"And the male contestant for District 11 is... Merlin Emrys!"
Rufus' announcement was met with complete and utter silence from the gathered crowd. Merlin himself felt nothing but cold, as his own name reverberated in his head. And then it was quiet.
In actuality, he supposed a few people might have clapped in the forced, perfunctory fashion that was expected, but he couldn't hear anything over the ringing in his own ears.
He didn't how how, but somehow he found himself walking onto the raised platform, and shaking Rufus' hand, being congratulated on this most fortunate opportunity.
He was being wished that the odds would ever be in his favour.
Next to Merlin, Guinevere was shaking as a leaf as she stared, transfixed, out over the crowd - but Merlin expected that she wasn't seeing anything at all.
Somewhere out there, her father would be standing alone, watching his only living child being prepped for slaughter. Not many families were unfortunate enough to lose two children to the Hunger Games, but the odds had not been in the Smiths' favour at all. And after today, Tom Smith would not have any more children left to give.
Unless Gwen won, of course.
Next to Tom, Merlin imagined he'd probably find Lancelot, standing powerless to save the love of his life from the terrible fate that awaited her.
But Merlin wasn't looking at Tom. He was scouting the crowd, though he'd promised himself he wouldn't, back when being Reaped for the Hunger Games had been nothing more than a distant fear and promises had cost him nothing - but he couldn't help himself. His eyes found those of his mother's, and he swallowed when he found them brimming with tears. Her hands were against her mouth, staring at him in wide-eyed disbelief.
Next to her was Will. Just as Merlin hoped Lancelot would look after Tom, he hoped that Will would look after Hunith. He had to believe that they both would be alright without him, because anything else would have him crumbling to the ground right now, and the Peacekeepers would have to carry him off the platform.
And that probably wouldn't be so good for his ranking.
Merlin felt like he was going to be sick.
He realised suddenly that Guinevere was talking. Rufus had asked her a question and was now nodding his head animatedly at her response, whatever it was.
Then he pressed the microphone into Merlin's face and looked at him expectantly.
"Er... what?" Merlin forced out. His voice sounded strange, amplified by the microphone and carrying across the square.
"Oh look, the dear boy is starstruck!" Rufus chuckled, and winked at Merlin - and Merlin found himself strangely grateful that Rufus was such a self-involved idiot. Sure, let the Capitol think that he was starstruck. He only hoped that the rest of them were as vapid as Rufus, too delusional to realise that he was scared out of his wits. "I asked you whether you feel prepared for the journey ahead."
Merlin opened his mouth, a scathing remark on the tip of his tongue. But out of the corner of his eye he saw Guinevere shake her head minutely, and he recognised it for the warning that it was. She knew him, and she had a clearer head than he did. There was a reason the past contestants, terrified and outraged as most of them had probably felt on the day of their own Reaping, never voiced their dissent.
He thought of his mother, and of Will, and Tom, and Lancelot. It wasn't only Merlin's life on the line here.
So instead he looked Rufus straight in the eye, and said, "I suppose in some ways I always knew that one day my name would be drawn." And as he said the words, Merlin found them to be true.
○ ○ ○ ○ ○ ○ ○ ○ ○ ○ ○ ○ ○ ○ ○ ○ ○ ○ ○ ○ ○ ○ ○ ○
His mother's goodbye was a tearful one. She burst into the room where he was being kept and threw her arms around him, sobbing into his shoulder, and for the first time Merlin let himself break down. He hated that he couldn't stay strong for his mother, hated that the last time she'd ever see him would be like this. But he could not stop his own sobs from wracking through his body, and so he let his mother comfort him one last time - even as he felt her break apart, too.
He'd only just finished wiping his eyes after she left when Will came into the room. Will took one look at Merlin, then enfolded him into a hug. And they stayed like that, silent, until the Peacekeepers came in and told him to leave. Will looked back, nodded, and left. No words needed to be spoken between them - they were friends, they were brothers, and Merlin knew Will would look after Hunith just as Merlin would have looked after Will's mum, had the roles been reversed. They didn't need to have that conversation again, and all other words were redundant now.
After Will left, he thought he was done. He was surprised, therefore, when the door opened once more and Lancelot stepped inside.
"Lance," Merlin said, "Gwen isn't..."
"I've already been to see Gwen," Lancelot said shortly, not quite meeting his eyes, and Merlin noted that he'd been crying. But then, on this day, who hadn't?
"Oh," Merlin said. He wanted to ask, Why are you here? but that sounded wrong in his head. He and Lancelot were good friends, too, even if Merlin had always been closer to Will and Guinevere. "Well, goodbye then," he said instead, and winced. That hadn't been much better.
He saw Lancelot's arm twist, an aborted move to grasp his shoulder, but he still wasn't looking at him. He seemed to be struggling for the right words.
"Look, Merlin..." Lancelot swallowed. "You know I would never ask you... you know you're my friend, right? I don't want to see you hurt in any way."
His eyes reluctantly met Merlin's, and he seemed to be begging Merlin to understand what he couldn't bring himself to say. And Merlin did.
"You're asking me to look after Gwen," Merlin said, and he was surprised to find that his voice didn't waver. "You know you don't have to ask me to do that, Lancelot."
Lancelot shook his head. "Obviously I'm not asking you to... to put yourself in any more danger than you already are in. But just, please, Merlin, I am begging you. Don't hurt her. If your paths cross in the arena, just... let her go."
And he looked so pitiful, slumped and defeated in a way that Merlin had never seen him before, that Merlin wanted to break down all over again. He might have, if he'd had any tears left to shed - but he had none left to give to Lancelot. What he did have was a tiny bit of hope, futile as it may be.
"If it's up to me, Gwen is the tribute who walks out of the Arena as the victor, Lancelot," he said. And he found that he meant it. If she wanted to, Merlin would ally himself with Gwen, and he'd help her win this thing if he could. He knew already that his own life was forfeit, he wasn't coming home - but maybe Guinevere could. Maybe she could still have the life she'd always wanted, with Lancelot and their ten hypothetical babies and enough money that they'd never have to sign anyone up for Tesserae.
