After having paced for an eternity on watch, Ilithyia sat down and poked at the fire, staring intently at the dancing flames. It was empty. Everything was empty. Eros hadn't talked to her all day. She'd tried to strike up a conversation again and again, but he'd just given her a sad look and ignored her.
Maybe she'd given the wrong verdict. But what else could she have done? Sentenced Adair to exile, or even to death? She wasn't about to pretend Adair was her best friend, but he was part of their group, one Nevaeh clearly cared about. And Ven had been on Adair's side too. How could she have said no to him?
Losing one friend at the Bloodbath had been bad enough. It'd taken her days to push the terror out of her mind; even now she sometimes saw the crumbling tower when she closed her eyes. Getting rid of Adair would've lost her almost all her friends.
Yet Eros still wasn't talking to her.
This wasn't fun anymore. This was stressful. It wasn't just running around playing with weapons and showing off to all of Panem, with a fun pit stop in the exotic Capitol along the way. It was all the drama from home, except a million times worse—and all her friends would eventually die too.
Maybe she didn't quite like the Hunger Games anymore.
No, that was a little extreme. It was ridiculous to dislike the Hunger Games. She would just enjoy the process a whole lot more if there wasn't any death involved; at least, not for her friends. What good was this whole experience if she couldn't take anyone out of the Arena to share the memories with her?
Soft footsteps from inside snapped her back to the fire and the darkness and the cold air around her. This line of thinking was dangerous. She couldn't let herself go down that direction.
Eros stood in the doorway.
She gulped. "Can we talk? Please?"
He pressed his lips together. He looked back into the room, hesitant. But as she silently pleaded with him, he sighed. He walked up; he sat down nearby, only meeting her gaze with accusation in his eyes.
"Are you still mad about the verdict?"
"Kinda." He tossed a wood chip into the fire, where it sizzled into ash. "I thought we were a team. What happened to that?"
She frowned. "We are still a team."
"Then what was that?"
"I had to do it for the alliance," she said. "Besides, Ven made good points."
"You're going to believe some guy from District One over me?"
He lowered his voice. "When the alliance falls apart, who's going to defend you? I bet you Ven will side with Seven and Ten and take us out."
"Ven and Nevaeh wouldn't do that to us."
"You think so?" He threw up his hands. "Look, Ili. You're a great person, and you want us to all be friends, and I love you for it. But we won't all be friends forever. The alliance has to break."
"So we have to be united."
She stared at the ground, only giving him a brief side eye. "Then why wouldn't you talk to me yesterday?"
"For a while, I wasn't sure if I could trust you," he said softly. "You told me you'd remember our promises to the district but then pulled the rug out from under me. What was I supposed to think?"
She sighed. "I'm sorry, okay? I didn't mean it like that."
His eyes softened. A weak smile returned. "It's fine. But please, trust me next time. Sometimes you're just thinking about fun, and you need me to pay attention to the Game. For the both of us."
The alliance would break. He was right; she was wrong. She'd been so fixated on the experience that she'd forgotten the big picture. He'd just been trying to keep her eyes on the Game, and this was how she treated him?
She placed her hand on his. "Look, I'm really sorry. And I really appreciate you looking out for us."
He grinned. "But of course, m'lady. It's my pleasure."
Ellis huddled in the darkness. Another day had passed. They were still stuck in the tower's basement. They had tried to leave twice yesterday, but they'd heard footsteps and voices every time and retreated back into the darkness. The solid walls on either side of the exposed stairwell made it hard for them to see anyone approaching but easy for anyone nearby to see them.
He'd fallen asleep for a little, but the concrete floor and walls were anything but comfortable and he'd woken up sore a few hours later. Now, with the impenetrable darkness staring back at him, he wondered how he'd fallen asleep in the first place.
Virginia still remained in her place on the stairs, under the singular wisp of moonlight that was splayed in segments down the concrete steps. He thought she might've finally fallen asleep after her hours of restless shuffling, but then she lifted her head as he adjusted his posture, causing his clothes to rustle.
"Are you sure you want to stay over there?" he whispered. "If anyone comes down, they'll find you immediately."
"Then… Then they'll find me," she murmured. "I'm fine here."
He sighed. "It's safer down here."
"It's also dark."
"Are you afraid of the dark?"
She shook her head, barely visible. "I just prefer it here. You should go to sleep."
He pressed his lips together. There it was again. It seemed every time he tried to make conversation with her, it always came back around to him needing to take care of himself.
"Have you slept at all?" he said. "I already got a few hours and I can't fall asleep. I can watch for you if that's what you're worried about."
"Please don't worry about me."
Because that was reassuring. "What's wrong?"
