinner."

"Ooh," Ben's features appear drawn and a trifle pallid from pain, but he appears genuinely excited as he lifts his tufty head. "What is it?"

"Soup," Joe crawls over, unscrewing the top of the bowl with a flourish, finding the spoon that has been attached to the inside of the lid. "Hot soup," he continues as he stops next to Ben, scooping some of the broth into the spoon and blowing on it. "Here, lemme tempt ya." Ben smiles and leans forward as much as he can, opening his mouth for the spoon. Plump lips close around it as he swallows, the muscles in his jaw and throat working. Joe almost has a heart attack. He clears his throat and draws the spoon back as Ben lets go of it. "Any good?"

"Yeah," Ben licks and then smacks his lips, eyes catching Joe's. "Scrumptious." Shadows of the cave dance across his face as he smiles, accentuating his slightly-crooked nose and the fullness of his cheeks. Joe has no idea what he's doing, it is as though his brain catches fire. But when Ben's deep voice asks "D'you want to taste some, Joe?"

Joe returns "Oh, I want to taste SOMETHING--" and he moves in, kissing Ben directly on the mouth.

Ben's body jerks and his eyes grow wide. Joe's lips feel lovely on his and he shifts the soup bowl out of the way with shaking hands. His heart is pounding and he lifts his hands now to thread his fingers through Joe's hair as he kisses him back, hard. Oh, he's so happy, over the moon--he cannot believe this is happening. Joe gasps as Ben's lips move with his to continue the kiss and deepen it. He feels as though he could burst like a bubble. Light fills his entire body. He feels Ben's hands in his hair, clutching his head tightly, and his hands are gripping fistfuls of Ben's shirt as their lips fit perfectly together, plump and narrow, soft and strong.

At last they break apart, Ben gasping just a bit. "Well, uh," Joe swallows, swiping his thumb across his lips and blinking. "That was some pretty darn good soup."

His heart pounding, Ben's voice breaks roughly. "I--you're telling me," he picks up the bowl. "Just in case, I think we ought to try some more." Joe's eyes brighten as Ben tips up the bowl and drinks before looking at Joe again. "You... want another taste?"

"Ooh, saucy Ben," Joe beams, a mischievous glint sparkling in his eye. "That's new." Ben freezes for an instant, but Joe immediately puts his mind at ease as he assures "I like saucy Ben. So definitely, fill 'er up!" He leans in and kisses Ben again.

Chapter Text

The night passes by with cuddles and murmured conversations. Tiny bits of wood and dried moss are placed into the empty soup tureen and lit so as to make a little lamp in the cave. It lends a softness, a comfortable atmosphere that helps Joe open up a bit, talk to Ben about Rami, about how great it was to be his ally, to get to know him as a friend. Keeps the sorrow at bay. Well, that as well as the fact that Ben has wrapped his warm strong arm around Joe's shoulders. "His twin brother sounds hilarious," Joe says. "Rami said Sami'd want these to be the Kissing Games, and first tribute to make out with everyone else wins."

Ben's eyebrows rise almost into his hair. "Is that what made you kiss me, then, mate? Testing the idea out?"

Joe gasps "What, no! Of course not, Ben, how could you THINK that?! You wound me!" Ben gazes at him in silence and Joe adds "...Okay, that conversation might've brought up the fact I thought you'd be a good kisser. And for the record, I was right!" He lifts his face to speak the final phrase into the air. Take that, naysayers! Feels Ben begin shaking next to him and instantly worries "Whoah, what's wrong, Ben? Are you cold again?"

Ben is shaking not with a chill but with suppressed laughter. His smothered laughs turn into legitimate ones, and then he is giggling, tears of mirth filling his eyes. "Oh, Joe, I'm just imagining-- when you mentioned this while talking to Rami, all the television producers must've perked up--and now they'll be so disappointed."

Joe starts grinning now too. "Mike Myers is probably crying, I bet he wanted to announce for the show. 'this is NOT just for funsies anymore, ladies and gentlefolk--the kissing is real!!'" With a surprisingly good accented vocal impression Joe imitates the pompous interviewer and Ben bursts into laughter again.

Joe's entire face brightens as he sees Ben's smile and hears his laugh. Those young-looking features appear so different when light-hearted, there is a strength and contentment to Ben, even in his still-obvious pain, even in this crappy situation. He is carefree in the midst of laughter and Joe is smiling so hard in response that his face hurts. "Ah, Joe," Ben gasps at last, wiping tears of mirth from his eyes, "Thank you. I needed that."

"You're welcome, my friend," Joe says warmly. Ben's eyes rove over his face and he licks his lips and reaches out, patting the side of Joe's head.

Movement of Ben's tongue across his lips makes Joe notice how dry they are, and though his fever has broken, the springiness of Ben's skin is not pronounced. "You need more water," Joe says, and he crawls out of the cave as the sound of rain begins. Letting out a shriek that Ben chuckles at, Joe charges into the deluge that turns out not to be one of rainwater.

Ben's body clenches and he rises upright, heart pounding and hand going to the spear Joe left as he hears more shrieking, sounding fearful this time. Sees the shape of a person, dark, not pale like Joe at all, scrabbling at the cave entrance and ramming into the side. "Benny, it's me," a strangled voice, Joe's, is expelled as he lifts his hand to wipe his eyes. Ben sees the redness, bright, covering his face in its entirety, dripping from his chin. Ben's guts feel like they've been gripped so tight as to practically explode with his intense burst of fear. Blood.

"God, Joe, is that-- what happened?" He's pulling Joe in, not caring about wrenching his wounded leg, though of course he starts sweating from agony as he moves, but Ben just wants to feel Joe's skin, know he's all right. That is a lot of blood.

"Don't worry, Ben, it's not mine," Joe promises, shifting under the drenched cloth of his clothes, wrinkling his nose. He grabs one of the large leaves he'd brought in earlier in some crazy thought to bandage Ben's leg without any way to keep the leaves in place once he'd done it, so yeah. That idea had been scrapped. But he's got some makeshift wipes now, and does his best to get blood off his face and arms and hands and hair. "It's--ugh, it's raining blood out there." It was COLD blood too, like someone thought it would be a stellar decision to pour an opaque icy deluge down from the sky and use blood to scar the tributes who were outside. Joe doesn't know what kind of person would think to come up with that, but whatever the reason for it, he is shivering and he is livid.

Joe shifts his shoulders back and forth under the clingy, saturated fabric of his shirt, wrinkling his face. "This, this is super gross. I mean why, who sits down and decides: you know what would be an awesome idea--if we forced a bunch of people to bathe in blood for an hour for...for no REASON. Gamemakers, obviously," he answers his own question. "But is this fun?" Joe bawls out as he flings both arms wide, sitting abruptly on the cave floor and ramming his knuckles into the wall because he hasn't room enough to stretch out completely. He scoffs, smothering a yelp. "I really hope it's fun for somebody because I for one am not laughing." He balls a fist and pounds the cave floor a couple of times in frustration.

Ben watches and listens, wishing to help somehow; he has felt the same level of frustration Joe is feeling now, wishes desperately that he could do something about it. "I want to do something," he tells Joe fervently. "What, I don't know. But this can't go on."

"... Something's gotta give," Joe responds, nodding. "I agree with ya, buddy. Right now it's the rain. Ooh!" He shivers violently and Ben knows he's got to get out of those freezing blood-clotted clothes. For his health and because that's certainly got to feel gross.

The blond tribute swallows, hoping Joe won't take this the wrong way, but "Joe," he whispers. Joe looks at him and Ben clears his throat, speaking louder. "You... I think you may want to get out of those clothes, mate. Get yourself warm." As Joe looks at him with an eyebrow rising, Ben bumbles "I--I'm not saying, I mean. It's not like I want you to erm. Get naked, or anything. I'll turn away, won't look. But, here." He picks up Joe's blanket and holds it out, ducking his head, flustered. "At least use this."

