Waverly leaned against her older sister Wynonna as they sat together on a small hill looking into the trailing sunset. Her right hand absent-mindedly ripped at the grass near her feet, and Wynonna gently put a hand down and squeezed.
“Woah there, Waves,” Wynonna joked. “Leave some for the forest creatures.”
She winked at Waverly and offered a grin. Waverly tried to resist a smile.
“We just eat them anyway,” Waverly quipped back, tossing a handful of torn grass at Wynonna’s face.
“Ah, but we need them nice and fat when we do. They’re not the ones who are supposed to be starving. We are.” Wynonna held up a plump dead rabbit they had caught earlier for emphasis and patted its round belly, then poked Waverly’s gaunt stomach in comparison.
A high-pitched giggle escaped from Waverly, feeling ticklish at the poke. Wynonna always knew how to make her feel better, even when…
Wynonna’s grin softened when she noticed Waverly’s mood change.
“Hey,” Wynonna smiled gently. “Don’t worry, your name’s only in there four times. It’s like, a thousand in one chance, and believe me, us Earps aren’t that lucky.”
Waverly nodded and tried to smile back. It was true; Wynonna and Gus never let her apply for tesserae, extra rations for extra entries, but even so, each year after her twelfth birthday passed, the more her name was entered regardless. She was sixteen now, so even without applying for tesserae, her name was in the pool four times.
How did Wynonna do it every year? When her name had five times as many entries as Waverly?
Wynonna abruptly coughed violently, slamming her fist into her chest until she spit a hunk of something tarry into the bushes. Waverly furrowed her brow in concern. Ever since Wynonna turned 18, she had taken a job in the mines to support her and Gus, picking up extra shifts whenever they were available for more rations. A time like this was rare for them – time to check their traps for any wild game they could take home and trade and time just to spend together being sisters.
And this particular time was a special occasion.
Wynonna shrugged off her coughing fit and reached into her bag, offering Waverly another mischievous grin as she pulled out a small bundle wrapped in cloth that fit in the palm of her hand.
“Happy sixteenth birthday, baby girl,” Wynonna said, passing the bundle to Waverly and kissing her forehead affectionately.
Waverly beamed, soaking in the sisterly attention she hardly received. She unwrapped the cloth and gasped when she found a burned misshapen cupcake.
“A-a cake??” She asked incredulously. “How did you afford this??”
Wynonna laughed. “Believe it or not, they were just gonna throw that sucker away.”
Waverly let out a breath of disbelief. Throwing out food? And food with sugar??
Wynonna bumped her shoulder with Waverly’s, nodding at the cupcake. “You better eat it before the forest creatures smell it. That’s way better than the crap grass they normally get.”
Waverly laughed, then tentatively took a bite of the cupcake. She’d never eaten anything like it before; baked goods that included sugar were usually only afforded by the well-off merchants in District 12, not those that lived in the Seam like the Earp family.
Wynonna smiled as she watched her little sister eat a cupcake for the first time. She had never eaten cake before either, but it was so much better watching Waverly enjoy the sweetness than it would have ever been for herself. Wynonna was 22 now, and she spent so much time working, making sure Waverly got fed and didn’t have to put herself in more danger for the Hunger Games… moments like this made it all worth it.
It had never been easy for the Earps. Their father had been a Peacekeeper that had an affair with a woman in the merchant class. Since Peacekeepers aren’t allowed to get married or have families, the affair had been secret. It was such a scandal when their mother was discovered to be pregnant that she was banished from the merchant area and had to move to the Seam. Luckily Gus and Curtis took pity on her and offered to lend a hand, though it didn’t help that their father kept drunkenly barging in on his “family.” He fathered three daughters altogether – Willa, Wynonna, and Waverly.
When the head Peacekeeper found out about the children thirteen years later, the Peacekeepers stormed in their home during one of Ward’s “family visits.” They beat him with their batons in front of a frightened six year old Waverly and a glaring twelve year old Wynonna. Dragging Ward’s slumped body away, the head Peacekeeper ordered Willa to be taken as well, as retribution for the shame he brought to the Peacekeeper ranks.
Wynonna had lost her temper then - Willa and Wynonna were only one year apart and inseparable – she ran up to the Peacekeepers taking their father away and grabbed the revolver slung in Ward’s belt. She cocked it, having seen it done once or twice in her short life, then aimed it at the group of Peacekeepers walking away with Ward and Willa. Wynonna had intended to hit the Peacekeeper who carried Willa with an iron grip, but she was inexperienced with the kickback of the gun and had closed her eyes at the sudden boom.
Instead she had shot her father in the back, and his body slumped down further – dead.
The head Peacekeeper looked back to Wynonna, who had dropped the revolver in surprise. Seeing her shocked face, he laughed, then walked back to pick up the fallen gun.
“Well, girly, thank you for saving me the trouble of executing him myself.” His voice had that accent from the richer districts. The accent that sounded similar to the Capitol, but not quite.
He reached down and lifted the revolver from the ground, checking its chamber for bullets. He laughed again, a sick laugh that made Wynonna’s skin crawl.
“Lucky shot,” he said, showing the empty chamber. He snapped the chamber back in, rolling it for effect, then tossed it back to a surprised Wynonna. “Why don’t you keep it, girly. It’ll remind you of what happens when you break the rules. It’s a rusty old piece of shit anyway, no bullets for that anymore.”
They never saw Willa again.
Present-day Wynonna fiddled with the rusty gun while Waverly savored her cupcake. She had named the gun Peacemaker to be ironic – there was definitely a sense of peace after Ward was out of the picture, but their mother was never the same, and one day she was just gone. Wynonna kept practicing handling her empty gun, insisting that one day she’d make those Peacekeepers pay…
Wynonna’s familiar thoughts of revenge were interrupted when Waverly held out a small piece of cupcake to Wynonna’s face.
“Try it! It’s the best! Way better than our imaginary dust pies!”
Wynonna smiled. Sometimes having to take care of a little sister by herself felt like fate had dealt her a bad hand, and then there were times when she would do every mistake she had ever done again because every little thing had shaped Waverly into the perfect person she was today. Waverly was definitely the “good Earp,” just like everyone said.
Wynonna took the last bite of cupcake, letting its sticky sweetness coat her tongue, and tried not to think about the Reaping tomorrow.
Waverly listened to Wynonna pace anxiously back and forth behind her while Gus carefully braided her hair. Everyone had the day off for the Reaping, and Waverly had looked forward to spending extra time with her sister until… well, until the names were announced.
“Wynonna, stop pacin’ around,” Gus scolded, putting the finishing touches on Waverly’s hair. “You’re not helping anybody.”
Waverly turned around and watched Wynonna stop in her tracks and take a drink directly from a whiskey bottle she was holding. She didn’t want to know what Wynonna had to trade in the Hob for that.
Gus snatched the bottle out of Wynonna’s hand, examining the label. Possession of alcohol was rare in the Seam and might as well been gold. “Where did you even get this?”
Wynonna wordlessly held a finger horizontally across her upper lip and used her upper hand to act as though she had a cowboy hat on top of her head.
“Ugh, don’t tell me you got it from creepy old Doc!” Waverly whined.
Wynonna smiled and nodded her head, too buzzed to think of a clever answer.
“Huh.” Gus let out an impressed breath and took a drink from the bottle herself.
“Gus!” Waverly gasped, surprised that she would stoop to Wynonna’s level.
“That man knows his stuff,” Gus said, coughing a bit at the unfamiliar taste of alcohol. “Besides, victors always get the best.”
Wynonna gave a thumbs-up to Gus’ comment and took the whiskey bottle back to take another drink.
Waverly huffed and straightened her light blue dress. She knew that they were drinking to relieve stress from the rapidly approaching Reaping, but Waverly herself couldn’t bring herself to do much of anything but wait.
“If you get chosen, Waves,” Wynonna said solemnly, sitting down next to her sister, “I’ll volunteer as tribute.”
Waverly smiled, even though it couldn’t be done - it was against the rules. Only children between 12-18 years of age could be chosen as tributes. “Thanks, but like you said, us Earps aren’t that lucky.”
Wynonna grinned, recalling the words she had spoken only yesterday. “Past-me was really reassuring, wasn’t she?”
Outside the town clock suddenly chimed, startling them, and it was time.
Waverly stood quietly in alphabetical order with the other children of District 12, the air somber and quiet. She snuck a glance back to where everyone was standing, and Wynonna offered a tight smile when their eyes met. Despite all the drinking beforehand, the event had a quickly sobering effect.
Waverly looked forward again, and she saw the District 12 victor, Doc Holliday, standing uncomfortably in a pressed dark suit to match his dark cowboy hat. He stood with the representative from the Capitol on the steps leading to the main municipal building while everyone else stood in perfect rows in the town square with white uniformed Peacekeepers surrounding them.
The woman from the Capitol had painted her face in garish swirls and dyed her hair an electric shade of blue. She walked delicately in her precariously balanced heels up the microphone and pair of reaping balls, each ball containing the names of all the female and male children.
“Welcome to the reaping of the 31st Hunger Games!” she announced proudly in her Capitol accent. She paused for effect, waiting for applause that never came. She cleared her throat. “I, for one, am very excited to meet this year’s tributes! No spoilers, but I’ve heard that it’s going to be quite an exciting Hunger Games this year.”
She grinned, hoping to get a reaction from the crowd from this teasing tidbit, but she was met again with silent stares.
“Well, I suppose we should go ahead and get started.” She reached into one of the reaping balls and pulled out a slip of paper. “Ladies first.”
When Waverly saw the woman’s lips scrunch together to begin the “W” sound, her heart sank.
“What the hell?!” Waverly heard behind her. “I volunteer! I volunteer as tribute, goddammit! Let me the fuck through, you shitheads!”
Waverly turned around, trying not to let the tears forming in her eyes go any further, and saw Wynonna fighting vainly against a pair of Peacekeepers in special riot gear.
“I…” Wynonna gasped, letting out a strangled sob. “I volunteer.”
The woman on the steps laughed and clapped her hands. “Oh my, how charming! I’m sorry darling, but your chance to win the Hunger Games has already passed. Waverly, dear, come on up!”
Waverly felt herself face the steps and robotically move forward, vaguely hearing Wynonna start up another cursing storm. When she finally reached the top of the steps, Waverly felt the Capitol woman touch her shoulder lightly, and then the Capitol woman reached into the other reaping ball to choose the male tribute.
Champ. Champ was a schoolmate in the same year as Waverly, but he lived in the merchant area instead of the Seam, helping with his family’s bakery. She often saw him unloading goods from the other districts, though their paths had never directly crossed more than a few times. He always offered her a smile and more often than not tried to show off his strength in front of her, causing her to blush and quickly move onto wherever she was headed.
And now neither of them were ever coming back home. Or maybe just one of them.
Champ slowly walked through the crowd and joined Waverly at the top of the steps. There was a collective relief felt from the crowd as the other children weren’t chosen, but all Waverly could hear was the thumping of her own racing heart.
The Capitol woman had applauded when both tributes were displayed to the crowd, but everyone was anxious to leave, ready to forget this event ever happened. When everyone was dismissed, Waverly, Champ, Doc, and the Capitol representative were rushed into the Mayor’s office.
“Might I interest you in a drink?” Doc suggested quietly, pulling a flask from his coat pocket.
Waverly shook her head, but Champ accepted eagerly, taking a large gulp. Doc nodded, twitching his mustache. “You keep that, kid. You’ll need it.”
The doors to the Mayor’s office burst open, and Wynonna and Gus rushed to Waverly, both entangling their arms around her.
“Baby girl,” Wynonna murmured, squeezing Waverly as tightly as she could. “I guess us Earps are that unlucky.”
“Wynonna…” Waverly started, her voice cracking as the tears started flowing out of her eyes.
Wynonna let Waverly go and held her face with both hands, looking into Waverly’s watery eyes with a determined look. “You come back. You don’t get to die out there. You’re not allowed, understand?”
Waverly nodded, reaching up to clench Wynonna’s wrists.
“Good. Take this.” Wynonna took her gold necklace off and clasped it around Waverly’s neck. “It was Willa’s.”
Waverly nodded again, letting out a shaky breath.
“Alright, tributes! Time to finally go to the Capitol!” the Capitol representative announced cheerfully.
Peacekeepers approached them, signaling Wynonna and Gus to leave.
“No! It’s too soon! That isn’t enough time!” Wynonna protested. She reached out to grab Waverly, but a baton struck her sharply from behind and she fell to the floor.
“Wynonna!” Waverly shrieked. She tried to move toward her sister, but a pair of Peacekeepers grabbed Waverly’s arms and began dragging her away. The last thing she saw as the doors closed behind them was Wynonna groggily getting back up and reaching toward her.
In District 2, Nicole waited patiently as her mother French braided her hair. She was 18 now, her last Hunger Games, and this time she had to be chosen as tribute.
The Haughts had a proud lineage; they could trace their heritage back generations, all the way back to when a country called the United States of America had existed. They even kept their old-fashioned family name instead of adopting modern trends.
And their family was a family of victors.
Nicole remembered living in Victor’s Village when she was only a few years old, running around the seemingly endless hallways and playing in the gardens. She never worried about tearing a dress or getting seconds at meal times – there was always more.
But when her father died, Nicole and her mother had to move back to the community and her mother had to get a job working at the quarry. They received strict food and clothing rations like everyone else, and her mother was sick of it.
Nicole’s mother tightened the end of Nicole’s hair extra tight as she finished, her fingers gripping her daughter’s red hair. “You will be chosen this year, Nicole,” she growled through gritted teeth. “I’m not living like this anymore.”
“Yes, mother,” Nicole replied plainly. She had always found it was best to answer simply, else she stoke her mother’s anger even further.
District 2 was famous for Career tributes – children who had trained their whole lives to win the Hunger Games. Their school emphasized physical fitness, strength, and combat training. As a result, most of the children became overly aggressive and arrogant, fighting over everything from food rations to social hierarchy.
Nicole was capable of fighting with the best of them, but she didn’t think she had to be a dickhead about it. She was known for an easy-going smile and a rare friendly demeanor… until you tried something stupid like stealing her rations or calling her a ginger, and then Nicole Haught had you flat on your back in an instant.
She had always wanted to become a Peacekeeper. The type that kept everyone safe by making sure the rules were followed, but knowing the right moments to bend them. Rules were meant to be followed, generally, but there were always exceptions.
But first, she had to win the Hunger Games for her mother.
The Reaping ceremony happened as expected, with much fanfare and enthusiasm from the whole district. The Capitol representative was dressed in a flared suit that changed colors with every step he took, his hair swept up in a dramatic pompadour and dyed in rainbow swirls – swirls apparently were all the range in the Capitol this season. When he appeared and greeted the crowd, he was almost swept back from the roars and cheers of adulation. He flashed a blindingly white smile and waved as he approached the microphone and reaping balls.
The names selected didn’t matter. This year, to prevent the riots that had been overtaking each previous Reaping, the school had set up a wrestling tournament to determine who had the right to volunteer. Every child aged 12-18 could participate in the tournament, but the older children had the distinct advantage of being larger and stronger.
Nicole had won, of course, though that didn’t stop other girls in her class from making threats and pushing her further down the social scale. She would simply smile and pinned them down again, quietly whispering in their ear that if they took the tribute spot from her, she didn’t need the Hunger Games to kill them.
“The female tribute from District 2 that will be in the 31st Hunger Games is…!”
“I volunteer as tribute.”
Nicole’s voice carried calmly across the town square, and the other children moved silently out of the way as she walked forward to claim her spot.
