Epilogue, Part Two.


Getting home was no easy feat, but Oksana supposes it was better than the alternative.

Though she's said it once before, she's more certain than ever that somehow the concept of death becomes even more terrifying once it's hanging over you. She lays back in her bed, complete with a brand new set of luxurious, plush blankets, and there is no dangerous fate over-head. No axe waiting to fall.

No, it's only the ceiling, her view of it occasionally interspersed by Raisa's tail flicking over her face. Though Konstantin's cat had always been the more independent sort, she hadn't left Oksana's side since she returned home. Even now she was pressed into the crook of her neck and shoulder, purring faintly. Though her gray fur tickled against Oksana's cheek, her warmth made it easier to settle.

From the corner of her eye she could just see the little collar she had bought her, the bell silent now that it was pressed firmly to the covers. She had taken to it with ease.

Before, Oksana couldn't afford to spoil even herself, let alone the cat. The business was still running, and she had returned to it even when her mother had suggested otherwise, but it had never allowed them to live with a silver spoon hanging from their mouths. There were far more customers now—her doing, so Ambrose said, but she didn't quite believe it, and the money from the Capitol tended to help a bit too.

Her mother seemed to check on her more often, even when she went into the shop. Her sisters stopped by for dinner every few days instead of months. And, somehow, Raisa seemed to have taken to her more than before, curling up at Oksana's feet when she went to sleep every night.

There were nightmares, of course. Days where she felt darker than others, as she had before. Oksana knew those were only to be anticipated—Ambrose had them too. Most of them did. Nothing within this was an instant fix; it involved work and patience, days where she cried her eyes out and others where she felt so light it was as if she could float away. That was life, though. The one she had to live now.

Konstantin would be proud of her. She knows that he's watching down on her now and smiling—perhaps more at Raisa's antics than her own, but smiling nonetheless.

He always made her happy. They bonded through unlikely stories, tales of kids born far from One who didn't quite fit into this new place. Together they could do anything, and once he was gone it felt, for a long time, that all of that was fading away. She was nothing without help. Nothing without someone to help her.

Oksana knew how wrong that was, now. In her own ways, even Raisa looked to her for comfort. She scratched her fingers between Raisa's ears and smiled.

It wasn't just the cat, though. She could help everyone else, too. Hold them close. Give them flowers whenever they were needed. Day by day, she would learn to help herself too.

No, it wasn't perfect, but like she said—

That was life.


His pen doesn't glide over the paper quite the same way anymore.

The trouble behind it doesn't upset Ambrose as much as he thought it would. He doesn't feel the expected desire to tear the many papers to shred, to spill ink across his desk or throw something across the room. No, he only sits. Works on it. Tries to be patient.

He's never been very good at that, but he tries.

Words came easier to him before, when he could sing them aloud to check how well they went together, to hear the flow. Now he can only murmur them under his breath, hum a tune that may or may not work. Granted, this process is much easier without his father's constant hounding, repeated conversations always about how he should be doing more, but it doesn't solve everything.

He's grateful for the support of his parents, now. They don't always know how to handle it, but they try, and that's more than Ambrose could ever ask of them.

One day, he tells himself. One day. He'll write the perfect piece and be able to sing it just as loud as he could before, on a street corner or possibly even a stage. As long as he works, Ambrose can go wherever he wants. The sky is the limit.

Today he's in his bedroom again, though, scribbling on another paper. Jasper is at his side, occasionally interjecting to make extremely unhelpful suggestions that only make him laugh. When Ambrose gets particularly frustrated, his brother drags him outside for a joking fencing match, still managing to beat him by a long shot. Somehow, getting knocked around a bit makes him feel better. Jasper doesn't treat him like he's breakable.

"What if you switched those two lines around?" Jasper asks, jabbing a finger to the most recent things he jotted down.

Ambrose immediately decides he's not doing that.

"Why are you asking him for help instead of the writer of the family?" Amalie interjects from the doorway. Jasper only snorts in response, kicking back in the chair until she pushes her way between them, studying the paper with keen eyes.

Amalie's never offered him any help before, and why would she? They're not necessarily one and the same. Her early writings aren't the lyrics he writes, but she's never offered to help before…

Of course he doesn't have to ask what's changed. Though they've all gotten used to the different pitch of his voice, how it changes as it begins to heal, sometimes it still hangs over them, impossibly heavy.

"Pull up a chair, then," he offers, scooting his own over to make room for her.

"How many Clarion's does it take to write a song?" Jasper wonders.

"Three," Amalie deadpans. "Learn to count."

He shoves her, then—not hard enough to knock her over, but she's squashed to Ambrose's shoulder for a moment before she regains her balance in the chair. As per Amalie's usual behavior, she turns to ignoring them in favor of picking up his rather disastrous paper, eyes flicking across each line. When she holds a hand out for his pen, he tries not to let his trepidation grow.

They all sit in silence as she scribbles something new down, though Jasper tries to sneak several non-discreet glances down at it.

Amalie finally hands him the paper, caps the pen. "What do you think?"

Ambrose always though he needed his voice—needed it like they needed air, or a fish in water. He was nothing without it in it's full magnitude. He doesn't have his voice quite yet to fill in the rather obvious gaps where his libretto will sometimes fall short.

But, as it turns out, he has his siblings. To distract him. To be with him. To compose something elaborate, something monumental.

Something, if he does say so himself, quite beautiful.


For her, looking in the mirror has never been the easiest of tasks.

When you had another person out there who looked the same as you, a carbon copy, a shadow self, there was almost no point to it. Whatever you saw in the mirror you would see around you regardless of whether you looked or not.

The details were much too small for anyone to notice—if even her parents couldn't pick up on them, there was zero hope for anyone else. Donatella remembers sitting in one of the many prep rooms, her hair smoothed and brushed back, face adorned with more make-up than she had ever worn in her entire life, and they had asked do you like it, Armina? Doesn't it look beautiful?

Her stomach had roiled and rumbled, her dinner threatening to make a hasty re-appearance. It had taken everything in her to keep it down and to nod her head, playing along with their little charades.

Sure they looked the same, but they weren't the same. Tella never had a particular attachment to her looks in the first place, and once Armina was gone trying to make note of them became nearly impossible. She imagined the worst sorts of things, instead—the fear in her sister's eyes, her skin blackened and burnt, sloughing away in the heat. Her well-maintained, pressed clothes engulfing her in flames, her hair going up like kindling.

When she looked in the mirror, it was all she saw.

She was trying, though. Trying was really all she could do at this point. Perhaps it wasn't her favorite thing, considered even a chore, but Tella was trying to see what everyone else saw.

Casi saw someone worth caring about. Her mentors and the kids that had trained alongside her saw something like a fighting spirit, something worth pushing. There was something in her still, just enough of a spark.

Tella tried to look for it when she worked up the nerve to glance in the mirror, finally, just that little flicker. Given enough time she could nurse it into something more, a controlled blaze that only warmed instead of destroyed. She could prove that owning fire wasn't always something dangerous, finally see something in the mirror other than careless destruction.

And… and she does, this time. She sees a girl—just a girl, eyes bright but tired, hair pulled back in a way that would have been too messy, too unbecoming of Armina. Finally she can do such things and not wonder if someone is looking at her sideways for it. At the end of the day she's nothing more than a girl struggling like the rest of them, trying to slot neatly someplace in this vast world.

A mirror is not the end-all-be-all. She's Donatella Fontes, no matter what the reflection staring back at her says. A part of her still harbors Armina, too, and likely always will.

There's not as much wrong with that as she once thought.

She will not allow a reflection to control her forever.


So he lets him go.

That doesn't mean it doesn't sting.

Sting is not even a powerful enough word. Milo's chest hurts at the mere thought, producing stabs of weakness whenever he thinks about it for too long. He told Micah to go home, even wants that for him more than anything.

But of course it still hurts.

Objectively speaking, Milo knows it's not forever. Still, not having him around will become obvious immediately, an open, yawning space by his side that Micah normally fills. The more and more time they spend together the worse he thinks it's going to hurt. That type of pain, though, is something he's not willing to trade. You know, once you take enough stabs, go down like a ton of bricks, nothing else seems to hurt quite as bad.

Even if it comes close.

He's known for some time now that today's the day, but Milo stays on the second floor where he belongs and waits for Micah to come to him. And, luckily for the entire state of affairs that continue to go on around him, he doesn't have to wait very long.

When the elevator door slides open behind him Milo doesn't allow himself to turn, instead using it as an excuse to mask the smile on his face as he hears the beginning of Micah's footsteps moving towards him. It's just a little thing, but aren't they all? Taking the elevator alone of all things means more than he'll likely ever know.

Though he remains facing the window, it makes him no less surprised when Micah eases closer and immediately folds his arms around Milo without words, burying his face in his chest.

He remains still for a moment, letting Micah wiggle himself into a comfortable position while he wraps his head, still, around this whole closeness business. Not that he minds it, because he really doesn't. It's just odd when he's spent so much time these past months putting distance between himself and other people, too afraid to catch them in the blast radius.

Milo can be afraid all he likes, still—Micah on the other hand has never been successful at being afraid of him.

Finally he reaches up, closing one arm around Micah's back while the other moves to his skull, fingers lacing carefully through his curls. Micah only nestles in deeper, a low hum of contentment escaping his mouth.

It could just be like this, easy and quiet, if he was capable of such a thing. "Try not to miss me too much, Eight."

Micah huffs out a quiet laugh. "I will miss you," he says. "Tons."

He releases Milo if only for a moment to reach around and swat at his arm, clearly trying to get his point across. Considering Micah's been his constant this last little while, he finally believes it. He'll miss Micah just as much as Micah will miss him, if not more. Even when he finally travels home—and that must be soon, it won't be enough of a distraction to stop Milo from missing him.

Micah turns his head, finally, allowing his eyes to rake over the cityscape Milo had seemingly been so invested in before. It's hard to focus on, now. "Promise me something."

"I'll try."

"Promise me that… that we'll survive this. That no matter what we'll keep trying."

"We will."

"Promise me that none of the mistakes that we made in the past will break us, one way or another. And promise me that this isn't the end."

Not just in the grand scheme of things—Milo knows what he means. He wants to know that this isn't the end of them, that the hope of something existing beyond place is still out there. To anyone else, these walls would seem magnificent. Almost grand. To him, and to most of them he's sure, it now feels smaller than ever. They've outgrown this place.

He lowers his chin onto Micah's head. Exhales. "This isn't the end," he swears. "I promise."


She's never been so relieved to not be stuck somewhere.

Don't get her wrong, the Training Center was decent enough. Fanciful and welcome, a far cry from the desolate space of her cell, filled with the dankness of cold air and mold festering in the walls. Even being there for the length of time that she was convinced her that she had never belonged anywhere less.

Still, Velcra knew what she deserved, and it was more. A space that was hers, where she could act like freedom was just at hand even if she was still being monitored. At the end of the day she could still lock the door against anyone who wished to barge in on her.

The apartment was… nice. Nicer than Velcra had expected it to be. Half of her anticipated being dumped in some hell-hole, where the pipes shuddered and wailed in the walls, heat or air that never properly clicked on. Velcra would be lucky to survive the winter. She didn't expect anyone to care about her condition or state of mind—as long as she could work, what did it matter of her?

The place Alessia takes her, complete with the last Peacekeeper escort she'll ever have here, is decidedly not that. Huge and sprawling, tucked away at the end of the hall. Velcra is still a secret here, far enough from any neighbors that they won't notice she's even around unless she makes it so. Velcra isn't about to jeopardize her place here, though. So long as she's getting satisfaction in other ways, her neighbors both big and small can remain free from torment.

For now this would be more than enough. Her work would keep her busy, the thought of her overwhelming future even more-so.

"I take it everything is to your liking?" Alessia asks. She's already made a thorough sweep of the apartment, disappearing for so long Velcra can only wonder about its true depths. Everything glimmers under the sunlight streaming in through the windows unbidden and clearly illuminating everything within her reach.

"Bold of you to assume," Velcra states, taking a few steps further into her new place. "But it's… nice."

"Nice," Alessia says flatly.

"It'll do," Velcra says. She drops her lone bag and flops back onto the couch, letting her arms sprawl out wide. "So—"

"I'm not done," Alessia interrupts. "Everything you could possibly need is in this apartment. Food, clothes, technology. Multiple contact numbers in case of emergency, or if you need anything. If you fail to make contact at the designated times you will be put back under supervision. Understood?"

"Harsh," she says. "But I think I can manage."

Alessia nods—something in her eyes suggests she doesn't quite believe Velcra, at least not all the way. People rarely do. Somehow, though, even despite the warning signs they fail to realize she's working against them until it's too late. Alessia knows of her capabilities, but these people she needs to find, the ones who truly deserve her revenge… that's who Velcra is focused on, and they have no idea.

She has to hand it to whoever concocted this plan—they knew where to hit, to get her to agree. They may just come to regret it once they see her in action.

Finally she sits up, much more prim and proper. Velcra even folds her hands over her knees, looking ever much like a complaint, good little worker bee.

She can manage that for a while.

"So," she says with a smile. "When do I start?"


Another day, another session with Dr. Calloway.

Synen, he always says. Please feel free to call me Synen. Like this is some sort of interpersonal relationship, or like they're friends.

Mazzen never got to meet any of his grandparents, but he likes to imagine that Synen is pretty run of the mill for the type. Fairly soft-spoken, good at dishing out advice, and patience from many years of various trials and tribulations.

It would be odd to be friends with your therapist, wouldn't it? Mazzen wouldn't necessarily mind it. Synen hasn't steered him wrong thus far, and so Mazzen hasn't given a reason just yet to push him away. Tarquin, and whoever else was involved, did their proper research before they sent Mazzen back here.

"I have some news for you," Dr. Calloway or Synen or whatever he's supposed to call him says. "If you want it, and if it's clear that it stays in this room."

"Is it good or bad?" Mazzen asks warily. His hands clench, skin lighting up with fresh goosebumps at the mere prospect of it being bad. He can't handle anything else, not when he's finally learning how to breathe again. Mazzen needs two things, those being peace and time. As long as he has those he doesn't need bad news.

"For you, I'd reckon good," Synen says. "But it's up to you."

"Tell me," he says quickly, ignoring his desire to clamp down on the words. Avoiding his own curiosity will only drag him down in the long run. Mazzen leans forward in anticipation, trying not to look too eager or nervous either way. If Synen suspects this will somehow make things worse despite the nature of the news, he won't spill it at all.

"I'm sure you'll be delighted to know," Synen says. "That Miss Leight will be staying in the Capitol for the foreseeable future."

Mazzen blinks. His blood heats, sending a vicious flush through his entire body. For a second everything spins, a heavy fog descending over him at the mention of her name alone, hanging over him like some sort of executioner.

And then— "She's not coming back?"

"I don't know the explicit details, but it appears now."

He lets out a shuddering breath, his chest shaking with the exertion. Mazzen wants nothing more than to crawl in a hole where no one can hear him and scream, for so many reasons he's unable to place them. She's not coming back, not anywhere near him. He's free. He's free of Velcra?

Mazzen's eyes well heavy with tears—it's not just him, really, but so many other kids that could have been the unfortunate victims of her. He doesn't have to think about her anymore, doesn't have to worry about what she could do or what she's planning. Just like everyone else here, he can exist normally. You know, live an every-day, average life, working through the bumps and hurdles like so many before him?

"I did tell you it was good," Synen tries. "Though I'm beginning to suspect you didn't believe me."

Seeing is believing, but… but he'll never see her again, most likely. If Mazzen gets his way, that would be certain. By the time one Velcra Leight ever leaves the Capitol, he'll have forged something stronger than her. He'll build himself back up into someone who rushes into things without fear—someone, who given enough time, will not be scared of monsters again.

That time will come, too. But for now he can just move on, as foreign as it sounds.

But it sounds better than anything else.


"Hey!" Taeja shouts into her ear, earning a wince from Devan's end. "Guess who's here?"

It's just another day in the life, really. The music thumping so loud it's reverberating through her bones, a tad too much alcohol including the cup in her hand that Taeja keeps refilling, and yet another party that could very well get her into some heavy-handed trouble.

But, at least, no more trouble like the fucking Hunger Games. Worst case scenario, she ends up in the drunk tank for the night. Devan's been through worse.

She turns towards her friend, one of the only people who hasn't been ogling her all night in some respect, but stops. Taeja doesn't have to tell her who exactly is here, no, because Devan sees it clear as day. It could just be the liquor thrumming through her veins, but she feels bold—even bolder than her day-to-day. Alongside that is heated anger, and that's what makes her shove her half-full cup into Taeja's chest, no doubt drenching her to the waist.

Instead of complaining, or even holding Devan back, Taeja thrusts both full hands up high into the air and cheers. "Go get 'em, Dev! I'm betting on you."

She better be.

There's no end to the amount of staring she's on the receiving end of as Devan begins to push her way throughout the throng of drunken teenagers. Some of them are so far gone they don't even recognize her, but the ones who do look at her like she's some sort of miracle. That, or she's the hottest shit around town, and let's be real, she is. Not just anyone can say they came back from the dead.

