Bastian didn't know what to do with himself anymore.
Grief was a funny thing. It clouded his mind, made the days blur into weeks, made him unable to think about anything else. He wandered his house aimlessly, going from room to room as if he expected her to appear, as if he expected anything to change. He'd been through this enough times with others in the District that he knew he needed to find a way to ground himself or he'd never be able to make it back to the surface. He'd spend the rest of his days treading water - never drowning, but never truly swimming either. Just… existing.
And some days, that was awfully hard to do.
He'd wake up late enough in the day that the sun was high in the sky, drift around the house until he remembered to eat, and by the time he realized any time had passed, the sun had dipped below the horizon. Bastian could only sigh and wander down to the basement, where he'd spend hours at the piano, playing until his hands ached and the melodies began to blur together.
Even sleeping wasn't much of a respite. Bastian never remembered his dreams - he never had - but he knew they weren't good. He'd wake up time and again drenched in a cold sweat, his eyes wet as if he'd been crying. Part of him wished he could at least remember the dreams. It was the closest he'd ever come to having Makani back, after all.
The silence of his empty house was enough to drive him mad some days. If he was left alone with only the sound of his own breathing, he'd start to remember. While the recap had cut out most of it, Bastian could still clearly recall the sounds of her dying breaths ringing in his ears. To this day, he couldn't quite drown them out.
His hands stalled on the piano keys, his fingers trembling for reasons he couldn't fully explain. The last chords he'd been playing reverberated in the room, making him shudder. Bastian blinked, as if he'd finally awakened after an eternity of sleep, wondering where he was. There was something lingering on the edges of his mind, something he couldn't quite reach, and he didn't know how to try. He didn't know where to begin.
Ever so slowly, his hands moved into a new position, fingers finding the proper keys despite the years blurring his memory of this particular piece. He'd always meant to write down the notes for himself, but Makani had asked him to play it so often that he thought he'd never forget. Evidently she hadn't forgotten either - she hummed it to herself throughout her time in the Arena.
He hit more than a few wrong notes as he played, frustrating himself - he hated being unable to lose himself in his music - but he kept going, determined to rediscover the tune. More than anything, he wanted to know, he wanted to understand. He'd been left with more questions than he knew what to do with. As he watched her throughout the Games, he was so sure that she was trying to leave hints for him, that he was supposed to pick up on something, but he came up empty every time.
What was it that she wanted him to remember?
"You can't leave!" a younger Makani begged, her face streaked with tears. "What about all the other tributes? Only one can make it out!"
"Are you saying you don't trust that I'll be the one?" he teased, too cocky for his own good back then.
Makani just smacked his shoulder - gently, but it was enough for him to register that she was serious. "Don't say that!" she practically wailed, her shoulders shuddering as she tried to inhale a proper breath. "I just… you just… you can't leave me!"
His face immediately dropped, and he carefully got up, holding his arms out for her. She immediately threw her arms around his torso, knocking him back a step. Bastian carefully rubbed her back, trying to pretend like the sound of her sobs didn't cut him to his core.
"I wouldn't be doing this if I didn't believe I would win," he murmured, trying to calm her. "I'll come back to you, okay? I promise."
She didn't respond, but her arms tightened around him, and he figured that was enough of an answer.
Makani had always hated the Games - even more so after he came back. She hated watching him leave year after year, hated watching the Games, hated all of it.
And that's why he could never understand.
He tried to force all of that out of his mind, going back to his old melody, letting his fingers stumble over each other as he rediscovered it. This was the most clarity he'd had in weeks, and he didn't want to waste it.
And for a few moments, he could hear Makani humming along with him.
The phone was ringing again.
That wasn't uncommon. Bastian actually wasn't sure why he hadn't unplugged the phone already. He already knew who it wouldn't be (his parents), and who it likely was (Estelle). Part of him felt bad that he never answered her calls, but he never quite knew what to say.
So he let it ring, staring up at the ceiling and hoping it would end soon so he could go back to sleep. Light hadn't begun to creep in through the curtains, so he had no sense of what time it was. Probably too early. He hoped she'd leave him alone soon.
But the phone was only silent for a moment before it went off again, and Bastian knew he couldn't run away from her much longer. He let himself stay still for a few more seconds before sighing and going to answer the phone.