The Capitol representative flashed an even bigger smile and clapped his hands as the adults in the community cheered and whistled, the children giving half-hearted claps as they remembered Nicole’s threats veiled in her dimpled smile. Nicole’s mother applauded calmly and gazed steadfastly into Nicole’s eyes, and Nicole nodded back when she had reached the stage and faced the crowd.
It was the same everywhere, no matter which district you were from: win the Games or die.
Waverly didn’t remember much from the first day of the train ride from District 12 to the Capitol, except that there was so much food everywhere. Not that she had much of an appetite. Doc, Waverly and Champ’s mentor for the Games, had tried to encourage her to eat as much as possible.
“I know you’d rather not think of it, Miss Waverly,” he told her in an old-fashioned drawl she couldn’t quite place, “But the times ahead will undoubtedly be the worst of your precious life. Enjoy these luxuries while you can.”
“And if I win?” she asked, challenging him.
His mustache twitched and there was a long pause before Doc’s reply. “I can’t say I recommend it.”
Doc tipped his hat and walked away then, taking gulps from the ever-present flask in his pocket.
Waverly didn’t know much about Doc except that he had won the 26th Hunger Games five years ago and spent most of his time staggering around District 12 in a drunken stupor. Their interactions had been trades of wild game in the Hob, and the few times Waverly had found Wynonna drinking just outside Victor’s Village with him.
Being a victor, Waverly was sure Doc could teach her some things about the Games, but he seemed to be caught in a fog of survivor’s guilt.
Champ, with easy access to alcohol on the train, decided to follow Doc’s lead and drank himself into a buzz before breakfast and spiraled down until he passed out after dinner. He liked to spend the time taking advantage of the relatively close quarters to flirt with Waverly. Badly.
“Waverly Earp, am I glad to have been reaped with you! Couldn’t have picked a prettier partner!” he said obnoxiously, wrapping his arms around her waist when she tried to walk away. Their Capitol representative, who was now their official escort, shook her head in disgust.
“We’re not partners, Champ,” Waverly huffed, wrestling herself out of Champ’s grasp.
“Aw, Wavey, aren’t we gonna be partners in the Games?”
“There can only be one victor, Champ.”
Waverly winced at her own blunt tone. They only had a couple weeks to live, probably. She didn’t like to be reminded of it either.
Fortunately the gravity of Waverly’s statement seemed to go over Champ’s head. “You’re right, Waves! I forgot!” He slapped his forehead and laughed. Then Champ looked at Waverly and smiled. “How could somebody so pretty be so smart?”
Waverly sighed. They were supposed to work together in the upcoming Games, at least in the beginning, that was the usual strategy, but she was beginning to wonder if she might end up killing him herself.
“Because they’re not mutually exclusive,” she muttered before leaving the main compartment for her bedroom.
It took about a week on the train before they reached the Capitol, and on the fifth day, Waverly shook awake a dozing Doc in the dining compartment. Doc and Champ had spent five straight days drinking and eating, but no talk about the Games or strategy. Wynonna had told her she wasn’t allowed to die, and Waverly wasn’t going to wait for any sudden brilliance from her District 12 partner.
“Why, Miss Waverly,” Doc drawled when he recognized her through bleary eyes. “Finally decided to join me for an afternoon drink?”
“It’s still morning, and no,” Waverly said in an abrupt tone. She pulled Doc’s sprawled body into an upright position on the couch and sat in a chair across from him. “I’m ready for you to mentor me.”
“Mentor? I do believe there is plenty of training we can get up to when we reach the Capitol. At least a week if I recall.”
“Then strategy! Plans! …formations?” Waverly moved her hands frantically, trying to illustrate that she needed something to feel like she had an advantage, to feel like she could survive.
Doc shook his head and scrunched his nose, twitching his mustache in a way that would have made Waverly laugh if she wasn’t trying to get life-saving information from him. “No, we had nothing like that in our Games. No ma’am.”
“Well…” Waverly paused. She tried to broach the subject tentatively. “How… how did you win your Games?”
Doc’s blurry eyes suddenly focused, and he swallowed hard. “Well, I’m not certain that’s a tale for your sweet ears, Miss Waverly.”
Waverly let out a half-hearted laugh. “I’m about to enter the Hunger Games, Doc, and I’m not sure if you heard, but Wynonna said I’m not allowed to die.”
Doc’s gaze went below Waverly’s face to the gold necklace Wynonna had given her in the Mayor’s office before they dragged her away. “No, I believe you’re not.”
He straightened up his posture, pushing the brim of his cowboy hat out of his eyes. “You may not be aware of this Miss Waverly, but I am highly skilled in the art of the tomahawk.”
“Indeed. Put up a target, anything, anywhere, I assure you I will hit it.” Doc pulled out his flask and took a small sip. “Sober or not.”
Waverly nodded at him to continue.
“In the 26th Games, my partner was the town darlin’. She never paid attention to me until we were both reaped, but she turned sweet on me after I hit a District 1 fellow square in the skull who had come after her. She’d kiss me right on the cheek whenever I made a kill for her.”
Doc absent-mindedly touched his right cheek, remembering her soft touch before moving on. “I killed five other tributes while the others made a mess of themselves. When there were only four of us left, the arena let out a fog while we were sleeping, and we caught something mighty fierce that made our lungs fill with consumption. Before sunrise, we were coughing up an unnatural amount of blood. One of the other tributes died from the affliction shortly after, and the three of us left were so weak that it was only a matter of time. I told Darlene...”
Waverly watched Doc swallow hard again then take a deep breath.
“I told Darlene that I’d find us some breakfast like I usually did; berries or some animal I could find. She could hardly move in her condition. While looking for food, I found the other tribute stumbling around, barely breathing. I dispatched him quickly with one of my axes. In another time and place, it might have been seen as a mercy.”
Doc went quiet then, avoiding Waverly’s gaze. After a few moments, Waverly pressed him. “And then?”
“Now Miss Waverly, are you certain you didn’t watch this yourself in the town square merely five years ago?” The glint in Doc’s eye had returned, though faded. He was trying to avoid the ending.
“Wynonna wouldn’t let me watch.”
Doc nodded solemnly and took off his cowboy hat. He smoothed down his dark hair. “Well, Darlene had hardly moved from where I left her, but she was laying face down in a pool of her own blood. I ran over to assist, and she was still alive, but… but she had driven a knife partially into her own chest. She was too weak to hit her heart hard enough.”
He stopped and waited for Waverly to connect the dots.
“…she asked you to finish, didn’t she?”
Doc let his head nod slightly, then put his black hat back on. “Might as well have driven a knife into my own heart that day. Regretfully, ours was not a love story to last.”
“Oh, I did love you and Darlene together!” a chipper voice suddenly added, making both Waverly and Doc jump. The Capitol escort, Aeif, had apparently entered the dining car without either of them noticing. “I even sent some money your way to sponsor you both during the games! I wish they had spent more time covering you two. But here’s a spoiler: I hear they have new tiny cameras this year!”
Waverly and Doc both looked at each other.
“Tiny cameras?” Waverly asked for clarification.
“Yes! Tiny cameras hidden everywhere, and ones that even follow you around so they can show more intimate storylines. Those are the best parts of the Hunger Games, after all.”
The dining car’s doors whooshed, and Champ stumbled in, dropping heavily on the couch next to Waverly and throwing a casual arm around her shoulders. “Whatcha guys talking about?”
Doc watched Waverly uncomfortably squirm under Champ’s arm and smoothed his mustache, leaning back in his seat. “Perhaps the Hunger Games is ready for a love story at last.”
Nicole was in the Training Center at the Capitol when she first saw her. Nedley, her mentor, wanted her and Bobo Del Ray, the other tribute from District 2, to concentrate on strength and endurance training instead of focusing on the weapon stations – no need show off and let the other tributes know what they could do. Nicole figured he knew what he was talking about, being a victor and all, but Bobo immediately disregarded Nedley’s instructions and ran over to the weapon station with machetes, swinging them aggressively in front of the other district tributes.
Nicole thought it would have been intimidating if the tributes from District 1 and 4 weren’t doing the exact same thing. And if they were actually holding the machetes correctly.
Nicole was working on pull-ups when she noticed a small girl with long brown hair enter the Training Center with two others. Something about her made Nicole drop down from the pull-up bar and walk slowly over to Bobo, who was busy hacking at a training dummy with a hand axe.
“Who’s that?” Nicole asked him, pointing her chin at the girl anxiously looking around the room at all the other, much larger, tributes.
Bobo glanced up quickly from his work, then returned to his task of beheading the training dummy. “Just some District 12 dusties.”
Nicole kept her gaze on the girl, now listening to an unusual looking-man in a dark cowboy hat. She squinted, trying to find confirmation of Bobo’s information from the district patch on every tribute’s training uniform, but she was too far away for Nicole to read the number. “How do you know they’re from District 12?”
“They got that look. Starved,” Bobo said matter-of-factly. He wondered vaguely if the training dummy’s consistency was the same as a human body. It seemed like a human body would be easier, softer. Bobo looked again at the small girl Nicole seemed focused on. She wasn’t too far, just one flick of the wrist…
An iron grip was suddenly felt on Bobo’s forearm as he readied to throw his hand axe. He turned his head and glared at Nicole.
“Sorry, against the rules, Bobo,” she said calmly. Tributes were strictly prohibited from fighting each other before the Games, and clearly Bobo had intended for something more lethal.
Nicole steadily squeezed his wrist until he yelped and dropped the axe in pain. “You should work on your body tells. I could see that from a mile away.”
Her trademark dimples showed through an easy smile as she released his arm.
Bobo gritted his teeth in annoyance and stomped away, cradling his now-sprained wrist. He’d get her back in the arena later, and he’d make her pay tenfold.
Nicole watched Bobo leave, then turned her gaze back at the girl she didn’t know. Something strange began spinning in her mind; Nicole didn’t know her, but for some reason she wanted to know her. There was something about that girl that drew her in, and she wasn’t sure if it was good or bad.
The girl was looking back at her now, seemingly unaware that Bobo had been aiming an axe at her just moments ago. She smiled softly and offered a tiny wave. Nicole, mesmerized, couldn’t help but smile and wave back.
It was definitely bad.
Waverly watched as the red haired girl across the room turned and went to get a drink of water. Something about her made Waverly’s heart pound in her chest, and it was hard for her to look away.
“District 2. No good, Miss Waverly.”
Doc’s low voice next to her ear snapped her attention back to their conversation.
”She seems…nice,” she offered, remembering the girl’s generous smile. The other tributes in the room had either eyed them, trying to size Champ and her up, or merely ignored them.
"She’s one of the Careers, probably just trying to gain your trust until…” Champ dramatically wrapped his hands around his own neck and made exaggerated strangling noises.
Waverly sighed. She was supposed to pretend to be in love with this guy?
The last two nights on the train, Waverly, Doc, and Champ stayed up late formalizing a plan that would hopefully get them both back to District 12. From his time being paraded as the Hunger Games victor in the Capitol, almost every Capitol citizen he met had expressed regret that both he and Darlene didn’t get more screen time to see their love fully blossom. There had also apparently been campaigns to allow for two victors, but the government had struck these down.
With the new cameras in play, Doc would work on his end to drum up even more support for the love storyline, and Waverly and Champ would plant the seeds in their pre-Games interviews. They were attractive kids with humble backgrounds – the citizens of the Capitol would eat that up.
Admittedly in the mean time, to enact this love story plan and build a ravenous fan base, they would have to survive the other tributes.
While Waverly was luckily skilled in survival thanks to her illegal traps with Wynonna, she had no familiarity with weapons. Well, except for one.
“I can shoot a gun,” she said simply, when Doc had asked about her experience with weapons.
Doc had narrowed his eyes in disbelief. No citizens were allowed to own or handle guns, only Peacekeepers. “Now how is that possible?”
“The Peacekeepers thought it was funny,” she explained sheepishly. Ever since the raid where her father had been killed by Wynonna and Willa had been taken away, she and Wynonna had been blacklisted by the community as troublemakers, especially Wynonna. Waverly’s smaller demeanor often invited bullies to pick on her when Wynonna wasn’t around, and a few drunk Peacekeepers grabbed Waverly when she was fourteen and thought it’d be funny to let her shoot targets on the edge of town.
They had warned her that if she tried any rebellious behavior that they knew where Wynonna worked in the mines, and then placed a sawed-off shotgun in her hands.
The first few shots flew wildly, and Waverly almost fell back from the gun’s kickback, causing the Peacekeepers to fall over laughing. “Lil Earp’s no good either!”
Waverly had pressed her lips in an awkward smile; the Peacekeepers still wouldn’t let her leave, so she fired off a few more rounds. She found the gun steadying in her hands, and while she wouldn’t hit the targets to give the drunken Peacekeepers any clue that she was getting better, the shots hit her own secret targets.
Miss. Right on the fence post.
Miss. Knocked off the second branch on the tree.
Miss. Waverly pretended that the shot’s kickback threw her to the ground to the uproar of the Peacekeepers and looked back to what she hit.
Right through the “D” on the “Danger!” sign hanging on the electric fence.
Guns weren’t part of the Games, but Doc suggested Waverly try out the bow and arrow to see how it felt, while Champ would focus on the weapons that could play off his brute strength.
After Doc left the pair in the Training Center, Waverly tentatively approached the weapons station and picked up the bow, measuring its weight and heft in her hands. A tall blonde girl approached her, crossing her arms. Waverly could see the girl’s arm muscles rippling and a distinct “District 1” patch on her shoulder.
“You any good with that?” she asked Waverly in a particular tone. Her head cocked to the side, not expecting much from Waverly’s reply.
“I-I don’t know,” Waverly stammered. If she wanted, this girl could crush Waverly in an instant, and Waverly could see that all too plainly.
The blonde girl laughed and snatched the bow from Waverly’s hands. She reached over to grab an arrow, then pulled it back taunt on the string and released.
The arrow sailed easily into the target’s center.
“I’m Constance Clootie,” the girl said, introducing herself with a rough smile that seemed to be more of a menacing baring of teeth.
“W-Waverly Earp,” Waverly found herself saying automatically in a shaky voice.
Constance placed the bow back in Waverly’s trembling hands. She leaned down to whisper confidently in Waverly’s ear. “I don’t think we’ll be knowing each other long, Waverly Earp.”
Waverly tried to keep to herself that first day in the Training Center, but other Career tributes intercepted her with similar interactions, trying to intimidate and assess her skills at the same time, though the red-haired girl from District 2 never directly approached her. She always seemed to be on the periphery, and Waverly wasn’t looking forward to discovering what secret aggression the “nice Career” was hiding.
The other non-Career tributes seemed to have the same nervousness Waverly had and avoided conversation. Surprisingly Waverly found herself staying close to Champ’s side, finding comfort that they were at least on the same team.
At lunch break, Waverly ate her meal quietly across from Champ, while the other tributes ate scattered across the cafeteria. The Career tributes from District 1, 2, and 4 seemed to stick together and kept their voices low as they spoke to each other.
Champ was doing his best to shovel as much food as possible into his face. Though Champ had grown up without the risk of starving like Waverly did, the abundance of food still triggered a primal instinct in him to eat as much as possible.
“I need it for the strength to protect you, babe,” Champ insisted through a mouthful of food when Waverly shot him a disgusted look.
”Doc said we don’t have to act like a couple until the pre-Game interview,” Waverly reminded him, trying not to let her annoyance show through.
“Just getting used to it.” Champ smiled, shoving a bread roll into his mouth. “Want to make it natural and believable, ya know?”
