Chapter 1: The Quell
Davey's heart hammers painfully against his ribs, and he can't seem to draw enough breath as he runs, almost tripping in his haste. The darkness is wrapping all around him, pressing in and stealing all of the air. He needs to get away; needs to find somewhere safe; needs to escape the endless screams. He climbs and climbs in the dark, desperate and afraid, until he finally reaches it.
There are lights on in the room, not electric but old oil lamps that hang at intervals along the walls. It makes the light softer, a warm, flickering yellow instead of stark white, the way he prefers it. Everything else inside the room is a riot of color, murals on the walls and splatters across the floor. A row of finished canvases is stacked in a corner. A large desk is covered in a haphazard sprawl of papers and charcoals and glossy ink pens.
And there, in the middle of it all, a figure is bent over an easel.
Davey lets out a shaky breath and pulls open the window that's always left unlatched. It barely makes a sound, but the painter startles and spins around. "Sorry," Davey says, voice hoarse. "Didn't mean to scare you."
Lowering the paintbrush, Jack Kelly smiles even as his eyes soften sympathetically. He's not wearing a shirt - he never does when he's painting, conscious of ruining his clothes, no matter that he can afford to replace them a dozen times over - and his dark hair is sticking up in a way that says he at least tried to sleep at some point tonight. Jack is a picture of casual beauty, golden-brown skin speckled in colorful dots of paints over lean muscles. His honey-brown eyes sparkle as they fix on Davey, and the familiarity of the sight makes the jagged lump of emotion stuck in Davey's throat dislodge.
"Like I got a problem with a pretty boy sneakin' in to see me," he jokes. He jerks his head, gesturing Davey inside. With a timid smile, Davey clambers over the sill and shuts the window behind him. Jack drops his paintbrush unceremoniously on the floor and crosses the room to wrap Davey in a tight hug. "S'okay, Dave, we're okay," he whispers.
It soothes the ache in Davey's chest as he clings to Jack's warm skin and burrows his face into the curve of his neck. It was just a dream. Just another stupid nightmare. They're alive. They're safe.
Jack rubs a hand along Davey's back in a reassuring gesture, just holding Davey and letting him collect himself. This is a common ritual for them by now. It's the reason both of them always leave their windows unlocked, giving the other easy access at any time. Even though it's been a year, they're both still haunted by memories they can't escape, and the only thing that softens it is the safety of someone who understands exactly what they're going through.
Once again, Davey thanks every deity he's ever heard of that he has Jack in his life; he doesn't think he'd have survived this alone.
Davey steps back, scrubbing a wrist across his eyes, just in case. "What're you painting?" he asks to change the subject.
Jack nods, taking the cue. "Tryna make the ocean," he explains. Taking Davey's hand, he leads him over to the easel. "Not sure it's right, ain't never seen the ocean 'cept in your books. Whatcha think?"
The canvas is mostly finished, a beautiful contrast of blues and yellows. Sand curves in a wide arch across one side, ending in a raised cliff of white rock at the corner, and the sand darkens as it reaches out to meet the water topped in foam. He can see the places where it's not done, patches of flat color without details or shadows, but even still - "It's beautiful," Davey says reverently.
A soft pink blooms in the apples of Jack's cheeks and he rubs the back of his neck, a self-conscious tic. "Ain't done, obviously," he says. "Water all looks too flat, gotta figure how to fix it, and I messed up this corner here," he points to the lower corner where the yellows and browns of sand seem to blur and swirl into each other discordantly.
"You're getting a lot better, though," Davey says, flashing Jack a smile. "I mean, look at the cliff there. All those tiny plants and rocks. It's amazing."
Jack chuckles. "Think I finally got the hang of this thing," he says dryly, flexing the fingers of his right hand. Without a shirt, the polished steel ring above his elbow catches the lamplight. It brings the ghosts of Davey's dream back to the surface; a large, serrated knife descending like an executioner's ax - a piercing, agonized scream - blood, so much blood, pouring from a missing limb and leaching life away with each pulse of a racing heartbeat.
Exhaling, Davey reaches out and traces his fingers along the place where Jack's prosthetic arm attaches to what remains of his natural one. Just one more thing that was taken from them. One more scar that can never be erased. One more memory that sends them, sweating and shaking, into the sanctuary of each other's arms.
Jack goes out of his way to prevent other people from touching the prosthetic, hating the way that the synthetic nerves don't feel quite the same, how the stunted sense of touch reminds him that this piece of him isn't really his. Davey is the exception. Davey has been by Jack's side as he struggled to relearn motions and gestures that once came naturally, fighting to make this new limb work like the old.
Dragging his fingertips down the length of Jack's arm, Davey takes his hand and lifts the too-smooth palm to his cheek. It felt strange at first, but now, the touch of a hand devoid of calluses and the constant coolness of skin that will never generate body heat is normal. When Davey leans into the curve of Jack's palm, Jack smiles and brushes a thumb over his cheekbone tenderly.
"C'mere," Jack says, and Davey needs no more invitation than that to lurch forward and crash their lips together.
Sometimes they're gentle, exploring each other with almost painful worship, but on nights like this, Davey can't help himself. He's desperate and dogged by memories, and he needs the firm, grounding contact. He needs this reminder that he's here, and all of the horrors that plague his dreams are only in his head. He needs to forget.
Jack gives it to him without question, dragging Davey flush to his body, one hand still cradling his face while the other is fixed on his hip like an anchor. It doesn't take long before they start staggering to the doorway, the stumbling, grasping trip across the hall to the darkened bedroom muscle-memory at this point. They might not understand what their relationship truly is - it's hard to when your relationship begins as an act that's only hardened into something more when on the brink of death - but they know that this is something they can give each other.
They fall into the bed, and Davey presses his palm to the perfectly unblemished flesh of Jack's stomach where, almost a year ago, an infected knife wound nearly took him away. Hands cradle cheeks, smoothed now that they're no longer marred by blistered chemical burns. Jack's thumb drags across where Davey should have a jagged scar on his jaw, grips the side of a thigh that was once warped with a sickening burn.
It's a form of reassurance for them both, a way to remind themselves that the scars of the Games are only inside; that the memories of blood and pain and fear are in the past.
The sky outside is the deepest part of the night that comes right before morning by the time they've collapsed, panting and sweating. Jack pulls Davey against his side, and now his touch is heartbreakingly gentle. "Mm, that never gets old," Jack murmurs into Davey's forehead, and Davey laughs. Jack splays his flesh palm on Davey's side, thumb sweeping over his ribs. "Wanna talk 'bout it?" he asks, softer.
"The sex?" Davey deflects with a smirk. Jack snorts, the motion ruffling Davey's fringe. Davey sighs, sinking into the warmth of Jack's body even though the summer heat is thick and humid. "What's to talk about that you don't already know," he admits wearily.
"Which one, the sex or the nightmare?" Jack shoots back playfully, prompting another chuff out of Davey. "I's been gettin' it worse lately too," he goes on sympathetically. Davey knows that; over the last few weeks, there have been more nights than not that Jack has slipped in through Davey's bedroom window in the dead of night, climbing into the bed with shaking breaths or tears cooling on his cheeks. "Makes sense, I guess, bein' this time."
Davey flinches, squeezing his eyes shut. "It's only two weeks away."
In two weeks, it will be Reaping Day, the day that two new names will be chosen from each District to compete in the Hunger Games. Two new teenaged boys from their home will be sentenced to fight in a televised battle royale for the prize of being allowed to go home at the end. Two new boys will stand in the place that Jack and Davey stood one year ago, facing down the fact that they will most likely be dead soon.
And after that, Davey and Jack will be forced to take up the role of Mentors, to travel back to the Capitol with these boys and try to coach them on how to survive, knowing all the while that at least one won't make it. They'll be trapped into feeding these kids false hope and then watching them be slaughtered, and they'll have to keep smiles on their faces the whole time, even when they want to scream.
"I don't wanna go back to that place," says Davey, the words breathed against a ribcage.
"I know," Jack whispers, pressing a kiss to Davey's forehead. "I know, me neither, but we's gonna be okay. Got each otha, right? I'mma be right there with ya the whole time." He pulls Davey closer and lets out a breath. "Get some sleep, Dave. I gotcha."
Davey sighs, tilting his head to rest his cheek on Jack's chest, the sound of his heartbeat drowning out the rushing noise inside Davey's skull. It's the one thing that makes the nightmares go away, the one thing that pushes the darkness back whenever it threatens to consume him. Davey hooks a leg over Jack's, molding himself along his side, and lets himself relax.
In the morning, they will put their masks back on and go about their lives; in the private sanctity of the night, they can just be together as who they are, two broken souls seeking what peace they can find.
The plaintive voice draws Davey's attention, and he crosses the room to crouch beside the young girl. "You stuck?" he asks sympathetically.
Nodding, the girl points out a word midway down the page. "What's this one?"
"Let's sound it out, okay?" says Davey, encouraging. The girl scrunches her nose, and Davey laughs. "C'mon, Maggie, I know you can do this. I'll help. What's the first letter?"
"I," Maggie says. When he prompts her, she squints at the word. "So, iye-"
"No, remember, I only sounds like I if there's an E after," Davey corrects.
"Ih," she amends, glancing up questioningly, and Davey nods. Maggie takes a breath. "Ih-nn-vuh-sih-buh-ull."
"Good job," Davey says. "Okay, so if we string all those sounds together, what do we get?"
Maggie frowns in concentration, repeating the sounds over and over, getting a little faster each time as she gets more confident. Then, finally, her eyes brighten. "Invisible?" she asks.
"Invisible," Davey agrees. "Good job, Mags. See, I told you you could do it." Maggie beams and Davey squeezes her shoulder.
When he feels the fabric, he frowns, and Davey surveys the sleeve of her dress critically. The cloth is worn thin, the cuff a bit too tight now she's grown, and there are a few broken stitches at the shoulder seam. "Hmm, looks like you tore your sleeve here," Davey says, poking her through the hole so she giggles. "We'll grab Sarah before you leave, she can get you fixed up."
Maggie's eyes brighten hopefully; offers of patching up clothes from Davey's twin sister more often than not end in the kids getting a new piece of clothing instead when Sarah inevitably declares that the old fabric just can't be salvaged. It's her own subtle way to share their family's new wealth with their community. More than one kid in the room is wearing something Sarah's made in the last year. "Thanks, Mr. Davey," Maggie says with a timid smile, then licks her lips before she goes back to her book.
Davey stands and looks around the room appraisingly. There are nearly a dozen young kids from the neighborhood scattered around his private library, some of them bent over books by themselves, a few paired up to share a book. A cluster of the youngest ones are sitting in a semi-circle around Jack, who is reading aloud to them. The sight sends a warm pulse of satisfaction through Davey.
It might not be the most important thing, in the grand scheme, but the fact that he can give this to his District makes him feel good.
For the last year, Davey's been building up his library, mostly starting with easier books - both because he was out of practice after years without reading more than street signs and machine labels, and so he would have them for his lessons. He started with Jack, spending days and days sitting together as he taught Jack, who never learned as a kid, to parse out the letters. Once Jack started to grasp it, Davey reached out to the neighborhood and offered to teach any of the kids who didn't know how or were struggling in school.
It surprised him how quickly it picked up, the children loving the chance to do something more enjoyable than work. Davey winds up with the younger kids during the daytime, while their parents and older siblings are working in the factories; the older ones usually show up in the evenings after they've finished their jobs for the day. Some don't actually care to learn, just listening to others read aloud in the comfort of the fancy Capitol-built house with the promise of a snack from Esther's kitchen at the end of it.
Davey doesn't care, either way, just grateful that he can do something to let these children feel like kids again for a little while. So many of them have been forced into adulthood too early, not even into puberty before they have to start working to support their families. If he can give them an hour a few days a week to relax and escape into the fantastical worlds inside the book pages, it makes everything worth it.
"Dave," Jack says, pulling him out of his musing. When Davey looks over, Jack jerks his head for him to come closer. "What's this word mean? Nay-ve?"
"Knave?" Davey asks, confused. He leans in over Jack's shoulder to see. "Oh, I think that one's pronounced Nye-eve. Those little dots make it sound different."
"I thought those were just ink spots," Jack says with a laugh. "Never seen a letter like that before."
Davey chuckles, squeezing Jack's shoulder playfully. "Naïve. It means - uh, innocent, I think. Like a person who doesn't really know a lot about the world, or like they only know the good things but not the bad."
One of the kids snorts. "That's silly," he says with all the condescension of a seven-year-old. "Why would someone know there's good stuff but not bad?"
The answer Davey wants to give is right on the end of his tongue, but he bites it back. If there's one thing he learned during his stay in the Capitol, it's that those people are very naïve. They live in their luxurious houses and dress up in flashy clothes, utterly oblivious to the pain and suffering in the rest of the Districts. But Davey's already gotten himself into enough hot water with his criticisms of the Capitol; the last thing he needs is for the young, impressionable kids to start echoing his sentiments and get themselves in trouble too.
"Well, what about your li'l sister?" Davey says instead. "Emma is only a baby. The only thing she knows is being home with your Nana and being taken care of and played with. She doesn't know anything about the bad things in the world, right?" The cluster of children all give ohs of comprehension.
"See, so the princess is like Emma," Jack tacks on, "'cause all she knows is livin' in her fancy castle with people takin' care of her. She hasn't gone outside to see everythin' else yet." Davey smiles fondly, brushing a hand down Jack's shoulder, and the other man looks up to return his smile. Then he clears his throat and turns his gaze back to the book open on his knee. "The princess was young and naïve, but she was brave, so she put on her cloak and left the castle for the first time in her life," Jack reads, only a bit haltingly, and Davey feels his heart swoop proudly at how far Jack's come.
Davey goes back to pacing a slow circle around the room, checking in on each of the kids as he goes and occasionally answering their questions about things happening in the stories. (And, on one occasion, fetching the dictionary to find a word he's never heard before so he can explain it to the curious girl.) It's simple and peaceful and satisfying, and it always helps to center Davey after the ghosts of the past start crawling over him again.
"I thought I might find you two here."
The entire room looks up at the Capitol-accented voice. Standing in the open doorway, Katherine Plumber looks every bit like she belongs in this pretentious, extravagant house. Her pale skin shines like marble beneath a dusting of gold powders, and her glossy auburn hair is folded into a long plait over one shoulder. A sweeping violet dress with a skirt flared over gauzy petticoats is a surprisingly low-key look for her, but the fabric alone still likely costs more than the clothing of every District child in the room.
"It is a Wednesday morning," Davey responds pointedly. He's had a long-established schedule of running lessons on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays. She should know that; she's interrupted his classes more than once in the last year.
"I'm aware," Katherine says, and her usual plastic smile softens just the tiniest bit. "However, I'm afraid you boys have work to do."
Davey grimaces. Whenever their Capitol ambassador shows up, it only ever means one thing. He exchanges weary glances with Jack, then stands up and cards a hand into his hair. "Alright, we're coming."
"We gotta go?" Maggie asks, pouting, and several of the other kids look disappointed for the reading time to end.
"Nah, you guys stay," Davey says firmly. "You can keep reading as long as you want. If you get stuck on a word, you can go find my dad, he can help you. Or Elaine or Thomas knows how to find things in the dictionary. And don't forget to stop and get a snack from my mom before you leave. I think she made apple tarts today." A wave of cheers goes up from the kids at the promise of warm treats. Davey smiles. "Alright, guys, we'll see you on Friday."
The gathering calls out goodbyes to them as Davey and Jack follow Katherine out into the main room of the house. "Guess they's settin' up in my house then?" Jack says once they make it to the foyer. Katherine nods, and Jack grunts in annoyance.
"Would you rather they set up here and chase your flock away?" Katherine replies, raising an eyebrow.
Jack snorts. "Rather we get more 'an five minutes notice when your lot's gonna drag us off to play dress-up," he shoots back. Katherine gives him an unimpressed look. "Just sayin'," Jack says, shrugging unrepentantly.
"This interview came up rather suddenly," says Katherine, and her expression doesn't falter from its default, but her eyes are faintly apologetic.
They trail her out of the house and turn to go up Victors' Hill, where Jack's home sits just meters away from Davey's on the other side of a raised flower garden shared between Jack and Esther. There's already a crowd of Capitol cameramen standing around, directing the District members they've recruited into hauling the gear into the house. Jack sneers at the sight and Davey squeezes his hand in a silent reassurance and agreement - leave it to the Capitol to continue to force the other Districts to do the labor even on their own projects.
"Your class seems smaller than the last time," Katherine says conversationally, glancing at Davey.
"More kids have to work this time of year and longer hours," says Davey. "Production quotas go up before the Games, all those Capitol folk wanting to buy fancy new screens to watch it on. And the families need the extra money so they don't have to risk taking out Tessara."
He can't be positive, but he thinks Katherine might've winced a little at that. For all that she looks very much the part of her Capitol upbringing, Davey's learned over the last year that Katherine's rarely as aloof as she acts, and he suspects she might have a little sympathy for the Districts. At the very least, she's less oblivious about it than most.
Before they can say more, they've slipped passed the camera crew into Jack's house. They are converting the sitting room into a filming stage, lights and cameras arranged in a semicircle in front of the fireplace. Davey winces; he still has a hard time sitting close to a fire, too many memories of being trapped in the middle of a blazing wildfire in the Games. Jack seems to sense his nerves because he places a hand comfortingly on Davey's back.
"There's my boys!"
Of all the Capitol people Davey's ever met, the only one he truly loves and trusts is Miss Medda Larkin, their Capitol stylist. The woman commands the eye of any room she enters, even though she wears far simpler clothing than most. Today is a sleek navy dress that glides beautifully over her curves, and there are tiny silver beads in her hair to match the trio of crystals that sparkle at the corners of her eyes, bright against ebony skin. Medda smiles, and it's not the dazed, silly smile of most Capitol people; it's warm and kind and welcoming.
"Medda!" Jack says excitedly, and he crosses the room in quick steps to throw his arms around her. Medda laughs, a bright, loud noise like the ring of the worship hall bells, as she hugs him back.
When she lets him go, her eyes flick to Davey. "David Jacobs, you'd best get yourself over here and gimme a hug," she says teasingly. Davey grins and wraps his arms around her warmly. "Mm, it's good to see you again, sugar."
"You too, Miss Medda," Davey responds. "We missed you."
The woman taps a knuckle to the underside of his chin and smiles fondly. "Of course you did," she says playfully. "Now come along, then, we're on a schedule here. Let's make you boys glamorous."
Being dressed up like a child's doll is another thing that Davey's unfortunately gotten used to at this point in his life. He sits patiently in the lounge they've converted into a temporary dressing room, and barely gives it any thought as he lets Medda pick his clothes and style his hair and cover his face in makeup. "You been sleeping, sugar?" she asks, frowning as she sweeps a line of kohl along his eyelid. "You look tired."
"Stayed up too late reading," Davey deflects with a wry smile. Medda narrows her eyes in a way that clearly says she doesn't buy it, but she won't push the subject with the Capitol crew in the next room. With an approving noise, she steps back to admire her handiwork. "There we are. What do you think, Jack?"
"Pretty as a pi'chur," Jack responds with a tender smile. Davey ducks his head when he feels the heat crawl up the back of his neck.
"Mm, I think so too," Medda agrees. She glances over to Katherine. "Are your things ready?"
The redhead licks her lips, an uncharacteristic show of nerves that makes something lurch ominously in Davey's stomach. "What's going on?" he asks, eyes darting between the two Capitol women. "You're both acting strange. I thought this was just another interview."
"It is," Katherine says hastily. Medda crosses over to shut the lounge door firmly, muffling the sounds of the crew working in the other room, and shoots the redhead a pointed look. "Or, well, perhaps not just any interview."
"Kath," Jack prompts, eyes narrowed.
Her smile has that rigid, false look when Katherine claps her hands together, and she cheerfully announces, "It's the interview where you'll share the news that you have promised to a Binding."
When she lifts a polished box from the table, opening it to reveal a pair of matching gold bracelets, Davey doesn't even have it in him to be surprised, really. A Binding ceremony, the eternal union of two souls to solidify their love and commitment to one another, makes sense with the act they've been portraying for the last year. Part of him knew this was the path they were on and that this day would inevitably come, even if this is much sooner than expected.
Jack, on the other hand, is furious. "What? No, we ain't doin' it," he says firmly. "Ya can't just throw this shit on us like it's nothin'. All this other stuff's been bad enough, but this?"
"Jack," Medda says warningly, darting a look at the door and gesturing for him to keep his voice down.
"Let 'em hear," Jack snarls.
"You don't mean that," says Katherine, eyes narrowed. "Jack, the Capitol-"
"Fuck the Capitol!" Jack says. "This might all be some damn show to you folks, but this is our lives."
"Which might be over if we don't play along," Davey intervenes wearily. Jack's eyes dart over to him, brow furrowed and a tidal wave of emotion spinning in his eyes. Davey sighs and resists the urge to comb a hand through his hair, clasping his fingers in his lap so he doesn't ruin Medda's hard work. "We both knew this'd happen, Jack. Isn't it how all the love stories go?"
"I ain't Bindin' with someone who don't want it," Jack counters. "Ain't gonna force that on ya, Dave." He lowers his voice, the anger dimming, to finish, "Love ya too much for that."
Katherine twists the end of her braid around one finger. "This isn't a suggestion we're making lightly," she says, and her cheery Capitol facade is gone for the moment, her expression strained and oddly vulnerable. "I know it's not fair, but you don't know how tense things are getting out there. With the Games approaching, people are restless."
"There've been more riots," Medda says, frowning. Davey glances at her in surprise. "The Districts that rioted before, especially Queens, they've gotten worked up again with the Games coming. Brings up memories, I suppose. There have already been a few deaths and far more arrests."
"And that's causing - unease in the Capitol," Katherine adds. "The president's been trying to keep the rioting quiet, but you know how fast gossip travels. So people are talking, wondering if their lovestruck Victors are really just troublemakers. And this year's the Quarter Quell. You know what that means."
