When Arakita’s name is drawn – what fucking luck, selected as tribute in his last eligible year, he’d been so close – he chokes on the whirlwind of emotions that blasts through his heart and his stomach and his mouth.
Fear. That’s self-explanatory.
Disgust. With the whole process, with the Capitol, with everyone watching and applauding.
Sorrow. For himself, because he is going to die, but more for his family, for his little sisters and his mother and father; for his friends; and for Fuku-chan, who he has to leave behind.
Relief. When someone volunteers.
Anger. When he recognizes the voice.
Pure, abject horror. “Fuku-chan, you bastard, what the fucking hell are you doing?!”
“Sorry, Yasutomo. I had to.”
“No.” Choking, crying. “No, you didn’t, you didn’t, you didn’t.”
“I did. I love you.”
“I love you too. Don’t die.”
Fear, again, when Fukutomi refuses to promise.
“I guess I should have told them I’m actually a boy, huh, Jinpachi?” Manami’s voice is light and airy, as always. Someone who doesn’t know him would have thought he wasn’t concerned at all. But Toudou knows him. Toudou knows. “Maybe they’d have to choose someone else. Or they wouldn’t have chosen you.”
“Shut up.” The response is muffled. Toudou’s holding Manami close, arms wrapped around his waist and shoulders and face buried in the fluffy hair behind his ear. Manami can barely breathe, but that’s okay. He wouldn’t be able to breathe, anyway.
He leans into Toudou’s shoulder and stares out the train window.
Onoda is crying.
Naruko is crying, too, but he’s trying to pull out his famous bravado, trying to keep it together for his little brothers and for Onoda, and, maybe, for Imaizumi, too.
Imaizumi isn’t crying, and a part of him feels like he should be, like he should be where Onoda is, clinging to his boyfriends, begging Naruko to be careful. Instead, he’s standing to the side, just kind of numb.
“Wrap it up,” a peacekeeper says, and Imaizumi jolts.
His voice is quiet – numb, like the rest of him – but Naruko hears him anyway, and gives him a wobbly smile, and holds out an arm.
“I know you’re not a touchy-feely kinda guy, Hotshot, but I could really use a hug right now. So, how ‘bout it?”
Imaizumi finally forces himself to move. To hug, to touch, to kiss. One last time.
“Don’t look so down,” Naruko says as he’s shepherded away. “I’m coming back! Don’t doubt it!”
It’s hard not to.
There’s nobody to say goodbye to, so Aoyagi waits alone until they fetch him for the train. Then, he sits alone on the train. The girl is binging on pastries. Their escort and mentor have disappeared to the bar car. Aoyagi, as always, is alone.
Out in the poorer districts, there are a lot of orphans. Aoyagi and his district partner are two of the faceless children, the ones nobody will miss, the ones who will die early. Nobody doubts that they’ll be among the first to die.
Aoyagi thinks, maybe I’ll try. Maybe I can succeed, just this once.
Teshima knows he will fail. He lets himself cry into his mother’s arms while he waits for the train. He’s not the cleverest or the sneakiest or the fastest or the strongest, and he’s going to die, he knows he’s going to die.
“Please don’t die,” his little brother says, crying just as hard, and all Teshima can do is stroke his hair and kiss his cheek and apologize over and over.
“Sorry, sorry, sorry, I’m so sorry, I love you, sorry…”
Fukutomi stares out the window and thinks of Arakita.
He couldn’t promise Arakita his own life, but. He’ll try. He’ll fight and kill and do whatever it takes to get home to him.
He is strong.
“Wooow, these are nice beds!” Manami is scampering around their suite, bouncing on the furniture, sticking his fingers into every one of the immaculately-plated dishes of rich food. Their escort is scandalized – even more so than when she’d learned that Manami is really a boy, no matter what his genetic scan says, which probably says something about the Capitol, though Toudou doesn’t know quite what – and she gives Toudou a look that says control your cousin.
He won’t, though, because their lives have been hard enough already and now they’re about to come to an abrupt, painful end.
If Manami wants to jump on the bed, Toudou will find him the best beds the Capitol has to offer and then jump with him.
“I clogged the toilet!” Naruko announces to the room at large, grinning at the reactions. His district partner snort-laughs, their mentor gives him a thumbs up, and the escort “tch”s under his breath.
“Poop jokes are the epitome of humour in the districts,” the mentor explains, and Naruko silently cheers at his cooperation.