"Hey, Ben," Joe says to him, kicking off his squelching shoes and working on his tshirt "it's okay, I don't mind. Getting warm is probably a good idea." His torso is shaking now as he hauled the saturated shirt over his head, smears of blood lining his arms and neck before he makes a face and flails to get his pants off his legs, as they are clinging to his skin. Joe takes the blanket and wraps it around himself, still shuddering, and shuffles towards the entrance to lay out his clothes and wipe the blood off with more leaves. "Ya can raise your innocent eyes now," he quips, grinning, and Ben looks over at him. Joe's huddled down against the wall of the cave, head and just a strip of his pale shoulders exposed. Ben shuffles to lie back down, now beside him, and tries not to stare. Doesn't know if Joe feels comfortable moving closer for warmth, even though he fell ASLEEP on you already, Ben, come on--but the other solves the quandary of to ask or not to ask by shifting over and inquiring himself: "Is it cool if I cuddle with ya?"

His heart pounding, Ben swallows hard. Wonders if Joe can hear it. "Of--of course," he manages, voice wrecked, a croak. Maybe Joe will just think he's tired, or that his leg wound is hurting again. But Joe smiles as Ben raises one arm to allow the other man to lie against the side of his chest, and Joe reaches one chilly bare arm across Ben's midriff, feeling his muscles twitch with surprise and then settle.

"Thanks," Joe says, his head resting on the fleshy place between Ben's pectoral muscle and his shoulder, almost in his armpit. "G'night Benny."

Curling around a little as he feels Joe shiver, Ben rests his cheek against the other man's hair, feeling it scratch a bit as it has dried in strange curving spikes from the bloody rain. Moving his uninjured leg over Joe's bundled ones to help him get warm, Ben rests his chin on Joe's hair instead. Joe sighs gratefully. "Of course," Ben murmurs. "Sleep well Joe."

***

Joe wakes to feel warm and well-rested, and to find his head once again pillowed upon Ben's chest. He tilts his face up as he feels Ben's body tense, and realises a sound has triggered that tenseness. Ben's hand tightens around Joe's shoulder as a booming voice speaks.

"ATTENTION TRIBUTES. AS OF SUNRISE THERE WILL BE A FEAST. EACH OF YOU NEEDS SOMETHING DESPERATELY TO SURVIVE. YOU MUST COME TO THE HORN OF PLENTY TO COLLECT YOUR FARE. HAPPY EATING AND MAY THE ODDS BE EVER IN YOUR FAVOUR."

Soon as the last echoes are gone, Ben and Joe look at each other. Ben says "It's a bloodbath--"

As Joe speaks "They'll have medicine for your leg. That's what we need."

"No, Joe, don't even think about it, mate--they're drawing us, well one of us there so it'll be like the beginning all over again, that first fight at the Horn. Not to mention what if that, that lightning strikes again, or more blood rains down? What'll you do?"

"Well I'll just have to be really quick grabbing your medicine," Joe jokes. "Faster than lightning and whatever else there is."

Ben is not joking now. "I'm serious, Joe. You can't risk yourself like this for me. I'm not worth-- I won't let you." He grabs onto the other's arm as Joe physically starts to move, to go for his clothes which have dried by this time.

Ben's grip is like iron despite everything, and Joe goes still. He feels his heart speeding up as he speaks, voice growing frantic and garbled "Ben, you've gotta let me go, please. I can do this for you. I'll be careful, shoot first and ask questions later, I'll-- I'll even leave you the spear to keep yourself alive and safe, but I've got to do this. I've got to."

"Why, Joe?" Ben's voice is cracking. Joe means so much to him, he can't bear the thought of sending him out to die, because he remembers Joe saying what would happen if he were to get jumped, and Ben won't even be able to help.

But Joe stares at him, expression broken, and Ben's heart clenches painfully as his fellow tribute practically screams "I can't watch someone else die in front of me, Ben! I saw my father, I watched Rami, and I can't--I won't lose you too. Not if I can prevent it, Ben. And I can do this, get your medicine and keep you alive. I will." Joe pulls himself free from Ben's now weakened grasp and kisses his cheek. "Please let me do this, okay?" His voice wobbles even as he tries to shoot Ben a reassuring smile. "Don't stop me now." Joe shifts the spear over and picks up his clothes, slipping into his shoes. The blood has dried into a brown crust, and he figures that can probably work as camoflauge.

As he pulls his pants up pale legs and ducks into his shirt again, Ben's eyes follow the movements. He knows Joe feels he needs to do this. But oh god, Ben is getting the horrible, helpless feeling that he is sending Joe Mazzello to his death by not arguing against him going anymore; not forcing him to stay somehow. But he can't, and does not want to. He doesn't want to tie Joe down.

Joe slings his bow across his back and gives Ben a thumbs up, and his fellow tribute smiles, or tries to, as he exits the cave.

Chapter Text

Joe pounds swiftly through the forest, moving along the river first and up into the trees, back to the central clearing, and he stops. His ears ring from the remembered explosion first; he recalls the blood and dirt blown sky-high, and then remembers that other explosion he created, hears Rami's anguished cries again, sees the spear piece his innards. He sees his father, slumped, in the house unable to even muster enough strength to raise his arms above his head. Joe is shaking, falling to his knees at the edge of the clearing, vision blurring now though he'd seen parcels around the Horn of Plenty first, numbers of districts emblazoned on their sides.

Joe presses his hands into the dirt and grass, and his eyes fasten on a tiny flower in front of his knees. A burst of colour in this horrible place, bright as the flowers his father always used to bring home, bright as the smile his mother gave her husband when she slipped into his weak arms and kissed his cheek. Bright as Rami's kind grey eyes, as John's laugh, Mary's hugs, and the touch of Ben's lips. Joe breathes and his shakes lessen, his eyes clear. He rolls his shoulders, lets himself settle. He can do this. He has to do this. He is going to do this for Ben, for himself, and for his family. Joe gets up and sees a tribute from Eight, he thinks, dart out of the trees on the opposite side of the clearing, grab their bag and run. He whistles in admiration as he spots the bag with the number Twelve on it. Pulls his bow off his back just in case, and runs. Charges and is almost to the pack when he hears a sound off to his side and turns in time to spy the silvery metallic glint of a knife flying through the air.

Not quick enough to raise his pack to block this time, Joe feels the blade slice into his eyebrow before a gout of red covers his eye--crap, not blood again--and he is tackled by a lithe form. The Career girl Ben had talked to. "Oh," she singsongs as she straddles him, sharp knees going into his upper arms and elbows so he cannot lift himself to dislodge her. She puts her body's weight on his torso. Joe kicks ineffectually as her eyes slowly, deliberately move from his straining, bleeding face to the bag. "...You're getting this for Pretty Boy, right? Think you can save his life after the wound we gave him? Ah, that's adorable. You couldn't even save your little friend from us. Bug Eyes. What was his name...?" Joe makes a furious movement, a twist, but all her weight remains on top of him and one of his legs is caught into a position that grows painful when she presses down.

She twists her knife and brings it to his face again. Joe winces as he feels the heaviness of a slice and then more warm wetness spreading down his cheek. Great, even MORE blood. "Rami," Joe gets out, wishing his friend was still here.

"Rami, that's right! Good. Well this has been fun, but now I'm going to gut you like a fish and go find Pretty Boy, talk about our alliance. Or maybe I'll just let him die slowly--" her threats are cut off as she moves the tip of her knife to touch Joe's exposed breastbone, and then out of nowhere she is jerked backwards off of Joe and a hand is around her throat.

"Is that true?!" A lilting voice yells at her. "YOU killed Rami? You killed him!"

"No, no it wasn't me!" She screeches, panicking, choking and trying to get away as Joe recognises Rami's friend Allen, his eyes wild and cheeks red. He is spitting and squeezing, furious. Her eyes are bulging, face going red and then purple before he drops her to the ground again. Joe's scrabbling back, unsure what to do as Allen's eyes latch onto his, and then the girl is up again, somehow still alive. Joe wobbles to his feet.

"Joe, duck," he hears before a three-pronged spear, a trident, flies past him and strikes the girl in her neck, sternum, and diaphragm. The uppermost tip passes through her windpipe completely and she makes a gargling noise as blood spurts out of the wound and out of her mouth before she falls. A cannon booms, its abrupt loudness making Joe screech.

Allen snatches up his bag along with hers, locks eyes with Joe again, and says "For Rami," before he takes off running in the opposite direction and disappears.