Every twenty-five years, the Hunger Games celebrate a Quarter Quell to commemorate the anniversary of the Capitol bringing the Districts into line. The Games mark this by changing up all of the rules for one year, pulling out all the stops in designing Arenas and creating challenges. The biggest change usually comes at the Reapings. At the first Quell, they'd surprised the nation by choosing female Tributes instead of boys; at the second, they'd drawn four names from each District instead of two.
"The president is hoping to shift the focus onto that, give the people such a show that they forget about you," Katherine says. "And once that happens..."
"No one will notice if we disappear," Davey finishes grimly.
Medda sets a hand on his shoulder reassuringly. "But a glamorous ceremony, the Binding of the young lovers that captured the hearts of an entire country, that will cause headlines. That will make people pay attention."
"There's no other way?" Jack asks, voice cracking with desperation. "Nothing else we can do instead?"
With a flicker of a smile, Davey meets his gaze. "C'mon, Jack, is a Binding really the worst thing we've been through together?"
Jack echoes the fragile smile, but his eyes are sad. "I never wanted ya to give up your freedom for me."
"I gave up my freedom the minute I volunteered," Davey points out with a shrug. "But I didn't give it up alone; I've got you." Jack's eyes soften, fond but subdued. Davey glances to Katherine. "We'll do it."
"But maybe next time youse gonna hijack our lives, give us more heads-up, wouldja?" Jack spits tightly. Katherine winces ever-so-slightly and averts her gaze.
Davey sighs and licks his lips. "Kath, gimme the bands? If we're doing this, we might as well make it something really memorable."
So instead of announcing that they've already made the promise, Davey takes matters into his own hands. They go through the interview like normal while Davey waits for the right opening. Finally, the interviewer - another nameless, faceless Capitol peacock - asks how their relationship is going, and Davey clears his throat uncertainly.
"Actually, that's part of why we wanted to do this," Davey says. "Or, I did, anyway." Turning in his seat to face Jack, he doesn't have to fake the rush of nerves that whirl in his stomach. "Jack, you've been a gift from the gods for me. You've saved my life in so many ways. I don't know what I'd have done without you in my life this last year, and I don't want to ever find out what that would be like." Hands shaking, Davey pulls the pair of decorative gold bands from his pocket.
None of it is a lie, Davey's true feelings laced along the edges of the romantic words the viewers will be expecting. And he can tell, as they take turns fastening the union bands around each other's left wrists, that the tears escaping down Jack's cheeks aren't an act either.
An impromptu party springs up in the District market after the interview ends, the people of Manhattan coming together to celebrate the news. The Capitol camera crew linger to film as Jack and Davey are paraded around, drawn into dancing and games as the District rejoices at the happy ending for their proud Victors. Although Davey's heart warms to see his people so happy, flattered by so many people that want to see him happy, he's mostly just tired.
It's a relief when the celebrations wind down in the late hours of the night, and they can finally escape to the solitude of their homes. Except a cameraman follows them at a short distance, and Davey can tell immediately what they're expecting. So even though he can see the questions in his family's eyes - they're undoubtedly not fooled by the whole affair - Davey bids his family goodnight at their door.
Jack takes his hand and leads Davey to his house instead. It's not until the front door is bolted behind them that they both let their smiles slip away. Jack scrubs his hands over his face, while Davey sighs as the fatigue takes hold, swaying slightly on his feet.
"Davey," Jack starts, and then he winces, obviously not sure what else to say. For lack of words, Davey just leans into Jack's chest and wraps his arms around him. Jack hugs him back, cradling Davey's head against his shoulder. "I'm so sorry," Jack whispers.
"It was my choice," Davey says, shrugging.
Jack's laugh is hollow. "No, it wasn't." And there's really no argument he can make to that one. The band on his wrist suddenly feels too tight; he remembers, as a child, thinking that union bands looked rather like handcuffs, and the comparison has never seemed more accurate. Jack kisses Davey's temple softly. "C'mon, been a long day. Should get some sleep."
Davey lets Jack guide him upstairs to the bedroom, and all at once, it hits Davey that this will be his life soon. They might be able to stretch out their engagement for a while, but once the Capitol starts losing interest again, they'll have to go through with the Binding. There will be no escape after that, the ceremony tying their very eternal souls together in the eyes of the gods. This house will become Davey's too, and this will be his bedroom, and Jack will be his husband. Forever.
"Dave?" Jack's voice is uncertain, and he's instantly in front of Davey again, cupping his cheek in a palm with his eyes full of concern. "Hey, you okay? Talk to me, pal."
"Why can't they just leave us alone?" Davey asks brokenly. There's a knot in his chest, pushing against his lungs until he can barely breathe. "Haven't they played with us enough already? And what are we supposed to do after this? We get Bound, that buys us some time, but what do we do the next time they start losing interest? Are we just delaying the inevitable?"
"Hey, hey," Jack shushes him soothingly. It would be more convincing if Davey couldn't see his own fear reflected back at him in Jack's eyes. "It'll be okay, Dave, we'll figure it out. You and me, ain't nothin' we can't do togetha, right?" Jack drags a cold thumb along Davey's cheekbone, wiping away the tear he couldn't hold back. "We'll figure it. Just - what can I do to help righ'now?"
Davey squeezes his eyes shut and drops his forehead onto Jack's shoulder. "Nothing, let's just - go to bed."
Making a soft noise of agreement, Jack presses a dry kiss to Davey's cheek. "Take the bed." Jack starts to move away, but Davey grabs his wrist. "S'fine, Dave," says Jack. "Couch is hundred times comfier than my bed at lodgin' ever was."
"I'm not kicking you out of your bed," Davey counters. He tightens his grip when Jack goes to pull away again, and Davey knows the desperation must be showing on his face because Jack pauses with a frown. "You think I really wanna be alone right now?" Davey adds, and it feels like a small triumph when his voice only quavers a little.
Jack scratches his neck nervously, but he nods. Tonight, there's no feverish kisses or grasping hands. They undress quietly and slip between the sheets. Davey doesn't let himself overthink it as he rolls to tuck himself against Jack's chest. Jack immediately wraps his arms around him, drawing him closer like he can shield Davey from the world.
"I'm sorry, Dave, none this is fair to you," Jack whispers into the quiet bedroom.
"What about you?" Davey replies. "It's your life they're controlling too."
"Yeah, but I feel like maybe I'm gettin' the better end the stick, 'tween us," Jack admits, a bit self-deprecatingly. "You know how I feel 'bout ya." Davey's heart skips at the tenderness, and Jack rubs his flesh hand over Davey's spine. He can feel the smooth metal on Jack's wrist, warmed by his body heat, roll across his skin. "Youse the one gonna be stuck Bound with someone ya don't love."
Davey flinches, clearing his throat anxiously. "I wouldn't say that, exactly," he murmurs against Jack's skin. He feels Jack tense at the words. Davey takes a breath and forces himself to go on, "I don't know if I'm in love with you, but I do love you, Jack, if that makes sense. You're important to me. And everything I said in that interview was true. I couldn't do this without you."
The next long inhale Jack pulls in sounds a bit damp and shaky, and he curls himself further around Davey. "Youse too good for me," Jack says. "But I swear it, I'mma do everythin' I can to make ya happy. It might not be the life ya wanted, but I'mma make sure it's still a good one."
"Nothin' we can't do so long as we do it together, right?" Davey says, and Jack chuckles appreciatively. Smiling, Davey presses his palm flat over Jack's chest, feeling the pounding heart beneath his palm. The gold on his wrist catches the moonlight from the window, making it jarring and eye-catching to him even in the dark. "And, hey, could be worse," Davey tacks on mischievously, needing a break from the tension. "At least you're attractive."
Jack barks a surprised laugh and tucks his face into Davey's hair. "Kloppmann ain't kiddin', you know, you got a smart mouth on ya," he teases.
"You like it," says Davey, smirking.
"Gods above, I do," Jack agrees. "I really, really do."
The next few days are a whirlwind of chaos, with two more interviews and a filmed segment of Miss Medda helping them start on ideas for the Binding ceremony. The whole event feels surreal to Davey like he's acting out a part in a play instead of something from his own life. Although, admittedly, that's a feeling he's starting to get used to as well.
Davey's barely seen his family all week, except when the Jacobs' are all dragged in for an interview about the Binding. It's not until Davey and Jack manage to join them for dinner one night that Mayer pulls Davey aside to check on him, and the whole story spills out. They keep their voices pitched low, always conscious that there might be cameras spying from somewhere, even in their home, but Davey can't stop the indignant tears that sneak out.
Mayer cups Davey's face in his big hands, and it's still a novel experience for Davey to be able to look straight ahead and meet his father's eyes. The first thing Davey'd done on getting home was paid for a Capitol surgeon to come treat Mayer's broken spine, finally freeing him from the wheelchair. Davey'd been three inches shorter than Mayer when he'd gone into the chair; now he's an inch-and-a-half taller.
"I know it's not fair, but you are strong, David," Mayer says in that calm, steady voice that always soothes him.
"I'm tired of being strong," Davey admits softly. "I just want to be normal."
Mayer's smile is sympathetic. "You have always been more than normal," he says. "My strong and brave son. You will always be more. I have always known you are destined to be more. It's not easy, but you will still win. The gods are with you."
Davey frowns and drops his gaze. Of their family, Mayer is the only one who still firmly holds to the old faiths. He's the only one who still trusts that the powers up there actually care to guide and protect them. Davey stopped believing in that the first time he was old enough to really understand what was happening on his holo-screen every summer, and each cycle of Hunger Games that passes only makes him feel it more.
If Mayer knows what Davey's thinking - which he undoubtedly does, he's always been able to read Davey so well - the patriarch doesn't comment. He draws Davey in and kisses his brow gently. "You've been through so much, David, I wish I could take some of this weight from your shoulders," Mayer says somberly. "But you're stronger than I've ever been. If anyone can make good of this situation, it's you."
"I just-" Davey swallows, and his gaze darts across the hall to the sitting room, where Jack is practicing coin tricks with Les, a warm, affectionate smile on his face as he applauds Les' progress. "I wanted to - I think I might love him," because there's no point hiding it from Mayer, who no doubt already knows the truth Davey's scared to face. "And I guess I just hoped that if it ever came to this," Davey brushes his fingertips over the gold on his wrist, "it would be 'cause we chose it."
Mayer touches the bands on his own wrists - both wrists, to mark him as Bound. The circlets are far simpler, and the metal tarnished by time and wear; to Davey, that just makes them more beautiful. "I know at your age a Binding seems so final, but it's not the end. You will have time, and you will have to work hard for it, and you might find, somewhere along the way, you're already where you wanted to go. I know I did. Love never happens easily, but the gods won't allow this if it's not meant to be. And Jack is a good man, and he loves you very much. He will be good to you." With a flicker of a smirk, Mayer adds, "Or I will have words with him."
Davey laughs, and the ache in his chest eases just a little.
In that way, it feels like no time has passed before Reaping Day is upon them. Neither Davey or Jack sleep that night, too wired up with anxiety to even try, so they retreat to the sanctuary of Jack's art studio instead. Davey lounges on the floor in a nest of pillows, reading aloud to Jack, who is working on a new painting.
The sun hasn't even cleared the horizon when a sudden loud noise makes both of them jump. Davey is instantly on his feet to defend himself while Jack flips the paintbrush around in his hand and holds it up like a knife. It takes Davey's startled brain a moment longer to realize the sound is someone downstairs hammering on the front door. "Who-?" Davey mutters, exchanging a bemused glance with Jack.
The knocking doesn't let up in the time it takes for them to get to the door, and Jack cracks it open uncertainly. Davey's eyes widen when he recognizes the redheaded figure on the other side. "Katherine?" Jack asks. "What the hells-?"
"Let me in," Katherine whispers flatly. "I need to talk to you." Jack casts another confused look at Davey, but he releases the chain and opens the door all the way so the Capitol woman can step inside. She hastily shuts the door behind her with a snap.
"Kath, what's going on?" Davey asks nervously. For all that she's trying to retain her usual collected appearance, there's something wild and frantic in her eyes, and her already pale skin seems a shade whiter. Davey swallows hard, a pit forming in his gut. If something's managed to shake Katherine so much...
"I'm so sorry," Katherine says breathlessly. "I came as soon as I found out, they only just told me. They've been keeping everything about the Quell under wraps, even from us Ambassadors."
"The Reaping?" Jack guesses grimly, and Katherine nods. "What're they doin'?"
Davey feels like he already knows the answer, in some intuitive way, even before she opens her mouth. "It's not a lottery," she says, and her green eyes are suddenly too bright, moisture pooling at her lashes. "This year, they're pulling the two most recent Victors from each District. They're - they - I'm so sorry."
And there it is. Jack wraps Davey in his arms, but Davey can barely feel it through the shock that's turned his body to ice. There's no escaping. There's never been an escape.
They're going back into the Hunger Games.
Chapter 2: The Opening
By midday, the mag-rail train has left Manhattan. The moment Katherine left that morning, Davey'd hurried next-door to his parents' house to share the news. It was a tearful and agonizing conversation, but Davey's grateful he took the chance; the Capitol didn't allow them the usual farewell meetings in the District Hall like the last time, sweeping them straight from the Reaping onto the train instead.
As the train pulled away, Davey watched as every single person on the platform raised a fist in the air.
Davey and Jack retreat to the bedroom compartments, needing time alone to process everything. While they lounge together, Jack leaning against the wall to look out of the window and petting Davey's hair where he's using Jack's leg as a pillow, Davey reflects idly on how much this train ride is different from last year.
Last year, Davey and Jack were complete strangers. Katherine was excited and carefree, chattering animatedly about the sights of the Capitol. Kloppman was bitter and halfway towards drunk. (Well, that part, at least, isn't any different this time.) Davey remembers the fear and rage and righteous indignation of being a sacrifice to save his brother's life.
This time, there's still fear and rage, but there's also an overwhelming sense of defeat. Davey knows, without a doubt, that he will die in the Games this time. The Reaping was no accident; the rules were explicitly chosen to target Davey and Jack. The Gamemakers have probably been given orders to make sure the Manhattan Tributes don't survive it. This is the president's way of punishing Davey for his defiance; of putting an end, once and for all, to the Newsboys of Manhattan.
Davey's only sorry that so many others - including Jack - will have to pay for it as well.
"It won't work," Jack says abruptly, his tone low and angry. Davey blinks and looks up at him in confusion. "I know this is Pulitzer tryna get rid of us, stop the riots, but it ain't gonna work."
Davey scoffs. "They're throwing us into a death trap they control," he points out. "I have a feeling it's going to work very well."
"But it ain't gonna stop people from fightin' back," Jack replies. "They's gonna know this's his plan too. They's gonna know he's tryna shut us up."
"Which means they're all gonna know he's scared," Davey says, awed as he picks up on Jack's meaning. "Because why else would he want us gone so badly? He's scared of people fighting back, and he's just showed his hand." He laughs breathlessly. "He's going to turn us into martyrs."
"Like the fella from that book ya read me," Jack agrees. "He died for the fight, and it made people fight harder."
Davey sits up, facing Jack. "We've been keeping our heads down so he doesn't kill us," he says fervently, "but it didn't work. He's going to kill us anyway. So maybe it's time to say everything we've had to keep back for the last year."
Jack's eyes light up fiercely. "It's our job, afta all," he says with a dangerous grin. "We's Newsboys, right? So let's spread some news. Let the whole damn world know the truth."
The spark of defiance in Jack's gaze nudges the embers in Davey's gut into a roaring fire. It also makes something else leap in his chest, that mingled attraction and affection for this boy surging forward, that emotion he's too scared to name. Davey doesn't think about it as he lunges forward to capture Jack's mouth in a searing kiss.
From there, things go the way they always go between them, a wildfire of both care and desperation. It's like they're trying to drink in each other's fury, sharing it and drowning in it to keep their spirits up and their fear at bay. At the same time, their touches linger, memorizing every inch of skin with the knowledge that each time now, it might be their last chance to be together like this.
When they finally collapse into a tangle, panting and exhausted, they still barely leave any space between them. Davey burrows his face in Jack's chest, and he toys with the gold cuff around his wrist that's a perfect match to the one Jack wears. It's almost funny that yesterday, their biggest concern was a sham Binding. Davey huffs a soft laugh, and Jack hums to prompt him.
"Just thinking, a Binding doesn't seem like such a big deal anymore. Ya know, in comparison," Davey murmurs.
Jack snorts derisively. "Sorry, sweetheart, should'a took your chance when ya had it," he teases, but his hand is warm and gentle where he sweeps it along the length of Davey's spine. Jack kisses the top of Davey's head. "No matter what," Jack whispers, his grip tightening, "we stick togetha in this. You and me, we's a team."
"And if we're going down, we go down together," Davey agrees, and when his voice breaks, Jack doesn't comment, just holding Davey closer.
There are no attempts at smiles when they reach the Capitol this time, no veiled ploy to charm the Sponsors. People openly stare at the Tributes being led to the groomers, cheering and calling out, but Jack and Davey don't meet their eyes, walking hand-in-hand with their chins held high. This time, they're not scared children in over their heads; this time, they are warriors marching to an execution without giving up on their cause.
Even the groomers treat them differently, an aura of awe and uncertainty when facing the defiant scowls. Davey takes the grooming silently, letting the stupid peacocks scrub and polish as they please, until one takes his left hand and makes to remove the cuff there. "Touch my union band and I will kill you," Davey snarls coldly. The groomer snatches his hands back in alarm, and none of them try it again.
Jack is already waiting in the clinical sitting room when Davey arrives. He's perched on a tabletop in a white robe, with a second one draped over his lap that he holds up when Davey enters. Davey smiles gratefully as Jack slides the robe onto his arms, and then he climbs up to sit at Jack's side, leaning into the warm weight of his body. Just to be sure, he reaches for Jack's left hand; the gold band is still wrapped securely around his wrist.
"For someone that didn't wanna Binding, you sure seem fixed on them bands," Jack jokes with a grin, brushing his thumb over the matching gold loop on Davey's arm.
"I want them all to remember what they're taking away from us," Davey responds fiercely. "I want those folks out there to see 'em and realize that they're stealing this chance from us with their stupid Games." His voice catches, and he clears his throat before squeezing Jack's hand. "And I wanna remember it too."
Jack's smile falters, and his free hand comes up to cradle the back of Davey's neck, drawing him in to kiss his forehead. "It's their dumb Games that put that band on you to begin with," he reminds him weakly.
"But it's my choice to keep it there," says Davey, meeting Jack's gaze. Those soft, honey-brown eyes are swimming with so much emotion it makes Davey's chest tight. "There's no act to keep up anymore, we don't have to pretend now if we don't want to. But I'm not taking it off. Maybe it didn't happen the way I wanted it to, but that doesn't mean I didn't want the chance to see if we could really make a life together."
Davey brushes a thumb over Jack's cheek, catching the tear that escapes. "It was never a question, Jack, I knew from the start I needed you with me for the rest of my life. I just - never thought the rest of my life would be so short."
Expression cracking, Jack pulls Davey against him, burying his face in Davey's shoulder as his body shakes with sobs. Davey clings just as tightly, hating the harsh scrubs of the groomers because Jack doesn't smell like Jack right now. He misses the scent of the heavy District smoke, the sketching charcoals, the oil paints, the bitter coffee he drinks every morning. If these coming days are the last ones he's going to spend with Jack, he wants to remember his Jack.
They're still wrapped in each other's arms when the door opens again, and this time it's Medda. The moment the door closes behind her, she's across the room, and she throws her arms around them both, joining the hug. Davey's a little surprised to hear her shuddery breaths, but his heart warms, and he hugs her back tighter.
It's several long minutes later before they extract themselves, all three of them sitting back and drying eyes on sleeves - or in Medda's case, on a silk handkerchief. "My boys," she says fondly, red-rimmed eyes panning over them. "This is not how I wanted to see you again."
Jack gives a weak, watery chuckle, and Davey grimaces. "No offense, Miss Medda, but same," Davey agrees. "Not that we didn't miss you, but..."
Medda smiles sadly, tapping her knuckle beneath his chin in that soft, reassuring way she always has. "You boys are too good, you never deserved any of this," she says firmly. "So what do you say we remind them of that? Make sure not a single person can forget what this is doing to you?"
Davey and Jack exchange quick, tight grins. "That was our plan exactly."
In the hall before the Opening Ceremony, there are no teasing jeers from other Tributes. Davey can only imagine that the majority of them are still too much in shock to bother. They must all feel the same way he and Jack do - thinking they'd escaped the Games only to be thrust back in, knowing that they're facing down a full deck of others who've already won as well. As bleak as anyone's chances had been the first time around, this time they're all fighting against people who've been through it and know what they're doing, to an extent.
This isn't a room of scared kids thrust into the unknown; it's a room of hardened veterans being dragged back onto the battlefield.
It feels strange to look across the room at the other Tributes. Last year, Davey had been the oldest, only months away from aging out of qualification. This year, it's the exact opposite. Several of the Tributes look to be in their late twenties or thirties, especially from the outer Districts who don't have Victors near as often. There's a Tribute from Flushing who must be in his forties, at least, eyes heavy and a paunch at his waist.
The only other Tributes that seem to be close to Davey's age are faces Davey vaguely recognizes from the holo-screens, boys who've won over the last couple years. A boy from Queens who won the year before Davey and Jack. A boy from Harlem, two years before that.
And of course, the two boys from Brooklyn, who are standing close together by their chariot. One is a stocky, dark-featured boy Davey remembers seeing snap another Tribute's neck with his bare hands in his year, five back. The wiry blond with the perfect aim, who'd won at the age of only fifteen, is the only other Tribute besides Jack that's a year younger than Davey.
There's no missing the fact that, while Jack and Davey are looking around the room, most of the Tributes keep casting glances the Manhattan Tributes' way, expressions ranging from awe to respect to fear.
"Least we ain't gotta listen to the Delanceys mouthin' off this year," Jack grumbles, unconsciously rubbing at the attachment point for his prosthetic arm. It had been one of the Delancey brothers - last year's Brooklyn Tributes and a pair of overall jackasses - to cut the limb off in the first place.
