Epilogue: Six Feet Under.
- Pushing Up Daisies -
The Twenty-Second Hunger Games
It had only been a few hours since Astrid Marano had woken up from a heavy sedation. She was groggy and hazy, thoughts all mashed together in her head, but one thing was clear — she wanted a cigarette… bad.
Astrid stared at the man before her. He was prim and proper — an upper echelon of the Capitol's society. He didn't introduce himself, but the air around him let Astrid know that not only was he important, but he most likely was the architect of her misery.
"I'm afraid you're not allowed to smoke in here."
"Who are you?" Astrid asked, morbidly curious.
"I'm Bacchus Han."
Knew it. "Get out."
Bacchus smiled faintly, "I was hoping to speak to you? As my first Victor, it's important for us to build a bridge that I hope you're not too eager to burn."
"You tried to kill me," Astrid's jaw was clenched, sending rivulets of pain up her face where Baylor's claw marks scarred.
"May I take a seat?"
Astrid tried to sit herself up, but the pain was unbearable. She glanced at the piss poor attempt of painkiller flooding into her veins. "Do I get something stronger if I sit through your twenty questions?"
Bacchus smiled and leaned back. "Prosper, ask the nurses to up Miss Marano's dosage."
The other man left the room, leaving Bacchus and Astrid to sit in awkward, angry silence.
"I won't ask you anything today besides: how are you feeling?"
Fire as hot as the pyre in the arena burned in Astrid's chest. What a stupid fucking question! "Oh, you know, I've been better."
Astrid was thankful to be alive. She was grateful that, somehow, amidst the madness, she kept fighting. That, somehow, despite having the better odds, Murphy had given up. A morose feeling overwhelmed her.
"You were very lucky," Bacchus agreed, "The zombies almost killed you both. You both crashed and… sadly, we lost Prentice."
"Murphy," Astrid seethed. She barely knew the boy — but the level of disrespect felt icy.
"Murphy had extensive injuries to his neck and shoulders. He was bleeding out at a faster rate than you were. We tried to save you both, actually, in a weird twist of fate… it wasn't meant to end like it did."
Astrid leaned up even further, levelling her eyes at Bacchus. "I'm not being funny — but you put fucking zombies into that place."
Bacchus didn't answer her. As Prosper returned with a nurse — who thankfully had a large needle of something strong that, when pushed into the drip, made Astrid immediately lightheaded — Bacchus left.
Astrid didn't ask for clarification. She didn't need it. Fuck him.
The second day, Bacchus returned.
He was sitting in the chair when Astrid woke up from her partly comatosing sleep, quietly reading a small book in his lap. Astrid peered through a sleepy eye as she heard him mumbling, a cross held in his hands.
"Heavenly Limos, for all that you do, bring good fortune and health to your latest Victor, Astrid."
"—Don't pray for me."
Bacchus' eyes shot open. "Ah, you're awake. How are the new painkillers?"
"I said… don't pray for me…" Astrid was groggy, but awful memories of her Mother flashed into her mind. The obsessive, controlling need to make Astrid into a religious zealot that she simply wasn't.
Bacchus closed the book. "I apologise. Did you sleep well?"
"No," Astrid moaned, "Funnily enough, I'd rather be dead."
Shit. She didn't mean it. It felt shit to say that when so many people lost their lives in the process. Tobias, Baylor, Frances, Murphy.
Their conversation was short once more — Astrid's attitude permeating the air and letting Bacchus know that his presence wasn't wanted nor validated. When he left, he placed the book on her bedside table, and Astrid promptly slid it into the garbage.
Astrid was awake before he arrived the third day.
"Why do you keep doing this?" Astrid asked.
Bacchus didn't have his bodyguard on the other side of the door this time — he was alone, a bag of bright red grapes in his hand, a smile on his face. He took his usual seat and stared at Astrid.
"I want to get to know you, but only when you're ready," Bacchus placed the grapes down, opening them up. "When you leave here, who will you go home to?"
