.

— - — - —

pride

— - — - —

The trainers give us the day off after the Tour celebration, which is less out of the kindness of their hearts and more so they can manage their own hangovers, I suspect. But we might as well have returned for conditioning the morning after because the workout is so grueling, half of us throw up anyways.

Urban's message is clear, as we stumble to a stop outside the Atheneum doors, gasping and coughing, legs and lungs searing: training is picking up, and it isn't stopping for anyone. My neck is sticky with sweat, though I'm shivering as it cools against my skin. Avari hitches over and retches into the bushes. I remember how I used to be the one to pick her up and convince her she wasn't dying back when we did our first hard workouts back in Twelves, not so intense but still fatiguing for our feeble legs. Now it's Elissa who puts a hand on her back and gives her a bottle of water. Something dangerously close to regret pinches in my chest.

"Not so bad," Cas says, easing up next to me. He tosses me my water. "That was your warm-up, yeah?"

"Funny," I say, but allow him a smile as I spray water into my mouth, still eyeing Avari as she struggles to steady herself. She draws her fingers back against her skull, slicking the cold sweat away from her face. Fighting for control, even in her weakened state. It's so typically Avari of her. "You're not missing anything, believe me."

"Looks like I am, actually, all this character-building. This concussion is turning me soft."

"Just don't have one, then," I say.

"Tried that this morning. Didn't work." He smiles, though, trying to keep from being negative. Trying to pretend he isn't frustrated. I've seen too much of him not to know the truth. "On the bright side, I did get to witness Az absolutely eating shit on his third lap from right here."

"That sounds glorious."

"Oh, it was. It's less than he deserves, but… damn. It was beautiful."

We keep a comfortable distance, wordlessly making clear what boundaries exist at training. What happened the other night— and it was tame, mind you— is still less important than why we're here. That isn't to say it wasn't nice, of course, sobering up to some ridiculous movie and eventually falling asleep on opposite ends of the couch. And, yeah, there was more kissing in between, but who could blame us? Optimism was in the air. The celebration made me giddy. And Cas— well, he's Cas. How could I say no?

Although, by Mallen's judgment, I'm a fool and an idiot for leaving her to go back with him. She finally corners me after training, her hands sharp against my wrists, her eyes glowing with fire. "What the fuck is wrong with you? How the fuck are you going to kiss Cal and still end up going home with a white boy?"

"Like you would have let me get anywhere near Cal after that. I know jealousy when I see it," I say. "Besides, nothing happened with me and Cas."

"Of course not, you fucking prude. Someone looks at you a second too long and you practically piss yourself with nerves."

I decide to ignore that. "And what about you and Cal? What did you guys get up to?"

"Please, Scout." Mallen waves me away. "Don't make me be vulgar in front of all these nice people."

To her credit, I had enjoyed kissing Cal, albeit for different reasons from Cas. With Cal, there was this sense that what I was doing was just a bit wrong. I attribute that to Cavara— knowing how protective she's been of me, someone she really only knew from the training room, someone she otherwise had few ties to, I can only imagine how far that extends with her own family, the sorts of expectations she has for anyone who so much as goes near her sister.

I can't help thinking Mallen should start running.

Cas, on the other hand, I've already gotten clear approval for. From him, from his parents, from Ardana Kallis of all people. We'd passed in the hall, me on my way in yesterday, her leaving for a run, and I stopped, figuring it would be a quick, superficial conversation.

On the contrary. You'd think Ardana herself was in love with Cas, the way she'd shrieked. "That boy is such a fucking sweetie. Good for you, girl."

"I didn't do anything."

"No, but just look at yourself for a second. Prettiest bitch in Sixteens. Sweet as summer. It's what you deserve."

I'll take the compliments, although frankly I'd rather be recognized as strong than sweet. Sweet isn't what gets me through the first week after the Tour, which historically marks both the halfway point between Games and within the training cycle itself. We've been warned about it since the beginning, that if we thought Sixteens were already brutal, good bloody luck come January. But hearing about it isn't the same as experiencing it that first week, trying to come up with some semblance of routine amidst the chaos. By Thursday I've already caved, sleeping in instead of doing my run before classes, which means once I'm back from school I have weapons training, weights, and then a run to get in before I get to half-ass my school assignments and then try to sleep while my shoulders and hamstrings groan with soreness.

By Saturday evening, I'm wiped. I collapse on Cas' couch and refuse to move.

"So that extra run I thought we could do might be off the table, then," Cas says, dropping down next to me.

"Did I ever tell you how funny you are? Because you are. Funny. Hilarious."

"I thought you liked running."

"I do. My legs don't." I cross my knees, leaning back into the cushions. My abs thank me for it by making me feel like I've been punched in the side. "Ow."

"Get up," he says.

"Absolutely not."

"I'm not making you run. That was a joke. I need help cooking."

I sit up. Fatigue presses into the sides of my head; I hadn't even realized how hungry I am. Beyond that, though, is a sense of uncertainty. I've never cooked, I guess unless you count toast or eggs or maybe a pot or two of pasta. It wasn't like Mom or Dad had much to teach me. Hell, we rarely ever even sat together to share a meal, much less prepared one together. Dad was busy, Aris was disinterested, Mom was aloof, Nico was following me, and I wasn't about to ask for something I knew I'd regret. So being in Cas' kitchen, him actively trying to get me involved in the dinner preparations, feels entirely foreign. I stand to the side, hesitant to interfere with his duties.

Cas has strips of onion sizzling in one pan, a mixture of squash and zucchini softening in the next. Some mixture of dough is baking in the oven, and it smells like comfort. "I, uh…" Cas motions to the stove, the narrow counter framing it on either side, clear but for a dusting of flour and a bowl of pears. Sticky with dough droplets, a metal bowl floats sideways in the sink, half-submerged in foam. "I didn't leave you much to do."

"That's probably a good thing," I say.

He smiles. "If you want pears on it, you can cut those up. There should be a cutting board next to the sink. Knives are in the drawer behind you."

Knives. That much I can handle. Feeling all sorts of professional, I set up the fruit next to him on the cutting board. Careful not to nick my fingers, I draw the blade straight down and through the skin of the first pear. It's a clean movement. The pear comes apart so neatly I can put it back together without anyone ever realizing it was cut in the first place. And though the knife is solid, as long as my forearm, there's a sense of delicacy in using it. Is this how Elias felt, carving up the girl from Eleven? Reveling in the pieces of her body as they fell away, the skin along her forearm, the fibers of her tongue? I slice away the stem and try to forget how he did the same just above her wrist, severing her right hand entirely.

Cas is frying bacon now, the greasy, smoky flavor filling the kitchen. Like the morning at Mal's with her dad making us breakfast, nerves clench in my stomach and flutter in my chest. I take careful breaths through my teeth and focus on making neat squares of fruit. Cutting pears. That's all I'm doing.

"These alright?" I say, distracting Cas from his cooking. "Or not small enough?"

"Oh, those are—" He hesitates. "Actually, it's fine."

"No, what?"

"Nothing, they're a little small. But it's fine. We'll fit them on."

I ignore the swell of disappointment in the pit of my stomach. "We can always eat these and I'll just cut the rest." I pop a cube into my mouth. It's sweet but soft, overripe. Figures. "Here. Try one."