He’s not worried. He knows he’s fast and strong, so he’s not worried. He’s just going to take advantage of all the food and training he gets before the arena. It’ll be fine. Nothing to worry about.
He clogs the toilet again, later, doubled up and heaving and sobbing.
Aoyagi doesn’t like the grandiose suite he’s been dumped in. It makes him feel too bright and exposed, so he sneaks off to hide in the elevator. There, at least, he can curl up in a corner and he doesn’t have to look at brightly coloured velvets and shimmery satins and plates of rich stews and cakes.
He feels more human, alone in the unadorned space.
Teshima tries to enjoy the food and the excessive luxury, but he’s scared. He wants to go home. All he wants is to go home.
The closest he can do is to go to the roof, where he can watch the stars and pretend that he’s lying on the roof of his parents’ little cottage, that his brother has unwillingly fallen asleep beside him and soon their parents will call them in for bed.
There’s someone in the elevator. His skin is scrubbed-pink, like he’s never been clean before, and he looks up at Teshima with surprisingly sharp eyes.
“Hello,” Teshima says.
He’s not Teshima’s brother, but he’s almost good enough, and they lie quietly together, watching the sky. Teshima sees a shooting star, and points it out.
“Make a wish,” he says, half-sarcastic.
Fukutomi is one of the few eighteen-year-olds in this year’s Games. He’s one of the biggest, too. It’ll give him an advantage, he thinks, over his smaller, younger competitors. He’s spent his whole life around tools that can be used as weapons and he can wield a scythe and throw an axe with the best of them. The Career tributes watch him with interest – apart from them, he was the only volunteer this year – and he considers forming an alliance.
It’s a detestable thought. He’s not excited for this. He doesn’t want to kill. But then he thinks of Arakita, waiting at home, and he knows. If this is what he has to do, to get home, then that’s what he’ll do. He goes to speak with the Careers.
Arakita watches the parade, watches his Fuku-chan standing tall and silent and proud, and hates himself for being safe at home.
Toudou has a great appreciation for his stylist. Manami couldn’t possibly be more indifferent about how he looks for the spectators, but Toudou has always been keen on Capitol style. He watches the fashion shows religiously – he’s the only person Manami knows who has ever been eager to watch Capitol programming. Toudou’s stylist is tall and thin and has long red-and-green hair and Toudou is utterly delighted with him. The stylist, for his part, seems bemused to have such a chatty, opinionated tribute to style.
Manami doesn’t care for his stylist, but he likes Toudou’s well enough, comes to appreciate the man when he insists that if Manami is a boy then he should be styled like a boy, and Toudou nearly kisses him on the spot.
Their whole family is packed into one small house. There are a lot of sniffles and quiet sobs, but otherwise, everyone is silent.
They’re so proud, but so, so sad.
The parade is fun and bright and categorically overstimulating. The crowd cheers for Naruko when his chariot rolls out, and he absolutely eats it up, drinking in the adoration like a man dying of thirst. He may be young and small and skinny but they’d better watch out for him. He won’t be going down without a fight.
He hams it up for the crowd and the thunderous applause increases.
Even if he dies, the world won’t forget Naruko Shoukichi.
At home, Imaizumi and Onoda are wedged into a rickety chair meant for one. Onoda laughs through his tears and even Imaizumi manages a smile.
It’s harder to smile, later, when there’s a gap in the bed where a third person should be.
The parade makes Aoyagi uncomfortable, his clothes are heavy and restrictive and he can’t turn his head, but he sees Teshima up ahead of him and he suddenly feels just a little bit calmer.
Teshima is nothing if not a strategist, and so he acts. He acts for the crowd. He smiles and waves and looks like he’s having the time of his life and he thinks, like me, sponsor me, give me your support.
He thinks about alliances, and he surprises himself with wanting the orphan boy who watched the stars with him. He wants Aoyagi. He tries to figure out why, what benefit there is, and he finds nothing, but still, he wants him.
Teshima’s brother clings to their father’s hand and stares, laser-focused, at the projected image of the parade.
“He looks confident,” he says, looking to his parents for confirmation, but none is forthcoming.
When the gong sounds, Fukutomi charges straight for the Cornucopia. There’s an axe and he wants that axe. He hears screams and shouts, vaguely, like he’s underwater.
Then, more keenly, the stomp of a footstep right behind him and he doesn’t hesitate before driving his axe through the chest of a little girl. Her ribs crunch and her blood splatters across his face and he hacks into another girl before grabbing a backpack and a set of knives and guarding his position.