Devan lets them all stare. One by one, they begin to figure out where she's going, the figure in the crowd quite easily picked out. She'll give him some credit where it's due—he's an impressive specimen. Basic, at his core, and really no better than any other boy you could pick out of Four, but at least he's tall.

That doesn't stop her. If anything, it only pushes her faster, eager to get to him before he's even figured it out. Not going to see it coming, is he?

That's revenge at its finest. Slightly liquor-fueled, but nonetheless justified revenge.

She thinks only of what Varrik told her in training. Four curled fingers, thumb tucked around the inside. When she's five feet away Devan stretches as high as she can manage, winding her arm back—

When Tristan Adair turns around to face her, timing nearly impeccable, she socks him square in the face.

A collective noise of exhilaration rushes through the crowd. There are some raucous screams, some horrified gasps. Devan swallows down a multitude of obscenities, shaking out her hand finger by finger. The only crack she happened to hear, though, was the one directly from his now slightly off-set nose, blood streaming down over his lips and down his chin.

In just a moment, he looks less than perfect. It's the ideal look for someone like him.

"Bet you know who that's from," she snaps. If anyone around wasn't looking at her before, they certainly are now. "If you keep showing up wherever I am, I'll keep doing it."

It's another boy behind them that interrupts Tristan's shocked silence, moving in to do something—something he may have succeeded in if Dalina hadn't barreled between them at the precise moment, sweeping her back and into Taeja's arms. Her friend is hooting and hollering into her ear, shaking Devan around like they just won the lottery.

And, in a way, they sort of did. That's a victory. Maybe Tristan's not a monster, not evil like anything she faced, but he deserved it.

Besides. She needs a story or two to tell Varrik, once he's back.


He's resorted to doing a puzzle.

Yes, a puzzle. Something one of the random, still-lingering escorts tracked down for him when she saw just how batshit insane he was going being stuck here.

It has to end. That's all he keeps telling himself. One day he'll stop staring at puzzle pieces and be allowed on a hovercraft and everything will be fine again, okay, totally fine, just like how it was in Four in the first place.

If Varrik is more than slightly delusional, that's fine in his book. He's calling it a by-product of being stuck here and nothing more. Staring at a thousand-odd puzzle pieces isn't helping, especially when they're all the same damn shade of blue. If the escort thought it would be funny to make him put together a water scene, she's very incorrect. It's giving him something to do, sure, but is it just making things worse in the end?

Considering he hasn't yet found the end, he'll find out sooner or later.

Varrik finds himself in numerous questionable positions over the course of the next hour trying to track down pieces and make sense of the pictures that seem to blend into one. Eventually he ends up hanging over the couch cushions, upside down like some sort of freakish bat, but even looking at it from a vastly different angle changes nothing.

There's not much that would. He needs to go, move, have someone to talk to. Anything other than just sitting here.

A hand taps at his legs, strewn over the back of the couch, and Varrik contorts nearly into a pretzel trying to turn himself about to get a good look at the intrusion. Rory's face, right-side-up, doesn't look nearly as perplexed as it may have once upon a time. Good for him, really—he's finally getting used to Varrik's antics after so long.

"Having fun down there?" Rory asks.

"Oh, the most," Varrik drawls, wiggling himself back into a horizontal position. "Unless you happen to have something better, in which case I will totally do that over this hellish thing…"

He wasn't hopeful in the slightest, not until Rory holds up a single sheet of paper. A creased envelope is tucked beneath his arm, something Varrik hadn't even found himself drawn to until this moment. "What's that?" he asks, his curiosity beyond piqued. Rory doesn't normally interrupt his strangest moments unless it's important.

"A requisition form," Rory answers. "Signed by Dr. Shoah Jensen."

"Hm," Varrik says slowly. "I have no idea what that means."

Rory hands him the paper, and Varrik holds it up over his face for quite some time, letting his eyes skim over the words more than once. Even then it still doesn't quite sink in, not until he looks up to find happiness shimmering in Rory's eyes, a pleased smile on his face.

"Does this mean…?"

"She signed off on it. You can go home, if that's what you want."

Varrik doesn't think twice before throwing the paper carelessly into the air, and dives over the back of the couch straight into Rory's arms. He nearly bowls them both over into the carpet, Rory's laughs interspersed with the shuffling of their feet as he struggles to keep them upright. "You don't have to hug me," he says, clearly amused, but he's allowing it all the same.

"I will do whatever I need to if you get me out of here right the hell now," Varrik tells him, still squeezing him as tight as he dares. No use in killing his mentor before he can send him home. "Hovercraft? Where is it?"

"How about tomorrow morning?" Rory laughs. "Good enough for you?"

Even that doesn't squash his joyous reaction. He's going to get on a hovercraft tomorrow, permission fully granted. He's going home!

Never before has the prospect of such a thing sounded so much like music to his ears.


When she finally heads back to the house—yes, that house, the very cursed thing that got her killed in the first place if you ignore her own reckless stupidity, Inara does it alone.

There are many options for her now. At the drop of a time she could make a phone-call and get someone to do it for her. She could even get a security detail to escort her there and ensure that she was safe the entire time. If Inara really wanted to push her luck, she would have brought some of the girls along with her. Safety in numbers, and all of that.

She would never force them back into such torment, though, no matter how fleeting it may be. They didn't deserve to be in such close proximity to the two people that had made their lives a living hell for so long.

Inara volunteered in the first place to get them away, and she was strong enough to do one last thing. Collect a pair of shoes, ratty but sentimental, that Gilda was missing. Track down Kanea's childhood bear, the only thing she had left of her old life. Scrape together every last thing they had left behind and never look back.

The bag cast over her shoulder felt light, and she couldn't wait to fill it and walk away for good.

They key is still under the lone cracked pot out back, and the rickety door gives way easily under her advances. Somewhere further in the house, a quiet conversation peters to a halt. Inara can't help but be surprised that the Sisters are even still here—nothing remains here any longer for them. They may as well cut their losses and run before the authorities drop down on them.

The idea is tempting, Inara will admit.

She crosses the threshold into the kitchen blank-faced, regarding each of the Sisters with a neutral expression. "I'm just here to get a few things," she says simply. "And then I'll be gone."

She's halfway up the stairs when one of them finally calls out. "And who said you could do that?"

"I did," she fires back, though she hears the sound of footsteps starting after her. There's a reason a comfortable weight is fit snugly into her back pocket—one of the first purchases Inara made with her newfound funds was a switchblade the size of her hand when extended. She didn't want to hurt anyone, but these two were a special breed. If anyone deserved it, it was them. Especially if they tried to hurt her one last time.

Inara had suffered enough abuse at their hands, taking hits and verbal assaults on the daily to try and shield the girls younger than her, even if often it wasn't enough. Knowing that she was free of them made her walk more confident as she began searching around the main room, collecting things one at a time.

"You can't be in here," one says behind her, still.

"You should go," the other says. They still sound so similar, and her distance between them renders Inara's detective skills in telling them apart almost useless. "Now."

She clutches Kanea's lost bear in one hand and fits her other hand into her back pocket when she turns to face them, fingers closing around the knife. Just in case. "Or what?"

Or nothing. They only partake in crimes they can get away with, and putting Inara in harm's way will land them somewhere far worse than this house. The girls know she's here, and if she doesn't return they know to sound the alarm. Thankfully, there is still more than enough distance kept between them. Inara knows the window behind her is open, the same one the kids shimmied out of to return to her in the first place.

"Word of advice," Inara states. "Never hurt another kid again. If you do, I may not be so kind the next time I decide to show up."

Before they can get a word in otherwise, Inara slips into a crouch, out the window, and tosses the now-full bag into the street below before she begins to crawl down after that. Both Sisters poke their heads out after her, struggling to find the room to watch as she lands with both feet on the ground, returning the bag to her back once again.

Just before she turns to go, Inara raises a hand to them. A mocking salute, if nothing else. It's not words, but it's more than enough. They know, now.

And that's a promise.


He's been slowly packing up his things, though Rex isn't sure why.

He was told to, he thinks. Or at least it was a suggestion. Rex can't even remember who brought it up in the first place, or why exactly he chose to listen, but it's keeping him busy enough. Idle hands have never been good, in Rex's eyes.

At least finding something else for them to do means they don't constantly itch for a hammer.

Rex still jumps when his door opens suddenly, for some reason not expecting Shoah of all people. He really should learn to get used to that, considering how much of his time they spend together. The only time she comes up here, really, is to make sure he gets to bed. Never does she linger.

"Sorry for startling you," she apologizes, observant as ever. "Packing's going well, I see."

Rex nods, even though he's not sure of the exact truth. He's been emptying drawers methodically, sure, but why? None of this shit is really his, he just started laying claim to it after so many days, wearing unfamiliar clothes and charading around like a good little kid, not a product of some bastard father and a dead, traitor mother.

He finishes stuffing a shirt into a spare corner, uncaring for the wrinkles. He can hear his father's voice, the biting you stupid, worthless piece of shit, you don't take care of nothing, you hear me? and begs to hear something else.

His reply is rushed. "Why am I packing, exactly?

Shoah sits at the end of his bed, always too large for his small frame, and makes herself at home. "Come sit," she offers, patting the space next to her. "I'd like to ask you something."

Rex drops what he's doing with haste, trying to ignore the intrusive thoughts bouncing about between his ears. She's figured it out, hasn't she—figured him out. Shoah knows what he's done and is playing at a charade, conning him into playing along. She's just biding her time until they can lock him up—

"I'd like to take you in," she says, so matter of fact he startles once again. "If you'd like that."

Take him in… take him in where? Not to Five, obviously. Rex was told that he wasn't going back there. There's no explanation, no clarification. If he wasn't trying to do better he'd call her stupid to her face, ask why she couldn't just be clear for once, no beating around the bush.

But Rex is trying. And realizing, slowly, what she means.

He thinks anyway.

"You want to take me in," he says slowly, sounding ever the picture of an idiot himself. "Like… like keep me?"

"Well, I wouldn't word it quite like that," Shoah says. "You're not a dog I'm adopting from the shelter. If you want, you can come to live with me. They'll sign over your guardianship."

Oh. Oh, oh no. She wants him, just as he is, even if she doesn't know. Rex already promised himself that she never would, but whatever Shoah has seen otherwise had made her care. He knew that, even if it was hard to recognize. Instead of shoving him away, screaming in his face, letting spittle fly, she wants him here.

His eyes fill with tears, with weakness. Weak piece of shit, that's something else his father would say, and Rex would scream it back at him no hesitation.

He doesn't want to cry.

"Would you like that?" Shoah asks, and he nods helplessly, unable to help himself. It's dangerous—it always will be, he thinks, to tread around someone who has no idea, but Rex can't even allow himself to refuse. This is his chance, and it might be the only one he's ever going to get.

Shoah looks so jovial at his response, too, that he feels his own chest swell with happiness. He's doing something right. He's good, Rex can be good, he can figure this out.

Rex can't remember the last time someone hugged him, but she meets him halfway when he reaches out, arms trembling. When squeezes him it's warm, like the true embrace of a caregiver should be. Shoah cares about him—he doesn't deserve it, never will, but something Rex has done has inclined her towards him.

And it's worth it. All of it. It's worth it.


"No one's going to bite," Cal attempts, holding open the front door of the gym, waiting for her. "And if they do, bite them back."

"Sounds tasteful," Ilaria mutters, though she slips past him and into the main room regardless.

There are eyes instantly. Far too many. Ilaria feels herself claim up almost subconsciously, shoulders turned inwards, until Cal nudges her forwards. "That way," he instructs. "We'll go into one of the back rooms—less people. You can blow off some much needed steam."

"I don't need to blow off any steam," she protests, but finds herself following his instructions regardless. At least with Cal on her heels Ilaria feels more comfortable being in here. If she wasn't welcome, he wouldn't try it. Not many people are so trustworthy in this world, but Ilaria knows she can trust him.

The back rooms are better, too. Smaller, each filled with maybe half a dozen people. The one Cal finally directs her into has punching bags hanging from the cement ceiling supported by thick, heavy chains that clank and swing as fists and feet are driven into them. Most hardly spare her a glance, and if they do it's fleeting.

Cal drops their things against the far wall unceremoniously. "You do too much damn housework cleaning up that place to not have to blow off some steam," he says, sounding much more insistent than usual. Apparently the more time they spend together the bolder Cal feels in voicing his opinions.

"I'm fine," she insists, but grudgingly reaches for the wrappings he extends to her, already prepared to wind them over her knuckles.

And she is fine. Really. Ilaria feels better every-day, less paranoid. Sure, she's throwing herself into things with zero abandon, helping out Ceto and taking on more than she possibly should, but it's good for her. Ilaria likes being busy and not having to think about much else.

"You'll feel better once you punch something," Cal says, and he's probably not wrong. Him and Licia both seemed to feel leagues better once they returned from the Training Center gymnasium no matter how long they spent down there. Besides, this is something he likes, one of his few, if any, passions. Cal letting her in like this means more from his end than he likely even realizes.

Besidess, he's watching her back. Even as he turns back to their belongings to busy himself with something she remains uninvolved with, she knows he will remain vigilant.

Ilaria finishes wrapping the bandages around her slowly, turning towards one of the bags with some skepticism. She did this probably hundreds of times with Ceto during her bouts of training to build her strength, but it's different now. Across the room she can see her reflection in a spotty mirror, hear the huffing breaths of everyone around her partaking in similar actions.

Cal is right, though, most certainly—this will help. Ilaria winds back, feet digging into the floor, and backs up directly into something.

Someone, really.

The girl behind her lets out a muffled noise of surprise, managing to steady herself before she stumbles away. Ilaria feels panic only for a moment until she realizes she doesn't recognize her, that she's not a threat at all. As fast as he looks over, Cal's head swivels back to the bags. Whatever's happening here is not a threat.

"Sorry," Ilaria says, only for the other girl to utter it at the same time. She smiles, holding her hands up.

"No worries," she replies. "I should, uh… learn not to get too close. Sorry."

Whoever this girl is, she recognizes Ilaria, and who doesn't. She just keeps on smiling, though, and there's something soft about it. Perhaps a bit gentle for a place such as this, capable of harboring such brutality, but she must be able to handle herself if she's stuck around this long.

"I'll leave you to it," she says, nodding her head towards the bag Ilaria had claimed. "You're Ilaria, right?"

She nods. It's nice, for once, to pretend that this is a casual meeting between two strangers, nothing odd or worrying about it at all. The girl nods too, and looks like she just resists the urge to stick out her hand. If she had, Ilaria may have laughed.

"I'm Rivian," she says instead, letting out a quiet chuckle. "I guess I'll see you around?"

Rivian is gone before she can get a word in otherwise, but before she disappears she turns back, just once. When she smiles once again, Ilaria feels herself smile back.

Behind her, she hears Cal snort.

She does her best to ignore it.


Cal needs to stop getting so attached.

He always knew he had a problem, in some respect. That insatiable desire for more, his greed for wealth and a proper place to call his home, to not be stuck in the dumps for the rest of his life.

But this… this place is nothing special. Ceto and Ilaria have done a fair job maintaining it over the years, restoring it to something that almost looks brand-new, but anyone with a working pair of eyes would know otherwise. The floor always creaks, sometimes too loud. On blustery nights the wind whistles through the hallway like some sort of phantom. The paint chips in places, the wood floor beneath him dips and shifts, and there are just too many ancient signs for it to be anything but.

Cal likes it, though. That's his problem. Against his own wishes he likes the room Ceto set up for him and the cramped bathroom just off of it, one that belongs only to him. He likes that, even though it's old, the water in the shower always nearly scorches his skin. Cal likes having people around that like him.

Before he even realizes it, he's spending more nights in that damn hotel, more a home than one anyway, than the apartment he recently acquired.

It's a problem he didn't expect to have, and not entirely a bad one. Cal wishes he could hate it more.

Today he didn't even bother knocking, didn't announce his arrival or make haste to find anyone. He returned quietly to his room and his shower, his collection of belongings that he had been randomly and unintentionally leaving behind over the past few weeks. Spare clothes, extra shoes, his gym bag more and more often. Ceto was beginning to make extra food without asking. Ilaria was never startled to see anymore.

When he approaches her room tonight, though, force of habit still has him knocking just in case. She, much like him, looks like she just finally crawled out of the bed, sprawled out at the end of her bed with a spare towel still hanging from the top of the door. More than he's grateful for even being given this, Cal is quite happy that she seems to be relaxing. For a while there she looked too haunted, like she wouldn't come back from it.

There's a whole multitude of reasons for it, too. "So," he starts slowly. "I heard you were at the gym this morning, without me. Enjoying it, are you?"

"So what if I am?" she asks, challenging. They can poke and prod at each other these days, too. It's nice.

"I told you so," Cal reminds her, stepping forward to lean against the bed-frame. "Is that the only reason, though?"

The look she casts up on him is suspicious, but he senses something else. Dread, that she quickly shoves away. He doesn't understand whatsoever the newfound, slight flush to her face, but to each their own. Clearly it's making her happy, and her silence is clear enough evidence. All Cal wanted to do was make sure he was right, at least about this one thing.