Astrid popped a grape in her mouth, took her time to chew it, and swallowed the bitterness. "Nobody."
"You must have someone," Bacchus pushed.
Astrid's chest tightened. It was true — there was nobody waiting for her. An only child with no real friends. An absent Father and an abandoned Mother. An ex-boyfriend who gave too much pity, his family who were too suffocating, and a job that lacked any inspiration.
"I prefer to be alone."
"Everyone needs someone," Bacchus approached it cautiously, "You'll have a fellow Victor, at least, in Wyatt."
Wyatt. She had almost forgotten about him. "Yeah, he cares so much that he hasn't even visited."
"He's busy, I'm afraid," Bacchus answered, "I'm sure if he could be here, he would be. He's young and vibrant with a bold future. It only took him two years to secure a Victor, which is an impressive feat, and wouldn't be one taken lightly."
"And yet… he's not here."
On the fourth day, Wyatt finally arrived. He poked his head in first, like a naughty child waiting for a lashing from their parents. Astrid saw him and just stared as, timidly, he entered the room.
"—half-dead? Yeah, I know."
The pair just stared at each other. Astrid didn't know what to say to him. She hadn't seen him in… however long it had been… and here he was, flustered and awkward, standing in front of her.
"I'm glad you survived," Wyatt tried to break the silence, "I— I know it's been hard, and… with the zombies and shit…"
"It's fine," Astrid answered coolly, "I'm fine. I'm alive. I should be grateful, shouldn't I?"
"Your feelings are valid, Astrid, whatever they are. If you want to be grateful, then feel it, but don't force it."
Wyatt was a familiar face and comfort that made Astrid weaken. She felt pathetic and silly — but even if they were never close, Wyatt was someone that made Astrid feel less crazy and frightened and scared than if she were alone.
Astrid clenched her jaw to hold back the oncoming tears.
Wyatt sat in the seat, silent.
"What will happen now?" Astrid asked quietly… when it hit her. "What about Tobi's body?"
Wyatt's smile was sad. It didn't suit his usually cheerful demeanour. "His body has been cremated. It's… where I've been the last few days. We — me and the other Victors — have been saying our goodbyes and that."
A storm of guilt made Astrid feel twenty times worse. ALl this time, he was worried Wyatt was avoiding her — when really, he was making sure Tobias was put to rest properly.
"Why are you sorry?" Wyatt was shocked, "You don't need to be. You should feel sad, angry, hurt… but never sorry."
In a strange twist of fate, Astrid didn't feel so guilty about who she killed. It was a fleeting moment. She felt terrible for Tobias, saddened for Riette, and absolutely nothing for Enoch. But there was no guilt any more.
I had no choice, right?
She was finally released on the fifth day, bandaged up, the scars on her face now a faint reminder of Baylor's mark. Sometimes, Astrid caught herself gently running her fingers along the ridges, a twisted smile on her face.
What a bitch. Guess I can't ever forget her now.
"What happens now? You never answered yesterday."
Wyatt was helping her pack up her stuff, making sure that Astrid had everything she needed for her departure from the hospital. "That's it… we don't do anything until next year. Sometimes, you'll be invited to the Capitol to attend events and stuff, but I'll always be with you."
"So… that's it?"
"Yeah," Wyatt looked up at her, "Why? What did you expect?"
"To be tortured with it."
Wyatt nodded, understanding exactly what she meant. "Only if you let yourself be."
"So, no tour or anything like that? No interview or putting me in front of people or announcements?"
"District Five doesn't even know you survived," Wyatt laughed, "It's all a big secret until I return and you step off of the train with me."
Mostly, Astrid was relieved by that notion. She could just move on, live her life, try to rebuild whatever she felt was now missing. But the other part of her was pissed.
"Wait, so that's it?" Astrid's voice raised, "That's bullshit. We were paraded, watched, scrutinised by a bunch of prissy, pompous pricks and then they wash their hands with us? Why?"