"Estelle?" he mumbled, still half asleep.
"Oh my god, you're okay!" Okay was a strong word, but considering her tone and the way she sounded like she was about to burst into tears, it was probably fitting. He'd never disappeared like this before.
(He hadn't had a reason to.)
"'M fine," he said, sighing and getting to his feet. "Why'd you call?"
He could tell from her tone that she was taken aback by his bluntness, but he couldn't find it in him to care. He hadn't cared about anything in a while.
"I just… wanted to check in. I haven't heard from you in months, Bastian." Estelle paused, as if trying to decide what to say next. "And… and we'll be in Four for the victory tour tomorrow."
He flinched, breath hissing out through his teeth. "Tomorrow?"
"You didn't know?"
"I'm… not sure what day it is."
"Oh," she said softly. He could hear her fumbling with something on the other side of the line. "Well, um… we'll be there tomorrow if you want to talk or something?"
"Not really," he admitted, lifting the curtain to stare out the window, squinting into the blinding sunlight. "But I'll be there."
"What about the Capitol?" She hadn't even hesitated after his rejection, as if she hadn't expected him to say yes at all. He couldn't blame her.
"I'll be there too."
"She wants to talk to you."
Bastian frowned, turning away from the window. "Why?"
He could almost hear her shrug over the line. "I think she wants to know more, just like you do."
"But I don't know more."
"You could help each other fill in the blanks."
Bastian immediately recoiled from the idea, loathing the concept of anyone knowing something about his sister that he didn't. And besides, it was so obvious that Makani had enjoyed spending time with Alila, though she'd avoided him entirely. He couldn't help but feel bitter, even though he knew in his heart that he shouldn't.
"Or not," Estelle added lamely, and he realized he never responded.
"I'll think about it," he finally mumbled.
"Really?" she asked, voice brightening immediately.
"Not tomorrow," he clarified, already shuddering at the idea of having to go through the process of yet another victory tour. He hated them enough as it was, but this time…
God, this time it would be him standing on the stage, being watched by the rest of the District as he tried to mourn his sister. His parents would be there as well, trying to pretend like they'd ever truly cared, and only Bastian would know better.
"It's been months," he blurted out, clutching the phone like a lifeline.
"It's been months," he repeated. "Months, and they still can't get her out."
There was silence on the other side, and then, "Still?"
"Estelle, what if she can't come home at all?" Bastian tried to keep his voice even, but he heard it crack and hoped he wasn't about to cry. "What if she's stuck there forever?"
"I don't know," she said honestly.
Bastian didn't know either. He wished he did. Any kind of answer would be better than nothing, would be better than this eternal stasis.
(He wished it was him instead. He'd go into the Arena a thousand times over if it meant she didn't. He'd fight and fight and fight until he couldn't anymore, until there was nothing left to give, until he was nothing more than dust.)
(At least that would be better than whatever hell he was in now.)
"I'll see you tomorrow," he muttered, hanging up before he could hear a response from Estelle.
He'd never been so tired in his life, but Bastian convinced himself to go downstairs, to try and pull himself together into some semblance of a functioning human again. Every bone in his body ached for reasons he couldn't understand or explain, but he wanted to at least try.
It's what she would've wanted.
He didn't know what made him finally ask.
Maybe his curiosity finally won out. That was certainly possible. Bastian had been wondering a lot of things for a very long time, and with Alila right in front of him, he couldn't help himself any longer. He couldn't convince himself to look at her for very long, still resentful of the way she'd gotten to know his sister when he couldn't, but he could listen. That was almost enough.
He learned that she blamed herself for what happened just as much as he did. That didn't fully surprise him, as he remembered the finale just as well as she did, but she at least seemed to be doing better. That was good. Makani would want that.
But it was still hard. Bastian was struggling to reconcile with the fact that neither of them were truly to blame. He wished that someone was to blame. That would make things easier.
"Where did the locket come from?" Alila asked suddenly, startling him.
Her brow furrowed, and she quietly gestured to the chain around his neck. "Isn't that what the necklace is? I could be wrong, but…"
He fumbled for the chain again, fingers slipping as he tried to unclasp it before finally succeeding. Holding it reverently, he peered down at the round silver pendant. He wasn't sure why he'd never considered that before, but he felt for a place to open it, raising his eyebrows when he found a little notch. His fingers trembled slightly as he opened it, hyper aware of Alila trying not to openly stare at him.