"Good to know," he says, and her next look is downright irritated. Clearly Ilaria doesn't like being read, but they know each other well enough now that it's easy. "Anyway, Rivian Vermorel, is it? She seems nice."

"Shut up."

"I was just—"

"Shut up, Cal," she says with a laugh, reaching over to snatch up a pillow that she launches directly at his face. The mouthful of fabric he receives is more than enough to finish the job for her. He hasn't felt anywhere near a kid in a long ass time, and won't pretend to be one now or anymore, but just for a second he feels lighter.

Cal really ought to stop finding a way to complain about all the things making him feel such a way.


When the day finally comes, Lex refuses to allow it to break her.

Delaney was never going to stay permanently; Lex knew it from the beginning. Instead of trying to delude herself to the fact, if anything she spent the time hardening her exterior so that it would hurt less. Every day she opened her eyes and mentally prepared herself for it.

It takes longer than expected. Delaney's reluctance to go was obvious, but she had a life to go back to. A home and a husband and a job in a place that she loved, somewhere Lex will be able to visit one day now that she has the chance to.

She walks her sister to the train station, even, the two of them side-by-side. Delaney keeps their arms looped together like they're children being forced to tether according to their parents, each of them loaded up with equal weight despite her insistence to take more. Delaney has always been smaller than her, more slight—dare she say it, but she didn't believe her sister ever had any of that same desire Lex did to look like anything impressive.

Had that really mattered, though? Delaney was still everything to her, had been since she was old enough to grasp the concept. What she lacked in her size she made up tenfold in attitude… and maybe, just maybe, that was something Lex hadn't quite grasped yet.

She was working on it. Had more than enough time to do so now, apparently.

Unfortunately for them both, Delaney is a bit of a crier, too. When they turn towards each-other her sister's eyes are already misty, cheeks slightly reddened from the wind. It makes the differences between them all the more noticeable—Lex stone-faced, statuesque, managing to hold it together, Delaney's touching display of sensitivity.

She leans down to hug her sister in a way she wouldn't allow herself previously, at least not so publicly. It feels nice to show the world that Alexa Karamov isn't an unfeeling titan, as nice as it would be. "I'll be there by the end of the summer," she vows, squeezing her tight. "While it's still warm enough to swim."

"It's always warm enough to swim," Delaney says teasingly, but her voice is thick with tears she hasn't yet allowed herself to shed.

Lex doesn't even recall this being so emotional when Delaney moved away in the first place, when they had little to no idea what would become of their relationship. They had hugged. Her parents hired a driver to bring all of her stuff to the station for easy transport. At that point in time it hadn't seemed like Delaney was going so far away at all, so what had changed?

Deep down, Lex knew. A part of her had cracked open, and the people she allowed herself to care about, few as they were, crawled in deeper and nestled inside of her. Every time they split apart it was as if Lex was losing a piece of herself.

This won't break her. She's more than capable of surviving on her own.

"Remember, if you need anything, you call me," Delaney reminds her. "Whatever it is, no matter the time. I'll be ready for it."

As if she would be anything less. Lex already knows that she could call her sister with no warning and have a shoulder to lean on, an ear ready to listen. The moment she tells Delaney she's bought a ticket for Four, her sister will have the guest room made up and ready for her, no questions asked.

None of this ever would have happened had Lex not died. Somehow, through death, she gained more than she really deserved. A part of her seemed to be growing, too. Delaney leaving is a terrible thing, but not earth-shattering. Like she said, she can survive this.

She has to get through something, after all.


Though he sees them from a distance, far away on the train's next platform, Veles keeps his distance.

He's not used to this—skulking around, keeping his head down, avoiding the general public's eye, but it's what he has to do now. At least for now. Once he's out of Seven Veles can do whatever the hell he likes, especially in the Capitol.

Besides, the last thing he needs is for Alexa fucking Karamov, locked in such a loving embrace with what must certainly be her sister, to notice him. To come over here and rub it in his face that she has a home, a life to return to, and he has nothing. Just a bag over his shoulder filled with enough to get by and a half-cocked plan to somehow gain more in the future. The most important thing of all is the measly ticket clutched in his left hand, the wind trying to pull it free from his fingers.

It's his way out. His future. Like hell Veles is letting go of it.

He watches the people come and go from his peripherals. Even keeping a low profile Veles knows that people recognize him, though none really seem to care. Why would they, too, when they know he's worth nothing now?

What is Seven going to do when he rises back up but beg for his mercy? He'll have more fortune from the Capitol than all of the merchants and business-owners here combined—he'll take it all back, one by one, starting with his father's company. Once he can get his hands on enough to satiate Verbena, it's game over.

He sees the train pull in, finally—his train, the one attached to the loudspeaker announcing its destination: the Capitol. Few people move towards it, but enough come teeming off, tourists and newcomers alike off to adventure into the great unknown. Apparently not as many are so keen to head to the Capitol, not like him.

Veles gets as close as he can, filing into the line like a good little citizen. No use in drawing attention now. Just ahead the tickets are taken one by one, faces studied to confirm identities. Will they question him? Will they ask why? Certainly someone has to wonder, even if it's a stranger. Someone has to care


He doesn't look up. Doesn't have to. Veles knows who the voice belongs to, and keeps his head down anyway. The man at the front of the line takes his ticket without question, eyes hesitating on Veles' face for only a moment before he waves him forward. No one cares.


Much closer, now. Demanding. Almost desperate. Veles steps onto the train and a few feet down the aisle before he dares look out the window, finding her immediately.

Iva is right at the edge of the platform, close enough now that she could have reached out and touched him while he waited in line, had she wanted to. Her eyes are wide, and certainly disbelieving. The news must have finally spread around the house like wildfire, and of course she's the only one who cares, his lone sibling who ever gave a damn. If only that was enough.

She says something, so he suspects. He sees her mouth move, but hears none of it. Her arm is slightly outstretched, as if she was reaching for him. Too late. Far too late, all of it. He puts his head back down and pushes on further down the aisle, off to find a seat that doesn't involve watching her until the train finally pulls out.

Iva couldn't convince him to stay, anyway. Not a chance in hell. There's nothing left here for him anymore.

Not even her.


They really ought to stop doing this.

Penny has never really been the sneaking around type. Not for most of her life, anyway. Of course she became used to it through trial and tribulation, so many hours spent attempting to avoid her father, but it wasn't Penny's preferred movement. She liked being loud, making an impression. Penny liked people seeing her.

At least when she tended in that direction she was doing it for a reason. From sneaking out of the Training Center itself to explore the outside world, to taking stairwells that really ought to be locked all the way into the bowels of the building, far into the prep stations, everything had its reasoning.

To be fair, though, this one was Lisse's idea. Penny will always resort to blaming Lisse for things even if it was her complaints that ushered them down here in the first place.

Sue her, alright? Her hair was getting too long, and like hell she's going to butcher it off with a pair of scissors or even a knife that happens to be lying around upstairs. Penny doesn't need to be the pinnacle of put-togetherness, but she'd really prefer not to look like a hack-job.

Some could say that letting Lisse drag her down here to do the job herself was asking for it anyway.

"You know, they didn't even touch my hair," Penny hisses. "What were they going to do? Make me bald?"

"Well, they trimmed mine," Lisse fires back. "I think it was this one…"

She tries a door three down, jiggling the handle until it pops open. It's the exact same as the rest of the prep rooms Lisse has searched thus far, so Penny has no idea how she's judging their appearances. The racket she begins making as she roots through drawer after drawer is going to draw someone down here sooner rather than later, if the obvious cameras out in the hall don't. They're not exactly being subtle here.

Penny knows she could have asked Vance. Asked anyone, really, other than Lisse and her terrible ideas. There's something about the thrill of it though, the casual freedom. No one here would ever threaten her for something so small, not like her father would.

Sometimes she can't help but wonder if he misses her, if he thinks about her. Probably not, but the delusional, child-like part of her still wishes he could be better than he was. Granted she's here because of him with no plans ever to return, but it would be nice to think that he cared even as she turns to gallivanting across the world.

Or, evidently, just in the prep rooms.

"Aha!" Lisse cries triumphantly, returning with a pair of small scissors in one hand and a close-cut trimmer in the other, brandishing them both like true weapons. "Sit, please. I'll take payment after we're done."

"You are going to destroy my hair."

"I will not!"


"Penny," she whines. "Why would I ever make you look funny? I'm the one that has to spend time with you."

"Right," she deadpans. "Silly me. I'll try not to ruin your stellar reputation too much with my haircut."

She sits down in the chair with a thump, trying not to stare too intently at herself in the mirror. Regardless, she needs a haircut, and it feels a lot like normalcy, even if Lisse is almost certainly about to destroy her. If nothing else, they'll get some good laughs out of it, and Penny will take as many of those as she can get, for the rest of her life.

Besides, hair grows back. It won't be the end of the world.

There are far more terrible things she could be facing.


"They know I'm here, right?" Micah asks, trying not to let the immediate familiarity of Eight overwhelm him.

They have to know. His family is out there, somewhere. They've been waiting.

"As far as I know, they've been informed," Kiero confirms. "I'm sure they'll be here any minute."

Micah's heart is in his throat—for many reasons, too. Of course one of the big ones is that he's standing by the railroad tracks with a victor he just met all of ten minutes ago, if that. Don't get him wrong, Kiero is nice and pleasant and everything good in the world, it seems, but he's a far cry from the comfort Micah had began to find in so many of the people back in the Capitol.

And his family still isn't here. Sure, he could start walking home, but what if they're on the way and they just happen to be taking different roads? Micah doesn't want to miss them. He couldn't handle missing them at this point.

Kiero said they know, so they'll be coming. It's not like they all hate him. His family hasn't tossed him to the wayside in the wake of everything that's happened.

His chest hurts. His breathing is too quick. Micah wants a hug more than ever and there's no one to give him one, not unless he plans on asking Kiero. No Milo or Oksana or anyone willing to offer it. He's just alone, mostly, the humid air of Eight sticking to his skin as the sun tries to cut through the near-permanent smog in the sky.

Micah needs them. They don't hate him. He watched those interviews, as much as they hurt. Watched his parents cry and his siblings hold onto each other and they want him back. He shouldn't be worrying at all.

If Micah was anyone else, he's sure he wouldn't be.

"Hey," Kiero says suddenly, and Micah stands immediately at attention, glancing around. It's not until Kiero points off to his left, towards a little side-street, that his hope soars. That's the quickest way back home, and his brain knows it. The initial figure is small at first, practically tripping over themselves, and they don't grow much bigger even as they hurtle closer.

That's a sure sign of family if he's ever seen it.

Micah drops his lone bag, taking a few shaky steps forward. He doesn't make it very far. It's like he's forgotten how to move properly, all functioning having ceased.

He's just waiting for Leighton to do all the work.

She shrieks out something in the five feet before she collides with him, a garbled mess of words that don't make sense at all. When she hits him, it's with all the force of a speeding truck. Neither of them have any hope in staying upright, though the pain he feels when he goes crashing to the ground with his sister crushing the air from his lungs is more than worth it.

It's hard to tell if she's sobbing or laughing or both, somehow, at the same time. Her incoherent words are interspersed with harsh panting against his shoulder, like she ran all the way here. Judging by her sweat-slicked skin as she clutches at him, it seems more than likely. No wonder she beat everyone here, with his parents likely wrangling everyone else into something semi-organized.

Which means they're coming, though. Micah doesn't care what the conglomeration looks like as long as they're here.

"You jackass," Leighton mumbles, voice thick. "What took you so damn long?"

His back is still sore from the fall, Leighton's weight still teetering unevenly on top of him, but Micah hardly feels any of it. "Got some stories to tell you," he manages, the sting in his own eyes for once unbelievably welcoming.

"I bet you do," she manages through a half-laugh, half-snivel. Man, she doesn't have the faintest clue. Not even the slightest idea.

But she's about to. Micah has all the time in the world for stories, now.

And now he has people to hear them.


When Taryn first suggests it, and dare she say it even makes a pushy request, Marigold has half a mind to refuse.

It's something they would do before. You know, have a carefree day, just the two of them. Galavant off to wherever they pleased, spend money at the nicer merchant-run stalls in the town square. They would sneak a bottle of old champagne from Taryn's mother's bureau and giggle to each-other long into the evening, messing with hair and make-up and anything they could get their hands on.

It felt beyond silly, now, to partake in such things. Marigold had been blind to the ways of the world then, or was at least allowing herself to be blinded. She knew from past experience that things weren't always so kind—her old house proved that well enough, his parents previous jobs. Nothing was as grand or frivolous as it was here, in the lap of luxury.

She had everything she wanted, now, and perhaps thinking poorly of it now was downright stupid, but Marigold knew better now.

Taryn wants to, though. Taryn who has been so good to her, the best friend anyone could ask for. Her eyes are practically pleading as she turns the request on Marigold, and what right does she have to refuse it?

She was noticed now, that was for sure. Everyone looked at her whether she wanted to or not. Taryn pulled her through the streets, the two of them arm in arm, and smiled at everyone that passed. The attention was nice, that she couldn't lie about, but something in her was still relieved when they eventually turned to the relative quiet of Taryn's gated property.

And, lucky for Marigold, Taryn quickly volunteered to sneak something upstairs for the two of them. She took her leave in Taryn's bedroom to wait, cross-legged on the floor instead of sprawled out on the bed like so many times before.

It's weird to be in here again. When you're waiting at death's door, showing up anywhere once again is odd. Marigold never thought she'd have the opportunity to hug her best friend, especially when she didn't even say a proper goodbye in the first place, let alone rest in her room like old times sake, not a care in the world.

Marigold is grateful—beyond that, even, and unable to find words to properly describe it.

It just doesn't feel the same anymore.

When Taryn finally shows up, a bottle clutched in one hand and two glasses clinking together in the other, she smiles like nothing at all has transpired between now and the last time the two of them did this. Marigold watches her fill the glasses, bubbles fizzling all the way to the top rim, yet can't find the energy to knock her glass against Taryn's own like she normally would.

It takes her a heartbeat still to realize that Taryn isn't asking that of her, either.

Taryn's gaze is appraising in a way it never is. She doesn't tend to dive beyond the surface level, preferring a more obvious approach to most things. Marigold can't help but squirm the longer she stares at, only just managing to save her drink.

"It's weird, isn't it?" Taryn finally asks, voice soft. "To be doing all this again?

Oh—she gets 's helpless but to nod, swallowing around the lump in her throat. "I didn't think I would ever get to do this again. I'm sorry, it's not that I'm saying I don't want to, just—"

"Hey, I get," Taryn interrupts, reaching forward to squeeze her hand. "You don't have to apologize, Mari."

No, she doesn't. Nothing is her fault, objectively speaking. It's only natural to feel weird, and she's just one of the lucky ones. At least Marigold has people that understand her, who are willing to put up with her after everything.

Taryn still raises her glass. "We shouldn't let this go to waste, though."

No, they really shouldn't. She clinks her glass against Taryn's own, finding a reason to smile easily. She has a whole life to look forward to, after all.

What's not to celebrate?


Whoever's knocking at the door is insistent, he'll give them that.

"Coming!" Ren shouts, nearly tripping over himself to exit the kitchen in a timely manner. Trust now of all times, when he's finally been left alone at home to his own devices, for someone to show up without warning.

Apparently they can't take no for an answer, though. Having knocked for so long, you would have thought they would be giving up by now. If Ren hadn't called out, they'd probably be halfway down the street right now.

He stumbles to the door and nearly crashes into it in his haste to get it open, only to find—

"Oh," he says. "It's you."

"It's me," Marigold drawls back at him. "Wow, don't sound so disappointed. What am I, chopped liver?"

"I—that is not what I meant, and you know it!" Ren insists, though she only giggles, slipping inside the second he allows her enough room to do so. Frankly the place is a mess, as it often is after his sister tornadoes through it, but at least there are good enough smells emanating from the kitchen to excuse it.

Marigold makes haste, too, in opening up the pot he's got bubbling away on the stove-top, giving it a hearty whiff. "I will never not be jealous of your cooking skills."

"I've offered to teach you."

"What, so I can burn my house down?" she asks teasingly. "I'll pass."

She even nearly tips the pot lid onto the floor when she goes to return it to its rightful place, so perhaps she's right. It's so inherently Marigold that Ren almost snorts. They see each-other often enough; not every-day, but such clinginess isn't necessary with the two of them. He always knows that she'll turn up eventually, just as Marigold knows he wants her to.

"I wanted to talk to you about something," Marigold begins, making her way back to him where he still stands frozen in the miniscule entryway, just watching. That's typically only code for something awful, but no matter how hard he thinks Ren can't think of a single dreadful conversation the two of them need to have. Unless Marigold has thought of something on her own… should he be bracing himself?

He tries to stand tall, but it's pitiful. "What?" he croaks out.

"Well, we pushed it back, obviously—we're not doing it for a few weeks now, but—"

"Doing what?"

"The wedding, doofus." She laughs. Something in him lightens up at the sound. "And I know Taryn is standing up with me, that much was obvious, but I wanted to know if you would, too."