"No, I—" But he catches it in his mouth anyways, and then the next, and then the third, backing up for me to keep tossing them. My direct knife throws are more accurate than my high lobs, though. More pears end up on the floor than on Cas' tongue.

"Scout, stop," he protests. "The floor's going to be all sticky."

"Yeah, like you're afraid of things getting sticky," I say without thinking.

"What?"

"What?"

He cracks a grin, holding his hand out. "My turn. Pear me."

He's got better aim than I do, tossing his pear chunks higher and higher so I have to focus so I don't get hit in the face. Finally, I get peared in the eye and tap out. "No more. I want to be hungry for dinner."

"Oh, shit," Cas says. He sends a spatula diving into the pan of onions, but they cling to the bottom of the pan, reeking of smoke. "Shit— no—"

He turns the flame off, waving a folded newspaper over the pan to waft away the smoke. From elsewhere in the house, an alarm chirps. He rubs his eyes. "Shit. I'm so sorry."

"No, I distracted you."

"No, it was my fault," he insists. He checks the bacon: crispy, but not burnt. The vegetables are beginning to blacken and he tugs the pan away. "Ugh. Damn it."

"It'll still taste good. Cas. Cas, look, these pears are immaculate, who even cares about the onions?" He's unconvinced, his face still twisted in disappointment. "Oh, come on. Here." Before I can think more of it, I face him towards me and plant a kiss on the tip of his nose.

He acts stunned at first, his shoulders tightening, before he visibly relaxes. "Sorry," he says, smiling sheepishly. "It's just— I want it to be good."

"I don't even care how it's going to taste," I say. "It's still going to be the best thing I've ever helped make."

"Did you help, though? Seems like you made more of a mess than anything."

"And that's on you for giving me a job to do," I say.

We sit to eat, and the flatbread is still good, no matter what happened to half the onions, which I remind Cas I don't even like that much, anyways. At some point, though, the banter becomes awkward. Not on his end, but on mine. The night he kissed me, I was too drunk to worry about myself, and I'm far more self-conscious next to him now, no matter if he's already made his feelings clear.

We move to the couch, his hand just tracing mine as he relaxes back into the cushions. My arms rigid, I fight the instinct to bristle, knowing there's care behind his fingers.

He's doing everything right. It's me who's too nervous, driving myself crazy with worry. But I trust his heart, trust his kindness, and assure myself that this will get easier. All I need is time.


Training will get easier, too, I convince myself over the next several weeks. As the new schedule becomes familiar, my body becomes more accustomed to the earlier wakeup and the heavier load at our sessions. Still, I can't shake the idea that I'm missing something. Something feels off, like there's a responsibility I'm forgetting, or a more efficient way to manage my time. I put it down to mindset and try to devote myself even more intensively to my training schedule. But I don't know how to do that. To devote myself more, I mean, when training's already all I can keep on my mind.

On the weekends, Urban likes to run competitions, anything from mock Games and Bloodbath simulations to simple footraces carrying heavy packs. We hike far into the trees and hunt deer, hares, elk, and coyotes, a formality Urban insists upon on the off chance that we struggle for food in the arena, in case some freak incident decimates the food supply. Points are given for the number of animals downed, their sizes, whether they're predator or prey. I consistently do well, coming in second in several of the races and having an easy knack for tracking, but what's my typical third-to-seventh-place placement to a victory? Iona and Elissa accumulate the most outright wins, with Avari and Mallen following close behind. Denali has the same amount of wins as me, and she doesn't even like being here. It bothers me significantly that out of all the girls, out of everyone that was seventh or above at the beginning of the year, at least, I'm the only one besides Denali who can't win. The Games aren't a footrace and second-tier isn't good enough. It means I can't win when it comes down to it, when it really matters. Which is critical. Critical if I want to be chosen, critical if I want to stay alive.

Avari, on the other hand, is winning and still looks unhappy. It's most noticeable during her private sessions, the days her time slot and mine overlap. Even if I weren't already distracted by both her and Akello's simple proximity to my workout with Rhodes, it would be hard to ignore Akello's wrath and shameless vitriol at the next station. It makes me sick, but I can't interfere, Rhodes has tried and failed to quiet him, and no one else thinks it's worth the effort.

For the most part, Akello's insults are the usual ones he uses at his Fourteens sessions, not individualized like mine were: Burden. Worthless. Liability. Avari is none of those things, and he won't lie to her about it. But he proves that he will latch onto something else he knows she can't argue with him on. I watch them during a water break two days after Avari comes out victorious from our latest hunt, hoping sipping something cold will rinse the bile from my throat. Akello offers to spar with her, and she accepts— it's good experience regardless of how well she does. He passes her a skin, the ones we use to avoid weapon damage, and tells her to go change.

Before I've fully caught my breath she's back in the doorway. "I need a bigger size."

"Of course, you do," Akello grumbles. "I gave you the same size I give all the girls."

"And it doesn't fit me," she says.

"Whose fault is that?"

She's silent, furious, for a long moment. "I've told you," she finally says, her voice low and audibly controlled. "I'm doing everything I can."

He doesn't believe her. Of course, he doesn't. "Take the large. And seriously, if you're doing everything you can to lose that fucking weight, you wouldn't still be puking during Urban's runs." He throws the bundle at her. "Be back in less than two minutes, Dabral."

I feel dizzy. When I turn around, Rhodes gives me a grim, knowing glance, but stays silent as Akello passes. "Back to knives, then?"

"It's disgusting," I say, picking up at the same spot I left. "I hate it. I hate it so much."

"It is," he says, watching me throw. "I try to make myself feel better by telling myself she's the one who went to him for training. Not saying he should be treating her like that, but she knew what she signed up for."

"She did. She knew how he talked to me," I say. "No, she was there when you confronted him about me, about him lying. She was literally there and still didn't think maybe working with him was a bad idea."

Rhodes shrugs. "Then maybe she doesn't care. I mean, objectively, she saw that room opened up with one of the higher-ranked trainers and probably wanted to secure it before anyone else did."

"Oh, I'm not saying she's not opportunistic," I say. "Just. Ugh. Why does he even train her if he clearly hates it so much?"

"Because she's one of the best in your year," Rhodes says. "And he wants Victors. And he wants to be responsible for Victors, which is why he bothers with this at all. Truly I think all he wants is to be able to say that he produced this and this Victor so that everyone can go around patting his back and telling him what a massive cock he has for that."

I miss the target by about twenty feet. "Please. Please never, ever make me visualize anything like that ever again."

"Hey, you asked."

"Not for that, you asshole."

"Boy, do I miss when you used to respect me," Rhodes says, watching Avari come back into the gym, her expression tacitly murderous. "Now look at you. Bullying me for indulging your questions. Calling me all sorts of childish names."

"Add making you get back to work to that list," I say, gesturing towards myself. "I don't know why I always have to be the one to get you under control. The Atheneum should start paying me."

I can't let Akello's behavior go, though. I find Avari in the medical room after our lessons with ice bound to her shoulder, a side effect of taking just as many throws as I just did. I claim the bench beside her, accepting Eliska's help securing my own ice bag to my upper shoulder.

"You okay?" I ask Avari, after enough silence has passed for it to become just awkward enough between us. "What happened to your shoulder?"

"Oh, it's just been sore," she says. "No big deal."

"Same here. All that throwing. Glad it's okay, though." She doesn't respond, giving her hands a soft smile but not making any effort to be friendly. Fine. I bite the bullet. "I'm really sorry about Akello. That he treats you the way he does."