All that lay inside was a scrap of paper, which he immediately unfolded, frowning at the drawing he found. He brought it closer, noticing that it appeared to be a flower. But as soon as he recognized what it was, he felt ill. It wasn't just a flower. No, he would've recognized the yellow petals with purple veins anywhere. He had a card that looked just like it.
And suddenly, everything made a little too much sense.
"I have to go," he blurted out, moving towards the doors to head inside before Alila could respond. If she ever said anything at all, he didn't hear it.
For the first time in months, Bastian had an idea of what was going on, and he didn't like where it was going.
"What did you do?"
By this point, Bastian didn't bother knocking on the door or waiting to be let in.
Maddox Henbane simply raised an eyebrow, glancing up from whatever papers he was pretending to shuffle through. "I'm afraid you'll have to be a little more specific. But since you're here, why don't you take a seat? That would be far more comfortable than you lurking in my doorway."
It was less of a question and more of an order, so Bastian tried to reign in his emotions. He slowly made his way across the room, sitting down in a rather uncomfortable chair that he was all too familiar with. He'd been here many times before, but somehow this time was the worst. At least before, he had some idea of what to expect. But now…
"What were you asking?" Maddox glanced over at him, folding his hands on his desk as if he hadn't heard Bastian the first time.
"What did you do?" Bastian asked more slowly, trying to stay calm.
Maddox tutted quietly, shaking his head. "That's not very specific, is it Bastian? I'm afraid you'll have to enlighten me."
He let out a slow breath, his hands trembling. "You know exactly what I'm talking about. What did you do to Makani?"
"That's not quite the question you want to ask, is it?"
Bastian gritted his teeth, trying to remember that Maddox was particularly good at finding the cracks in his facade and exploiting them to get what he wanted. "Fine," he ground out. "Why did my sister volunteer?"
"Isn't it obvious? She volunteered because I told her to."
And even though Bastian had come here knowing where this conversation would lead, the shock still hit him like a punch to the gut. All of her secrecy began to make sense as well - if Maddox had told her to volunteer, he probably told her not to tell anyone why. And since Bastian was the person she was closest to, she thought she had to avoid him so she wouldn't let anything slip.
God, it wasn't fair.
Bastian didn't even realize he'd moved until he had the collar of Maddox's shirt clutched in a fist. He blinked, almost surprised by his own actions, but he couldn't convince himself to let go.
"I wouldn't do that if I were you," Maddox warned, barely looking affected by Bastian's sudden movement. "I'd hate for your parents to mourn two of their children in the same year."
Bastian forced out a bitter laugh, not sitting down just yet. "You know just as well as I do that they wouldn't give a shit."
"That's true," Maddox said, nodding his head as if he was pretending to think. "So let me try this. If you try anything, I have a little button under my desk that will have peacekeepers swarming you in seconds. I'm sure the public will understand a Victor losing his mind after his beloved sister's death, and we'll get you rehabilitated as quickly as we can. Though, we'd need someone to fill in for your duties while you're gone. I'm sure Estelle-"
"Leave her out of this."
He must've responded far too quickly, as Maddox's lips just curled up into a smile. "Touchy," he laughed. "How about you sit down, then, and we'll talk this through?"
Though Bastian was still shaking so violently that he wasn't sure he could move, he managed to maneuver himself back into his chair. His jaw clenched and unclenched, trying to determine what to say. What was there to say?
"There you go," Maddox said mockingly. "Much better, isn't it? I'd hate for things to get volatile in here."
"Why?" Bastian finally managed to ask. "I told you I'd do whatever you wanted as long as you left her alone."
His eyes glittered, and Bastian felt a pit of dread form in his stomach. "But for me to uphold my end of the deal, that means you have to uphold yours as well, right?"
"And I seem to recall ordering you to kill Thea's sister, but that didn't quite work out, did it? Did you really think I wouldn't notice an extra passenger on your train back? Or the funds you gave her to be able to live peacefully in Four?"