***

Joe's heart is thudding madly and his head continues to bleed as he turns to see a pair of long legs stride past him to jerk the trident out of the body of the Career girl. "She oughtn't have said she was going to gut you like a fish," the same voice that told Joe to duck says, and then there are a series of heaves as its owner's dark head lowers and is sick on the ground.

Oh, Gwil. Joe is moving and patting the tall man on the back even as he glances around nervously. "Hey Gwil," he speaks softly. "Thanks for the assist, man. I uh, think we oughta get moving."

Gwilym nods, trying to smile as he spits and wipes his mouth, standing straight again. He clutches the haft of his trident as his light blue gaze meets Joe's hazel-brown one. "Hi Joe, I agree. Let's get out of here." Picking up his District Four bag, he slings it over his shoulder and studies Joe's face, looking closer this time, squinting. "Mate, you're bleeding."

"I'll be fine," Joe demurs, shaking droplets of blood out of his eyes. "Just gotta get this back to Ben." Gwilym nods, eyes crinkling with understanding, and then he swiftly lifts one arm and rips the edge of his sleeve with his teeth, pulling off a long swathe that he then wraps and knots around Joe's forehead to sop up at least some of the blood.

"There, that'll keep, help ya stay fine," Gwil says briskly, patting Joe's shoulder.

Mazzello swallows and looks up at Gwil before running into his chest for a hug. Gwil's body jerks but he automatically hugs back, looping his long arms around Joe's torso and rubbing his hand up and down the shorter man's vertebrae. His beard tickles Joe's forehead briefly as he bends his face down, and then they break apart to actually start moving, in sync and in-step.

"I advised Lucy to head down near the river, figure we can do something useful there, you know?"

"Yeah," Joe pauses, thinking rapidly. He wants desperately to trust Gwil, and Lucy too, but he doesn't want to lose anyone else. He has to get to Ben, focus on that first. Starts moving faster, Gwilym extending his long legs to keep up. Joe plans to break away once they get to the escarpment, before reaching the riverbank, but when they break out of the trees, Gwil points.

"There's Lucy, and--oh no," his chin juts out, eyes squinting again, and he's off into a sprint, breaking away from Joe. Who speeds up on his own as he slings his bow onto his back again, feeling it bump as he clutches the backpack to his chest, spotting an immobile form beside Lucy. He pulls his bow free and nocks an arrow, aiming directly at her.

"WHAT DID YOU DO?!?" Joe bellows. Lucy's stricken face rises, as do her hands.

"I-I saw him dragging himself with the--with that spear, and he got to the barrier, the shiny--"

"Force field," Joe gasps, recognising the sight and crackling electrical evidence.

"Yes," Lucy sniffles. "He hit it with the metal spearhead and went down."

Joe flies to Ben's side, for that is who it is, of course, and rolls him over. "Ben? Hey, Ben--he's not breathing," Joe gasps for air, seeing Ben's pale face, half-opened eyes, feeling no puff of breath, no heartbeat. "He's--he's not--!" Gwilym shoves past and grabs onto Ben, moving him to lie flat on his back on the ground and bending over him. Joe automatically pulls back the string of his bow again as he sees Gwil leaning down and fastening his lips to Ben's. What in the hell? The tall man lifts his mouth and then puts it on Ben's again before moving down his chest, lacing both long hands together, arms straight as he strikes atop Ben's heart straight down. Cupped laced hands coming down with enough strength, force, and weight to make Ben's whole body shake.

Counting off to thirty, "Come on, Ben," Gwil mutters as he pumps the blond's chest. "Stay with me here." He ducks to check for breaths before locking his lips on Ben's again, twice more, blowing air into his mouth and throat and lungs before counting out thirty more chest compressions. "Come on."

As time stretches out from seconds into minutes, Lucy stands back with her hands clasped before her face. She counts compressions with Gwil as her eyes fill with tears of sympathetic worry on Ben's behalf. Joe is shaking again, on his knees next to Ben, feeling the black cloud of despair falling over him; here it is, it's happening again, he's going to watch someone else-- and then a weak sucking in of air, a gasp precedes Ben's chest lifting at last. Breathing resumes. "Ben!" Joe cries, lunging over and hugging him tight as Gwil retreats, breathing hard. "Oh my god, buddy, hey!"

"...Hi Joe," Ben whispers hoarsely, sagging into Joe's embrace. "I think I might've ...overdone it a bit just now."

Joe laughs. He cannot help it. "Ah, Benny, come on. You're gonna be all right, I've got your medicine. Y'wanna sit up?" Ben nods and shifts with a groan as Joe relinquishes him from the hug and puts an arm around his shoulders instead.

As Joe is handed his pack, which he'd dropped, Ben's eyes rise to spot the other figures standing by. "Oh, Gwil," he says, low voice startled. "Hi. Hey, Lucy."

Lucy smiles in relieved greeting as Gwil nods, his blue eyes settling warmly on Ben. "Cheers, Ben," he says back just as quietly. Joe is taking out the leg medication and Lucy comes over to help him figure out what to do with it--not just a simple salve this time. Ben's gaze lifts to Gwilym's again in confusion. When did this all happen? Gwil pats him on the shoulder and smiles. "I'm really happy we found you. I was on the way back from the, er, Feast. Walked with Joe."

"Yeah, alright." Ben remains puzzled by this extraordinary chain of events but is not upset by it as Joe and Lucy minister to his leg and then Gwil's long body is beside him, helping him to his feet with Joe's help. Ben feels his ribs twinging as he moves and breathes deep, but at least he is breathing. He's grateful for that. They all head back to the cave, and Ben asks of Gwil and Lucy "Erm, are you both--?" He doesn't know how to finish his question, but Joe jumps in.

"Do you guys have a camp set up somewhere, uh, near here?" Joe asks, glancing at Ben, who nods gratefully at him. "Because I mean. This is nuts, but I think the cave's big enough, I don't wanna--"

"I think we're on the same side," Ben speaks quietly, shifting to sit and scoot himself into the cave, biting his lip as the movement jostles his leg. The medical treatment has made it feel less puffy, less hot already, thank god. Gwil crouches in front of him as does Lucy, and the blond tribute from District Twelve continues "...I mean, you lot just saved my life. Thank you, by the way." Joe nods in vehement agreement, squeezing Ben's hand. Gwil nods back and pats Ben's knee as Lucy beams. "So, I mean. If you want to stay round with us," he sweeps his free hand around at the interior of the cave. "You can."

"We're also close to the river as ya can tell," Joe adds. "Since you said being over here might be a good idea for you, Gwil."

Gwil looks to Lucy, who squeezes his arm. "I...don't know what's going to happen during the rest of these bloody Games," Gwilym speaks slowly. "But I don't want to hurt anyone else I don't have to." His light gaze appears broken as he ducks his head, crouching even lower, bending his long body forward in the limited space of the cave, into which they have all crawled to speak. "And I like you lads," he adds fiercely, eyes rising to catch both Joe's and Ben's. "I want us to be friends."

"I do too, so much," Lucy smiles sweetly, even as her voice breaks. She runs a pinkie underneath one eye to stop tears that threaten. "You're all so lovely, and Rami is--was too." Joe makes a slight sound as Lucy speaks Rami's name. He really ought to tell her what Rami said about giving her flowers.... He swallows hard and Ben wraps an arm around him as Lucy continues: "But anyway, I'd love for us to be allies. Friends. Look after each other here and everything."

"Seems like we're off to a good start," Joe cracks. "Gwil's already saved my life AND Ben's life." Ben's eyes widen at that and he looks sharply from Joe to Gwil, the latter inclining his head politely.

"Well, then, cheers," Ben intones.

"I'm chuffed," Gwil beams, putting out both hands to Ben and Joe, who take them. With a squeeze he relinquishes his grip and says "So, cue me getting us some fish to eat, right? And keep watch." He leans his head in and then shuffles around, trying desperately not to jab limbs into anybody's face as he does his best to exit the cave. "Oops, oof, sorry, there we are." He pulls himself out of the cave mouth and Lucy moves to stay at the entrance for a bit, leaving Ben and Joe to look at each other and Ben to grab at Joe's head as he truly notices the excess of coagulate gore, which is soaking and dripping through the strip of Gwil's dark blue shirt still tied around his forehead.