It's comical, how every awful scenario Ren had been concocting in his head immediately flies away at her words. It's all Ren can do to remain as cool and collected as possible, even as the thought assaults him. Marigold wants him there, too. Not just sitting and watching as he so suspected, but right by her side.

"Is that… is that allowed?"

"It's my wedding," she reminds him. "It's allowed if I say it is."

Right. He keeps forgetting. Not that he'll be able to now with this new information dropped on him like a bomb. People wanting him has typically only extended to a certain point—once they're done using him, he's tossed aside like trash. Ren begins again. But with her he doesn't have to. The two of them are constant. They can rely on one another.

"What do I do?" he asks.

"Say yes, for starters," she says. When Marigold grins, all of his previous worries wash away like they were never there at all. They're still the same, close as ever. Ren finally has something worth holding onto it.

He's never agreed to something so easily before in his entire life.


One day they'll be out of here.

One day…

Maybe she's a tad too confident on that front, but Lisse doesn't know how to be anything else. If she allows herself to fall into a despairing mindset, one that drags her into a mindset where she's stuck permanently, unable to be free, then there's no point to any of this.

There has to be a point to it—fleeing from home in the first place and undoubtedly messing with her parents' lives, volunteering and dying before she even had a choice otherwise, and all the time she's spent here since. Lisse knows there is, even if she doesn't know much else. Sue her, alright? It's not like she spent most of her past while running prioritizing school at the same time.

Besides, she doesn't need it. Lisse will find another way, the same way hundreds of people before her. She doesn't need her parents thieved money or a silver spoon in her mouth.

She'll just go. Her and Penny and whoever the hell else wants to come along for the ride.

"Penny," she says slowly, knowing the other girl is still sprawled out on the other couch even if they haven't so much as said two words to each other in the past half hour or so. "What are we going to do, once they let us out of here?"

Lisse has never particularly liked the quiet, and Penny seems full of chatter in her own right, but the two of them can do just this—sit in practical silence and just enjoy each other's company, whatever semblance of it exists. When they need to talk, they do, except now it seems as if Penny was just shy of dozing off.

Her bad.

"What do you mean?" she asks drowsily, blinking. In a way that's good too, that they once again trust each other enough to let their respective guards down.

"Like once we leave," Lisse explains. "Whenever that is. What are we going to do?"

"What do you want to do?" Penny fires back.

If only Lisse had the faintest clue. It's not as if she's been provided with a list of elaborate options, things laid out before her so that she could decide. Everyone else had it easy, she reckons—for the most part they trickled home one by one because that's all they wanted, nothing else to it. Her and Penny have so much more to consider.

They could go anywhere in Panem, wherever their hearts want them to venture. So what if they find a place they like, though, if there's nothing for them to do. Lisse doesn't think she can live a simple, random existence like before, even if most people would gladly clamor about her for the same thing. Penny has no idea what it's like to be so stationary—no matter how things ended, at least she had some adventure in her life.

And they could, once again… couldn't they?

"Hey, Penny," she realizes. "We could start a traveling circus."

There's a snort from down below. "We sure could."

"I'm serious!" she insists, sitting bolt upright. "You could do all your tumbling and weird sword stuff and I could, uh…"

"Be the ringmaster."

"Right, that," she agrees. Though Penny has yet to move, something has changed in her eyes. A bit of optimism, perhaps, where there was none before. That, or maybe she just looks a bit different altogether, though that has nothing to do with the fact that Lisse may have cut her hair a tad unevenly.

Nothing whatsoever.

"Sounds like a plan," Penny says eventually, and it sure does. It sounds better than anything someone else could come up with.

If nothing else, at least it will be an adventure—that's really all Lisse needs.


At first it feels like it's never going to end.

He made his decision, though. Hosea knew to some degree what he was getting himself into, but that still doesn't prepare him for the real thing.

He doesn't think it prepared Galvin, either. Galvin, who ended up dragging him out of his own house in the initial stages of withdrawal and far away to his own so that Hosea's mother wouldn't have to see it. Maybe she would question it eventually, but for now it was better that she didn't have to see the grisly stages of it.

Grisly they were, too. He knew cutting himself off from alcohol without warning wasn't going to be pretty, but he didn't expect to be slammed into reality so fast. It started with the skating, tremors that he had felt many times before. Hosea was used to those, at least. The headache had come on more slowly, thumping heavy behind his eyes and in his temples whenever he moved.

The second night he barely slept, torn between his body's exhaustion and his hammering heart, sweating through whatever clothes he laid over his body. It took six more hours for Galvin to finally drag him out of the house, after he had thrown up what felt like the entire contents of his stomach three times over.

All Galvin kept telling him on the long, stumbling walk back to his house was that it would get better soon. Well, Hosea was almost certain he said a plethora of other things too, but nothing he remembered. His brain was lost in a fog, every other part of him trying to crawl somewhere so he could be less aware of everything happening

Not even Hosea was that fortunate. Shocking, right? This shouldn't have even been all that bad, not after death itself, but sometimes it felt like he was dying again anyway. His body felt like it was giving up.

Until suddenly it wasn't, anymore.

He was on Galvin's floor, a nest of blankets built up around him. Hosea doesn't ever remember laying down on the floor in the first place. Despite the weight of everything pressed so close he feels blissfully cool, his skin not slick with sweat. Though his arms still tremble faintly and the headache presses on throughout his skull, he feels more aware. Awake, even.

Best of all is his stomach, growling insistently. He hasn't felt hungry for days. Hosea could barely keep water down at times, the nausea forcing everything from his stomach as quickly as he took it down.

Was he out of the worst of it? Probably too soon to say. But he could stand, as much of a small miracle as that was. Some of his shakiness could certainly be attributed to hunger and probable dehydration. Those didn't stop him from stumbling into the hallway, following the smells of food on instinct alone.

He has to be out of it.

Hosea hardly recognizes Galvin's presence, at first, but hears his voice nonetheless. "Woah, you're alive?" Galvin asks. "I was beginning to think there was a corpse on my bedroom floor."

Oh, he's joking about death now. That's a far cry from before-Galvin, about to walk willingly into his own demise. Hosea can only blink in surprise as he shuffles to the sink, foregoing a vessel entirely to simply cup his hands under the running stream of water and bring them to his parched lips.

"You know we have cups, right?" Galvin questions. "Or… or bowls."

"Shut up," he says hoarsely, water dribbling from the end of his chin. "I need…"

"What do you need?"

"Food," Hosea says, and Galvin laughs. Another welcome change. Who knew, all he had to do was suffer multiple times over to get his best friend to laugh. He would have done it sooner if he had known that.

Galvin pats him on the back. "You did it, man."

"You think?"

"I know," Galvin insists. "One order of food coming right up."

Did he actually do it? Is it over? Can Hosea, for once in his life, actually say he conquered something and came out the other side of it?

He can only hope so.


The world is… complicated. Complicated in a way that, sometimes Casi doesn't quite like it.

This just so happens to be the one she's living in, though. The exact same as the way she left it, everything spinning according to plan even after her untimely demise.

She always liked to believe she was above it—the people and their average ambitions, the mundanity of every-day life. In her dreams Casi was something better, awakening to every cruel world her father would wrack up in his pathetically small brain. Useless and pathetic and just awful, that's all you are, a failure in every sense of the world.

A part of her is still trying not to be awful, to prove him wrong even though he'll never be close enough again to hear tales of it. The last thing Casi wants to do is prove him right.

Today the situation is far more complex. When Tella leaves her on the eleventh floor all by her lonesome, she doesn't ask Casi to tag along. She knows better. When she finally does go after her it's of her own volition, too many minutes spent firing ideas back and forth in her brain. No matter what she settles on, it doesn't sound like a good idea.

She does it anyway, though, because that's what being better means. Hatred will consume her if she lets it.

That doesn't make going down to the second floor any easier, picking her way carefully down the stairs to strengthen her legs at yet another stupid doctor's recommendation. It's not as if Casi can say they're wrong for it. It means she's quieter, too, when she finally slips through the door. She can hear them in the sitting room, their conversation hushed just enough that she can't make out the words.

A part of Casi can't help but wonder how Milo feels about this—going home, that is. Frankly she has no idea who decided on that or signed off on it, but at least it'll put some distance between them. It's certainly been long enough that they've existed too-close to one another. All that happens now is for Tella to say goodbye, and that's it.

It would have been easy to throw a fit over it, to put her foot down and demand explanations as to why Tella even cared, but she couldn't. Not if she wanted to keep her. Like she said, things were complicated. Human emotions weren't linear, sensible things, even if you wanted them to be.

Against her own wishes, Casi stays in the hall until they go silent. She hears the shuffle of footsteps, only stepping forward and clearing her throat once she's sure they've gotten through whatever it is they had planned.

Up until that moment, they had been hugging. Awkwardly, anyway. Casi doesn't imagine the two of them will ever be anything but, though the attempt is nice enough. Tella steps away and up to Casi's side, wrapping an easy arm around her waist.

"What?" Milo asks. "Can't trust me alone with her?"

"Something like that," Casi mutters. She'll never be able to trust him. "I'll always hate you, you know."

"Fair enough."

No fight. They're done throwing punches, verbal accusations. They're tired. Though every single one feels like nails coming up, Casi forces the words out regardless. "Good luck out there," she says. "Someone like you is going to need it."

He smiles wryly. "I could say the same thing about you."

And that's it, really. All Casi felt as if she had to do. They can go their separate ways now and she can live a life free from her killer haunting her as much as she hated his ability to do so. It's small. Inconsequential to some.

But Casi feels better for it.


For the first time in forever, the two of them can go out.

It's not quite normal—whatever normal is even supposed to mean, anymore. Considering Hale is basically undead and his brother is still a cripple in the eyes of Eleven, they're never going to fit the proper definition.

But they're closer, at least, to something resembling before. Granted before was a bunch of shit anyway, the both of them still broke as dirt, living day to day, two boys against the world. At least now he has the funds to make life better for them both. Arley hadn't been so keen at first on guzzling away money just to improve his quality of life, but it wasn't like he had much of a choice in the matter.

Hale was never a fan of guilt-tripping in the first place, but all it really took was helpfully reminding his brother, just once or twice, that he had gone and died for this. Arley shut his mouth quick enough after that.

It was the pills first, and the doctors appointments. The rotation through physical therapists that they still participated in to find one that actually worked out. Already he had graduated from the shiny, brand new walker to assist his steps to a more old-fashioned cane, something he had picked up from one of the local markets.

Arley said he thought it made him look wise. Hale just said it made him look old.

Whoever was right didn't matter much. At least they were joking.

His brother was still slow, inching down the road at a snail's pace. They wouldn't get anywhere fast, or anywhere period, but the fresh air did wonders for their minds when they had spent so much time cooped up in the house before. With so much of his brother's weight leaned on the cane, his damaged legs shuffling about, it was easy to notice when he was slowing even further.

Hale knew that it was more than likely that he would be carrying Arley home, much to his brother's ardent protests. It was something he would gladly do now that Hale knew he could do something as simple as touch him without inflicting pain. His brother would never look all the way right, still burnt and battered and beyond repair in some ways, but at least now he had a life.

"This is nice," Arley comments. Hale ignores his slightly labored breathing for now—it hasn't been too long. A few more minutes, that's what he'll give it, before he forces them to turn around.

"Sure is," he agrees. The weather is pleasant, too. Not too warm and sticky, the clouds hiding them from the most punishing of the sun's rays. It's the type of day anyone with two working legs would be out walking around, enjoying the day, and here they are. Just like everyone else.

"Have I said thank-you?" Arley asks. "If not, I should."

"You don't have anything to thank me for."

"I do. So be like your usual self, stay quiet, and accept it."

Hale listens. Arley is still his older brother, much as he cares for him, and he thinks his answering silence is amusing to Arley, at least. It's so many little things, but they're adding up. The fact that they can walk around together, that Arley can have some ownership over his own life, and on top of that they're even managing a few smiles here and there?

When he looks over his brother is smiling indeed, the happiness behind it cloaking the exhaustion that tries to drag him down otherwise.

Try as things may, nothing could ruin this. They're taking a life back, or building one they never even had to begin with.

Like hell Hale is letting anyone ruin that.


Licia has never been the type to need protection.

Her father taught her how to handle herself at an early age—she'll never say his loss was easy, because that would be a lie, but at least she knew how to pick herself up and dust herself off. So many unlucky people weren't taught that lesson.

For as long as she could remember it had been her against the world, fists raised, shielding her brothers from countless blows and trying to fend off someone who called themselves their mother. Licia accepted the role as if she had been born into it, never once resenting the world for the hand it had dealt her.

She was used to it. Licia had detached herself from the more negative aspects of their situation years ago and simply moved on. If a part of her sometimes grew weary of being the protector, if she was slightly bitter that her two elder brothers needed her to defend them, then she hit it well.

Until she couldn't, anyway—she couldn't technically fight back against anything in her sleep.

The nightmares that certainly stalked everyone else weren't a fan of Licia, as if they knew she would start swinging upon their arrival. When they did show up, it hardly had anything to do with the arena at all. It was her father's dead face and sagging skin, her mother's bloody hands and split knuckles standing over the collapsed forms of one of her brothers. It was all of the things she had finally escaped.

The only reason she escapes this time is because of Korin's hand, gentle on her shoulder.

Licia rears up so fast in the dark that she nearly headbutts her brother directly in the face, re-routing herself at the last second to avoid him. Korin jumps but reaches out to steady her after a moment, hands closing over each of her shoulders. He's unscathed, of course. No bruises or blood to show from a silly little nightmare.

He's free too, because of her. Licia made sure of that.

"Are you alright?" Korin asks, eyes darting across her face. For the first time in a while, she feels like a little sibling proper, her big brother hurrying over to make sure she's still kicking. Licia nods, the nightmare already dissipating. She can't even remember what it was about in the first place.

"Sorry I woke you," she says, trying not to bristle at the thought of how much of a racket she must have been making for Korin to come in here.

Licia's always been loud, alright? But not like that.

"As long as everything is okay, it doesn't matter," Korin assures her. She still hasn't told either of them about their mother showing up, and she never will. Not when they're all finally starting to act and talk like normal kids. "But do you… do you want me to stay? Just for a bit?"

Her reply is queued up instantly, and dies. Weakness is not so bad admitted in the dark when no one else is around to hear it. It's not as if Korin of all people will run around telling people her secrets, or how she reacts to trauma when no one is watching. She's never really had anyone to watch over her, and he is offering…

Licia lets herself be that girl, for once. She nods, easing herself back down into the covers. Korin leans back against the wall next to her and drags the blankets over his knees, too, resting easy.

They're kids. They can be scared sometimes.

But they can be there for each other too.


Oriol forces himself out of bed early, as always.

He doesn't usually do so on a weekend, but it's one of the only times he can guarantee a sibling-free conversation. Oriol hasn't spent so many weeks building this up to not finally do it.

Besides, he can hear his mother sweeping something up just down the hall. If he doesn't do it now, he never will.

It strikes him, as it has many times already, that he's going to ruin this for them all. His family is happy—that they can live comfortably forever, that he's back, that everything has returned to normal. If Ori could just keep on lying to himself nothing would have to change, but he's coming to a breaking point.

He can feel himself shaking under the weight of it all. His legs are going to give out.

Oriol forces himself into silence as he creeps out into the hall, double-checking that it's just the two of them. Every other door remains closed, his mother's soft humming drifting down the hall. A song from his childhood, maybe, but it's not like Oriol would ever know. She always sang to his siblings, more. Never had the time for all of them.

The rhythmic sweep of the broom over the floor is only setting his nerves alight as he moves towards her. Despite his near-perfect attempt, his mother still notices his presence before he's near ready, looking up with a smile far too sunny for how he's feeling. He can sense, too, so many things that she could say. How she'll ask him to help with dinner, or wonder if he can take one of his siblings somewhere.

He can't. Not anymore.

"Mom," he says quickly. "Can we talk?"

She straightens, clearly perplexed. "About what?"

It was never going to be easy, but he has to do it anyway. No other choice. "I'm not… I'm not okay, Mom. I keep telling you I am, I keep lying and I don't know why when it would be so much easier not to but I can't stop, I don't know how to—"


"Maybe I need to talk to someone, still?" he says, voice strangled. "Or just have a break from all of this, I don't know, Mom, I really don't know."

Oriol can hardly breathe. It's like his throat is closing up.

The situation is not improved whatsoever when she steps forward and draws him into her arms. He can't remember the last time he was hugged like this, at least by her. This is how a mom should hug her kids. Not a quick one-armed squeeze or a simple wave across the room. It should be more. Maybe this is what he needed, if nothing else.

All Oriol can do is cling to her, admitting defeat for once in his life. "We'll figure it out, sweetheart. Whatever you need, we'll figure it out."

It's not much. Maybe it won't work at all. It wouldn't be the first time that Oriol believed something was true when it inherently wasn't.

But at least it's something.


Like clockwork, Mazzen keeps on returning to Dr. Calloway.