Waverly let out a small laugh at Champ’s stuffed cheeks. He was annoying and obnoxious, sure, but overall he was harmless and could be depended on to stick to the plan. They were partners.
When Champ had eaten himself to an upset stomach, he excused himself and ran desperately looking for the rest room. Waverly released a sigh, glad to get a moment alone and gather her thoughts.
She didn’t get much time until she heard someone sit down across from her.
It was the girl from District 2.
Waverly felt her heart thumping in her chest again, though she couldn’t pin down the exact reason. When the other tributes had scared her, she felt her stomach drop and her pulse race, but when this girl from District 2 looked at her with a friendly smile, it felt like her heart might leap out of her chest.
“I didn’t know the human body was capable of eating so much food,” the girl joked, referring to the way Champ had eaten lunch. Her brown eyes were bright, and Waverly found herself distracted before thinking of a response.
“Yeah,” Waverly laughed. “You know, I keep telling Champ to slow down. Don’t want to get a cramp during training.” She gestured to her side for emphasis and laughed again nervously.
The girl nodded politely at Waverly’s reply, and Waverly silently cursed herself at being so boring to the girl’s witty opening line.
But the girl was still smiling at her, which made the edges of Waverly’s lips stay in a soft smile.
“I’ve been meaning to introduce myself,” the girl said after a moment. “I’m Nicole. Nicole Haught.”
As Nicole reached over and shook Waverly’s hand, Waverly thought she had detected a slight waver in her voice despite Nicole’s confident exterior. Waverly shook the feeling off as she prepared to say her own name, but the feeling of Nicole’s hand over hers was causing another wave of distraction.
“Hi,” she managed to get out.
“And you are Waverly Earp,” Nicole continued after a half a beat, still gently shaking Waverly’s hand. “Quite the popular girl around here.”
Waverly smiled and nodded, feeling her smile becoming embarrassingly wide. “Oh, you know, it’s all in the smile and wave.”
“Yeah,” Nicole replied simply, watching Waverly wave awkwardly as she spoke. Her eyes locked with Waverly’s, and something passed between them. It didn’t feel like the usual Career intimidation stare or a look to evaluate her capabilities.
It felt like… Nicole had seen Waverly, and it was the first time Waverly had felt seen, rather than being viewed as a trouble-making Earp or hungrily eyed by boys when she had gotten older. This was a new type of gaze altogether.
Lunch was starting to end, and the other tributes began standing up at their tables and leaving the room. Bobo cleared his throat loudly to catch Nicole’s attention, and the moment was abruptly broken.
“Looks like we’ve got to go back at it,” Nicole said, her voice maintaining an easy-going tone. “How about we talk again later? How about tonight?”
Waverly’s thoughts whirled, wondering what Nicole meant about talking. Did she forget that they were tributes training to kill each other in the Hunger Games? Was this an elaborate trap?
Still, Waverly wanted to say yes. Oh, she really wanted to say yes.
But Doc’s words of warning repeated themselves in Waverly’s head. “District 2. No good, Miss Waverly.”
“Oh, I can't. I mean, I’d love to – would like to,” Waverly corrected herself. “But my mentor has plans – big plans – to talk strategy. Strategy to win. The Games. The Hunger Games.”
Waverly felt herself making exaggerated gestures and pitching her voice too dramatically on her fragmented sentences. She kept mentally telling herself to stop talking, to stop the warm flush she felt creeping on her cheeks as Nicole softly laughed at the nervous way she was speaking, but another part of her wanted this interaction to go on forever.
“And I’m in a relationship,” Waverly heard herself blurt out. “With my tribute partner. Who’s a boy.” Waverly blinked. “Man.”
Nicole dropped her gaze to the ground for a moment and laughed again, and Waverly found herself not minding it was at her own stuttering expense.
“A boy-man?” Nicole repeated in an incredulous tone. She glanced over at Bobo, who had cleared his throat again and jerked his head toward the exit. Nicole nodded back before turning her attention back to Waverly. “Yep, I’ve been there. It’s the worst.”
Nicole let out another laugh as she stood up to follow the Career tributes leaving the cafeteria. “Okay, well, some other time.”
Waverly felt her eyes flutter slightly and her mouth involuntarily curve into a speechless smile at Nicole’s self-assuredness.
Nicole offered a wink as she turned and walked away. “I mean it.”
Waverly didn’t feel her heart beat normally until Nicole had exited, leaving her alone in the cafeteria.
If that was a play to get her unbalanced and unfocused on the Games ahead, it had worked flawlessly.
Thanks for reading! I know this story plods along very slowly, but I hope you're enjoying it.
As soon as Nicole left the cafeteria and was out of view of the doorway, she leaned against the wall and let out the breath that had been trapped in her chest.
What the hell was that?
During training that morning, she couldn’t help but keep an eye on Waverly, watching to see if the other Career tributes tried anything more than the usual display of dominance. Nicole stayed nearby, even spending time at the medical station to learn how to bandage a wound (a skill Nicole already knew), while Waverly flitted around, trying to find somewhere to fit in.
At lunch, she had tried discretely asking about her, finally learning her name.
“Waverly Earp,” Constance reported, unimpressed with her and Waverly’s interaction that morning. “She’ll probably be out the first day.”
“I think she might be stronger than you think,” Nicole suggested, watching Waverly twitch an irritated eyebrow at Champ’s lunch antics.
Constance laughed at the thought, but despite the fact Constance could be viewed as arrogant and cut-throat, she was a pragmatic person. “Doesn’t matter, Haught. It’s the six of us versus one puny District 12 dusty.”
Nicole pressed her lips and nodded. Her eyes scanned her lunch table with Constance and Jim from District 1, Bobo, and Red and Hetty from District 4. She wondered how long this Career pack would last before they turned on each other.
With the way everyone but Nicole kept their fists clenched and shoulders hunched, it probably wouldn’t be long.
Nicole listened lazily to the reports of the other tributes, all of whom seemed to be a non-issue except for possibly the girl tribute from District 3. She simply went by the name “the Blacksmith” and had the mechanical skills to make deadly modifications to weapons. Hetty had watched her add an attachment to one of the spears so that a switch would unleash additional blades at the end.
While that piqued the interest of everyone else at the table and began another conversation about alliances, Nicole saw Champ leave Waverly’s table out of the corner of her eye, and she quickly excused herself.
“I need to…uh…yeah,” she quickly muttered, making her way to the other side of the lunch room to sit down across from Waverly.
In the empty hallway, Nicole let the back of her head hit the wall harshly. She had to settle herself before she joined the other Careers back in the Training Center. They could smell weakness from a mile away, and she couldn’t put herself in that position. Five to one weren’t good odds, even for someone with superior combat skills like her.
And in this case, five to two would be even worse.
God, she couldn’t think that like that. She couldn’t automatically put Waverly in an alliance with herself. From their meeting, Nicole had gotten the distinct feeling that she didn’t and couldn't belong to anyone, despite her “relationship” with Champ.
Waverly Earp was...really something.
Nicole felt a smile forming across her face as the name “Waverly Earp” floated across her mind. It was a nice name – a good name. The type of name that rolled easily off her tongue and made her breath catch in the back of her throat.
But somewhere in a receded corner of her mind, Nicole wondered if it was the type of name that would make her risk everything.
At dinner, Waverly kept sneaking glances across the cafeteria at Nicole, which made Nicole smile shyly back whenever their eyes met. Waverly felt a slight heat warming up her cheeks, and a sharp rap from Doc’s knuckle on the table brought her back to the dinner strategy session.
“S-sorry,” she said meekly. Her eyes wanted to dart back across the room, but she willfully kept them at the task at hand.
Childhood crushes; too shy to say anything to each other until now; romance kindled on the train; Hunger Games chance of a lifetime.
Waverly had spent most of her childhood trying to win the favor of others, fighting fiercely against her Earp reputation, so saying these statements believably with a charming smile wouldn’t be too much of a stretch.
While Doc explained their statements again for Champ, Waverly played with the gold necklace around her neck, remembering her promise to Wynonna. They had two more days of training, and then they’d have their televised interview to sell their love story before the Games started. Most of the time the interviews were spent humanizing each tribute, allowing them to make an impression as an individual and the Capitol citizens to pick favorites to sponsor. The districts went in order and usually the female tribute went first.
Waverly’s job was to set everything up so that Champ’s entrance was easy and sympathetic. Champ’s job was mostly to look at Waverly and smile.
The next two days flew by – Waverly and Champ spent the time in the Training Center timidly handling unfamiliar weapons and learning the basics of how to use them. They also spent a few sessions at the medical and survival stations to learn how to take care of various injuries and using unconventional resources. There wasn’t any sense in strength or endurance training; they wouldn’t be able to build much muscle in so such a short amount of time. They stayed by each other’s side, and Champ even got a little less annoying.
And Nicole… Waverly tried not to think too much about her, but she couldn’t help turning her head whenever she saw a flash of red hair or heard a heavy bodily thud! as Nicole flipped another sparring trainer on their back. And sometimes, sometimes she caught Nicole looking at her too.
The morning of the interviews, two Capitol stylists entered the District 12 chambers to take measurements for their evening outfits. It was hard for Waverly to completely understand what the stylists were chattering about as they flew around her with measuring tapes and color palettes, but she mostly found them nice if not overly enthusiastic. Later that night, they came back with a midnight blue tuxedo with swirled glitter accents for Champ and a turquoise evening gown with embroidered details for Waverly.
Waverly had never been in a dress like this, and she felt unsteadily out of place as she waited backstage in line next to Champ and the other tributes. They were lined up in district order for their interviews, and they could hear the audience’s exuberant reactions to whoever was on-stage. The feeling that the Hunger Games would begin tomorrow also made itself an uncomfortably tight ball in her stomach.
Cheers and whistles filled the air as a tribute exited the stage and another made their entrance. Waverly looked over to see who had just left, and she felt the now-familiar pounding of her heart.
Nicole was wearing a purple evening gown with her red hair styled in loose curls. Silver earrings hung in her ears, and her bright smile flashed as she noticed Waverly and walked toward her.
“You,” Nicole let out when she approached Waverly, her breath caught in her throat again, “are a vision.”
“Oh please,” Waverly replied, looking bashfully away. Waverly thought she looked ridiculous and over-the-top, but Nicole was looking at her like she was the most perfect thing in the world. “My stylists didn’t even have time to accessorize me.”
Nicole smiled, the kind that put Waverly at ease and made the anxiety in her stomach fade away. A slightly mischievous glint formed in her eyes. “See, I knew my stylists put this bracelet on me for a reason.”
Waverly watched as Nicole unclasped a silver bracelet from her wrist and put it on her own. For a moment, she felt Nicole’s fingers linger softly on her forearm…
And then Champ turned around and threw an arm casually around Waverly’s shoulders, making Nicole quickly release her hold and take a step back.
“Good luck,” she said quietly to Waverly. “You’ll do great.”
Nicole’s exit was so fast that Waverly couldn’t even thank her, and Waverly watched as Nicole walked quickly down the hall and disappeared.
Nicole entered her tribute apartment shortly afterward and let herself collapse onto the plush couch in the living room. A giant television hung on the wall, and she turned it on to provide herself a distraction. It was rare she felt this way… flustered.
She remembered feeling elated after she had performed her interview so well – they had an easy-going banter, and the host had been impressed with her friendly demeanor. Nicole had been counting on winning over the audience with her physical size and warm presence as an easy choice for viewers to want to sponsor her. Being too overly aggressive scared the Capitol citizens, but so did being too soft. They wanted to sponsor a tribute who would win and then become a “nice” victor they could parade around their parties when the Games were over.
Then she left the stage and saw Waverly in that turquoise dress and everything else faded away. Nicole shouldn’t have been seen talking to Waverly again right before the Games, especially in front of the other tributes, but when she saw Waverly just standing there and looking so nervous and unsure of herself, Nicole completely forgot where she was and couldn’t help but want to make Waverly smile.
But Waverly’s tribute partner had appeared only moments into their encounter, and Nicole was abruptly reminded that Waverly was with him, had chosen to be with him, and Nicole knew she couldn’t keep herself calm enough when he was hanging all over her.
So she left.
Nicole exhaled heavily, letting herself fall further into the deep couch. She hadn’t forgotten why she was here and what she had to do tomorrow, but she wished…
Her thoughts were interrupted as she heard a familiar name come from the television. Nicole sat up as she watched Waverly Earp stride across the stage, showing off a dazzling smile and doing an impossibly adorable wave; a different one compared to how they first met in the Training Center. One that looked as if she had practiced it and done it a thousand times.
“It’s all in the smile and wave.”
Nicole was so entranced at watching Waverly smile, speak, and giggle at all the appropriate times, that she hardly processed what she said. Something about loving the Capitol, gossiping with her stylists while picking out her dress, and being grateful for the time she got to spend with her childhood crush, Champ. When Waverly had made her last confession, the host invited Champ to come out early so they could interview together. Champ appeared with a confident smile and kissed Waverly on the cheek before sitting down next to her.
That’s when Nicole figured out it was all a strategy. The practiced smile and wave, the complete lies about loving the Capitol; Waverly was bidding for sponsors like everyone else, and her team wanted her to go even bigger by trying to carve out a space for two victors instead of one.
And judging by the cheers from the crowd when Waverly and Champ stood holding hands, it was working.
Waverly could barely sleep that night; she tossed and turned trying to will her body to fall asleep, to have a final night of rest before she had to fight for her life for who knows how many nights ahead, but the anxiety and fear kept pulsing through her. She mostly fiddled with the bracelet still on her wrist while she rumpled the sheets and waited for dawn.
Doc met her in the morning to walk with her to breakfast, and he encouraged her to eat before they had to get ready for the Arena. Waverly made herself eat something even though she had no appetite. Champ decidedly inhaled food like any other morning, but their table was noticeably quieter than usual.
After breakfast, they walked together to the medical station for their physical examinations and to get tracking microchips implanted in their arms. The chips would not only allow the Gamemakers to track them, but also monitored their vitals so they knew precisely when each tribute was eliminated.
Once Waverly and Champ had been cleared, Doc rode with them in the hovercraft that flew them to the undisclosed location of the Arena. They took a set of stairs and traversed a series of entangled tunnels that brought them underground to the launch rooms, where each tribute had a separate area to get ready for the Games.
Two stylists were at the launch room doors to help Champ and Waverly get ready, and while Champ went into his launch room with his stylist, Doc waved away Waverly’s so he could accompany her himself.
“Thanks,” Waverly said quietly as they entered the room.
“Of course, Miss Waverly,” Doc said simply, tipping his hat. He tried to smile reassuringly, but his nervousness showed and it was more of a tight grimace.
The room was sparse compared to the tribute apartments they had lived in the past few days, but the launch room was fairly spacious and contained a couch, an attached bathroom, and a table with water and some food. Laid on the couch were the clothes Waverly had to wear for the Games, and she quickly picked them up to change in the bathroom.
When she re-appeared, Doc approached her to adjust the collar on her windbreaker and smoothed over the flyaway hairs that had escaped Waverly’s braid. His touch was slow and gentle, and his mustache quivered slightly.
“Thanks Doc,” Waverly said again as he zipped up her windbreaker for her. “For everything.”
“Now this ain’t goodbye,” Doc scolded. “I did tell Wynonna I’d do my best to look out for you after all.”
Waverly smiled, thinking of her big sister who never thought she took care of Waverly well enough. “Well, just in case,” she said softly.
Doc nodded and took off his hat, holding it close to his chest. “Well, just in case, Miss Waverly,” he said in his warm drawl, “It has been the greatest pleasure of my life.”
