You can be a king or a street sweeper, but everybody dances with the Grim Reaper. ~Robert Alton Harris
Death is the last enemy: once we've got past that I think everything will be alright. ~Alice Thomas Ellis
Jaeger Cline, District 9, 16
I hear splashing and shrieking from upstream, and there's only one person it could be. The Two girl. It's nice to have her out of the way, I suppose, but still. What a way to go.
I throw another wary glance at the creatures in the water. They haven't moved. They're just staring at me.
My sympathy for the girl wanes slightly as the shrieks morph into crazed laughter. A moment later, a decapitated mutt bobs past me. Its head shows up a moment later. The look on its face is one of almost comical dismay.
I heft my knives and keep my eye on the path in the direction of the Two girl. She may be out of the picture, but whoever took her out of it isn't. There's a lava flow across the wall maybe fifty yards down from me, so whoever it is will have a tough time sneaking up on me. Behind me, of course, is pitch dark. I resist the urge to look over my shoulder. I won't be able to see anything. I'm better off just keeping my hearing stretched to its absolute limit, and my peripheral vision on the mutts, who I'm quite sure are slowly swimming closer.
I hear someone coming toward me. Just one. A shadowy figure appears a moment later, slinking down the narrow path. It's a boy, at least fifteen, but that's all I can tell. Too small for the One kid. His gait is strangely defeated for someone who's made it this far. I've been doing my best to keep track, and I'm reasonably sure we're the final two.
I'm going to kill him. It's not really something I have to think about. Yes, it will be my first kill since that day at the Cornucopia, but that's okay. I've worked around squeamishness worse than this before. He's a dead man walking. And he doesn't even know I'm here. He's going to trip right over me.
He steps farther into the light, and I recognize him as the Five boy. Weird kid. Always seemed a little sad. He struck me as a kindred spirit even before the Games began, in some weird way, except depressed instead of grumpy.
When he calls my name, it takes me a moment to even register it. I haven't heard it in a while.
"Jaeger," he says flatly. "That's you, right? Where are you?"
I don't reply. Why would I? I search for a glint of weaponry around him, but I don't see anything.
"They want a fight," he continues. "They won't let you sneak up on me. You might as well show yourself on your terms."
He's got a point, actually. And I'm seriously considering replying when the path behind me suddenly collapses into the water. Rock and lava hit the stream with a sound like a barrage of cannons. Steam blasts toward me. I lunge away from it, leaving the wall in the process, and realize the light is silhouetting me now. He knows exactly where I am.
The boy vanishes from the patch of light. I grip my knives more tightly and flatten myself against the wall, cursing the glowing molten rock behind me.
"What's your name, again?" I call. I don't exactly care, but I'd feel much better if I knew where he was. Unarmed or not, I'm pretty sure he just took out a Career. I know better than to underestimate any opponent. Not when I'm this close.
I wonder again, almost idly, whether anyone back in District Nine actually cares. Most of them probably want me to die. More game for them. Except, no, the District gets food for a year if I win. So my District will be behind me, one way or the other. But they're rooting for the District Nine tribute, not me, personally. Does anyone actually want me back?
There's a hearty sigh from the blackness ahead of me. "Forest Hale, if you really think it matters."
"How should I know if it matters?"
To my amazement, he laughs. It's dry, but it's the first laughter I've heard in a while. "That's fair. So how many people have you killed?"
"Just bloodied my hands a second ago." His footsteps are quiet, but I can hear him coming closer. I don't expect him to say anything else. I don't think he intended to, but he speaks a moment later, his voice quiet but urgent. "Behind you."
My mind races. He's still at least thirty feet away, and I really don't see how he could kill me with what I assume would be just bare hands. But there's no reason he should be warning me of anything, either. Eventually—or more likely a split second later—my curiosity gets the better of me and I shoot a glance over my shoulder. And stab the mutt through the heart. It freezes, but doesn't fall quite yet. Empty black eye sockets turn hard, and something pale green oozes from its chest.
"Oh," I say weakly. So they can come out of the water. Great.
A quick scan reveals that only one has accomplished that particular feat, but the rest are looking unsettlingly adventurous. Blank eye sockets stare at me from the edge of the water. I have the awful feeling that they might just be able to reach me in one motion if they lunge quickly enough.
The one I killed topples into the water and floats away. The rest don't even look at it, keeping their gaze on me. I find myself drawing back even though my shoulders are already pressed against the wall. I really don't like this.
"So what are you fighting for?"
I look up in surprise. Forest is lounging against the wall, just out of knife range, his eyes on the mutts. Nonetheless, I know he'll dodge if I try to kill him now. Not that it matters, because something's stopping me. He's trying to tell me something. The problem is that he doesn't seem to know exactly what.
"My District, I guess."
He shakes his head. "Me, too. You have a family?"
He looks up. He even looks like me, with dark brown hair and eyes and sharp features, except he's pale. "Do they miss you?"
I bite my lip and consider the question. "They might." Before I'm quite sure what's happening, I find myself adding, "You?"
Why did I ask that? I don't care, and I don't want to know. For all I know, there's a whole flock of miniature Hales with all kinds of debilitating diseases starving to death in a shack somewhere and begging their big brother to come home. And it's none of my concern, or at least it shouldn't be.
"I've got parents." He thinks for a moment. "But you killed four people."
One of the mutts reaches out slowly, laying its pale, bony fingers on the rock. Its thin lips draw back, and I suck in a breath at the sight of its teeth.
"Because you wanted to win?"