Bastian was frozen, unable to come up with a proper way to defend himself, knowing he'd been caught and fearing how long it had been this way. He licked his lips, suddenly feeling out of his element. "I- that wasn't fair! You know she only attacked that nurse because she woke up half blind and was convinced she was still in the Arena! In her mind, she was just trying to defend herself."
"I don't remember asking for your personal opinion on the matter." Maddox was done playing nice now, leaning forward with his elbows resting on his desk. "I told Emerson that I would help her keep the Victors in line while she focused on more important things, and that's what I've done. It's worked well, hasn't it? I have you and Ariadne to take care of any problems that pop up, and Callan is more than willing to appease the Capitol however they want."
"So that's what this is about? You got my sister killed because I didn't follow one of your orders?"
"You think so little of me, it's almost disappointing. It's not like I sent her in there without a chance."
"A room fucking collapsed on her. That didn't happen by chance."
Maddox's grin widened, and he laughed out loud, making Bastian shudder. "Then we didn't watch the same Games, did we? Sure, the room collapsed, but Makani chose to stay. Poor, soft-hearted Makani pushed Crush out of the way but couldn't do the same for herself. It really is a shame. I thought she had a chance."
"That's not fair," he whispered. "You knew what she would choose. She'd never kill anyone. She'd never let herself be the cause of their death either."
A shrug. "She practically told me that herself. But I gave her another choice before that."
"What does that mean?"
"She's a lot more perceptive than you give her credit for," Maddox said, and Bastian bristled, but didn't rise to the bait. "You got sloppy; she found one of your cards and contacted me. Seems she hoped that if she intervened, I'd leave you alone, let you stop going on those missions. And, if I recall, when we first met, I told you that secrecy was the most crucial part of our little agreement. No one is allowed to know, not even precious family members that swear they won't tell anyone."
"So you threatened her?"
"Not quite. I'd caught on to her rather… selfless nature by this point, so I struck a deal with her. If she volunteered, I'd let you out of our little bargain. And if she didn't… well, I didn't have to elaborate."
"That still sounds like a threat."
"Maybe so, but I never directly threatened her. I remember your interview, Bastian, and I remember the way you talked about how your sister was terrified to see you go into those Games. I wondered what she would choose - you, or one of the things she feared most - but she didn't even hesitate. She sealed her own fate, and she did it for you."
"Fuck you," Bastian spat, glaring fiercely at the man.
"Now, now, Bastian," he chided, shaking his head, "that's no way to talk to someone, is it? After all, I haven't bothered you in months, have I? I upheld my end of the deal."
Bastian blinked, then recalled how the past several months had been silent. He hadn't given it a second thought, but… was this really why Makani had volunteered? Why she'd died? Had she been more willing to accept it because she believed he'd be safer that way?
"You didn't have to leave her in there." Bastian felt himself trembling again, clutching the armrest tightly. "It's not like she can do anything now!"
"Ah, right," Maddox muttered, nodding. "I suppose I should apologize for that one. I'm the one that triggered the collapse, after all."
Maddox appeared smug, leaning back in his chair. "I've learned my way around the control room throughout the years. President Emerson has me check in on things when she's unable to, after all. Poor Leon was irate the entire rest of the day - he's never been big on other people messing with his projects. I'm sure he wanted to see how the rest of the scene played out between the two of them, but… well, what can I say? I got a little trigger happy. Unfortunately, Leon never meant for that section to collapse, so the rest of the structure would be compromised if we got her out. I hope you understand why that would be impossible."
"So she's stuck there forever," Bastian muttered, staring down at his hands. "She'll never go home."
"No," Maddox admitted. "But think of it this way: you can! You can go back to Four, and everything will go back to normal. I'm sure Estelle would love to see you around more as well - that's why you've been avoiding her, isn't it? Hoping I would leave her alone? Hoping she wouldn't get curious and ask too many questions? Don't worry about that. Unless she begins to pry, she can play with her shiny new Victor. She's too close with Emerson, anyway. Can't let the President in on what's going on behind the scenes, can we?"
"Why even help her win the presidency if you're just going to control it all from behind the scenes?"
Maddox looked almost amused by his question, leaning back in his seat. "It's much easier that way. Panem wanted an optimistic new face to follow, and she fit the bill. I helped her to get what she wanted, and she trusts me enough that it's all too easy to get what I want at the same time. And besides, if anything happens, she's the one in the public eye. I'm just a lowly secretary, aren't I?"