“Well done,” one of the Careers says, and Fukutomi spits blood onto the grass. It’s not his.
The first thing Toudou does, upon rising out of the ground on his platform disc, is to look wildly around for Manami. For his little cousin.
Manami is already looking when Toudou finds him, and he smiles and waves. They have a plan, but Manami’s always been flighty, and Toudou’s worried.
His worry is justified. Sure enough, Manami breaks away from their plan – run to each other, run away together, hide – and skips his way to a crate lying nearby.
Toudou hears himself screaming. “Sangaku!”
Naruko flees – he’s not stupid – and he runs and runs until he suddenly finds himself face-to-face with a sneaky-looking boy with curly hair. They stare at each other – the other boy seems just as startled as Naruko, but then he flicks his bangs, glances over his shoulder, and breathes, “Alliance?”
Naruko just nods once and follows the boy deeper into the trees.
Aoyagi isn’t alone, but he’s not with Teshima.
It’s his district partner, the girl, he doesn’t remember her name, but she’d seen him and run after him and decided they would work together.
It’s better than being alone, he supposes, but not much. She’s nervous and erratic and cannot move quietly through the underbrush, but Aoyagi leads her downhill. They have no supplies, and they need to find water.
If nothing else, Aoyagi is good at survival.
Arakita doesn’t know if he’s proud or horrified by what Fukutomi has done.
There are six of them. Four Careers. Another burly teen. And Fukutomi. They’ve hoarded the supplies and go hunting as a pack.
Four, Fukutomi thinks, wiping off his axe blade.
“You absolutely boneheaded idiot,” Toudou hisses, dragging Manami up a tree by the collar. “We had a plan, why didn’t you stick to the plan, you moron, you could have been killed!”
“Sorry,” Manami says, cheerfully unrepentant. “But look!” He perches on a wide branch and opens the little messenger bag he’d managed to grab. There’s a small canteen – filled, luckily, with some kind of energy drink – and a large, serrated hunting knife. Toudou looks conflicted.
“Well,” he says, “it’s good to have this, I’ll give you that much.” Manami beams. “But you have to be more careful! Listen to me, for once, please,” he half-begs.
Manami considers this, lips pursed.
Toudou’s voice is unstable, now, and he pulls Manami close to press their foreheads together. “I promised your mom I’d take care of you. And mine,” he whispers, and Manami stills. “Don’t make this harder than it has to be, Sangaku. It’s bad enough already.”
“I’m sorry, Jinpachi,” Manami says sincerely, and he lets Toudou hold him with shaky arms.
“I recognize you,” Naruko says loudly, and Teshima tries to shush him. He lowers his voice, but only a little. “From training,” he adds. “You were terrible.”
“Yeah, thanks for that,” Teshima mutters. “Now shut up.”
“What are you looking for?” Naruko crouches beside him.
“Somewhere safe,” he responds. Somewhere near fresh water. A source of shelter. Food. Somewhere they can light a fire where the smoke and light won’t give them away.
Naruko scoffs. “We’re in the Hunger Games. There’s no such thing as safe.”
The girl is driving Aoyagi crazy, but she’s an ally and he needs an ally. Two sets of eyes are better than one.
They take turns sleeping at the base of a fallen tree.
Ten tributes are killed in the first twenty-four hours. Teshima and Naruko’s district partners are among them. They look at each other, and silently agree to take this alliance to the grave. Whoever’s grave comes first.
Toudou and Manami have spent their entire lives climbing trees. They can go days without touching the ground, and this skill lets them evade the Career pack easily. The cocky idiots never think to look up. When they’re out hunting, Manami sneaks into their camp and makes off with supplies, a few at a time. Food, matches, rope. Everything they need to stay alive.
“Gotta outlast them,” Toudou mutters, sorting through their spoils, and Manami nods along.
Teshima and Naruko bicker, sometimes, often, but otherwise Naruko thinks they make a good team. He’s fast and athletic and Teshima is smart, and between the two of them, constructing and disguising a small lean-to at the base of a cliff takes no time at all. Naruko extends his fist and Teshima smirks and bumps it with his own.
They’re cooking a squirrel in a little pile of embers when they hear footsteps. Neither of them had been able to grab a weapon from the Cornucopia so they’re armed only with sticks filed to dull points, and rocks with sharp edges.
Two people, a boy and a girl, burst from the trees.
“Aoyagi,” Teshima breathes, and the boy smiles at him.