Lancelot looked at him for a long time, a fierce expression on his face. Then he finally let himself reach out and grasp Merlin's arm, nodding. "Take care of yourself, Merlin."
"You too, Lancelot."
And that was all that was left to say between them. Merlin watched Lancelot leave, and when he looked back, they exchanged one final nod, something like closure passing between them.
A small part of Merlin wished he could hate Lancelot for practically asking him to sacrifice himself for Guinevere, but how could he? He knew that had Lancelot not been too old to enter the Games, he would have volunteered in Merlin's place in a heartbeat, to keep Gwen safe himself. What would their love be, if he could not do at least this tiny thing to try and save her life?
No, Merlin understood. And he only hoped that when the time came, he could be as brave as Lancelot would have been. And that he would not be selfish. Because even as he knew that his words to Lancelot had not been a lie, that when push came to shove he would always save Gwen ahead of himself, Merlin was leaving people behind, too, people that needed him to come home. And he wasn't sure he was able to break his mother's heart, either.
He could promise Lancelot that he would protect Gwen. But he couldn't promise him not to also protect himself.
Merlin grimaced. He hated this. He hated that he was already thinking like a survivor. He wanted to curl up and disappear, and never have to worry about having to watch his best friend die, or whether he himself would perish at her hand.
○ ○ ○ ○ ○ ○ ○ ○ ○ ○ ○ ○ ○ ○ ○ ○ ○ ○ ○ ○ ○ ○ ○ ○
The train ride was quiet. Merlin and Gwen sat next to each other, an unspoken agreement never to leave the other with the insufferable Rufus for an extended period of time. They were going to their deaths, the least they could ask for was that people around them weren't so damn cheerful about it.
They had not spoken a word to each other since the Reaping. But after the train doors had closed and they had pulled away from District 11, watching their home become a blur outside the windows and then disappear forever in the distance, Guinevere had taken Merlin's hand, and she hadn't let go.
Merlin thought it was probably better this way. They needed each other, but what could they really say? I hope you win? I hope I can save you? Or, I hope that someone else kills you so I don't have to? No. No, it was better not to say anything at all.
He wondered if Guinevere would have his back in the Arena like he would try to have hers. Merlin couldn't imagine sweet, innocent Gwen killing anybody - but he also couldn't imagine her going down without a fight.
And the Arena changed people. He knew that much, having watched the Hunger Games along with everyone else for his entire life. He had seen plenty of sweet, innocent children enter the Games and emerge in the Arena as vicious, heartless killers, turning on their friends, the instinct for survival overruling anything else they'd ever been.
Would Guinevere be like that? Would Merlin?
"Ah!" Rufus exclaimed, cutting into Merlin's gloomy thoughts. "Dinner has arrived!"
Gwen and Merlin turned as one, and true enough, the table in the other end of the carriage had somehow become ladened with food while their backs were turned.
"Well, don't just sit there, let us go enjoy the finest foods the Capitol has to offer. You two must be starving - I know I am!" Rufus beamed, complete with another of his insufferable winks. Merlin wanted to glue his ridiculously long purple eyelashes to his forehead so he could never wink at anyone ever again.
He rose, dragging Gwen to her feet with her. He was not hungry in the least, and imagined that he wouldn't be able to taste anything he ate, but it didn't matter what they did or didn't do at this point. Might as well appease Rufus.
Even in his current state, Merlin couldn't help feeling slightly guilty as he surveyed all the food laid out in front of them. It was all lost on him now, but back in his District, it would have been considered the finest of luxuries. People would have committed murder to get their hands on the roast pig alone - and the irony of that wasn't lost on him.
There was enough food on the table to feed a family for a week. And here Merlin and Guinevere were, nibbling at small pieces of bread, trying not to feel like they were being stuffed like turkeys ahead of a feast.
"Tuck in, tuck in!" Rufus exclaimed affably from next to Merlin. Up close, Merlin noticed that his skin had a very unnatural yellow tint to it, and was shimmering in a way that was probably meant to look golden but looked to Merlin more like the colour of vomit. Whatever little appetite he'd had vanished, and he put the bread down, feeling sick.
"Um, Mr Rufus?" Guinevere asked timidly from Merlin's other side, and Merlin started. It was the first time he'd heard her speak since the Reaping.
"Yes, my dear?" Rufus beamed. His teeth were very, very white, but a piece of salad was stuck in between them. Merlin had to turn his head away.
"It's only, well, aren't we supposed to meet our mentor?"
Once again, Merlin marvelled at Gwen's ability to keep herself focused and composed, even now. She was right, of course, strategically they should spend as much time with their mentor as possible, even if selfishly he just wanted to hide away in his cabin and not speak to anyone who was going to tell him how to kill people.
"Very good, Guinevere!" Rufus boomed. "You're a smart one, aren't you? The Careers best keep an eye on you!"
It was probably meant to be a compliment, Merlin thought, but it sounded like a death sentence. He fought the urge to reach out a take Gwen's hand again, but he thought she probably wouldn't appreciate it just now. After all, while they'd needed each other before, Gwen was clearly meaning business now. And the worst thing a tribute could do ahead of the Games was to appear weak in any way.
She confirmed his suspicions when she only sat up straighter, saying, "Thank you, Sir. Can you tell us when they will be joining us?"
Merlin wondered who their mentor would be - he hadn't bothered to ask anyone, and no one had said. There was only a handful living District 11 victors, and in the past they'd taken turns mentoring the tributes. Except for one. Merlin could only hope... but no, that would be impossible. He hadn't even been there to say goodbye, he was probably back in his mansion like every year, not to emerge before the Games were over and their District's tributes were (most likely) dead.
"Well, there he is now!" Rufus called. "Thank you for joining us, Gaius."