"No one seems to be mouthing off at all, really," Davey points out, gaze casting over the room. It's unnaturally quiet except for the distant howling of the Capitol audience waiting at the end of the long corridor.
"Pro'lly hard to feel cocky when youse goin' up 'gainst folks that done this before," Jack says, mirroring Davey's thoughts. "Ain't trained fighters 'gainst factory brats this time."
Davey scoffs. "No, just a whole mess of folks who escaped once, and now they're gonna die for it anyway," he mutters bitterly. Jack makes a soft, distressed noise and slips his arm around Davey's waist.
A distraction arrives at that moment as Miss Medda bustles over and clicks her tongue. "Don't you go messin' up my hard work," she chides, tugging at Jack's arm to make sure the touch didn't smudge anything. "I want you boys looking immaculate out there."
Looking down over his body, immaculate is not how Davey feels. The simple black briefs make his pale legs look unnaturally long and gangly. Elaborate and beautifully drawn designs of black and gold cover his skin from head to toe, ancient pictographs spelling out long-forgotten legends and prayers across his body. Davey's seen the ceremonial paints of Binding in his District plenty of times, although he never imagined it on himself, let alone in this setting.
But if there's anything that'll remind those Capitol peacocks what he's losing, it'll be this.
Jack hooks his fingers with Davey's, careful not to touch the painted dots that extend from knuckle to nail. "Least I getta see ya like this once," he whispers, quiet enough only Davey will hear.
"I feel ridiculous," Davey admits, flushing scarlet. It's hard not to compare, seeing how perfectly the paints stand out on Jack's tanned skin, sweeping lines highlighting the lay of muscles and the strong structure of his face. Jack looks like one of the gods that the art is meant to represent; Davey looks like a scrawny child playing pretend.
"Hey, stop it," Jack says, interrupting his thoughts. "Ya look like everythin' I 'magined and more." With a tentative smile, Jack ducks in to sneak a quick kiss before Medda can tut at them for possibly messing up the paints. (Surprisingly, she doesn't say a word, and Davey thinks she might be pretending she didn't see.)
The blare of trumpets announces the beginning of the Opening Ceremony. Around the room, all of the Tributes spur into action. Pairs climb into their designated chariots, lined up in a row. Jack steps up into the rear chariot and offers a hand to pull Davey up with him. "You can do this," Miss Medda says determinedly, her usual charming smile replaced by tight lips and a fierce gaze. "You show them, boys."
"Make sure they don't forget," Katherine adds fervently, albeit far quieter. The chipper mask is back, but her voice doesn't match it, a hint at the person she keeps so staunchly hidden for some reason Davey still hasn't figured out.
Then Kloppmann, who's been sulky and silent the entire day, snorts and casts them a wry smirk. "Give 'em hells, boys."
Jack and Davey grin, nodding. The chariot lurches forward and then glides silently down the echoing corridor toward the wall of blinding lights and noise at the end. When Jack holds out a hand between them, Davey doesn't hesitate to lace their fingers together, and he can feel the metal of Jack's union band press to his skin. "For Manhattan," Davey breathes.
"For the Newsboys," Jack replies with a playful smile.
Emerging between the towering rows of bleachers is just as overwhelming as the first time, hundreds and hundreds of people screaming and watching as the Tributes are paraded in front of them like circus animals. Enormous holo-screens hover at intervals, projecting camera feeds of the various Tributes onto the screens for everyone to see.
Davey glances up and is startled to see his own face staring back at him, something wild and exotic beneath the ceremonial paints, a glowing, ethereal creature he almost doesn't recognize. The lines of gold exaggerate the long, narrow shape of his face, and the black dots circling his eyes make the blue seem brighter, somehow. Maybe Jack wasn't entirely wrong; Davey doesn't look quite as ridiculous as he feels.
There are no false smiles this time, no pretending to be charmed and flattered and sweet. Jack and Davey both lift their chins proudly, faces set like stone, and at the same time, they both throw their fists into the air. Davey thinks he's probably imagining it, but he would swear he hears a ripple roll through the crowd.
"Oh my stars." Davey recognizes the voice of Denton, the Games' master of ceremonies, as it comes across the loudspeakers. "Well, I certainly think none of us were expecting this. Last year, Manhattan put on a tremendous display with their holographic news banner, a nod to the District's industry of producing holo-screens and other technology, earning them the nickname 'Newsboys of Manhattan.'
"This year, it seems, they've gone for a very different approach. As you all undoubtedly know, these boys are the first dual Victors, after capturing the hearts of us all with their star-crossed love story, and just a week ago, they announced their promise to be Bound. For those of you who've never seen it before, I believe this is what's considered the traditional Binding attire in outer Districts like Manhattan, a tribute to the god of union. It is-" Denton's voice falters for a moment. There's the soft sound of a clearing throat. "It is a marvelous display. Yet another truly memorable appearance from the Manhattan Tributes."
Davey lifts his chin higher, tightening his grip on Jack's hand, and he glares up at the distant balcony at the end of the stadium. That's where President Pulitzer will be watching; that's where the man who brought this down on them will be observing it all with those cold gray eyes. And Davey is going to make damn sure that the president knows that this is what he gets for thinking he can silence the Newsboys.
Davey and Jack are both exhausted by the time they step into the elevators that will carry them up to their Capitol apartment at the end of the night. Their paints are mussed now from the long embrace they shared as soon as they were out of the chariot, and Davey's looking forward to washing the mess off and putting on real clothes. Jack leans against his side, brushing his thumb distractedly over Davey's where their hands are still joined, and yawns. They both just want to relax.
Which is why it makes them both jump when someone abruptly grabs the elevator door before it can shut, holding it so they can slip inside.
It's the blond Tribute from Brooklyn, only wearing half of the Peacekeeper's uniform they'd worn in the ceremony, leaving his thin, pale chest bared as well as the intricate tattoos that cover all of the skin from one shoulder to elbow. The darker Brooklyn Tribute follows him silently, fully clothed and arms folded. "Heya," the blond greets as the elevator doors close behind him. He holds out a hand. "Name's Racer, and the grumpy fella here's Spot."
"Uh, Davey," he responds, shaking the offered hand.
Jack releases Davey to do the same - although not without a subtle grimace at being forced to let someone else touch his prosthetic hand. "Jack."
"Duh," says Racer, snorting. "Like the whole damn country dunno who you is." Which, okay, that's probably fair. Racer chuckles and ruffles a hand through his curls, shaking them loose from the styling gels, and then pitches a shoulder against the glossy wall. "Nice paint job. You fellas sure like to put on a show, huh?"
Davey licks his lips, scowling. "We like to remind people that our lives don't mean less just 'cause we don't have the credits that Districts like yours do," he shoots back tersely.
The dark-haired boy huffs a laugh, drawing everyone's attention. Despite his stature, Davey knows he's a couple of years older than the rest of them, somewhere in his early twenties. He gives off an aura of power and authority, even while he has to crane his head back to meet their gaze. "I like this one," he says simply, in a disarmingly deep voice.
Racer's eyebrows go up, and he grins. "Trust me, that's some high praise from this guy," he intones. "He don't like anyone."
"Why're you talking to us?" Jack asks suspiciously, taking a small step forward to subtly place himself between Davey and the Brooklyn Tributes.
Racer obviously recognizes the gesture because he holds up his hands placatingly. "Easy, loverboy, we ain't here to wipe out the competition early or nothin'," the blond says. He glances to Spot, who nods curtly, before he goes on, "In fact, we were sorta thinkin' you two shouldn't be our competition."
Davey's eyes widen when the insinuation hits him. "An alliance?"
"You two proved you ain't to be messed with," Racer says, and for the first time, there's almost something solemn beneath his playful smile. "Folks pay attention to you. They'd be dumb to cross you. And, well, me and Spotty ain't too shabby in a fight either. Figure us four together, we can give 'em a real good show."
"Why?" Davey presses. Spot raises an eyebrow questioningly. "Alliances always end in betrayals. Why would you want to ally yourselves with someone you admit you wouldn't want to mess with? And why should we trust you're not using this just to get our guard down?"
This time, there's no smile left, and Racer's blue-gray eyes are full of fire and pain. Very pointedly, he holds out a hand and Spot takes it, lacing their fingers together. "'Cause you're not the only ones bein' forced to go against someone you love."
Jack hisses out a breath, his grip tightening on Davey's hand. "Gods, sorry. Didn't know."
"No one does," Spot says flatly. "We prefer it that way. Ain't nobody's business, and it sure as shit ain't those Capitol freaks' business."
"But we're not about to just roll over and take this either," Racer says fiercely. "We might've volunteered the first time 'round, but that doesn't mean we came out without scars. And we finally got somethin' good, now, somethin' worth fightin' for." Racer darts a look to Spot, and there's no mistaking the affection in their eyes. "So we're gonna give 'em a hells of a fight," Racer finishes, "and we figure if there's anyone else out there that's on the same page, it's you two."
Jack glances back at Davey, the question plain on his face. Davey bites his lip, considering. These are professional Tributes, the sort who trained and volunteered to fight in the Games. He remembers seeing them in the Games, ruthless and efficient. This may be all some grand ploy.
Except - well, except they'd have to be damn good actors to fake those looks they're sharing. It's the sort of look Davey's seen on the older couples back home, the ones who've been through hells and high waters together and come out the other side closer than they started.
It's the same way Jack looks at Davey, sometimes.
What good does an alliance do them, though? They all know there's no breaking the rules this time; there will be only one Victor at the end of all this. And it sure as hells won't be Jack or Davey, not with Pulitzer gunning for them. "You know, allying yourselves with us will just put you in more danger," Davey points out. "We've made some enemies pretty high up that're gonna make sure things are difficult for us."
Spot smirks dangerously. "Sounds like fun."
That manages to make Davey crack a smile, and he nods. Having allies might not be the best idea, but at the same time, it's not like Davey and Jack are going into this planning to win. If they're looking to prove the president wrong, then maybe joining forces with the last District anyone would expect them to is an excellent way to do it. After all, didn't this whole thing start when Davey treated a kid from another District as his own instead of as an enemy?
"Sounds like fun," Davey agrees, grinning. Then, trading a teasing look with Jack, Davey spits into his palm and holds it out to the Brooklyn boys. "Deal?"
Racer hikes an eyebrow up and then cackles. Spitting into his hand, the blond shakes Davey's energetically. "Deal. Pleasure doin' business with ya." The elevator chimes a moment later, doors gliding open, and Racer tosses them a flippant salute as the Brooklyn Tributes get off at their floor.
Manhattan District always gets the highest apartment in Tributes' Tower, an expansive penthouse with a spectacular view over the Capitol. It looks exactly the same as Davey remembers, all the way down to the vividly-colored furniture and holo-screen that takes up an entire wall. The banquet table is laid with food even though none of them have been here today. There's a crackling, holographic fire bathing the room in soft light.
And there's no one else there.
"Where's everyone?" Jack asks curiously as they cross the room. The doors to the other bedrooms are open, but there's no indication that Kloppmann, Katherine, or Miss Medda have set foot in the apartment yet. So if they aren't here, where are they at?
"Dunno," Davey answers, frowning. "Maybe they got Capitol stuff to do." After all, last year, Katherine had been out the whole night after the Opening Ceremony, circulating through parties. Miss Medda still has a business to run, so she might be doing that, but Kloppmann can almost always be found sprawled in one of the plush armchairs and sipping from his pocket flask. Maybe he decided to visit a proper bar instead?
Jack shrugs, stretching his arms over his head until his spine cracks. "Ain't gonna complain," he murmurs. "I'm sorta done with people for the day."
"Should I leave?" Davey asks, smirking.
With a snort, Jack throws his arms around Davey's waist and reels him in close. "You don't count," he says, propping his forehead against Davey's. "Never get sick'a you." Jack sighs, his eyes fluttering. "Bed?"
"I wanna bath first," Davey counters. "The paint, ya know."
Jack's eyes suddenly brighten up mischievously, and he grabs Davey's hand. "Or..." he starts, pulling Davey along with him into the bedroom assigned to him. Jack throws back the duvet and then deliberately drags the back of his hand over the satiny white sheets. He grins in satisfaction at the dark streak of black and gold left behind on the fabric. Looking up at Davey, he smirks. "Do ya wanna completely ruin these stupid expensive blankets first?"
It's such a silly, petty thing to do, but- "I mean, it is what you're supposed to do on your Binding night," Davey replies, grinning. "So, since we look the part..." Davey leans in and captures the laugh that blossoms on Jack's lips, and a minute later, they've climbed up onto the bed. It's a lazy, reverent exploration tonight, too exhausted for the usual fire and passion, and it's occasionally broken by laughter as they catch sight of the paints smudging over skin from their touch.
When they finally collapse side-by-side, breathing heavily, Davey glances sideways at Jack and dissolves into giggles. The other boy's face is a mess, the precise and beautiful lines of paint now smeared and blended together by Davey's hands to leave his skin covered in brown patches. "We look ridiculous," Davey says, reaching over and drawing a finger across the line of black dots under one of Jack's eyes until they leave a streak down his cheek.
"Ya think this's what all folks look like after?" Jack asks in amusement. "All smudgy?"
"Kinda kills the romance when we look like we rolled in mud," Davey replies playfully.
Jack's gaze softens, and he rolls up onto one elbow, reaching across to trace down the side of Davey's jaw tenderly. "I dunno, still think youse pretty," he says. Ducking in for a quick kiss, Jack's eyes pan over Davey appreciatively. "I know it wasn't real," he adds, a hint timid, "but I'd be lying if I said I wasn't lookin' forward to doin' this for real, a li'l bit. Bein' Bound to ya, seein' ya like that, all gold and beautiful, and knowin' even the gods say I's yours."
Davey flushes scarlet and tucks his face against Jack's chest to hide his blush. "I kinda wish it was real too," he admits hesitantly, hedging around just how much deeper that feeling goes. He's still too confused by their double-life to give voice to those feelings, afraid of being wrong and hurting Jack. "Would rather we were doin' this for real than just doing it to make a point."
Humming sadly, Jack wraps his arms around Davey and settles down again, pressing a kiss to Davey's forehead. "But we sure made our fuckin' point, huh?" he adds stubbornly. "Showed them folks this ain't just some game to us. We's real people with somethin' real to lose, and they can't deny that no more."
Davey nods against Jack's chest and squeezes his eyes shut against the sting of tears. It's easy to act fierce and confident in what they're doing in the moment, but now, in the quiet stillness, the fear comes back. The truth is, he doesn't want to die. He isn't ready to die.
When they got out of the Games last year, Davey'd been delirious with relief that he was going to have the rest of his life ahead; to see his sister Bind and have children, and his little brother become a man. To fall in love with Jack for real.
Now, the best he can hope for is that when he dies, it means something.
"Those Brooklyn guys were a surprise, huh?" Jack muses, interrupting Davey's inward spiral. "Ain't what I was expectin' from Brooklyn."
"A lot nicer than the Delanceys were," Davey concedes, grateful for the distraction from his anxious thoughts. "Not that that's difficult." Jack snorts appreciatively. "I really wasn't expecting to find out they're a couple, though."
Jack shrugs. "Yeah, but kinda makes sense, ya know? I mean, s'like you and me, right? Havin' someone who gets whatcha been through. Sorta didn't 'spect them to think like that, though, since they volunteered and all."
"Guess even if you volunteer, actually killing other kids can mess with you," Davey says. (At the same time, a bitter, self-hating voice pointedly reminds him - five. Five Tributes who died by Davey's hand in the Games. The blood of five other boys stains his soul, and he can never let himself forget that fact.)
"Yeah, guess so," Jack murmurs thoughtfully. "Still, feels weird bein' allies with Brooklyn, don't it?"
Davey gives an aborted nod against Jack's chest. "Li'l bit, yeah," he agrees. "But if we wanna get people's attention, this'll be a good way to do it. No one would expect us to work together with Brooklyn, especially not after the way the Delanceys hurt you." Davey glides his hand up to grip lightly at the silver ring in Jack's arm. "So if we can work with Brooklyn, why shouldn't all of the Districts be able to work together?"
The moment the words leave his mouth, Davey stiffens, and his eyes snap open. "Why shouldn't all the Districts work together," he breathes slowly. "That's it."
"Dave?" Jack prompts curiously, angling back so he can glance down at him.
Pushing up onto an elbow, Davey grins. "Districts working together is what started all of this," he says. "It all started when Smalls-" He breaks off, swallowing hard, and Jack rubs his side soothingly. He's comforted Davey after countless nightmares about the thirteen-year-old Queens Tribute. Connor Smalls was Davey's friend, and Davey vowed to protect him. Instead, Smalls bled out in Davey's arms.
Taking a deep breath, Davey shakes himself and continues, "It's when I treated a Tribute from another District like one of ours that people got riled up, right? When I ignored the fact Smalls was from another District that's supposed to be an enemy and gave him respect instead. So us working with Brooklyn is one thing, but what if it wasn't just Brooklyn?"
Jack's eyes widen as the idea sets in. "Other Tributes?" he asks, already nodding, and he shoves up on an elbow to be level with Davey. "Yeah, that'd - I mean if we could get some the others, ones that wanna show Pulitzer we ain't gonna jump through his hoops-"
"Then maybe the Districts will see that if they work together like us, they are stronger than the Capitol," Davey finishes excitedly.
"Davey, s'genius," Jack says, beaming, and he leans in to kiss Davey. "We can talk to 'em at training, see who we can get to join up. I mean, gotta keep quiet 'bout it, don't want the Capitol folks hearin', but that'd be the best time. No one will think twice if we're just talkin' with anotha Tribute while we's trainin' in the same spots, right?"
"Exactly, yeah, that's great," says Davey. His mind is already racing miles ahead of him, running through a mental roster of Tributes and deciding which ones might be the most likely to listen. Obviously the outer Districts would be the safer bets, mostly, the ones who've been the most hurt by the status quo. "We can do this, Jack," he adds, meeting the other boy's gaze and smiling. "We can make them see."
Jack grins crookedly, reaching up to trace the curve of Davey's neck. "S'it weird I think youse even prettier when youse plannin' rebellions?" he teases, but there's a softer sincerity to his eyes. "This is why youse the brains and I's just a blowhard. You got all the good ideas and fancy words, I just do whatcha say."
Shaking his head, Davey twists and plants a kiss on the inside of Jack's wrist. "You're more than that. I could never do this without you, Jack," he says earnestly. "I'd never want to. You keep me strong, make me feel brave. You and me, together. That's how we get shit done."
The rare curse makes Jack throw his head back, laughing, and he tugs Davey in for a warm kiss. "Togetha," he agrees.
Davey smiles again, leaning his forehead against Jack's. Now that the adrenaline is starting to wear off, the exhaustion is creeping back in, and he sighs. "We really should bathe before we fall asleep. This paint is starting to itch."
Jack chuckles and nods, lacing his hand with Davey's as they clamber off the bed. Once they're upright, Jack pauses and glances at the bedsheets appraisingly. The white fabric is completely ruined, so thoroughly smeared with stripes of paint that it will never possibly come clean. Jack and Davey exchange devious looks before they both collapse into giggles at their childish act of pointless revenge.
Once again, Katherine returns in the early morning. Davey looks up from the window bench where he and Jack are curled up watching the sunrise, and he frowns. She's wearing a glittery red party dress with a gauzy yellow and orange petticoat peeking out beneath the hem; it makes her look like fire even more than her usual gold shimmers and scarlet hair. The part that makes Davey's brow furrow, though, is the open exhaustion on her face, the beginnings of shadows under her eyes visible even through her makeup.
"Morning, boys," she greets when she sees them, but her forcefully chipper smile doesn't reach all the way to her eyes.
"Uh oh, the word not good on the party circuit?" Jack asks, raising an eyebrow.
"Hmm? Oh, no, it was good," Katherine says, shaking her head. "Very, very good."
"So, we made an impression then?" Davey asks hopefully.
Katherine comes over and drags one of the dining chairs closer to their window perch, sitting down heavily. "Very much," she agrees. She takes off her sharply heeled shoes and stretches her toes. "Once again, the Newsboys made headlines. There was - the talk was different this year. It wasn't just people being awed and amazed by you, some people were sad. Lamenting that the lovers are doomed to never reach their happy ending."
Eyes flicking back to the sketch in his lap, Jack snorts. "Like some stupid fairy tale, like that one we read that had the star-crossed line, what's it-?" Jack nudges Davey, prompting him.
"Romeo and Juliet," Davey and Katherine answer at the same time. Katherine sighs and adds, "It's an apt comparison."
"Sure, nothing makes for a better story than the young lovers that both wind up dead anyway, right?" Davey says sardonically, twisting his union band on his wrist. Jack humphs, but he drops his charcoal pencil to loop his arm around Davey's waist and settles his cheek on Davey's shoulder. "But if the parties went fine, why do you look so tired?"
Katherine chuckles. "I have been awake all night," she points out. "And it was a lot of activity and mingling. But honestly, there's a lot of work to be done. The Quell requires a lot more attention than a regular Game." There's a flicker in her expression, and she doesn't meet their eyes as she says it. Davey once again gets the feeling that she's hiding so much from them.
Before he can press, Katherine stands and covers a yawn with her hand. "I need my beauty sleep," she says, smiling. "You boys have a good day at training. And - just watch out for each other, okay?" With that cryptic statement, she heads for her assigned bedroom, snatching her digiscreen tablet up from the living room table on the way.
"That girl is up to somethin'," Jack murmurs when the door shuts behind her. Davey smiles at the way he and Jack are once again thinking the exact same thing. "I dunno what, but she got somethin' else goin' on that she ain't sayin'."
Davey hums an agreement. As much as he wants to figure it out, they've got more pressing matters to deal with; training for the Games begins today, and that means so does their recruiting. "We need to start planning," Davey says. "Figuring out which Tributes to approach, which ones are more likely to say yes. And we should talk to Spot and Racer first, too. Let them know what we're going to do."
"In case they wanna back out," Jack says with a scoff.