"Joe, you're bleeding like a stuck pig. My god." Ben carefully pulls the cloth away from Joe's skin. "A knife?" he asks. Joe nods, hissing a little in pain even as he tries to smile at Ben. "Oh, Joe. This is because you got the medicine for me. If you hadn't--"

"If I didn't you'd be dead twice, Ben," Joe blurts. Ben's forehead wrinkles and he cocks his face, looking like a little golden puppy. It's adorable, but Joe does his best to focus. "I mean from your leg and also from having your HEART STOP BECAUSE YOU RAN INTO THE FORCE FIELD. If I hadn't gone to the feast, Gwil wouldn't have come back with me to save your life, and I can't lose you, Ben. I can't." Joe is sniffling now as he grasps Ben's shirt.

Ben puts his hand to Joe's head, fingers running through the other's dark hair as he begins blinking rapidly in his own turn. "Joe, mate, it's alright. I'm still here. I'm sorry. Let me clean up your cut, okay?" He feels Joe shaking and is floored. He had no idea the guy cared about him this much.

But Joe dives into Ben's chest and presses his sound cheek to it, murmuring "I need you, Ben. You're my best friend." It seems crazy to say it, they've only known each other well for about two weeks or so, but he remembers it all now, and he wants to keep getting to know Ben better and in this place, in everything that is happening, yes, Ben Jones is his best friend.

Ben's heart performs a heavy thump, a leap as he holds onto Joe tightly, pressing his face into the other man's hair. "Thank you, Joe," he whispers, heart full. "You're my--" his best mate too, though Gwil is a candidate for friendship now, and Lucy as well, odd as that seems. But this is an odd situation. Yet Joe... Joe is something else. Something more. "You're my only." Only friend, love, family here in this awful place.

Chapter Text

It is a wonderful feeling to have allies. Real ones, as Ben is finding out. Again, as Joe thinks. Gwilym's fish are delicious, seared to perfection over a little fire a ways downstream so the scent of frying fish does not bring any of the other tributes still alive howling up to the cave, out for blood.

Once they eat and Joe has ointment on his facial knife wounds, he takes himself and his clothes to the river after scattering the remains of their fire, trying to scrub at least some of the dried blood away. "Try using some rocks, like these," Lucy says. She'd helped him get rid of the evidence of their fire as Gwil helped Ben back to the cave. The blonde girl crouches next to Joe and reaches into the stream, pulling up two smooth stones that she offers to him with a smile, warmth in her eyes and expression.

The way sunlight shines off the water, the stones, and her eyes causes Joe's heart to lurch. "Thanks, Lucy," he says with a gulp as he accepts them, lifting the stones in a salute before stroking the rock down his shirt, watching the cloth bunch and wiggle. He lets out a sharp sound and Lucy chuckles.

"Hang on, Joe, try moving it like this--small circles." She drops some grit onto the cloth of his shirt and takes one stone, dunking the garment into the water after rubbing circles and asking "See there?" as a cloud of rusty red rises out of the shirt and is washed away.

Joe crows in excitement, grabbing her in an exuberant embrace before he stops to think about it. Brian is going to be so psyched he hadn't stained his outfit. "Wow, that's awesome, Lucy! Thank you."

"Anytime, Joe," she smiles, leaning into his hug briefly before offering the shirt and rock back to him.

Joe accepts them and bends to work the rest of the blood free, his hands beginning to tremble a little as he does so. "Lucy, I wanna clear the air," he speaks to her slowly, glancing sideways. "I was--allied with Rami, before he...when he died."

"...Oh," Lucy's voice is a soft squeak.

"And he told me," Joe sniffles, blinking hard as he gets emotional all over again, recalling Rami's words, seeing him.... "He said--he wanted you to know that he was sorry, because he really wanted to bring you flowers one day." Joe's voice grows squeaky now too, wobbling more and more until the last. "He wanted me to tell you that." He and Lucy are both in tears as Joe pulls his now-clean shirt out of the drink and drapes it across some rocks onshore. He turns to take Lucy by the hands, in case she is not up for another hug in all the emotion, but Lucy throws her arms around his neck and holds on tight, shuddering.

"Oh, Joe, thank you for telling me that," she whispers at last as they hold onto each other, sobbing. Eventually Lucy pulls away a little to wipe her eyes. "Sweet Rami."

"He's--he was the sweetest." Joe nods rapidly, lips trembling. "I wish he was here."

"...If only I'd gotten the chance to know him better," she adds, eyes full of wistfulness and pain. "Oh, I would've loved to."

Oh, god. Joe chokes a bit on that wish, on his own; on thoughts of where they are, what they are doing here, and Ben... he swallows hard as he takes his next piece of clothing to wash and nods again, pressing her hand sadly. "Me too."

***

Ben is lying curled up slightly at the entrance to the cave. Gwil had helped him walk back after supper, and is now clearing refuse from his catching and gutting of the fish, washing and drying his trident as the two of them wait for Joe and Lucy to return. Ben shifts his legs a little and grunts in discomfort, though not agony like the sort he experienced before. It is already abundantly clear to him how much the medication Joe brought is helping.

Gwilym looks over as he hears Ben make a sound, blue eyes warm and openly concerned: "Ben, you alright, mate?" He inquires. "How's the leg?" Wiping his hands he lopes across the rocky ground to the cave entrance, putting down his trident and catching Ben's shoulder with one long hand. Gwil holds on to him in such a secure and gentle way, speaking and acting so compassionately, that the District Twelve tribute feels as though he might burst into tears. Right, okay, deep breaths Ben. You don't need to suffer an emotional meltdown every single time someone is kind to you.

The blond does his best to smile at Gwil. "Yeah, I'm good. Leg's doing good. Better for the fish, hot damn but you can cook."

Gwil inclines his head in gracious thanks, a slight blush colouring his high cheekbones. "Now all we need is one of your fantastic cakes," he returns. "I admit I've been salivating over the idea of having one ever since you told me about your baking, and Joe said you were the cake baker extraordinaire." Ben flushes now at the other's compliments. "They sound absolutely scrumptious."

"Well, cheers. I do alright baking at home," Ben sincerely tries to accept the compliment.

Gwil nods to him, squeezing his shoulder. "Yes, I heard from Joe that lots of people enjoy your cakes. He's impressed by the frosting of course, says it's sexy," Gwil lets out a laugh. Ben chuckles a bit in return. "But it's not just the frosting, it's the whole thing. He seems to think you're the entire package too."

Ben really blushes now, not looking directly at Gwil. "R-really?" His deep voice actually squeaks a little on the word, to his immense embarrassment. "When did he say," How d'you know this? yearns to ask, doesn't want to seem desperate. Ben, come on. "...I'm sure he was joking, because I know I'm not. I'm just a--" The pretty little baker's boy, so fragile and quiet. "--a pretty face." Ben shrugs as Gwil releases him, in agreement, Ben is sure. He tries to shrug offhand. "That's alright, though. I don't mind."

Gwilym's eyebrows go up. Ben is serious right now. He actually believes these things about himself. "Oh, Ben, no. You aren't at all that, mate--not just that, I mean. You're certainly a beautiful man," he smiles, "But you're also funny, and intelligent. And most certainly kind--you actually chatted with me at the Tribute Gala, come on. Most other people would've told me to piss off. A few did, actually. More than a few." Gwil remembers some other more colourful language used and quiets before adding brightly "Why d'you think I ended up by the drink table?" Ben stares at him and then begins laughing. "I'm serious!" Gwil cries. "No one would talk to me! Except you." His light blue gaze twinkles, satisfaction writ all over his angular features as Ben laughs.

"Oh, mate," Ben gasps with mirth, gripping Gwil's arm. "I'm sorry, it's just--the fact you're so upset that nobody talked to you. When you were about to go into the Hunger Games."

A slow smile spreads across Gwilym's face. "...Bit of a strange priority, eh?"

"Exactly, yeah!" Tears of joy stand in Ben's eyes as he guffaws once more. "Oh, that's beautiful."

Gwil makes a face and sticks out his tongue. "Alright, laugh it up," he sighs. "At least I've made some friends NOW."

Ben's laughter peters out then. He grows solemn. "But how long can this--can we--our alliance last?" he asks, almost wildly, fingers tightening around Gwil's arm almost involuntarily.