"Limos has chosen you to survive," Wyatt said the words loosely, "The Capitol will leave you alone. You can attend parties and functions, but that's it."
It felt like a ruse. A false truth that Astrid couldn't allow herself to believe. It's almost as if, deep down, she wanted to punish herself somehow. The girl who wanted to be alone… never alone again. "That's it?"
Wyatt laughed. A vibrant, full laugh that immediately made Astrid's anger ebb away. "You're not a celebrity, Astrid. You're a survivor. There's a huge difference."
The train slowly rolled through the mountains, puffs of smoke whispering into the green hillside. As District Five's tall power plants appeared in the distance, Astrid's stomach clenched.
"You'll be fine," Wyatt smiled, full of the same sympathy he had for her after she was reaped. "There's usually nobody waiting at the station."
It didn't help her. "Right."
"You seem mistrusting."
Astrid laughed dryly, "Can you blame me?"
"No, I can't," Wyatt replied quietly, "I just hope you know that… I'll do whatever I can to help you. It was hard for me adjusting when I came back, alone, so I know how much support will be useful for you."
A small, shiny glimmer of hope that made Astrid smile for the first time in what felt like forever. "Thank you."
The train began to slow down as they entered a large tunnel. The darkness made Astrid panic — traumatic flashbacks that made her heart thump — before the familial sight of District Five's station made her both comforted and annoyed. A home she both missed and hated.
Astrid followed Wyatt as he rose from his seat and headed towards the end of the carriage.
She couldn't ignore the hesitance in her chest. Is this really it?
Wyatt blocked the view as the train eventually grinded to a halt. A few seconds that felt like an eternity passed before Wyatt opened the door and stepped out. Astrid followed… greeted by the sound of total silence.
The platform was empty. Astrid looked around in confusion, waiting to feel surprised and punked. True to his word, there was nobody to greet Astrid upon her return. It was as if she never went away at all.
"They have your house set up," Wyatt said, turning to face her, "You're across from me. They wanted to put you next door, but I didn't know if you wanted to be actual neighbours."
"My own house?"
Astrid never really put much thought into what life was like for a Victor. Wyatt was well-known, reasonably liked — but his life was mysterious in that nobody in District Five knew how a Victor lived. They were rewarded for their crimes but lived in solitude.
Wyatt's lips quirked into a smile. "Yeah, your own house. You can invite family or friends to stay, if you want, or keep to your own company."
Astrid just kept looking at the empty platform. A certain unease settled in her stomach. She had spent so long running on instinct, looking over her shoulder, that the total silence was deafening.
"Do you not have family?" Astrid asked curiously.
Wyatt's smile didn't falter. Oh, a good family relationship. Can't relate. "My family doesn't, no. I needed some space for a bit after my Games… and— well, I guess I liked the independence and never got around to inviting them."
Astrid wouldn't be asking anyone. She quirked a smile in an attempt to push the conflicting emotions at bay. "I can't wait to just walk around naked and do what I want."
Wyatt laughed, "It's a certain freedom you learn to love."
Freedom… Astrid had been emancipated for so long that she never saw it as anything else. It was a struggle to survive alone, in a dead-end job, barely floating above the surface.
Freedom suddenly had a whole new meaning.
IN THE CAPITOL.
Under the cover of darkness, Cyril Vermilion headed back to his laboratory once more, humming a soft tune as he pressed his keycard into the scanner.
"Welcome indeed," Cyril smiled as the doors opened.
The lights turned on immediately. Multiple scanners and computers sat in neat rows. He glided across the floor of his workers' empty desks, admiring small photographs and trinkets that made them more homely.
At the very end, he opened the door, revealing a flight of stairs down into the mortuary. He had fond memories of his mortuary and, effectively, his first ever experiments.
He fondly remembered 001, the first ever zombie that he rose from the dead. He didn't know the man — an unclaimed cadaver that was left to rot in the cold storage — but he held a dear place in Cyril's heart.