It really is good for him. It keeps his parents more off his back too, though they still hover far too much for his life to resemble what it had before. Regardless of who it is, they simply enjoy that he's getting out and talking to someone—anyone. It doesn't matter if it's a therapist or not.

They talk about the necessary things. Life, and death, and how most days he's okay with living as long as he doesn't let his mind wander too far. Mazzen still has times where he thinks the worst of everything that's happened, but he can't always control it. On the bad days, Dr. Calloway talks him through it. They look for the source, dig to the roots, unearth all the parasites.

On the good days they just… talk. Increasingly there are more and more of them, much to Mazzen's surprise. His mom even says it one day over dinner, too—what do you look so happy about, sweetheart?

And it hadn't even been anything in particular. If anything Mazzen had finally just looked like a normal kid, something his parents had always expected to have.

He's having a lot of good days. Weeks, even. Like this one, for example—he hasn't broken down whatsoever, hasn't had to vent or cry or complain to Dr. Calloway. He's noticing little things about himself all the time now. The shadows under his eyes are disappearing as sleep returns to him gradually. His appetite is returning. He doesn't downright dread his walks to the office in the first place because there's no reason to.

It's not just Dr. Calloway, either. His parents are understanding. Those kids lurking around the office, proven to indeed be Synen's grandchildren lurking around while their parents are off at work, start up in making casual conversation with him. In a weird way, Mazzen begins to look forward to it.

He feels better today, like he did when he left his and Otto's bench the first time. Maybe he'll go back, soon. Have an easier, kinder talk than the last time.

"Hey, Mazzen," a voice greets as soon as he steps outside of the office—friendly. Growing ever more familiar. Iantha sits cross-legged on a bench just outside her grandfather's building, her brother bouncing a rubber ball in rhythm off the alley-wall, one thwack after the other.

"Hey," he answers, struggling to make her out in the glare of the sun. They're both around his age, he's sure, but in that ambiguous way where he can't really tell. Mazzen doesn't want to ask, anyway. Not like it matters.

"Can I ask you a question?" Iantha wonders, though barrels straight on ahead regardless. "What do you do, after these sessions? Like, do you go for a walk, or to the shops, or do you just head home… anything?"

He shrugs. It's as much of an answer as he's willing to give. Iantha pulls herself up to her feet, clearly unperturbed by his lack of forthcomingness. "We were just going to get something to eat," she explains. "Do you want to come with?"

A part of Mazzen is suspicious—could Synen have put them up to this, wrangling his grandchildren into making sure Mazzen was being supervised? Or, rarely so, is someone just being nice? Is someone trying to make friends with him?

Otto wasn't the only person he knew, but he was Mazzen's only true friend. Loneliness is a disease that's been eating at him for far too long. He's doing better in every respect, but that doesn't mean he wants to stop growing now.

Finally, he nods. Iantha's answering smile is more cheerful than he expected.

In a sense, almost everything is beginning to look that way.


"Penny!" she shouts, poking her head around yet another of the many weapons racks. "I think I've found a good one!"

The Peacekeeper stationed by the door gives her a downright displeased look, but it's not like that is about to stop Lisse. They've made plans, alright? Their future is out there waiting for them, and it might even include Penny sticking a sword down her throat again.

Lisse has been waiting for weeks to see it. It's something of a spectacle, the sort of thing you hear about happening in the Capitol but nowhere else, and she just happens to have a friend who can manage it? Well, she needs to see it, is all. There's no punishment, now, for being overly curious.

She turns, though, and Penny is nowhere to be found. She thought she heard the door a minute ago, but assumed it was just another Peacekeeper and kept on with her searching.

It appears that Penny is gone, though. Left her, even. What an ass.

Lisse barrels on for the door, which has indeed been left open a few inches. The Peacekeeper doesn't move to stop her, so she can only assume that she's chosen the correct path.

And she has indeed. Penny is stationed by the elevator doors with Vance by her side, a phone pressed tight to her ear. Lisse would be more concerned by the sudden interruption, but Penny doesn't look worried. In fact, she looks almost downright jubilant. She carries no regard for intrusiveness, sidling right up to them and leaning in close, struggling to hear.

"Hold on," Penny insists, jostling her enough that she's forced away a few good paces. "Yeah, that's her. I'm gonna hand you over."

What in the world? Lisse still takes the phone when it's offered to her, though that doesn't stop her from holding onto a few reservations. "Hello?"

"Lisse!" a voice cries, just as joyous. "Hi!"

Oh… oh, it's Marigold. That's the last thing she expected, but she also doesn't know what she possibly could have anticipated otherwise. Lisse is already clutching the phone tighter, a smile growing on her face.

"Thought you forgot about us," Lisse teases.

"C'mon, never!" Marigold cries. "I did miss the sound of your voices, though. Everything there is okay?"

"Better than it was. I mean, we have a lot of spare time to annoy Peacekeepers, so if you consider that okay than I guess we are."

Marigold giggles, bringing her back to a time before all of this, the death and the Games and the uncertainty, where the three of them were just normal people, eating lunch together during a training break. Telling stories and jokes, letting laughs loose like they were somewhere else.

"You guys are okay too?" Lisse asks. She wouldn't sound so happy otherwise, but there's no harm in checking.

"Better than okay," Marigold answers. "That's why I'm calling, actually. Penny already agreed on your behalf, but…"

"But what?" she asks. Penny looks excited. Marigold sounds excited. That's more than enough reason for Lisse to allow herself to buzz with elation, trying not to jump up and down on the spot. This is good—it has to be.

"Well, if you're interested in getting out of the Capitol for a bit…"


There's no reason for him to be holding onto any sort of trepidation about this.

Cal's not even a trepidation sort of person, but that's how he's felt looking at the damn phone for so long. It would be nice to call it minutes, but in reality it's been longer days, even. Possibly a week at this point.

They always had a phone here, you see, an ancient landline in Ceto's official office where she comes up with all of the billing and paperwork. If Cal had enough numbers, he could call anyone in the world. No one is around to stop him, if they would even attempt such a thing in the first place.

Ilaria gets a hold of the number first, predictably. Victor's privileges, and all that. Of course she had handed it over to him immediately, some forever-and-a-half ago, and she had yet to question why Cal hadn't gone through with it. Finally, he understood what actual friendship was like.

When he finally dials the number it's with too much aggression despite his earlier workout, the buttons caving in so hard Cal is surprised they don't stick in place. The drone of the dial tone is unfamiliar, grating to his ears.

And the answer comes so much faster than anything he was really prepared for.

She was probably expecting this.

"I was beginning to think you were going to make me check in on you," Licia says flatly, clearly unimpressed. So someone gave her a number back, then, if she's so been expecting this call. Biding her time, apparently, until he stepped up and did it first. Of course she did.

"You could have," he replies.

"Bit weird."

Right. That it is. The whole being six years her senior and arguably someone who should have been protecting her means Cal has to accept all the responsibility, here. Licia is much too pig-headed to do so, even if he would never say that to her. They're both a mess of things, anyway.

There is still a tinge of bitterness to both of their tones, anger they're holding onto. It's as if there are still open wounds festering just beneath the surface, each one lined with a grudge or upset or an apology, but what the fuck do they have to be sorry for, really, except for failing? No one save for the two of them really cares about the placement they received, at the end of the day.

"Well, it sounds like everything is going alright on your end," Cal says. "Good thing, 'cause I wasn't in the mood to pack up down to Twelve anytime soon."

"Like you would."

"If someone needed an ass kicking I would."

"You have no faith in me," she deadpans, though it's the opposite. Licia knows he does. That's the very basis behind the weird, almost sibling-like relationship they've managed to cultivate. They care enough to stand up for each-other, but not enough to steal each other's battles. Really, Cal is more than glad he doesn't have to fight for her.

As quickly as it manifested, his apprehension is gone. Licia is good. He can tell, even if she would lie to him otherwise. They're both good, them and their hidden, healing wounds. Their lackluster placements. At the end of the day, those things don't define them.

Or, at least, Cal refuses to let any of it do that to him.


He's never seen a home like this in his life.

The worst part, too? Rex had a nice house. His father's job took care of them well. Rex wasn't like some of the other kids, their stomachs growling during the morning periods, their forms frail and weak. So breakable it was something to laugh at.

He had, too. In his school there were enough well-to-do kids that you could get away with laughing at it more than not.

Everyone he had ever been friends with had a nice house, but even they don't compare to this. Shoah's house isn't even anything grandiose, not so large that it's impressive. It blends in nicely with the well-manicured neighborhood she takes him to on the far northern edge of the Capitol.

Apparently the grass really is greener on the other side.

The house could be any other that Rex had seen in his life, but there's something different about it. His skin crawls, but not in any sort of bad way. He just feels… well, he feels warm. Like someone is about to drape a blanket over his shoulders and pass him a mug full of cocoa, filled to the brim with fluffy marshmallows.

With Shoah next to him, he wouldn't put it past her.

"Right up here," she instructs, ushering him up the stairs and to a room just to the left of them. "Obviously it's a guest room and not very personable, but we can work on that once you're settled in. What do you say?"

Rex doesn't know what to expect when she cracks the door open. Something bland, unimpressive. Sure, the walls are a creamy shade of white, the carpet beneath the bed not far off, but something about it still holds him close in a way his own room never did. Maybe it's because he only has memories of crouching on the floor, the wooden slats digging painfully into his eyes. Watching his mother's lifeless body slump to the floor, the blood sprayed across the wall, his father's shouts echoing down the hall…

He shakes himself. The room is still in front of him, the present just the same. It's clean, almost eerily so. Untouched by anything awful.

What does his father think about this, he can't help but wonder? Have they even bothered to tell him the details, or have they simply explained to him that his son is not coming home?

Regardless, Rex doesn't care what his bastard of a father thinks. He can rot in hell for all he cares, off somewhere with his mother. A match made in a fiery inferno, if nowhere else.

"What could I do in here?" he asks, stepping further into the room. Shoah stays in the doorway, watching him claim his new space with something like pride in her eyes.

No one has ever been proud of him before.

"Whatever you want. Paint the walls. Change the blankets. Draw a mural all over the wall, for all I care. As long as you're happy to call it yours."

Yes, Rex can be happy here. In this new life, with her—someone who actually cares about his well-being without anything else hanging over them. In this room, a place he can finally enjoy without fear. This is somewhere to actually call a home.

And it's all his.



Unintentionally, she's been ignoring her mother's voice. For once Oksana has been enjoying staying in bed without the weight of something more holding her down. She's just… comfortable. Still in the comfortable lull of sleep.

She's largely blaming that on Micah keeping her up, his jubilance from finally calling her sending their phone call long into the night. Not that she minds.

"The door's for you!"

She sits up, finally, but even then it's a struggle. Oksana nearly trips over her feet getting out of bed, pulling a much larger shirt over her wrinkled pajamas and tucking her hair behind her ears, trying to look somewhat presentable to whoever could be here before the afternoon has even arrived.

Oksana doesn't have to make it very far to find out. She shuffles out into the much brighter hallway, squinting against the light and the figure at the bottom of the stairs, apparently already waiting for her.

She doesn't have to blink a few times, nor does she have to rub the remainder of the sleep from her eyes.

It's easy to tell who it is, though the bright splash of color cradled against his chest is infinitely more confusing.

"Late start today?" Ambrose asks, making his way up the stairs towards her. Well, at least she spent a few moments fixing herself up before she came out here. It's not really a surprise that he looks better than her, because he always does, really. More impressive still is the sound of his voice, improving with each and every-day.

Somehow, Oksana fails to recognize what he's holding until Ambrose is right in front of her. The rainbow turns out to be a bouquet of flowers, the plastic holding them together crunching beneath his hands. It's an entire collection of things, so many she can't even keep track of them all.

"Is that a crime?" she asks, eyeing him warily. "What are those for?"

"Well, I didn't buy them for myself," he says, holding them out to her. She tries—and fails spectacularly—not to blush all over as she takes them from him, letting her eyes skip over the bundle. What upon first glance appeared to be a random collection is really so much more, splashes of gold and red, blue and a softer purple. These things have meanings.

Yellow lilies, for thankfulness. Daffodils, for new beginnings. Violets sticking up between them interspersed with strands of honeysuckle, devotion and faithfulness in each of their bright stalks. Oksana tries not to focus too intently on the red tulips dotted throughout the bouquet, less her mind race away with them, their meaning. Right now it's all she can do to stay grounded.

Oksana swallows, bringing them up to her nose. "Someone did his research."

"Is that a crime?" he fires back, smiling cheekily. He did that for her. Not many people would have.

"No one's ever bought me flowers before."

"Well, I'm glad to be the first," he tells her, squeezing her newly free hand. Ambrose leans in to press a kiss against her cheek, lips feather-soft. It's such a little thing, and to anyone else maybe it would just be another day, a gift quickly forgotten about, but Oksana will never forget this. Her brain wouldn't let her.

What a strange thing it is, to be happy. It's not a thing she would trade for anything.


"You are not," Penny says under her breath. "Convincing me to wear a dress. The prep team did that once already and it was bad enough. Quit while you're ahead, small-fry."

Lisse reaches over to sock her in the arm as the train stops—yes, a train. Penny thought they would've been flown out for this, but apparently someone out there is trying to prove a point in that trains are safe again.

They haven't been blown up, at least, and it appears they've arrived.

That's a win in Penny's book.

Their escort—not quite a Peacekeeper but someone who is more than likely armed regardless, ushers both of them up. Penny ends up shouldering both of their meager bags as Lisse races on ahead of her into the golden sun, the fields of wheat in the distance stretching far into the horizon-line.

Well, at least it's not Eight. Anything is better than that hellhole.

She rubs at her arm where Lisse just punched her, and then nudges her in the back the second she finds her again, sending her stumbling a few paces across the platform. "Care to help?" she questions, dropping one of the bags at her feet.

It's not like it's heavy, even. They hardly brought anything. The phone-call was explicitly clear—they didn't need to bring much. Anything they needed would be made available for them. Perks of a rich family, and all that. Penny doesn't think either of them ever cared about any of the material things at the end of this. The people, and the prospect of being somewhere other than the Capitol even for just a while, was enough on its own.

"Do you think she forgot about us?" Lisse asks, stretching up on her tip-toes to look around the rather empty area.

"Forget about you?" she wonders. "Unlikely."

If they got a call in the first place, their arrivals haven't been cast-aside. Lisse turns around to face her, yet another question poised on her lips, but it dies just as fast. Before she can do anything else, her eyes widen.

And then a force, great as can be, crashes into Penny's back.

She almost faceplants into the cobblestone as whatever it is—whoever it is, she realizes, shrieks joyously and wraps their arms over her shoulders, struggling to find purchase to hang on. Bent over like this she can hardly see upright, but the blonde hair now falling over her shoulder places it easily enough.

"Really?" she asks, trying to straighten her back. Marigold laughs, arms practically strangling her.

"I forgot how tall you are!"

"It hasn't been that long," Penny insists, squinting upwards. Ren is just beyond them, apparently content to wait a tad more patiently than his District partner. Lisse has yet to intervene, apparently finding it much more amusing to laugh at her predicament than help out whatsoever.

"C'mon, Ramen, help a girl out," she wheezes. "Mari, you're going to kill me."

"Killing one of your wedding guests isn't a good luck, Mari," Ren adds, though he looks just as bemused. Thankfully the weight disappears from her back as Marigold finally slides back to the ground, finally content to squeeze Penny from the side instead of strangle her outright.

Lisse dives on them quickly after that, the three of them reunited at long last. Penny gives it a minute before she wrestles an arm free to reach for Ren, too, dragging him in alongside them.

Everything has changed, clearly, but in that moment it's almost like nothing has. Here she stands, in Nine of all places, with her friends. Ready to attend a wedding that was almost torn apart before it could even begin.

Change is just as good as Penny thought it would be.


It's not calm. Not quiet. Not anything Oriol necessarily needs right now.

But it's what he's got.

At the very least, the house is less chaotic than usual. The fact that his parents got three of them out of the house without fuss was practically a miracle in its own right—someone always refused, or threw a fit. Worse, things got more hectic than usual.

Oriol wasn't technically in charge of anything, for once. There was dinner on the stove, but his mother said it would be fine until they got back from the market, all five of them. Leander was on the couch reading a book, or in the very least half-asleep while pretending to, and Nesta was holed up in her room, either with a stomach-ache or a very convincing argument of one in order to get out of the rest of the family's travels.

He couldn't remember the last time something hadn't been dumped on him. His parents always found something. A chore, a mission, something so asinine there was no point to Oriol partaking in it at all. At his worst he constantly felt ready to crumble under their expectations and everything he kept twisting around it in order to keep himself sane. He knew that this, small as it would seem to the outside world, was his parents listening to him.

There wasn't anyone proper in Twelve to talk to, not unless Oriol wanted to settle. His father had insisted further, getting in contact with an office in the Capitol to bring someone down here to help him out, guide him through his troubles. They weren't due to arrive for another three days, still, but in that time they had done all in their power to ease up on him. For once, Oriol was actually seen, and while some people would have been angry it took this long, he was just grateful to have it happen at all.