Gwil puts his hand over top of Ben's and squeezes it in reassurance. "Well I'm of the opinion that when we think we're through with life in here and all hope is lost, we've gotta hold out our hands because friends will be friends, Ben. Right--right to the end." The tall dark-haired tribute flips his hand over and extends it.

Ben takes hold. "Okay, Gwil," he says softly. Those blue eyes stare hard at him.

"Do you believe me?"

The soft, gentle kindness and surety in this man's gaze makes Ben's heart leap, and his assurances, along with Joe's optimism and Lucy's sweetness, all those things are making him hope. Which is frightening, to say the least, but he believes. "I do," he whispers, tightening his hold on Gwil's hand. "...Cheers."

"Cheers," Gwilym replies, and the look on his face and his nearness makes Ben really want to give him a hug. He wonders whether that would be appropriate or not.

"Gwil, can I--" Ben shifts awkwardly and Gwil lets go of his hand, making him feel bereft for an instant. He shuts his eyes. "Can I give you a hug?" He opens them and continues immediately "It's all right if not, I understand, that's probably way too forward and not appropriate in this setting and--"

"Ben, whoah, easy. Deep breaths mate," Gwilym soothes, taking hold of Ben's shoulders and rubbing his hands up and down the blond's muscular forearms. "Need I remind you that the second time we met began with me clamping my mouth on yours?" Ben flushes. The resuscitation, right. "...We practically made out, so I think a hug is alright. In order, actually."

"Okay, you made out with ME," Ben instantly corrects before thinking about it. "I was basically dead."

Gwil freezes, but before the other can apologise he grins. "Fair enough. I'm really glad to've been able to help you keep yourself alive, though, Ben. Really, truly glad." He pulls the shorter man into that hug now, arms wrapping around him. Ben cuddles gratefully into Gwilym's neck and chest as his tall friend, for Gwil is definitely a friend, presses his chin against Ben's hair, rocking a little with him back and forth.

Both men are equally grateful to the other for allowing, accepting this embrace.

***

Time passes. Ben is unclear just how much before Joe's boisterous tone of voice calls "Well I seem to've been replaced! Et tu, Gwilly?" he gasps.

Ben jerks back as Gwilym smiles easily over at Joe when he strolls up to them with Lucy beside him. "No worries on replacing you, mate. I'm positive I could never do that." Something in Gwil's face and voice as he speaks thus makes Ben ache to know what he means. How can Gwilym be so certain of these things, of what he means to Joe, and Joe to him? Well, he's been pretty obvious, Ben answers that internally as Gwil pats him once more on the back and rises to go to Joe and Lucy, wrapping an arm around each of their shoulders, Joe's slightly damp but clean clothes be damned. As Lucy leans into him and the District Four tribute feels her trembling, all his focus goes to his fellow tribute. "Oh Lucy girl, what happened? What did Joe do?" he pulls her against his chest and stares over her head at Joe, eyes flashing. He likes him, but if he'd done or said anything to make Lucy get like this--

She shakes her head against him, however, and clutches his shirt. "Nothing but tell me something unbelievably lovely that Rami said to him before he died." Lucy lets out a sob again, shakes her head, blonde tresses whispering back and forth as she attempts to compose herself. "I shouldn't be weepy like this; how awful."

"No, Luce," Her dear friend replies as he holds her tight. "You feel and do whatever you need, alright? I've got you."

He presses a kiss to the top of her head as she buries her face against him, hugging him tightly too. "Thank you, Gwil."

Eventually Lucy dries her tears and Ben does his before they all gather themselves and their weapons to place them in viable places to grab in the cave: "Time for an epic snuggle party, boys and girls!" Joe sings. "Also, to elaborate--holyshit Ben is STANDING on his LEG!" Ben had risen to check his balance and finds his wound is closed up, all the heat and swelling is gone. He's just got a scar, seen through the torn material of his trousers. An enormous, ropy scar, but no pain anymore. Just twinging if he touches it.

Instantly he's tackled in a hug from Joe as Gwil beams. "That's awesome, mate." Lucy kisses his cheek.

"I'm so happy for you, Ben."

"This calls for a group hug!" Joe announces, and everyone obliges.

Ben smiles, and though none of the four voice it aloud for fear of tempting fate, for the first time in this Arena, they believe they are going to get through--or at the very least have a solid chance of doing so--the Games all right. Together.

Chapter Text

The quartet of allies curls up together in their cave, Ben along the left wall, Joe beside him, then Lucy with Gwil on the right, stretched out so as to be able to swiftly and easily grab his trident where it rests, haft lying halfway inside the cave entrance.

"In case of any unwanted visitors or hanky panky. Keep your hands to yourself, Joseph."

Joe pouts. "Aw c'mon, Gwil, what if I wanna snuggle with YOU?"

"Well…," Gwil's conflicted expression sends Lucy into a gale of giggles.

"You've done this to yourself, Gwilym Lee. I can't help you."

"Don't look at me, mate," Ben lifts his hands in surrender. "I can't say no to this guy."

Joe waggles his eyebrows and shoots them all a self-satisfied smile. "I'm amazing like that," he says, smiling in such a sweet manner that even as they all groan at him and tell him not to get a big head, their hearts melt.

They end up puddled together in a bit of a dog pile, Ben wrapped around Joe's back, one arm under Joe's head, the forehead of which rests against Ben's chest. Lucy pillows her head on Joe's side, between his hip and ribcage, and Gwilym stretches on her other side, left arm thrown across her shoulders and fingers on Ben's forearm, legs wrapped round both Lucy's and Joe's, cuddling up so as to fit in the cave as comfortably as possible. His right arm extends towards the cave mouth where his hand curls loosely around the shaft of his trident. Just in case.

He is nearly asleep and feeling the comfort of the others' warmth alongside him, listening to their breathing, huffs and snoring that rises and falls. Gwil shakes Ben's arm gently as he realises he is where the loudest snores are coming from.

The tall man snuggles down as he hears the nighttime sounds of the Arena--the whispering wind and the strange lightning strike at midnight. Waking at that moment, Gwilym's eyes flutter closed directly after. His grip on his trident slackens and he sags into Lucy's back.

And that is when the screaming begins.

***

Ben jerks awake, heart hammering madly as he hears agonised shrieking in the distance. Joe shudders next to him, waking as well. All of Gwil's muscles are tense, his eyes trained out of the cave's entrance as he grips his trident with white knuckles. His left hand rests on Lucy's back as she has shifted next to him, curling a little closer as she watches and listens as well.

"What do you think--?" She starts, worrying her lower lip, unable to complete the question.

"Those monkeys?" Joe asks, voice wobbly and incredibly soft for him. Ben wraps an arm around his shoulders and Joe leans into his side gratefully.

"Monkeys?" Gwil echoes.

"It sounded like there were monkeys or something in the forest before," Joe whispers. "We had just found this cave to crash, me and Ben."

"Yeah," Ben adds. "Yeah, you went out for water, and I thought I heard something before you came back-- I remember them now. But Joe…," listening as the screaming continues, feeling his heartbeat crinkle in his ears, the blond gulps. "...I don't think this is the monkeys."

"Then what is it?!" Joe's eyes are wild.

Ben glances at Gwilym, whose eyes catch his and they both know what the other is thinking. Lucy closes her eyes as Gwil moves his hand from Lucy's back to grip Joe's shoulder. "I'm… I think it might be the beginning of the grand finale, Joe."

"...I was afraid you were going to say that," Ben mumbles.

Joe gulps and closes his eyes for a moment. "Well," his voice squeaks but he tries to steady it and smile at his allies. His friends. "Together we can handle it, right?"

"Right." Gwilym nods at him, light eyes warm. Lucy kisses his cheek and then leans against Gwil as she reaches out and presses Ben's hand.

Ben grips Lucy's hand back and looks at Joe, filling his eyes with him. This dear, buoyant, excitable, positive man he is in love with. In a split second he leans forward, pressing his lips to the skin of Joe's forehead. Joe's eyes close as Ben moves back and smiles. "We'll be good, mate," he utters, low voice sure. "I know that I will be because of you."