The first ever monster. A little too human. He had to improve, a touch more instinct—
And 002 was a little too feral, crazed and bloodthirsty that Cyril personally enjoyed shooting him through the brain. It felt poetic to watch someone die all over again, their opportunity of life dashed once more.
003, 004, 005, 006, 007, 008.
Cyril finally perfected it for 009. Human, feral, a face pumped full of liquid that allowed it to change shape and look vaguely like someone else.
Cyril smiled in the dark room, staring at the cold storage.
009 was one of the first zombies revealed in the arena, transforming into one of the many Tirsa Callas' that tormented Andronika Mbizi.
It's not enough, Cyril kept wondering.
With one eye on the Games as they unfolded, and another on Bacchus' reaction as his perfect area grew rotten with decay, Cyril knew he had the chance to really perfect what he needed to.
Then… he knew what to do.
Cyril approached the cold storage, revealing two bodies on a table, side-by-side, clothed in white gowns.
Tirsa Callas laid peacefully on her back, a crusty line where her throat was slit. Gaia and Charis never incinerated their tributes like the other Victors did. Which was all the more perfect.
Next to her, Prentice Murphy was chewed to pieces, revealing most of his neck had been eaten away.
Cyril gently ran his fingers through Murphy's tight curls, "I wish you had survived… even if you are more use to me dead."
Further down both of the dead tributes' bodies, tentacles of tubes linked up. Liquid flowed between the pair, a large machine drumming quietly in the corner. Cyril admired his work as he reached across to a small table containing a needle, and slid it into Murphy's neck.
TWO YEARS LATER, YEAR 24TH.
Cyril stood at his desk, neatly organising his findings into the folder. Two whole years worth of research, covert experiments, successes and failures had finally boiled to the point that he was ready.
He would make his mark as, to himself, his journey to the top was paramount.
I will be greater than Limos, Cyril grinned fanatically. I am God.
The door to his office opened. Cyril didn't even look up at the boy with tight curls and a square jaw. He didn't need to.
"Are you ready, Sir?"
"I'm almost there," Cyril answered, "Are you ready?"
A moment of silence. "I am."
"Good. I need you to play your part in this. It's crucial that President Revery sees you for you."
Cyril finally spared a glance in his direction and offered a kind, fatherly smile when he noticed the patch of rotted skin sat nearly just under his boy's chin.
"You have to cover it up for now," Cyril gently pulled his turtleneck sweater up, covering the grotesque mark, "It has to be shown at the right time."
"Apologies are for the weak," Cyril grinned, "You mustn't apologise, you must only push forwards."
The assistant cracked a proud, sarcastic grin. "Oh, I'm very good at pushing it in…"
Cyril laughed. "Now… let's put your skills to the test and tell President Revery why we need to spice these Games up some, hmm? When I tell you to reveal the skin on your neck, you show it and then heal yourself up, just like we've practised."
The assistant nodded. "Right…"
"And remember to smile. You always have to smile when you're showing your skin."
"I'll be sure to flash the biggest grin when I flash for them."
Cyril laughed again. "And that's why you're my apprentice, Prentice. Let's get going. We have a point to prove."
One of the first stories to start and one of the last to finish, you love to see it. In all honesty, this story was about four years in the making. I kept believing I would come back at some point to write this, in 2018, 2019, and finally, I did it. I'm proud to say this is one of my most favourite stories to write and the first ever AU I've ever completed, which is huge.
Beneath, I just have a little word on each tribute. They became a huge part of my life for the past few months and I want to wish them all the best!
24th — Eira Delaine of District Eight.
Virus, Eira was one of the few tributes who I understood almost immediately. Everything about her fit perfectly into the role I had in mind. She was frustrated, icy, angry. She was a whirlwind of negative emotions that by the time we reached the end of the Capitol, I knew in my heart that she couldn't go further than the bloodbath.
23rd — Linden Acacius of District Seven.
Meg, Linden was truly hated by everyone, but I know you designed him for that. He had zero redeeming qualities, but I had a lot of fun bringing out the worst in him. I tapped into his sardonic, hateful side of me and let it flow. We both knew he was destined to die early and be the catalyst for others to develop further.