Merlin's head whipped round, but true enough: there stood his uncle Gaius - old, slumped, but eyes sharp and blazing like they always had. Why hadn't his mother told him about this? Had she not known? Had this been the plan all along, or had Gaius asked to serve as a mentor after Merlin's name had been drawn?
Gaius' eyes met his, and for a moment they looked so incredibly sad, and Merlin had his answer. Gaius was here because of him.
He felt both incredibly guilty for unintentionally dragging Gaius back into a world he'd never wanted to return to, and unspeakably grateful that he would have his uncle here with him, until the end. Helping him in whatever way he could, and teaching him how to survive, just as he always had.
"Gaius?" Gwen asked, and Merlin noted the uncertainty in her voice. She must have realised all the same things Merlin had. Of course, she knew that Gaius would help them both survive - but would he offer her the same guidance as Merlin, knowing that ultimately, he could only hope to save one of them? Did she worry that Gaius would view her in the same way as Lancelot had viewed Merlin - someone who he would protect with everything in the world, except for with the life of their fellow tribute?
But Merlin knew better. Gaius would show no favouritism, and Merlin wouldn't let him.
"Good afternoon," Gaius grumbled, ambling over to the table, plopping himself down opposite the three of them. "Ah, dinner."
And without another word he tucked in, helping himself to a huge slice of the pork and pouring a generous amount of the amber liquid Merlin assumed was whiskey.
Merlin and Gwen glanced at each other, frowning. Well, that was rather anticlimactic.
Clearly Rufus thought the same, and looked disappointed not to get his fill of drama. "Gaius, old boy! Don't leave us in suspense! This is the first time you have ever mentored our Games, and what with you volunteering so dramatically at the last minute, you must have some fantastic strategy up your sleeve." Merlin wondered if Rufus ever stopped speaking like he was presenting live on television. He suspected not.
Gaius looked up from his plate, fixing Rufus with such a scathing look, Merlin saw Rufus pale underneath the putrid shade of his skin.
"Don't be more of an idiot than usual, Rufus. These children know they are going to their deaths. No need to make it any worse."
And with that Gaius rose, grabbing his plate and his glass of whiskey, and shuffled back out of the carriage without another word, leaving a stunned silence behind him.
Oh. Well, so much for that brilliant strategy, then. At least he wasn't playing favourites.
Merlin chanced a look at Gwen. She was staring down at her plate, clenching her fork so hard he worried she was going to stab someone with it (probably him. It would just be his luck to get offed before the Games even started, Merlin thought wryly), and he wanted, once again, to reach out to her. But what would he say? Gaius was right, there was nothing any of them could say to make this better.
They could plan and strategise and make promises until the end of time, but that didn't change the fact that ultimately, neither Merlin nor Guinevere stood a chance against the Career tributes. They were dead in the water, and pretending otherwise was not going to help anybody.
Merlin found himself remembering something else Gaius had once told him, back when his name had been entered into the Games for the first time and he had come to Gaius' house in tears, beside himself with worry. Gaius had taken Merlin into the kitchen and made him a cup of hot chocolate, a luxury for any District 11 kid, but as a former victor, Gaius of course had access to foods and goods Merlin could only dream of. But even if he'd always made sure that Merlin and Hunith never went hungry, this had still felt to Merlin like an extraordinary gift – and for a moment, it had even made him forget about the possibility of his name being drawn.
And Gaius had sat down next to him, a heavy hand on his shoulder. And he'd told him: "Death is inevitable, Merlin, and no man can escape it. All we can do is choose in what manner we wish to face it."
The words had made no sense to Merlin then, but now he understood. Gaius hadn't been trying to comfort him, he'd been trying to prepare him. Because now, Merlin's death had found him, and there was no way out. But there was a way forward, and that part was still up to Merlin. He couldn't run, or hide. And he wouldn't try. He wouldn't give the Capitol that satisfaction.
○ ○ ○ ○ ○ ○ ○ ○ ○ ○ ○ ○ ○ ○ ○ ○ ○ ○ ○ ○ ○ ○ ○ ○
Later, Gaius found Merlin and Gwen in the carriage, sitting like they had before, but no longer touching.
Rufus had gone to bed, and enthused that his lovely tributes should try to get as much beauty sleep as possible before facing the adoring crowds, but both Merlin and Gwen had ignored him.
This time, as Gaius sat down opposite them, there was a look of intent in his eyes.
"Listen to me," he said, and Merlin found himself leaning forward. Guinevere did the same. "I never wanted this, for either of you. But I also didn't want you to go through this alone. The other mentors..." he shivered. "They are beginning to think like them, I can feel it. They have done this for too long, sent too many children off to their deaths, and they have embraced the game. To be fair, I don't think they thought they had a choice. But --" he paused, fixing them both with a steely look. "This is not a game. Never forget that, either of you."
"If it's not a game, then how do we win?" Guinevere whispered beside Merlin, so quiet he almost didn't hear her. And his heart broke for her, and for the future she still couldn't let go of. She had something to go back to, someone, and Merlin knew in that moment that she would do anything to survive. He swallowed, then sat up straighter. He shouldn't have expected anything less.
Gaius gave her a long, searching look, frowning at what he found there. To Gwen's credit, she did not flinch from his gaze. Merlin envied her strength, and he hoped it wouldn't be her downfall.
"I am not going to lie to you, Guinevere, you might not. And you have to be prepared for that." Gaius raised his eyebrow, his gaze shifting to Merlin, and Merlin nodded, indicating that he understood - even if he doubted that anyone could truly be prepared to face their own death. "But you are strong, both of you, and you must believe that you stand as much of a chance of surviving this as anyone else."
"Not the Careers, surely?" Merlin found himself asking.