Joe beams at him, hazel eyes crinkling. "Awww Benny, that's so sweet I'm either gonna barf or get a cavity, I don't know which." Ben blinks, but before he can respond Joe moves in and kisses his round cheek to let the other know that he truly appreciates what Ben said. "All right, let's go rock 'em!" Joe screeches, as the sounds of screams have morphed into movement that sounds like pounding, galloping feet, and it seems to be heading their way.

Gwil is up and out of the cave first, holding up his trident menacingly and pulling Lucy to her feet. He tosses the spear to Ben as the blond stands up, and Joe pulls on his backpack and checks the string of his bow before offering Lucy his knife. "Here, you gotta have something to protect yourself," he tells her. Wants to ask what she's been using all this time, but with the strength and determination she grips that knife, along with how close she stands to Gwil, Joe is pretty certain he knows.

Footsteps, trampling, running out from the forest, enormous shapes splashing through the river-- "Hang on, hold the phone, are those… tigers?"

"Bears?"

"...Uh,"

"RUN!" A shout and the sight of a pale figure of middling height precedes the loping dark shapes.

"Shit, shit, shit--mutts, muttations, go go!"

Joe pulls his bow off his back and nocks an arrow as, charging toward him, to them all, face pale, arm bloody, eyes wide, is Allen. Rami's friend, sole tribute living from District Eleven, running in front of a group of creatures with bright almost glowing eyes. Like tracker jackers, these creatures are created by the Capitol with various aspects from multiple animals, and all of the characteristics chosen are ruthless. One of the creatures jumps at Allen, fangs gleaming, and Joe shoots, his arrow going through its nearer eye. It falls, mouth agape, eyes dimming. They truly look human. Specifically human. And on the side of the creature there are what appear to be scars or brands. A one. Joe gets a quick peek before more creatures come boiling out of the trees.

He hears Lucy scream as Gwil lets out a shout and another creature yelps. Ben grunts and the sight of his spear and Gwil's trident enter Joe's peripheral vision. He sees Ben's hand grasp the spear shaft and jerk it free from a twitching body on which the number three gleams in shiny scar tissue. Joe grabs onto Allen's arm as he falls, slippery wetness of blood saturating his skin, squelching between Joe's fingers. Allen groans and Gwil's arm is suddenly around his opposite side as Joe whispers an apology.

"Get out of here, Lucy-- go on, Ben! We'll follow you!" Joe has never heard Gwilym sound like that before, his tone of voice is desperate and high and shrill.

"Where do we meet?!" Ben's deep voice bellows over the shrieking and roars, sounds of the animals and of Allen too, now.

"At the--at the Horn!" Joe squawks as he locks eyes with Gwil, who nods. He then shifts his gaze to Ben, heart in his throat, in his eyes. "Ben--"

Ben's own heart thuds heavily as he stares at Joe across the expanse of ground between them. He sees the ache in his fellow tribute's eyes, the fear, and it hurts. So much. But he lifts his hand and replies "See you at the Horn, Joe," before putting his hand to Lucy's back and ushering her onward as Joe shoots down a mutt behind them.

***

Gwil wraps Allen's arm around his shoulder and the district eleven tribute gasps "Why are you taking me, helping? I'll only slow you down."

"Because we're not leaving anybody behind," Gwilym grunts and hauls Allen against him, clenching the shaft of his trident in his free hand as he starts to lengthen his strides. Joe stays by Allen's opposite side, panning his eyes and bow around.

"But--"

Joe shakes his head sharply, ears starting to ring. Again he sees Rami's face in his mind's eye. Hears the sound he made as the spear struck and sank into his diaphragm. His fingers clench around his bow, vision blurring. "No, no, no 'but's. I can't--I didn't leave Rami behind." And I didn't ditch Ben either. Allen gulps at his mate's name. "I won't leave you."

With a shaky breath, extending his blood-spotted hand, Allen smiles with gratitude in his eyes. His voice booms out hollowly, almost. "For Rami," he says.

Joe nods, grasps his hand, squeezes it. "Exactly. For Rami."

***

Ben pushes Lucy ahead, telling her to go, go, go, as he glances repeatedly behind him, wondering if the mutts are smart enough, or many enough to encircle them. And he worries about Joe. Gwil too, the pair of them stuck back with Allen, who is clearly hurt-- Ben could not tell how badly, but he seemed to be bleeding profusely. Yet with his own wound experience, he knows exactly how stubborn Joe is about leaving anyone behind.

Lucy shifts the knife into her other hand and reaches out to Ben, slowing down. "Lucy, what's wrong?" He asks. "C'mon, we've gotta get to the Horn."

"I know," Lucy bites her lip. "I'm just… Ben," she draws in a long, shaking breath, eyes gleaming with tears that he can see in the artificial moonlight as her voice wobbles, goes nearly silent "I'm scared."

"Ah, Lucy. Me too." Ben reaches out to her and takes her hand. "But I gotta, I gotta believe we can make it. We're not gonna stop, we won't turn our backs on each other, okay?" Lucy lets out a sharp wail. "Okay, hey, we'll be alright. Do you believe that? Gwil's got kick-arse trident skills."

Lucy wipes her eyes and almost smiles. "...and Joe's a dead eye with those arrows. Dead shot, great shot. Erm."

"I get what you mean," Ben reassures her gently. "See?" He nods. "They can do this. We can do this." He cannot quite believe he is saying this stuff, can't believe how hopeful he honestly feels. But he does, and he thinks he knows the reason, the cause. Joe. It's Joe. He's helped Ben so much. Ben looks at Lucy, who squeezes his hand with a gentle, knowing look. He flushes a bit. Had he said something out loud? But no; Lucy gets it, she understands what Ben's thinking, how he's feeling, because of Rami and the way she feels about him.

"We've got to go," she says, breathing deeply. "I know, I'm okay. I'm ready."

"Yeah?"

"Yes."

Ben tugs on her hand and starts moving, and she moves in-step with him. Together they run onward through the forest.

***

Joe and Gwil are practically carrying Allen between them now, Joe gasping as he holds his bow in his free hand, Gwil pressing his lips together and using his trident as a walking stick to help himself, them all, move forward. "Keep going, keep going," he mumbles, a mantra to himself and to Joe, Allen too.

Joe starts humming softly, Allen stares at him in stupefaction. "Is he...singing?"

Gwilym squints, and then he smiles. "I'm learning to roll with it," he says.

"My mentor always told us to keep ourselves alive," Joe pipes. So he is doing this for Roger as well as for himself, to keep his spirits up: "I was told a million times of all the troubles in my way, tried to grow a little wiser, little better every day!" As they slog through water and charge up sandstone, across the clear space to get closer to the Horn of Plenty clearing, "But if I crossed a million rivers and I ran-- rode a million miles, then I'd still be where I started, bread and butter for a smile!" He beams at Gwil and Allen, weary but hoping, praying for them all to get through.

Gwil nods back to him on Allen's other side, and his eyes brighten as he recalls a snatch of this tune-- it's a ripping ballad. He wants to say he'd heard it sung by the fishermen when he was a boy, selling cockles and mussels alive onshore. "Well I sold a million mirrors in a shop in alley way, but I never saw my face in any window any day."

Joe lets out a whoop of appreciation. "Attaboy, Gwil! Sing it, man!"

Gwilym ducks his head, and Allen, though weak and still half-convinced this is utterly ridiculous, cannot pretend he doesn't recognise the tune, as songs are present always in the trees. "Well, they say your folks are telling you to be a superstar. But I tell you just be satisfied, stay right where you are!!"

All three look at each other and crow into each other's faces: "Keep yourself alive! Keep yourself alive-- it'll take you all your time and money, honey you'll survive!!!"

The snarl of a creature and BOOM of a cannon sobers the group, as they had begun grinning (and laughing in some cases). Gwil grips Allen tighter by the arm and says "Let's go, Joe."

"Put it in overdrive," Allen grunts. Joe lets out a strangled sound as they charge through the trees with a final burst of speed, breaking through the foliage into the central clearing and seeing Ben and Lucy pinned against the Horn by the final Career tribute. From District Two, they think. And the remainder of the slavering mutts are still behind them.

Gwilym starts to slow down, trying to take in the situation; take stock, hatch a plan, but Joe can't take it and screeches "BEN!"

Chapter Text

Ben looks up with difficulty from the ground where his face is pressed into frigid mud.

