prologue one: grief

"I can't take another day of this," Holden Alvers says, wiping the sweat from his forehead with the back of his hand. Aster Jahnke just grins up at him from his position on the ground, sitting pretty amidst the dirt and overgrown stalks of corn, his visage the picture of carelessness.

"Her, you've been on seeding duty for a week. Come back and tell me that in two years."

"Gods, but even a week's too long," Holden groans, stretching his arms out over his head and leaning to one side in an attempt to work the kinks from his back. At just eighteen, he's one of the fittest fieldhands they've currently got, but even his limber stature can't prevent the outcome of a long day's work sewing and harvesting crops; practically everyone in Nine's subject to aching joints and sore muscles on the regular, and Aster more than most.

He doesn't know how many times a week his shoulder pops partially out of place, nor how frequently the too-hot too-present flare ups leave him practically bedridden each month, but it's certainly more than he'd like, that much goes without question. Ideally, he wouldn't be working the fields on a regular basis, but his mom's hard up for money and with five kids still under her roof (Aster included), he'd had little choice in the matter. Florina and Iris are still too young to work, and Poppy's already taking extra shifts at the mill to try and cover for rent. Even between the three of them - him, Poppy and Mama - they're only barely scraping by. Rowan was the breadwinner, and now he's gone.

Not just gone. Dead. Aster reminds himself, his brow creasing as he eases himself up from his seat in the dirt, bare feet sinking partially into the fertile soil as they bear his weight. He brushes off his clothes, trying his best to shake off some of the stain residue from the fields despite knowing the action's unlikely to help.

"You goin' to the pub tonight?" Holden asks, done with complaining for the time being. "Miss Maeve's got the 'shine done again and a bunch of us was gonna play cards together over a round. We'd be glad to have you."

"Is Ian gonna be there?" Aster asks. Holden's grin slips into a sheepish smile as he runs a hand through his hair, cheeks flushing a bit.

"I mean, we couldn't just… not invite him. He's got seniority, and -"

Aster hmphs, unable to keep the frustration from showing through with the sound. "And he's got friends, I know. Nah, I think I'll stay in with my Ma. Appreciate the offer though."

Holden just sighs. He reaches out, placing a hand on Aster's back, the thin fabric of his shirt absolutely drenched in sweat and sticking to his skin all the more with the pressure of a hand against it. He shrugs the touch away, making to collect his satchel from where he'd discarded it on the wooden workbench ten minutes prior.

"Aster-" Holden tries to say, and Aster's teeth clench.

"Don't," he warns, voice stern. But Holden, the idiot, persists anyway, the sound of his boots stepping closer practically cacophonous amidst the tense silence.

"What Rowan did… it wasn't-"

"I swear, Holden, if you say it wasn't that bad-"

"I was going to say that it wasn't your fault, actually, but thanks for putting words in my mouth."

"Sure. Have fun getting wasted." Aster doesn't turn around. He doesn't want to hear about the incident anymore - what his brother did, how it wasn't really that terrible, how the Hunger Games are always violent, how you're not responsible for Rowan's actions, and nobody's going to blame you for what he did to Amelie. That was his choice. It's got nothing to do with you. It's got nothing to do with your family.

Bullshit. Aster shakes his head. It's got everything to do with my family, and everything to do with me. You know it. I know it. Ian knows it. My brother killed his kid in cold blood before she even knew what was going on. He betrayed her. He betrayed Nine. People aren't gonna remember Rowan Jahnke for what he did here, just what he did in the arena. In the Games.

They aren't gonna remember all the times he went out of his way to try and help people he saw struggling, fixing them up with meals or taking care of menial tasks when it was needed. They aren't gonna remember that he baked some of the best bread we ever got in this shithole, aren't gonna remember him setting up the corn mazes during Harvest Fest, or sticking around late after school to make sure all the other kids got home safe. They aren't gonna remember that he dropped out of school just to try and put food on the table, that he used to braid his sisters' hair and stitch patches on my work pants in the winter to make sure I was a little bit warmer.

No, all Nine's gonna think of when they hear Rowan Jahnke's name is how he went batshit crazy as soon as his name got pulled outta that reaping bowl. They'll remember him for biting the escort, for cursing out the Capitol during the interviews, for snapping the neck of his own District partner and hurling himself into a fight with two full-blown Careers. But that's not who he was. That's not my brother.

My brother wouldn't have killed Amelie.

No matter what people say.

"Listen, man… I didn't mean to stir up bad memories." Holden shuffles his feet. Aster slings his bag over his shoulder, lifting his chin as he heads over toward the workshack, eager to pick up his check and get his ass home before it starts raining. Storm clouds have started to roll in, and the sky's turned a foreboding shade of grey.

"Storm's coming," he says, not bothering to address the apology. He doesn't want to discuss Rowan. Not now. Not ever. What feelings Aster's got regarding his brother belong to him, and him alone. "Let's get a move on. We're done for the day."

A/N: Alright - hey there, y'all. Welcome to Centrifuge - the second SYOT in my Dealing With Devils series, and the first to have a wholly ambiguous prologue in terms of existing plotlines. Since the first story in the series, Lex Talionis, has reached a halfway point for the Games, I feel confident enough in opening submissions for its sequel.

There is a brief summary of the verse up on my profile, along with a set of guidelines for submission and a tribute form. Note that, like with Lex Talionis, I will only be accepting twelve to fourteen tributes for the story; the other ten to twelve will be fillers used for early Games deaths and plotline purposes only. Submissions will be open through August 2, 2020, after which time a second prologue and a list of accepted characters will be posted. I hope that you will consider submitting, and look forward to seeing the cast for this story shape up! Buckle up because it's going to be a wild ride.

(On a final note, big thanks to twistedservice for looking over this prologue for me. Happy birthday, my dude.)