"Even the Careers," Gaius nodded. "Maybe especially them," he added, ignoring their disbelieving looks. "The Careers are fierce warriors, trained to kill in ways you couldn't imagine. But they are also arrogant, and they believe themselves invincible. And they all die, every year, all but one. These Games are ninety percent luck, and none of us know what circumstances you will find yourselves in once you are launched into the Arena. The tributes aren't only fighting each other, after all."
And this was true. Natural causes always took out a lot of the tributes, and maybe their strongest competition would be eliminated that way. Or maybe the Careers would turn on each other, that had happened before. Or maybe...
Merlin stopped himself, shaking his head. He couldn't do this, he couldn't let himself believe that he had any chance of winning, nor that Gwen did. It was futile.
As if reading his mind, Gaius reached out across the space between their seats and put a hand on each of their arms. "I am telling you to accept the possibility of death, Merlin. Not to embrace it. Be smart. Survive, for as long as you can. After all, that is all any of us can do, whether our names are drawn at the Reaping or not."
"Right," Merlin said. "You're right. I'm sorry, I just..." to his horror, he found his voice shaking. But it wasn't with fear or sadness, it was with anger. This was so unfair, all of it. Here they were, alive, safe. But soon they would be forced to kill and hurt and die, all for the entertainment of a few and the oppression of many. "I won't kill anyone," he said, the words coming to him unbidden. He heard a sharp intake of breath from his left, and a small part of him realised that saying this with Gwen present would probably be considered a very bad move, but he didn't care.
Gaius gave him a sad look. "You might find that you don't have a choice, Merlin."
To Merlin's surprise, he found Guinevere's warm fingers lacing through his own again, and he turned to find her watching him with an almost awed expression on her face, which transformed into something fierce almost immediately. She turned to Gaius, setting her jaw. "There is always a choice, Gaius."
This time, the look Gaius fixed her with was one of approval.
Merlin squeezed her hand, and she squeezed back, and for a moment everything felt a little bit better.
○ ○ ○ ○ ○ ○ ○ ○ ○ ○ ○ ○ ○ ○ ○ ○ ○ ○ ○ ○ ○ ○ ○ ○
Merlin didn't sleep much that night. Instead he lay on his back, leaving the curtains open and staring out the window up at the sky. There were no clouds, and the stars shone as bright as he remembered them doing back home. It made him feel safe.
He wondered if there would be stars in the Arena. Some years, the Capitol would manipulate the sky to cast the contestants in interesting colours as they lay dying, or there would be a relentless downpour of rain - or even, one memorable year, a snowstorm so dense that all they could see on the screen was a white mass occasionally splattered by crimson as faceless cries of anguish penetrated the tense silence of their living room.
In some ways, that had been the worst Games to watch, knowing that children were dying but never seeing it coming, and never seeing how they were being murdered - only that it had been slow and messy and painful. Merlin had been unable to stop himself imagining the faces of the people he loved as he heard the gut-wrenching sounds coming from the television; at least in other years he'd known that the dying were strangers. Not that that had really made it easier to stomach.
As the sky began to lighten fractionally, Merlin let his eyes drift shut, trying to ignore the knowledge that morning was near. But the next thing he knew, Guinevere was pounding on his door telling him to get dressed and come have breakfast, and he felt a deep sense of compassion for her at that moment. She'd probably had no more sleep than he had, and yet she wanted to make sure that he was as ready for the day as she was. How could he even for a moment have thought to consider her his enemy?
Merlin ignored the clothes that had been laid out for him and dressed in his own. The crisp white shirt and black trousers had been his father's, and Merlin had worn them to the Reaping ceremony every year since he was old enough to fit into them.
At seventeen, he still hadn't been able to wear the jacket, the shoulders still set too wide for him, so he'd left that at home. He was glad - he wasn't taking everything of his father's with him to his death, after all. Merlin vaguely wondered if they would send the rest of the outfit home to his mother with his body. Would there be anyone he could ask about that, to make sure they did?
It was strange, contemplating his own death. It felt like such a certainty to Merlin, and he found himself able to think of it in an oddly detached, practical manner. He was probably in shock. He found himself not really caring.
When he entered the dining carriage, Guinevere was sitting there with Rufus, and Merlin winced, wishing he'd hurried up a bit more. Her cheeks were red, and at first Merlin thought that she was crying, but when she looked up at him he saw that her eyes were blazing; whatever Rufus had said had made her furious, and it looked like Merlin had arrived just in the nick of time. However annoying Rufus was, no one deserved to be on the receiving end of one of Guinevere's (thankfully rare) outbursts.
"Ah, Merlin!" Rufus exclaimed. "You are awake! I was just telling the lovely Guinevere here that you'd best eat up while you can! After all, those sponsors tend to be drawn to the glitz and glamour of fancier Districts, and you're both, well..."
"Unrefined," Guinevere grit out, a false and very dangerous smile plastered on her face. "Apparently."
"I call 'em like I see 'em, sweetie," Rufus shrugged, batting his stupid eyelashes at her. "But just you wait, your stylist team is going to do a number on you! It's all there, the potential, I see it."
He reached out a hand, as if to touch her cheek, but something in Gwen's eyes must have stopped him, because he cleared his throat and withdrew his hand.
Merlin chuckled quietly, and sat down next to Gwen. He actually found himself hungry today - he still felt sick and terrified, but he was relieved that the initial shock seemed to be wearing off. Remembering Gaius' words had anchored him somewhat, giving him a calm he would previously have thought impossible for this situation. If he was going to die, then he would die, but right now, he was going to try the honeyed porridge and focus on the immediate task at hand: meeting the people of the Capitol, who would be there to greet them on the platform. Or rather, take stock of them. Judge them.
Screw them, Merlin thought. They weren't going into the Arena with him, he didn't have to care what they thought. They couldn't save him. This knowledge should have him panicked, but strangely he only felt calmer - he didn't have to worry about impressing anyone.