He and Lucy had run across to the Horn, almost made it when out of the corner of his eye here came the big guy from Two, right at her. Ben had not stopped to think, he leapt onto the tribute's back, and in wrestling for Ben's spear, that was when Joe, Allen, and Gwil appeared. Ben hadn't seen them, he simply heard the mutts coming, circling. The breathing and padding of feet. And then the screech of his name from Joe slackened Ben's grip just enough for him to get thrown down and for his spear to be jabbed against his neck, pressing to his throat as the final Career tribute grins ferally down.

Lucy screams.

***

Joe is losing his mind. His heart and lungs feel like they are going to fall out of his mouth as he sees that bloodthirsty asslamp pushing Ben into the mud, taking his time with the spear. He looks over at Gwil, knowing the other man is trying to come up with a plan, but Joe can't wait for it. "I'm sorry, Gwil," he says.

Yet Gwilym gets it, he does. Takes Allen's weight completely onto himself, ripping his other sleeve to create a bandage for the tribute's arm wound. "Go on, Joe, go. I got this," he urges.

"You sure?" Joe gasps. "I don't wanna leave you--"

"Yes, go on, get to them!" Gwilym hisses. Joe has to help Ben and Lucy, there's no time. No place. Those mutts will be charging in; Gwilym is completely certain of that as he hears growling, yowls and huffs. Joe has the longest range weapon, it makes sense he's going-- Gwil watches him pull an arrow from his quiver and pull back the string before he looks back to Allen, who is wavering. "...I think I can getcha over, if these things don't charge," he murmurs.

Allen gulps and nods, fingers sliding over Gwilym's arm. "Don't wait on my account if you've got to move," his lilting tone is pleading with the tall man.

Gwil is prepared to say something else in retort when Joe's slightly shaky angry voice shouts "Hey, asshole!" At the tribute with his foot literally on Ben's neck, pressing him into the ground. Joe's back is stiff as he adds "Don't make me do this." His arrow is trained on the tribute's face.

"I can still do THIS," The Career man's teeth are gritted. Cords stand out in his neck and the speartip is nicking Ben's skin. Lucy is pressed against the Horn and still has her knife; Joe sees her flipping it out of the corner of his eye.

"Yes but look around you," calls Gwil's strident yet gentle voice. A core of steel exists in his tone as he and Allen move slowly behind Joe, freezing as an animal growl rises. "D'you hear that?" The Career tribute's eyes are flickering but he grips the spearshaft and presses down harder. Ben lets out a cry.

"If I shoot out your leg or anything, these mutts'll be on you," Joe's body has started trembling now, the arrow making a tapping sliding sound against the bowstring.

"Do you want that?" Gwil asks.

The other explodes. "This is what we ALL wanted!!! It's what THEY want!" He jerks his head up at the sky, at the Capitol, at the country. Ben stiffens. "It's what I've trained for, all alone...," He almost whimpers. They're all alone, all of them.

"So? You don't have to follow the training. We shouldn't, none of us! Can't we just--" Joe's eyes fill with tears. Can't they stop it, any of it? Something in the other tribute's eyes shifts, changes. Does he want to do this? Joe doesn't know, and then

And then it's as if there is a signal as the muttations charge.

Ben looks up and presses his lips together, and shoves up into the other tribute's chest. Two staggers back and a mutt is on him. "Ben!" Joe runs and takes Ben's arm, Lucy coming up to his opposite side.

"Where do we go?"

"Uhhh,"

"Up, up on top of the horn, c'mon, let's climb!" Lucy and Ben head on as Joe whirls. "Gwil--"

Gwilym and Allen are running into trouble. The mutts see and smell the blood still oozing out of Allen's arm and Gwil can only do so much with his trident as he holds Allen up. Joe gets a shot off and beckons frantically as two mutts charge at District Two, who still has that damn sword--why he went at Ben with his own spear instead was just scare tactics. Shit. Ben picks up Lucy by the waist and lifts her to grasp the lip of the horn, its conical metal giving her places for footholds. She drops her knife as she climbs, and Ben ducks for it as a snarling mutt lunges at him.

Joe emits a strangled cry and then a body is flying between them. There's a grunt from Ben at the same instant of Gwil's anguished "ALLEN, NO!" And Joe's heart lurches, stops as fangs sink into Allen's chest and arms. He had jumped in front of Ben to save him. Joe shoots the muttation once and again and again; Gwil charges in with his trident as Ben starts stabbing, but the look in Allen's eyes alone tells them it isn't enough.

Ben is sobbing, eyes wide and shocked as his face shines with tears. Gwil stands numbly as Joe crouches over Allen's form as he jerks and thrashes. Finally the mutt worrying him gets a dagger to the eye from Ben, and Gwil wraps his arms around a bloodied Allen, bending, removing the rest of his blue shirt to staunch the flow. "No...," Allen chokes. "No Gwil, leave--leave it. It's not... won't work, mate." He tries to smile, face lividly pale.

Joe is also crying now. "Allen, oh god,"

"...Sorry Joe," Allen whispers. "Guess I couldn't--keep myself alive."

Joe whimpers on a shocked laugh, and Ben croaks, pushing the other tribute's hair back, "Why'd you do that, mate?"

Allen's gaze is intent as he looks up at them, eyes tracking. "Because... someone has to live. And you--" he looks at Ben and then to Joe. "You both have something." He is shuddering and Gwilym takes his hand. "You too, Gwil," the ghost of a smile. "Now just leave me down here, they're coming."

The three men look at each other as they take Allen's meaning. More muttations. A group is going after District Two right now, but if he gets done with them, he'll come back, and if they remain with him.... "This is like a nightmare," whimpers Joe. "Allen, no."

With a heart-rending smile heartbreakingly akin to Rami's, Allen nods at Joe. "Yes," he whispers. "You have to go. For Rami," his words are weakening, whole chest shining red. "Go on." Feebly he shoves at them, and Ben closes his eyes, grabbing Joe.

"NO!" Joe screams as the blond bodily lifts him up. Gwil rises after squeezing Allen's shoulder and helps Ben clamp Joe between them, climb up, keep him still. "I can't leave him, he can't go alone! Allen!" Rami! He screams, feeling like he's out of time, back in that clearing, seeing both men. Ben feels as though his heart is cracking as he looks up at Lucy, who is grasping Joe's arms as Gwilym shoves him up on top of the horn. Ben swoops down and hands his spear to Allen.

"Take this," he whispers. "Give em hell." Allen nods, mustering up the last remnants of his energy. "and Allen? Thank you," Ben's deep voice cracks and more tears prick his eyes. "Thank you so much."

"Cheers," Allen whispers, and as Ben shakily turns and climbs, he watches over his shoulder as probably the strongest bloody tribute of them all pulls himself to a standing position and heaves out with a hard grin at the irony: "Right, come an' get me, you limey bastards!!"

Gwil reaches over the edge as Ben loses his grasp when Allen screams, and the district two tribute lunges at the mutts or him, the blond cannot tell as he slides and shimmies up, abdomen catching on the jutting metal. "Thanks, Gwil," he grunts out as panicked blue eyes hold his.

Gwil nods, rubbing Ben's arm as he pulls his legs up, a cry escaping him after one muttation breaks past Allen to sink its teeth into Ben's large left thigh. Gwil's muscles twitch and with stone-cold strength and precision he hurls his trident into the vicious creature's spinal column.

***

Screams are still echoing below them as Gwilym throws his long body across Ben, fingers grasping his shirt and skin, pulling him to safety.

Ben barely has time to breathe and to see Lucy holding onto a sobbing Joe as Gwil's long hands press on his leg, checking the puncture wounds-- "I'm fine," Ben protests-- when they all hear a voice after a cannon blows, making Joe wince and moan. Screams are dying down, preceding the sound of a second cannon.

And then the voice booms out again: "ATTENTION TRIBUTES. THE ORIGINAL RULING ALLOWING FOR A SINGLE VICTOR HAS BEEN REINSTATED. MAY THE ODDS BE EVER IN YOUR FAVOUR."

Silence, dead and ringing. Lucy still holds onto Joe, who is gulping and choking back sobs. Ben involuntarily squeezes Gwilym's arm, and Gwil goes deathly still.