“He has a good alliance,” Onoda says tentatively, looking up at Imaizumi for his input. Imaizumi nods silently, focused on the screen. It’s a misfit alliance. They’re all small, hungry-looking, not at all like the powerful Career pack, but Naruko and Teshima have accomplished a lot so far and Imaizumi thinks, maybe.
He doesn’t like the look of that girl, though.
They chase and catch a little boy with a limp, and the Career tributes take turns jabbing him with their swords to make him scream until Fukutomi steps forward to sever the boy’s neck.
Five, he thinks, as the others scowl.
Aoyagi’s district partner is getting antsy. “We should just do it now,” she says, watching where Teshima and Naruko lie asleep. Aoyagi doesn’t say anything, but his toes curl with apprehension.
“There’s no reason to let them stay alive, hurry, we should kill them now, before they wake up. You get the bigger one and I’ll get the ginger.” She bends over to pick up a hefty-looking rock.
While her back is turned, Aoyagi leaps up and wraps his hands around her neck. She makes a choking, wheezing sound, and he squeezes harder. His own breath comes faster and faster as she scrabbles in the dirt, then goes still, then goes limp. He sits back on his heels and focuses on controlling his breathing.
The cannon booms and Teshima jumps awake, suddenly alert. Aoyagi holds a finger to his lips and Teshima just nods, staring wide-eyed at the girl’s body.
Teshima shakes Naruko awake as Aoyagi strips the body and they hurry off into the night.
Fukutomi can’t understand the cruelty of these career tributes. He will fight, and he will kill, but he doesn’t enjoy it. He sits and watches them stuff their faces with jerky from the Cornucopia and thinks about killing them.
Soon, he thinks, but not yet. He has to do this right. For Arakita.
More than half of the tributes are dead. Teshima’s family starts to hope, just a little bit.
For Toudou and Manami’s family, there is no possibility of a happy ending. Only one of their boys can come home. The two sisters clasp hands and pray, selfishly, that their son is the one who makes it out alive.
On the screen, Manami watches over Toudou as he sleeps, eyes bright in the darkness.
They trade off. Toudou watches the Career camp, and Manami flits around the trees, looking for birds eggs to eat.
He hums as he works, something silly and tuneless to keep himself occupied. Toudou had told him to keep quiet but, well, the only ones nearby are the Career pack and they never look up.
He forgets that there are other tributes left alive, and that they might watch the trees.
“We should get him,” Naruko whispers, but Teshima shakes his head.
“No. Not yet.”
It’s a testament to Teshima’s strategic prowess, that Naruko immediately accepts his direction. They’ve been through a lot together, in the past week.
The humming boy slips nimbly down a tree trunk, and Teshima tenses the moment his feet hit the forest floor.
“Wait,” he says, nearly silent. Naruko thrums with energy beside him.
The next tree is a little apart, a little isolated. Toudou told him to stay in the trees, but, well, Manami can see a nest at the top of this one and he’ll only be on the ground for a second. He jumps for a low-hanging branch and swings himself up.
“Now!” Teshima and Naruko jump up and rush the boy while he’s dangling from a branch. Teshima hits him hard with his stick, aiming for his head but missing and hitting the shoulder.
“Ouch!” the boy yelps, but to Teshima’s dismay he doesn’t lose his grip and instead scrambles further up the tree. Naruko throws a few rocks, but his aim is off and they bounce harmlessly off the bark.
Teshima swears under his breath. He’ll be a lot harder to get at now that he’s up the tree, though at least he can’t go anywhere. They’d been watching him jump from tree to tree, like a squirrel, but this one is too isolated. Maybe they can’t reach him, but he can’t get away, either.
Manami’s startled, and adrenaline spurs him up the tree faster than usual, but when he realizes he’s been besieged by two scrawny boys whose most impressive weapon is a wooden stake, he laughs.
“I remember you!” he calls down at the apparent leader. “You’re Teshima! You scored a five, didn’t you? Not very impressive.” He laughs again as Teshima scowls. “You’re weak.” The redhead with him disguises a giggle with a cough.
“Maybe,” Teshima shoots back, “but you’re stuck. And outnumbered. All we have to do is wait.”
It’s true enough, but Manami doesn’t have time for that. Toudou will be back soon and Manami needs to get out of this situation before he does, or he’ll be in for the scolding of his life, and he doesn’t want to deal with that.