Guinevere clearly wasn't seeing it the same way. She was twirling her scrambled eggs around on her plate, biting her lip, and Merlin had to nudge her foot under the table and indicate the food with his own spoon before she grudgingly began eating. She shot him a small, grateful smile, but it didn't reach her eyes.
Unlike Merlin, Gwen had not given up. His resolve to help her was strengthening by the minute.
"I want to form an alliance with you," he whispered to her, and Gwen froze, fork halfway to her lips.
For a moment she didn't say anything at all, and Merlin found himself holding his breath. What if she refused? He hadn't even considered the possibility, but what if she was going to make a play for the Careers? What if --
"Me too," she whispered back, and Merlin couldn't stop the wide grin from spreading. She returned it, reluctantly, and Merlin felt her relax fractionally next to him.
It was such a tiny act of defiance - they'd made this decision without consulting their mentor first (although Merlin doubted that Gaius would have any objections), and without having any idea about the competition they would face. Pre-decided allegiances like this were definitely frowned upon, but they'd done it anyway. In that moment, Merlin felt like he could take on the world.
That was when they felt the train begin to slow, and Rufus clapped his hands excitedly. "We're here! Oh, you two are going to love the Capitol, let me tell you. Your District is so dreary, I would hate having to live there." He shook his head, looking truly sad about the prospect
Merlin and Gwen shared a look, but neither made any comment. Rufus was the least tactful person Merlin had ever met, but he found that he couldn't muster up any resentment for him, not anymore. In his own way, Rufus was trying to be nice. And with his bizarrely long lashes and yellow skin and spiked, silver hair, he was as much of a piece in the Capitol's game as Merlin and Gwen were. He just wasn't one of the pawns being sacrificed.
Merlin briefly wondered if Rufus had ever been allowed to be anything but this, this charade of a man. He felt almost bad for him. Until he realised that Merlin and Gwen were being taken to their deaths, while Rufus acted like he was was going to a party. Right. Maybe they weren't exactly the same, after all.
Still, it didn't matter. Rufus couldn't save him, either, so whatever he was or wasn't was irrelevant to Merlin now.
As they rose, Merlin caught his first glimpse of the Capitol, which was quickly approaching in the distance. And he had to admit, even in his state of semi-apathy, that it was breathtaking.
This, he thought, was something someone had built to inspire greatness. But now it was a circus, making a mockery of humanity. When had it all gone wrong? When had the world decided that the slaughtering of children was a fitting price to pay for any crime no one left alive had committed?
He would probably never find out. And soon, he would probably no longer care.
The train was slowing down. They were arriving.
"Try not to look as though you're going to the gallows, now!" Rufus chuckled, and Merlin nodded, taking it for the (tasteless) advice that it was. Next to him, Guinevere looked green.
"I'm not going to hold your hand this time," Merlin told her, and she looked to him, a slightly desperate look in her eyes. "It's not in your interest to look weak. So... you know, don't." He gave her what he hoped was a reassuring smile and turned away before he could see her reaction. He didn't want to be doubting his decision, because then his resolve would waver. Even if they'd decided to do this together, this part they'd have to face alone. By allying himself with Gwen, Merlin realised that he had decided to play the game - and even if it wasn't quite the game the Capitol wanted him to play, that didn't mean there weren't still rules.
The train had stopped, and on the platform, Merlin saw them: The nothing people, as his father had called them, scoffing at the television when Merlin was very little. The ones whose children were safe, who never had to suffer hunger or pain. The ones, Balinor had explained, who are condemned to feel nothing, nothing but vapid joy, all the time. His father had pitied them, and now Merlin found that he did, too.
It was this, more than anything else, which gave him the strength to emerge from the train with a smile on his face, lifting his hand to greet the gathered crowd, which roared its approval. He grinned down at Gwen, trying to instil some of his false cheer in her, and was relieved to find her smiling shyly, too, looking out over the masses and probably locking eyes with as many people as she could. Forging a connection. Playing the game.
As they were led away by Rufus (Merlin had no idea where Gaius was, but he suspected that he was hiding in his carriage, refusing to leave before the crowd had dispersed), people pressed in against the barriers, their arms reaching out, desperate to be closer to their champions. Maybe a few of them would even be rooting for him, Merlin thought - although chances were that they'd be like this for all of the arriving tributes.
Still, he kept waving, and he kept smiling, and even reached out his free hand to touch some of the ones outstretched towards him - ignoring the impulse to shudder at the contact. He wondered what his mother and Will were thinking, watching him from the cold comfort of home. He wondered what Lancelot was doing, and if he could even bear to watch any of this. Merlin hoped he could. He hoped he saw how strong Gwen was being now, how brave she would be when the time came.
As they left the station and were led into a strange tunnel-like passage which would take them to their accommodation, Gwen let out a long sigh of relief.
"One down," she said quietly, and Merlin couldn't help but feel a little apprehensive. One challenge met and conquered, but the next would be ten times worse. And once they'd made it through them all, nothing awaited them but the Arena.
○ ○ ○ ○ ○ ○ ○ ○ ○ ○ ○ ○ ○ ○ ○ ○ ○ ○ ○ ○ ○ ○ ○ ○
Their view from the eleventh floor was astonishing. Merlin stood by the window in his room, which took up the entire wall, looking out over the Capitol. There were more electric lights than he'd ever seen in his life; back in District 11, they mainly lived by candlelight and carried lanterns and torches while they worked the fields at night. No one ever dropped those, as the penalty for burning any crops was the loss of a week's rations to make up for the discrepancy in production numbers. No one could afford that.
His own reflection stared back at him, translucent, already a ghost.
Merlin was one of the lucky ones, he reminded himself. He'd never starved, not really, and even though he was lean and narrow, the hard work of his District had left him with refined muscles and a healthy, if slightly pale, complexion. Too bad the Hunger Games wouldn't have him fighting fields of wheat, he thought with a wry chuckle.