Avari looks surprised. "It's not your fault, Scout."

"I know. But it's still shitty. I just—" Eliska passes, and I remember where I am. Aspra might have let talk like this slide, but I don't trust that Eliska won't chide me for speaking poorly on our trainers. I lower my voice. "It's cruel. You shouldn't have to take it."

"Well, I do," she says. "And he's making me better, so it's fine."

"Is it?"

She's irritated. Maybe it's because of her shoulder, maybe it's because of Akello, and maybe it's because of me. It doesn't matter. Her dig stings all the same. "There's nothing wrong with being demanding. Not everyone has a trainer who's just going to coddle them through sessions, okay?"

I stare at her. She looks me square in the eyes.

"That's what you think?" I ask.

"You've heard how Akello speaks to me," she says. "I've heard how Rhodes speaks to you, too. That's fine. I just have different expectations of the person who's training me."

"Avari."

"There's nothing wrong with that, okay? Akello treated you horribly. I don't blame you for wanting to get away from him. But we're different people. Just because he acted a certain way towards you, that isn't enough for me to stop working with him."

"Do you even care?" I ask. "About what he did to me? The things he said to me?"

"Of course, I do," she hisses. "Where is this coming from?"

I trip over my tongue, trying to put words to my fury. "You heard that all firsthand, and you didn't stop to think maybe that's not a good idea, putting yourself in that position?"

"Look," Avari says. "I needed a trainer. I'm sorry I didn't have the luxury of taking your feelings into account, Scout, but I had to make a decision for myself."

"I don't care about— I just don't want him to be as awful to you as he was to me. That's literally it."

"And I appreciate that," she says. "But I can take care of myself. And everything that he did to you? I never asked to be involved. It's not my business. And this definitely isn't yours. Okay?"

My face flushes, so hot above the ice that burns with cold on my shoulder. "Fine."

"We're both working for the same spot. We've known that for years. And as shit as it is, you can't worry about anyone else." Her timer goes off; she tears the wrap away from her arm and peels the ice bag from her shoulder. Her skin is red and angry underneath. "Seriously. All that stress is going to give you an ulcer."

I don't indulge her with a response. She's not worth another word, clearly, and I'm an idiot for making an effort. Again. So I sit and simmer, trying to ignore her as she empties her ice bag into the sink, takes a painkiller, and leaves without wiping down her bench.

I swear my ice melts faster with the heat in my veins. But fury is far preferable to guilt, or sadness, or whatever else passes through with the thought of what training could be if we were still as close as we were. Some of my favorite days were the ones after we'd been sick with fatigue from a run or from intensive drills. As the exhaustion passed, a giddy high took its place. Relief. Delirium. Pride.

As the chill sets into my shoulder, I realize I can't remember the last time I was that purely happy.


February insists on arriving, even though I've assured it I'm not ready yet.

I've never truly dreaded training the way I do now. I used to fear being yelled at, feeling inferior, feeling like my efforts were worthless. Urban doesn't make me feel any of that. What he does do is take my love for intense exercise and vigorous drilling and make me question how far I'd go for it.

I become accustomed to soreness. There's a prickling in my throat that won't go away even if I take medicine for it. I'm in my bunk by eight-thirty, then eight, as if any amount of sleep will quell my exhaustion or diffuse my soreness, my perpetual sickness. I ice in the medical room, stretch obsessively, and complain endlessly to Rhodes when Eliska's out of earshot. If any of that helps, it only serves to keep things from getting any worse. My fatigue teeters on the edge of tolerable for the better part of two months.

Worse is the plateau I hit in mid-February that affects every aspect of my training. Upon retesting, my progress in the Vaults has become static. My sprint times are minimally faster but my three-mile time is twenty seconds slower than my last. By March, my weight, which has been gradually climbing in the past few weeks, settles at around 140 before decreasing again, a fraction of a pound at a time. I measure my meals, balance protein with vegetables and grains, and eat as much as I can hold. Either my body rejects it, or my stomach and mind are at odds again. I don't know how to eat as much as my body needs.

I'm not the only one who's struggling, either. It's validating to know that the pressure is universal, but it's enough for a handful of cadets to leave, too. Still, we carry on, completing grueling weapons drills day after day in between hill runs, swims, and climbing drills. On the weekends, we know to expect long group sessions that Iona, Avari, Tarq, or Cas will most likely win. The first day of April, though, Denali stuns us with her first victory. Paired with me of all people for the afternoon, Denali is far more alert— happy, even— to be out in the hills as we take out other partners, Mallen and Tarq, Cas and Martina. By late afternoon, it's just us, Pike, and Elissa. I put a knife in Elissa before Pike punctures my vest, leaving it up to him and Denali to decide who's crowned. I consider my third place and grit my teeth to keep from yelling in frustration as Denali overcomes Pike. As we head back into the gym, she actually laughs, which I've never heard her do at training.

I have less than a day to resent her success before Mallen shares the news: Denali has quit, too.

"Why the hell—"

"No idea."

"She won yesterday. She was so happy."

"Yeah, probably because she knew she didn't have to do this shit anymore."

For whatever reason Denali's decided to leave, it means that if pre-Trials rankings are anything to go by, I'm now sixth in our class. That leaves only one more spot to make up.

I might be more proud if I weren't so exhausted.

There isn't time for much of anything that doesn't directly relate to training. I lift in the Vaults, spar in the gym, run the land around the Atheneum over and over again in the muted glow of dawn. I stretch my limbs, puncture targets, freeze my shoulder under layers of ice to stave off swelling. I eat as much as I can stand. I sleep whenever I have time.

I go to Cas' every few nights to try to unwind. But even with his chest on mine, first buffered by layers of cotton and then unfettered, skin on skin, anxiety curls behind my sternum. The only relief is more. More contact, more closeness, more Cas. Except with every day that passes I'm hungrier, seeking satisfaction and never reaching it.

I never know what to say afterwards. Cas lies next to me, his legs shivering against mine. Then he stands, and we get dressed, and I go back to the Atheneum, terrified that the only place I've ever found refuge in now needs a refuge of its own.

I create it, as usual, in controlled activity. When I want to clear my mind, I stand in front of a target in the main gym, tossing knife after knife. There's no privacy like there is in the private rooms, but no one's going to chase me out, and I can come and go as I please. I don't stand far, at the distances I struggle with. I keep forty feet away, losing myself in the repetition, the ache in my shoulders, the flick of my wrist and fingers. Repetition is therapy. It's mindless.

And usually, it's relaxing. No one bothers me. Occasionally I let my gaze wander, taking in trainers and cadets as they filter in and out through the main doors. Nell and a handful of Thirteens, their bodies so scrawny but their shoulders arched back, strong and capable. Valerius works with Ardana, who nods my way. I don't know most of the younger trainees, but I can put a name, trainer, and a ranking to every single one of the Sixteens through Eighteens. So when Ardana is selected alongside Lorcan Viero as our volunteers for the Eighty-Third Games, there are no surprises. Not like last year.

As for last year, there have been rumors since September of changes being made to prevent a similar incident, regardless of how well it turned out. But they aren't apparent until the Reaping itself. Ardana and Lorcan are taken directly from the Atheneum in the morning to the square, positioned at the very front of their pens. When Valencia plucks a name from the bowl and reads it aloud, Ardana carefully waits for the girl to ascend to the stage. But the moment Valencia asks for volunteers, Ardana has already called out and is striding towards the stage, draped in a black coat, her hair trimmed short against her neck.