"Nothing you need to know." Her voice sounded as if her soul had been blitzed to pieces and every ounce of life had long flowed out. "It's just what I deserve."
His footsteps thudded against the concrete; he sat down beside her. "Please… You need to try to live too."
"You don't get it." She hid her face. "You still deserve life."
He placed a hand on her shoulder. "But you do too—"
"I don't," she said, pushing him away. "Why won't you just let me go?"
He sighed. "If you really want to go that badly, I'm not going to stop you. But I'd really like it if you stayed."
"That's what I mean. Why don't you hate me? Just—" A rising sob choked her voice. "Just leave me alone. Stop wasting your time."
As he listened to her cry, his own tears began to flow. "I'm sorry—"
"Don't apologize! You've… You've done nothing wrong. You've been perfect this whole time. And I-I'm…"
Her words dissolved into sobs. He patted her on the back; she smacked his hand away, shifting away from him. He stared at her shadowy figure in stunned silence. Nothing he'd said over the past day had done any good. He'd hoped for her to turn around, that they could work together as the team that'd never been given a chance. But she'd climbed out of a pit only to fall into a deeper one.
He blinked as he stepped back into the darkness, sending forth another wave of tears. There was only so much he could do, and it wasn't enough.
Navarro gritted his teeth as Azolla inspected the wound. Her fingers pulled at the gauze-and-sleeve bandage, starting fresh fires all around his abdomen; he involuntarily made a sharp hissing sound and winced. Her sunken eyes flew up, apologetic.
"It doesn't look infected, at least," she said, clearly forcing a smile on her weary cheeks.
"Does it look that bad?"
She shook her head. "I'm just tired."
He watched as she crawled over to the backpack, bringing forth the bottle of water. Every one of her movements seemed to take a disproportionate amount of strength; her eyes lingered on the bare puddle of water remaining. Navarro was surprised they still had any left after using so much for the past two days, but he must've miscalculated their supply amidst the pain.
"Finish the rest," she said. He opened his mouth to argue; he didn't get a chance. "Please. There's not much anyway; you might as well drink it before it all evaporates."
He did as he was told. He hardly had the ability to resist, with the wound anchoring him to the ground, though she'd win eventually anyway if he kept talking. With enough prodding from her, he never could find the heart to say no. Strange, but true. At this point, he'd long since given up trying to fully understand why his eyes instinctively followed her everywhere, why time slowed to a crawl the moment she left his side, why her words found ways to unlock his most stubborn resistance.
She was Azolla. That in itself was reason enough.
Once the bottle was empty, she dropped it back into the backpack and crumpled beside him again, her head resting on his shoulder. Her hair tickled at his neck, pulling a smile onto his face. He'd reach around her and pat her on the shoulder if the healing wound didn't threaten to explode whenever he moved. Still, it was better now than yesterday. Maybe he'd be able to get around some without excessive pain in a day or two.
"I'll get up soon," Azolla murmured near his ear. "I just need a moment."
Her eyes were distant. This wasn't like her at all, to lounge around without a goal in mind. Thus far, it felt like she'd spent every waking moment doing some kind of work, whether or not they actually needed the work done.
"You don't look so good," he said.
"Maybe it was the cold."
His eyes wandered over her exhausted features, her sunken eyes, her dry lips. It struck him that every time she'd forced him to drink, she hadn't taken any herself.
"When was the last time you had some water?"
Her eyes widened, staring back at him. Hadn't he found it strange that they still had any water left today?
"You haven't had any water, have you." His voice was low; he cursed under his breath. This couldn't be happening. Why hadn't he paid more attention? "Please… please tell me you've been drinking."
Her mouth opened, but there was no response except for the nearly imperceptible nod of her head.
"H-How could you? Azolla, you can't—" He felt his breathing pick up. "You've killed both of us."
Her voice was shaky, as if her strength had given out. "I wanted to leave it for you."
"No, no, no…"
It felt like his lungs had stopped working, unable to pull oxygen from the air. If Azolla hadn't had any water since their fight with Adair, she'd be dead by the end of the day tomorrow. Perhaps even today. With her gone, he'd certainly be dead too. Forget the Careers—any of the other tributes could take him out in this state.
"You needed it so much more."
She looked as though about to cry, a look he knew from that night in the Capitol, but no tears appeared in her eyes. Of course they didn't! Her dehydrated body likely couldn't produce any if she'd wanted to. He gulped down the furious roar bubbling up inside. Tears or no tears, he wasn't about to make her cry all over again, especially not when she was weak like this.
But what could they do? Hope drained as he stared at Azolla's weak figure, still leaning against him. She'd spent the past two days searching the area for cacti and came up empty; he wouldn't be able to do any better. And at this point, it was far too late to hunt someone else down. Not that Azolla would've ever agreed to it in the first place.