Tears began filling Waverly's eyes, and she jumped forward to hug Doc tightly around his waist. Though surprised, she felt his arms slowly encircle her and his head rest against hers. In their short time together, Doc had become family to her, and Waverly wanted to cherish the last possible moments she had to be alive.
A monotone bell rang over the alarm system as a five-minute warning to launch, and Doc slowly separated himself from her. He put his hat back on and tried again to show a reassuring smile while they walked over to the launch plate that would send Waverly into the Arena.
As Waverly stood on the launch plate, Doc pulled out two objects from his pocket.
“Your tokens got approved,” he explained simply, clasping Willa’s gold necklace around Waverly’s neck.
“Tokens?” Waverly asked, confused about the plurality. She expected to get Willa’s necklace after the Games committee examined it, but…
“Indeed, I thought you might want this bracelet as well.” Doc winked then, putting Nicole’s silver bracelet on her wrist. Doc was a lot more observant than she realized.
“What happened to ‘District 2, no good’?” she asked carefully.
Doc smiled then, a real smile that showed through his bushy mustache. “Now, I don’t know how she’s going to act in the Arena, and I think you should stay close to Champ, but I must admit that I have a tender heart for things that make you smile.”
Waverly let out an impressed breath and began to say thank you again to Doc, but a clear tube fell down around her, and she couldn’t do anything but hold up a hand against the clear plastic.
Doc placed his hand up to hers. “Thank me when you win!” he shouted, his voice muffling through the plastic to Waverly.
Waverly could only nod before the launch plate began to lift her into the Arena.
While being lifted to the Arena, Nicole tried to think quickly. Their clothes were lightweight and breathable – probably a mild environment. Head to the Cornucopia and grab supplies with the other Careers, dispatching any weak tributes along the way.
Don’t look for Waverly.
Daylight began to break at the top of the tube, and Nicole soon found herself in the bright Arena, standing on the launch plate with all the other tributes circled around the Cornucopia with bags and boxes of supplies. A mechanical voice began a countdown from sixty. If the tributes left their plates before the countdown completed, a land mine would deactivate, killing them instantly.
Nicole swiveled her head around, trying to get her bearings and let her eyes adjust to the bright sunlight. It looked like they were in a simple forest environment with the Cornucopia in a clearing, but she knew that the Hunger Games Arenas were never that straightforward.
Straight ahead in the center was the giant Cornucopia, and Nicole could see backpacks filled with miscellaneous supplies, and further in the center were weapons – a bow and arrow, a set of hunting knives, machetes, axes, and spears.
Nicole looked around at the tributes and nodded at Bobo about forty feet to her left. He nodded back and eyed the weapons hungrily in the center. Constance was next to him, rolling her neck and warming up her body before the Games began. The other Careers, Jim, Red, and Hetty, were spaced out in random order ahead of her, and they nodded to each other as they made eye contact.
Nicole’s eyes finally looked directly to her right. Shit.
Waverly Earp stood tensed, a sheen of sweat visible on her forehead. She looked shakily over to Nicole, and this time Nicole couldn’t smile back and put her at ease. The whole circumstance was out of her control and…
A shine from Waverly’s lower arm caught Nicole’s eye, and Nicole noticed the bracelet on her wrist.
She kept it as a token…?
A loud gong signaled the beginning of the Games, and the scene became utter chaos. The Careers surged toward the middle, grabbing as many bags and backpacks as possible along the way, while some other tributes scattered into the heavily wooded edges. A few ran into the middle with the Careers, and Constance eagerly grabbed a tribute from District 6 and snapped his neck quickly.
A loud boom! from a cannon was heard, signifying a tribute’s death.
Nicole was stepping off her launch plate when she saw Waverly scamper ahead to grab one of the backpacks on the edge of the Cornucopia. Nicole looked up and saw Bobo reach the hunting knives. She could see from his body language that he was going to throw one.
She told him to work on his body tells.
Nicole’s body began to move then, sprinting up to the left of Waverly. She held her left arm out and swung around, hitting Waverly squarely in the chest and making her fall to the ground. As soon she as she did, Nicole felt the sharp sting of a hunting knife lodge itself in the back of her left shoulder.
Nicole fell forward, but caught herself before she lost balance. Waverly had fallen flat on her back from Nicole’s hit, though she had reached the backpack and clutched it to her chest. For the first time, Waverly looked at Nicole with terrified eyes.
“Run,” Nicole breathed.
Waverly blinked, then nodded, scrambling to get up and darted towards the woods.
Nicole grimaced as she reached back and pulled the knife out of her shoulder, her left arm dripping warm blood to the ground. Fortunately Bobo’s throw was all show and no power; just a painfully superficial wound.
“I got her!” Nicole called out to Bobo behind her. She calmly put the knife in her right hand and threw it at Waverly’s scurrying body.
As Waverly reached the edge of the forest, she heard a loud thunk! as the knife hit a tree branch right above her head. Waverly saw the opportunity and reached up to grab the knife as she continued to run. She let herself look back then, just for a moment, and she saw Nicole watch her as she ran deeper into the thicket of trees.
Waverly thought she heard a more cannon blasts as she ran through the woods. The first day of the Hunger Games always had a bloodbath – more tributes died the first day than any other, and the Capitol citizens loved it. Waverly knew she had to run as far away from the Cornucopia as possible and disappear.
She hoped none of the cannon shots were for Champ.
Waverly’s right hand gripped the hunting knife while she ran – the knife that Nicole had thrown at her. Thrown to her?
Reaching another clearing, Waverly slowed her pace and cautiously looked around, wary of the lack of cover. Doc had told them to run west, toward the sun, and meet up away from the other tributes. Waverly tried to be silent, but her ragged breathing and racing pulse felt she was giving away her location on every step.
As she edged her way through the clearing, a small mechanical ball with a bright light floated up beside her. It whirred in and out of Waverly’s face, and she swatted it away.
”That’s a P-I98 camera,” a loud voice suddenly called out from above. “Better let it do its job.”
Waverly froze. She slowly looked up in the direction of the voice.
A small smirk appeared on the Blacksmith’s face as she pulled back her modified spear with five blades at the end. She had a backpack slung over one shoulder and another camera floated right next to her head. “District 12, Waverly Earp?”
Waverly nodded, loosening the grip that had tightened over the hunting knife. It looked like the Blacksmith wasn’t going to kill her…for now.
“Show me what’s in your pack.” The Blacksmith’s weapon was lowered, but her voice was demanding, and Waverly decided to comply. At the very least she could keep stalling until Champ showed up.
Waverly slipped her knife into her belt, then slowly moved her backpack forward. She unzipped it and reached in to empty its contents.
“Water bottle, a stitch kit, matches, and…” Waverly’s hand rolled over a few objects that she’d only seen once. “…bullets?”
Waverly immediately heard rustling as the Blacksmith dropped down from the tree above her. The Blacksmith roughly dove her hand into Waverly’s backpack and pulled out a small bullet. “They’re putting a gun in play?”
Waverly heard the whirring of the two small cameras zipping in and out of their faces and circling them. She tried to pay no attention to them, but her eyes kept darting back to the unfamiliar machinery.
“Ignore them,” the Blacksmith said absent-mindedly, flipping the bullet between her fingers. “They’re just P-I98s, decent picture quality, but horrible on audio. The ST-50s are what you have to watch out for.”
“ST-50s?” Waverly asked. She knew District 3 specialized in technology, explaining the Blacksmith’s intricate knowledge about the cameras.
“Stationary cameras,” the Blacksmith explained. She pointed to a tree about 10 yards away. “There’s one in that tree and another one over there. They’re high-definition and can zoom in and hear your conversation from a hundred feet away.”
“I-I didn’t see a gun at the Cornucopia,” Waverly stammered, trying her best to forget about the cameras that were watching their every move.
“No,” the Blacksmith agreed. “Me either.”
They paused for a moment, looking at each other.
“I bet it’s a sponsor gift,” the Blacksmith said simply, breaking the silence and stepping closer to close the gap between herself and Waverly. “And from the interviews, I have an idea who might have a head-start on sponsors.”
Waverly swallowed and took a half-step back. “Okay! So… allies?”
Waverly’s voice had turned into a high-pitched squeak, and she instinctively flinched as the Blacksmith shot out her hand.
Oh, a handshake.
“Allies,” the Blacksmith agreed as they shook hands. She slung her backpack forward and showed her the supplies she’d gotten: rope, a pair of over-sized gloves, and a small multi-tool.
Waverly was about to say something, when they both heard a crash! come from the trees. They both tensed and immediately held their weapons up.
Champ’s voice carried over as he ran heavily into the clearing. Waverly resisted the urge to roll her eyes at the nickname Champ decided to announce his entrance with, and with the camera moving excitedly around her face, she knew what she had to do.
Sponsors. Gun. Waverly knew she could be deadly with a gun. She knew she could win with a gun.
Waverly forced her face to break into a smile and ran forward to jump into Champ’s arms. She threw her arms around Champ’s neck and held him tightly as the camera spurted to keep up and do a dramatic circling angle around their faces as they embraced. Champ lifted her easily with one arm as the other carried a lance. The lance was noticeably flecked with blood.
“Champ! Thank God you’re okay,” she said, a little too loudly, but Waverly wanted the cameras to pick it up. She did mean it, at least.
“’Course, babe,” Champ said smugly. “Gotta come to protect you.”
He bumped his forehead against hers, and Waverly could tell he wanted to kiss her then, to mark her as his helpless damsel in distress. She wanted to turn her face so that all he could do was kiss her on the cheek, but Doc’s chiding voice echoed in her mind.
“You’ll have to give the people what they want, Miss Waverly.”
Doc had said it that day on the train when they first formulated the strategy, and Waverly protested, hating the way Champ had drunkenly behaved, hated having to be someone else for other people’s expectations again. But all Doc had to do was glance at the necklace around Waverly’s neck, and she remembered what she had promised Wynonna.
So Waverly kissed Champ and tried to become who they wanted to her be – a poor girl from District 12 who was in love with the boy who had been reaped with her. A girl who had loved him since the first day of school and felt blessed by the Capitol to finally get the chance to be with him. A girl who had blushed a deep red during their televised interview when the host asked if they had their first kiss yet.
And as she kissed Champ, Waverly fluttered her eyes and saw the silver parachutes fall down around them.
Nicole held her breath that night as the sky illuminated with the first tribute deaths – fourteen had died that day, including 8 at the Cornucopia bloodbath. Nicole had killed the male tribute from District 3 herself when she spied him trying to dismantle the landmines from the tribute launch pads. She took care of him quickly; he had no idea what happened when a machete was driven into his heart from behind.
When Waverly’s picture wasn’t shown among them, Nicole let out a long sigh.
“You missed,” Bobo stated, walking up to Nicole at the edge of the fire. He looked at her with scrutinizing eyes, referring to the incident with Waverly.
“Throwing knives aren’t my specialty,” she answered simply. She smiled. “Not like you.”
Nicole held up an aching shoulder for emphasis. It was bandaged tightly from the supplies at the Cornucopia, but it would need stitches. In the piles of supplies, there didn’t seem to be a medical stitch kit, and she hoped a sponsor would send one in a silver parachute.
Bobo opened his mouth to say something, but then thought better of it. He walked back to the other side of the fire, and Nicole watched as he and Constance talked quietly. Jim, Hetty, and Red slept nearby, agreeing to take the second watch shift.
Nicole got up from her sitting position against a tree. “I’m going to take care of business,” she announced to Bobo and Constance. “I’ll be right back.”
Nicole picked up her machete and a backpack of supplies as she walked away. She just needed to relieve her bladder, but she need to take them. Just in case.
When she had finished, Nicole decided to walk the perimeter a bit to get her bearings. As she walked deeper into the forest, a small camera with a bright light flew out from the darkness, illuminating her face.
Shit, these new cameras were dangerous at night. Nicole grabbed the camera and hit the light with the handle of her machete, shattering it. She’d lose some sponsor points, but at least there wasn’t a beacon of light betraying her position to any tributes hiding nearby.
Nicole was about to turn back to the Cornucopia camp when something grabbed her wrist and pulled her behind a tree.
She let herself be pulled, but she quickly held her machete up to the throat of the small figure leaning against the tree trunk. As her eyes adjusted to the sudden movement, Nicole dropped her arm.
“We’re, uh,” Waverly started, her voice low and nervous at Nicole’s defensiveness. She had watched Nicole exercise and spar at the Training Center, but she had never really seen what Nicole could do or what she was capable of. “We’re in a dead spot.”
Waverly nodded. “I’m not sure why exactly, but the Blacksmith said that there’s something weird about this area.” She pointed to two cameras in trees about thirty feet away. “Those cameras can’t pick up this angle, and the P-I98s can’t fly in this spot either.”
“The portable cameras. The one that was following you, but it’s now stuck.” Waverly pointed to the P-I98 with the broken light that was now floating in one position twenty feet away along an invisible line. After a few moments, it flew away, presumably to find someone else to follow.
“The Blacksmith thinks the signal from our chips probably don’t work here either," Waverly continued. "The map just shows us in the last spot we were in before we crossed into the dead zone.”
Nicole swallowed slowly, trying to process the technical information Waverly had told her. A section of the Arena that was untrackable? It sounded impossible, and yet with the way the camera had stopped following her, it seemed plausible.
“Why are you telling me this?” Nicole asked, then paused. She felt like all she was doing was asking Waverly questions, and she realized she didn’t even ask the most important one. She softened. “Are you okay?”
Waverly smiled gently. “I’m fine. Maybe a little bruised on my chest, but…”
Nicole let out a laugh, her dimples showing through a smile. “Yeah, sorry about that.”
Waverly squinted in the moonlight, noticing the bandage on Nicole's left shoulder. “Are you okay?”
Nicole rolled her throbbing shoulder, trying not to grimace. “Superficial wound but needs stitches. There weren’t any stitch supplies at the Cornucopia, but maybe a sponsor will…”
“I’ve got some,” Waverly said quickly. She reached into her backpack and pulled out the stitch kit she had gotten.
They both sat down on the ground while Waverly gingerly removed the bandage from Nicole’s shoulder and rolled back Nicole’s shirt sleeve for more room. The wound was still glistening with fresh blood and felt hot to the touch. She tried to keep her contact as light as possible, but she could tell Nicole was flinching from pain at every graze.
“You, uh,” Nicole tried to ask jokingly between gasping breaths. It hurt like a bitch. “You know what you’re doing back there?”
“My big sister, Wynonna, gets in a lot of fights,” Waverly answered, carefully starting to stitch the wound closed. “I’ve gotten pretty good at it – won’t even leave a scar. Scars are pretty sexy though.”
“Don’t be too careful then,” Nicole said. She looked back at Waverly with a smile that made a blush form on her cheeks.
Nicole watched Waverly as she worked, their eyes meeting every so often, and Waverly biting her bottom lip from nervousness. When she was finished, Waverly re-bandaged Nicole’s shoulder and smoothed out her shirt.
“How does it feel?” she asked as Nicole tested her shoulder and faced Waverly.
“Right as rain.” Nicole reached out and squeezed Waverly’s left wrist gently, feeling her bracelet hanging loosely there. “Thanks.”
Waverly smiled as Nicole’s hand lingered on her wrist. Then she shook her head, remembering why she had been waiting there. “So, the reason I’m here…”
“You weren’t here just to rescue me?” Nicole grinned, her hand still on Waverly’s wrist. Waverly’s presence still had the intoxicating effect of making Nicole completely forget about the Games.
Waverly laughed. “Cute, but no.”
Nicole’s grin widened. Waverly thought she was cute.