22nd — Miles Shute of District Twelve.
Jalen, Miles was one of the hardest characters to grasp. His personality was a little bit everywhere — I tried to tap into his more boyish nature, but I made him harsher than intended. In the end, he was what he was: a boy caught up in something beyond his control.
21st — Vesper Charon of District Six.
Haiden, Vesper is... Vesper. We've talked extensively about him and how I never understood him well, or at least, I never thought I did. He was smarter than most of the tributes, out-of-the-box, unique. We died in silence but his actions spoke volumes for him.
20th — Gideon Egerton of District Two.
Flint, Gideon was one of my favourite "Careers", if not my ultimate fave at the beginning. His morality made him the most fun to write amongst his messy, dysfunctional allies. Of course, true to the testament, he needed to go for everyone else to truly implode. He was a sweetheart who deserved better.
19th — Castanea Mayfield of District Eleven.
Morgan, Cassie was a babe. We both know this. She was soft, nice, kind. She was well liked, well received, well understood. She's one of the few tributes who I wish I kept around for a little longer, if not to hurt her more. But the idea of Ashriel killing her only ally accidentally was too good to miss.
18th — Tobias Haulage of District Five.
Zero, Tobias is a fucking gem. Easily one of my favourite tributes in this story. He was older than he was, smart and thoughtful and kind. I never expected to like him as much as I did, and I do think Astrid played a big part in making me open my eyes to his potential. Like Cassie, the opportunity was hard to pass up, but he will forever live on in memory.
17th — Cliff Hartford of District Four.
JAJ, Cliff. The golden retriever of tributes. The frat boy of District Four. I loved every aspect of him — his kind, supportive nature. His understanding of Loire, his teammates, his down-to-earth personality. Another cog in JabberjayHeart's favourite "accidental ally kill" saga, but a great tribute nonetheless.
16th — Hendon Wiler of District Eight.
Brad, Hendon is easily, like, one of the best tributes in my mind. People didn't get him, or like him, but I adored him. He was one of the easiest to write and spoke to me so much. He was just trying his best to do better. That's all he wanted! I could write a whole essay on why Hendon deserved more love.
15th — Brionka Everson of District Nine.
Padraig, Brionka was complex. I never really understood her or her motives. I never really knew what direction to take her. She was so enigmatic in my writing, but I always appreciated her motherly, cordial attempts to make her alliance both strong and grounded.
14th — Loire Gaurden of District Four.
Austin, Loire was a queen. Voted the most favourite tribute, you know! We really fleshed out her backstory and she was easily one of the most definable characters in this story. But after losing Cliff — and Finn and Auberon abandoning her — her story became victim to stagnation.
13th — Tirsa Callas of District One.
Teddy, Tirsa fucking Callas. The villain. The anti-Limos. The perfect combination of fanaticism, delusional and dangerous. If it wasn't for Enoch, she'd still be reigning terror on everyone. The only tribute to actually want to fight and kill. The more person to drive conflict. But... I just couldn't get the idea of her being the first tribute to rise from the dead out of my head.
12th — Ashriel Denaud of District Twelve.
Nate, Ashriel was a bean. You gave me one of the most interesting and complex backstories that I never found a chance to flesh out. Ashriel is the reason I'm doing intros in Six Feet Under, because if you guys had seen Ashriel's life... ooft. She was powerful in this story and I love her. The depiction of good/bad, your desire for me to really fuck her up, the idea of her innocence being her biggest strength. She was so fascinating!
11th — Oliver Abendroth of District Nine.
Mack, Oliver. The analytical, vibrant boy. He was so real. He wasn't the loudest or brightest of personalities, but he was the most consistent and relatable. A firm, strong voice that counterbalanced Murphy's quirkier nature well.
10th — Finn Caraway of District Eleven.