"Maybe," Davey agrees. "But I don't think so. They want to cause a fuss as much as we do. I don't think we need to worry about them backing out on us. They were willing to die with us before, I don't see them being less willing if we've got even more people at our backs." Davey glances sideways at Jack, and then, just because he can, he kisses him again. (He'll miss that, he realizes; Davey had been looking forward to a lifetime of the comfort he finds in Jack's touch.)
Smiling, Davey holds out a hand for Jack. "So, whaddya say we go start a revolution?"
Chapter 3: The Union
Gratuitous world-building is gratuitous. I've had far too much fun shaping this world into my own and finally being able to bring in other characters. Also, it's going to start becoming a lot more apparent that I've thrown the guidebook out the window now; I see your plotline and raise you emotional turmoil and feels.
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
The training center for the Games is expansive, the size of a full city block back in Manhattan. There is every possible amenity available to the Tributes for their practice - an entire armory of weapons with training dummies and a target range; agility courses and a swimming pool the size of a warehouse; comprehensive computer databases at tables teaching various survival skills. Capitol officials in crisp training gear are staggered around the room, manning each station to answer questions and be sure the Tributes don't cause trouble with each other.
Davey and Jack trade determined nods before splitting off into different directions. Licking his lips and keeping his pace steady, Davey crosses to the long-distance weaponry range and steps up to the empty lane beside the blond Brooklyn Tribute. Racer pauses with his bow drawn, casting a sideways glance and smirk over his extended arm. "Hmm, wasn't expectin' to see the Manhattan loverboy at a weapon station," the blond teases. He releases the bowstring with a snap, and the arrow strikes the target dummy just below its eye.
"Yeah, well," Davey trails off, examining the row of nearby throwing knives before finding one he likes. He flips it over in his hand twice, getting a feel for the weight of it, and then hurls it at Racer's target. The knifepoint sticks into the target's torso with a dull thump. "I didn't win by giving out hugs," Davey shoots back, raising an eyebrow at Racer in a challenge.
(Five lives, that voice in the back of Davey's head sneers, and he shoves it back.)
The blond laughs, nodding. "Well played," he says, clapping Davey quickly on the shoulder. Adjusting the tension on his bow, Racer glances around the room curiously, and then his lips quirk. "Divide and conquer?" he asks, jerking his chin to the agility course, where Jack and Spot are talking with their heads close together as they wait in line for their turn.
"Figured we'd draw less attention if we weren't approaching people together," Davey concedes. "The Capitol folk tend to watch us more when we are." He looks around surreptitiously to make sure there's no one near them, then picks up another throwing knife and examines it distractedly. "Jack and I have an idea, and we wanted to give you a head's up before we do anything, in case you decide you guys want out."
Racer nods, nocking another arrow and drawing the string back. "Doubtful, but I appreciate the gesture," he says cheekily. "Go on."
Taking a breath, Davey trades the knife for another, checking its balance to keep up appearances. "We're going to recruit more Tributes," he says simply. "More who want to band together and show the world we don't have to go along with their sick Game."
The arrow whistles as it cuts through the air, landing an inch below Davey's knife in the dummy's gut. "Like what, a big ol' pacifist protest?" Racer asks, raising an eyebrow as he reaches for another arrow.
"You've heard about the rioting, right?" Davey says, and the blond grimaces. "People are starting to see that this isn't right. That we can stand up, and we're stronger together. We can show them that if the Districts all band together, it would make them stronger than the Capitol."
"By us working as a team 'stead of against each other," Racer finishes under his breath. He twirls the arrow between his fingers thoughtfully. "You know it still won't do us no good, though, right?" he adds, meeting Davey's eyes. "We can swear some mighty peace treaty, but if we don't turn on each other, they's still gonna make sure only one us comes outta there alive."
Davey nods grimly. "We all know we're gonna die anyway," he says. "Even if I could, I wouldn't want to win. I can't go home without Jack." He pauses, giving Racer a meaningful look to imply, 'would you?'
"Fair," Racer agrees, and the nonchalance in his voice doesn't match the pain in his eyes. "Hells, I only got out last time by gettin' lucky. What's the chances I'll get that lucky again?"
"Then if we're gonna die, why don't we make it count for something?" Davey whispers fervently.
Racer chews on the tip of his arrow, blue-gray eyes distant as he considers the idea. Finally, he casts another look over to where Spot is standing and raises an eyebrow in silent question. The shorter Brooklyn Tribute is watching them subtly, and when his eyes meet Racer's, Spot gives a shallow nod. Racer takes a deep breath and turns his attention back to Davey. "Alright, we're in," he agrees. "Let's give the president a good ol' 'fuck you,' huh?"
Then he nocks his arrow, draws back, and looses it; the point sinks deep into the left side of the target's chest, straight through the heart.
Jack and Davey spent their breakfast time bent over a digiscreen tablet, flicking through the list of Tributes to try and decide which ones felt safest to approach. It's not that they don't want to recruit anyone they can, but there's a chance some might take that information to the Capitol in the hopes of earning favor. Davey would rather keep their plans from the president as long as possible.
So once Davey's talked to Racer, he wanders across the room to the computer databases, where the older Flushing Tribute is poring over lists of edible plants. Davey stops at the table beside him. "Hey, it's Alan, right?" Davey asks curiously. The man looks surprised and suspicious, but he jerks his chin in agreement. "Nice to meet you. I'm Davey."
"I know," Alan replies flatly - it's becoming a familiar response whenever Davey tries to introduce himself to anyone. "If you want the screen, you'll have to wait your turn."
"Oh, no, it's fine," Davey says, shaking his head. "I just wanted to talk." The suspicion is stronger now, the man's eyes narrowed at Davey. "It must be kinda weird, being the oldest one here, huh?"
Alan frowns, tapping the screen to scroll to the next page, this time about different breeds of mushrooms and fungi. "You wouldn't even been born when I was in the Games last time," he says. "Was the year after the last Quell. Coming back every year to Mentor was one thing, but I sure as hells never expected to be here again." He casts a glance around the room, eyeing the other Tributes. "I'm forty-one years old, kid. Sendin' me in against you young things is just stupid."
"Sending any of us in there in stupid," Davey hisses bitterly. Alan darts a look at him, shocked. "It's bad enough doing this to us once, but making us go through it all again, just when we thought we were safe..." Davey twists the gold band on his wrist, and he sees a similar pair of silver circlets on Alan's arms. "You got a family at home?"
"A wife, and a son," Alan answers tightly. His head is bowed, and he's not even pretending to pay attention to the computer screens now, hands pressed to the table so hard his knuckles are white. "He just turned eighteen. I been scared sick every year it's gonna be his name picked. This's the last year he'd qualify, thought just one more year and we'd finally be safe. Now instead, he's gonna have to watch me-" Alan breaks off, clearing his throat.
Seeing his opportunity, Davey lowers his voice and dives for it. "We've all got someone at home we're leaving behind," he says. "But wouldn't you rather give him something to be proud of?" The older man raises an eyebrow questioningly. "I know there's been riots in your District," Davey says. "Folks wanting to fight back against the Capitol. And it's not just Flushing. The same things are happening in Queens and Richmond and Brighton. There was one in Harlem just last month." Alan's surprised by this last one; the Capitol was able to keep that one secret, and Davey only knows because of Katherine.
"What's that got to do with me?" Alan asks.
"Jack and I aren't going to play by the Gamemakers' rules," says Davey. "And we've got more Tributes that agree. People out in the Districts are starting to see that we shouldn't have to put up with this and that we're stronger together. We have the perfect chance to show them that. If we stand together, refuse to kill each other just because the Capitol wants us to, they will follow our lead."
Alan shakes his head. "We can't beat the Capitol," he says wearily. "They control everything."
"They don't control us," Davey says fiercely. "We are people, not playthings, and we make our own choices. I've chosen before not to let the Capitol dictate my life. I'm choosing it again."
"You're gonna get yourself killed," says Alan.
"Of course I am," Davey agrees. "It's the Hunger Games, we're being sent in there to die. All but one of us isn't coming back out. But if I'm going to die anyway, I want to die knowing I did what I believe is right. I refuse to let these Capitol bastards change me ever again. So yeah, I'm gonna die, but I'll die as Davey Jacobs instead of a Capitol puppet."
Dropping his gaze, Alan shakes his head again. "You're crazy."
"Probably," Davey concedes, shrugging. "But I'm not alone. And you don't have to be either." When Alan glances up again, eyes swimming with uncertainty, Davey offers him a reassuring smile. "Just think about it. You don't gotta decide right now, just think about it. And - if you could not rat us to the peacekeepers, that'd be nice."
Alan considers him a second and then nods solemnly. "I won't say anything," he says. "I'm not sayin' I'm with you, but I won't do anythin' to stop you either." He pauses, frowning, and adds, "May the odds be in your favor, kid."
Davey grins and nods. "You too, Alan."
"Well, that went 'bout as good as could be expected," Jack says dryly when they are riding back up to the penthouse at the end of the training day.
They weren't able to talk to everyone they wanted to - they still had to put in a good show of actually participating in the training sessions, and some drills and classes are required for all Tributes - but they still managed to reach out to a good few. Jack lets out a weary huff, carding a hand into his hair. "The older one from Brighton's on the fence, but the skinny kid from Richmond, Finch, he said he's in. Anyone ach'lly say yes to you?"
"The older guy from Queens said yes," Davey says, his heart jumping at the memory of that conversation. The man had squeezed Davey's shoulder and said, with grave solemnity, "For Connor, I will follow you." Davey'd had to throw himself into an exhausting agility course immediately after to give himself some space to get his emotions under control. "The younger one sounds like he might be in too, but he wanted to think about it. The old guy from Flushing didn't answer, but I think he might come around."
"So that's-" Jack frowns, counting them out on his fingers, "six of us fo'sure? And three more that's a maybe. That's a'most half so far, then."
"And it's only the first day," Davey says. "Not a bad start."
Jack grins, knocking his shoulder against Davey's. "We can really do this," he says eagerly.
Returning his smile, Davey bumps him back. "Course we can. Nothin' we can't do together, remember?"
The lift chimes, and the doors glide open to let them into the apartment. Katherine is sitting at the dining table, picking distractedly at her food while her other hand taps at her tablet screen, brow furrowed. On the other side of the room, Kloppmann is sprawled in an armchair, fidgeting with his pocket flask.
"Evening, boys," Katherine greets. Davey doesn't fail to notice that she promptly double-taps on the digiscreen to turn it off, the glass going dark. It's not the first time he's seen her do it. It seems almost any time they enter a room, she dismisses whatever she's doing on her tablet like she doesn't want anyone else to see. Davey prickles suspiciously. Katherine goes on, either not noticing or ignoring Davey's narrowed eyes. "How was training?"
"Good," Jack says, shrugging. "Exhaustin' but good. Don't remember it all bein' that hard."
Kloppmann snorts. "Capitol life turned ya soft a'ready," he mumbles, eyes half-lidded and voice thick.
Rolling his eyes, Davey scoffs. "Like you're one to talk," he retorts dryly. He still gets annoyed at Kloppmann's abrasiveness sometimes, but he's gotten used to it by now. Especially now that Davey understands what did it to him - the invisible scars that the Games leave on a person's soul - it's easier to not take his comments personally.
Katherine, on the other hand, never lets him slide. Lips thinned, she glares across at the half-drunk Mentor. "Really, Nathaniel, would it kill you to be polite on occasion?"
"Yes," Kloppmann answers shortly, and he takes a long sip from his flask.
"It's fine, Kath," Davey cuts in before she can press the issue. "He gets that way when he's drinking. Just let him pout in the corner, he'll snap out of it later." Kloppmann shoots him a withering look that Davey returns unconcernedly. Crossing to the dining table, Davey drops into a seat across from Katherine and reaches for the serving spoon in the nearest dish.
"How's the party circuit?" Jack asks with a teasing smirk as he sits down beside Davey.
Katherine rolls her eyes fondly. "I'll have you know I was in meetings all day," she responds. "There is a great deal of planning going on right now. Discussions about how the Quell is to be handled."
"Oh yeah?" Jack asks, raising an eyebrow curiously. Katherine gives him a look that very succinctly informs them it's nothing she's allowed to share. "Fine, keep ya damn secrets," Jack replies with a flippant wave of his hand. "S'all any us do anymore."
"That so?" Kloppmann chimes in from his armchair. He's sitting forward now, elbows braced on his knees, and he looks distinctly less intoxicated than he did a minute ago as he scrutinizes them. (It's something Kloppmann does sometimes, this miraculous sobering, and it makes Davey wonder if the man's usually pretending to be drunker so people leave him alone.) "You two got secrets too?"
Jack's lips quirk. "Wouldn't be secrets if we toldja, would it?"
Kloppmann pushes up out of his chair and comes to join them at the table. His gaze darts back and forth between the two Tributes, a shrewd, calculating look that Davey's rarely seen on his face. "You two's plannin' something, ain'tcha?" It's clearly a rhetorical question, so neither of them bothers to answer, tucking into their dinners instead. "Should'a known," the older man grumbles. "Never can just leave well 'nough alone."
"Right, because them forcing all us to go back in there to die is 'well 'nough,'" Davey bites off irritably. "Sorry we don't want to just bow down and accept it."
"Keep it up, youse gonna get ya'selves killed 'fore the Games even start," says Kloppmann. Shaking his head, he retreats to his bedroom, the door snapping shut behind him.
Katherine considers them over the top of her teacup. "He's not wrong," she says, gentler. "I'm not going to tell you to stop whatever you're planning, just - be careful, would you?" She takes a sip and sets her cup down onto its plate with a click. "As long as you're not - it's not suicide you're planning, is it?" she asks suddenly, her gaze intense. "You're not planning to do something like you did at the end of the last Games?"
"No," Davey says honestly. "Not that the idea didn't cross my mind, but wouldn't want to give the president the satisfaction."
"Good," Katherine says with a nod. "I'd hate to see you give up so easily." She traces a fingertip around the frame of her digiscreen, her eyes fixed on some middle distance. "Try to stick together in there. Keep each other safe. You never know what can happen in the Arena."
"Why does it feel like youse plannin' somethin' too?" Jack asks, eyes narrowing shrewdly.
Katherine shrugs, standing and picking up her tablet. "I'm simply doing my job." And, without another word, she disappears into her bedroom too.
Even though neither of them has needed to get up for work in the last year, Jack and Davey both still wake up at sunrise out of habit. They fall back into their usual pattern while in the Capitol, eating a lazy breakfast and lounging together in the bench set into the base of the enormous bay window. Today, Davey's attempts to read were quickly diverted when he caught sight of Jack's sketch, and he can't look away.
Jack is drawing them from the Opening Ceremony, both of them painted and fierce as they ride in the chariot. Their expressions are proud and defiant, fists in the air. It's beautiful, as Jack's drawings always are, but it's also clear that he's using far more care in this sketch. Davey watches with fascination as the features slowly come to life beneath the tip of the charcoal pencil.
On the paper, the pair of them look right, a matching set that complements each other perfectly, like the two central gears of a machine that only work when they are fitted together.
Davey doesn't realize that his eyes are watering until the tear lands on the back of his hand, and he hastily wipes his eyes on his sleeve. Seeking comfort, Davey props his cheek on Jack's shoulder. Jack doesn't stop sketching, but he pauses to tenderly kiss the top of Davey's head before he goes back to detailing the patterns of the ceremonial paint. "Wish I had a gold pen," says Jack. "Don't look the same in gray."
"It still looks incredible," Davey says sincerely.
"Was incredible," Jack responds. "That's the sorta moment you remember forever. Ain't gonna let myself forget a single sec." And Davey suddenly understands the intent focus behind Jack's eyes; he's trying to preserve the memory down to the last detail, to make sure he can hold onto it for what little time they have left. Davey's heart hammers at the realization, and he's once again seized by the agonizing truth that he wanted the chance to have this for real someday.
Too bad there's no someday left for them now.
Both of them jump when a door opens, but it's just Miss Medda emerging from her room, wrapped in a silky, floral robe. "Morning, boys," she says warmly. As they echo the greeting back, she pours herself a large cup of steaming coffee. "Always up with the sun still, I see."
"Don't wanna waste a minute we got left," Jack says, and the ache in his voice reflects inside Davey.
There's a wild, reckless idea that has cropped up in Davey's mind more than once over the last few days, but this moment solidifies it into a concrete decision. Lifting his chin, Davey turns to face Medda properly. "Miss Medda, can I ask you a favor?"
"Sure, sugar. What d'you need?" says Medda.
Davey licks his lips and clears his throat. "Is there any chance you can find someone in the Capitol to perform a Binding ceremony for us before the Games?"
Medda's eyes widen, surprised and sad, but it's the hand on his shoulder that wins out for Davey's attention. "Dave, no, what the hells?" Jack snaps, scooting around to the edge of the bench and swiveling to face him. "I know we's tryna make a point to them folks, but this is more'an that. Binding - that's a forever thing."
"And how is today any different than if we'd done it a year from now?" Davey counters. "We were already planning for this in the future. Well, now we don't get a future." He swallows when his voice cracks, taking a second to collect himself before meeting Jack's eyes again. "I want this, Jack. I'm not doing this for show or to make a point. I'm saying this because I want it."
"Dave, you can't-" Jack breaks off, wincing.
Reaching over, Davey curls his hand over Jack's. "I told you before that I wished I'd met you before the Games because I wanted more time to know you," Davey says. "And we got a li'l extra time, but not enough. I want more. And if the After is like the prayer books say, if Binding means even when we're dead, I want that time with you too." Jack takes a deep, shuddery breath, his gaze fixed on their joined hands, but Davey still sees the tear that escapes down his cheek. "It's you and me, Jack, together. I can't do this alone. If I'm gonna die, I wanna die knowing I'll still have my best friend with me. If you still want me."
"Gods above, Davey." Jack's voice is thick and broken, his grip tightening on Davey's hand until it's almost painful. "I can't - I wanna - fuck, I know it's selfish, but I wanna say yes."
"Then say yes, you stubborn boy," Medda interjects suddenly, startling them both. Although she's currently wearing a look of exasperation, her eyes are red-rimmed and she's clutching her handkerchief in one hand. "Heavens and hells, Jack, what's to think about? You love him, he loves you, end of story." Glancing to Davey, she says, "I know someone, I'll go see her today and arrange something."
"Thank you," Davey says sincerely. The Capitol stylist slips back into her bedroom, no doubt to dress, and it leaves him alone with Jack in the cavernous apartment.
"Davey, are you-"
Davey smirks and puts a hand over Jack's mouth, silencing him. "I wouldn't have asked if I didn't want this," he says resolutely. "Now shush a sec, 'cause I'm gonna do that thing where I talk a lot." Jack huffs an amused laugh, but he nods.
Dropping his hand, Davey carefully considers his next words. "It's been hard to figure out my feelings 'cause there's always been this voice in the back of my head saying it's just 'cause the Capitol. That maybe I was confusing my real feelings with the ones I was pretending for the cameras. And that made it hard to believe what I felt was real, ya know?
"But then this happened, and I realized that no matter where those feelings started, they're different now. And then this-" He reaches over to brush his fingers along the edge of Jack's discarded sketch, his eyes appreciatively drinking in every painstaking detail. "You said that night you'd wished it was real, and I realized I did too. Maybe it's not the way I hoped it would happen, but that doesn't mean I didn't want it to happen someday. And if we've only got a few more days - I'd rather we do it now than never do it at all."
"Gods, Davey," Jack gasps out, tears coursing down his face. "I don't even know-" He trails off, making a noise of frustration when he can't seem to find the words, and finally settles for leaning in and kissing Davey. Free hand cupping Jack's cheek, feeling the cool tracks of tears on his skin, Davey melts into the kiss. It's not until they pull back and Jack sweeps a thumb across Davey's cheek that he notices he's crying too. "You really want this?" Jack asks insistently.
Davey takes a deep breath, meeting Jack's earnest, brown-gold eyes. "I love you, Jack," and he's proud the nerves only make his voice shake a little as he lets out the words that he's been avoiding for a while now, even in his own head. Jack's eyes widen, and moisture pools at his lashes again. Davey brushes his fingers around the golden cuff on Jack's wrist. "Bind with me for real?"
"Davey, I-" Jack's voice sticks, and he clears his throat. "Yes. Fo'sure. Please." He manages a smile, timid and hopeful. "I love you. A'ways loved you."
Lurching forward, Davey kisses Jack again, trying to pour everything he feels, all the swirling, dizzying, chaotic emotions that are whipping like a hurricane inside his chest, into the contact. It's not enough. It's never enough. Will never be enough, in the end.
Davey stands, tugging at Jack's hand, and starts for the bedroom. They've still got a few hours until they're due in the training center, and Davey wants to spend those hours with the man he loves.
It's difficult to focus on the training as Davey's mind is torn in two directions; determination to recruit more Tributes to their cause and anticipation of the Binding, provided Medda can find someone to help them. He's practicing knots at one of the stations, absentmindedly tying and untying the length of cord, when the older Brooklyn Tribute, Spot, lumbers up next to him. "Youse good at that," Spot says, eyeing the intricate anchoring knot appreciatively.
"Everyone in Manhattan learns to tie knots," Davey responds, shrugging. "Have to make sure the crates don't slide around when they're being transported. Wouldn't wanna break somebody's fancy holo-screen."
Spot snorts eloquently. He picks up a piece of rope and starts copying the diagrams lit up on the screens. "Talked to Hotshot this mornin'," he says with all the calm indifference of talking about the weather. "The younger guy from Harlem. Me and him's friends, sorta. He's in."
Davey startles and glances at the other boy in surprise. "Really?"
"He's got used to livin' the good life," Spot says, smirking. "Don't appreciate havin' that took away. A'ready paid his dues, he said, and he don't like bein' double-charged." Davey huffs a laugh at the metaphor. "Said he's gonna talk to the other fella from his District, says he's pretty sure he'll say yeah too."
That's seven yeses, now, and four maybes. Davey looks across the room to where Jack's sparring with a Tribute from Bronx. Jack catches his eye during a break in the fight to nod shallowly, and Davey's heart leaps. Eight yeses, then.
"You got a plan for once we's in there?" Spot asks thoughtfully, his gaze on his knotting so they don't look like they're having a conversation.