He knocked his head back against the wall. "It's over, isn't it."
"There has to be a way…"
"But what?" he said. "Ask the Star Alliance? You're special, you know? They're not you. They won't give us any."
He chuckled bitterly. "It's better than dying of thirst, at least."
She sniffled. "I-I'm sorry. I'll go."
He blinked. "You can't. What do you think they'll do?"
"They can't all be there," she said. "The Ten boy seems really nice. Maybe he'll give us some."
"Yeah, right. Good luck with that."
"But there's a chance."
"Does dehydration mess up your brain?"
She sighed. "Navarro…"
"You can't do this. You'll shrivel before you get a chance to ask. And what if he's not there?"
"You'd rather wait here for death?" she asked. "Besides, if it fails… we would've died anyway."
He stared at her. She stared back, weak resolve forming in her eyes. She was serious. She was actually serious. And to make things worse, her reasoning somehow made sense. Almost.
Except for one little thing.
He took a deep breath. "No… I'll go."
"You can't. It might open up the wound and—"
"You won't make it to them," he said, shaking his head. "You'll collapse or something."
"B-But…" she sputtered. "What if someone sees you?"
"Then I'll go tonight. Wait until the Ten boy's on guard and then ask."
She stared at him, incredulity and terror swirling in her weak brown eyes. Her lips parted wordlessly as if unable to form anything to say. He could hardly believe the words coming out of his own mouth either. This whole plan was ridiculous, doomed to fail anyway. And it still hurt to move. He didn't want to think about what it'd feel like to make the long trek back towards the Star Alliance's camp.
Somehow, for Azolla, it all seemed reasonable.
Whirrs and taps filled Rusk's ears again as he stood behind the counter at the Sponsorship Office, submerged in the drab sea of bland whites and dull blues. He smiled down at Jacquie, the same young woman who'd helped him last time.
"Ready to transfer the money?" she asked. "It's been a week, so…"
"Actually, I was wondering if I could get an extension on that," Rusk said, tapping his restless fingers. "Just a few days."
She bit her lip. "I don't think we're allowed to do that. Official Games policy and all… Are you sure there isn't anyone you want to send the money to?"
"Not really; it's complicated." He rubbed his neck and lowered his voice, looking over his shoulder. Even through the front windows, no worrisome faces appeared, neither those of his fellow Nines nor a certain former stylist who haunted Rusk's imagination day-in and day-out. "I just know that I don't want it going to Clarke."
"Hmm…" She tapped her pen on the desk. "If you can prove that Clarke is unqualified, we'll be forced to give you more time. But I don't know if you want the bad publicity."
He sighed. This would be sure to get out to the others. But what other options did he have? He'd come too far just to give up. "Let's do it."
"I'll put my supervisor on the phone," she said, her fingers dancing across her screen. She laughed nervously. "Just so I don't mess it up. This almost never happens."
A dull ring sounded and then stopped. Rusk waited for a voice, confused, before he noticed the earpiece hidden in Jacquie's hair over her right ear.
"Hey, it's me!" she said. "Sorry! Anyway, there's a mentor here, the one for the District Nine boy, Mati Strye. He wants an extension, and I told him that we can't do that unless he proves that the district partner is unqualified. Yeah… he knows. He still wants to do it."
She turned to him. "Alright. I've set up the recording for legal purposes. Start when you're ready."
He cleared his throat. He vaguely heard the door open, but Jacquie was motioning for him to start and his mind was already swirling, trying to find words to say.
"It's not that complicated, really. Clarke hated the boy. She wouldn't talk to him," he said. Matza's disappointed face flashed through his mind. He forced it away. "He didn't like her either. I just don't think it makes sense to force his money to go to her when they never had anything to do with each other."
"Is there any way we can check that?"
"I think it should be pretty clear if you have any security footage. Mati chatted a little with a lot of the other tributes, but never with Clarke. I think he said she was always glaring at him too. Other than that… I don't know."
She nodded; she tapped the screen. "Great! You're good to go. You'll receive a notif if we approve it."
"Then you have all the time you want," she said. "Until someone wins, of course. Then the money goes directly to the Games fund."
He smiled. "Thanks."
Finally, the pressure of sponsor funds was off his back. One less thing off his back meant more time to plan with Darah about what they'd ask Avisa. Not that the latter was any less stressful, but even he could tell that one was less than two.
But then he heard a low clearing of the throat. He turned around; Van stood there, arms crossed, eyes narrowed in suspicion. Rusk didn't need to ask to know that the man had just heard everything.
Back to two things. And he wouldn't be able to fix this one so quickly.