Ben's heart thuds and he takes his hand away. Lucy's eyes get huge. "Gwil...,"

"I've got this, Lucy," Gwilym speaks gruffly, soft. Almost coldly. Joe has ceased crying and Ben crawls to him, reaching out. Joe grips his hand.

"I want to go home," Mazzello moans, hazel eyes swimming. His voice breaks. "Oh god I want to go home."

Ben squeezes his hand and presses his face into Joe's hair, shaking. "You should go home," he whispers. "There's--you, you've got people waiting for you there. I--" I don't, he means to say. His family doesn't need him, not the way Joe's does. Ben has always been alone. All he can manage to articulate is the thready "... I've only got you, Joe."

Joe wraps his arms around Ben and grips him as close, as tightly as he can. "Oh, Benny," he whispers, and then Gwil is moving, so they both look up-- Ben shifting sideways to protect Joe, shielding him with his own body as Joe wipes his eyes and says "So Gwilly, is this the end of the line?"

"I think so," says Gwilym somberly. "It's been a helluva ride, but there's gotta be a winner." He lifts his hands, which he had closed in fists, and opens them. Showing the contents to Joe and Ben. "Got to remember who the REAL enemy is," he murmurs, and Joe's heart skips a beat.

Nightlock. Dark blue-black purply berries rest in the cup of Gwilym's pale palms. Joe remembers one of his mother's earliest teachings before his father took them into the woods: Nightlock berries are poison berries. Even one is deadly enough to stop your heart in under a minute. And here Gwil is with a whole PILE of them. "Uhhh, buddy, where'd you get those?" Joe asks, trying to keep his tone conversational.

Gwil swallows, glancing at Lucy, who'd come up beside him. "We were talking," he said, "and--"

"--we didn't want to win this without each other," Lucy whispers, voice thickening now. They are all going to be in tears in a moment, she is certain of it. "So this was our desperately needed thing, what we got from the Feast. Our way out if things got too bad."

Ben's mouth twists. "Well this is pretty bad."

"So, bottoms up?"

Joe's eyes go wide and he grabs Ben's hand. "That's it!" He hisses.

Ben stares at him. "What?"

"Remember who the real enemy is!" Joe speaks fiercely. "Guys, they want to have a winner. They NEED one." He holds out his hand to take some berries. "Give me half," he says. Gwil stares and then his eyes brighten with understanding as he nods. Almost smiles as he tips half the berries into Joe's hand, who in turn pours half of those in Ben's. "We've gotta stand up, face the camera, show them all," Mazzello instructs.

Ben's eyes crinkle as he cocks his head, confused. "What for?" He asks. "What d'you mean, Joe?"

"Eating these berries will kill us," Joe whispers. Ben sucks in a sharp breath and nods. Gwil pours the other berries into Lucy's hands, and kisses her forehead.

"Group hug," he says with finality. And "I love you lads."

They wrap each other in arms, hands clenched around the berries.

"Cheers, mate."

"Love you too, Gwil."

Lucy kisses Ben's and Joe's cheeks, and then Ben locks eyes with Joe before grabbing him for a kiss on the mouth, everything else be damned.

"Alright," after they break apart, the four friends stand in a circle, holding out their hands. "Lift 'em up, let them see," Joe says.

"This is what you wrought!" Gwilym calls loudly and they all lift their hands to their mouths.

A shriek splits the Arena "STOP! STOP" And at that moment the hairs on Ben's neck stand on end. The wind comes up on the tallest tree, closest to the end of the Horn in this clearing. And he remembers what the forcefield looks like now.

Grabbing for his fellow tribute's hand, Ben croaks "Joe--!" And Joe looks at him as lightning strikes the tree and a shock illuminates and reverberates throughout their entire world.

Chapter Text

Joe feels juddering metal below him after Ben shouts his name, and searing white light fills his eyes. He is blasted off his feet, and sees nothing else but a fuzzy dark shape; he cannot move as it lowers itself over his body. A mechanical claw wraps around him and he feels himself being pulled upwards. The movement makes his stomach lurch and darkness encroaches on the remainder of his vision, crawling across the edges in ropes reminiscent of his hallucinations. That makes Joe's heart thud painfully. He strives to move, to shake it off, but his ears are ringing and then all sound ceases for him as everything goes black.

Happenings in the Arena play over and over again in his unconscious mind, in vivid colour and surround sound, and at the sight of Rami impaled, of Allen's chest engulfed in an excess of coagulate gore, of Ben's terror-stricken green eyes as he shouts "Joe!"

With a heave of air Joe shoots upright, waking to the sight of bright blue eyes and a high husky voice snarking "Well at least you kept yourself alive, though that little stunt at the end with those poison berries--" blond hair shakes as teeth are bared. "You were fucking lucky."

"Roger," Joe croaks as his mentor catches his shoulders, touch exceedingly gentle even as his words sound harsh. "Am I--are we--" sucking in a breath again, hardly daring to believe his luck, to comprehend all of their good fortune, "Gwil and Lucy got out too, right? Are we going home?"

Roger blinks, and a broken expression fills his eyes. His hand, still on Joe's shoulder, trembles. "There's--we haven't a home anymore, lad," the blond man utters. "There is no more District Twelve."

***

Riots had spread from Eleven and could not be stopped. Rami's death and Joe's response to it catapulted the outermost districts into chaos. Soldiers were brought in, and people were captured and beaten. The miners didn't stop, they had coal and other minerals to make weapons. Capitol would not stand for that, so "Fuckers dropped firebombs on our houses," Roger's voice shakes with fury. And he was gone as were these boys. So none of them could fucking help. "People got out, went into the woods. We're headed out there now in this plane. But…" Roger's teeth clench as he ceases speaking. "Joe, lad,"

"Where are we going?" Joe asks, attempting to swing his legs out of the bed he realises he is lying on. "Is my family all right? Did they get out? What about Ben's? He'll want to know--"

"Joe," Roger stands up, trying to halt the young man's rush headlong. "Your family is fine from what I've heard so far, but Ben…" Joe's heart drops into his feet at the heaviness in Roger's voice.

"What?!" He demands. "What, Roger? Where's Ben? Ben!" Joe rips himself free and whirls around, and from the opposite end of the area where he had been lying, he sees two tall forms. Curly black hair and anguished hazel eyes are alongside shorter hair and broken blue ones. Oh, no. "Brian, Gwil--"

"Did you tell him, Rogie?" Brian asks, voice wavering, eyes haunted. It's happening again, the loss of a love.

Roger huffs. "Fuck, Brian, it isn't that bloody easy!"

"Tell me WHAT?" Joe demands. "what the hell is going on?? One of you, tell me!" His voice goes high and screechy as Gwilym steps forward. He wobbles over to stand before Joe and his high-cheeked face crumples.

"They took him," Gwil croaks. "the Capitol… they got him, Joe. Grabbed Ben, and--and Lucy too." His voice breaks. "You and I ended up blasting out of there after the...the lightning blew…."

Joe is shuddering. No. No no no. If the Capitol has them, what does that mean? He can't take that thought any farther. If the Capitol has them "If the Capitol has them, where are WE going?" He screams. "WHO'S FLYING THIS DAMN PLANE?!?"

"District Thirteen." A gruff voice emanates from the cockpit of the plane, and a craggy face comes into view. Tom Hollander, the Gamemaker. "That is where we are heading. It has gone underground and now plans to rise up against the Capitol--with your help, Joseph Mazzello."

There is silence. Joe cannot believe his ears. He and Ben won, they made it, as Gwil and Lucy did-- and now Ben's gone, captured. By the Capitol. Lucy too. Joe closes his eyes, shuddering as he imagines what might be done to them if the tortures in the Games are anything to go by. And here this old guy is, all proud to have rescued Joe, to tell him that his help is needed for an uprising?

Opening and closing his mouth in utter disbelief, Joe has to brace his feet to stop his knees from buckling. Clench his hands to stop himself from punching the man in the face. Roger has come up to steady him, and Brian moves to his opposite side as Gwil stands frozen. His devastated expression is --or would be-- like to break the tribute's heart if it didn't already feel as though it was cracking right in two.

Joe's voice is incredulous as he stares at Hollander and responds tremblingly: "...what in the world makes you think I can, or that I want to, help you?"