“I, um,” Waverly cleared her throat. “I wanted to see if you wanted to be in an alliance. With me.”
Nicole’s smile faltered ever-so-slightly when she remembered where they were. “With you?”
“And the Blacksmith. And…Champ.” Waverly clarified, hesitating on Champ’s name and remembering Nicole’s reaction backstage during the interviews.
Nicole sighed, pulling her hand back from Waverly’s wrist and standing up. “Where are they now?”
“At our camp, deeper in the woods. I told them I’d ask you to ally with us, since…” Waverly trailed off.
“…since what?” Nicole asked quietly. Waverly Earp seemed to have a lot of strategies, and now Nicole began thinking that perhaps she had been caught in one.
“Since…” Waverly’s mind raced, trying to find the words – the words why her heart thumped in her chest whenever she was with Nicole, why she couldn’t stop looking at her no matter where they were, and why ever since their eyes met at the Capitol, her mind couldn’t stop thinking about her. Trying to put words to something that had no words made her want to explode. “Since we have this – this thing that I have no idea what it is or what to call it except it's driving me insane and I can’t stop thinking about you, Nicole!”
Waverly huffed in frustration, and Nicole tried to look objectively at Waverly standing in the dim moonlight. Waverly seemed exasperated and her deep hazel eyes stared vulnerably at her. She was either a damn good liar or she was telling the truth, and Nicole really wanted Waverly to be telling the truth.
And if she was being honest with herself, being objective and clear-headed about Waverly Earp simply wasn’t possible.
Nicole took a step toward Waverly. “What about Champ?”
Waverly sighed. “That is fake as hell, and you know it.”
Nicole couldn’t suppress the smile that began forming on her face, and she hoped Waverly couldn’t see too much of it. “You don’t have to be someone you’re not, Waverly.”
Waverly let out a tired laugh and exhaustion seemed to settle over her face. “Tell that to Doc, who started this whole thing the first place. Tell that to all the sponsor gifts that rained down on us after I kissed Champ today.”
Nicole’s smile faded when Waverly mentioned kissing Champ, but Waverly’s annoyed demeanor of having to do it softened the blow. Nicole swallowed slowly as Waverly took a small step toward her.
“But that’s all part of the Games. Here, no one can see us. This is real.”
Waverly’s eyes flickered at Nicole’s lips in the faint light, and then she was moving, closing distance between them and grabbing Nicole’s face, colliding their lips together in a breathless kiss.
Kissing Champ was different – kissing Champ was a calculated move and Waverly had counted down the seconds in her head to know when it had gone on long enough to look genuine.
Kissing Nicole felt like time had stopped and sped up all at once – like the whole world had stopped the moment their lips touched and then fast-forwarded to catch up the time it had lost. It felt like they had both just started and had gone on forever. And it felt like it could never go on long enough.
Nicole’s head spun as she grasped Waverly close, feeling their bodies crash together the way she had wanted ever since Waverly had smiled at her in the Training Center. Her hands roamed up and down Waverly’s back, fingers tangling in her hair one moment, then gripping her by the hips to pull her impossibly closer the next. Waverly was something Nicole never knew she needed, and she couldn’t get enough.
Waverly Earp, the one thing in the world that could make Nicole lose focus on what she had trained for her entire life. Waverly Earp, the manipulative genius that had both Nicole and the Capitol falling in love with her over a smile and wave.
It was all lies or it was completely real – in that moment, Nicole couldn’t care less.
Wow, this chapter was a little tough to write because of the ~feelings~, but I really liked how it turned out. Thanks for reading as always, and please let me know what you think!
The sudden sound of the canon in the distance broke them apart. Nicole and Waverly both fumbled in the darkness, Nicole picking up her machete and Waverly grabbing her knife. They both stood tensed, listening, but they only heard silence.
“Is your camp close by?” Nicole asked, her body alert and swiveling in a ready position.
“Yes,” Waverly confirmed. “We could get there in –"
“I can’t go with you,” Nicole interrupted.
Waverly looked at Nicole, her eyes questioning her in the moonlight. “But –"
“What kind of ally would I be if I didn’t spy on the Career pack for you?”
Waverly could see Nicole grin and relax her stance, breaking the tension. She let out a breath of relief and smiled back.
“I’ve got to go back. They’re probably wondering where I am,” Nicole said quietly. “You alright by yourself?”
Waverly nodded, and she was glad to see Nicole take her at her word. Everyone in her life had always been so protective of her, but the truth was that Waverly could care of herself and she wished more people could see that.
“Meet back here tomorrow night?” Waverly asked.
She sounded hopeful, but Nicole wasn’t sure if that was her own wishful thinking.
“Tomorrow night,” Nicole agreed, slinging her backpack over her shoulder. Before she could leave, Waverly reached up to hold Nicole’s face in her hands and kissed her again.
“Come back,” Waverly whispered.
Nicole nodded, feeling the beginning wisps of the all-encompassing draw toward Waverly again. “Always.”
Nicole picked up her a pace to a jog, keeping her footsteps light and quiet on the way back. Another canon shot made her break into a run.
When she reached the Cornucopia clearing, she saw Bobo stand and throw away a large bloodied rock. Hetty lay eerily still below him, and Jim was dragging Red’s body away from the center of camp.
Nicole’s running entrance had been noisy, and Bobo looked up at her.
“Finally back, Haught?” His eyes had a harsher glint in the firelight, and Nicole tightened her grip on the machete by her side.
“They betrayed us already?” Nicole asked coolly, stepping closer. Jim was dragging Red’s body toward her and dropped him heavily when he reached the edge of the woods. The sound of a distant hovercraft to pick up the dead tribute bodies could be heard in the night air.
“Nah, just wanted to get rid of dead weight,” Bobo smiled.
Amidst the steady crackle of the campfire and the dull hum of the approaching hovercraft, Nicole heard the distinct stretch of a bow string.
She leaped forward to clutch Jim to her chest and ducked behind him, using his body as a shield. The thunk! of an arrow sunk deep into Jim’s chest.
Two other arrows quickly landed into Jim’s body, one through his ribcage and another piercing his forehead.
As Jim’s body leaned lifelessly against Nicole, she turned sideways and used her right shoulder to shove him forward, ramming into Bobo and knocking both of them over.
The canon boomed to signal Jim’s death. Nicole scrambled to her feet, watching Bobo struggle with Jim’s dead body on top of him. She gripped her machete to finish him off when another arrow sailed through the air, just grazing Nicole’s left ear.
Feeling the warm wetness of blood dripping down her neck, Nicole darted her eyes ahead and saw a small bright light at top of the Cornucopia a few feet away; the bright light that came with all the P-I98s following the tributes.
There wouldn’t be enough time. Nicole spun around and dashed toward the woods, sprinting in an erratic pattern to avoid Constance’s arrows.
Nicole heard the swish! of arrows flying around her body, but she kept pushing forward toward the trees. Once she had cover, she could find somewhere to hide and pick them off whenever they separated. Then she could meet back up with Waverly and…
A sharp pain shot up through her right thigh, and Nicole was falling. She landed on her forearms and shoved herself back up, noticing the tail end of an arrow sticking out of her upper leg. Her leg burned, but she forced herself to keep moving, hobbling, finally reaching the woods and disappearing into the darkness.
Waverly made it back to the Blacksmith and Champ without incident, though her pulse raced when she heard two more canon shots along the way. She was relieved to see the Blacksmith and Champ sitting quietly at their camp fire, organizing the four silver parachute canisters they had received earlier.
The sponsor gifts hadn’t been anything too extravagant – a couple bottles of water, jerky, and bread. Enough for Doc to tell Waverly that she had acted correctly, but there was still work to be done if the gun theory was correct.
She wondered what she’d have to do with Champ to get that.
Champ smiled and reached out a hand as Waverly approached them, the bright light from a camera floating over her shoulder giving her presence away. “Hey, how’d it go?”
His softness surprised her, and she tried to smile warmly as she took his hand and sat down next to him. The two cameras trailing them eagerly spun around each other, trying to get the best angles. “She said she’d help us.”
“I knew you could it! You’re so smart, Waves!” Champ kissed her cheek enthusiastically, then her forehead, then the side of her face again…
Waverly internally thanked the Blacksmith for interrupting Champ’s embarrassing show of affection. The Blacksmith’s face was everything that Waverly’s face couldn’t be – disgusted, annoyed, and tired of the whole charade.
“Since you lovebirds are reunited, I’m going to sleep. Remember you have to actually keep watch and not be all kissy-kissy.” The Blacksmith smirked, then swiftly climbed up a tree, disappearing from sight.
Champ watched the Blacksmith’s expert ascent into the trees with amazement, slipping his arms around Waverly’s waist. “Huh, she’s really good at that!”
“Yeah,” Waverly replied quietly. She tried to relax and not stiffen at the unwelcome, but necessary, physical contact from Champ. Her encounter with Nicole had been exhilarating but effortless, and now Waverly had to become that girl again.
She leaned over into his chest, feeling Champ’s heart beat against her back. It was steady and soothing, helping her ease back into the version of Waverly Earp the Capitol citizens wanted to see. She sighed, shedding the last bit of herself, and placed her hands over Champ’s on her waist.
After a moment, Champ reached over to one of the silver sponsor canisters and pulled out the loaf of bread. Waverly watched as he began to eat it, thinking he would only take a few bites, but soon it became apparent that the eating habits he picked up at the Capitol were still with him.
"Hey," she started, glancing quickly at the cameras floating around them and choosing her words carefully. "Slow down. We should save that."
"Why?" Champ asked. "They'll just send more, Waves."
Champ crammed the last bit of bread into his mouth, and Waverly saw half their food rations disappear down his throat.
"We don't know that! God, don't be such an idiot, Champ."
Waverly immediately bit her bottom lip, regretting her harsh outburst, and she thought she saw Champ's body stiffen in response. She opened her mouth to apologize, but Champ abruptly let out a laugh and flung his arm casually around her shoulders. "You're cute when you're mad."
She gave a half-hearted smile and let his arm linger, glad that everything seemed to go over Champ's head as usual. They both sat quietly in front of the fire, watching the flames crackle and shift.
A sudden rustle from the trees interrupted them.
Champ separated himself from Waverly and picked up his lance, while Waverly picked up her pack and hunting knife. It could have been the Blacksmith or…
“Stupid, stupid, stupid…”
“Who’s that?” Champ called out, holding his weapon in a ready stance. “Who’s there?”
“Nothing but an airhead! Stupid idiot!”
Champ tilted his head. “…Dad?”
Waverly stood up, listening to the deep voice coming from the trees. Growing up in the Seam, she rarely wandered into the more prosperous areas of District 12, but she could vaguely recognize the voice as Champ’s father who ran the bakery in the merchant section. She had never heard him speak so harshly, and it was jarring.
“How can you be so stupid?! Don’t you have any sense, boy?”
Waverly looked over at Champ’s face, which was becoming increasingly pale and agitated. His jaw was tensed and the knuckles gripping his lance were white. Though Waverly hadn’t ever really known Champ that well, she had never seen him anything like this. Even when he was drunk and reckless on the train, he had always seemed steady and predictable. This made her nervous.
Waverly’s mind raced, trying to piece together what was happening. A recording of some sort? How could the Gamemakers have smuggled that audio from Champ’s own home?
“Stupid pretty boy! You’re just a stupid pretty boy!”
Waverly’s attention snapped back at Champ, who had thrown his lance into the tree, then bolted into a panicked run. The night sky erupted with shadows and the flapping of wings.
Jabberjays. Muttations created by the Capital to memorize and repeat human words, even entire conversations.
And now they had honed in on Champ and ran him off.
“Champ! Come back!”
Waverly sprinted after Champ, following the clumsy crashing sounds moving through the forest. Overhead the jabberjays followed relentlessly, circling over them and combining their voices to create a terrorizing cacophony of noise.
“STUPID STUPID STUPID!”
Waverly almost tripped over Champ in the darkness. He was cowering on the ground and covering his ears, trying to block out the sounds of the jabberjays’ taunts.
Waverly kneeled down to his trembling body, delicately putting her hands on Champ’s wrists to pull his hands away from his ears. “Champ! Hey, I’m here! Don’t listen to them!”
Champ’s breaths were short and quick, hyperventilating, and in that moment Waverly saw him for what he was – someone who was doing his best to survive in a world that no matter how hard he tried, he couldn't fully grasp. Someone who had been celebrated on physical prowess but discounted on everything else. But he did pay attention, he did notice and observe what people thought of him. And now, he was just a scared kid who was facing the insecurities that had always bubbled beneath the surface.
“I’m here,” she said again, projecting her voice. “Be here with me.”
Champ nodded slowly, trying to focus on Waverly’s face. Her hand stroked his cheek softly, lulling him back to the present.
“Lies, lies, lies…”
The jabberjays’ voices became quieter but more intense. Waverly’s eyes darted over to them, wondering how they could be controlled so precisely. She felt Champ begin shaking again, and she knew what she had to do.
Waverly leaned over to hold Champ’s face in her hands and pressed her forehead against his, looking deep into his anxious eyes. “Don’t listen to them,” she said softly. “Stay here with me. They’re lying.”
Champ swallowed. “Not real?”
Waverly shook her head. “Not real. This is real.”
She kissed him then and his lips met hers with desperation. Waverly kissed him slowly, drawing him out of the jeers and mocks of the jabberjays, and she kissed him until the world had gone silent.
Nicole felt like she could barely breathe. Every step was the hardest step of her life, but she kept moving forward, shoving herself from tree to tree so she could stay upright and reach the dead zone. She wasn’t sure if Bobo or Constance were following her, but with the way her right leg was dragging behind her and leaving a trail of blood, she wouldn’t be hard to track.
Still, she had to keep going.
The quick sounds of underbrush crunching under another set of steps jerked her attention behind her. Echoes of howls and growls could be heard through the night air and were steadily becoming louder.
Nicole had to run. Now.
Nicole gritted her teeth as she forced her body to break into a dead run, dashing toward the spot where she had met Waverly only a couple hours ago. Her head spun around at the tree tops, looking for the camera Waverly had pointed out to mark one corner of the triangle.
The frantic pace of the muttation pack began thundering through the woods, and she heard excited barks behind her as they caught sight of her and the scent of the fresh blood Nicole was leaving behind.
Nicole’s good leg pushed her forward, while her bleeding right leg barely kept her from falling. She was too slow – she wouldn’t make it in time. She’d have to make do here.
She jumped off her good leg, grabbing a lower branch of a tree about eight feet off the ground, and pulled herself up. Just as she made it, the muttation pack caught up with her, standing on their hind legs and snapping their jaws.
There were five wolf muttations in the pack, and when they stood on their hind legs, they just reached the lower branch, tearing at it with their sharp teeth. Nicole kept climbing up until the leaves obscured her from being seen from the ground. She sat heavily on an upper branch, leaning against the trunk and trying to catch her breath.
Nicole closed her eyes, breathing through the sharp pain shooting up her right leg. It burned and throbbed, and the tail end of the arrow still stuck out of her thigh. Even sitting down and putting no weight on it, every tiny quiver sent new waves of pain radiating through her leg. She'd have to get the arrow out.
Field first aid was one of the first subjects the children in District 2 learned, and Nicole dug through her pack to get out the roll of bandages she’d stashed. This wound would also need stitches, and if she could get back to Waverly, maybe she could help her again.
The first rays of daylight began peeking through the horizon as Nicole took out a length of rope from her pack, looping it around the tree trunk and tying it around herself. She then reached up to break a small piece of a branch off and put it between her teeth.