The mutt's other hand grips the bank. A few more reach out. I look at Forest out of the corner of my eye, pinpointing where he's standing and calculating how to attack. We're almost exactly the same size. I'm armed, he's not. I'm probably a better fighter. But I'm intimidated nonetheless. I thought I was ruthless, but something tells me I'm going in the water if I don't give him the right answers. And maybe even if I do.
Just as I'm tensed to spring, he looks up and smiles. "Going to kill me, too?"
His eyes harden. He looks up, for reasons best known to himself. I risk a quick glance to see what he's so interested in. There's still only darkness above us. For a moment I think I see a glint of light, but then it's gone.
Forest looks back at me. "Not quite yet."
I take another step forward instead of even dignifying that one with an answer.
"What's your token?"
I stop short. "Huh?"
"Your token. What is it?"
I know the Capitol will be getting impatient, but the fact that he's unarmed makes me feel like I've gone back on my promise and turned into an executioner again. I can't exactly deny him his last request.
"I don't have one. I didn't see what purpose it would serve."
He sighs again and leans against the wall, not even looking at me. "One more question. What do you think happens when we die?"
"I've… I've never thought about it, I guess," I say slowly. "It's not like I won't find out eventually. I've always had more immediate things to worry–"
I'm cut off by a bony arm wrapping around my neck. I stab the mutt behind me reflexively. It lets me go, but another lunges, and one of my knives clatters to the ground. I slit its throat. But more of them are crawling up the uneven slope left by the rockfall. Some of the ones in the stream are trying to haul themselves out, but they're having a hard time, particularly because Forest is stomping on their fingers.
I concentrate on defending my end of the path and stopping the ones climbing the slope. As I watch, one of them gets too close to the lava. Its skin blisters, and the air is filled with the worst smell I've ever experienced. The thing's shrieking doesn't help.
I can hear Forest muttering some of the most poetic curses I think I've ever heard. I know I should just turn on him and kill him while he's distracted, but the mutts are too fast. They'd grab me before I could get him. And there are a lot of them. They're stronger than they look, too.
One of them slashes at my face. I learn the hard way that they have claws. I duck another swipe and ram my knife into its skinny ribs, shoving my shoulder against a second mutt and sending it into the water. Yet another throws its weight onto my back before I can straighten up, knocking me to my knees. I stab it over my shoulder and teeth sink into my wrist.
No matter how hard I fight it, I can feel myself starting to panic. At least I think it's panic. I've never experienced it before. I really don't want to die like this. Dying is fine, but I don't want to be killed.
I grit my teeth and fight harder. I don't even risk a glance to see how Forest is doing. It's all I can do not to get my head ripped off. They've backed me off the top of the narrow slope, and now they're coming at me four at a time. I really wish I still had two knives.
One gets both hands around my knife wrist and pulls me off balance. Another gets behind me and wraps an arm around my chest. I barely twist to the side in time to stop it from ripping my throat out. When I try to stab it, I realize my knife arm is pinned.
I thrash in the mutt's grip and end up tumbling to the ground on my back, right in the middle of them. My knife is torn from my hand, and my head hits the rock hard enough to make me see stars. Or maybe they really are stars. Have the clouds finally cleared? I think they have. But the mutts' faces blot out the sky a moment later. And those goddamned teeth…
"Sorry, Chell," I mutter. "Love you."
I'm about to close my eyes when I see Forest crouched behind them, his face shadowed. He stands up straight and looks up at the stars. There's a fearless, almost curious expression on his face.
"I get it now," he says triumphantly.
Then he takes my knife from the ground and stabs himself in the heart.
Chell Cline, District 9, 5 years old
They told me Jaeger wasn't coming back. I said he was. They shook their heads and patted mine and said it was good I didn't quite understand.
But I do. I wasn't supposed to watch the Games, but I did. I didn't want to see him die, I wanted to see him live, and he did.
And he said he loved me. He's never said that before.
And now he's coming home.
They give us plenty of space at the train station. There's a big crowd, but it isn't allowed near us. We get to stand with a bunch of Peacekeepers and people with cameras until the train comes in.
My mom ruffles my hair absentmindedly without taking her eyes off the clock. Dad keeps saying it's a Capitol train; it won't be early and it won't be late. So I watch, too. And then it's time. The train pulls in and the door opens.
Jaeger stands in the doorway. He looks a little unsure of himself, like when Dad tells him he did something wrong, but brave, too. His eyes sweep over the people surrounding us, then narrow. Somehow I know he's wishing for a bow.
But then the Peacekeepers shove the people with cameras out of the way, and Jaeger's eyes fall on us. He looks even more uncertain now. But I skip toward him anyway. He might ignore me like he usually does, but he can't stop me from hugging him.
He doesn't ignore me. He picks me up and hugs me back.
"Hey, Chell," he says in my ear. "How've you been, kid?"
Okay, sorry for the fluff, but I figured we were collectively entitled after that little journey. Thank you guys so much for giving me such awesome characters. I had so much fun doing Forest's philosophizing, and Lithe was just buckets of fun. Picking the winner was ridiculously hard, but I wanted to mix things up a little and have it be someone who might actually be better off than he was before, rather than scarred for life. Happy endings are so hard to come by in this fandom, you know?
If you have any suggestions for my Guide to Not Making Your Tribute Suck, please let me know. I want to update, but I don't really have enough material.
A sequel, you ask? Maybe. Possibly. Probably not until I finish my PJO fic, but keep an eye out.
Thanks again for putting up with me! :)