Toudou’s so fussy. It’s like he thinks the couple-year age gap gives him the authority to boss Manami around, and it’s a little annoying. Not that Manami doesn’t love his cousin, because he does, but Toudou has always been so bossy and it’s gotten worse, now that they’re in the Games. He needs to relax a little.
“You can’t sit down there forever,” Manami says, tapping his chin like he’s thinking. “The Career camp is nearby, you know. I can avoid them in the trees, but you can’t. They’re going to kill you,” he adds in a sing-song voice, and laughs again.
Teshima’s eyebrows twitch. “I can climb,” he says.
“Oh? Why don’t you come up here and get me, then?” That would be the ideal situation, Manami thinks. Either he tries and fails, and he hurts himself or the noise attracts someone else, or they fight it out in the trees, in Manami’s home territory.
Plus, he doesn’t think that they know he has a knife in his sock. If either Teshima or the redhead climbs up after him, it won’t be much of a fight.
“How are we gonna get him?” Naruko urges. “C’mon, you’re the brains of this operation. We can’t just sit down here forever, y’know.”
Teshima chews on his lip. He hates to admit that Manami and Naruko have a point. They really can’t just lay siege to the tree and wait for him to come down or starve. They’re too exposed.
He remembers Manami – and the other boy from his district, Toudou – they’d both scored high in training. They come from the lumber and orchard district. So, of course they’re skilled tree climbers. Probably handy with a knife or a saw and with a decent inherent grasp of physics, to boot. Now that they’ve lost the element of surprise, he’ll be harder to kill. Still. They have to do it.
When he stops thinking strategically, when he imagines actually killing the kid up the tree, his stomach flips, but that’s the reality of their situation. They have to kill him before he kills them.
“Alright, I’m going up,” he informs Naruko, and Naruko gapes in surprise.
“What – seriously? Perm guy, can you even climb that tree?”
Probably not, Teshima thinks, but he winks at Naruko and tucks his rudimentary spear through his belt and grabs for a handhold.
He’s a few feet off the ground – Manami laughs at his slow progress – when something slams hard into his side and he’s thrown off the tree.
Fukutomi notices that there are things missing from their stash of supplies before anyone else does, but he doesn’t say anything. Three days later, when the rest of his alliance realizes, he has to turn away as they turn on the muscular sixteen-year-old, and eviscerate him before he dies.
He’s the only outsider among them, now, and the time to act is getting closer.
Toudou isn’t thinking. He just sees Manami stuck up a tree and strangers – opponents, predators – trying to climb it and so he throws himself at the boy on the tree. “Get away from him!” he screeches, and they hit the ground together and roll. He has a sword, strapped to his back, but the boy underneath is scratching and grabbing and kicking and Toudou can’t sacrifice his own grip to reach for the sword. They grapple, throwing up dirt and dried leaves.
He thinks he hears Manami calling something – “Aw, I had it under control!” – and he sinks his teeth into the side of his opponent’s face. He yells and thrashes and drives a knee into Toudou’s stomach, but Toudou holds fast. Neither concedes any ground.
Teshima screams again, he can’t help it, he can feel his cheek ripping away from his face, and he punches and kicks at whatever he can reach, scrabbles for a rock and brings it up hard, smashing against a jaw, hearing a crunch and a whimper and the hold on his face slackens and he kicks and rolls –
Aoyagi’s been watching, waiting, hidden.
“Stay back,” Teshima told him earlier. “Just in case. We might need the element of surprise on our side if things go badly.”
Things are going badly. When Teshima screams a second time, Aoyagi leaps out of his hiding place to charge into battle. They’re locked together – Teshima underneath, the other guy on top – and Aoyagi grabs his head with both hands, wherever he can get a purchase, and rips him backwards off of Teshima. There’s a loud crack and then Teshima is scrambling free.
“Run,” he says, hauling Teshima to his feet. Then Naruko screeches, and he turns back, and Naruko is limping and stumbling towards them so Aoyagi reaches out and grabs his hands, and pulls, and they stagger away through the trees. Aoyagi leads – they need to get to the river, he realizes. They’re leaving a blood trail.
Things happen too fast. Manami blinks, and then Toudou is there, wrestling with Teshima. He yells something goofy to him – more as a reassurance, than anything else – but it’s a hard fight and he needs to do something, so he starts down the tree – and then a little blond bullet streaks past, and slams into Toudou, and Manami screams at him, then again when he hears the crack, and then they’re all running and he doesn’t know what to do so he just throws his knife, lacking technique but making up for that in sheer force – and he hears the satisfying squelch as it hits home.