It was nice to just sit back, not worry about anything. He was nursing a mug of tea, something Leander laughed at him for in the dead of summer, but it wasn't like his younger brother knew anything about it. It was helping him stay calm, gave him a simple task to focus on.

Even when relaxing, he still needed one.

Nesta eventually shuffles out of her room, arms wrapped around herself. She eyes the mug of tea clutched between his hands before she makes her way into the kitchen, the ruckus of clattering dishes brought to his attention moments later.

If it was any other time, Nesta would have asked him for something. It appears that his parents have even spoken to his siblings about going easy on him, and they're clearing taking the advice. Before he's even recognized his own actions, however, Ori is on his feet. Leander's eyes follow him all the way to the kitchen as Nesta looks up at him, clearly perplexed.

Truth be told, Oriol is almost perplexed at himself sometimes.

"Do you want some?" he asks, reaching for the ancient tea-kettle still on the stove.

"You don't have to…"

"Just let me."


"What?" he interrupts. "I don't mind, Nes, just go sit down. I'll do it."

And he realizes, instantaneously, that he means it. Oriol really doesn't mind, when any other time he would have resented the very thought. Worse, he would have lied about his preferences and done it anyway, the way he's supposed to.

"Sit down," he says again, softer. "You don't feel good."

Nesta nods. Bumps him lightly with her shoulder as she drifts by, retreating to the couch next to Leander, as if in silent thanks. He scoops up the kettle once again and the mug she had pulled down from the cupboards and it feels good, to do something of his own volition. To actually help. He has yet to even speak to someone legitimate, but it already appears that he's turned a corner.

It's a small one, but a victory nonetheless. Oriol will happily take it.


Her brothers have finally entered into a phase where they don't look horrified at the prospect of an adult entering their house.

To someone's credit, likely Nadir's, time and effort was put into the selection. For one, it's not a woman. They quickly eliminated even the scant chance that their halfway-guardian would resemble in any way, shape or form the person that called themselves their mother.

The man that first appears to move them out of their home is warm, eyes kind. He's not nearly tall or broad enough to be anything intimidating and doesn't even come within any of their bubbles, let alone try and lay a hand on them. He introduces himself only as Roscoe, no fancy sounding last name or official title with it. It's clear that he's trying to establish an easy-going relationship with all of them, and it works.

It's nice to know that they have someone to turn to in times of trouble. Whatever he knows of their situation, it's never brought up.

For that, he's already much better than any adult Licia has had the privilege of knowing here.

He cares for them already, but he never hovers. Roscoe stops by three times a week—once he discovers that Korin has an affinity for anything lemon-flavored, he starts bringing pastries and treats with him from the bakery in town, a whole armful of them.

Most of them from today are already gone, but Roscoe isn't. He collects the remaining dirty plate—Licia's, of course, from the table. She can hardly hear him over the sound of the running tap just next to her, but she strains regardless.

"Have you ever thought about moving from here?" he asks.

There's no precursor to it whatsoever, but Licia takes it in stride. "What do you mean?"

"You all seem quite content, but you don't have to stay here. The Capitol will look into whatever you need, even if that means ending up elsewhere."

"Such as…?"

"Six, for example. I'm surprised you haven't already considered it, knowing your friends there."

Friends. Is that what they are, or are they two people somehow adding to her pile of elder siblings? Cal and Ilaria have always looked out for her in their own way, and they still call now, from time to time. She appreciates each and every call just as much as she anticipates them. Licia has never really missed anyone in her life apart from her father, but she knows well what it means now.

"That's allowed?" she questions.

"I'm sure it could be arranged. Of course the three of you would still need someone to look after you, but that's not as hard as it sounds."

"And what about you?"

"As honored as I am to take any sort of praise, I'm more than replaceable. I certainly don't mean more than any place that could change your future."

He's talking to her like she's an adult, really, in charge entirely of her own life. Roscoe is going so far as to suggest that there's far more for them elsewhere in this world, and that it's more than within their rights to explore it. What could the three of them do out there? Could they thrive in a way that Twelve never allowed, with people Licia knows already care? "I'll keep that in mind," she says, trying not to let her mind race too far away with the possibility. It's best not to get ahead of herself. There's an entire world out there, too—it's not just Twelve, or Six, or even the Capitol.

Wherever they go, at least now Licia knows it's all right beneath their fingertips. That alone makes dying worth it.


His arrival to the Capitol is without fanfare.

As tragic as that may be, it's exactly as Veles expects.

His presence does not go unrecognized—not that he wants that, of course. There are a number of people whose eyes linger on him during their train-ride to the Capitol. People exit, people board, and Veles feels eyes on him constantly, though none have the nerve to approach. Considering his rather foul mood, he knows it's for the best.

Only one person ever has the gall to sit next to him when the particular train car grows too full to avoid it. The woman isn't quite elderly, but her hair is graying in a way that suggests she isn't very far off. Though her eyes crinkle when she looks at him, otherwise it's as if Veles is invisible. That, or inconsequential to her journey.

In a strange way, she's like the mother he lost. She never looked at any of them like someone was more than the other. They were all on an equal playing field regardless of age or size or capability

At least to her Veles mattered—this woman couldn't care less about him.

She's gone before they get back to the Capitol. Veles thinks she hops off in One, but it's not as if he cared about her any more than she did about him. Really, he's just glad to be left alone, each car emptying periodically until only a handful of people remain.

When he finally arrives, Veles is the first off the train. He makes sure of it. Everyone else breaks off around him like an easily flowing stream and is gone quickly, as if they were never there to begin with. Veles, on the other hand, is lost for the first time since he made this plan. Once the train stopped, that was it. The extent of what he had mapped out in his mind ended.

His brain tells him to go back to the Training Center, tail tucked between his legs and all, but his heart won't allow it. There was nothing there for him in the first place, and he has no desire to return to it. Besides, he has just enough money to lock down a place and some rounds of food—give it a few days, and he'll be right on the ball. He won't be searching out a direction for very long.

Veles knows what he really wants to do, though the platform is quiet now. It's much different from the one that tried to take his life. Smaller, for one, and much less populated. No reporters, no paparazzi. That's what he would wish for, if nothing else. He isn't sure what he would say, but it would come to him. Veles could spin tales of his eventual grand takeover and just what he's planning, how Verbena and all the rest of them only deserve to be overthrown. By the time the sun rose tomorrow morning, his name would be in a headline all across Panem, the Altobelli line tarnished by his hands only.

There's no one here, though. Veles comes to terms with that quickly enough, picking up his own pace to begin making his way into the city. His mission will become obvious enough one day, but for now he has to focus on the simple things. Building his life here. Making it worth something.

Then he'll go out and make his intentions crystal-clear. The world will know exactly what he's going to do, and they're going to watch every movement of it.

Veles will wait. He'll bide his time. And then he'll win.

Perhaps it's not the Games—never the Games—but he'll take the crown for what really matters.


It takes her much longer than Lex would like to admit.

Somehow, it seemed easier with Delaney here. Her sister didn't know the first thing about rowing or even being out on the water in any sense, no—she was more than content to let Lex do all of the work and just talk to her the whole while, something soothing to her voice.

She had a team before, a group of girls to keep her company even if she wasn't the biggest fan of them all. Considering not one of them has made an effort to check in on Lex since her arrival home, she has no desire to go back to them. They've found another dock, another lake. Somewhere far away from Lex and every nasty word she's ever spit at them when they weren't good enough.

Even if they were around now, Lex wouldn't have the energy for harsh criticisms. She does that enough to herself now.

The first morning she goes out on her own, Lex takes her time. She makes a breakfast Delaney would be proud of and eats half of it, packing up the rest to take with her. The wooden planks of the dock are reassuringly creaky in the oddest way, water lapping at the underside just as it did before all of this. Even if she's changed, this little constant hasn't. It's nice to know not everything does.

This little boathouse is still her sanctuary, it and the ease that comes with launching the boat, her its only passenger. Though she misses Delaney's constant chattering, being out here with no distractions is always what Lex preferred. Today she knows she should force herself faster and get back into the swing of things, actually send herself flying across the water instead of just touring around in it, but she doesn't feel the need.

It's almost like the day before she was chosen. The only things different are her clothes, really, and the scars hidden beneath them. The sun is in the exact same position in the nearly cloudless sky, the trees casting moving shadows across the shore. Her phone still lies carefully tucked between her feet just in case—she's been talking with Delaney most days since her departure, and although she told her sister of her morning plans, she's not risking missing out on another call.

Lex remembers the pit in her stomach, how she could only worry about Delaney's hatred for her once she found out what Lex was doing. It's why she'll always treasure that hug like she's never appreciated touch before, every ounce of Delaney's warmth when she wasn't deserving it.

It's not just Delaney, though. Lex likes to think she's been better with her parents, too, making an effort to communicate with them. They actually talk over dinner, now, just the little things. About how her day was, what her plans are for the next. She doesn't find herself dreading meals with them like she used to.

Lex knows that she's not perfect, and admitting that still stings. She suspects it always will.

But she's… she's coming to terms with it, is all. She'll always strive for more, but that was never necessarily a bad thing. Lex knows she can do it, but she also knows it's not worth beating herself up over. Every part of her—mind, body, and soul, has been through enough.

Someone a few weeks ago told her to go easy on herself. That she deserved it, even. Lex hadn't believed in it then, but she's starting to now.

With the sun beating down on her back, water rippling up in gentle splashes against the side of the boat, it's much easier to trust in now.


The day as a whole is surreal.

Marigold guesses that's the territory that comes with dying and then, you know, still getting married after the fact.

She knows she shouldn't be here, but that goes for all of them. Marigold sending in that application took this day for all of them, at least for some time. All of the people collected downstairs, the friends that wouldn't have known her otherwise. Even Roarke, the least deserving of all regarding her foolishness.

People would still call her that, she was sure, but it was hopefully for other reasons now. For daring to think that marrying so young would work out, for being happy despite everything she had been through. If they wanted to whisper behind Marigold's back, then so be it. She was going to do it all and more, regardless of what anyone thought about it.

Her dress hanging behind her, visible in the reflection of the mirror, only served to remind her of that. Soon she would be able to put it on and finally see through all of the plans that had been put forth.

It was good that people had always held out hope, that Roarke hadn't dared to burn the dress or anything else they had collected the moment she ran off to her own death. It was just as beautiful as Marigold remembered it—perhaps even better. Even her Mom couldn't stop staring at it, though there was nothing surprising about that. Before Roarke, before everything, they had nothing more than their quaint little house and just enough to get by with. When no one else dared, they would appreciate every little thing given to him.

Marigold had no doubt that today, all eyes would be on her. She looked ethereal in a way even her prep team and stylist had never managed, so at home in her own skin that it only added to the radiance. Her mother could only repeat how she was so sure that Roarke would cry the moment he laid eyes on her.

"I got 'em!" Taryn cries, bursting through the door in a flurry of pale-pink dress and a bouquet to match. "Well, actually Lisse found them, but you know… technicalities."

She smiles while her mother takes the flowers from Taryn's outstretched hands—it says a lot that Marigold hadn't even been worried about a little detail missing. She feels in a state of bliss, far away from anything that could trouble her mind. This was what she so willingly gave up, and now she had it all back, undeservingly so. Everyone that meant something to her was tucked into this manor house, all to see her go through with what would certainly be the happiest day of her life.

"Are you ready?" her mother asks, tucking a gently curled strand of hair back behind her ear.

"Am I ever," she announces, leaping up from her chair. Her hands are reaching out for the dress before she can stop herself, hands running over the delicate fabric.

To think she may have never had the chance to put it on again.

Her mother draws one of her hands away, squeezing it tight. Taryn wraps an arm around her. "I'm glad you're here," she murmurs, a faint mist clinging to her eyes.

Marigold can still only smile. "Me too."


Ren had never actually been to a wedding before, until day.

He knew without asking that it was due to be something extravagant. Certainly it was nothing compared to Capitol standards, but the rich of Nine knew how to throw a wedding.

Even more so, they knew how to throw a good party after the fact.

Don't get him wrong, earlier was everything in its own right. He had stood up there in the green, green grass next to Taryn, a flowering arch to their side. He had watched as the person he thinks he was calling his best friend get her happy ending, the one she had always wished for. Ren was sure he smiled like an idiot the whole time, such a look made worse by Penny and Lisse's incessant cheering the second they were allowed to.

His cheeks still hurt. He was full in a way he had never been before, the spread of food so vast and plentiful Ren was sure he hadn't even laid eyes on it all. Penny had finally loosened his tie after an hour of watching him fiddle with it, though she had nearly strangled him in the process. It was funny how something he never could have imagined before was now his exact definition of a perfect day.

He could see it in Marigold, too, at least the brief flashes he got of her. Her hair was coming loose from it's fancy up-do, her skirt hiked up as she danced, but there was no mistaking the glimmer in her eyes.

The two of them had finally made it home.

It's Penny and Lisse as an awful tandem that finally drag him out onto the dance-floor, trails of lights over-head and flowers that tumble loose throughout the grass by their sides. When Marigold finally comes to save him, he goes willingly.

He does not so expect for her to keep him out there.

"I think I've already proved myself incapable of dancing," he protests, though Marigold pays that no mind when she drapes her arms over his shoulders and holds on tight. It's not the song for it, much too playful and upbeat to sway along to, but he holds onto her regardless.

"Don't be silly, you're great," she insists, laying her head on his shoulder. "Besides, I want to dance with one of my best friends, and you're going to allow it."

Ren nods, any sort of protest dying in his throat before it could properly form. He thinks he can feel her smile into his jacket as the two of them settle in for the long-haul—or at least for the rest of the dance. Ren no longer feels the need to run or even attempt a disappearing act. He doesn't even have to ask her how her day has been, because he knows. Everyone does.

"Thank-you," she finally murmurs into his shoulder. Ren almost misses it, at first.

"For what?"

"For getting me back here."

"But I didn't—"

"Maybe you didn't, not technically, but—but you did," Marigold insists. "I wouldn't have made it without you."

There's no use in getting emotional and ruining all of this, but Ren feels tears spring to his eyes. He doesn't have to say it's the same for him; they know each-other now, whether they asked for such a gift or not. Ren remembers the crushing despair overtaking his body at the riverside, how he had been grateful for the pain of the pitchfork piercing his back.

He remembers the overwhelming elation he had felt when he had opened his eyes and seen her again, too. Someone to love and trust and care about, someone worth it that was refusing even death to stay by his side, at long last. Maybe in a way he did save Mari, but she saved him too.

How, in a moment like this, is he ever supposed to complain about that?


Devan has never been the best at participating in this thing people tend to call the waiting game.

It was something of a running gag in her family, her parents inability to pass down the patience gene to any of their children. They could all snap at the drop of a dime, going from tranquil and relaxed to unmanageable in the space of a few heartbeats.

In a way, it was better that they all shared the same trait. No one could blame Devan for it if they all acted out in the same way.

For once in her life, though, she's waited. He told her the day he found out, unable to keep the news to himself. His siblings had been contacted not long after, and they had spent their fair share of time being excited in their own right, wondering what it would be like when he arrived home.

That was yesterday evening, the sun spilling red light over the water. By the time the hovercraft left, its delivery accomplished, it had likely been dark. It was all Devan could give them, some time as a family before she inevitably interrupted it. She couldn't even say she was up at the crack of dawn because she hardly slept through the night to begin with. It takes everything in her to wait until the sun rises before she pulls on actual clothes and locks the door behind her, leaving her sleeping family safely tucked in the house.

The District around her remains unchanged, but something has changed, even if nobody else knows it yet. Devan suspects they will within days.

A certain person named Varrik Varnett can't remain quiet and tucked away for too long, after all.

Devan forces herself to knock, even if she's been told countless times already that she's welcome whenever she likes. Despite the time, Sigrid pulls open the door with relative ease—she looks tired, too, but contended. Who could blame her, when her family is finally whole once again?

"He's still asleep," Sigrid tells her, stepping aside to let Devan through. "But…"

"But not for long," Devan finishes, Sigrid barking out a laugh behind her as she moves further into the house. It's good that she spent time here before Varrik got back, learning the halls and each room. Now she knows exactly where to go, opening up the door to his room without fanfare, no announcement to be found.

He's sprawled out nearly face-down in bed, back rising and falling in even motions. Devan gives him one last moment as she steps up to the edge of the bed.

There's no use planning her moments, no more time to waste.

Devan has waited long enough.

She launches herself across the bed unceremoniously, landing square on top of Varrik with a solid thump. He lets out a loud squawk as he's ripped suddenly from sleep, limbs striking out in all directions as he flails beneath her weight, unable to escape.

"Hey, jackass," she emphasizes. "Too busy sleeping to come and see me?"

"Dev!" Varrik cries, undeniably happy, though his continued flailing does nothing in his quest to free himself. Eventually he settles for sprawling out as she settles over his back, arms wrapped tight around his shoulders. Only his hands struggle for further purchase, searching out her own where they're buried beneath him.

Her knuckles are still faintly bruised from the incident, but he doesn't have to know about that just yet.

"I missed you, Dev," he says plainly, finally resting his head down once again. Dare she say it, it looks like Varrik is about to go back to sleep just like this.

She can handle that.