This was gonna hurt.
Quickly, before she could lose her nerve, she moved her hand to the end of the arrow and pushed it so that the arrow head pierced through to the other side of her thigh.
Nicole screamed then, a muffled scream through the stick between her teeth. It didn’t matter how many scenarios and training fights she had gone through in school – searing pain burst through all her nerves, and it was impossible to stay quiet.
Nicole took in a few shuddering breaths, then broke off the tail end of the arrow and carefully pulled the barbed arrow head out of her leg. She gulped heavily, glad it was done, and threw the two pieces of arrow into the distance.
Down below, she heard a muttation bound after it, following the scent of her blood. The rest, however, remained below, staying with the blood trail slowly dripping down the tree.
Using the bandages, she tightly wrapped her wound. Blood quickly seeped through and Nicole tried not to think about what artery might have been nicked in the hit. A clammy sweat now soaked through her clothes and her leg dangled uselessly, but she still had to figure out how to get rid of the muttations below.
Nicole closed her eyes again and tried to steady her breathing, getting used to the raw pain in her leg. She wouldn’t be able to make it to the dead zone with a muttation pack following her. Waverly wouldn’t be safe if she walked into a pack.
Nicole’s head was spinning as her leg continued to bleed, and she felt her head drop down as she lost consciousness.
The bright light of the sunrise made Waverly open her eyes and break the kiss with Champ. The jabberjays had moved on, and ever aware of the two cameras hovering around them, she gently kissed Champ’s forehead.
“You okay?” she asked quietly. Champ was looking at her the way Nicole did – enraptured by her presence – and it made her feel uneasy, almost guilty.
“Yeah,” he breathed out, an involuntary smile perking up the corner of his mouth.
Waverly gave a tight smile back, then quickly turned away. This had always been a strategy for her, a means to an end, but now it seemed like she had played her part too well, and Champ was starting to believe it.
She began to let out a sigh, but a shine on the ground caught her eye.
A silver parachute.
Waverly dove forward to open the canister, eager to uncover its contents. A piece of paper was folded neatly at the top. She picked it up and unfolded it.
“Make them eat shit. – W”
Underneath the paper, a pistol was placed barrel down in the canister, and Waverly reached in to pull it out.
She smiled, feeling the empowering weight of the pistol finally in her hands.
Now the Games could really begin.
Thank you to everyone for your kudos and kind comments. It's hard to complete a long fic like this versus a one-shot, and your comments really inspire me to keep going. There may be about 2 chapters left to this story, but we'll see :)
Waverly and Champ walked back to their camp site hand-in-hand. Champ’s right hand tightly clasped Waverly’s left, while Waverly had her right hand in her jacket pocket gripping the gun. When she had incredulously pulled it out of the silver parachuted canister earlier, she quickly loaded the clip with the three bullets that came in her pack, hoping that no other tributes were hiding nearby. If they knew Waverly had received such a coveted weapon, it wouldn’t be long until they were targeted.
“You know, with three bullets you could…”
Waverly jabbed Champ in the side with her elbow and shushed him harshly. His voice carried too easily in this environment, and he seemed utterly unaware of their dangerous surroundings.
Champ dropped his voice to a whisper. “I’m just saying, Waves, that with three bullets you could take out most of the other tributes, and then bam!” He swung his arm out for emphasis. “I lance the last sucker, and we win!”
Waverly winced at Champ’s mock stabbing. There was only room for two victors in this Hunger Games, and even that wasn’t certain.
Two victors – meaning Waverly and Champ. The two had always been Waverly and Champ.
And then… then there was Nicole, whose simple appearance muddled up all of Waverly's carefully laid plans to survive the Games and get back home to Wynonna and Gus. Nicole who smiled at her in the Capitol and took her breath away, who could make her face flush with a single glance and her heart burst with a laugh. Someone whose very existence surprised and scared Waverly so, so much.
Simply knowing Nicole left Waverly filled with so much want: she wanted to collapse into Nicole’s arms and kiss her until the world stopped. She wanted to hold her face in her hands and memorize every laugh line and dimple in her face. She wanted to just smile at her and listen to every little thing she ever had to say.
And she didn’t want to watch Nicole die.
But Champ was her neighbor in District 12, and they had grown up together. He had a family who loved him (despite his shithead dad) and a whole lifetime to live ahead.
Nicole was from District 2, and if they survived the Games, Waverly would probably never see her again. And what did they call people from District 12?
Dusties. Waverly wasn’t anything but a District 12 dusty.
Waverly’s tumultuous thoughts were interrupted when they reached their camp and found a stream of blood flowing down a nearby tree.
The tree that the Blacksmith had scaled when they took watch.
“Who’s…?” Champ started, but Waverly quickly dropped his hand and ran to the tree.
She shoved her gun deeper in her jacket pocket, then scrambled up. She wasn’t as graceful as the Blacksmith had been, but at least the tree had a few low-hanging branches for Waverly to get footholds on.
As she climbed higher, she heard the sick sound of flies buzzing. But there hadn’t been a canon blast, so that meant…
Waverly looked up and saw the Blacksmith lying helplessly still. When she finally reached her, she found Champ’s lance piercing the Blacksmith’s abdomen, causing the flow of fresh blood moving down the branches.
The Blacksmith’s hands were gripped loosely around the lance, and her skin’s pale pallor gave away the grave condition her body was in.
“I…” Waverly sputtered. “I don’t know what to do.”
The Blacksmith breathed laboriously. “You’ve got to take it out.”
“But if I do that…” Waverly started slowly. She paused before finishing her sentence. “...you’ll bleed out.”
Waverly’s response was low and afraid, barely making any sound at all. Waverly knew she would have to kill someone eventually, but she didn’t want her first kill to be this way, to be killing an ally.
“If you don’t, I’ll kick it in a couple days or someone else will come and finish the job,” the Blacksmith replied matter-of-factly. “So I’d rather just get it over with...please.”
The Blacksmith tightened her hands and tried to pull the lance out of her gut, but the pain and effort left her gasping for air. Her dull eyes looked at Waverly. “A little help here?”
Waverly’s body was shaking, resisting what she knew she had to do to let the Blacksmith have a more peaceful death. She forced her trembling hands onto the lance and looked to the Blacksmith for approval.
The Blacksmith’s hands were slick with her own blood, but she slowly moved them onto Waverly’s, grasping her wrists weakly. “Did you get the gun?”
Her voice was raspy now, each syllable taking an enormous amount of effort. Waverly stepped closer to move the Blacksmith’s left hand over her right jacket pocket, squeezing her hand to feel the form of the gun inside.
The Blacksmith gave a weak smile and nodded.
There was a burst of blood, a cannon blast, and it was over.
A bright shine roused Nicole back into consciousness. She scrunched her eyes together as her head lifted, squinting as her eyes adjusted to being awake.
A silver parachute dangled in front of her.
She shook her head, getting rid of the foggy drowsiness in her head, and grabbed the canister. A medical stitch kit was inside.
Nicole sighed with relief and began unwinding the thread. She wasn’t going to bleed out, at least not yet.
It was difficult to sew the entry wound at the back of her thigh, and it was a messy job, but her leg finally stopped bleeding. A pink tinge was finally returning to her skin, and she rested a moment, trying to think of a way to get rid of the muttation pack circling below her.
A flash of movement flickered in the corner of her eye, and a knife landed squarely in the tree trunk next to her head. Nicole immediately struggled to get up - a heavy crack! of tree branches followed, and Bobo appeared, lightly balancing himself and standing over her with a knife to her face.
“You don’t look so hot, Haught,” he purred, letting the knife blade caress her cheek.
“How long you been waiting to use that line?” she replied calmly. A relaxed smile danced across her lips. She knew he hated that.
Bobo clenched his jaw. His hand tightened on his knife, wanting to carve that smile off Nicole Haught’s face, but he needed to be patient.
“Rumor mill’s been churning,” he continued. “Heard on the grapevine that your little dusty girlfriend’s got a gun.”
Nicole let out a laugh of disbelief. “There’s no guns in the Hunger Games.”
Bobo licked his lips eagerly, excited for once that he had information Nicole did not. “Oh, you’ve spent too much time in this tree, Haught.”
The smile on Nicole’s face dropped, and a look of concern took over. If Waverly had gotten a gun, then she’d quickly become the biggest target for the tributes that were left. Even if she had temporary allies that she trusted, the thrilling power of having a gun could quickly make everything fall apart.
“Well, since you don’t know anything, I’m going to enjoy slitting your throat.” Bobo smiled, trailing his knife down Nicole’s neck.
Not today - not when Waverly's still out there.
Nicole gripped the stitching needle still in her right hand and swiftly jabbed it into Bobo’s left eye. He screamed in surprise and pain, dropping his knife to clutch his eye. Nicole took advantage of the distraction and threw her head forward to headbutt him. Her forehead connected solidly with his nose, and blood quickly spewed out from Bobo’s face.
The muttations below began barking excitedly at the scent of fresh blood filling the air, leaping in frenzies against the tree and causing it to shake.
“Go to hell, Bobo.”
Nicole swung her good leg across the branch, sweeping under Bobo’s ankles and making him lose his balance. He crashed down the tree but caught one of the lower branches and was able to right himself on his feet when he hit the ground. Nicole watched as he sprinted away with the muttation pack following close behind.
She held her breath, but no cannon blast followed.
“Dammit!” Nicole cursed, slamming a frustrated fist into the tree. It was the second time she failed to eliminate Bobo. She’d have to get him another time, and she would get him next time.
Nicole snapped her head to the bottom of the tree. Her face broke into a smile when she saw Waverly staring back at her.
Waverly quickly urged Champ to give her a boost and climbed up to her. It had only been half a day since they last met, but Nicole looked so different. She looked pale, really pale, and messy wisps of red hair framed her sweaty face. But she was alive, and that was so much better than the situation Waverly had just left.
“Hey,” Waverly said softly, gently pushing strands of hair away from Nicole’s face. “You don’t look so hot, Haught.”
Waverly was smiling at her, and Nicole felt her eyes flutter at Waverly’s touch. She swallowed slowly before her brain processed a reply. “You know, you’re not the first person to say that to me today.”
Nicole tried to grin at her, but Waverly’s smile disappeared, and she narrowed her eyes in concern. “Who’s been here?”
“Bobo. I tried to get rid of him, but…” Nicole’s mouth paused, and she let out an irritated huff. If she had only killed him earlier, they’d be in a better position to get Constance, and then…
Nicole’s thoughts were cut off when Waverly put a hand on her cheek and leaned her face in closer.
“It’s okay,” Waverly whispered. “We’ll get him.”
Waverly’s eyes darted at Nicole’s lips, but remembering the cameras all around them, Waverly quickly cleared her throat and moved her face a little further back.
Nicole licked her dry lips, trying to remember if Waverly had really looked at them or if she had imagined it. After a beat, she let out a casual laugh to break the tension. “This is the second time you’ve rescued me. I owe you one.”
Waverly's smile returned, making Nicole’s head spin. “Let’s get you out of here first.”
Waverly carefully reached around Nicole’s sides to untie her from the tree, then helped Nicole wrap her arms around her neck to stand up on her good leg.
They stood there, balancing on two branches in the tree top with Nicole’s arms resting on Waverly’s shoulders and Waverly’s arms around Nicole’s sides to support her. With the way they were standing, Nicole found her face very, very close to Waverly’s. She breathed slowly. If she just leaned down…
Waverly suddenly buried her face in Nicole’s shoulder, pulling her into a tight hug. She could feel Waverly shuddering against her, and she tightened her arms around Waverly’s shoulders, dropping her head against hers.
“Hey,” she said softly into Waverly’s ear.
“I’m-I’m glad you’re not dead,” Waverly said in barely a whisper, trying to avoid the cameras picking up her voice.
“I’m glad you’re not dead too.” She could hear Waverly sniffle against her shoulder, and Nicole reached a hand down to rub her back soothingly. “It’s gonna be okay.”
Nicole’s leg throbbed with the weight she had to force on it while standing up, but if that was the cost of hugging Waverly, she’d gladly endure it.
“Are you guys gonna come down or what?”
Champ’s voice seemed to pierce through them, bringing them back to the present. Waverly’s arms embraced Nicole one more time before they separated.
“You were right,” she murmured, her warm breath tickling Nicole’s ear. “It’s the worst.”
Champ, Waverly, and Nicole moved slowly in the Arena, looking for a shelter with better coverage than the open air. When Waverly and Nicole had climbed down from the tree, Champ insisted on being the one to help Nicole walk instead of Waverly, and seeing no good reason to refuse, Nicole reluctantly agreed, putting an arm around his shoulders and letting him hold her by the waist. She tried her best to lean as little as possible onto Champ, but with their similarities in height, Nicole had to admit that it did make the going a lot easier.
Waverly walked on the other side of Nicole, extending a hand at the slightest falter in her step, and Nicole tried to keep a ridiculous grin from taking over her face.
Champ cleared his throat. “So, there’s three other tributes left, yeah?”
“Right,” Waverly nodded, grabbing Nicole’s elbow and squeezing softly when Nicole’s footing stumbled for half a second. Her lips pursed into a suppressed smile when Nicole’s eyes met hers at the contact.
Champ cleared his throat again.
Waverly coughed and retracted her hand, nervously pushing a stray hair behind her ear. “Um, yeah. Only Bobo, Constance, and another tribute left.”
“No idea where they are though,” Nicole added. She tried to keep her gaze ahead, looking for a suitable place to make camp, but her eyes kept wandering over to Waverly.
Champ’s authoritative voice surprised them, and they looked to where he nodded with his head. About 30 yards ahead looked to be a small cave in the side of large slabs of rock jutting out from the ground.
They ambled over as quietly as possible, and about halfway to the mouth of the cave, Nicole stopped abruptly, grabbing Waverly’s wrist. She held a finger up to her lips to signal silence.
The smell of smoldering wood in the air marked that someone had been there – or still was there.
Champ slowly let go of Nicole and entered the cave with his lance. Waverly looked at Nicole, then followed Champ. Nicole tried to grab Waverly again in protest, but Waverly only shook her head.
She could do it. She could take care of herself.
Nicole let out a nervous breath, cursing internally that her injured leg prevented her from moving quietly and smoothly as she had always done. She pulled out the machete from her belt and stood there ready as Champ and Waverly gradually disappeared into the cave.
Champ crept quietly, letting his eyes adjust to the shallow darkness, and Waverly followed close behind. As they proceeded deeper in, the ceiling lowered, leaving Champ crouching and Waverly bending her knees.
Thirty feet in, they found the sleeping form of the male tribute from District 5. He breathed deeply, unaware of their presence.
Champ motioned for Waverly to use her gun, but she shook her head. Shooting the gun would kill the tribute, but it would also give away their position if Bobo and Constance were nearby. Champ shrugged and moved to use his lance, but the end of his lance banged loudly on the low ceiling, causing the tribute to startle awake.
“What the hell?!”
Champ stepped forward and thrust his lance quickly into the tribute’s chest, making him scream loudly and panic, writhing on the ground and clamping his hands onto the lance speared into his chest. Champ grunted and wrestled with the tribute to pull it back out, but the tribute was too hopped up on adrenaline and hysteria to let go.
He was making too much noise.
Waverly took a breath, then found herself gliding in the darkness toward the tribute. He was struggling on the ground, a pool of dark blood forming under his back. Waverly circled behind him, pressed a firm hand onto his forehead, then swiftly stabbed her knife into his left ear.
Outside, Nicole heard the screams and hobbled forward, using her machete to help her move. But then noise suddenly stopped, and a cannon blast went off.