And then they’re gone, and Manami is left alone in his tree, and Toudou is lying still on the ground.
The cannon booms, and he jumps and nearly falls out of the tree.
“Jinpachi?” he says, and his voice comes out high and quavering. He scrambles down the trunk.
“Jinpachi?” he says again, shaking Toudou’s shoulder gently. Toudou’s head lolls to the side and his eyes stare blankly past Manami.
He can’t breathe. He can’t breathe. He shakes Toudou, harder, then surprises himself with a sob. His eyes are blurry. “Jinpachi? Hey…”
That morning, Toudou had lectured him; “You have to be more serious, Sangaku! We’re not at home. This is the Hunger Games, if you don’t smarten up you’re going to get yourself killed.”
This? This is far worse.
Manami gently takes Toudou’s head between his hands, and bows down so their foreheads are touching.
“M’sorry,” he says.
Onoda shrieks in surprise when the hunting knife drives into Naruko’s thigh – they can hear the thud and the squish. Imaizumi bites his tongue, and it bleeds, but not as much as Naruko does.
Aoyagi and Teshima are half-carrying Naruko as they run through the forest. There’s blood streaming down the side of Teshima’s face, matting his hair against his neck, and Naruko’s going white from blood loss and pain. The knife is still lodged in his thigh, buried to the hilt.
He’s swearing a blue streak, and Aoyagi would admire the creativity of it if the situation wasn’t so dire. He pulls and shoves until they tumble into the river together – it runs red downstream. Naruko squeezes his eyes shut and whimpers, and Teshima splashes water on his face and laughs breathlessly.
“Well, at least we have a knife now.”
Naruko doesn’t think that’s funny.
Manami climbs a tree, because that’s what Toudou would tell him to do, and then he just waits, and thinks.
The bleeding doesn’t stop. Naruko is dizzy and half-delirious and if the bleeding continues, he doesn’t have much time left.
Teshima swipes his hair back, wincing when it pulls against the half-clotted rip in his face. “Aoyagi? Start a fire.”
Aoyagi has steadier hands, so when the knife blade glows white-hot, Teshima is the one who stuffs a ripped up piece of his shirt in Naruko’s mouth and holds him down.
Naruko’s muffled shrieking and the scent of burning flesh is enough to make Teshima want to throw up, but there’s nothing in his stomach, so he simply turns his head and dry heaves.
When Fukutomi hears the cannon, he knows it’s time to make his move. He just has to wait for the right moment.
It comes a few hours later, when they spot a thin trailing of smoke and two of the pack throw down their apple cores, grab up their weapons, and go laughing into the woods.
There’s three of them left at the base camp – a boy, a girl, and Fukutomi. That’s good odds.
The boy dies before he even realizes what’s happening and the girl opens her mouth but doesn’t get a chance to scream before Fukutomi’s axe buries itself in the side of her neck. She falls to the ground with a gurgle.
Seven, he thinks.
He raids the camp for whatever food and supplies he can carry, then piles everything else together and burns it.
“Go, Fuku-chan,” Arakita whispers, far away. He’s clutching the seat of his chair so hard his knuckles are cramped white and the rough wood cuts into his palms, but he can’t move or look away.
Please, he thinks. Please.
“He’s getting worse,” Aoyagi says quietly, four days later.
“I know,” Teshima grits out, swiping another ripped piece of fabric across Naruko’s brow, feeling the fever burning through the cloth.
Naruko groans and mumbles something about “hotshot”, then twitches suddenly and his entire body convulses, back arching off the ground. Teshima exhales shakily and swipes away the spittle that bubbles out of his mouth.
Manami watches Fukutomi kill the two Careers, crouching in a treetop. He watches as Fukutomi burns the camp, and thinks, maybe him.
He follows Fukutomi from a distance.
It’s torturous to watch. Onoda isn’t even trying, sobbing into his hands. He cries even harder when Naruko’s eyes blink open, glazed over, and he mumbles “Onoda, what are you doing with the radio?” and tries to smile at nothing.
Imaizumi itches. He needs to be there. But he can’t, all he can do is to hug Onoda and pray that it’s over soon.
“I’ll do it,” Teshima says, voice steely, but his hands are shaking. Aoyagi eyes him for a moment, then nods once. He presses the knife into Teshima’s waiting hand. It feels heavier than it should and Teshima stares down at it.
“Which way will be the fastest? I don’t – I don’t want to hurt him.”
“I don’t know.”
Teshima laughs, and sobs. “Yeah. Me neither.”