Valencia does it so quickly I almost miss it, glancing down at Ardana's hand before calling out the boy's name. I pay closer attention when Lorcan takes the stage, and I see it more clearly when he reaches out to shake Ardana's hand. The sleeve of his matching black coat lifts up to reveal two matching lines, thick and red and fresh along his inner wrist, like tattoos burnt into his flesh. Roman numerals, II for District Two.

No one else is volunteering without those brand lines.

I get drunker than I should at the afterparty, mostly because sharing the same room with Avari is more painful than I expected and mostly because, for some reason, I'm terrified for Ardana. More so than I was for Cavara because at that time, my worry for her was fixated on myself. I know Lorcan is better than her, and rankings be damned, I don't know how she beats him.

I wait until everyone's gone to pull Cas into his room and wrap my hands around his back, feeling the muscles budding there, ripe from months of consistent, strenuous training. Steady, he's always been. So steady. I clutch at him like he'll keep me alive. For once we have all the time in the world, but he doesn't take it. He digs his nails into my wrists, pinning my arms on either side of me, and tugs on my throat with his lips, his teeth, until I'm entirely vulnerable under his hips.

There's no need for talking, no time for softness. The bubble of fear that builds between my ribs gives way to a beat of thrill in my chest, something just short of pure satisfaction below my stomach. When it's done I don't even move to clean myself off, just stay on my back, begging for breath, my heart drumming in my fingertips.

"Shit," I say.

"Was that…" Cas settles his breathing. "I mean—"

"If you ask me one more time if something is okay, I'm going to strangle you."

He laughs, actually laughs, and leans his head back against his pillow. His lips on mine are tilted in a smile, secure and confident.

But his kiss isn't comforting the way it used to be. It tastes like snow and orchids, like things unsaid. I stay in his bed and pull the sheets over my goose-bumped chest, desperate to stave off the cold.


Trials each year start the Monday after the Games finish. And thank the Capitol for that, because there's now only one mandatory workout to do each day of the Games rather than two or three. The break gives my body some much-needed time to breathe.

For two days, at least, before I start going stir-crazy. If I'm not training, someone else is taking the time to get better than me. So the day of the Bloodbath, after we've gone over Lorcan and Ardana's performance, after I've done my mandatory drills for the day, I head back into the gym, trying to drown myself in the thudding of blade against target, repetitive and rhythmic. I've made these throws ten thousand times. But the thought of missing during Trials even once keeps me on my feet, practicing until my fingers feel raw. I bandage them in the med room and come back the next day after my run, after Ardana's secured two more kills nearly flawlessly. She and Lorcan remain uninjured with half of the field already dead.

As far as starts go, it's as auspicious as any. But as I stand at the forty-foot marker, my breath catches in my throat, restlessness prying at my fingertips. If I don't move right this second, I'll go mad.

I back up. There's plenty of room behind me, no risk anyone will come between my blades and the targets. I follow the markers on the floor. Ten at sixty feet. Ten at seventy. Bored, I step back to the hundred-feet marker. It's not quite the distance from the horn to a tribute paralyzed on their plate. My accuracy declines. I steady my breathing, fix my posture, and focus on my grip.

Rhodes comes in for his workout, joining Easton's cadets and me in the otherwise empty gym. He watches me for a few minutes from the spear station as he stretches. I wish he'd been here five minutes ago, when I was making all my throws. Naturally, he's come by at the worst time.

Of course, he doesn't hate me for it. Instead, he makes a big show of fumbling and knocking over all the weapons at the station, clearly very proud of himself for the tremendous clatter the wood and metal materials make as they strike the stone floors. I don't even need to turn around to picture the look of absolute exhaustion Easton must be giving him. I keep my eyes on the target, but let my mouth creep up at the edges. For what it's worth, his stupidity does make me feel better.

It takes several minutes, though, before I'm warm and comfortable at the hundred-feet marker. Inhaling deeply, I step back until I'm at the one-hundred and twenty marker. I steady my feet and start throwing, making adjustments as I go. I try to forget about the distance, losing myself in muscle memory.

It's not easy. Frankly, my aim sucks from this far today, and I'm tired of it. Frustrated, I retrieve my knives and return to the one-hundred mark until I feel confident again. I try again at one-ten. I start to get my bearings back.

At one-twenty, I miss consistently high until, finally, I fix my release point. Three blades in a row strike the center of the target from what Urban calls Bloodbath range.

"Fucking finally," I mutter.

"Hey, give those poor targets a chance, Scout," Rhodes says. I jump, not realizing he's moved over to the station next to me. "They have families, too."

"Yeah, well, they were in my way," I say, reaching for another knife. I fling it forward, this one landing a foot above the last three. Figures. "How's your workout?"

"Terrible. Akello's nowhere to be seen so there's no one to consistently one-up and piss off. Dare I say, I miss him."

"I'll pretend you didn't just say that." I fix my feet and throw again, correcting my release so this one ends up in the cluster of bullseye shots. "Nice."

"Seriously, though," Rhodes says. "You're too good at this. Let's work you in with Easton."

I frown, my hand frozen on my hip, curled halfway around a knife. I seek out Easton, over with two Seventeens, now Eighteens, boys, off in their own, highly-practiced world. She mentored last year, so I know she didn't take on the responsibility again for these Games. But I still can't place why she'd rather stay here in Two than enjoy the Capitol's luxuries for a couple of weeks. Not that I'm complaining. If she's around, it means she's in charge of the facility rather than Akello.

But she's still terrifying, even if Rhodes weren't suggesting I join in on what is clearly someone else's session. "She's working with her cadets," I say. "I'm not going over there and intruding."

"Why not?"

"Because it's rude? Because it's not my place?"

"So you don't actually have a problem with fighting them."

"Fighting— no, but I'm not getting in the way of—"

"Don't worry," Rhodes says, and leaves me to go talk to Easton. I get extremely invested in my fingernails suddenly, feeling highly exposed. I don't hear what they're saying, but Rhodes is gesturing to me, and Easton's watching me, and nervousness sinks its teeth into my abdomen. The last thing I want to do is get in Easton's way. But the concept of fighting in front of her before Trials… it's enticing. As long as it isn't damning.

Rhodes beckons me over. I approach, feeling small in their presence, all four of them, who watch me join them. I tug my hair tighter in its ponytail as Easton looks me up and down. She recognizes me, of course, if not from being here every day than from knowing I work with Rhodes twice each week. Whenever I've seen her, she unsettles me. It's always seemed like she's only watching people's weapon work to wait for them to make a mistake. "Hi, Scout."

"Hi, Easton," I say.

She purses her lips, considering what to do with me. "Maximus," she decides, "you'll spar with her first. Vance, I know you've been panting for the last few minutes. Get some water and come back. What's your primary, Scout?"

"Knives. Shortsword for close range."

"Grab yourself a sword, then. One of the sparring ones, please, unless you want to get cut." I oblige, selecting a worn weapon from the racks nearby. Battered, well-used, but still sturdy. It fits me.

Maximus nods to me. I don't smile, suddenly wholly intimidated by this boy with an entire extra year of training under his belt and more than seventy pounds on me. Hand-to-hand has never been my specialty. There's a reason I always do better from afar, where I can wound someone to even the field before I get close.