Her breath was tensely trapped in her chest until Waverly walked out with Champ following close behind and carrying a tribute’s bloody body over his shoulder. Champ walked into the woods and dropped the body to the ground for the hovercraft to pick up. The distant hum could already be heard.
Waverly’s hand still held her bloody knife and her eyes looked glazed over and dazed. She had been surprised at her own actions, at how surprisingly unemotional it had been to end someone’s life. Nicole gently squeezed Waverly's wrist, but on his return, Champ wrapped his arms around Waverly’s waist and kissed her cheek sloppily.
Nicole dropped her hand.
“Aw, baby, it’s okay, don’t cry,” Champ said softly, kissing Waverly's cheek again. “It was a close one, but I’m okay, it’s okay.”
Nicole looked at the way Champ could hold Waverly so freely and kiss her like she was something he was entitled to, and she tried not to let the mix of disappointment and frustration show across her face.
“I’m going to, uh, check the perimeter,” she muttered quietly.
Waverly watched Nicole limp away wishing she could go after her. Instead she put her knife away and clenched her hands on Champ’s arms so that she wouldn’t desperately reach out. With the Capitol watching, all she could do was stand there and let Champ kiss her.
When Nicole returned, the sun was just starting to set, and she found Waverly and Champ arguing loudly by the cave entrance. She tried to keep her face neutral when she approached, though inside she was slightly delighted at the petty argument.
“Wave, I’m still hungry!”
“I told you, we have to ration the food or we’ll starve!” Waverly held her backpack tightly to her chest. “And keep your voice down.”
Champ sighed in frustration and kicked at the ground.
“Hey,” Nicole said calmly. “It’s been a long day. Why don’t you guys get some rest? I’ll take the first watch.”
Champ yawned loudly at the suggestion, suddenly remembering that they had stayed up all night with the jabberjays. “That sounds good. Come on, babe.”
He held his hand out, but Waverly crossed her arms. “I-I think I’ll watch with Nicole. Since, you know, she’s injured.”
Champ shrugged, too exhausted to care, and went to the back of the cave to pass out.
Nicole moved a log a couple feet inside the cave entrance and sat down, leaning her back against the wall and keeping a good view outside. Waverly tentatively sat down next to her, eyeing the camera following over her shoulder.
Nicole plucked the camera from the air and crushed its light with her thumb. “Sorry, that piece of shit is going to give us away once the sun goes down.”
Waverly laughed, making Nicole's heart jump in her chest. Nicole tried not to think about how she could feel the warmth radiating off Waverly's body as they sat together, and how natural it would be to reach over and hold her hand. Instead she placed her hand down on the log and drummed her fingers. "So... what's this I hear about you getting a gun?"
Waverly pressed her lips together nervously, then pulled out the gun from her right pocket. "I got it this morning, and we have three bullets."
Nicole sat upright at the sight of the gun, then darted her eyes back outside, checking for any on-lookers. It was impossible to tell, but one never knew.
After a moment, Nicole nudged Waverly to put the gun back in her pocket. "Well, I think you might be the victor of the 31st Hunger Games."
Waverly smiled, scooting a bit closer to Nicole. In the quickly disappearing light, she eyed the wound that had been messily stitched together in Nicole’s leg. “Does it hurt?”
Nicole shrugged. “It’s fine.”
Waverly carefully ran a light hand over the stitches and tugged slightly on the ripped hole in Nicole's pants. Waverly's delicate touch on her upper thigh made Nicole shiver. “Do you want me to redo it for you?”
Nicole swallowed, then leaned her face close to Waverly’s ear. “You’ll have to do better than that to get my pants off, Waverly Earp.”
Waverly felt her face turn hot at Nicole’s breathy whisper, and Nicole laughed. Waverly punched Nicole’s shoulder softly in protest, but it was hard to not let a laugh escape from her own mouth. It was good to hear Nicole laugh, even if it was at her own expense again.
The night’s darkness quickly enveloped them as they sat quietly together, and Nicole’s fingers found their way to fiddle with the bracelet on Waverly’s left wrist. Feeling brave in the shadows, Waverly moved her hand to lace her fingers with Nicole’s.
Nicole kept a watchful eye outside, but even in the low light, Waverly could see her smile.
Thanks as always for reading! Only a bit more left until this fic is over - how do you think it should end??
It didn’t even take an hour before Nicole felt Waverly’s head fall onto her shoulder, breathing deeply and fast asleep. Nicole let her eyes linger on Waverly’s face and drink in the details while she had the chance.
“Well, I think you might be the victor of the 31st Hunger Games.”
She had meant the words when she said them, and now Nicole’s mind was turning over the consequences. She had always grown up thinking she’d be a victor. She always pictured living the majority of her life in Victors’ Village in District 2 with all the other victor families. She trained 18 years for this moment, and now it was all too easy to throw it away for a girl she had known for barely a week.
It wasn’t that Nicole couldn’t live without Waverly. She knew that in the extremely unlikely event that they both survived, she probably would never see her again after the victory tour.
That was something she could live with.
But to live in a world where Waverly no longer existed at all – where somewhere, sometime Waverly wasn’t smiling, laughing, or even breathing – that was a kind of emptiness Nicole wasn’t sure she could endure.
And that was an odd feeling.
Nicole had family and friends she cared about and loved, but she was adaptable. Losing her father when she was 14 had been incredibly hard, but Nicole picked up the pieces of herself and became stronger. Being forced to move out of Victors’ Village and back into the general population, living under her increasingly temperamental mother, and constantly being taunted by the other students in school just made her tougher and more resilient.
But meeting Waverly had shattered her resolve and turned it to dust.
Nicole slowly moved her hand and touched Waverly’s cheek. This tiny girl had simply walked into the Training Center at the Capitol and now everything was different.
Nicole looked up sharply when she heard heavy footsteps approaching from the back of the cave. They didn’t sound steady, but perhaps Champ was too tired…
“I see all that, you know,” Champ said thickly when his face emerged from the shadows. His sudden loud voice shook Waverly awake, and she groggily lifted her head from Nicole’s shoulder.
“Not now, Champ,” Nicole warned lowly. Her right hand was still in Waverly’s, and she wanted to clench it tighter, but she could already feel Waverly’s fingers slipping out of her grasp.
“So you two are, like, together now, eh?” Champ said, leaning a hand against the cave wall and stumbling closer. “That’s disgusting. Disgusting!”
Waverly stood up looking quizzically at him. Champ could be childish and self-centered, but he was rarely this aggressive and outlandishly rude.
“As soon as I fall asleep, you just swoop in and steal my girl?” Champ continued accusingly, tripping over his own feet but regaining his balance before he fell over.
Nicole rose and took a half step toward Champ. His ill-timed rant could give away their position in the night’s quiet.
“Okay, lower your voice,” Nicole warned again. “Waverly doesn’t belong to anyone.”
“Yeah, blah blah blah, feminism, blah,” Champ retorted back.
As Champ inched forward away from the cave’s darkness, Nicole could see a damp sweat on Champ’s skin and a huge swelling on his neck.
“Champ, are you okay?” Waverly asked softly. Her voice was full of concern, but she stepped back in surprise when Champ smashed his fist into the cave wall, leaving a smear of blood.
That sudden outburst was all Nicole needed to move forward, ignoring the pain in her right leg, and slam her fist into Champ’s face.
He fell easily, already unbalanced, and Nicole swiftly pulled out the rope from her pack and started tying his hands behind his back.
“W-what’s wrong with him?” Waverly asked in a shaky voice. The way he was behaving... she knew that wasn’t Champ.
“Tracker jackers,” Nicole said simply, finishing the knots. She made them extra tight, both for security, and, well… because.
He was already struggling to get back on his feet, but Nicole pushed him roughly back on the ground. She shoved his head to the side, then pulled out a thick barbed stinger from the swelling on Champ’s neck. A pungent green liquid oozed out of the wound.
Tracker jackers were golden wasps genetically engineered by the Capitol. One or two stings made people hallucinate, but any more than that usually led to death.
“So the tracker jacker venom is making him delusional,” Waverly reasoned, watching Champ wrestle with himself to stand, only to be knocked back down by Nicole.
“Yeah,” Nicole confirmed. She was getting tired of Champ’s antics and began tying his legs together as well. “Apparently the venom makes him more of a shithead too.”
Nicole grinned at her own joke, but when she looked back up, Waverly’s expression was more annoyed than she expected.
“You and me, we’re not together, you know,” Waverly stated bluntly, projecting her voice.
Nicole quickly looked back down, finishing tying Champ’s legs together so he couldn’t move while being affected by the tracker jacker venom. Part of her knew that Waverly was saying it for the cameras planted around the cave, but it still stung to hear Waverly say it.
And it was true, after all.
Nicole cleared her throat. “I-I know.”
Waverly took a slow breath. She could hear the hurt in Nicole’s voice. It took every bit of self-control to resist wrapping her arms around her, but Waverly had to reinforce the idea that she was committed to Champ, and she was – she was committed to getting them both out of there. That was what they promised.
She couldn’t think about Nicole, because Nicole made her head fuzzy and her careful plans go awry. With Nicole she was sucked into the present, and she couldn’t think about the future because…
Because in the logical future there was no Waverly and Nicole.
And Waverly couldn’t think about that.
“What do we do now?” Waverly finally asked, breaking through the tense silence.
“Wait for it to pass,” Nicole replied. “It could be a few hours or a day, but we’ll keep him safe.”
Waverly knew Nicole added the last part as a reassurance to her, and she let a sad smile form on her face. It seemed all she ever did was hurt Nicole, when all Nicole ever did was protect her.
A buzzing sound suddenly hummed in the air, and Nicole saw a glint of gold floating toward them from the back of the cave.
“Shit! We’ve gotta go!”
She grabbed Waverly’s wrist, but she heard Waverly cry out in pain. She turned around and caught her as Waverly fell forward, a lump quickly swelling on the side of her face.
Waverly felt the harsh sting on her face when Nicole tugged on her wrist. She felt Nicole’s arms holding her, but everything became muddled when she saw Nicole’s face over hers, Nicole's mouth soundlessly forming “Waverly! Waverly!” over and over until she only saw blackness.
Waverly blinked, and she was back at home, sitting around the dining table with Wynonna, Willa, and their father. Everything seemed so much bigger than normal, and she found her legs swinging beneath the chair, unable to touch the floor.
Her father had brought over a bag of marshmallows, probably stolen from the bakery in the merchant area, and Willa and Wynonna were laughing, throwing fluffy pieces at each other’s faces.
Waverly looked down at her tiny hands, then looked over at her father.
“C-can I have some?” she squeaked out. Her voice was high-pitched – she was four years old.
“Sure darlin’,” her father smiled, sliding the bag across to her. “Have as many as you want.”
Waverly grinned, a toothy grin that showed off her tiny baby teeth. She grabbed the marshmallow bag eagerly and stuffed her cheeks.
“Woah there, Waves,” a ten year old Wynonna warned. “Leave some for the forest creatures.”
Waverly looked at her quizzically. Forest creatures?
The atmosphere swirled around her, and suddenly she was six years old, shrieking and being held back by Gus as two Peacekeepers dragged her father away. Wynonna stared at them with a smoking gun in her hand, watching their father die.
Another swirl, and Gus was braiding Waverly’s hair for her first Reaping. Wynonna stomped in the background, muttering about how she’d volunteer if they ever picked her name. Gus laughed. No one ever volunteered in District 12.
And then there was just darkness and Wynonna. She stood looking exactly as Waverly remembered, slightly slouched with a smirk on her face. Waverly ran up and pulled her into a tight hug.
“Hey baby girl,” Wynonna said softly, enveloping her arms around Waverly.
“I missed you,” Waverly whispered, feeling the tears forming in her eyes.
“I missed you too,” Wynonna replied, pulling her body back and holding Waverly’s face in her hands. “But you’re not done yet.”
“You have to win. No matter what.”
Waverly nodded. Her heart ached to return home. She’d do anything…
Wynonna pulled out rusty Peacemaker from her belt. “You’ve got a gun, Waverly,” she reminded her. “All you have to do…”
Wynonna stretched out her arm, aiming Peacemaker straight ahead. Everything about her turned shiny, almost shimmering. Even the end of the old revolver seemed to glow.
She reached her thumb up and cocked the gun.
“…is pull the trigger.”
Waverly’s perspective changed, and suddenly she was standing with the gun in her hands, her finger on the trigger.
Nicole was standing in front of her, hands up the air. Her voice was low in her throat and her eyes wide.
Waverly blinked heavily, her vision hazy, and she realized she was standing in bright daylight. A ghost of Wynonna still lingered by her ear.
“You have to win. No matter what.”
Waverly felt her finger squeeze the trigger, but she jerked her arm up as the gun began to recoil.
Bang! The bullet arced into the air and flew harmlessly into the trees.
Waverly sighed with relief, falling down to her knees. Nicole ran up to her, kneeling down and grasping her gently by the shoulders.
“You okay, Waves?” she asked.
Waverly grimaced at Nicole’s use of her nickname. “I just tried to shoot you. You shouldn’t be nice to me.”
“Hey, tracker jackers make people shitheads, remember?”
Nicole flashed a smile with dimples forming in her cheeks, and Waverly couldn’t help but smile back.
Then Waverly remembered the sting on her face and the bright daylight. “How long have I been out?”
“A day or so,” Nicole answered, reaching down to squeeze Waverly’s wrist. “I didn’t have to tie you up like Champ. You were passed out and talking in your sleep mostly.”
Waverly frowned and shook her head. She had come so close to killing Nicole, and she never wanted to be in that position again.
“We should get back to Champ,” Waverly stated bluntly, standing up.
Nicole nodded. “He came out of it a bit before you. After I untied him, you ran off.”
Waverly walked slowly by Nicole’s side, still a little dizzy from the effects of the tracker jacker venom. It had all been a dream, a hallucination, but being with Wynonna seemed so real. She could feel Wynonna’s solid body as she hugged her, and she remembered the cool touch of Wynonna’s hands on her face.
And for a few hours, she was home. No Hunger Games.
Nicole stole glances at Waverly as they returned to the cave. It had been fine, and she had succeeded in keeping both Champ and Waverly quiet until Waverly suddenly darted off into the woods. Champ was still woozy from the venom, so Nicole had sprinted after her alone, ripping the stitches in her leg, and abruptly found Waverly pointing the gun at her.
Nicole could see the guilt building in Waverly’s face and the way it weighed down her movements. She stopped walking and took Waverly’s hand gently.
“Hey,” she started softly. “It’s gonna be okay.”
Nicole had said the same words to her less than two days ago, and things were only getting worse. How could it be okay?
Waverly remained an arm’s length from Nicole, and she kept her eyes on the ground.
“I-I tried to kill you,” she murmured. Her hand didn’t clasp back on Nicole’s, but she didn’t pull her hand away either.
“I know,” Nicole said simply.
“I spoke with my sister. Well, a hallucination of my sister. She said –" Waverly swallowed slowly, her eyes still on the ground. “She said that I had to win no matter what.”
Nicole nodded and took a step closer. “And you will.”
Waverly looked at Nicole then, her eyes beginning to pool with tears she tried to keep from falling. This wasn’t the reality she wanted to live in, the reality where it was her or someone else. Where so many others had to die so that she could survive in an empty and guilt-ridden existence.
Doc had been right: living as a victor was one of life’s most terrible fates.
“Nicole, I –"
Champ’s panicked voice carried over the woods, and Waverly and Nicole took off. Champ was dense, but he knew better than to yell for no reason.