Ven's heavy step crunched on gravel as he set out for another day of hunting, sword in his hand. In the doorway to the courtroom, Ili waved, relegated to guard duty for the first time in days. He smiled back at her, though he would've preferred to be in her place instead of spending a day out with Eros, who'd always seemed to be giving him an annoyed side-eye since the trial. But the alternative had been to put Eros and Adair on the same team, so they'd decided on him, Eros, and Nevaeh.
He glanced over; Eros was giving him another look already. Ven sighed. The Two boy's annoyance was understandable, he supposed, and Adair's "good-natured" ragging didn't make anything better. But to not talk to Ili for a whole day? That was just plain cold, especially for someone like her. Thankfully the Twos seemed to be on speaking terms anyway, but he still wondered if Eros could've handled the situation more maturely.
Speaking of Eros, the boy was now behind Ven, kicking at pebbles as they followed Nevaeh's lead. Ven glanced over his shoulder, almost expecting to see the Two boy's spear pointed at him. It wasn't, just like he'd rationally known, yet he found himself checking again merely minutes later.
Nope. A day spent in paranoia? Ven wouldn't have it.
He dragged his steps until Eros passed him and his heartbeat returned to normal. His grip on his sword eased a little. The handle was slick with sweat; he hadn't realized he'd been gripping it so tightly.
As they passed by the tower, he caught Eros looking back, suspicion in his eye. Great. So nothing had really changed, other than their relative positions. They'd barely gotten anywhere and it was already getting unbearable. Even Nevaeh, up a good distance ahead, had a knife gripped in each hand. Had she gotten that far ahead because he and Eros had been lagging, or was it intentional, for safety purposes?
"Hey!" he called to her, cringing at his own raised voice. She jumped. "Why don't we split up and search the tower instead?"
Eros narrowed his eyes. "Why?"
"I'm nervous. You're nervous. We're all nervous," he said. "Maybe it'll be easier if we're not all right next to each other all the time."
Nevaeh nodded. "But we need to stay in the same area. Just in case."
"Sure," Eros said, first inspecting her face and then Ven's. "I'll go up."
"I'll search the nearby houses," Nevaeh said.
"Then…" Ven looked around. There wasn't much here on the ground floor. If Eros had taken the upper floors and Nevaeh had taken the surrounding area, it left him with little option. "I guess I have the basement."
Eros took a few cautious steps backward before heading up. The moment he was out of view, Nevaeh raised an eyebrow at Ven, as if inviting him into some kind of secret. He shook his head. The alliance was tense enough as is; they didn't need any more shady deals. Besides, this was the Ten girl. He'd like to think she could be trusted, but history informed it was more likely for her to turn on him the moment the alliance broke, just as the Outer and Inner districts often did to each other. She gave him a disappointed look and headed for the closest house.
The basement. Hardly the most exciting place to look. He stood in the doorway and peered down into the blackness, a stark contrast to the bright desert sun. He figured it was as good a place to hide as any, especially with the shelter from the sun, but he also wouldn't be surprised to find some kind of Gamemaker trap down there. Maybe it wouldn't be too large, and he'd be back up as quickly as possible.
One cautious step down after the other, he descended into the darkness. The temperature dropped around him along with the light; he raised his sword, ready to strike at a moment's notice should an assailant appear from the shadows that governed this cave.
He paused halfway down. Darkness stifled his sight, but gradually, his eyes adjusted to the blackness, and he resumed his descent as soon as he could see the next few steps.
A shuffle rustled from the dark ahead. He froze, pointing his sword towards the sound. Then his eyes fully adjusted, and he saw the figure of a girl, huddled by the wall with nothing but the clothes on her back. The poor girl. Lacking supplies in the Hunger Games was always hard, but more so in this Arena than any he'd seen in recent years.
She was looking back. She didn't run. It was hard to tell, as she was right on the border between the last bits of light and utter blindness, but her entire frame seemed to tremble, especially when she turned her head back towards the darkness.
"What's back there?" he asked, voice steady. Over the years, he'd many a time imagined what he'd say if he caught another tribute, but none of those pre-planned lines seemed quite appropriate here.
"S-Snakes." Her whispered words shook, as though she'd been crying. "I think. I couldn't see them, b-but…"
"I'm sorry," he said. Pounding footsteps on the stairs. Nevaeh appeared at his side; Eros would likely be here soon too.
"District Eight, right?" Nevaeh said. Her tone was distinctly harsher, but Eight had been one of the four to attack her along with the Twelves. "Where's your ally? Nine?"
The Eight girl's breathing seemed labored. "She l-left."
"Or maybe she's hiding in the darkness," Nevaeh said. "Don't play games with us."