He wondered what the potential sponsors would make of him, and what the crowds would think. He'd never had a reason to contemplate his appearance much before, and now, he couldn't see anything but an indistinct blue-eyed, dark haired boy from District 11 who looked like he didn't belong here. Merlin was already a stranger to his own eyes, and he wondered how he'd feel in the Arena, in the unlikely event he should come across a mirror in there. Who would he see staring back at him?
And what about Gaius, his mum back home, Will, Lancelot... who would they see, when they looked at Merlin through their television screens?
A knock came at his door and Rufus poked his head in uninvited. Merlin didn't turn around; he could see the shine of Rufus' teeth reflected in the surface of the window.
"It's dinner time!” Rufus enthused, his smile widening as he, too, caught sight of his own reflection in the glass. “Come along now, it's time to meet the competition."
Merlin frowned, wondering wildly whether they were all sitting down to eat together. But when he emerged in the dining room, the only people at the small table were Gwen, Gaius and Rufus, all lined up - and a giant television screen was sitting in front of them.
Great. They were going to see the other Reapings, too. So much for enjoying his food this time.
Merlin sat down on the end, next to Gwen. Merlin wondered whether sitting Gaius next to Rufus was wise, but he was glad that he and Gwen could take in the competition together - they would be facing the other twenty-two tributes together, after all.
Rufus turned on the TV, and the words The 57th Annual Hunger Games flashed across the screen.
"Good evening!" a familiar voice greeted cheerfully, and the beaming face of Caesar Flickerman appeared, looking just as it ever had - the one constant face every year; never changing, never aging. Merlin wondered who he'd sold his soul to for this seemingly eternal youth, and whether he'd even had a choice in the matter. "Welcome, everyone, to the 57th Annual Hunger Games. I am Caesar Flickerman, your host for this extraordinary event, and it is with great pleasure that I can introduce your twenty-four contestants! Now, watch closely, because one of these young faces will emerge as your victor." A chuckle. "But don't be too quick to place your bets. This year, anything could happen."
Merlin was vaguely aware of eating something, whatever was in front of him, but his eyes were glued to the screen. He couldn't help being morbidly curious. One of these people might be the one who killed him.
"Without further ago, meet your tributes from District 1," Caesar announced, and his face faded, to be replaced with two still images of a boy and a girl.
They were both beautiful. The girl had dark hair and green eyes, and she was as pale as Merlin himself - but her skin looked hard, like diamonds. He thought she looked terrifying.
Next to her, the picture of the boy stared out at Merlin impassively, and Merlin swallowed. His blond hair was artfully tousled and his blue eyes looked cold as steel. And for some reason, Merlin thought this one was perhaps even more dangerous than the girl, but he still found himself transfixed.
Underneath their images, the names appeared: Morgana Pendragon. Arthur Pendragon.
"They're related?" Gwen hissed under her breath. That hardly ever happened.
The images dissolved and footage from their Reaping replaced it. Both, as expected, were volunteers. Career tributes, Merlin thought grimly.
"We start off this year with a very unusual combination from District 1," Caesar's voice spoke, overlaying the images. "Morgana and Arthur Pendragon are brother and sister, and are both volunteers this year. And not only that, but this pair are second generation tributes - their father, of course, is Uther Pendragon, winner of the 32nd Hunger Games. He is also, incidentally, this year's District 1 mentor."
Merlin felt a chill run through him. He remembered seeing reruns of those Games, everyone did. Uther had been one of the most vicious killers the Games had ever seen. No wonder his children had both volunteered. But for the same year?
It looked like Tom Smith wasn't the only one losing two children to the Games, Merlin thought vaguely. Even though he couldn't help but think that Uther may very well get one of his back.
Caesar's monologue continued. "Morgana is eighteen years old, and this was her last chance to enter the Games. Many are speculating that she chose to volunteer with Arthur, who is one year her junior, because the pair plan to form an alliance inside the Arena. We shall have to wait and see," Caesar finished with a chuckle.
The screen switched back to Caesar's face, and he fixed the audience with a serious look. "But these are only two of the twenty-four contestants in this year's Hunger Games. It is time to meet our tributes from District 2."
And so it continued; Merlin hardly even registered the faces that popped up on the screen. His mind was still stuck on Arthur and Morgana Pendragon. The elites, the Careers. The team of trained killers, whose father had beaten his own supposed ally to death with a spade.
How could he or Gwen have any hope of surviving in the Arena, even for a day, against them?
But maybe it was for the best, going out quick. Although Merlin would never surrender himself to his fate - if for no other reason, then for Gaius' sake, seeing as he'd put himself back into the Capitol's hands to help Merlin and Gwen fight for their survival - he knew from all the past Games he'd had to sit through that the first deaths were usually the quickest, and the most painless. It was towards the end, when desperation and hunger and fear had driven the survivors to madness, that it got really bloody.
Merlin was glad he'd already managed to eat something, because he was no longer hungry at all. He glanced at Gwen's plate, which remained untouched, and he didn't blame her. She was probably thinking of Arthur and Morgana too, and of her own brother. At least she hadn't had to enter with Elyan, hadn't had to watch him die. She had only been eight years old at the time, and Elyan had been twelve. Tom hadn't let her watch that year.
Suddenly, Caesar said Merlin's name, and he started out of his reverie. "…the tributes from District 11. They may not look like much, but I have it on good authority that they can wield scythes with the best of them!"
Merlin looked over at Gaius, who was fuming. So much for not appearing weak, then. Apparently they were already the laughing stock of the Capitol.
"If you think Guinevere looks familiar," Caesar was saying now, and Merlin closed his eyes, hearing Gwen shift in her seat beside him. He wished he could spare her this - though logically he knew this was the least of the horrors that awaited his friend. "It might be because you remember her brother, the brave young Elyan Smith who made it all the way to the top three of his own Hunger Games at the tender age of twelve."