Waverly ran ahead while Nicole hobbled a close distance behind. They stopped short when they could see the cave entrance ahead of them.
Bobo and Constance.
The two Career tributes stood smugly together with Constance gripping Champ tightly by the hair with one hand and holding a knife against his throat with the other. Bobo’s left eye had become a clouded white from Nicole’s earlier attack, and he chomped his teeth together when he saw Waverly and Nicole emerge from the woods.
“Well, well,” he sneered, bouncing his body up and down in excitement. “We finally were able to flush out the star-crossed lovers.”
“You don’t know what you’re talking about,” Waverly replied defensively.
Bobo laughed. “Sure, you keep telling yourself that.”
“Just give us the gun,” Constance said in a cheerful tone, dragging the knife blade down across Champ’s chest. “And maybe we’ll give you quick deaths.”
Nicole pursed her lips together behind Waverly. When Waverly had run off earlier, all she thought about was getting Waverly back, and she foolishly didn’t take any supplies with her.
Waverly pulled out the gun from her jacket pocket and aimed it at Constance. “Let him go, and maybe I’ll give you a quick death.”
Constance laughed eerily, a laugh that seemed out of place for the gravity of the moment. “Oh dear. Bullets are fast, but a knife to the heart is just as fast."
She pressed the tip of the knife into Champ’s chest, making a dark circle of blood form beneath his shirt. Champ winced and tightened his eyes.
“Champ!” Waverly lowered her gun slightly. She couldn’t just let him die, not like this –
“Waverly, don’t!” Champ yelled suddenly. He threw himself forward, grabbing Constance’s hand and plunging the knife into his chest. He gripped the knife with both hands and held it tight as he fell over, pulling Constance off-balance and making her struggle to let go.
Constance fell back with a bullet wound in her head. Dead.
Bobo watched Constance’s body collapse, then sprinted away into the woods.
Waverly screamed, rushing forward to his bleeding body on the ground.
“You stay with Champ! I’m going to get Bobo!” Nicole called out quickly before pushing off on her good leg and disappearing after him.
“Champ,” Waverly whispered, kneeling to the ground and holding his head up as blood gushed from his chest. “We’re supposed to go back home together. Why did you do that?”
Champ smiled weakly, his skin already turning impossibly pale and cold. “I’m an idiot, remember?”
Waverly tried to smile back, but she couldn’t keep her mouth from trembling as Champ’s eyes glazed over and the cannon boomed in the distance.
Nicole ignored the shooting pains in her leg as she ran after Bobo. She was gonna fucking kill him this time. He was faster than her, but she kept sight of him, keeping track of their direction and puzzling out where he was leading her.
Bobo hadn’t thrown any knives, so he must have run out of them. She tried to quickly think of other weapons he liked to use when she entered into the Cornucopia clearing. Bobo was standing on top of the Cornucopia and staring down at her.
“Come on up, Haught,” he smiled, twirling a machete in his right hand. “Meet me up here, and I’ll show you that I can beat you, fair and square.”
Nicole glared back but stepped forward. Fair and square for Bobo was entirely subjective.
She carefully walked up the lower end of the Cornucopia and reached Bobo at the top, watching for any sudden movements. Bobo only stood there and smiled, using Nicole’s own infuriatingly calm tactics against her.
“Fair and square?” she asked, taking a breath to relax her face. She wanted to make it expressionless at least.
“Well, you did take out my eye, so I think me having a weapon is only fair.” Bobo grinned, spinning his machete and slashing it at her.
She side-stepped so it swung into empty air and grabbed his wrist, steadily tightening her grip and pushing down to make him drop the blade.
Bobo only widened his smile as his face inched closer to Nicole’s. He reached out his free left hand, seizing her right thigh and cramming his thumb into her open arrow wound.
Nicole screamed and dropped her hold, instinctively using both hands to rip Bobo’s hand off her leg.
Bobo used the opening to swing the machete back upward, slamming the blunt end of the machete in Nicole’s face and punching her squarely in the chest with his left hand.
Nicole stumbled back, feeling a stinging strike to her face, but catching herself before she fell over. She took a breath, then charged forward again, dodging out of the way of another downward machete slash and swinging her arm into Bobo’s throat.
Bobo coughed hoarsely on impact, but ducked down as Nicole swung a fist at his face. He flipped the machete in his hand and slashed upward at Nicole’s chest. She leaped back, but a line of blood began prickling across her chest.
"Getting sloppy, Haught,” Bobo said, clicking his tongue. “Must be because of your dusty girlfriend.”
Nicole’s jaw tensed. “Don’t call her that.”
“Which one?” Bobo smirked. “Dusty or your girlfriend?”
Nicole growled and surged forward. Her usually collected mind was filled with blinding rage – rage at Bobo’s taunts, his physical attacks, and now how he disrespected Waverly by reducing her existence to mere “dusty” or “girlfriend.”
And she hadn't forgotten how he tried to kill Waverly the first day they met at the Training Center.
But Nicole was so focused on ramming into Bobo and grabbing the machete that she didn’t see him drop down at the last moment until it was too late. He crouched down, grabbing her ankles, then used her forward momentum to flip her in the air.
She landed heavily on her back, the air roughly forced out of her lungs. Bobo stood over her with the machete blade at her chest, the smirk still plastered across his face.
“Hey Haught,” he said in friendly tone, stepping over so his foot rested on top of Nicole’s right wrist. “Remember when you sprained my wrist the first day of training?”
His toothy grin widened as he slowly leaned his full weight on Nicole’s wrist, watching her squirm in pain and hearing a satisfying snap! under his foot.
Nicole yelled in pain through gritted teeth. If she could just…
Bobo brought his leg up and stomped his foot down on Nicole’s chest.
Nicole felt her chest collapse and her breath sputter out. She tried to inhale, but it didn’t feel like anything was getting to her lungs.
Bobo brought his leg up again.
Bobo yelped and a dark spot of blood formed on his leg, making him stagger back. He narrowed his eyes as Waverly walked up the Cornucopia.
Waverly pulled the trigger again.
Bobo hopped on one leg and laughed. “Only one bullet left and didn’t go for the kill shot? Not the brightest of moves, even for a dusty.”
Waverly wordlessly continued forward, and a silver parachute gently glided down from the air. This parachute didn’t carry a canister but instead simply had a gun clip attached to its strings. Waverly released the empty clip from her gun and snapped in the loaded one.
Bobo scrambled backward to the edge of the Cornucopia as Waverly aimed the gun again.
Two bullets lodged themselves into Bobo’s back as he fell forward and crawled to the end of the Cornucopia and let himself fall over the edge.
It was a fifteen foot drop to the ground, and Bobo fumbled to his feet as his leg and back continued to bleed.
Waverly pointed her gun down at Bobo, but another silver parachute floated down in front of her. This time it held a whistle.
She held the whistle to her lips and blew. No sound came out.
Waverly waited for a moment, then blew it again as Bobo slowly made his way toward the woods.
Then she heard it. Growls and barks.
A pack of muttations tore out of the woods, eagerly rushing onto Bobo and his fresh wounds. They ripped their teeth into his legs and leapt onto his back.
Waverly watched, then aimed her gun again at Bobo and pulled the trigger.
At the sound of the cannon, Waverly dropped her gun and ran over to Nicole’s struggling body. Nicole’s mouth was open, trying to breathe, but all she could take were shallow breaths.
“W-wave,” she wheezed out.
“I know, I know,” Waverly said quickly, trying to speak in a comforting tone, but all she heard was the sob trapped in the back of her throat that threatened to come out. She cradled Nicole’s face in her hands, hurriedly brushing the hair away from her face. Nicole’s pale face was tingeing a faint blue, and Waverly could see a huge depression in her chest.
“I…” Nicole moved her mouth, but no sound came out. Her eyes rolled back, and Waverly could feel the heaviness of Nicole’s head fall into her hands.
Waverly heard herself scream when triumphant music began blasting in the Arena.
Everything began moving in flashes then. Waverly clutched Nicole’s face. A hovercraft landed. Two Peacekeepers gripped her arms. She was being carried away. Waverly was in the hovercraft, watching the ship's door close the view on Nicole’s still body. Throughout the flashes, someone was screaming.
And then Doc was in front of her, and Waverly let herself fall into his chest.
Doc caught her and held her close. “It’s over now.”
“I couldn’t save Champ,” she whispered.
She felt Doc sigh against her. “It was never about Champ. It was always about you, Miss Waverly. The people loved you.”
Waverly let the sob escape her throat then, and Doc held her tightly as they flew back home.
It was dark, so dark. An endless nothingness.
And then suddenly everything was blindingly white.
Nicole gasped for air, sucking in everything she could into her lungs. She heard electronic beeps and hissing pumps around her, and her eyes went wide taking in the unfamiliar environment.
Everything was white and thick with the smell of bleach. She was lying in a bed with crisp sheets and an oxygen mask was strapped over her nose and mouth.
A face suddenly appeared over her. She tried to read his eyes, but his neutral demeanor gave her no information.
“I’m Xavier Dolls,” he stated simply. “Welcome to District 13.”
Wynonna sat across from Waverly in their new dining room. She watched Waverly sit and stare blankly into nothing while a mug of tea went cold in front of her. It had been six months since Waverly had won the Games, and it seemed like only a shadow of the Waverly she knew had returned home.
Hell, Wynonna knew that if Waverly came back she’d never be the same. Wynonna, of all people, knew that when you took someone’s life, part of you changes forever.
They had moved into Victors’ Village next door to Doc, and Wynonna quit her job in the mines. She spent a lot of her time sneaking food to starving families in the Seam with Waverly trailing behind and giving empty smiles and hugs.
Wynonna tried making Waverly laugh like she always did, but Waverly barely laughed anymore. Sometimes if Wynonna was particularly clever, Waverly would let out a laugh, but then her eyes would glaze over and her fingers would clutch the silver bracelet she always wore now, and Wynonna knew she lost her again.
Drinking with Doc helped. Waverly was a little young at sixteen to be getting drunk with them, but Wynonna let her have a few sips of the whiskey they were drinking, and the buzz was usually enough to pull her out of the usual melancholy. At times it made her teeter over the wrong edge, and they spent the night with Waverly sobbing in Wynonna’s arms and Doc muttering nonsensical phrases that were supposed to be comforting.
Once Wynonna asked Doc about it when Waverly had passed out on the couch.
“I knew Waverly had a thing for Champ during the Games, but shit,” she said, taking a drink from the whiskey bottle they were passing back and forth. “This is a little much, don’t you think?”
“She didn’t just lose Champ,” Doc reminded her. “There were other people.”
“That one girl from District 3? Didn’t they know each other for like twelve hours?”
Doc stifled a laugh then tipped the brim of his hat down to hide the water collecting in his eyes. Drinking always made him sentimental. “If you recall, there was another tribute from District 2.”
“Oh yeah, the redhead?”
“What, did they become best friends when they were training or something?”
Doc smiled, taking the whiskey bottle from Wynonna and pulling a long draw. “Something like that.”
Nicole walked steadily down a brightly lit corridor toward the New Recruits section of District 13. After eighteen months of grueling physical therapy, she still walked with a slight limp, but at least she didn’t have to use a cane anymore.
When she first arrived, the doctors had been horrified at her mangled right leg, shattered wrist, broken ribs, and punctured lungs, but Dolls just ordered them to fix her.
Dolls had told her that District 13 hacked the dead zone in the Arena, and whenever a tribute entered it, they could access their tracking chips and alter them to signal a death a minute or so before it actually occurred. They had even assembled a hovercraft that was indistinguishable from the Capitol’s.
District 13 was looking for strong recruits, and they figured no one would be more loyal than tributes destined to die. Unfortunately most of the deaths were unsalvageable, and even worse, almost all of the tributes didn’t have the right temperament. It was just Nicole who was pulled out that year, and there were big plans to retrieve suitable tributes in the next Hunger Games.
But five years passed, and Nicole was still the only former tribute in District 13.
For five years all Nicole knew about Waverly was that she had returned to District 12 and presumably enjoyed the Victors’ spoils. Sometimes Nicole convinced Dolls to let her into the media room where members of District 13 kept track of Capitol news feeds so she could catch a glimpse of Waverly on the television screens. It usually wasn’t much: a 3 second shot when Waverly had to stand on stage for the annual Reaping in District 12 or a few lingering scenes where Waverly advised the new pair of District 12 tributes.
She always stopped talking when Waverly appeared, her breath caught in her chest and a sad smile on her lips. Dolls watched her with his expressionless face then abruptly told her they had to leave when Waverly was no longer on screen.
Dolls met her at the New Recruits entrance with a rare smile on his face.
“Hey Dolls,” Nicole said hesitantly. “What’s with the smile? It’s kinda freaking me out.”
Dolls’ smile only widened. “Got some new recruits. Looks like they’ll be good too.”
Nicole let herself grin back. It was rare to get good recruits instead of the usual refugee-types that did mostly janitorial and administrative work. It would be nice to get more skilled people to help them be more active in dismantling the Capitol.
Dolls handed her a clipboard. “Why don’t you show them around, Haught? I’ll be in my office.”
Nicole nodded, then scanned the paperwork while she walked into the New Recruits briefing room.
Shit, these people were fresh. Four recruits just arrived an hour ago from District…
Nicole almost fell over when she entered the room and a figure sprinted forward and wrapped their arms around her.
The clipboard clattered to the ground.
Nicole’s breath was trapped in her chest. Long brown hair nestled underneath Nicole's chin, and she could feel it was a girl that was hugging her tightly. The long-buried feeling of the world slowing down and disappearing around her suddenly resurfaced.
She breathed out the name even though it didn't make any sense, but yes, Waverly's face looked up at her with tears streaming down her cheeks. She was older and a touch taller, but it was her, and she was smiling at Nicole. “I’m glad you’re not dead.”
Nicole lifted a shaky hand up and wiped away a trail of tears from Waverly’s right cheek. It was solid. Real. “I’m glad you’re not dead too.”
Waverly held her breath at Nicole's reply - she had almost forgotten what her voice sounded like. Her eyes took in Nicole’s face eagerly, a face that she thought she’d never see again. She spent years dreaming of her: rewatching her die, imagining lying in her arms, and just being together without the threat of the Hunger Games looming over them.
When the hovercraft had brought her, Wynonna, Gus, and Doc to District 13, Waverly had thought she could at least do her best to help end the sick cycle of the Hunger Games.
And then she looked up at the briefing room door and saw a glimpse of red hair and felt her heart thump in her chest.
For a moment, she couldn't believe what she saw. Her mind had flashed back to the old memory from five years ago when she felt Nicole struggle to breathe and then die in her arms.
But her eyes said it was her and she was alive, and that was all Waverly needed to tear across the room.
Nicole swallowed slowly. She had thought the few seconds of Waverly on the television screens were all she’d ever see of her again. And now it was years later and Waverly’s presence still pulled her in, making her mind a blur.
But five years was a long time. What if Waverly…?
“Waverly, I –“
And then Waverly’s lips were on hers, crashing together with desperation and Waverly’s hands gripping Nicole’s face. That was all Nicole needed pull their bodies closer together and let herself be lost in Waverly's embrace.
At the back of the room, Wynonna knitted her brow in confusion. “What – what is happening? Do they know each other or something?”
Doc grinned and tipped the brim of his hat to keep from laughing. “Something like that.”
Gus clicked her tongue when Wynonna gave Doc an even more bewildered face. She jabbed her in the side with her elbow. “Do you ever pay attention to anything but yourself?”
The end! Thank you for reading :)
I hope you enjoyed the story, and please let me know what you think in the comments. Seriously, comments are the best.