But the Games don't care what you're best at. You get the hand you're given and make the most of it. Especially in front of Easton, I can't wait for chance to favor me.

Maximus favors a spear, a tricky weapon to wield without significant upper body strength. He's had more practice, clearly, countering mismatched weapons than I have. But I manage, keeping him from overpowering me in the first few minutes. He's more tired than I am, and I use that against him, utilizing quick movements and my more lithe form to keep him moving. By the time he finally catches me across the stomach, I've at least drawn equivalent wounds across the rest of his body, or I would have were this a real fight. I take a moment to rest while Easton critiques Maximus.

"Vance is quicker," Rhodes warns. "Tired, too, but he's just gotten to rest."

"Isn't he still nursing some sort of quad injury? Strain of some sort? I always see him in with you and Eliska."

Rhodes lifts an eyebrow. "Might be. Might be worth testing."

I put my water down and face off with Vance, who, true to Rhodes' word, is quicker than Maximus and has more energy to spare. He's another spear fighter, too, which makes sense given who he's working with, but I have to almost immediately adjust to his hastier fighting style and fight to stay on the offensive rather than expecting him to tire himself out.

Easton and Rhodes are silent, just watching, knowing not to offer guidance. But I remember Vance's injury without Rhodes reminding me, aiming my next blows not for his abdomen but for the tender tissue above his knee. When he shifts to favor his other leg— slightly but visibly— I take his second of hesitation to curl my sword into his stomach.

He recoils, but recovers quickly. The force behind our weapons is real, but they're hardly lethal, their ends dull and yielding against each other's skin. The stakes are real, though. However much time there is before Trials, any exposure in front of Easton is useful. It's invaluable to show her how I manage an opponent like Maximus or Vance. It's immediately evident whether I'm adaptable or overmatched. I can't hide by hitting unmoving targets, pretending I'm just as effective with someone in front of me testing me.

Even though it's still practice, the consequences are real. Especially when Vance lunges, and when I change direction, my ankle pinches under me. There's a sharp pop.

I keep the shock from my face but panic ignites in the back of my head at the sudden rush of pain in my left ankle, or maybe my foot, it's all immediately sore to me in a way that freezes the breath in my lungs. Vance arcs his spear and I catch it with the edge of my blade before it can strike my chest. My leg buckles. I stagger back to my feet, feeling like I've been struck regardless. This fight so quickly matters so little when all I feel is fear for my ankle, what I've done to myself.

But Easton's opinion matters more, and I don't back out or step away.

I refuse to make the mistake Vance did, showing his weakness, the way he favored one leg. I balance between my feet, swallowing the pain, trying to force my left foot into numbness. When he swings at me again I brace, accepting the blow for a chance to strike at his chest. Not quick enough. He knocks me back, my ankle screaming, and I stumble, just catching myself.

But I've already lost, because there's no way to turn myself back on the offensive. Desperate, I grab for his spear as it swings back at me, and it knocks against my fingers. I drop my weapon, my fingers seizing with pain. Vance rears back and sends the spear point straight for my chest.

An inch away, my left hand rises to meet its point.

As pain bursts along my palm, my right hand snaps around the spear handle, slick but forceful enough to hold on. The thought that in a real fight, I would have been stabbed straight through my hand, is fleeting, forgotten an instant later as I close my hand next to the other, fighting to wrench the spear from Vance's hands.

I tug the spear towards me, throwing my entire body against the weapon. Vance is stronger, but he's off-balance, locked in his lunge. And fear is a damn good motivator. I use everything I have left in my arms and chest and back, what little I can give in my legs, my fingers prying at his, trying to force the weapon away from him.

The instant before he pulls back, I relax my grip. He overestimates the force he needs to wrench the spear back. I jab the handle back into him, hard.

He curls away from the blow. His grip gives, the weapon loosening in his hands. Fueled by newfound conviction, I force him sideways. The weapon comes loose. Legs wavering, my hands wrapped around the spear handle, I turn the point on him. My sword's discarded on the ground underneath me, out of Vance's reach. But there's a reason I use a sword, not a spear. His weapon is heavier than I'm used to.

I miss my mark. The spearhead droops and cuts instead against his thigh, the one that's tender but still not painful enough to mimic the killing blow I should have sent into his stomach. Sensing my hesitation, Vance tries to wrench the spear back from me but I'm not fucking losing this, not today. I'm not losing my opportunity to beat a Seventeens kid in front of Rhodes and Easton.

He grapples with the handle and I force the point towards him until it traces the edge of his shirt. He pushes towards me, his hands coming up towards my shoulders, and I lunge again, hard.

He shoves back, too late to stop the point from jabbing into his chest. Not too late to force me backwards, stepping back too quickly to catch myself. My ankle gives out underneath me.

As I crumble, I cling to the spear we both hold. Not to fight back, but because I know I won't be able to stand. When Vance meets my eyes, he senses the panic alight in them. "Vance," I beg.

He puts an arm around me, steadies me on one foot. But the pain is so sharp, so severe, I waver and nearly fall into him.

"My ankle," I repeat, my eyes blown wide. "My ankle—"

"Scout," Rhodes says, coming over. Easton is next to him, her gaze piercing as always. And despite my victory I regret this, fear what's happened to me for it.

I want to sit, or lie down, anything but this, the pain so strong it's strangling me. But Vance is steady, and Rhodes takes my other side, the two helping me off the main floor and to the closest wall. I crumble against it, wincing even as I keep my foot up, my chest heaving, stars spinning at the edges of my eyesight.

I grip Rhodes' wrist so tightly as he helps me down to a seated position that my nails draw white against his skin. Either he doesn't notice, or he doesn't mind.

"What happened?" he says. Easton's pulling Vance away, supposedly to mutter criticism to him for losing to a Sixteens girl, but she glances my way too, her face unreadable.

"My ankle," I repeat, tasting tears curling in my throat, and speaking quickly before they can emerge. "I stepped back— I don't know. I twisted it and then I did something again, shit—" I've never cursed so much in a day, but a wave of pain has swelled over my foot again and I clench my fingers.

"Stay here," he says. "I'll go get ice."

He hurries out, his departure too loud, the metal under the doorway crackling under his feet. Too loud, because every single aspect of this is drawing unwanted attention my way again. Easton won't remember I beat Vance, managed against Maximus. She will remember the pain on my face, forever frozen as concrete weakness. She'll remember the way I struggled, had to be held up by two people that see her as a superior. In her eyes, I must be so much lesser.

Rhodes returns with an ice bag and a rolled bandage. When I reach to remove my shoe, he shakes his head. "Keep it on," he says. "It'll help control some of the swelling."

I lean back against the wall, my face in my hands. The ice is first excruciating, then relieving. I resent the sensation, how refreshing the ice begins to feel as he presses it against the outside of my ankle, because relief means injury, something's wrong, and I can't afford that. Not now. Not just days before Trials, where my success means everything. Rhodes unwinds the bandage and stretches it along the side of my foot, up and around, his fingers carrying the wrap purposefully yet delicately until the ice seeps into my skin. Delicately, so much that his hand is still trembling, those outside few fingers that still seem to move of their own accord no matter how hard he must try to keep them still.

I sit still and try not to cry, it hurts so bad.

Rhodes secures the bandage and drops down next to me. "Give it a few minutes to numb up. Promise it'll start to feel better."