"Stick together, watch each other's backs, and keep each other safe for as long as we can," Davey says simply.
"And what 'bout the ones who say no?" says Spot. "They's still gonna try and kill us. We just gonna let 'em, or we gonna fight back?"
Davey chews on his lip as he picks apart the knot to start over again. "We defend ourselves, but we don't aim to kill. We'll outnumber them. So we protect our people, but we try not to kill anyone. Knock 'em out if we have to, somethin' like that."
Spot hums to acknowledge it. "And the Gamemakers? You know they's gonna go after us."
"I'm planning on it," Davey admits. "What better way to show the Districts out there that the Capitol is the real enemy? So when the Gamemakers strike at us, we just band together harder to survive. Let the people see that we should all work together against the Capitol."
Holding his breath, Davey waits for the argument, waits for Spot to push back, but- "Sounds good." Davey glances at him, eyebrow raised. "What? I ain't stupid, we knew goin' in this's a suicide mission. Ain't gonna whine 'bout it now. Just wanted to know what the plan is." Spot smirks triumphantly when his knot holds, and he tosses the length of rope back down onto the table. "See ya 'round, kid."
At the end of the day, after they've finished with training and supper, after the others have gone to bed, Medda fetches Jack and Davey from their room. "Now try to keep your heads down," she says, handing them both hooded jackets. "You're not supposed to leave the tower, but I thought you would rather do this in a proper temple." She clears her throat. "You boys deserve as much."
Davey reaches out and squeezes her hand in gratitude. His heart is hammering against his ribs as he and Jack follow her out through a side exit in the Tribute Tower. They walk at a brisk clip, staying close together and trying not to draw attention to themselves from the few people lingering out on the streets. Thankfully, most of the Capitol folk are wrapped up in parties and celebrations at this time of night, retreated into clubs or homes.
The Capitol's grand temple is unlike anything Davey's ever seen before, and he can't help but gawk at its beauty. Made entirely of polished white marble, the face is lined in sleek, spiraling pillars. Between those, towering, lifelike statues of the gods stand proud and regal.
Medda opens the door carefully and ushers them inside ahead of her. The worship hall is no less breathtaking from the inside, an enormous vaulted ceiling stretching far above them. There are holo-screens set high in the walls that slowly cycle through art depicting scenes that Davey recognizes from the prayer books his father used to recite to him as a child.
Thinking about Mayer makes a pang shoot through Davey's chest; he wishes his family could be here for this.
A woman is waiting for them on the raised dais at the front of the temple, dressed in the simple white gown of a priestess. She looks nothing like the weathered old woman who leads the worship hall back in Manhattan. This priestess is strikingly pretty, her hair a shade of white that certainly didn't come from age, and gleaming silver makeup stands out boldly over her caramel skin. Still, her smile is kind when they approach.
"Welcome, noble Victors," she greets, spreading her arms wide and bowing her head. "It is an honor to meet you."
"Thank you for doing this, priestess," Medda says to the woman. "I hope you forgive me asking yet another favor from you."
The priestess smiles warmly at Medda. "Of course, Miss Larkin," she says. "After all you've done for my daughter," she pauses to glance at a younger woman Davey didn't notice lingering against the wall, a girl with the same light brown skin who looks vaguely familiar for some reason, "you know that I am always at your disposal. Most especially for something this important and blessed."
"Come, boys," says Medda. "Let's get you ready."
Medda leads them to a small room off the side of the main chamber, followed by the priestess' daughter. "This is Aisha," Medda introduces distractedly, panning her eyes over the spread of makeup and paints on the long counter to be sure everything is there. "She is my apprentice, she'll be helping me." Right, that's where Davey's seen her before; in the grooming center when they'd been preparing for the Opening Ceremony.
"An honor, proud Victors," Aisha says with a timid smile and curtsy, a curtain of lavender hair spilling around her face.
Davey can't manage more than a nervous smile. His stomach is twisting in knots as the reality of the moment settles over him. As if Jack can read his mind, the other boy takes Davey's hand. "You 'kay, Dave?" he asks softly. "We don't gotta do-"
"No, I want this," Davey cuts in, meeting Jack's gaze and hoping he can see the conviction there. "Just a li'l nervous."
Jack grins and lifts Davey's hand to kiss his wrist, the one that's still bare for now - but never again after tonight. "Me too," Jack admits.
"But, excited too," Davey adds shyly. The words make Jack's expression light up beatifically.
Medda clicks her tongue to get their attention, and when they look up, she's holding out a pair of black briefs to them both. "Ready?" she asks.
Davey takes a deep breath and grabs the cloth. "Ready."
Medda and Aisha both turn their backs to let them strip out of their clothes and pull on the briefs, and then the stylists get to work. Having his body painted into the ceremonial makeup once was surreal enough; to have the gold and black lines drawn across his skin and knowing that this time, it's real, makes Davey's head spin so fast he thinks he'll faint.
The process takes what feels like a lifetime, both women paying precise attention to making sure the designs perfectly match the pictures from the prayer book. By the time Medda declares them finished, Davey's so nervous he's almost sick with it. He looks sideways into the large mirror that fills one wall, and his heart leaps. The face looking back doesn't look like it should belong to him, this otherworldly, elfin creature of towering limbs and pale, ornamented skin.
Then he turns around and sees Jack - a statue of beauty and power in his own right - staring at him like Davey's the most miraculous thing he's ever seen, and all of the anxiety in his chest settles.
"We doin' this?" Jack asks.
Davey smiles and nods. "We're doin' this."
Medda escorts them back out into the temple hall. The priestess laid out her supplies while she was waiting, and she beckons them over with a reassuring nod. Polished marble cold beneath their bare feet, Davey and Jack walk over to stand in front of her.
"Join your left hands," the priestess instructs. They turn to face each other, and as Davey slips his hand into Jack's, a sense of calm washes over him. This, Davey is sure, is where he's supposed to be. "Now kneel."
There are two pillows on the floor, black silk hemmed in gold. Without releasing their grip on each other, the two of them kneel on the cushions. "Now, I know that the prayers and ceremony vary between Districts," the priestess says kindly, "so I hope you will forgive that it may be a little different than you're used to."
"S'fine," Jack murmurs, voice a little hoarse. His palm is sweating, and Davey squeezes his fingers briefly. Jack's eyes flick up to meet his and he returns Davey's small smile, the soft look at odds with the remarkable intensity of the ceremonial paint.
The priestess's expression turns solemn as she steps forward and places a palm on both their heads. "Oh gods, look down upon us in this glorious moment, as we beseech your blessing," she says, gaze tilted upward. The sleek sound of her Capitol accent adds a strange gravity to the words. "Honor us with your strength as we join these two souls in an eternal Bond."
Fetching a long, silk cord from the table, the priestess kneels and begins to lace the cord across their joined hands. She slips the rope through the gap between union band and skin, first Davey's, then Jack's, over and over again in a tight zig-zag. "As this anointed rope draws two hands into one, so will these lives be tied into one," she recites while she works. "As these knots bind two into one, so too will these souls be Bound into one." When she finishes, there's a perfect net of gold cord weaving Davey's cuff to Jack's, encircling their hands and tying them together.
"Now, who gives these two souls into Binding union?" the priestess calls, projecting her voice as if speaking to a full temple even though the only witnesses are Medda and Aisha.
"I do," Medda says solemnly. She walks over to stand at their side, opposite the priestess, and sets a hand on both boys' heads.
"You do, in love and grace, give praise that these souls be Bound beneath the eye of the gods?" the priestess asks.
"With all the love in my heart, I give praise to the gods for this Binding," replies Medda. Davey's eyes sting to see the genuine affection on her face as she gazes down at them, and he knows that she means every word. He feels a swell of love for this woman who has opened her heart to them so easily, even though she has no reason to.
"Then, with your blessing, I ask for the bands of union," the priestess says, holding out her palms expectantly. Medda pulls a pair of identical gold cuffs from her pocket, an exact match to the ones already on their wrists. The priestess accepts them, offering one first to Jack. "Do you, Jack Francis Kelly, pledge to give your whole soul to be Bound to this man, in life and in death?"
A single tear escaping down his cheek and leaving a trail through the paint, Jack smiles. "I pledge to be foreva Bound," he vows, as the priestess helps him fasten the ring over Davey's right wrist. The weight of it feels incredible, not so much a physical pressure but something inside of Davey's chest like the crackle of summer lightning shooting through his veins. His breath catches.
"Do you, David Benjamin Jacobs, pledge to give your whole soul to be Bound to this man, in life and in death?"
Davey has to clear his throat around the lump of emotion before he can speak. "I pledge to be forever Bound," he says and wraps the gold band over Jack's wrist, the priestess helping secure the latch since Davey can't manage it one-handed. Davey brushes a soft touch over the too-cool skin of the prosthetic before he withdraws, and Jack smiles affectionately at the gesture.
"Then I, High Priestess of the Capitol temple, do declare that here, beneath the watchful eye of the gods, these two souls are Bound for now and eternity."
Davey is used to waking up in Jack's arms by now after the last year spent crawling through windows at night, but this morning, when he blinks awake, it feels different. This morning isn't resurfacing from the darkness after a bad dream. This morning isn't clinging to a few more moments of freedom to feel his feelings without judgment because Jack is the only person who truly understands.
The room is dark, only a faint silver glow coming off the holo-display on the wall - it's currently set to a picture of a twilit forest, the digital leaves shuffling and whispering in the shadows. Exhaling slowly, Davey relaxes back into the warm weight behind him. He reaches down to touch the arm hooked over his waist, and his fingers slide from the steel circle above the elbow down until they're stopped by the golden cuff on the wrist.
The band of Binding.
Davey smiles into the darkness as he threads his fingers through Jack's, the bands on their wrists perfectly lined up. It still feels surreal, his brain swimming through a haze as it tries to grapple with the evidence right there in front of his eyes. An identical pair of golden bands, two each now, the physical embodiment of a much bigger truth.
Jack hums blearily and tightens his grip around Davey's torso, drawing him back against Jack's chest. Davey melts into the comfort as Jack nuzzles the back of his neck and drops a delicate, chaste kiss to the skin there. "Dream?" Jack whispers, a thread of genuine anxiety beneath the rasp of sleep. His arms curl even closer like he's terrified that if he doesn't hold on tight enough, Davey will evaporate into the air.
"No," Davey responds. He rolls in Jack's grip, turning under the tangled blankets until they're nose to nose in the shadowy room. Jack's hair is standing on end, and there's a streak of black paint below his ear that they must've missed while bathing. The only detail Davey can focus on, though, are Jack's eyes; the brown seems to glow beneath the weak lights, the tiny freckles of gold in them sparkling with tentative, fragile hope. "Not a dream," Davey says firmly and then presses forward to kiss Jack.
They kiss slowly and leisurely, but it somehow still leaves Davey light-headed. When he draws back to catch his breath, Jack's eyes are bright for a whole other reason, tears balanced at the corners. "I don't wanna get outta bed," Jack admits quietly. "Don't even care if this is a dream, I just wanna stay here foreva. Wish there's a way I could just hold onto somethin', make time stop..."
"I know," says Davey, and his voice catches on the words. He understands completely.
Once they get up, they have to go back to reality. Outside of this room, they'll be thrust back into a world where they are martyrs headed to the guillotine; where they will have to put on brave faces as they stare down the end. Beyond the heavy shadows of their bed, their too-short lives have a rapidly approaching deadline, and every moment that passes brings them one step closer to death.
But here, in the quiet sanctuary of darkness and warm skin, they can forget for a moment.
Joining their hands between them, Davey once again admires the way it looks to see their union bands pressed together. Jack and Davey's wrists couldn't look less alike - one sturdy and tanned and freckled, while the other is thin and pale over prominent bones - but somehow, they just look right together. It doesn't make sense that the same cuff suits two such different arms, and yet-
"S'beautiful," Jack murmurs, so softly Davey isn't sure he even meant to say it out loud.
"It is," Davey agrees. He flicks his eyes up to meet Jack's, his heart fluttering in his chest like a trapped bird. "We're Bound." Jack breaks out in a blinding grin, and Davey echoes it with a quiet laugh. "Looks like you're stuck with me now, pal," he teases playfully.
Jack sniggers, and he releases Davey's hand to instead wrap his arm around Davey's waist, pulling him against his chest. "Poor me," Jack jokes sarcastically, burying his face in Davey's hair. They both giggle and curl closer together. "I love ya, Dave."
"Love you too, Jack."
Later, they'll have to deal with reality. The final day of training, the televised interview, the testing. In only two short days, the Games begin. After that, well, who knows how long they'll survive in the Arena? They only have days left now, a few days to try and create a legacy before the Capitol strikes them down.
But right now, they have hours until they need to be up for training. For now, they can hide and pretend and sink into the glorious feeling of knowing that they are Bound - two souls woven together for eternity. There is nothing that can truly tear them apart now. So Davey sighs and burrows his face into the curve of Jack's collarbones, and basks in the peace of his husband's embrace.
So next month is NaNoWriMo, which means I'm going to be MIA for a few weeks. I'm making the third book of this series my NaNo project, so I'll hopefully be able to get the whole thing written out next month and I'll be able to start posting it after this one is finished (which means time to revise the chaotic word vomit of NaNo.)
Also, I'm still in the process of setting it up and figuring out how it works, but if you guys want updates on how close to a mental breakdown I get during NaNo, I finally made a tumblr!
Chapter 4: The Strike
Just a quick trigger warning for this chapter in particular: graphic descriptions of a PTSD episode, vomiting, and violent character deaths. Fair warning, I cried a lot writing this one.
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
People notice immediately.
First is Katherine, whose eyes go wide when she comes out for breakfast and spots the new band on Jack's right wrist where he's lifting a piece of toast to his mouth. She gapes, glancing at Davey's arm for confirmation, and there's no trace of her Capitol mask left now. "How-?" she asks, awed.
"We called in a favor," Jack says evasively, shrugging. Neither of them wants to out Medda's involvement without her permission, so they've agreed to keep it quiet until they've had the chance to talk to her.
"For a Binding?" Katherine asks. She drops into the chair opposite them, staring at them in open wonder. "I thought you didn't want-"
"We didn't want to be forced into it. We wanted it to happen in its own time. But we're running a little short on time left, if you'd forgotten," Davey points out. "It was now or never, and never isn't an option." He smiles tenderly at Jack and laces their fingers on the tabletop. "The Capitol and the Games have stolen too many of our life choices so far. They weren't getting this one too."
Katherine leans back in her chair, mouth parted in a small circle, and she lets out a dazed breath. Then her eyes soften, and a genuine smile curves across her lips. "Praise and blessings to you both," she says, reaching over the table to pat their joined hands. "I'm very happy for you."
The sincerity in her voice surprises him, and Davey nods gratefully.
Kloppmann is far less enthusiastic when he ambles out near the end of breakfast. He's partway through his cup of coffee before he notices, and his brow furrows. "Ya do that to piss off the president?" he asks.
"No, we did it because we wanted to," Davey responds.
Kloppmann grunts and nods. "Good." And that's the last he says on the subject.
A tidal wave of whispers breaks out when they reach the training center, the short sleeves of the training uniforms giving them no way to hide the bands from scrutiny. Tributes stare in disbelief, some of them with expressions of confusion, others awe, and a few with painful sympathy. Spot catches their eye from across the room and gives a shallow, approving nod. Racer, on the other hand, bounces over and teases them good-naturedly.
Even the Capitol trainers, who usually remain so stoic and professional that it's unnerving, are staring openly. Davey has no doubt that word is already on its way to President Pulitzer, but he doesn't care. Davey and Jack are Bound, and that's something the president can't take away from them - one piece of Davey's life that he's been able to reclaim for himself.
So Davey tugs Jack in for a quick kiss before they part ways to begin the day's training and quiet recruiting.
It surprises them both when Katherine announces as she leads them through the backstage of the interview theatre, that the Capitol has decided to interview the Tributes in District pairs. Davey can't fathom whose idea that was; it certainly doesn't seem like something the president would want, giving Jack and Davey this very public platform to reinforce their image as a couple united in their defiance. Maybe he thinks it will be a punishment to them, being forced to acknowledge, face-to-face, that they are going to lose each other soon. Perhaps he hopes it will discourage them from being confrontational with the pointed reminder that each word they speak will hurt the other as well.
Davey smirks at that thought. Putting them together is the last way to make Jack and Davey back down. Pulitzer just made a dangerous mistake in underestimating their resolve.
Medda prepares their appearances with careful deliberation, determined to make the strongest impact. They are paired in dark clothes with sleeves that end at the elbows, their union bands standing out all the brighter for it. Although she normally does very little their makeup, tonight she is a bit more daring. She doesn't go with the full Binding ceremony paints, but she reapplies the row of dots around their eyes, the gold runes on their temples, and the delicate patterns on the backs of their hands, a subtle nod without being outright.
There's no question that she's planned this to put emphasis on their Binding, and Davey loves her more for it.
Manhattan is always last in everything, so they listen to the other interviews from backstage while they wait. Some of the Tributes behave the same they would've in a standard Games interview, while most are clearly just going through the motions. The Brooklyn Tributes are far less cooperative. Racer answers Denton's questions frankly, not shying away from comments about his displeasure. Spot only says one sentence in the entire interview: "I a'ready proved myself a Victor once, don't think I should hafta prove it again."
Then, finally, the stage manager gestures the Manhattan Tributes forward. Davey instantly links hands with Jack, and they trade fierce smiles as they approach the edge of the stage curtain. "You folks all undoubtedly remember last year's spectacular Games that resulted in the nation's first dual Victors," Denton is saying grandly. "We were all captivated by the thrilling love story of the Manhattan Tributes who stole our hearts. Now, back fresh on the heels of their victory, I give you Jack Kelly and David Jacobs."
Both of them take deep, bracing breaths, and then they step forward into the dazzling stage lights. Screams and cheers are coming from the audience hidden behind the blaze of light, but as they walk, the noise slowly begins to dwindle. It spreads outward like a wave; applause stutters, cheers turn to whispers.
Davey sees the moment that Denton notices the union bands, the older man's eyes going abruptly wide, and his practiced charisma falters for a second. After a long pause of open awe, Denton manages to scramble his composure back together and replaces his cheery smile. "Welcome back, boys," Denton greets when they reach the seating area at the center of the stage.
Jack offers a tight smile, while Davey can only jerk his chin in a faint nod. They both shake Denton's hand before settling onto the plush sofa, where Jack immediately wraps his arm around Davey's back. Denton takes his seat and pans his gaze over them appraisingly, his vivid cornflower eyes calculating as he clearly rewrites his interview in his head.
"Well, I must say," Denton says with a grin that warps the line of runes tattooed from his hairline to his jaw, "whenever I think I've started to figure you two out, you go and surprise me again."
"Funny how that happens when youse dealin' with real people," Jack says wryly.
Denton, shockingly, laughs. "Touché," he agrees. He sets his elbows on his knees, leaning forward with his hands laced together. "I think the viewers will revolt if I don't address the elephant in the room. The last time we saw you boys at the Opening Ceremony, you were only promised to be Bound. It would appear that's no longer true?"
Nodding an agreement, Davey rubs his hand on Jack's knee, and there's promptly a cold palm curled over his fingers. "We didn't want to waste any more time," Davey says, meeting Denton's gaze levelly. "A week ago when I asked him, we had the rest of our lives ahead of us. Now, well-" He breaks off meaningfully and shrugs. "I wasn't about to miss my chance."
"I, for one, am disappointed that we didn't get to see that," says Denton. "I think the entire country was looking forward to your Binding."
"Yeah, well, we would'a liked ta' done it right too, but we didn't have much choice," Jack responds. He grips Davey's shoulder comfortingly, tightening the arm around him just a little. "Wish I could'a give Davey the day he really deserved. And wanted Davey's folks to be there, ain't right they wasn't." The sincerity in it makes something sharp lodge inside of Davey's chest, and he glances sideways to trade a pained look with Jack.
Denton clears his throat as if he's uncomfortable, but the spark of enthusiasm hasn't faded from his eyes. "I'm sure that they are pleased for you," he says. Davey can't bite back the soft, skeptical noise, although he at least manages to keep it quiet enough that only Denton and Jack hear it. "At least we got to see your incredible display at the Opening Ceremony," the announcer presses on. "You boys never fail to put on a show."
"Well, that's what this is, after all," Davey says, lips twisted into a grimace. "Isn't it? It's all just a show." Denton's brow furrows. Although Davey forces himself to keep his voice level, his eyes harden. "That's all the Hunger Games are, in the end - a show. It's not like there are lives at stake."
The announcer visibly flounders for a second. "Sacrifice has always been a crucial key to the Hunger Games," he says, aiming for his usual charm, but there's still that glint in his eyes. It almost feels like he's intentionally goading them at this point.
"Easy to say when you ain't the one sacrificin'," Jack says with a raised eyebrow. "Ain't like the Capitol gotta offer up Tributes every year, right?" Denton blinks and opens his mouth, no doubt to attempt some sort of mediation, but Jack talks over him to say, "But course, it ain't 'bout that. It ain't like we're bein' punished, 'cause it's an honor to die in the Games, huh?"
"And we get to have a second chance at that honor, Jacky," Davey tacks on with a sarcastic smile, jostling his shoulder. "Lucky us."
Denton swallows, but at the same time, something in his eyes flashes. It reminds Davey of last year, the almost approving look that Denton had given him when Davey vowed to fight against his fate so he could go home. Is it possible...?
The announcer disrupts Davey's train of thought when he claps his hands and grins widely. "The gods have surely blessed your fates," he replies. "Speaking of fates - last time, your Totem was that clever trick coin from your brother. I loved that thing and your story about controlling your own fate. Have you brought that with you again?"
"Not this time," Davey answers. "I know I won't be able to get it back to him. No, my Totem this year," he exchanges a quick look with Jack and gets an encouraging nod in reply, "is this." As one, they lift their joined hands to show their union bands, side-by-side. "If there's anything that will remind me of the home I'm dying for, it's this."