Aoyagi turns his back to keep watch while Teshima gathers himself.
Naruko whimpers a little, when Teshima pulls him into his lap, but he doesn’t open his eyes, and he slurs something about his Hotshot and Onoda. Teshima has no idea who these people are, but they must be important to Naruko, he thinks, because he smiles through the fever, and through the pain, sometimes, when he thinks he’s talking to them.
Teshima shifts his hold so that Naruko flops back against his chest. His head lolls to the side, against Teshima’s collarbone, and Teshima brushes his hair back and kisses his temple gently.
“We deserved better than this,” he whispers, then in one sure motion draws the blade of his knife across Naruko’s neck, cutting deep. He gurgles, once, then falls still. Teshima’s shirt and hands are so sticky, with blood and sweat, and when the cannon booms and Aoyagi glances over his shoulder, Teshima’s still holding him, head bowed.
“Hello,” someone says, and Fukutomi stiffens, surprised at being caught off-guard.
“You’re the girl from –”
“Boy,” she – he – interrupts cheerfully, and Fukutomi is unsettled. He’s small and clearly unarmed, and smiling, but his eyes are flat and dull.
Fukutomi thinks that he shouldn’t be hesitating with the kill, but something about the way this child had dropped out of nowhere to speak to him, rather than attacking or running away, makes him pause. It’s curiosity, and he hopes it won’t get him killed first.
“I’m not trying to trick you,” he reassures, like he can read Fukutomi’s mind. Fukutomi tightens his grip on his axe.
“I need a favour.” He pauses, considering. “Well, two favours.”
Fukutomi waits, and the boy seems to take his silence as acquiescence, because the creepy grin stretches wider.
“There’s an alliance. Three of them – Teshima, and that little redhead, and the scrawny blond orphan. I want you to kill them.”
This boy seems unharmed, and Fukutomi wonders briefly why he’s chosen them as his enemies. But it doesn’t matter. If he’s going to go home, he has to kill them anyway, so he nods.
“Good,” the boy says, the smile slipping away into something frighteningly vengeful. “Make it hurt.”
“And the other thing?” Fukutomi asks.
He grins tiredly. “Kill me, too.”
The cannon booms, and Manami’s mother and aunt cling to each other and cry bitterly.
As Imaizumi walks around the District, people react in one of two ways. They either avert their eyes quickly, and pretend not to have seen him, or they give him small, sympathetic smiles. He’s not sure which is worse, but he sets his jaw and goes to speak with them all anyway. They always listen, and almost everyone nods.
It’s raining. It’s raining hard, and it’s cold and uncomfortable.
“The Gamemakers are trying to give us hypothermia,” Teshima half-jokes through chattering teeth. The wound in his cheek aches badly, but it’s the only part of him that’s warm. Aoyagi nods, curled against his chest. Teshima thinks idly about kissing the top of his head.
They’re a little better off than they could be, given the situation. They’ve found a cave – though it can barely be called that, little more than a seam in the rock, just barely big enough for two teens who never got enough to eat as children. Aoyagi’s even smaller than Teshima, so he’s squashed in the back of the cave, head ducked. Teshima crouches in front of him, his back exposed to the outside but hopefully disguised by the moss Aoyagi had arranged on his jacket with surprising artfulness. The air between them is wet and stale and smells like unwashed socks, but it’s also warmer than outside. Aoyagi shifts, just a little, so he can lean closer to Teshima. They unconsciously reach for each other’s hands.
“What’s that sound?” Teshima says suddenly. Aoyagi concentrates for a moment, and then he can hear it, too. His eyes widen when he realizes, at the same time Teshima does.
“Parachute?” Teshima says, looking as surprised as Aoyagi feels. They listen together, as the beeping gets closer, then there’s a faint locking sound and the beeping continues, right above their heads.
Teshima looks at Aoyagi, and Aoyagi looks at him, and then Teshima shuffles backwards into the rain, glancing around carefully before grabbing the canister and squeezing himself back into their little cave.
“What is it?” Aoyagi asks, eyes bright.
“Dunno,” Teshima responds, even as he’s opening the canister. There’s a little note on top, which he hands off to Aoyagi, and a smaller thermal container within. Teshima opens it carefully.
“Stew!” he says excitedly, louder than he means to. He takes a deep sniff, and sighs at the smell. It’s thick and rich and hot and he digs the spoon in, groaning in satisfaction at the taste and the warmth that spreads through him.