Bastian tried not to roll his eyes. "How do I even know you're telling the truth about any of this?"
A grin. "You'll just have to trust me, won't you?"
"I'm sure you can understand why I find that hard to do."
The grin slipped - only barely, but enough to remind Bastian that he was still in dangerous territory. "A shame," Maddox cooed. "I thought we were becoming friends."
He didn't bother to respond to that.
"If that's all, then you can be on your way," Maddox said dismissively, turning back to his papers as if nothing had happened. "It's a shame about Makani. I wish things hadn't turned out like this."
What was Bastian supposed to say to that, really? That he wished it didn't either? That felt obvious enough, but he didn't want to cave to Maddox again so easily. All he could do now was leave and go back home and vow to make things better.
It's what Makani would want, after all.
So he got up silently, not bothering to say goodbye. From here on out, Bastian knew he had to bide his time and wait for the chance to strike. But he knew Maddox would be doing the same; it was a game to him, after all, just like the one he played with Emerson year after year. Victors were nothing but a pawn in whatever game Maddox was playing, and Bastian would have to watch his back.
He paused in the doorway, not bothering to glance over his shoulder. He didn't want to see Maddox's face again, not for a long while.
"See you for the next Games."
and thus, the end of an era.
i've been working on odwh for well over a year now - closer to a year and a half - and even now as i write this a/n it doesn't feel real. odwh is over. as soon as i post this chapter, i'll mark the story as complete and i'll never add to it again.
that's not quite true, as i have some oneshots up my sleeve for the days where i miss these kids more than anything, but the fact still remains that as of this chapter, odwh is over. it's been a long time coming, and i'm not sure i'm ready for it to be over either. i've never finished a writing project like this before - or, at least, certainly not one anywhere near this long. when i got back into the syot community in 2020, i thought i was just here to maybe submit some kids and fade out again like i did when i was 13 and didn't really know how writing worked. and then i met some of the most amazing people through this community, and i rediscovered how much i truly love writing, and thus odwh was born.
it's been quite the journey with this story, that's for sure. i've had a lot of late nights where i've overhauled everything, some flashes of inspiration have hit me in the caf and nearly left me in tears, and i've spent countless hours talking over the path i wanted this story to take with my spoiler buddy, manny. (he probably won't ever read this because he doesn't like angst and thus won't read most of odwh, but thank you manny for keeping me on track and somewhat sane these last few months as i made my way through the games. i really needed that.) i think i've considered almost all of these kids to be a "favorite" at one point or another throughout the story. i've learned to love them and i learned to lose them as well. i've always been insistent that only one could win, but i never considered how badly it would hurt to lose almost all of them. they were my kids just as much as they were their submitters'.
speaking of my submitters, thanks to all of you. this obviously wouldn't have been possible without you. fox, ty, phobie, linds, maggie, mae, will, silver, brooke, logan, goldie… you all made really wonderful kids that i loved dearly, and i'll always be grateful that you let me tell their stories.
an additional shoutout to anyone who helped me with the beta process, no matter how much or how little - i believe phobie, erik, rb, and linds have all helped in some way, and i appreciate it a lot.
now goldie, i know i left you off that list, but as my primary beta for this entire ~320k monstrosity, i really can't thank you enough. it's been an honor to have you help me edit (almost) every single chapter, and i can't wait to share tfm thoughts with you as i start getting them. victor privileges, i suppose. of course, thank you for my victor as well. that's been a particularly hard secret to keep - you sure do ask a lot of questions when you're nervous.
i've always said that i wrote odwh primarily for myself, and that still holds true, but i'm not entirely sure that i ever would've gotten this far if not for the support that i got from my friends. odwh has definitely come a long way from my original ideas for it, and i think that's partially because i was able to learn and grow so much as a writer. i've rediscovered a passion for writing that, for a long time, i never thought i'd get back. i'm grateful it's found me again.
at the end of the day, i've gone through a lot with odwh by my side. it's been a long year and (almost) a half. i've learned things about myself. it's been a strange companion, but a companion nonetheless. it'll be strange not having it by my side anymore, even though it has completely ravaged my mental at every opportunity. to love and to lose is a fickle thing, is it not?
and i can't wait to do it all over again.
see you in tfm