Jack leans in and presses a tender kiss to Davey's temple. "Davey's the only home I got," says Jack, and even though his voice wavers, he meets Denton's gaze resolutely. "'Fore last year, I had nothin' but a shit job and a pretty boy down the street I was too scared to talk to. This," Jack brushes his fingers over their bands, "is my Totem because this," he drags a knuckle down Davey's cheek with a fond look, "is my home."
Davey can't stop the quiver of his lips, and for a moment, the sycophantic coos of the faceless audience fade into the background. Cupping Jack's cheek, Davey kisses him. Jack's eyes are sparkling when they draw back, and the love in his watery gaze is breathtaking.
The moment is broken by Denton applauding, and the audience follows suit a second later. "Beautiful," Denton says enthusiastically. "Absolutely splendid. And there you have it, folks. The newly-Bound Newsboys of Manhattan, Jack Kelly and David Jacobs."
"You two's sure tryin' your damnedest to make sure you don't survive this year, ain'tcha?" Kloppmann grumbles as he escorts them down to the hall for the Capitol testing. There, they'll show the Gamemakers' council what skills they are bringing to the Games, trying to impress them enough to get a score that will encourage Sponsors to root for them.
"Don't be stupid," Davey responds, scoffing. "Like we were ever going to survive to begin with. You know even more than we do how bad the president wants us dead. The Quell Reaping was all a trick to get us back here. We know we're gonna die."
Kloppmann grunts, but he doesn't deny it. "So ya decided might as well piss him off more before ya go?" he shoots over his shoulder.
"Pretty much," Jack agrees with a smirk.
"Youse gettin' as bad as him, ya know," Kloppmann directs at Jack. "Mouthy upstarts, the both'a ya."
"Awh, ya flatter me," says Jack, clapping a hand over his heart dramatically. When Davey can't stifle his giggle at the theatrics, Jack squeezes his hand and winks playfully.
Snorting, Kloppmann shakes his head. He glances at Davey, eyes narrowed suspiciously. "Youse gonna do that same trick ya pulled in the testin' last year, huh?"
Last year, when called in for his demonstration to the council, Davey had pointedly refused to participate. "No reason to start playing along now."
"You too, I'm bettin'," Kloppmann says to Jack. It's obviously rhetorical, so Jack just grins. "Gods, youse impossible. Just-" Their Mentor pauses right outside the hall doors, turning to fix them with a stern, shrewd look, and he lowers his voice slightly, "couldja try and not tick 'em off so bad ya get ya'selves killed straight outta the gate? Ain't gonna make your point if ya ain't around to make it."
Davey eyes the older man appraisingly, once again struck by the thought that something is going on that he doesn't understand. That there's more to this man than he lets people see. "Don't worry, we're not plannin' on dying right away," Davey says. "We might not be winning, but we're gonna stick in there as long as we can, if only 'cause it'll drive Pulitzer up the wall."
Kloppmann gives a wry chuckle, fidgeting with the pocket where he carries his flask without pulling it out. "Fair 'nough. Go give 'em hells, then."
The testing center waiting room looks exactly the way Davey remembers, a bland, white room lined with hard, plastic chairs. Half of the Tributes are already there. A few are staggered around the room, but a surprising number of them are sitting in a row along one wall. It only takes Davey a second to realize that they are all Tributes who have agreed to join them, with the Brooklyn pair at the end closest to the door, two empty chairs left open beside them.
"Hey fellas," Racer greets cheerfully. "How's it?"
Davey grins as his eyes pan down the line of Tributes. "Encouraging," he answers. Spot huffs a quiet laugh, smirking up at Davey. "Saved us a seat?"
"Course," Racer says, patting the chair beside him. Davey sits, and Jack takes the chair on his other side. "Not a bad showin' so far," Racer notes, glancing down the row. Even as he's doing this, the Richmond Tributes arrive. The younger one, Finch, takes one look at them before he drops down into the next seat at the end of the row, on the other side of the Tributes from Queens.
"Got a game plan?" Spot asks, raising an eyebrow.
"For the testing?" Davey clarifies in surprise. "Not really. I mean, it's not like the Districts get to see it, so it didn't feel important."
Spot shrugs. "Districts ain't the only ones we're sending a message to though, is it?" Davey opens his mouth and then snaps it shut, turning that statement over in his head. He's known that the other Tributes are with them on the idea of standing as a united front inside the Games, but he never considered that they'd do it even before. "You two just testin' like normal?"
"We're not testin' at all," answers Jack.
Both Brooklyn Tributes stare at him in shock. "So wait, you're just gonna do - what? Not show up?"
"Nah, just tell 'em we're not gonna test," Jack explains. "Go in and tell 'em 'no' and then leave. It's what Dave did last year too."
"You what?" the man on Spot's other side leans forward so he can see down the row, expression awed. Davey recognizes him as the younger Tribute from Harlem. "You mean you didn't test? But they gave you a ten."
Davey smirks wryly. "That's why they did it," he admits. "I pissed them off, so they gave me a ten to make everyone else want to kill me more."
Spot barks a laugh. "I like it," he says with a decisive nod. "Sounds good."
"You mean you're gonna-?" Jack starts, then breaks off when a Capitol official steps through the doors. The woman in the crisp white uniform simply gazes around the room, counting them off to make sure everyone is present, and then she slips out. The door latches behind her with a loud click that makes Davey sure it's locked.
A cold voice seems to descend from the ceiling, saying, "Sean Conlon - Brooklyn."
Spot stands and nods, and then he strides briskly to the door set in the opposite wall that Davey knows leads to the testing center. "Is he seriously gonna refuse the test too?" Davey asks in surprise, glancing at Racer.
There's an almost proud smile on the blond's face when he responds, "Spot don't do nothing by halves." Racer clears his throat. "And neither do I. It's a good idea. Give those Capitol bastards something to think about. They can't go givin' all of us tens, folks'll know something's up."
"So long as it doesn't provoke them into murdering us the moment the Games start," Jack points out with a frown.
"And you don't think that'll look suspicious too?" Racer counters. "What're they gonna do, blow the pedestals right when the countdown ends? That'd definitely make people figure something's up."
"Doesn't mean they won't find other ways to do it," says Davey. "Give us just long enough to get moving and then spring a trap." He bites his lip. "But at least by then, we'd be all together. It still gives us time to show that we're planning to work together in this."
From above them, "Antonio Higgins - Brooklyn."
"See ya on the other side, boys," Racer says, saluting them as he stands.
"So that's the plan?" the Harlem Tribute asks, leaning across the empty seats so he doesn't have to shout. "Just walk out? Oh, name's Mark, by the way, but everyone calls me Hotshot."
"Nice to meet you," Davey says distractedly. "And yeah, I guess so, if you guys want to."
Hotshot nods, and then he turns away to whisper the plan to the guy next to him. Davey watches in awe as the word gets passed down the row of Tributes, and several of them look his way to nod in agreement. Jack chuckles and sets a hand on Davey's leg. "Looks like youse even better at this rebellion thing than you thought," he says.
"I guess so," Davey says breathlessly.
There are eleven of them in total, including Jack and Davey. More than half of the Tributes joined together on their side, all of them marching to the doors with fierce, defiant expressions. It makes Davey's heart pound, a bizarre blend of pride and nausea at the understanding that these people are following him. That these people have placed their faith in him and Jack, and they're going to follow his lead, no matter where it takes them.
Lost in his thoughts, Davey startles when someone slips into the open seat vacated by Racer. When he glances up to find Alan, the middle-aged Tribute from Flushing, sitting there, Davey blinks in surprise. "Alan, hey," Davey greets. The man's lips are drawn, a look of intense concentration on his face. "You okay?"
"I want my son to be proud of me," Alan says, voice pitched low so only Davey can hear. "I want him to remember me and not think I'm a coward." His gaze is hard and piercing when he meets Davey's eyes. "You were right, and looks like lots of folks know it too."
"Including you?" Davey asks hopefully.
Alan takes a deep breath. "Including me."
Davey grins and offers out a hand. "Welcome to the Newsboys." That makes Alan snort in amusement, but he shakes Davey's hand. Jack squeezes Davey's knee encouragingly, and he beams when Davey looks over at him.
That makes twelve of them now. Twelve of the twenty Tributes who are refusing to bow to the rules; who believe that there is a better way, and it's time to stop allowing corruption to continue. Twelve Tributes to make sure the whole world knows their story.
"Saw your interview," Alan says, propping his elbows on his knees so he can see both Davey and Jack. "Was somethin' special. That Denton didn't know what to do." Honestly, Davey's got a sneaking suspicion that Denton knew precisely what he was doing. It's just the why that Davey can't figure out.
"And I, uh - I'm glad you two could do that 'fore we go in," the older man adds, nodding toward the cuffs on their wrists. He rubs at the thin silver bands on his own arms. "S'one the only things keepin' me sane, knowin' that when it's her time, my girl's gonna find me 'gain."
"Alan Caldwell - Flushing."
Davey and Alan exchange quick, tight looks, and the man stands, drying his palms on his pants. "May the odds," Jack offers, and Alan returns it with a tense smile. Still, the older man stands a little taller when he crosses to the door.
"You were right," Jack says, slipping an arm around Davey. "He came 'round."
"I had a feeling," says Davey. He sighs and leans into Jack's side. "Knowing there's someone back home looking up to you can be a pretty strong motivator."
Jack presses a warm kiss to his temple. "Les is proud of ya, Dave. You know it."
"I know," Davey says, nodding. "Just wish it didn't have to be for this." There's really no more words they can say to that, so they lapse into quiet, absorbing the comfort of being close.
One by one, the Tributes are called into the testing center, until, finally- "Jack Kelly - Manhattan."
Davey cups Jack's cheek and pulls him in for a kiss, strengthening his own resolve as much as offering support to Jack. "I love you," Davey whispers against his mouth when they part, foreheads still touching and hands lingering.
"Love you too, Dave," Jack says with that same gloriously beatific smile he always gets when he says it. "I'll wait for ya on the other side, 'kay?"
"See you soon," Davey agrees.
Jack sneaks one more quick kiss, then stands and heads for the door, leaving Davey alone in the echoing quiet of the empty waiting room. Just like last year.
Davey can remember it all vividly, the burning, acidic rage and frustration as he sat alone in this same chamber. It was a different kind of anger - furious that he was being forced to sacrifice himself just to keep his brother alive - but there's a part that's still the same. Davey didn't want to hurt the other Tributes, felt no reason that he should have to kill them except that the Capitol was making him.
(Didn't stop you from doing it, did it? the dark voice in the back of his mind reminds him. Five lives by your hands.)
This time, mixed with that resistance to killing people who don't deserve it, there's a new kind of righteous fury. It's bad enough that all of these people have been forced through the Games once. To send them back, even after they've done what the Capitol asked and thought they were finally safe, is a whole new level of cruelty. All because the president is afraid of what might happen if the people challenge him. All because he's scared that if people actually listen to Davey and Jack, he might lose his power.
So this time, Davey's not being defiant for just himself. He's going to stand up for an entire nation of people who are tired of being walked on and treated like less. A country of children who grow up in constant fear that it'll be their name that comes out of the lottery this year. A nation of parents who pray they only ever have daughters just so they can avoid the possibility of having to watch their child die on the holo-screen.
"David Jacobs - Manhattan."
Chin raised and spine straight, Davey marches into the testing center. It's the same as well, the large room laid with an assortment of tasks the Tributes can use to show off their skill, with a balcony above for the Gamemakers committee to watch. Except for this year, strangely, there's only one figure up there. Davey's seen him on the holo-screen interviews, but he's even more unsettling in person.
Mr. Snyder is the replacement for last year's Gamemaker, who died of 'mysterious circumstances' after the Games ended. The man is tall and imposing, wearing a sleek, black suit inlaid with jagged designs of tiny scarlet gemstones that gleam like blood. His bristling mustache curls up slightly at the tips, and there are angular red and black tattoos on his face that give him a menacing, feral look.
"Mr. Jacobs," the man says, and his voice is slick as a snake, rolling over Davey like machine oil. "I must say, I expected insubordination from you and your partner, but it seems that you've spread your false ideals like a plague, haven't you?"
"It's a false ideal to believe that hundreds of children dying for the entertainment of the Capitol is a bad thing?" Davey replies cooly, raising an eyebrow.
Snyder leans forward, gripping the rail of the balcony with long, spidery fingers. "You've never understood the purpose of the Games, stupid child," he says with an expression of mocking sympathy. "It's not entertainment. It's a reminder of what comes from dissent. Do you know how many lives were lost in the Fall? How much destruction and pain it caused? Our entire nation was once as glorious and powerful as the Capitol until the Districts fell out of line. Now they reap their rewards."
Davey scoffs. "We don't need the Games to suffer," he says. "A person like you could never understand the way it feels to grow up in an outer District. You live here, in your golden towers, and never have to work a day in your life. You sit here and get fat off the luxuries that our Districts are forced to produce for you just so we can afford to eat. So don't tell me that we don't already pay the price for something that happened before even our grandparents were born."
"You are a fool," Snyder says with a click of his tongue. "And anyone who follows you will learn very swiftly that you are nothing but a troublemaker and a criminal."
"Then why is the president so determined to kill me?" Davey shoots back. "He's afraid of me because he knows I'm right."
The smile that spreads across Snyder's face is cruel and wicked, and it sends a shiver through Davey. "Oh silly child, this isn't about you at all," he says. "This is just the fates; the will of the gods. They wanted to see you punished." He gestures toward the door. "So may the odds be ever in your favor, Mr. Jacobs."
Returning the sneer with a dangerous one of his own, Davey answers, "And you as well."
Jack and Davey lounge together in their preferred window seat that evening, talking quietly and trying to ignore the low volume of the holo-screen in the wall that's playing an interview of the Gamemaker. The scores of the testing will be announced soon, which is the only reason it's on at all. Davey's curious to see how the Gamemaker handles so many people refusing to test.
"Where's Katherine?" Jack asks curiously, glancing at the clock.
Kloppmann, slumped in the armchair near the holo-screen, scoffs loudly. "Ain't her babysitter," he drawls and goes back to staring into the depths of his whiskey glass.
"Weird she's not here," Davey says. He turns more into Jack's side, making himself comfortable in the curve of his arm. "She's been gone a lot this year, don't you think? I feel like last year we couldn't get her to leave us alone, and now it's a surprise if we see her at all in a day."
"Capitol folk," Jack murmurs, rolling his eyes. Then he smirks. "Think she's got a fella?"
Davey laughs. "Really, you think that's why she's gone all the time?" he asks, amused.
"I know if I had to choose 'tween a job and seein' you," Jack trails off deliberately, and Davey blushes, ducking his face into Jack's shoulder. The younger man giggles, kissing Davey's temple. "Makes more sense than any other ideas I's come up with," he finishes.
"Ya both are idiots," Kloppmann mutters. They ignore him.
Just as the anthem begins to play on the holo-screen, signaling the change in program, the penthouse door opens, and Medda enters, followed immediately by Katherine. "So sorry," Katherine says, a bit breathlessly. "Meeting ran late. Really, some people have no sense of punctuality."
"Has it begun yet?" Medda asks, her eyes darting to the holo-screen. "Oh good, we didn't miss it." She and Katherine settle down onto the sofa, and Medda glances over her shoulder at the boys. "You going to join us?"
"We can see from here," Jack responds, grinning, and curls Davey closer to his side. Medda rolls her eyes fondly and turns back to the screen. Davey exhales and twines his hand with Jack's in their laps; truthfully, with the Games beginning tomorrow, they're clinging to what comforts they can find.
On the screen, Denton smiles broadly while he explains the way the scoring works - each Tribute rated on a scale of one to ten by their skill levels. "However, this year, since we have a very different type of Tributes," the announcer goes on, "there is truly no point in scoring them, right? After all, you have already seen them in action. So instead, let's recap each Victor's most impressive moments. Starting with the most recent Victors-"
Davey's brain turns to static when the screen suddenly changes to show him on top of last year's Cornucopia.
His scarred face is panicked, while Oscar Delancey uses Jack as a human shield. On the holo-screen, Davey's jaw locks, and in a flurry, he hurls his throwing knife into the back of the Brooklyn Tribute's hand, making Oscar drop Jack as he howls in pain. Jack's scream splits the air when Delancey swings down at him, that high, piercing shriek that haunts Davey's nightmares. Then, before Oscar can regain his balance, Davey shoves him off the Cornucopia into the waiting stampede of Bulls below.
The screen switches, and now it's a view of Davey fighting the younger Delancey brother, a frantic struggle that ends with Davey spearing a blade up through Morris' heart.
Now Jack, hand scrabbling over the ground until it finds a large serrated knife (the same knife that later took his arm, Davey notes in some distant, detached part of his mind.) Jack rolls to pin his opponent to the ground before slitting his throat.
Then Davey again, face twisted up in a furious, animal rage as he drives the point of a wooden spear down through the back of the Richmond Tribute that killed Smalls.
"No," Davey moans, shaking with horror as he watches his crimes play out before his eyes. It's bad enough to have these moments assault him in his sleep, but this? To have them projected out to the world in a morbid highlight reel like they are a triumph; some grand feat to be celebrated? "No, no, no..."
Jack's hands suddenly cup his face, forcing Davey to turn away from the holo-screen and meet his eyes. "Don't look, Davey," Jack says firmly, his own face pale and his hands trembling where they clutch Davey's jaw. "Don't look at it." Even as he says it, the Jack on the screen snarls, and there's a sickening wet crunch that makes the Jack of now recoil.
(Davey's heard Jack talk about that death before, a bloody fight right at the start of the Games while Tributes struggled to claim the Cornucopia. When Jack was tackled by another Tribute, the closest weapon Jack could get his hands on was a rock that was promptly given a new home in the other boy's skull. It's the one nightmare besides losing his arm that never fails to make Jack scream himself awake, and it usually leaves him out-of-sorts for a day or two after.)
The sounds cut off abruptly, the holo-screen going dark over the scene of Davey being strangled by a Bronx Tribute. "What a cruel, horrid thing," Medda seethes, and she actually throws the remote at the wall in anger. It cracks and falls to the floor in a rainfall of plastic and glass. "What an absolutely terrible-"
"I can't-" Davey squeezes his eyes shut. His stomach is twisting, and his lungs won't work. "I need-" His guts clench, lurching, and Davey shoves himself out of Jack's grip.
Davey stumbles getting off the bench, sprinting through his bedroom to the en suite. He barely gets to his knees by the toilet in time for the contents of his stomach to resurface. Davey grasps the glossy porcelain as he vomits up everything inside of him with a force that feels like his organs are trying to escape as well. Wracked with seizures, his nausea refuses to calm until he's dry-heaving, nothing left but sour strings of acid hanging from his lips.
By the time his stomach finally stops contracting painfully, dark spots are blotting his vision from lack of air, and Davey is quivering so bad he can't stay upright any longer. He slumps against the side of the sunken bathtub, sobbing. It's only when he feels the brush of damp fabric on his cheek that Davey notices Jack's voice over the sound of his choked breaths. Jack whispers soft reassurances as he gingerly cleans the lingering bile off Davey's face.
When he's done, Jack pulls Davey into his lap and cradles him close. Davey sobs again and curls into Jack, burying his face in Jack's shoulder as he cries. "I'm so sorry, Dave, I'm sorry," Jack mutters nonsensically into the side of Davey's neck. "That weren't fair, they never should'a - I should'a stopped it faster. M'sorry, love, I'm so sorry."
Davey shudders and holds Jack tighter, trying to offer comfort as well because he can hear Jack's tears. Like so many nights, they cling to each other when they feel like their minds are shattering to pieces beneath the onslaught of memories.
It's the most merciless punishment the president could've come up with, forcing them to rewatch their darkest moments. Davey has no doubt the reverse order was chosen so they'd have no chance to turn away before it was too late. At least all of the other Districts will have the opportunity to turn the holo-screen off before it's their turn. No, this was staged to hit Davey and Jack the hardest, the president's way of reminding them that he is the one in control.
And that for all of their talk of peace and unity between the Districts, it didn't stop Davey and Jack from killing before.
(Five lives - five boys - five murders.)
"That sonuvabitch," Jack growls into Davey's skin, his fingers practically clawing into Davey's back with how hard he's holding Davey to him. "That dirty, fuckin' rattlesnake."
"Doesn't matter," Davey chokes out without lifting his forehead from the curve of Jack's shoulder. "Doesn't matter 'cause we're still gonna win." He has to believe it; it's the only thing they have left anymore. Davey needs to believe that this plan will work because otherwise, he's losing everything for nothing.
"We'll show him," Davey murmurs breathlessly. "They'll all see. We'll show him." Over and over and over again like a mantra; a desperate prayer that their lives count for something in the end, until his voice breaks back into sobs.
Davey loses track of time as they sit together on the bathroom floor, wrapped so tightly around each other that it's impossible to tell where one ends and the other begins. No one comes to check on them, obviously recognizing that they need their space - or maybe it's just because none of them have anything to say that would help. Maybe they know that there's nothing that could ease this hurt.
A few minutes after they finally run out of tears, eyes burning and chests aching, Davey carefully extracts himself from Jack's arms. Jack watches him, bloodshot eyes confused, but Davey just holds out a hand to help him up. If they're about to spend their last night together - at least their last private night - Davey doesn't want to do it on the hard marble floor.
Davey pauses at the sink just long enough to rinse the bitter taste from his mouth, and then he walks with Jack into the dark bedroom. They undress silently and slide beneath the covers before immediately coiling together again. Tonight, there's no passionate kisses, no desperate, fiery touches. Tonight, they just hold each other as close as possible in the forgiving darkness. The only sound besides their breathing is the soft whisper of digital wind ruffling leaves from the scenic holo-screen in the wall.
If Davey lets himself forget what's coming in the morning, the moment is almost pleasant.
"Hope this's what the After's like," Jack whispers against Davey's cheek. "Maybe they gots a good view'a the stars for us, ya think?"
Davey hiccups, a weak, aborted noise that can't decide if it's a laugh or sob. He brushes his knuckles along Jack's jaw before reaching down to thread their hands together between their chests. "Maybe," he agrees softly. "Or maybe it'll look like that place you told me, the one your mom talked about, with the land made of color and the giant moon." He exhales. "But whatever it is, we'll be together. You and me, right?"