Bradi, Finn is probably my most favourite tribute in this story. Finn Caraway, the dogged, happy-go-lucky farmer. The innocent, kind, religious bean who grew on me like a rash. After his first second, I was sold and, originally, he was in the Top Five. But the idea of his anger being linked to having to denounce the religion that he eventually grew conflicted on... golden.
9th — Frances Romilly of District Three.
Kev, Frances was secretly a force to be reckoned with. Manipulative, intelligent, determined. She had everyone wrapped around her finger. She brought so many people together unintentionally that she formed her own shields. She really was her own architect.
8th — Baylor Novak of District Six.
Ali, Baylor the Gaylor. A strong, fierce girl who wasn't afraid to get her hands dirty. People never understood her or liked her very much, but I always admired her strength and courage. She never backed down from a fight. She hit so many tributes and zombies. She'll always hold a special place in my heart.
7th — Nysa Rachlin of District Ten.
Jake, Nysa! The original Victor from many drafts ago! She was everything positive and nice and soft in the world. She really didn't deserve to deal with what she had. But her relationship with Auberon and Riette was astounding. They really complimented each other, but for the others to keep developing, I needed to take away their pin.
6th — Andronika Mbizi of District Two.
Katie, Andronika the Android. People saw her as emotionless. I saw her as silently strong. She wasn't super vocal or internal about her feelings. She crushed them down and just got on with it. Admittedly, she fell victim to my own over-ambition and she missed a few chapters... but she was always safe. She was literally the biggest threat besides the zombies.
5th — Riette Lynelle of District Seven.
Ace, Riette! A bean. My most favourite tribute you've ever sent me, evident by her placing. I never expected to like her as much. But with Linden as her foil, and Nysa as her support, and then killing Linden... she wrote her own story so vividly.
4th — Auberon Reyes of District Ten.
Joseph, Auberon is the unsung hero of this story. He never gave up. He never backed down. His subtle power kept this boy pushing until the end. The most resilient, tactical player who outlived both of his alliances. We both know he's now a vegetarian, but most importantly, we both know Rafe has huge shoes to fill. I loved Auberon so, so much.
3rd — Enoch Chen of District One.
Dyl, Enoch was easily the most morally grey character in this story. From a sarcastic, forgotten, shadowed boy to killing his own demons and then slowly turning into her himself. He is true to the saying — die the hero, or live long enough to become the villain. And boy, did he fill that role towards the end!
2nd — Prentice Murphy of District Three.
Sophia, Murphy's section in this epilogue should speak volumes on my love for him. I couldn't even technically kill him! You always give me such amazing tributes and Murphy is no exception. From his wit, his dirty humour, his boldness and vibrancy and characteristics... he was easily one of the most stand out personalities in this game, and the most favoured tribute towards the end. In a different life, he would've won — but his role is much bigger than being a Victor, now!
Victor — Astrid Marano of District Five.
Z, Astrid. From her first ever section, I knew I loved her. I knew she would go far. I knew she would go through some shit and always come out on top. I knew that, by Top 6, Astrid was my Victor. She wasn't the peoples' choice. She wasn't the favoured. But to me, she became the best. Originally, I didn't want to let her win U2014 the badass, outlier female? — but something about her storytelling, her personality, her place in this story pushed her to this point. From Tobias to Baylor, Riette to Murphy, all of the tributes she came into contact with just carved her out even further. They pushed her further to becoming Victor. I have no regrets — Astrid Marano deserves that fucking cigarette.
And so we have it finally! Finally finished!
This story has been a whirlwind. This story allowed me to bump into some old friends and make some new ones. In the middle of a pandemic, I never would've guessed that I would write a full story once more. At some points, I didn't think I'd complete it! But here we are, at the end, and I want to say a huge thank you to everyone that has read, reviewed, favourited and followed. You helped encourage me and build this story into what it became.
Let me know what you think!
Stay safe. Wash your hands. Wear a fucking mask.
See you on the other side! THE END.
(P.S — My collab with District11-Olive is closing submissions soon. Head to her profile if you want to get in!)