"Oh, believe me," I say, my voice ragged. "I think I know how ice works by now."

But truthfully, I'm not in the mood for banter, and I think Rhodes realizes that, too. Not that I'm really trying to hide my frustration anymore. I think I gave up on trying to keep my emotions hidden from him the day he confronted Akello. I think about that more than I should, struggle to rationalize Akello's lies, and find I can't. I constantly try to convince myself I'm comfortable with Avari's proximity to that conversation, that if she'd wanted to use it against me, we wouldn't be the only two girls who knew about it. But every time I see her, I'm reminded of what she knows that she shouldn't. With Rhodes, it's different. I told him the truth outright. And I know he'd never turn it against me.

It doesn't mean I don't still hate this, hate being back in this position, and maybe I'm not so physically panicked as I was the day of Fourteens trials when I assumed the worst had happened to my back. But at least internally, that same fear still resides, resurfacing at the prospect of not even being able to walk, let alone run, throw, fight for my chance to win for Two. I can't help my curiosity, spurned by pessimism, as I ask, "Do you think it's broken?"

Rhodes loosens the bandage, lifts the ice from against my ankle. He taps his fingers along my ankle bone, watching for any signs of pain. The real tenderness is where my ankle is soft below the bone along the outside of my ankle. And hell, is it tender. He notices me wince and draws back, replacing the ice against my foot. "The bony part is a lot less sore than it would be if you'd broken it," he says. "That's not a diagnosis— you'll need to meet with Eliska tomorrow— but that's my input."

"Any way I can get out of that?"

He relaxes some, letting that signature smirk settle back in along the edges of his lips. "Not a fan, either?"

"I mean… she's fine," I insist, exhaling as the cold sets in along the side of my ankle. "Really, she hasn't done anything wrong."

"But she's not Aspra."

"She's not Aspra, and the first time I met her—" I try not to cringe from the second-hand embarrassment. A sprained or broken ankle is nothing compared to that. "Oh, it's a long, stupid story."

"I've got time," he says.

I decide to spare him the more gruesome details anyways. "Basically, Eliska was worried that I wasn't eating enough. That I was underweight. And she was worried my body was breaking down because of it, that I'd get injured, that my bones were weakening and I was going to break something. So every time I see her, she wants to talk about that, how much I'm eating, right? If I'm, you know… I mean, I appreciate the concern, but the way she goes about it…"

He doesn't say anything, waiting to see if there's more to tell. And there is, because it's Rhodes, and what's worth hiding from him anymore?

"And that's why I'm scared about my ankle, too," I tell him. "Not just because it's literally days before Trials, but because shit, what if I did break it, what if she's right?" I laugh a little bit, trying to subdue my evident misery just a half a level, because the last thing I want to do is drag Rhodes down with me.

"Scout," he says softly.

"Don't you dare," I warn. "No, don't. It's my fault. Don't you dare be sorry."

"I am," he says. "I am sorry. Sorry that all this has happened to you. More than that, I feel like an asshole for making you fight them. It wasn't— I don't know. I should have just let you be."

"It's okay," I say, and I mean it.

"It's just— this shit is so hard, Scout. All of this. They don't tell us what training does to us, what we put ourselves through every single day just for the possibility of representing the District when we turn eighteen. The strength you have to have, it's unbelievable. You're growing up as a soldier. We don't just get to be young and enjoy it. It's… I mean, it's a lot."

Maximus and Vance are sparring again, more or less evenly matched. How easy it was to take that for granted, that ability to step forward, reconsider, pull back and adjust, their feet moving so flawlessly under them so all they really have to think about is their opponent, his choices, his strengths. How easy it was as soon as Fifteens was over, once I knew I was safe another year, to fall back into that mindset. Not entirely, but it's hard among the grueling repetition of days that blend into other days, when your body is begging for rest and your mind is just as shot, to think to remind yourself: you're privileged to be here. To compete each day is a blessing. I've never doubted that I've wanted it, only that I've been capable of it.

Feeling my ankle press into the cold of the ice bag, feeling its swelling resisted, I'm reminded once again of how fragile my very position is.

"I want to ask you something," I tell Rhodes, as our eyes track the brutal dance of Vance and Maximus.

"Anything," he says.

"Even if it's personal?"

"Yes," he says. "I probably owe you something personal anyways after everything I've seen from you."

But I still worry that it's overly intrusive, what I'm most curious about. To me, losing out on the volunteer spot after all of this would be… well, I don't think devastating even scratches the surface. Even considering how I'd react is too painful. "You didn't volunteer," I say, remembering that detail even if I know nothing else about the end of his training. I've never been brave enough to ask, even if we've discussed his time moving through the ranks, Twelves up to Eighteens and what it entailed. "How did you become okay with that? How did you, you know, move on from all this?"

Rhodes looks surprised. Not put-off, luckily, but surprised all the same that I've risked asking him that. "Are you asking because you're worried?"

I start to deny it, but catch myself. We both know better. "Yes," I admit. "And also, I'm curious."

Rhodes considers a moment, organizing his thoughts. "First of all," he says, "I don't want you to be worried about Trials. Nerves are okay. Nerves are natural, and they're going to keep you focused, rather than cocky. But you have no reason to be worried. Okay? I've seen your skills as much as anyone here. And I'd select you, without a doubt. Injury or not."

I look down, surprised but grateful. "Thank you."

"As for me…" He exhales, watching Easton along the side of the gym. "I was seventy... seventy-sixth, class, yeah. Easton always yells at me for forgetting. Which, you know, is valid, all things considered." He scoffs softly. "Anyways, I finished second in my year, first alternate. And I thought that that would be worse than last, being so close and not quite getting it. It was, for a while, but when you're that alternate, you're considering two things at once. One, that you still have a chance. There are years the volunteers do get grievously injured, sick, can't compete. So there's always a chance. But you know it's slim, so all the while, you're training yourself to understand the simple truth, that you're not going to the Games."

For as expressive as Rhodes typically is, he's more subdued now. But he's not upset, not visibly. If he's still openly talking about it, I take that as a good sign. "It made it easier, that I got the time to process it before it was finalized. Made that last Reaping easier, even if it still felt like a failure. And it would have felt like a failure for longer, I'm sure, except for the Games."

"What happened in the Games?" I ask.

"So Tris— he was our male volunteer. Barely beat me out, but earned his spot fairly. And he was killed. Fifth place. Ironically it was a lot easier to stomach never having gone to the Games when the person they sent in your place doesn't come back. Because then you can justify telling yourself you're better here, alive, compared to if he comes back and you're convincing yourself he's living the life you should have had."

"Right," I nod, trying to follow.

"And more than that—" Rhodes nods across the gym. "That's the year Easton won. I don't know what I would have done had we had to have been competitors. And I've seen what winning has done for her, for her family…" He shrugs. "She's still my best friend. I could never see myself taking her place anymore."

For the first time, I try to see Easton the way Rhodes sees her. Just a girl. Older than me, eight or so years, but a cadet at her core, once just like I am. For once I forget her storied popularity, her history, her victory. Even just looking at her, you can tell she's strong. But she's not quite as scary.