Merlin remembered that. He remembered sitting in the schoolyard with Gwen, letting her share with him her joy that her brother had made it this far, and her belief that he would keep his promise to come home to her. He also remembered Gwen coming to their house later that night, tears streaming down her face, and how he'd known that there was nothing he could do or say to make it better.
He never thought he could feel any worse than he'd felt that night, until now.
"And as for Merlin, well, not much is known about the mysterious seventeen-year-old charmer," Caesar continued, and Merlin frowned. Mysterious? Charmer? "But I'm sure that we'll soon be learning a lot more about him. At least I hope we will." And the screen cut from the footage of Merlin and Gwen's Reaping back to Caesar, who gave the camera a very saucy smile.
As the District 12 tributes were announced, Merlin found himself unable to pay attention, still stuck on what Caesar had said.
"Well, that went better than it could have done," Gaius said, putting down his fork resolutely after the final tributes had been revealed and the words The 57th Annual Hunger Games rolled across the screen again, signalling the end of the broadcast.
"What do you mean?! That was a disaster!" Rufus hollered from Gaius' other side, and Merlin was surprised to find him sounding rather hysterical.
"No, you poor, clueless imbecile, it wasn't," Gaius said, and that shut Rufus up. "Caesar is a lot of things, but he has never been unfair. He painted Gwen and Merlin in the best possible light under the circumstances: as the wild cards. That is more than any of us could have hoped for."
Merlin tried to share in Gaius' cautious optimism, knowing that hopelessness was his most dangerous enemy right now. But he couldn't get the cold eyes of Arthur Pendragon out of his mind, and he was pretty sure that neither Morgana nor Arthur would care one bit about what kind of cards Merlin and Gwen were. They'd knock them down just as easily, as if they really were made of paper.
○ ○ ○ ○ ○ ○ ○ ○ ○ ○ ○ ○ ○ ○ ○ ○ ○ ○ ○ ○ ○ ○ ○ ○
His stylist's name was Freya. She was a willowy, frail-looking thing, and her hair was dyed a light green. With her pale skin and light green contacts, she looked like some kind of sea creature.
Nonetheless, Merlin found that he liked her. She was nice to him, and didn't pretend like he was on the greatest adventure of his life, and she worked with a quiet determination which under any other circumstances would have impressed him.
"I spoke to Gaius about your image," she said without preamble, after Merlin had found himself washed and scrubbed and polished by the rest of his prep team - a bizarre trio who had briefly introduced themselves as Edwin, Daegal and George, and had then proceeded to strip him bare before he'd even had a chance to shake their hands.
"Oh," Merlin said, sitting on a cot in front of her, feeling oddly like he was going in for a physical. At this point, he hardly felt like he had anything left to hide, but he still wished they'd let him put on more than his underwear before sending him to see Freya. "Er, and?"
"And I completely agree with his assessment," Freya nodded earnestly, eyes wide, as though she was imparting something of vital importance - and as far as Merlin knew, she was. "We need to keep you natural and mysterious. District 11 is known for sending hearty farmers to the Games, who tend to be ranked pretty solidly, but they never really stand out. But you..." she fixed him with an assessing look, and Merlin found himself blushing under her scrutiny. He wasn't used to being looked at like that. "You're something else. Something new," she finished, murmuring as if she was talking to herself.
"And... that's good?" He asked.
Freya's strange, ethereal eyes lost their dreamy quality, and in an instant she was all business again. "Yes, Merlin. That's good. Or at least it can be, if we play our cards right." She smiled, and Merlin found himself relaxing a little bit. The girl was peculiar, sure, but she was not half as bad as he had feared.
In the end, all she did to him was put on a light layer of something (he refused to think of is as makeup) on his face which she'd told him accentuates your cheekbones in a rather lovely way, and tousled his hair, making him look less proper and put together. Like a wild card.
Looking into the mirror afterwards, Merlin was relieved to still find himself looking back. And he looked good. Well, not Arthur Pendragon good, but he'd do.
For the Opening Ceremony, Freya had worked with Gwen's stylist to create the costumes. Merlin eyed the bag with worry - District 11 had a pretty spotty track record when it came to costumes. Last year's tributes had been dressed like scarecrows, and the year before they'd played up the scythe angle and dressed the poor souls like grim reapers. They'd both been taken out on the first day of the Games, and everyone speculated afterwards that the other tributes had simply been so creeped out that they'd wanted to eliminate them as early as possible.
But to his relief, he found Freya holding up a beautifully tailored dark green suit. The colour was both soothing and deep, and Merlin found himself transfixed by it. What kind of fabric had they used, to get that effect without tacky shimmering? These were the kinds of mysteries of the Capitol which Merlin would never get the answers to.
"We thought we would do something simple, but elegant," Freya said. "The thing everyone associates with your District is farming, of course, but this is so much more basic - this is nature, itself. And Guinevere will be wearing yellow, to represent the sun shining down on the fields. It will look lovely on her. But for you, I thought..." she suddenly looked worried, biting her lip. "Do you hate it?"
"Oh, no," Merlin shook his head vigorously, suddenly hating the idea of seeing Freya upset. "It's... everything I could have hoped for, under the circumstances," he said honestly.
To his surprise (and slight alarm), Freya's eyes began to well up with tears, and for a wild moment he worried that she'd throw herself at him - but then she smiled, and wiped her eyes with the back of her hand. "I'm glad. At least I can do this one thing for you, Merlin, however small."
And for some reason, as they shared a tentative smile, it felt like he had known this girl for a lot longer than a day.
○ ○ ○ ○ ○ ○ ○ ○ ○ ○ ○ ○ ○ ○ ○ ○ ○ ○ ○ ○ ○ ○ ○ ○
"How was your stylist?" Gwen whispered to him immediately after he came back; she seemed to have been waiting for him by the elevator.
"Freya? She was lovely," Merlin shrugged. "Why? How was yours?"
Gwen rolled her eyes. "Gwaine was ridiculous! All flailing hands and quirked smiles, so Capitol."