Ven frowned. Nevaeh rarely meant poorly, but she was getting worked up. "There are mutts back there," he said, as the jingling of handcuffs announced Eros' arival. "Just look at her. The poor girl's too scared to run. I'll handle this one."
Neither of his allies moved, so he took the handcuffs from Eros and took a step towards the girl.
"You'll have to come with us." Ven hoped he didn't sound too mean. "If you cooperate, I'll try to keep it quick."
The girl remained frozen in place, sniffling.
He sighed. "You don't have anywhere to run. I don't want to hurt you any more than I have to, okay?"
She nodded, slowly rising to her feet. He clicked the cuffs on her wrists. She whimpered slightly, like she was biting her lip to hold back a greater flood. This part of the job had never seemed pretty on television; it was worse in-person. But it was nothing he hadn't prepared for, nothing he hadn't expected coming into the Hunger Games. For nothing in here was pretty.
Virginia stood at the center of the courtroom. A Career stood on either side of her, with the Ten girl on her right and the Two girl on her left; the Ten boy, whom she presumed to be the judge, stood before her, elevated on the podium,. Her wrists remained bound together; she shook like a twig in the wind, only held fast by her feet planted firmly on the well-swept wooden floor below.
It almost felt like she'd entered another world, one set in order in contrast to the wandering winds and ubiquitous dust that'd been her life for the past week. Except then she saw the Seven boy playing with a knife and remembered the One boy standing behind her, instructed to kill her immediately should she make an escape attempt.
She wouldn't force him into that situation; he'd seemed like a genuinely nice person. After all, she had no intention of trying to escape.
Even if she had wanted to escape, she doubted she'd be able to. Any one of the Careers towering over her could easily end her life in a heartbeat before she had a chance to turn around. Their sturdy, well-fed frames made her look like a utility pole despite having been fairly well-to-do by District Eight standards. It took all her nerves just to look one of them in the eye; what would it take to fight one?
She bit her lip and swallowed the lump in her throat. She straightened her back and her shoulders; this was no excuse for poor posture. She had no right to complain about being afraid anyway, for this was exactly what she deserved.
Was this what Iggy had felt when they'd dragged her in for trial? That poor girl! If this was already terrifying now, Virginia hated the thought of how scared the little girl must've been. Of course, the Careers had somehow ruled Iggy innocent, but it hadn't mattered, for she'd let Iggy die anyway before the little girl had had a chance to reunite with Ellis.
Virginia figured she should be glad to be here, since it meant Ellis had escaped the Career search unscathed and with more supplies than before. She wished she'd told him not to save any for her, for she had no intention of trying to leave this room alive. Iggy may have escaped, but she had been innocent. Virginia didn't deserve the same.
This moment was undoubtedly playing on every television across the nation. What was all of Panem thinking? She only had a few hours—possibly even minutes—left. What would she make of them?
She had one last goal to fulfill. She remembered everything Ellis had told her about his former allies, both of whom had fallen because of her. She just hoped the Careers would grant her this bit of mercy.
The Ten boy banged his gavel, and the room fell silent. His eyes seemed nervous; he didn't seem any happier to be here than she was. "We now begin the trial of Virginia Bedford, District Eight Female. Are y'all ready?"
Virginia could see the Careers on either side nodding, ready to begin the process. She cleared her throat; this could very well be her last chance. "Pardon me, may I speak, Your Honor?" she said. "If I may, there's something I'd like to say."
The Ten boy looked to his district partner, who shrugged. He nodded. "Go ahead."
She took a deep breath. It was loud in the silent room. She could almost hear the seconds counting down until her time on this earth was up. She had to make this count.
"Thank you, Your Honor," she said, giving the Ten boy a grateful nod. "You may think that I stand here because I was caught. You would be right. That's the most direct reason that I'm here, but it's not all."
She found herself looking towards her audience, the way her English teacher had taught her, but their blades and weapons sent shivers down her spine and she fixed her gaze back on the Ten boy. Don't slump, stay poised, project your voice, don't be stiff, every finger and fold must be absolutely—
She took another breath to clear her mind. Here went nothing.
"I'm here for the murder of Yggdrasil Kane," she said, her voice clear, her tone level, "the fourteen-year-old from District Eleven. She was an angel in the flesh. When she saw anyone lonely or hurting, she did her absolute best to make them feel included. She never shied away from kindness, even when the world demanded her to be cruel."
Something had softened in the Ten boy's eyes. She wondered what his role had been in Iggy's release. She swallowed the returning lump in her throat and continued.
"When she died, I did nothing to save her. No, I watched another bludgeon her to death. She was dying of thirst, for the world failed to return the love and care she'd shown to others. I'm sorry."