"That isn't to say it wasn't a hard adjustment," Rhodes says, "because it was. Truthfully, I think a part of me will always stay here. This was my home as much as it is yours. There were two or three years in between where honestly, I really did feel lost, even as proud as I was of her, even knowing truthfully in my heart I would always want it to be her in my place. And then I got lucky, and she became involved here, and she thought to let me come along, come back here. So now there's a third reason I'm glad I never made it, because helping people get to that point— potentially being part of the journey that gets them to where Easton's gotten— that's always going to be more valuable than having done it myself."

I try to convert his care, his acceptance and, truthfully, happiness at not having made it into the Games, to my life. I try to put myself in his place and test the waters, to see if I could ever share those feelings.

All thinking about failure does, though, is make me sick.

"That's… really nice," is all I say.

"I'm not saying that because it's nice," he says. "I'm saying that because it's true. And— well, all my cards are on the table. I want to help you get there, Scout. From the day we started, the day you asked me for help training you, that's what I've wanted for you."

"Really?"

"You wanted my help. I'm not a Victor, you could have asked anyone, and you asked me. No one else has ever done that."

"That's not true," I say.

"Oh, believe me," he says with a laugh. "I think I know how training works by now."

"Sorry," I say, waving my hands in apology. "But that's— that's not really true. Is it?"

"Let's go back to talking about you," he says. "But, yes. Unfortunately. You line me up next to all the other trainers, all the victors, even Akello, Capitol forbid, who may as well be one, the way he staggers around with his chest out so far it's a miracle his back hasn't given out under the weight of that ego. Truth is, I don't match up."

I want to tell him he's wrong. In a way, he is, because I trusted him over any of the others, and that has to count for something. But I remember what Avari said to me in the medical room that day I confronted her about Akello, about what she expects out of her trainer. She's not the only one, either. A few weeks ago, Cas and I had been discussing training, as if there's anything else to discuss these days, and he'd mentioned working with a trainer.

"Why don't you?" I'd asked. I knew it was more likely that older cadets, the Seventeens and Eighteens, had their first selections at who they wanted to work with. On that end, it was no surprise that Maximus and Vance had ended up with Easton. But Sixteens have always been next to take their pick, and it surprised me that Cas had decided against it.

He'd shrugged, uncomfortable as always. "I waited too long. There was no space."

"No space?" I'd suspected what he really meant, but I wanted to make him say it. "What do you mean?"

It had taken a few tries, though, before he'd admitted it. Finally, he said, "There's no space with any of the trainers I'd want to work with."

Which had included Rhodes, because as much as I'd argued Rhodes would give him a shot, Cas had resisted until finally, I'd let it drop. Even though it hurt, the fact that as much good as Rhodes has done for me, it's not enough for Cas or any of the others. They want a Victor. They want someone who's taught Victors, or more specifically, someone who doesn't work almost exclusively with the youngest cadets of the bunch.

It had stung more than I let show. But it wasn't worth making a thing out of, and it isn't now, though Rhodes deserves to know.

"You should," I say. "But I've seen that, too. A lot of egos around here. A lot of us… I don't know. They're prideful, I suppose."

He nods. "Can you blame them, though? I'd probably do the same in your place."

"I don't know," I say. "It's not like I ever considered asking anyone else. And, for what it's worth… I get that, too. About not matching up." I breathe more lightly, the ice finally numbing a good amount of the pain from my ankle. "But here we both are."

Watching Easton, for whatever purpose we have. His in gratitude, mine in admiration and in hopes that maybe, I'll get lucky and she'll take a chance on me, too.

"Stop it," he says. "I'm the only one who gets to put myself down. You do it so much it's becoming your entire personality. Cut it out."

"Fine," I say.

"It doesn't even matter, in my case," he says. "I'm happy with what I'm doing. I'm happy not being a victor. But we're different people, and I know you're going to get there."

"Yeah?"

"Yeah. You want this more than anything. You've got the skill and the speed and the smarts to back that up. So we're going to get you that nomination, Scout. Got it?"

Something flares in my chest. For the first time, I really imagine myself in that position. Me above the rest. One above them all. It's me on that stage, me in front of the District. Me, the face of Two.

I can taste the air, sweet as summer, feel the heat on my neck. A shiver dances down my arms.

"Got it," I say.

He takes the ice from my ankle, disposing of it out in the foyer and returning a minute later with crutches and a fresh wrap, which he uses to secure my ankle in place. "First order of business— you're staying off of this foot for the next few days. No exceptions. Keep it elevated, keep icing. See Eliska, please, make sure it really isn't broken. Don't push it."

I'm imagining the looks now. Urban won't blame me; I trust that he'll let me take it easy until I'm healed, the same way he did Cas. But the girls will talk, call it a feigned injury, say I'm just hoping for pity points before Trials because I don't have a shot otherwise. That's not even the worst case scenario, but as it stands, I've majorly fucked up. The whole point of this, of course, is to prove how strong I am. Not exhibit how many different ways I can break.

"Okay," I say.

He still looks at me like he doesn't believe me. Joke's on him, because we've been here before and the stakes now are far, far more pressing. What it really comes down to, ironically, is exactly what Eliska said: it's my choice whether or not to take care of myself before Trials, or to sabotage myself before I get the chance to prove my worth.

As much damage as I've done, I don't think I could do that to myself.

He helps me stand. I lodge the crutches under my arms and try not to openly resent the pressure it places on my underarms. "Thank you, Rhodes."

"Do me a favor?" he asks.

"Sure."

"Don't do anything desperate. We don't need you pulling a Cavara and cutting your foot off because you already can't walk on it."

"In her defense," I say, "she had every reason to be desperate."

"The way you're talking, so do you," he says.

At the other end of the gym, Easton's still busy with the boys, Vance and Maximus. But she hears my crutches and glances over, looking more curious than judgmental. I try not to wither, watching her until her attention returns to her own cadets.

"And either way," he says, "I'm here for you. But I know you can do this."

"Yeah?"

"Absolutely," he says. "I wouldn't say that if I didn't."

It's foreign to me, this sense of hope, which makes next to no sense considering how much of a chore it is just to get across the building. Even if I don't trust myself, Rhodes' judgment is usually good. I decide, for the time being, to give him the benefit of the doubt.

I get back to the dorm, and make it through showering, getting changed, and nearly drying my hair before the true helplessness of my situation hits me.

I'm injured. I don't get a second chance at Trials, nor am I judged any differently for being hurt. I'll likely waste any of the time I still had to prepare sitting around waiting to heal, rather than getting in any last-minute training. Where I'm at, that extra practice would have been invaluable.

Rhodes says I can do it. But I have no idea how.

I struggle up to my bunk and curl up around my pillows. I watch Ardana's empty space in the dark, then bury myself in my sheets, crying until my body stops aching with grief.


I'm slightly more stable in the morning. Eliska sends me into town to get my ankle scanned, which rules out a break. Still, my sprain is significant. Worse still are the orders to stay off my foot as much as possible, which means no activity, period.

Time is both my enemy and my ally. It's Ardana and Lorcan who pull the strings and have the power to extend the time I have with their every action in the Games. Restless, I ache to be in the gym, hoping even if I'm not practicing, there's something to be absorbed through observation. If I'm not near the weapons, I'm in medical watching the Games, taking in every hissing insect, oozing wound, and firing cannon as I will my foot to improve, prop it up, ice the living shit out of my ankle. Worse than suffering through brutal training is missing it. I miss Cavara, too, who at the very least was entertaining the days I was in here helping my back heal. If Aspra were here, would she have kept her promise to come back? Maybe that had been a joke, Cavara's insistence that after she won, she'd spend her days gracing us all with her presence. Maybe it was just wishful thinking on my part.