Jack manages the tiniest flash of a smile. When he presses that last few centimeters forward to kiss Davey, the movement makes their union bands click together. "You an' me, togetha."
The hovercraft that carries them to the Arena is black and armored, a military machine designed for efficiency more than aesthetics. Inside is polished steel, a massive, reinforced door separating the Tributes from the pilot crew. A row of seats runs down either side of the cabin, each outfitted with a complex array of straps and buckles that are there as much to detain the Tributes as to protect them during transport.
Davey sighs and squeezes his eyes shut as he listens to the hum of the engines. In the seat beside him, Jack twists his arm as much as he can beneath the straps to brush his fingers against Davey's. When Jack manages to link their little fingers together, Davey glances sideways to smile fondly - even as his heart aches because it's Jack's right hand, and he won't really be able to feel the contact.
"Arm." The Capitol medic who's been making a round of the Tributes stops in front of Davey pointedly. She doesn't give him time to comply on his own, seizing his arm and twisting until his union band catches against the straps. The medic wastes no time in pressing an injector gun to his skin. Even though he's expecting it, the painful intrusion of the tracking device being blasted through his flesh still makes Davey hiss. Uncaring, the medic glances at her digiscreen to confirm the tracker is online and then moves on.
"Ar-" The medic pauses as soon as she grips Jack's forearm, her brow furrowing, and Jack laughs.
"What, didn't they warn ya 'bout the robot arm?" Jack asks, smirking. "Good luck gettin' your li'l gun to shoot through all that metal." Somewhere from down the row, Davey hears a snort of laughter that he's pretty sure belongs to Racer.
The medic scowls at him disapprovingly and doesn't respond. Instead, she grabs Jack's other wrist, twisting it forcefully until she can press the injector against his left forearm. "Rude," Jack says through gritted teeth, flexing his hand to shake off the pain of the tracker settling beneath his skin. "Could'a least said 'please' first."
Davey bites back a laugh at this, casting an amused look at Jack. "Some people have no manners," he jokes in a faux-whisper.
"Ya'd think they's raised in a barn or somethin'," Jack replies, huffing. There are another few chuckles from the other Tributes; the medic doesn't respond, but her features are tight where she's injecting a tracker into Hotshot's arm.
"Ain't an excuse," Finch tosses in from opposite them, grinning. "I did grow up in a barn, and even I know please and thanks."
"Them cows learned ya good," Jack says approvingly, sending the other Tributes into snickers again.
Finch shrugs and smirks. "They get real bossy if ya don't listen. Ach'lly, they's bossy when ya do listen too."
"Sounds like my ma," Racer says with a giggle.
"Your ma's a cow?" Hotshot asks in mock-surprise. Racer makes a rude hand gesture, but he's laughing along with the rest.
"Quiet!" the peacekeeper standing guard at the door snaps.
Jack blows a loud raspberry at him. "Oh, shaddup, wouldja? We's dyin' soon, let us have a laugh while we got it. If it bothers ya that much, pretend we ain't real like the rest you Capitol folks do." The peacekeeper doesn't respond except by faintly tightening his grip on his gun. Exchanging glances with Davey, Jack smirks triumphantly.
"So how's that robot arm thing work, anyway?" the younger Tribute from Queens, Boots, asks curiously. He's a dark-skinned boy a year or two older than Davey, with broad shoulders and his hair shaved except for a thin trail that runs down the center of his skull to end in a long tail. Most of the time, he looks a bit intimidating, his squared features hard and unyielding, but right now, his eyes are bright with genuine curiosity. "Got super strength or somethin'?"
"A li'l bit," Jack agrees, beaming. "Nothin' crazy, but got a pretty good grip with it."
"Hurts like a bitch ta' get hit with," one of the men from Bronx says with a laugh. "Caught me in the shoulder when we was sparrin'. My whole fuckin' hand went numb a sec."
It's a strange sense of camaraderie as the Tributes chat and trade banter, entirely unlike the last time Davey rode to the Arena. Last year, everyone was tense and withdrawn and quiet, not meeting anyone else's eyes and mentally sizing up their opponents. This year, more than half of the Tributes are talking playfully, alternating between peppering each other with questions and throwing around teasing remarks. Davey even sees the Brighton Tribute that turned down the alliance crack a secret smile more than once.
As the medic and peacekeeper both shift uncertainly at the head of the cabin when another peal of laughter rolls through the Tributes, Davey hopes this story makes it to the president too. Let Pulitzer know that they refuse to go into this afraid the way he wants them to be. Let him hear that these men are going to enter the Arena as a team and as friends.
Unloading and escorting the Tributes at the Arena is a time-consuming and frankly excessive ordeal, each of them taken off the hover one at a time and flanked by a group of armed peacekeepers. The Arena entrance is a long, barren hallway lined with doors that have no visible markings, as far as Davey's been able to figure out. The lack of signs doesn't seem to affect the peacekeepers, who just shepherd him to one of the twenty nondescript doors without hesitation and open it with a palm scan.
The room beyond the door is the same as Davey remembers: the blank white square is broken up only by the enormous glass tube in the center of the room, a few feet in diameter, and stretching from floor to ceiling. Apart from that, there's no furniture, no ornamentation, nothing except a lone figure leaning against the far wall.
"Hey, Kloppmann," Davey greets as he steps into the room. The door slides closed behind him with a near-silent click. It surprises him when the Mentor promptly pushes up off the wall and crosses the room at a brisk pace. Kloppmann's face is drawn as he lifts the bundle of fabric draped over his arm and shakes it out. "A jacket?"
"Miss Medda made it for ya," Kloppmann says, holding it up pointedly. Davey's brow furrows, but he slides his arms through the sleeves. "Might be useful in there."
Davey surveys the Mentor's face suspiciously. "Kloppmann, what's going on?"
"Just doin' my job," Kloppmann responds. "Someone gotta see ya off, right? Medda's with Jack, but she wanted me ta' tell ya," he grips the collar of the jacket and smooths it down deliberately, "that she made this jacket special to keep ya safe." Although his tone is light, Kloppmann's gaze is sharp and calculated, boring straight through Davey. "And Miss Katherine, she wanted ta' say, hope ya keep her close to ya heart in there," the Mentor adds, tapping Davey's chest.
Frowning, Davey touches the spot Kloppmann poked and startles when he feels something shift beneath the fabric. He can't tell what it is, but there's something thin stitched into the left breast of the jacket, trapped between the layers of fabric. Days of suspicions and questions snap together, and Davey realizes why Kloppmann's acting so weird.
They really were up to some secret plan of their own.
Davey licks his lips, and he darts a quick glance around the room. He can't see any cameras, but he knows better than most that just because he can't see them doesn't mean they aren't there. These rooms are never projected as part of the Games, but that doesn't mean the Capitol isn't still watching them right now.
Plastering on a fake smile, Davey nods. "I will," he agrees. "Thank them both for me?"
"Sure thing, kid," Kloppmann says. "Give my best ta' Jack." He grips Davey's shoulders, his bony fingers digging in sharply, and meets Davey's eyes. "And maybe if youse lucky, sun'll rise on somethin' betta for ya both."
Davey swallows, trying to make sense of that cryptic statement, but before he can say anything, a loud hiss of pressurized air makes him jump. A panel on the large glass tube slides open, and Davey knows what that means. It's time. Kloppmann gives him a small shove. Davey hugs the jacket tighter around his body before he steps in to stand on the circular metal platform at the base of the tube - the tube that will carry him into the Arena.
"Kloppmann," Davey says, interrupted when the pane of glass abruptly seals over again, trapping him inside of the perfect cylinder. Davey presses a palm to the glass, meeting the Mentor's shrewd gaze. "Thank you for everything you've done for us. For me and Jack. I know I don't always act like it, but I really do appreciate it."
"Don't mention it, kid," Kloppmann responds with a tight smile, the lines around his eyes softening. "Just give 'em hells. And when ya see-"
The door to the room opens again, and Davey's stomach turns over when three peacekeepers filter into the room. Two of them take up posts beside the door, while the third steps forward to square off with Kloppmann. "What's happening?" Davey snaps at the peacekeepers, but their blacked-out visors give away nothing. This isn't normal; this didn't happen last year.
Davey's heart lurches when the platform beneath his feet whirs, preparing to lift him into the Arena. "No, wait, what're you doing?" he says desperately. "What's going on?" Davey throws his shoulder against the glass, putting all of his weight into it, but the panel doesn't give.
"Don't worry 'bout me, kid," Kloppmann says, eyes gleaming viciously. The center peacekeeper lifts his rifle, bracing it against his shoulder. Kloppmann barely spares the weapon a glance before returning his gaze to Davey and punching a fist in the air. "Newsboys uni-"
The end of Kloppmann's sentence is drowned out by the echoing blasts of gunfire that tangle with Davey's scream. Blood sprays across the glass. With a malevolent hiss, the platform rockets Davey up into darkness before Kloppmann's body can hit the ground.
Don't hate me...
I'm writing book three of this series for my NaNoWriMo project. Follow my progress and my distracted rambling over on my new tumblr.
Chapter 5: The Games
I honestly didn't intend to post this week, I was going to take it off and focus on writing, but after seeing all the reviews from the last chapter, I felt bad for leaving you guys on such a dark cliffhanger.
Also, if it wasn't obvious before, this chapter will make it pretty apparent how much I've thrown the rule book out the window on this story. I honestly stopped following the source material by the second act, really.
They killed him. He's dead. They killed him.
The thoughts cycle inside Davey's head, an endless whirlwind that repeats over and over until the words start to blur together. Against the darkness of the tube shaft, he can see it playing out before his eyes on a loop.
(Kloppmann's face twisted with a blend of defiance and resignation; the blank, black visor of the peacekeeper's helmet as the faceless man sighted down his rifle; the holes tearing through Kloppmann's shirt as his body arched forward from the impact of bullets, so many bullets, far more than necessary; the abstract splatters of scarlet cast over the glass in front of Davey, lifeblood spilled like raindrops across the tube face.)
They killed Kloppmann, and it's Davey's fault. They killed him for trying to help Davey. And Kloppmann isn't the only one who was trying to help; Medda and Katherine are involved too. Gods, Medda was supposed to be seeing Jack off. What if they got to her too? What if they gave her the same treatment, murdered her in front of Jack's eyes in a pointed display? And what about Katherine? Where is she, have they got to her too?
Has Davey gotten all these people murdered just so he can make a statement?
Davey yelps as the platform beneath him lurches to a stop. Although he doesn't remember doing it, his legs must've given out at some point because he's kneeling on the metal circle. It's probably the only thing that saves him from staggering off the pedestal to his death. His arms are wrapped so tightly around his middle that his ribs protest, his lungs fighting to pull in air to combat the rising panic.
But there's something wrong - well, something else wrong, aside from everything else already wrong. The tube is supposed to carry him up into the Arena. He vividly remembers the feeling last year when the platform emerged into the blinding sunlight of the Arena; that moment of disorientation as he looked around and saw the playground that the Gamemakers had crafted for their deaths.
Except the world around Davey is still pitch black.
He's no longer in the tube, he can tell that much. Davey can feel the change in the air, the flow of it around him now that he's no longer encased inside the cylinder of glass. That's the only thing he can tell, though, because everything else is darkness. The black is all-consuming, suffocating, to the point that Davey can't see his own hands in front of his face.
The countdown is achingly loud, an echo that comes at Davey from every direction at once, and his heart twists. Is this their ploy? Are they going to make them fight to the death in the dark? No sight of the world around them or who might be coming or what trap they might unknowingly blunder into?
Davey's heart is hammering so hard it's making him nauseous. Shaking, he curls his arms closer to his body and feels something hard dig into his ribs. His union bands, the edges of the gold circlets jabbing into his skin. The pain grounds him, a little, and lets him push some of his thoughts back into the moment.
Gods above, he's not prepared for this. In all of the plans and ideas they've been working on over the last few days, he never anticipated something like this world of black. And where are the others? The Games have always begun in a center amphitheater, surrounding the Cornucopia that provides weapons and supplies to the ones strong enough to take them.
How is their alliance supposed to join up if they can't find each other in the dark?
"Jack!" Davey shouts. The only response he gets is an echo of his own voice, cold and flat against his ears.
"Jack? Anybody? Hello?"
The gong sounds at the exact same time that the world suddenly goes white. Davey gasps and throws his arm over his eyes, shielding himself from the light. A part of him instinctively panics at being left so vulnerable at the start of the Games, knowing that they're always a bloodbath, but he can't hear anyone around him. Can't hear much of anything, really, just an empty, unnatural silence in the wake of the gong.
Blinking furiously while his eyes adjust, Davey squints through his lashes and tries to get an idea of his surroundings. Metal. He frowns - that doesn't seem right - but the more his vision comes into focus, the more he sees of it. In front of him is nothing but sleek, plated steel. A solid metal wall, and a door.
Straightening up, Davey turns in a circle, and he finds the same thing on every side. He's inside of some square metal room, no distinguishing marks on any of the four walls, and in the center of each is a simple steel door with no handles.
And Davey is entirely alone.
Skin crawling, Davey takes a tentative step down off the pedestal. He walks toward the door in front of him, and as soon as he gets close, the sheet of metal glides sideways with a hiss. Automatic doors, then, proximity triggered. Davey stays close to the doorframe and peers around the corner to see what lies behind.
A hallway, as bleak and cold and metal as the room. Nothing defining, nothing to give any indication, except for the occasional shadows caused by secondary paths branching off either side.
A pit forms in Davey's stomach as a sneaking suspicion sets in, and he darts to the next closest door. Sure enough, when it slides open, there's another empty hallway dotted with sporadic side corridors. The same beyond the third door and the same beyond the fourth.
Exhaling wearily, Davey leans his weight into the doorframe and grimaces. A maze. The Arena is a maze of steel halls; a labyrinth with no indicators of where to go, no discernible features to help navigate. And if he's guessing correctly, judging by how he entered the Arena, every Tribute is staggered around the maze, alone in their own little blank rooms.
Davey snarls and punches the frame of the door angrily. How is their alliance supposed to stand together when they have no way to find each other, no way to know where the others are at? It makes Davey wonder if that's precisely why the Arena was crafted this way, to keep the Tributes apart.
Did Pulitzer find out about their alliance and do this intentionally to stop them from joining up, or was this the plan all along? Separate them all, leave them stranded and alone and afraid? Pick them off one-by-one in a less conspicuous way? And keep the star-crossed Newsboys of Manhattan from banding together and becoming that united voice of resistance they've come to represent?
Well, there's nothing for it. Davey's not going to find anyone by sitting here and fuming. With no indication of what hall is better, he simply decides on the one in front of him now. Davey squares his shoulders and starts walking out into the labyrinth.
Another disadvantage of this Arena that Davey discovers as he roams down identical hallways is that everything is made of metal. Which means, as far as he's seen, no water and no plant life and no animals. Davey knows how to keep himself alive in the wild, can track and hunt and trap. Jack's taught him a lot about plants, about how to tell which are edible and which are poisonous. If there was water, Davey's sure he could follow the sounds of it echoing off the flat steel.
Except there's nothing but silence.
How are the Tributes supposed to keep themselves alive in here? Or is that part of the plan too? A test of whether they can kill off their opponents before the hunger kills them?
Davey doubts it; it would hardly make for an exciting show if they're all just stumbling around, starving, until they somehow manage to cross paths. Pulitzer's biggest priority, aside from eliminating Jack and Davey, is giving the people a memorable show that erases all thoughts of the fledgling whispers of rebellion. There's got to be more to the plan here.
Whatever the plan, there's no escaping the hollow ache that's starting to form in Davey's stomach. The hunger isn't too bad yet, nothing compared to what he's dealt with in the past, but he knows it will only get worse. More pressing is the faint dryness in his mouth and throat, his thirst making its presence known. He can survive a few days without food, but water is another story.
Davey wanders down halls, glancing down each fork that he passes in hopes of seeing something different. With no way to navigate or keep track of where he's been, Davey just tries to keep walking straight as much as he can. There are a few places where he runs into a hall that ends in a T, two branches stretching out from either side. Whenever that happens, he alternates sides - left the first time, right the second - in the hopes it keeps him moving relatively forward.
Forward towards what, he has no idea.
There's no way to tell time, and the only indicator of how long he's been walking is the faint weariness in his legs. He's not as active as he was back when he worked in the factories, but Davey still spends a lot of time walking around the District, and he knows how far he can go before he starts to get tired.
Of course, the fact that he's tense as a bowstring might be causing a bit of that exhaustion too. In the Games, nothing happening is a death omen. Whenever the action gets too slow, when the show starts to get boring, that's when the Gamemakers come out to play. That's what trapped Davey in the middle of a wildfire or led to a herd of Great Bulls being set on them.
Davey doesn't want to imagine what sort of horrors could be hidden behind the blank metal walls.
No sooner has the thought crossed his mind than an earth-shaking boom rends through the air, vibrating in the walls. Davey winces because he knows that sound. A cannon. The first Tribute dead.
Heart clenching painfully, Davey twists a union band around his wrist as he keeps walking. Please don't let it be Jack. Please let Jack be safe. Davey knows they aren't surviving this, but he doesn't want his last moment with Jack to be the hasty, desperate kiss they shared before the peacekeepers ripped Jack away to usher him off to the Arena access.
"If we go down, we go down together," Davey murmurs to himself like a prayer.
Davey's so distracted by his thoughts that he almost misses the slight difference in the metal down one of the branching hallways. Startled, he backpedals for a better look. It's a subtle change, but a few meters down the lefthand hall, there's an arching groove visible in the steel. Is that-?
Inching down the corridor, Davey's halfway there when his suspicions are confirmed. A door. Just like the doors in the starting room, this one is simple and smooth, a gliding panel with no knob or hinges. Davey steps in front of the door, and it slides open silently, the plane of steel disappearing into the wall.
The room beyond doesn't look like the one Davey started in; there is only one other door, directly opposite him. It's a smaller space, more a closet than a room, and the two side walls are lined from floor to ceiling with shelves. Shelves that are holding supplies.
"Thank the Gods," Davey breathes out as he steps inside to survey the contents of the shelves. So that's how the Gamemakers plan to help them survive. Instead of the rampant violence of the Cornucopia, one central location for all essential supplies, it seems like they've staggered these little closets throughout the maze. Secret caches that the Tributes will have to hunt down, if they're lucky enough to find them in the first place.
Davey sorts through the supplies meticulously. There's noticeably a surplus of weapons in comparison to anything else. Davey shifts all of these to the back of their shelves and out of his way, piling the large knives and swords and bows back behind the more useful stuff. The only weapon he takes is a sturdy utility knife in a sheath, which he can strap to his calf; you can never go wrong with a good knife in any situation.
He locates a large, well-made backpack, and he immediately snatches this. Opening it up, he starts picking the things that might be helpful and packing them inside. Several bags of dried foods; a pouch with steel and flint; a roll of bandages; a small tin cup.
A few things he deliberates over, weighing their worth. Loops of twine and wire get left behind - those are most helpful in traps and snares, but there's nothing to hunt in this metal cage. After a long, internal argument, Davey finally tucks the pair of sturdy leather gloves into the bag; there's no weather here to combat, but something to protect his hands might not be a bad idea in case of danger.
Davey's just starting to lose hope when he stumbles across the sleek metal cylinder on one of the bottom shelves. It sloshes quietly when he picks it up, and he can't help the breathless laugh of relief. Davey twists the cap off the top and looks at the water lapping the metal. Taking a moment to sniff, just in case, Davey takes a cautious sip. The water is shockingly cold, almost painfully so, but it eases the itch in his throat.
Grinning, Davey allows himself one more mouthful before he secures the cap back onto the bottle and tucks it inside the backpack. A thorough search of the other side of the room reveals three more pouches of food and another water canister, which all go into his bag.
Davey shrugs the bag onto his shoulders, and something in his spine unwinds at the familiar weight of supplies at his back. This is something he knows. Being lost in this place with nothing but the clothes on his back was frightening and overwhelming; now, he's prepared. So Davey squares his shoulders and walks out of the door on the opposite end of the room, into yet one more echoing corridor of bare steel.
There's a second cannon blast a good mile or two after Davey leaves the supply closet. Once again, his hands jump immediately to touch his union bands. He knows it won't do anything - it's not like they'll light up or crumble into dust if Jack dies - but it's still somehow reassuring. Davey tells himself that if it were Jack behind that cannon, Davey would feel it inside. They're Bound, their souls tied into one; surely, if one half of that is taken away, the other would notice, right?
It's the only hope Davey has to hold onto right now because otherwise, the worry would drive him mad.
Of course, the endless sameness is already doing an excellent job of that. Seeing nothing but the same stretches of indistinguishable flat metal is making him restless and irritable. He has no way to track progress - no way to even know what progress is in this place - and there's no sense of time or distance. Nothing but the same walls and the same halls and the same bleak white lighting.
Finally, the silence is too much, and when Davey reaches a four-way intersection, he stops short in the middle. Davey glances from one empty corridor to another, then fills his lungs and shouts, "Hello!" He waits a moment, hearing the sound of his voice echoing down the metal pathways. "Hello?" he calls out again. "Anyone there? Hello!"
Davey pauses and listens hopefully, praying for an answering voice. All he gets is silence.
Sighing, Davey makes his way down the corridor in front of him, and at the next intersection, he tries again. The only voice he hears is his own rebounding back to him off the steel walls. He repeats this for the following few intersections, clinging to the hope that he has to stumble across someone eventually. The Gamemakers will want them to fight each other, so the Tributes have to cross paths at some point.
In the fifth intersection, Davey takes a breath to shout, but before he can say anything, the world seems to tilt under him. Davey gasps and stumbles, crashing into the nearby corner and grasping at the metal to stay upright. The ground lurches under him, pathways blurring and shifting as they spin around him, and Davey sucks in a breath that burns like fire in his lungs. It's only when he doubles over, coughing against the itch in his throat, that he figures it out.