She found herself looking at the floor again. She couldn't even meet the Ten boy's gentle gaze, not when she'd done so much wrong. But for the sake of her last moments, she forced herself to lift her eyes anyway.
"I'm also here for the murder of Kiran Malhotra. He was fifteen years old, from District Five. He was a snarky boy, from what I've heard. He always tried to make sure that he looked cool and respectable. But I've also learned that he had a genuine heart. He wrote stories, dreaming of a world better than the one we know."
That fateful morning. The stalking through the streets, rehearsing motions learned in the Capitol, seeking out any living thing. It'd seemed reasonable and necessary until her blade cut through flesh and blood dribbled down her hand.
"I never got to know him. His story ended at my hands, though he'd never done anything to me. I robbed the world of stories, my district partner of an ally, and a family of their son. I'm sorry."
She blinked back tears as a sense of calm seeped in. The next words she uttered would seal her own fate, but she'd finally confessed her sins to the world.
"In conclusion, I plead guilty."
Sostonio's hands trembled from the edges of the podium, where he held his balance. He looked down at the Eight girl, who stood tall and proper and spoke with clarity despite the tears running down her face. What was he supposed to do now? He'd been on edge ever since Ili pulled his marble out of the bag. Now there was only one verdict he could reasonably declare, given the circumstances.
Even worse, he could hardly blame the District Eight girl. How could he condemn her to death? It was wrong for him to judge her when he continued to be part of the group of trained killers. He glanced at Nevaeh, just in time to catch her briefly wiping her eyes. Yet she motioned for him to continue.
He wasn't brave enough to do anything else.
"By her own confession…" His voice was raspy. The intangible pain in his chest made it hard to breathe. "She is guilty. She gets death."
Nevaeh nodded. As did Ili. They all seemed completely satisfied with the ruling, as if it was no big deal, as if this was all just business as usual.
"Así, we all deserve the same."
It was over. Ven took the Eight girl and marched her towards the exit, his sword at the ready. Sos buried his head in his hands against the podium; he bit down hard on his lower lip to silence the sob rising from deep inside his chest. Only a wheeze escaped his lips, but it did little for the water that dripped from his eyes.
This wasn't his kill, not directly. But he'd sentenced her to death. He hadn't been brave enough.
Virginia knelt, face to the ground. Her arms ached; her wrists were sore behind her back. Sand rubbed against her forehead; she shut her eyes to keep the wind from kicking the little particles in, though they still stuck to the wet stains on her cheeks.
She hoped her parents wouldn't be disappointed in her. She hoped they wouldn't call her a failure. She hoped they'd see that the daughter they'd raised had ultimately chosen to stick to the morals they'd taught, and that they would be proud.
Because she'd said it. She'd confessed her sin and apologized, the only way she could. And she'd saved Ellis too, passing on her supplies for his continued survival. Though it would never be enough to fully pay penance for her crimes, it was all she knew to do. She hoped she'd find peace on the other side.
She hoped her little sister wouldn't cry too much. She wouldn't be around to comfort her. Jakob would get away with everything, but she was fine with that.
A swoop of the One boy's blade, and then everything disappeared.
The cannon sounded. Adair made a face at the Eight girl's corpse, head severed from her body. Unpleasant business this was, but at least she went quick. He'd been forced to sit through far worse (no thanks in part to Ilithyia, but that was neither here nor there). Once the hovercraft swung by and retrieved her body, it'd be as if nothing had happened.
Another tribute down. Ten left to go. Now the Star Alliance made up the majority of the remaining tributes, and that meant there wouldn't be much more time until the alliance itself had to disintegrate. It'd blow up spectacularly, of course; he'd make sure of that. But he meant no ill-will towards any of the others. They were just unfortunate enough to land in the Arena with him.
He stepped back inside right after Ven, giving the Capitol space to collect the corpse. Up on the podium, Sostonio had somewhat recovered, now having lifted his previously buried head, though his face still seemed somewhat pale.
Adair held back a smirk. No use pissing off Nevaeh, though the time for that would come. For all her talk about being tough, she didn't seem to have an issue with her district partner being so helpless. A strange strategy, to say the least. Or perhaps none of this was strategy, and it was just Sostonio being completely unfit for the game and Nevaeh being too sentimental to give him up for her own survival's sake.
He looked at the others. Ven. The Twos. Certainly the Tens were the most likely to go first, and they wouldn't need any help from him. For Snow's sake, Sostonio had barely made it this far—and purely because of his district partner.
Not that the others would last much longer, though. It was all just a game, and the Victor was already sure. Just a little skill and help from Lady Luck, and he'd made his happy ending come true.