I ask Mallen if Cal knows what's going on with her sister, but Mallen just shrugs. "I haven't seen Cal in months," she says. "Who's got the time?"

"You were obsessed with her," I say, recalling the days at training where Mallen would gush over the glow in Cal's eyes, the softness in her touch. "Seriously? You don't see her?"

"I was. But this matters more. Unless your fuckbuddy has made you forget that."

"Cas isn't my fuckbuddy."

"What is he, then?"

"I don't know," I say. I wasn't ready to define it, at first. Then I guess we never took the time to discuss it, and now I don't want to. It seems pointless to pretend that Trials aren't more important.

"You need to be careful," Mallen says, wrapping her hand around mine. "I'm serious. You're going to get yourself hurt."

"Already done," I say, smacking her ankles with a crutch, but I'm thinking, too. Everyone keeps acting like I'm going to destroy myself: first Eliska, then Avari, Rhodes, Mallen. But if that's really what I wanted to do, I would have quit this long ago. I would have stayed with my family, or begged Akello to train me. I'm not stupid. I've already made the changes to make myself happier, but why can nobody see that?

And Cas can't hurt me, would never allow himself to. Just like the thought of me ever doing that to him makes me actively sick to my stomach. I'm rubbed the wrong way by how quick Mallen is to suggest that that's all we are, like he doesn't care for me, like I feel nothing when he curls his hands in my hair, presses his lips to my neck. I wouldn't waste his time if there wasn't something else bonding us together.

But she's right, too, that worrying about him is distracting me. Being injured means far more time to think, far fewer chances to escape from my own head, and as the Games go on, I forget who else to be afraid for.

Lorcan dies first, caught in a swamp of sinking mud, his thrashing attempts to free himself halted by the serrated fangs of reptilian mutts, who tear his lips and nose across his cheek and strip the muscle from his left shoulder. Ever-enduring, he bests the reptiles, spearing them with his sword and using their corpses as traction to extract himself, but in the next two hours, he succumbs to blood loss and a searing, fast-moving infection that drains as a swampy green ooze from the teeth marks in his arm.

There's no one nearby to witness it. His allies, those who've lasted until the top eight, know better than to fight for someone strong enough to punish them for it.

The interview crew lingers in his living room for over an hour, I hear later, waiting to capture the moment his family witnesses their son die. For an hour, the Vieros talk around Lorcan's illegal training, coming up with all kinds of explanations for his athleticism, his natural skill with weapons. They don't realize until the moment the blast is heard on screen that the crew hasn't been offering them hope. They've been stalling for time.

Before the end of the night, Ardana's cannon fires, too. Her death is quicker, catalyzed by a violent rage on the part of the Four girl who refuses to take any chances with Two after what happened to Asherah last year. Her ally plunges her sword between Ardana's shoulder blades as her last remaining ally, the boy from One, looks away, caring little for cruelty that has nothing to do with him.

It's a shot to the Atheneum, but in the bigger picture of the Games, neither Two tribute is considered significant. Not when the drawn-out, brutal finale sees the boy from Six yield to his injuries before the Nine boy is quickly crowned, then quickly airlifted so he won't also bleed out.

I don't even go to the station to witness Lorcan and Ardana's subdued re-welcoming. My ankle's actually walkable if I suffocate it in medical tape and I'm doing everything I can to assure it's as strong as possible come Monday. Because now there's a clear start date for what could, by all measures, be the last week I ever spend here. It feels disrespectful to ignore their homecoming, but there's little to celebrate, and I remind myself that preparation for Trials is far more important to ensure I won't make the same mistakes they did.

I bury what little grief I allow myself to feel for Ardana in my Trials studying, in my shortened workouts, in Cas, who seems even farther away than usual, no matter how tightly his skin presses against mine. Afterwards I sit on the foot of his bed, tugging my ponytail back through the neck of my shirt, and try to swallow the negativity that his aloofness has started to elicit.

Cas gets up, then pauses, his fingers curling against the muscles in his upper legs. He makes for his closet, tracing every shirt and sweatshirt he finds hanging there like if he makes the wrong choice, it will shred itself in his fingers.

"What's wrong, Cas?"

"What? Nothing."

Yes, there is. There always is, and even if I couldn't tell in the way he acts and speaks and looks at me, or doesn't, it's evident in the way he walks, as if every step is too loud, too intrusive, if he's not silent. The way he opens doors, his hands hesitant on the knob, the way he kisses me wordlessly, almost afraid of being heard. I don't know how to ask him to talk to me. It seems needy.

"Are you nervous for tomorrow?" I ask, digging underneath my nails until I feel sharp pressure along my fingertips. It's a stupid question. But getting an answer that's easy to offer is a start.

Cas finally decides on something, wrapping himself in a dark red sweatshirt. I remember him wearing it in the early days of training, too large for him but now, fitting perfectly around his expanded frame. Still, he carries it on his limbs like it's uncomfortable, like he doesn't fit in his own skin. "Yeah," he says, and even chuckles softly. The sound makes my shoulders loosen. "A little bit."

"Me, too," I say quickly. "Everyone says they just want them to be over. I… don't really want them to happen at all."

And that's the truth, isn't it? A fragment of it, unlikely but still possible in the conversation we share. Looking forward to Trials means I can imagine any sort of outcome, expect all sorts of improvement from myself. Knowing they're here is accepting where I stand, improved but imperfect, and pleading it's enough.

"They'll be over before we know it," Cas says. He eases himself down against the far wall, looking once again out of place in his own bedroom. He's organized the space perfectly, but didn't account for himself, it appears. He treats his own presence like a burden on the small space. "And then… we'll see what happens."

"We will," I say, another flare of nerves flickering in my chest. "You'll be fine, though. I promise."

He smiles softly, his eyes trained on his sock feet splayed in front of him. Humble to a fault, he always was. Afraid to be proud, when anyone could see he was more than capable. "I know," he says. "I want to be. I need to be, really. But you get that, needing this. I need this, Scout."

Of course, I get it. It's the one thing we've understood most about each other, through all the years we've been friends. If nothing else, it's this that we share. Even if his reasons for needing it are distinct from mine, rooted in pride, in glory, in expectation. Our identities depend on it.

I ease off the edge of the bed, letting my legs slip down to the floor, slightly sore but, overall, strong. My ankle twinges under the tape, but even that's bearable. When all's said and done, I've prepared as best I can for this. Now it all depends on how well I can prove it.

If he sees that I'm afraid, he doesn't tell me, the same way I ignore the fear I can feel from here, no matter how hard he fights to remain closed off.

"I get that," I say, and let myself relax against the edge of the mattress. My back feels steady, far steadier than my heart. "I need this, too."


agreatleap. weebly. com


Hi lovers. Me again, pushing through my last summer class and getting ready to end this third part with a bang. Hope everyone is keeping well!

Covering about seven months over the span of a chapter was definitely daunting, especially following a chapter that was mainly just one night, so that's my explanation for the wait. Fifteen still needs a whole lot of outlining so I can't say when exactly that will be out. Thank you, as always, for your patience.

Stay well, take care, and see you next time for the last chapter of Part III.

With one ear clogged (seriously I took a shower 3 days ago and got water in my ear and now I've been deaf ever since),
Ali