It's not the world spinning around him; it's his head that's spinning from the inside.
When Davey manages to ease his coughing for a moment, he holds his breath and listens. There, barely perceptible, is a faint hissing sound. He glances upward, spotting tiny vents in the ceiling, and the answer clicks into place. Gas. They're pumping the area full of some gas that's making him dizzy.
Another gush of air pulses out of the vents, vaguely violet-red, and Davey's stomach plummets when he recognizes it. Acid-air. The same poisonous gas that Davey released in the last Games to escape from other Tributes when he'd been cornered. Davey vividly remembers the way it burned until he was choking on every breath and the blisters that coated his skin as the gas ate at his flesh. The way it distorted his vision, turning ordinary shapes into hulking monsters and filling his head with whispers of voices that didn't exist.
Davey promptly tugs the collar of his shirt up over his nose, holding the fabric there to serve as a filter, and he shoves off the wall to start walking. It takes a minute for the vertigo to abate enough that he can move without staggering, but the moment he can, Davey breaks into a run. His lungs fill with fire, each breath painful, and there's an itch on his exposed skin. Black spots are dancing at the corners of his vision, but he knows he can't stop. Stopping now is death. He needs to get to fresh air.
Crossing through an intersection, he spots a larger surge of magenta air come down from the vents ahead, and Davey hastily backpedals. He picks another corridor at random and keeps running. Every other breath makes him cough, scraping up his throat like sandpaper, and he knows he's not going to make it much further. He needs, at the least, to drink some water and catch his breath.
Davey tears through another intersection, but halfway across, someone else steps out into the way, and Davey can't stop fast enough to prevent a collision. The impact sends them both sprawling across the floor, and Davey gasps desperately to regain the breath that was knocked out of him. Squinting through streaming eyes, Davey glances around to see who the other person is just as a deep voice says, "Davey?"
"Spot," Davey responds, grateful, before falling into another fit of hacking coughs.
The Brooklyn Tribute crawls over to his side, and Davey realizes why he didn't hear Davey's pounding footsteps coming: there are balls of fabric stuffed into his ears like plugs. Spot plucks them out, pausing like he's expecting to hear something else, and then places a hand on Davey's back reassuringly.
"Gas," Davey rasps out between coughs. "Can you-?" He breaks off but points up to the vents in the ceiling. Davey holds his breath to silence his coughing so it's quiet enough to listen for the hissing sound.
Spot cocks his head, frowning, as the quiet drags out. "Don't hear nothin'."
Davey's sigh of relief turns into another cough, but he at least can breathe steadily enough that he can sit up now. Shrugging off his backpack, Davey digs out the canister of water and takes a grateful swallow, feeling it soothe the scratching inside his throat. "Acid-air," Davey explains hoarsely at Spot's questioning look and takes another sip.
"Ouch," Spot hisses sympathetically. He tips his head, surveying Davey's face and hands, and nods. "Doesn't look like it burned ya much."
"Wasn't thick," Davey agrees. He offers out the water, but Spot shakes his head. "Just enough to make breathing not fun." Spot smirks. The patches in Davey's vision are shrinking down to black pinpricks around the edges now that he's got fresh air in his lungs. "What's with-?" Davey gestures to his ears.
"Siren-song," Spot answers. Davey's brow furrows in confusion. "S'a high-pitched sound ya can't really hear good, but it messes with ya head. Sorta type of hypnosis, I guess. Makes ya wanna do stuff. Had to block out the sound 'cause I started feelin' like wantin' to scratch my skin off." The older man tugs a sleeve up to show a layer of bright red scratches covering his forearm, overlapping each other and a few of them bleeding.
"Gods above," Davey curses in horror, and his gaze drifts to Spot's hands. His fingers are smeared with blood, bright red beneath the tips of his fingernails. "I've never even heard of that before."
Spot chuffs and pulls his sleeve back down. "Lucky I 'member seein' it in a Games before. Hotshot's year. Kid threw himself off a cliff." Davey grimaces, and his stomach lurches at the thought. Spot squeezes his shoulder and offers a hint of a smile. "S'good to see ya, kid."
"You too," Davey says, returning the smile. "Seen anybody else?"
"Not yet," says Spot. "Heard someone couple hours ago, but whoever it was, didn't stop when I yelled for 'em. Figure it must'a been one the fellas that ain't with us." Davey nods, taking a long, slow breath to make sure he can do it. "Can ya walk?" Spot asks. "We should pro'lly move it 'fore they try somethin' else."
Tucking his water back into his bag, Davey nods again. Spot stands and offers a hand to help Davey up. The world only wavers a little under his feet, and Davey forces another steadying breath until it goes away. "Okay, so, that way's a no," he says, pointing back the way he came, "and that way," he adds, gesturing to the hall Spot stepped out of, "so, this one?"
Spot glances down the hall appraisingly and shrugs. "Worth a shot." He picks up a small knapsack that must've fallen off when they collided and swings it over his shoulder again. "Afta you, boss."
Davey and Spot walk for a couple miles before they have to stop, both of them desperate for food and water. There's no making camp or anything in this place, so they just settle down in the middle of an intersection where they'll be able to see in every direction. "Weird ass Arena, ya think?" Spot says as he tears open a pouch of dried meat strips.
"They separated us," Davey says tightly. He sighs, twisting a union band around his wrist. "They did this on purpose to keep us apart. All of us. Pulitzer must've found out about the alliance, and they did this to make sure we couldn't join up."
"Ain't gonna stop us," says Spot. "We still gonna show 'em."
Davey takes a slow, shaky breath. "They murdered my Mentor," he admits. Spot startles and glances at him in surprise. "Right in front of me. They waited until I was in the tube, ready to go up, and then the peacekeepers shot him."
"Hells below. Why-?"
"To make a point," Davey says grimly. "To remind me that he's not above killing the people close to me to shut me up. And he knew that Kloppmann was on my side." He touches the breast of his jacket, pressing down until he can feel the hidden something beneath the fabric, the secret they might've died for. Davey doesn't dare check it yet while the Capitol cameras are undoubtedly fixed on him. He won't risk the Capitol seeing whatever is hiding there. "What if he killed the others too, Medda and Katherine? What if he goes after my family? I can't do anything to protect them from in here."
Spot scoots closer to his side and grips Davey's shoulder. "Your family's safe," he says, quiet but firm. When Davey raises an eyebrow, the Brooklyn man meets his gaze levelly, and he opens his mouth before frowning and snapping it shut again. Finally, he clears his throat and says, "They wouldn't dare touch your family right now when the whole world's watching."
Nodding, Davey lets that belief console him for the moment. "There's been three cannons," he says, shifting his focus back to the task at hand. There'd been one more cannon not long after they met up, one more Tribute to lose their life. One of their own?
"Jack's alright too," Spot says, smirking knowingly. "He's a stubborn ass. Ya know he wouldn't let himself get killed without makin' sure you're safe first."
Davey huffs a weak laugh. "We need to find them," he says. "We need to get everyone together. I'm not letting Pulitzer take this away from us. We will show them all." Spot just nods like it goes without saying and offers a strip of his dinner to Davey.
They sit in an awkward silence for a few long minutes until the Anthem suddenly cuts through the air, echoing off the flat steel walls. Davey jumps in surprise, looking around. Random panels of the walls have switched abruptly to holo-screens, and the District seal of the Capitol is hovering on the sleek glass plating. Davey's been wondering how they were going to do this without having a sky to project the fatality count onto.
The first face to appear on the screen makes Davey swallow hard - the older Tribute from Queens, the one who allied himself with Davey in memory of Smalls. At his side, Spot bites off a small sigh of relief, and Davey can guess why; Districts always go in order, which means if someone from Brooklyn died, it would've been first. Racer is alive. Davey pats Spot's arm reassuringly and gets a tense smile in response. The second Tribute to fill the screen is the older one from Richmond, and then the younger one from Brighton.
"See, toldja Jack's okay," Spot says when the Anthem plays again, signaling the end of the broadcast. Davey exhales gratefully, clutching at a union band until the edges dig into his palm. Jack's alive. Jack's still out there somewhere.
"Get some sleep, Dave," says Spot, gripping his shoulder. "I'll take first watch, wake ya in a couple hours."
Nodding, Davey lays down and uses his backpack as a pillow. He's exhausted, and his lungs still itch on occasion if he breathes too deeply. A quick nap sounds great right now. "Hang in there, Jacky," Davey whispers. "I'm gonna find you." Still holding onto his union band, Davey lets himself drift off.
It barely feels like Davey's fallen asleep before Spot is shaking his shoulder. Blinking blearily, Davey opens his mouth to ask Spot how long he was sleeping, but the Brooklyn Tribute hastily claps a hand over Davey's mouth. "Heard footsteps," he hisses, holding a finger to his lips pointedly.
Davey's eyes snap open, adrenaline instantly chasing away the lingering traces of sleep, and he sits up to look around them. Now that he's listening, he can hear it too; the faint rhythm of soft footsteps echoing off the metal. Whoever it is, they aren't very close, but it's the first sign of life they've gotten since running into each other.
"We need to know if it's one of us," Davey says firmly. At the same time, he draws his knife from the holster on his leg, just in case. He doesn't want to hurt anyone, but that doesn't mean he won't defend himself if he needs to. And maybe just the sight of a weapon will dissuade someone from attacking.
Spot nods, already on his feet with a set of heavy brass knuckles on his right hand. "I'm betta up close," the Brooklyn man says when he catches Davey's look. "Aim ain't greatest, but I can land a hit."
Gathering up their things and slinging their bags onto their shoulders, Davey exchanges a quick nod with Spot. "Hello?" he calls as loud as he can, trying to project his voice down all four halls surrounding them. "Somebody there?" When the echo of Davey's shout fades, there a ringing silence in its wake; the person stopped walking. "Who's out there?" Davey tries again. "This is David from Manhattan."
"David?" a voice shouts back, tinted with surprise, and Davey's heart leaps.
"Yes, who's this?" Davey yells. "Where are you?"
"S'Boots from Queens," comes the reply, and Spot points toward the hall on Davey's right determinedly. "Fuck, it's good to hear a friendly voice," Boots says with a hint of a laugh.
"Stay where you are, Boots, we're coming to you," Davey says, and he follows Spot's lead when the Brooklyn man heads into the corridor. "Just - keep talking."
Boots laughs again. "Sure thing, man," he says. "Who's we? You got folks with ya?"
"Spot from Brooklyn," Davey yells. "You seen anyone else yet?"
"Got in a tangle with the big guy from Woodside," Boots responds. Spot pauses at the intersection, head cocked as he listens to the echoes, and then nods down the left-hand hall. "Tried not to fight him, but he was pretty determined. Got a few blows in. Then they set the room on fire, and we both cheesed it outta there. Ain't seen no one else since."
They reach another intersection, and when Davey looks down the corridor on the left, he breaks out in a grin. Standing in the middle of the hall, Boots is looking a little disheveled, but he smiles when he sees them. "Gods above, never thought I'd be so 'cited to run into anotha Tribute," the boy from Queens says, laughing.
"For sure," Davey agrees, and he and Spot half-jog down the corridor to meet him. "You injured?"
"A bit crispy, but I'll live," Boots says, nodding downward. The left leg of his pants is missing from the knee down, and the skin on his calf is warped and red. "Blowtorches suck. You two good? Look like you was playin' with fire too."
"Acid-air," Davey says, huffing as he crouches to put away his knife. "I really hate that stuff." Boots grimaces; he's no doubt familiar with the gas, considering it runs through underground pipes all over the country and Queens is a mining District. It's how Smalls knew how to save Davey from it last year.
Davey hesitates for a second before dragging Boots into a one-armed hug. "I'm glad you're okay."
Boots makes a startled noise, instinctively tensing before he returns to hug. "You too, pal," the boy from Queens says, faintly amused. When he steps back, Boots clears his throat. "Hey, don't mean to be a mooch, but don't suppose either you got a sip of water on ya? I ain't found none yet."
"Yeah, of course," says Davey, immediately shrugging his bag off one shoulder so he can swing it around and dig inside. He hands out the silver canister and Boots sags gratefully. "C'mon, we should sit down, take a break. Rest up. It's my turn for watch."
"You barely got any sleep," Spot counters, frowning.
"And that's more than you've had," Davey replies and raises an eyebrow. "Take a nap and we'll get a move on. We've got others to find." Spot grumbles but sits down, back against the wall. Boots slumps down a foot away, stretching his burnt leg out in front of him.
Kneeling in front of the Queens Tribute, Davey rummages in his bag until he finds the roll of bandages. "Here, we should at least cover that," he says, gesturing to Boots' calf. "Protect it from infection." Davey doesn't give the other man a chance to argue before reaching out and pushing up the melted hem of the pant leg. With steady hands, Davey wraps the bandage in smooth loops down the length of Boot's calf and ties it off snugly.
"You're good at that," Boots notes in amusement.
"Lots of practice," Davey says, smirking. "My mom's a Healer back home, I helped out sometimes."
Spot snorts. "Handy skill to have in here."
"Tell me about it," Davey agrees. Scooting to press his back against the wall opposite the other Tributes, Davey settles down where he can both watch them and keep an eye for movement at either end of the hall. Boots stretches out on the floor, head pillowed on his arm. Despite his protests, Spot nods off almost immediately where he's slumped against the wall.
Tracing his fingers around the edge of a cuff absently, Davey hunkers down to keep watch over his people.
A soft, skittering sound makes Davey tense, straightening up and reaching for his knife. He cocks his head, listening. There's a strange tapping noise coming from up the corridor, nonrhythmic little clicks on the metal. It's way too quiet to be a person, and Davey's skin crawls in anticipation.
"Spot, Boots, wake up," Davey says, moving over to shake the Queens Tribute by the arm.
"Whassup?" Boots murmurs sleepily. Spot, on the other hand, is instantly awake; he's on his knees and the knuckle-dusters are curled in his fist defensively.
"I can hear something," Davey explains. "Not a person. Listen." They all fall silent, ears straining for the clattering sound that's getting closer. It's a wave of clicking, the noises tumbling over each other discordantly like raindrops. "What-?"
Spot suddenly grabs Davey's shoulder, and the Brooklyn man's eyes are wide. "Wyverns," he hisses. "Grab your shit, now."
"Wyverns?" Boots echoes Davey's confusion. "What the hells-?"
Down the hall, something lumbers around a corner, and Davey gawks. It's some sort of beast like nothing Davey's ever seen before, even in his books. The size of a dog, the creature is thin and skeletal, leathery skin covered in large patches of thick diamond-like scales. Its back legs are stocky, the front legs slim and frilled, and each is tipped in enormous claws that clatter on the metal floor with every step.
"Gods above," Boots breathes in horror.
A reptilian head snaps to the side, one large red eye fixing on them, and the creature trills a deceptively sweet noise. At the same time, a second monster slinks around behind it, a long, serpentine neck lifted so it can peer at the Tributes over the first one's back. A cold chill races down Davey's spine because even though the creatures aren't large, those eyes are far too intelligent for an animal.
"Run," Spot says. He slings his bag over his shoulder and hauls Boots up by the collar. "We gotta run. Now."
Davey snatches up his backpack and takes off at a sprint. The three of them pound down the hallway, and the increased tempo of the clicks tells them the wyverns aren't far behind. They run without any sense of direction, just trying to put as much space between them and the chirping monsters as possible. Each change of course is only decided by hands grasping at sleeves, tugging the others along as they zag through corridors blindly.
Boots screams, and Davey instantly skids to a stop, glancing back to see what's happening. The lead wyvern is pinning Boots to the ground, head reared back to strike, before Spot launches himself at the monster and punches it in the snout. At the same time, the second beast scrambles up the wall, giant talons carving gouges into the steel, and it leaps over the melee. The frills on its front legs snap open, and the beast glides over Davey's head.
They're not frills; they're small wings.
Davey straightens as the beast skitters around to face him, and he adjusts his grip on his knife. The wyvern crouches, blood-red eyes fixed on him, and Davey waits. For a moment, they just stare each other down, man and beast. Then suddenly, the wyvern darts sideways, rebounds off the wall, and launches for Davey's throat. Still clutching his knife, Davey barely manages to throw his arms up to protect his face before the lizard tackles him to the ground.
The force of the impact knocks the air from Davey's lungs, and white dots spark in his eyes when his head bounces off the floor. He must've caught the wyvern with his knife because it screeches, and warm liquid spills down Davey's arm. When the wyvern recoils, Davey takes the chance to get his feet beneath the creature, and he kicks it hard in the chest. It's just enough to get the monster off him, and Davey scrambles upright.
"The eye!" Spot bellows from behind him. Davey can hear him grunting, obviously struggling with the other creature, but Davey doesn't dare take his eyes off this one to look back. "Get it in the eye!"
Snarling, the wyvern prowls back and forth in the hall like a predatory cat, watching Davey. The frills along one arm are shredded, the leathery skin split and leaving trails of scarlet blood where the loose ends drag on the floor. Davey tightens his grip on the knife. The eye. He needs an opening to reach its eye, but getting that close without winding up with those huge claws in his gut isn't going to be easy. There's no chance of tackling it from the front.
Davey smirks as the idea strikes. Time to take a page from the wyvern's book, then. Stepping closer to one wall, Davey charges to the opposite one and jumps. He plants one boot on the wall and kicks off, propelling himself the other direction. The beast reels up on its hind legs, slashing, but the jump gives Davey just enough clearance that it barely scratches his leg before he lands heavily on the lizard's back.
Struggling up to his knees while the wyvern thrashes beneath him, Davey manages to hook an arm around its neck from behind and stabs the knife down into a red eye. The monster shrieks, gnashing its teeth and writhing, but Davey holds on for dear life and brings the blade down twice more. Under him, the wyvern staggers, screaming, and then finally crumples.
Davey shoves himself up and looks over to the other Tributes. Spot is standing on one of the first wyvern's wings, pinning it to the ground, while his arms are wrapped around its neck. The Brooklyn Tribute occasionally draws one hand free long enough to sink a blow with the brass knuckles into the fleshy underside of its jaw, preventing it from snapping at him or Boots. On the other side, Boots is on the ground and clinging to the second wing, wrestling to keep the claws from getting closer to his face. Davey sprints over and drives his knife down into the wyvern's eye, twice on each side, until it stops fighting back.
All three Tributes stagger away and collapse, panting heavily, as they take in the carnage in the hallway. They're all covered in blood, gasping and disheveled - but they're also still alive. Davey leans back against the wall and checks the gash on his leg; it's long but not deep, he'll be fine.
Gazing around at the carcasses of the wyverns, Davey lets out a half-hysterical huff of laughter. "Ya know, when I was a kid, I liked lizards," he says, glancing over at the other two men. "I don't think I do anymore."
For a moment, the two Tributes stare back at him, and then Spot abruptly doubles over laughing. It surprises Davey, who has never seen anything like open emotion on the other man's face in the admittedly short time he's known Spot. After a pause, Boots chuckles too, shaking his head. "I fuckin' hate reptiles," he says vehemently.
"You okay?" Davey asks, pushing himself up on shaking legs to walk over and crouch at the Queens Tribute's side.
Boots scoffs. "Honestly, spooked me more than anythin'," he admits. He twists his bandaged leg, grimacing as he looks at the pair of puncture marks on the back of his calf. "Fuckin' thing hooked me while I was runnin'."
Davey examines the wound appraisingly. It's deeper than Davey's and bleeding steadily. "Doesn't look like it went deep enough to get the muscle," he says reassuringly. "Gonna have to repurpose this bandage, though." He starts unwinding the bandage, knotting the torn ends back together, so he can wrap it tightly over the wound instead. "Spot, you good?"
"Good enough," Spot agrees. Davey glances over to see the Brooklyn man checking a large gouge on his upper arm. Even as Davey's watching, Spot tears off the sleeve of his jacket below the wound with one hand and starts shredding the fabric into strips. "You?" he asks, looking up at Davey as he winds the cloth around his arm in a makeshift bandage.
Davey nods, turning his attention back to tying off the bandage on Boots' leg. "What were those things?"
"Wyverns," Spot responds. He jerks Davey's knife out of the creature's eye socket and crosses over to lean against the wall beside the other two Tributes. "Anotha Capitol mutt," he supplies at their curious looks. "They's supposed to look like these monsters from old storybooks, but small 'nough to be pets. Only, ya can't breed the evil outta monsters. Made 'em too smart. We's lucky there was only two. If they get a proper pack goin', can take down armies."
"How do you know all this stuff?" Davey asks curiously, tearing the hem of his pants to make a bandage for his leg. "I mean, I've never even heard of these things before, but you even knew how to kill them."
Spot snorts wryly. "I started trainin' for the Games when I was seven years old," he says. "Spent years learnin' 'bout anything I might ever fight. And in Brooklyn, they start teachin' ya the best way to kill straight outta the gate. Always find the soft spot. But then, eyes is a safe bet on pretty much anythin'. Never met anythin' that likes gettin' poked in the eye."
Boots laughs airily, shaking his head. "'Poked,' he says," he intones in amusement. "Like sticking a blade through its eye is a li'l poke."
"Is compared to what that thing'd do to you if it got the chance," Spot points out. He passes Davey's knife over and then offers a hand down to Boots, pulling him up from the ground. "Dunno 'bout you, but I wanna get 'way from these things in case they got friends."
They only make it down two halls before Davey sees something that makes him stop short. He walks over to the entrance to another corridor, eyes wide, and brushes his hand over the steel wall. "Davey?" Spot calls when he notices the Manhattan Tribute isn't following anymore. "Hey, whatcha lookin' at?"
Davey steps aside to let them see the scratches on the wall. It's jagged and shaky, but someone very deliberately carved an arrow into the steel, pointing down the hall. Above the arrow is a single letter scraped in sharp angles.
An ecstatic smile crosses Davey's face as he drags his fingertips along the shape of the letter. "Jack," he says decisively. "It's gotta be."
"He's givin' us directions to follow him," Spot concludes, and he chuffs a soft noise. "Smart." Adjusting his bag over his shoulder, he nods toward the hall. "A'right, let's go find your boy."