The sun was setting, but its fading figure was hardly visible through the clouds that now covered most of the sky, as Azolla peered distantly through the tiny visible corner of the window. She'd loved to go into the doorway to watch her favorite colors in the world, yet she couldn't force herself to move. She couldn't even bring herself to crawl from where she lay, leaning against Navarro. Her fingers closed weakly around his arm, as if she could hold off the inevitable, that he'd stay right there and time could stop and everything would be okay.
A chill fell on her as the last rays of sunlight disappeared. The cold air ran in cool circles upon her skin, but she couldn't muster the strength to pull herself into a huddle. No longer was there only a dry spot on her tongue; it felt as if her entire mouth was an extension of the desert outside, a bottomless sponge that no amount of water could hydrate.
Soon, he'd go. Soon, she'd be alone. Soon, everything she'd tried to fix would be whisked far out of her control and placed into jeopardy.
Perhaps she could summon up enough strength, just enough so that Navarro wouldn't have to go. She thought about Nico, watching from home in Four. If her brother could talk to her, he'd whisper gentle encouragement. She remembered his voice, and his mannerisms, and the things he'd say.
Then there was Navarro. He'd gone last time; he'd gotten himself wounded. He wouldn't survive it if he went this time. The Star Alliance knew a million ways to kill a man. They'd surely pick a horrible one for the guy that'd escaped after stealing their water. They might cut him up, or toy with him since he was so grievously wounded. Or hang him, or burn him alive, or torture him for hours with a thousand cuts.
None of it made sense; she attributed it to the now-constant haze that clouded her brain. Specific thoughts were hard to grasp. But she simply couldn't let him go. He was too important to her now.
Navarro shifted. His calloused fingers gently pulled her hands away. His voice was pained. "I-It's time."
He roused to try and get up, after over two days of resting. She could hear every wince of pain, every grunt as he stumbled; each sound produced another crack in her heart. His knuckles were turning white as they gripped the edge of the counter in a feeble attempt to support his weight.
For a moment, he waited, hunched over, leaning on the counter as his heavy breathing slowly subsided. She shut her eyes as if it were all a dream, as if simply willing for his pain to disappear would make him all right again.
Then he moved again, and a shredded moan burst from his lips. She winced along with him. With an elbow on the counter, he groped in the corner until his hand returned from the shadows with an old broom. He tipped it upside-down. She gasped. He couldn't even walk. He needed a walking stick.
It was too much for her to bear. She forced herself to her feet, a hand to the wall to stop her shaking as her head spun.
"Please…" she whispered. She couldn't manage any louder. "Please don't. I'll go."
He mumbled something incoherent under his breath. "Y-You can't, idiot. You're literally about to die."
Her legs gave out. Her face slammed into her hands, which scratched against the floor. Even so, she lifted her head, silently begging with her eyes for him to stop. She couldn't bear to watch his pain.
He stared back at her. A beam of moonlight fell across his face, deep with concern and annoyance. He didn't have to say any more. Her collapse had said everything for him.
"Azolla…" Still strained. Still pained, though possibly in a whole new dimension. "If I don't return—"
"You have to return."
"No… there's no other option."
"You have to know that I-I…" He gulped. "Never mind. I have to return."
He turned with some trouble, both hands gripping the broom, and disappeared from view, though she could still hear the repetitive thud of the broom followed by his dragging steps. She wondered what he'd tried to tell her before she'd refused to admit goodbye. She almost wished she'd let him finish his statement, but it was too late. She couldn't even find the energy to call after him.
With all warmth gone and all alone, she closed her eyes, wondering if it would be for the last time.
The rock remained frozen in Zeph's hand as he stared up at Virginia's face in the sky. He'd been halfway through putting out the fire when the Fallen broadcast came on; he shouldn't have been shocked to see the Eight girl dead since Clarke was right here, yet he still felt a somberness fill the air as her resolute eyes stared down upon the Arena.
Clarke stared at the ground. She'd looked away almost immediately after Virginia's face had appeared. Zeph bit his lip, suddenly acutely aware he still had no idea what had caused Virginia and Clarke to split, leaving Clarke empty-handed.
"You got any idea how?" he said, smothering the last flickers of light from the fire.
Denial. Just how a guilty person would act. He nodded towards the sky. "You know."
"Virginia?" She shook her head. "I know nothing."
He returned to his seat; he crossed his arms. He might've felt bad with anyone else, but this was the one person that'd gotten Zirconia killed. "You sure?"
She narrowed her eyes. "I don't know anything about how she died. Lay off, alright?"
He shot her a dirty look. To think that he'd felt bad enough to stop for her. He wondered where it had come from; he could barely find a shred remaining inside. Only thing keeping him from leaving right here and now was the thought that he'd at least get half a night's worth of sleep now when he wasn't alone.