Merlin chuckled. As annoyed as she seemed to be, Gwen looked more alive than he'd seen her since the Reaping. He'd say that this Gwaine was probably doing something right, whether or not he'd meant to.
"Did you like your dress, though?" he asked.
"Oh," Gwen said, her face transforming almost immediately, "Merlin, it really is lovely. I am so glad we don't have to wear potato sacks."
They both grinned at the memory, then immediately sobered, realising that both of those tributes were dead now. Right. This was no time for laughter - even though Merlin thought they deserved the moment. For all he knew, it might be the last one they ever got.
"So, tonight we meet the others," he said, more to break the tension than anything else.
"You nervous?" Gwen asked him.
"Nah," he smiled. "I don't need to impress them, I've already got the best ally in the building."
Gaius cleared his throat and they both jumped, looking around guiltily. "An alliance, you say?" They both stayed quiet, and after a moment he gave them a small smile. "I'm glad. This makes it easier to talk strategy. And it never hurts to have a friend in there."
Merlin wondered if Gaius had had any friends in the Arena, back when he'd won the Games. He found that he didn't really want to know - because one thing he knew for certain was that you didn't win by having friends. At least not without having to put a knife in their back.
"Thanks, Gaius," Gwen said, smiling. "I'm glad you approve."
"Next time though, tell me if you make any big decisions like this," he said, raising an eyebrow. "I'm here to help you, you know."
"We know," Gwen and Merlin chorused.
"Good. Because tomorrow, the training begins. And I expect you both to be ready."
○ ○ ○ ○ ○ ○ ○ ○ ○ ○ ○ ○ ○ ○ ○ ○ ○ ○ ○ ○ ○ ○ ○ ○
One thing was seeing pictures the other tributes on a screen (and that had been intimidating enough). It was quite another to see them now, milling around, wearing costumes ranging from the ridiculous (those poor District 12 kids were wearing coal miner suits again) to the formidable - the District 6 tributes surprised everyone by arriving in silvery, skin-tight suits, little engines strapped to their feet which allowed them to hover off the ground. It wouldn't do them much good on the chariots, but it definitely made them look taller and more imposing now.
Merlin's eyes sought out the District 1 tributes immediately, and he was not really surprised to find them looking more spectacular than any of the other tribute pairs. While Morgana wore a stunning green gown with elaborate golden designs and a dangerously low, plunging neckline, Arthur was dressed in a fine red suit, which made him look like something out of a storybook – and, Merlin thought with annoyance, heart-meltingly handsome. Both Pendragons would probably have sponsors fighting each other for the privilege of sending them gifts.
He realised suddenly that he had probably been staring at Arthur for too long, and quickly shifted his eyes away - only to find his gaze caught by Uther Pendragon, who was watching him with the same cold, calculating eyes which Merlin recognised from the picture of his son.
Merlin looked away quickly, feeling like he'd been slapped. Uther was much older than the young man he'd seen on past Games reruns, but the relentless cruelty in his eyes had not been softened at all by the years that had passed. Uther looked as terrifying as the day he'd decapitated his fellow District 1 tribute with a wire.
Next to Merlin, Guinevere was fussing with her dress, clearly trying to avoid making eye contact with any of the other tributes. Merlin turned towards her, mostly to get away from Uther's scrutinizing gaze, and batted her hands away. "Here, let me," he murmured, reaching down to straighten a crease she'd been batting at. "Stop worrying, Gwen, you look fantastic." He smiled, trying to keep his voice from shaking.
Gwen reached up and patted his hair down. "So do you. Very... mysterious." She drawled out the word and Merlin let out a startled laugh.
He didn't realise until Gwen's eyes widened fractionally that most of the people around them had turned at the sound, and he lifted his eyes warily, seeing many of the tributes staring at them in disbelief.
His eyes sought out Arthur Pendragon quite of their own accord, and found the other boy staring right back at him, eyes narrowed in suspicion.
Merlin let himself hold the other boy's eyes, just a moment, hoping that he looked braver than he felt. He turned back to Gwen and squared his shoulders. "Forget them," he whispered as he reached out his arm to her, smiling as she accepted it. "Just because they're all a bunch of stick-in-the-muds doesn't mean we have to be, too."
Gwen sighed. "I can't believe I'm saying this, Merlin... but I'm glad you're here with me." She squeezed his arm. "I mean,” she added after a second, looking alarmed, “obviously I'm not glad you're here, but..."
Merlin shook his head. "I know what you mean. I'm glad and not glad you're here too, Gwen."
It was time to move to their chariots, and Gwen and Merlin moved through the crowd, ignoring the stares that followed them. Merlin didn't know what to make of it, the way they'd unintentionally drawn attention to themselves, and what it might mean. Were the other tributes worried that Merlin and Gwen had some secret weapon up their sleeve, and that's how they could find the ability to laugh at a time like this? Or were they jealous, seeing that the District 11 tributes, at least, were not doing this alone? Either way, he doubted that it boded well. But then, how could their chances possibly get any worse?
As their chariot moved into procession and they found themselves being pulled forwards, the excited screams of the crowd growing louder as they approached the narrow archway, Merlin grabbed Gwen's hand and held it firmly between them. They locked eyes, and shared a nod. It was time.
He tried to imagine them like others might see them: standing tall and proud in their gorgeous costumes, emitting nothing but grim resolve. Mysterious. His lip twitched. It was all so ridiculous, like dressing up corpses and putting them on display. It was so easy to condemn from the outside, and to dread... but right at this moment, he felt none of that pressure, none of the stone-cold terror which had threatened to drag him down into a bottomless pit of despair since his name was drawn from the bowl.
Their chariot burst into the stadium to the blinding lights and deafening yells of the people that would watch him die, but he blocked out all the sounds and sights around them, focusing his mind on the press of Gwen's hand in his own.
The sun and the earth, riding side by side to their doom. It was the end of the world, and Merlin had a front row seat.