"Missed you more," she insists. It wasn't all that long, but whatever the length of time, he should have been back sooner. At least now that he is, they can move on. He'll be coming along with her on whatever adventures she can think to drag him into, and Devan knows Varrik will participate in all with a wild smile on his face.

It's just the way it was meant to be.


There's a possibility that Tella is putting too much thought into this.

Better that than not enough, though. If she's going to put energy into anything, it might as well be her future.

Their future, really.

Just because Casi isn't with her at this exact moment doesn't mean they're both not both lumped into this. They've talked about it enough to make it seem real, but until Tella has all of these brochures in her hands, magazines full of options, it doesn't really hit her.

Blair wants to get home too, so she rationalizes. He's not pushing the issue, but he's certainly making it easier for them to escape. Proving her with layouts of apartments, actual houses even, is just the first step, but truth be told she's overwhelmed. There are too many things to look at, to consider. How is she supposed to pick a place for them, at least for the foreseeable future?

Neither of them want anything too big—at least she knows that. Casi has already spent her entire life in a too-large manor house, and while Tella's own wasn't nearly as resplendent, it felt much emptier after Armina died. She never wanted to put herself in a position again where corners of a room would feel vacant, where there was too much space to properly take up. It was just the two of them, now. They didn't need much else but each-other.

Tella has already crossed the idea of a house off the list, but that doesn't make the chore any easier. Apparently the Capitol has apartments in plenty who would have thought? Regardless of what she picks, it will be vastly different for the both of them. No doubt they'll make it their own, but for a while it might just feel like the arena. Recognizable, but still foreign. Uncomfortable in the worst way.

She knows that, with Casi by her side, they can make anything fit. This doesn't have to mean permanence, either. The Capitol can be in it for now, but a few years down the line who knows where they'll end up. Perhaps they'll go to Two once she finally works up the nerve to face her parents, have a little home overlooking the mountains. Maybe they'll find a place off the map entirely, the two of them never to be found again.

It doesn't sound so bad, really, when you think about it.

"You look downright perplexed," Casi informs her, leaning down without warning to drape her arm over Tella's shoulders, breath warm against the shell of her ear. "Apartment shopping, are you?"

"You knew I was."

"That I did." She hums, crowding closer as she examines the numerous pictures. "I like that one."

She glances at the picture in question, expansive enough to be roomy but with enough warmth to bring comfort. Off the main room there's a nearly picturesque view of the lake in the distance, a balcony extending off from the living room and the main bedroom.

This is what they both want, now. She wants them both to grow together, for them to be able to sit outside on a balcony in the warm summer air. She wants Casi's legs draped over her lap, the two of them letting the evening light wash over them. Most of all, she wants the peace that comes with it. Tella wants for them to be fearless, unflinching at everything that comes their way, whether it be something like a simple identity crisis or a height so grand it's impossible to look away from.

It sounds better than perfect.

"I like that one, too," she agrees. Until now she hadn't even been considering it, really, but she can see it from Casi's eyes, now, and it's everything she wants.

Everything she needs, all in one place.


Nothing is ever easy.

Hosea's not an idiot, alright? Well, objectively speaking. Of course he is one, same as most other people in this world, but he wasn't foolish to believe that sobriety was going to be perfect.

That doesn't stop him from trying, though—nothing ever could.

It turns out cutting himself off was the simplest part, and that was hellish enough on its own. Galvin helped him run through the house beforehand just in case, clearing out every last bottle they could find, even if it so happened to be empty. That doesn't stop Hosea from looking, as if he expects some sort of phantom thing under his bed trying to lure him into breaking.

A part of him feels better for it. It's easier to get out of bed in the morning, for one. Weariness doesn't drag down on him, and he doesn't seem to struggle with the little things anymore. School became a near impossible task when he was stuck at the bottom of the bottle, as did the chores he did both in the house and around it. That hadn't stopped him from doing them, but there's an energy to his step now and it's… well, it's refreshing.

He'll always have a reckless streak a mile long, but at least now he can admit it. Hosea will always hate admitting his wrong-doings, but doing so with a clear head will at least make him feel better.

Besides, now that he's turned this corner, who's to say he'll have wrong-doings to answer for at all?

Of course he's not perfect, but it's still a nice thought.

Compared to how it's been in his past as an early riser, getting up today is almost pathetically easy. Though she's taken far more breaks than her usual days, he still begins the process of whipping something up for breakfast for her, a habit of old. Besides, doing such a menial task is comforting to him, getting into the habit once again of completing the little things as long as he can.

There will always be days where his hands will itch for a drink, where a bottle will be in sight and Hosea will want nothing more than to dive towards it, but for now his hands remain steady around the pan's handle as the eggs sizzle away before him.

"Breakfast again?" his mother's voice chimes in behind him, still tinged with sleep. "I told you, you don't—"

"Half the time you forget to eat, Mom."

"I'll do better," she promises. "Make you breakfast a few times a week, too."

She's already starting to look less frail. There's more food in the house, less work on their plates. Even if it means rising early every morning to make her breakfast, Hosea would do it if it means keeping that healthy glow to her face.

"You can," he agrees. "If you beat me to it."

He can sense a smile as he begins dividing up the eggs. They both know that she won't; his mom has gone without plentiful sleep for too long, and she's enjoying not having to be on her feet so much.

"I'm proud of you, you know," she says as he places a plate before her, adding a glass of juice alongside it.


"I just am." She takes a bite as if to busy herself, and Hosea settles into his own chair. They never really talked about any of his issues—definitely not the alcohol, but she knew, of course. As much as he could handle it, there was no ridding the scent of liquor from his being. The truth was the both of them were just too tired most days to care about it, to have a life-changing conversation.

Though Hosea hadn't said anything now, either, it was clear his mom had noticed a difference. "Thanks," he murmurs, unable to stop his chest from finally swelling with pride—for their ease in life now, for his mom thriving once again. For himself.

It wasn't easy, but he did it.


Varrik is beginning to think Devan is out to make his life a living hell.

But what the fuck else is new, really?

For someone that supposedly hates mornings just about as much as everything else, she certainly showed up often enough during them. It wasn't a problem, of course—having her create antics for them made his days easier, surprisingly enough. It meant he didn't have to put any brain-power or time himself into thinking them up.

It appears, at least by the sound, that someone managed to remember to lock the door last night, a rare occurrence between the four of them. Devan has been safely barred from dragging him out of bed, at least for now.

Varrik still gets up, of course. He doesn't have to look presentable for her, let alone have his socks match. He stumbles for the door, eyes only half-open, even as the knocking finally stops. That's not very Devan-like, unless she's currently rounding the side of the house to climb through a window. He wouldn't put it past her, though he doesn't hear the sound of an intrusion no matter how long he listens.

He wrenches open the door to discover nothing. Once he blinks away the blinding sun Varrik takes a few steps out past the front door. Their little street is quiet, empty save for a figure maybe twenty feet or so away, walking in the opposite direction. Even without them facing one another, he knows. Something about the way she walks, the firmness to her shoulders… he knows.

His voice, though, is strangled. Almost disbelieving. "Lex?" he croaks.

It doesn't seem like she'll hear him at all, so when she stutters to a halt he feels his heart jump into his throat, each beat of his pulse felt in every inch of his body. Frankly, Varrik could explode into a thousand little pieces right now and not feel pain even for a second.

The emotions coursing through his body are intermingling into one mass thing, indistinguishable. When she turns around, even begins walking back towards him, Varrik can't even make a noise.

It appears that's amusing to her, too. "Finally shut up, have you?"

It really is her. Until he heard her voice, Varrik couldn't allow himself to believe it. She's really here. He thought he knew happiness just a week ago, when he got a call-back from a Doctor in the Capitol about getting surgery in the future, the distinct possibility of it. This is just another type, his body buzzing with electricity as he struggles not to die right here in the middle of the road.

"Why are you here?" he manages finally, voice almost fragile.

"I told you. My sister lives here."

"But… but here."

She tracked him down, somehow. Lex put effort into figuring out where he lived and knocked on his door at an appropriately Lex-like time, and all to see him? He had imagined this, of course, but Varrik hadn't allowed himself to properly go there. Happiness wasn't typically a thing he was allowed to keep a close hold on.

"Lex," he starts. "Can I—"

"Don't push it."

"Can I hug you?" he asks anyway. "Please."

He can see her desire to run away, stark as the day is long. Varrik forces himself still, hardly breathes even, until she finally nods. It's so miniscule that he's cautious when he finally steps forward, allowing her more than enough room to back away. It would sting, but he would let her.

But she doesn't move. When Varrik wraps his arms around her it's brief, her body stiff beneath his hold. When she finally curls an arm around his back, fingers shiting uneasily against his shirt, he breathes it in only for a second.

Varrik pulls back quicker than he'd like to, but just in time for her. "So, do you want a tour?" he asks, trying to be light-hearted.

"My sister already gave me a tour."

"Yeah, but you haven't had the Varrik tour yet."

"Great," Lex says drily. They've dispelled the awkwardness, just like that. She eyes his socked feet, no shoes to be found, but there's only half as much disdain as he expects. "Go put some shoes on."

When she turns around and leaves him standing there in the dust, Varrik isn't surprised in the slightest. He races back into the house, nearly tripping over the first pair of shoes he happens to find before he shoves his feet into them, and turns back after her, harnessing lightning speed.

Running has never been so easy before—he could get used to it.


Compared to how they described it, this is almost pathetically easy to Velcra.

Everyone spoke of such things like they were chores, things that would keep you up long into the night. Velcra always thrived better in the darkness, anyway, and has no trouble keeping up her little bits of research long after the sun has gone down.

She didn't know if it said something about the uselessness of those who were doing this job alongside her, or just the capabilities of Velcra. Was everyone else really so incompetent that they couldn't handle the simplicity of finding a few stray insurgents? The longer she spent working on it, the more pleased Velcra was at having taken the job in the first place.

Sometimes, to get things done, you need the best. They had reached out to the right person after all.

She had gotten particularly lucky this night. Her first clue was nothing more than a brief mention on some dark web, largely unseen forum—a name, an age, a few brief connections. The second she began digging further into the name she discovered their allegiance., how the age-old ways of Panem still clung to every fiber of their being. Velcra collected evidence like she had kills. Quickly, efficiently. No prisoners.

Not yet, anyway.

There was no way she could even feel bad for them, either. They had asked for it, putting so much information out there, even if they were unaware of it at the time. People who made foolish mistakes deserved to be punished. They deserved to be caught.

One person leads her to three more. One of the three leads her to a particularly pro-Capitol family, spreading propaganda about the old ways of the Capitol. Noting every individual detail of their lives feels like vindication, even if she won't receive the joy of ending them herself. No, Velcra does the responsible thing, the one she's been told to do. First she calls Alessia, and then she knows that Alessia makes several other phone calls, all to the right people. Her information is handed over and trusted without a single question—they know Velcra is good at her job, that she wants these people off the streets as much as the rest of them.

An hour later, still from the safe space of her rather cushy desk chair, Velcra is watching from the outdoor camera of a quaint little restaurant as a Peacekeeper squadron fifteen strong makes quick work of the main entrance of a house, ready to confront the family inside.

These are the people that would have her dead, if their wishes were fulfilled. At the end of the day she's just protecting herself, protecting them all. Her fellow survivors should be grateful, really.

Velcra has no idea what happens to them once they're taken into custody. She's asked, of course, but no one seems eager to provide her with an answer? Do they face the chopping block without reservation, or does the justice system go to work for once? Whatever it is, Velcra knows she made the right decision taking this job. Three could never compare to the thrill she feels thrumming through her veins at the thought that she's winning.

She tucks into bed that night with a smile on her face. With each person she finds she comes once step closer to her eventual freedom, the world beneath her conniving hands. They have no idea what's coming—they're not ready for her. They never will be.

When she closes her eyes, at long last, it's with metaphorical blood on her hands, and everything is right in the world.


She's grown to enjoy her time on the balcony.

It took some coaxing of herself, initially, but they've only been here a week. After three days Casi was able to sit out here on her own. A part of her still swayed when she got to her feet, lurched closer to the glass divide that separated her from the great fall before her, but she didn't feel the fear that ought to have come with it.

It was their first purchase with their newfound money, a set of chairs and a table to match, perfectly centered to look into the distance. Casi was glad to have pointed this place out—the view alone was worth it.

Her glass on the table was long since drained, though, the condensation forming a vast ring to prove it. Casi has been lounging for what was certainly considered an inappropriate amount of time, but she had no room in her to care anymore. There was no one to judge her for the actions she partook in, or the lack thereof. She could stay out here for as long as she liked, until the stars overtook the sky.

She was beginning to settle, though, in a way that she knew suggested sleep was close. Falling asleep out here still wasn't something Casi was particularly keen one.

One day, maybe. With Tella, everything quiet between them.

Like she said—it's certainly nice enough.

"You look tired," Tella comments behind her, sliding open the door to lean against it, the beginning of the city's night-time lights shining over her face. It makes her eyes look even more brilliant, the lines of her face somehow stark and soft all at the same time.

"Because I am," she admits. It's not such a crime to admit that, anymore. Casi is no longer at risk of being perceived negatively for having the gall to be something as simple as tired. In her new home, she can be whatever the hell she wants.

"Come to bed, then," Tella requests, her hand brushing gently against Casi's shoulder. She sighs, her body weighed down by some invisible force.

It wouldn't be so terrible to sleep out here, she doesn't think.

It's Tella that saves her from that thought, though, as she always seems to. "Oh, c'mere," she says quietly, reaching forward to slide one arm beneath Casi's knees, pressed together, and the other beyond her back. When Casi is scooped up into the air she only clutches on tighter, laying her head against Tella's shoulder.

Three days ago she had done that for the first time, hauling Casi up into the air without warning. She had laughed and smacked at Tella's arms, every move and protest ignored as Tella had taken her wherever she damn well pleased. Now her exhaustion makes her settle in deeper, the familiarity of Tella's hold only serving to lull her further into sleep.

By the time she's set down—her side of the bed, blankets already pulled back, she feels like she could fall asleep within seconds. It's better, too, when Tella slips in behind her just as she clicks the lamp off, shuttering the room off into darkness. Casi grabs her hands where they rest over her side, the feather-light hold somehow more soothing than anything else she could think of.

Tella's lips are gentle against the back of her neck, breath soft. "Night," she murmurs, allowing herself to rest against Casi without reservation.

She could do this forever, she thinks. Here, in this place, safe and tucked away with no one but her girl by her side.

Casi is home. There's nowhere else she'd rather be.


Hale never thought he'd have to be someone who got used to having folks in his house.

He was quite happy to be somewhat of a recluse, really. Being outright opposed to people was often more trouble than it was worth, but Hale much preferred the quiet that came along with solitude.

As difficult as their lives had been, Hale had enjoyed it just the two of them. It was what he was used to.

This… this wasn't.

Glenna is here again today, as she often is. He still feels like he's walking on egg-shells around her, but he can't quite get away when she's so hell-bent on checking in. Considering how well she took care of Arley while he was gone, Hale isn't in the right to refuse her. She never overstays her welcome, never bothers him. She's just here.

Then there's the highly debated topic of the physical therapist and his younger assistant, both recently arrived from the Capitol. Having them around so often should be grating, but Hale can't find it in him to be annoyed when they seem to be helping out Arley so much. The progress is slow-going, but it's going. Already their walks are getting longer without his brother having to be in constant pain.

He feels intrusive watching them even if they're just going through the motions, but Hale isn't sure what else to do. Though he's working on his relationship with Glenna, sometimes he's still stuck in that moment in the office when she let him go.

He's working on it. Her sitting right next to him is certainly helping.

"You know, you don't have to stare twenty-four-seven," she informs him, arms crossed over her chest.

"I don't."

"You do, whether you're aware of it or not."

"You say that like it's a bad thing."

"Keeping tabs on your brother is not. Making eyes at his PT assistant, on the other hand..."

Hale blinks, before the realization hits him all at once. "I—what? I am not."

"You are."


"Hale," she says plaintively, getting to her feet. "I wouldn't worry about it too much if I were you, kiddo. He's been staring back enough all on his own. Handsome young man, isn't he?"

When she departs, presumably to help herself to something in their always now fully-stocked kitchen, Hale can't erase the frown from his face, even while he continues staring at the three of them in the next room over. He hasn't been staring at any one of them more than the other, for her information. Hale unfortunately can't even recall the poor guy's name, much as he has been helping—did it start with a D? It might have.

Arley, too, catches his eye during a brief break, when he rocks up onto his feet with the help of both of his new assistants. When his brother rolls his eyes, looking only resigned, Hale looks away just as fast.

"Told you," Glenna says behind him, sipping calmly at a glass of water. Hale sort of, not really, wants to throttle her. "But hey, if you wanted to date him, I'm sure it would make all of your lives easier."

Hale groans, lowering his head into his hands. He thinks he hears Arley chuckle from the next room over, like he knows what they're speaking about. Hell, he probably does. Clearly these two have been conspiring against him, and for what?

Of course this is how they repay him—by making his life a joke.

Oddly enough, though, he'll take it if it means they can remain here.