"You got her killed like Zirconia?"
She cursed. "She took everything and left. That's all!" She'd raised her voice; she got to her feet, her gauntlets clanging. "Now if you hate me so much, I'll leave. Don't know why you thought you were being 'nice' by stopping."
"Suit yourself," he mumbled. "Hope you die of thirst."
She glared at him, seemingly a little hurt.
He looked away; he sighed. Without Zirconia here to get on his back about it, he'd have to watch his own tongue. Even if he felt a little justified about it. It wouldn't do him any good to make more enemies than necessary, at any rate. "Sorry. I'm being harsh."
"Didn't mean to say those things," he said, leaning back against the wall. "I'm… coping."
She stared at him. Her shoulders dropped. Apparently exhausted, her knees buckled and she sank back down to the ground.
"Aren't we all?"
Navarro's hands trembled. He shakily planted the broom down again with a thump; he pulled his foot forward in another dragged step that shot spires of fire through his abdomen, pulling tears up in his eyes.
He lurched. He caught himself against the well. He hung his head, allowing himself a moment of respite from the internally raging inferno that hurt like nothing else he'd ever experienced before. Neither the black eye and bruises from his first street fight nor his broken arm from the accident at the docks could compare to this.
Breathing heavily, he reached towards the wound, his fingers creeping ever closer to the center of the pain. He pressed his hand to the bandage. He found it sticky and wet; he jerked his hand away and into the moonlight, where he could see the blood smeared against his palm.
The movement must've reopened the wound, but there was nothing to be done about that now. Even if he turned back now he'd only find Azolla dying, desperately hoping through the dehydration that he would make it through. He couldn't show up with false hope, only to dash them to pieces the very next moment.
He could see the smoke from the Star Alliance's fire from here. Though the pain had finally just started to become tolerable, he forced himself to stick the broom out again and move, gritting his teeth and blinking the tears back because someone was waiting for him to return with the only thing that could save her life.
For himself, too, of course. He needed the water too. But somehow that seemed so much less important compared to Azolla. Utter nonsense, but Navarro was getting used to thinking utter nonsense.
As he approached the Star Alliance's camp, creeping in the shadows, he slowed his pace to keep his clumsy movements as silent as possible. He inched forward; he paused again. Any faster could leave him panting loudly—and then where would Azolla be?
He squinted at the figure sitting behind the campfire, who had a rope coiled around their shoulder. The boy from Ten; it had to be him, the one Azolla said who might have the slightest chance of sympathy.
Navarro looked to the left. Then to the right. Hands shaking more than ever before, he entered the street, wincing at his own noise. The Ten boy looked around for the source of the sound. His confused eyes, illuminated by firelight, seemed more kind than anything else.
Maybe Azolla had been right. Maybe there was a time for mercy, and that those who showed mercy would be shown it in return.
But then a sharp force from behind slammed him off-balance, immediately stabbing his gut with excruciating pain. A raw groan rushed from his throat as he crumpled unceremoniously to the ground, his nerves too frayed, muscles too weak to fight. He stared up helplessly, too exhausted and in pain to sneer or hate. The boy from Seven looked down on him, the regular smirk intact.
"Well, well, well. What do we have here?"
12. Virginia Bedford (D8F), sentenced to death by Sostonio Caspiano (D10M) and executed by Ven Piersson (D1M)
I've said this before, but Virginia was probably my favorite character. I could relate to so much of her personality even if her situation was nothing like my life, and I loved every moment of writing for her. There were so many times when I came this close to changing the whole story and making her the victor, but ultimately, I felt that her character fit better with this exploration of what might happen when someone tries to force themselves into a mold that just isn't them. I dearly miss her, and right now I'd like nothing more than an AU fic where Virginia and Ellis can just be happy together as good friends.
Ilithyia Aella (D2F): II
Ace Invidia (D3M): II
Adair Ryder (D7M): II
Clarke Brioche (D9F): II
Adora Noble (D1F): I
Ven Piersson (D1M): I
Eros Worshire (D2M): I
Virginia Bedford (D8F): I
Nevaeh Jiminez (D10F): I
A/N: I don't even get a chance to recover from the pain of this chapter and we're already set up for the next. How could I have been so cruel to myself?
Anyway, happy new year! This chapter comes with a major announcement, for my next story, Auld Lang Syne, is now open for submissions! It's not exactly an SYOT, and it might not be for everyone, but if you're interested, the details are both in the Discord channel and on my profile!
As the year ends and another begins, what has your favorite moment of Justice been so far? I finished intros last year on New Year's; everything from the Pre-Games till now has been 2021.
I'd love to know your thoughts!