He holds out a spoonful for Aoyagi, and feels himself blush, just a little, when Aoyagi leans forward to slurp at the spoon, eyes falling shut in bliss.
They alternate, Teshima taking a bite and then feeding one to Aoyagi, and even though it’s the Hunger Games, even though they’re freezing and hunted and half-starved, in this moment, it’s nice. It’s intimate, and when he holds the last spoonful out for Aoyagi to take, he follows with his own mouth, and they kiss.
Aoyagi looks away shyly, and Teshima blushes and laughs, and then they kiss again.
“Mmm,” Teshima says happily, and then he remembers. “Hey, what did the note say?”
“What, you didn’t read it?”
“I can’t read,” Aoyagi says, and Teshima abruptly feels like a jerk. He takes the little piece of card. There’s only five words written there, but they’re hard to say past the lump that’s risen in Teshima’s throat.
-“Hotshot” and Onoda
Teshima’s brother watches with a confused expression, but his parents’ hearts ache.
There’s no happy ending, now. Even if their son wins – and there’s only six of them left, so maybe, maybe – but even if he wins, there’s no escaping heartbreak.
His mother wishes she could hold him and tell him how proud she is of the person he’s become.
Teshima is smiling at Aoyagi, and Aoyagi is smiling back, and they’re holding hands, in their cramped little cave, waiting out the rain.
“I want to kiss you again,” Teshima admits, pink-cheeked, and Aoyagi says, “So do it.”
Teshima starts to lean forward, but then there’s a hiss and a wet thunk and his entire body jerks.
“Teshima?” Aoyagi says, but he can see the arrowhead through Teshima’s neck and he knows he’s not going to get an answer.
Fukutomi is hunting. He’s been tracking the girl – there’s two girls left, he remembers, one of the Careers and someone else. The second one has a bow and more talent for subtlety and Fukutomi decides that, for now, she’s the bigger threat.
He hears the zing of the bowstring and a cannon boom and he charges forward and buries his axe in her back while she’s distracted with drawing another arrow.
He looks to where she’d been shooting, but he can’t see anyone there. Whoever it was has probably run off by now, he figures, so he takes the bow and retraces his steps, back towards the Cornucopia, back towards where the two remaining Career tributes are probably waiting.
Aoyagi stays in his cave. He doesn’t know what else to do. The only weapons he has are the hunting knife and the arrow he’d pulled from Teshima’s body before it was taken away. It’s not enough.
The next day, when nobody has died for over twenty-four hours and there’s only four of them left, the Gamemakers create an earthquake, starting from the edges of the arena and rumbling inwards, to force them all together.
Aoyagi lies in the wreckage of the cave, gasping his last breaths through shattered ribs and collapsed lungs, and apart from the pain, all he feels is relief.
The three of them face off for the last time, two against one.
Fukutomi is strong, but not strong enough.
The boy holds his limbs down, the ones that aren’t broken, and the girl sits on his chest and twists a knife in his arm. “This is what we do to traitors,” she hisses, and she works agonizingly slowly, carving off bits at a time until Fukutomi finally passes out.
Arakita screams enough for both of them. He screams and breaks things and rants, “I’ll kill them, I’ll kill them all, I’ll go to the Capitol and kill every last one of those bastards, get me a scythe, I don’t care, I’ll do it with my fucking bare hands –”
His family tries to calm him, making shushing noises, begging, “Please, shh, that’s treason, they’ll arrest you, please.”
“I don’t care!” he screeches, then, abruptly, his hysterical energy drains and he slumps. “I don’t care. Fuku-chan…”
The boy wins. The girl is faster and smarter but once he gets in close, she’s no real match. And suddenly, it’s over.
The Capitol moves on, and forgets. But those in the Districts never do.
One year later, Arakita stands with the adults for the first time, forever free of the Reaping. But his youngest sister has just turned twelve, and he digs his nails into his palms.
Toudou’s mother and Manami’s mother stand together, with the growing club of parents who have lost their children to the Games.
Imaizumi stands beside Onoda, holding his hand, and keeping an eye on Naruko’s family. Three younger brothers, one still too young for the Reaping, and an older sister, too young to be safe. It could be any of them.
Teshima’s brother stands alone.
Out in the poorest districts, mothers and fathers stare at the ground and pray, guiltily, for the parentless, unwanted children to be chosen, to spare their own.
“Happy Hunger Games, and may the odds be ever in your favour!”
And so the wheel turns, and the cycle continues. The odds are never in their favour.