A knot formed in Micah's gut over an hour ago and hasn't left.

He feels sick, and he's not sure why. Has to be the nerves. Nerves he doesn't even know why he's feeling, really, because it's not like this wasn't planned. Micah knows exactly where he's going, who he'll be seeing. There are no surprises to be had.

It's been two months, though. Granted, they've flown by, but that was in the presence of his family, once again enveloping him back into their chaotic yet loving embrace. Every single hour he just spent on this train went by at a practical snail's pace.

They spent weeks talking about it. Micah spent longer thinking about it.

Now he can see the mountains, though, and the train is slowing down, and he might just throw up before he even steps off of it. Micah's shaking hands struggle to pull the bag from beneath his seat, finally clutching it tight to his chest as the train pulls into the station. Already he's looking out the window, searching, but failing to find what he really wants to see.

For the first legitimate time ever, Micah is just a little bit terrified about the prospect of Milo.

Despite that thought, though, he doesn't slow down in the least. Micah is the very first person out in the aisle, practically tripping over his own feet in his rather stupid haste. Despite the butterflies that appear to be multiplying in his stomach, he's never been so sure of a decision in his life. Stepping off that train only makes him more certain of it. He's supposed to be here, and no one can take that away from him.

Micah only takes a few steps forward before he allows the people around him to trickle away, watching the crowd as it mills about. He's here, somewhere. He said he would be.

"You're looking a bit too hard there, Eight."

If it was possible, his heart would have dropped out through his stomach at the voice behind him. Micah is still shaking like a leaf, but a smile breaks out on his face, so wide his cheeks hurt within moments. He doesn't turn when he drops his bag by his feet, leaving it abandoned. His belongings are the last thing on his mind right now as he finally allows himself to turn and throws himself into Milo's arms as fast as he physically can.

But Milo is right there—solid and real and here as he catches Micah in the nick of time, arms wrapped tight around his waist as he lifts him up into the air. Micah cares little for his dangling feet. If he had it his way, he would never have to touch the ground again. He breathes in, pressing his face into the crook of Milo's neck regardless of everyone else around them.

This is the why. He was meant to be here.

"I missed you," he croaks, muffled, but he thinks he hears Milo say it too, at nearly the same time. It doesn't matter how many phone calls he made, how many times Micah envisioned this—none of it compares to actually being here. To think that he almost never had this, and now he has it all. His family and a home in more than one place and the right to be wherever he pleases, alive as can be.

Milo finally deposits him on the ground once more, but neither of them let go. He reaches up instead, stretching to cup Milo's face between his hands and kiss him. It's real. He knows it, now.

And just like that, the fear is gone.


Never before has Inara been the victim of such unbridled mayhem.

You'd think she was used to it by now. Inara spent many of her past few years in a home with these girls as is, though granted they were always at the mercy of a much crueler, higher power, so to speak. Now they all live without reservation. Not one of these girls is scared anymore.

Hence the complete and total pandemonium, but it's so familiar it warms her heart.

"Don't," she snaps, turning a glare on Demi. "Touch that."

Demi freezes, half craned over the stove-top to look towards the bubbling pot. It's not like potatoes are anything fancy to watch. Inara quickly shoos her away, easily one of the biggest disasters in the kitchen, as she's proven. There's a reason Inara tries to handle dinner on her own most nights, and this is precisely the reason.

She's allowed help for once, though, even if it doesn't include Demi. A few of the girls are spread out around the kitchen with her, monitoring various pots and pans and bowls filled with odd mixtures. Their dinners aren't typically so fanciful. They don't have nearly enough places to congregate, but Inara makes it their mission of the day to find and drag every chair they possibly can into the living room so that all of them can eat together.

She bends down, warily eyeing the cake that's beginning to rise in the very back of the oven. Inara has never made a cake before—no reason to, really. She never had any family to present one to and there was no use in trying to prepare one for herself under the watchful eye of the Sisters. Even now Inara isn't sure he'll take time out of her day to care about another year, but the girls are different. She can already picture the joyous smile on Kanea's face when she's presented with the cake, even if the number of candles isn't exactly right.

"I think you've mixed it enough," she calls to Gilda, who has been taking a wooden spoon to their home-made icing for long enough now. Inara has watched her dunk her finger into the mixture maybe half a dozen times without comment, but now she's beginning to push her luck.

"Wanna try?"

"I trust you," she says, stepping around Demi to finally remove the potatoes from the stove. "Why are you still here?"

"What can I do?"

"Make sure we have enough plates," Inara instructs, thankfully watching Demi skip off with a gleeful little bounce. For all she knows they won't even have enough, but no one will really mind. The downright chaos of this meal is exactly what every person in this house has come to know and love.

Inara really does love it, too. Even more, she loves knowing that these girls are safe, and that every sacrifice she had to make was worth it. Her recently singed fingers, almost comical in their comparison to the arena, are worth it too.

Just like everything else, she's sure this meal won't be perfect. Someone will have dumped too much salt into the wrong bowl, or the cake will deflate the second they pull it free from the oven. Something will taste off, or someone will spill something all over the carpet in the living room. At the end of the day, something is always bound to go wrong in this house.

Would Inara have it any other way, though?

No. No, she really wouldn't.


He almost feels like his old self again.

If you didn't know any better, hadn't seen one Ambrose Clarion on the television some while ago, you wouldn't have the faintest clue anything happened to him at all.

He chooses one of his usual spots, a place made barren by his absence. The shops and square around it are buzzing with people both coming and going, though no one pays him any mind as he drops his matching bags, beginning to gently unpack the equipment inside.

Only Ambrose knows that something is different. His voice will always be that way whether he wants it to or not, no matter how much practice or time he affords it. It took every ounce of his willpower just to let his siblings listen to him again, and that was some two weeks ago.

When he had left his house this morning, guitar over one shoulder and microphone stand over the other, he had barely been able to keep one foot in front of the other as nausea began to grow within him like a tidal wave. Even though they had faded his scars from surgery tremendously, Ambrose couldn't help but feel like every single look sent his way was full of judgement. He could only keep going, one foot in front of the other.

The song was… maybe it wasn't perfect, not up to par with his standards from before, but it was him now. He had yet to even write it on a clear sheet of paper, much preferring to let his eyes rake over the notes Amalie had made in the margins, the silly doodles Jasper had added at the end of each line. It was a song made imperfect by everything that happened to him, fitting in the oddest way possible.

At least everyone on the way here had only watched him in passing. Now that he's stopped, extending the microphone stand to its full height, people were watching. After that he stayed crouched for some time, letting his fingers fine-tune the guitar as an easy distraction. He had already gone through and done it before he left, each motion painstakingly methodical, but it was easy to buy time by doing now.

Ambrose didn't know if he could ever be that famous singer now, his name written in lights. He didn't know if he had it in him anymore.

But this… this he could do. He was here now. If Ambrose was fearful of going through with it, the only thing worse would be turning tail and running.

He couldn't. Not with an audience.

Said audience is building now, too, the crowd beginning to thicken at the edges. Ambrose rises to his full height, swallowing as he pulls the guitar strap over his chest. With one last glance at the paper, his siblings' presence written in every inch of it, he folds it and tucks it away once again.

By memory. He's practiced. Both Jasper and Amalie have told him several times over it couldn't be any better, and even though he refused their attendance today, he knows they're still here.

Ambrose finally looks up—everyone is waiting for him. Not a single soul can pretend they don't know who he is.

Only one face in the crowd catches his attention, though. It's a miracle he sees her at all, hidden behind so many figures who dwarf her in every single way.

Not to him, though. To him she's a singular light in a crowd of darkness, and her smile only serves to make it brighter.

Oksana nods towards him, just once. You got this, she mouths, and all it takes is those three words.

Suddenly, Ambrose knows that he does.


Sleeping has been a much easier task to accomplish now that he's home.

This house, at least, is still somewhat of a foreign concept for Milo. Untouched by his parents, a mere shadow of the one they lived in before they had to sell everything just to stay alive.

Regardless of its misfortunes, though, they've stayed put. His sisters like it—he's starting to. Milo would much rather put time and effort into fixing up the place than uproot them once again just when they've finally gotten settled. It's not as if he has much else to do these days.

For a while he at least felt busy, keeping close to Esha and Rani, having regular chats with Liana, but all of that has started to die down. Until two days ago when he had walked down to the station, things had been almost stagnant. It wasn't such a bad thing, he was realizing, but Milo liked having something more.

This was it, really. The house had already changed.

Despite his growing comfort regarding sleep, he's still the last one to settle for the night. Milo flicks all the lights off one by one and checks the door too, just in case. Esha and Rani's own is still open a crack, just enough to let the summer breeze run through. Despite this, Esha has still, unsurprisingly, kicked almost all of her blankets away in the short time she's been asleep, and he tip-toes in to drag them back up despite the futility behind the motion.

He knows they struggled with sleep for some time, too. They all have. The trauma lingering over the three of them was impossible to be rid of in just a few days—it would be something they all worked on for a long time.

Seeing them both fast asleep so easily made him more optimistic.

Milo doesn't bother being so quiet as he eases into his own room, shutting the door tight. Micah has yet to go to sleep without him, whether from a true desire to wait or a straight up inability. It's his job, then, to draw all the curtains closed and ensure everything is accomplished before he pulls the covers up, disturbing nearly every single inch of the bed as he slides in himself.

Not that Micah is surprised, having grown so used to it already. He clutches onto the blankets until Milo finally stills, and only then does he begin the slow process of shuffling closer, all the way until their head is sharing the same pillow.

"Are they good?" Micah asks, punctuated by a hearty yawn.

"They're good."

"And what about you?"

"I'm good," he answers. "You?"

"I'm great," Micah mumbles, nudging his cold toes against the bareness of Milo's leg before he retracts them with a little laugh. Of course he's great when he has Milo here to leech heat off of when he gets to shivering at the most random of times.

Not that he minds. Waking up to Micah wrapped around him, or even falling asleep that way, is the least of his problems.

They really have little to complain about, these days, when such a short time ago it felt like the sky itself was about to rain down on him. As promised, Micah came to see him—and he will again, time after time, just as Milo will eventually work up the courage to venture to Eight.

He's been faced with so many endings, terrible ones, and somehow Milo has escaped them all. Even if he's undeserving, no one can take that away from him now. He made it out the other side to finally find something worth living for. Micah's presence as he shifts the last little bit closer, eliminating the last inch between them to lay his head on Milo's shoulder, is only a reaffirmation of such a thing.

The fire that has been coming for him for so long has finally been beaten back. He's not going anywhere.

In fact, it's almost beginning to feel like a distant memory.


Ilaria didn't realize she missed the sound of the ocean until this very moment.

Six was overwhelming in every sense of the word—the metallic energy of the surrounding factories, the whistles of the trains squealing along the rails, cars backfiring around every corner.

A part of her in some respect loved Six for what it had made her, as much as she simultaneously loved it. Four was the same way. This was the home she had run from in her quest for an adventure, her blood-related family left far behind whilst she looked for more.

Ilaria sometimes wonders if she would do the same if she was given the chance to go back and time, and doesn't exactly have an answer.

Sometimes not knowing is better.

What she does know, beyond a shadow of a doubt, is that she's right where she's supposed to be in every moment, whether it's at their little hotel in Six or on the shores now, the sand warm beneath her toes, never-ending waves stretching out before her. Somewhere behind her sits Ceto in her carefully carried chair, high on the dunes, watching over Ilaria as she has for some time now. Ilaria made good on her promise that the both of them would see Four again someday.

They're due to go back to Six, soon—Ilaria would never be able to leave it permanently, she doesn't think. It's her home, beach or no beach. Six is the very place that took everything Ilaria already was and made it into something worthy of a Victor.

She steps forward in the sand, letting the sun-warm water rush over her feet. The cuffs of her pants are already drenched from her earlier ventures out, but the salt sticking to her skin and the spray misting over her face is nothing she would ever change.

For the first time in a long time, Ilaria lets herself rest. She sits back in the sand just out of reach of the water's strongest forces, though it continues to lap over her toes, feet gradually sinking further in. She won't allow this to be a one-time visit—she'll come back here with Ceto, even just once a year. Cal can come too, if he likes, and even Licia. If she happens to take to the idea, perhaps even Rivian would like to tag along one day too.

Isn't that just picturesque? All the people she needs—and the ones she wants—all finally collected in one place, enveloped in peace at long last.

Ilaria glances back at Ceto, eyes closed against the sun, the wind ruffling the strands of her gray hair that have already escaped her previously neat bun. Not only did she win and secure herself a life worth living, but she gave it to other people too.

She wakes up having forgotten, sometimes, about everything she went through. The Games. The violence. Everything before it, too. For those few blissful seconds Ilaria is free from the torment of it all, just another girl about to wake up and face the day.

It comes back, as it always does, in waves. Not unlike the ones rushing over her feet, really, but even those eventually slip back out with the tide. Sometimes they climb up the beach with all the force in the world behind them, and sometimes they're so gentle Ilaria can hardly feel them. And that's what life will be like from now on, she knows. Far from ideal, some days. Perfect during others.

And, maybe, one day, the ocean will just be the ocean. There will be no destruction that comes with it, no bloodshed or brutality. No death.

Only life.

Ferrox Mervaine, 50
Former Co-Head Gamemaker

Once he's fit to leave, there's nothing else he wants more.

There's no concept of time when you're under like that, lost in a sea of black, entirely unaware of the ongoings around your motionless body. Something in Atlas is disappointed when he tells him that, some days later, but he's nothing if not an explicit all-around disappointment.

That's likely why he keeps coming so close to death.

It's a miracle he's not yet turned to dust, that his body hasn't simply atrophied from all of the drugs and miracle cures, whatever they use to plug up the repeated holes from bullets and pieces of red-hot shrapnel. Occasionally, his body doesn't really feel like his—Ferrox is nothing more than a sometimes walking, sometimes talking sack of meat filled with blood and bones and muscle, just enough to keep him standing.

The doctors all look at him like he's something of greatness, a god amongst them, except there's nothing close to ichor flowing through him. Ferrox is as human as the rest of them, despite the looks he receives.

If he was anything like a God, he wouldn't spend so much time in a hospital bed trying to prove otherwise.

When he does finally go, it's with all of the right people by his side. Sona and Cyrus, even Lex despite her wariness at spending an extended period of time in the infirmary. Mercia is the one to lead the charge out, restless strong in her being as she charges forward—Atlas is slower to follow, glancing over his shoulder at his parents behind them all like it hasn't quite sunk in.

Cambria's hand is in his, like it always is. He got all the talks already. No one knows what happened to him, at least no one beyond the Training Center. In the eyes of the public, Ferrox Mervaine is already home and safe, living a peaceful life once again with his family.

To be frank, he's going to prove that wide-spread theory right. If he has it his way, he's locking himself down in his house and never coming out.

He's done, now. They're not getting anymore of him.

Before that dream can be fulfilled, though, he has one more stop to make. When he goes, there's no one with him. Cars remain along the curb to hold his aforementioned people as he heads inside, Cambria waiting in one of the lower halls.

The control room is just as clinical as the infirmary was. Unlike the first time this place was left to dust, this time it was tidied up before it was abandoned. Not a single thing lies out of place—only a thin layer of dust exists to prove that there was ever any sort of return here in the first place. Ferrox runs a hand through it, over all of the touchpads and screens. Around him, the room comes to life. The lights flicker. The chair beckons for him to reclaim it as his home.

But it's not—not anymore. His home is just downstairs, and a few hundred miles away.

For a long time, a great portion of his younger life, it was easier to pretend that he belonged here. This place was a simple escape, and the art of murder was somehow so much easier to wrap his head around than anything else, until it all of a sudden wasn't anymore.

When it's you dying, things change, all of a sudden. It's funny how that works.

Screen by screen, chair by chair, he closes the place down. He organizes it in exactly the way he would have wanted, so that if anyone happens to step into this place even years down the line, they'll know he was here one final time. Whether he wants ownership of it or not, this place will always be his.

This place nearly killed him several times over but it kept him alive, too. Ferrox at least has to be grateful for that.

When finally the room around him has been plunged into an inky darkness, Ferrox can only stand in the center of it, as if he's facing the inevitable of being dragged into a black hole. It has pulled him in, just once or twice. Every time he's managed to crawl back out even when the odds were stacked against him.

Ferrox doesn't plan on letting the third time be the charm.

His steps out are painfully slow, each one dragging against the tiled floor. Ferrox ascends the stairs and clutches onto the door, the key leaving a harsh indent in the palm of his hand. Before he can begin to talk himself out of it, Ferrox lays the key down, and he even manages a smile.

There's no coming back. No need to.

It's over.

Closing that door behind him is one of the hardest things he's ever done, but he knows it's necessary, just as all of the evils were that he committed over the years. Every single one was with a purpose, had an endgame. If every single one of those things brought him here, can he really say it wasn't worth it? He's still breathing. Ferrox knows many aren't so lucky.

He closes the door. It echoes behind him, his footsteps making way for a resounding cry up and down the hall, beckoning: come back, come back, come back.

But he doesn't.

It was time to go home.