I'm sorry about the wait. If you're following my tumblr, you'll know I've been withou internet for a while and have only just got the chance to update stuff. I hope you're all still enjoying the fic - we're getting closer to the Games, and that's going to be a hell of a lot of fun... ;P
So knife throwing was a complete waste of time. Jeff growled under his breath as for the millionth time that afternoon, he missed the target by at least a foot and the knife buried itself in the wall. No matter what he tried, no matter how he attempted to adjust his aim, he hadn't even been able to hit the target at all. It didn't look that hard – it was fairly close and it wasn't moving – but it seemed knife throwing wasn't a skill he'd be using in the arena.
There was a snigger from across the training room and Jeff turned to glare. The career tributes had been watching him on and off throughout the day, rolling their eyes at his ineptitude. It was Kendal, the girl from 2, who'd laughed and she was smirking cruelly in his direction as he stared at her. Jeff looked away, knowing he couldn't get angry. She and her fellow favoured tributes had been practicing fighting and survival skills since they were born – everyone knew it, and even though it was against the rules no one stopped it. It added an extra element of surprise to the Games – everyone loved an underdog.
He knew he'd lost an entire day trying to not fail entirely at knife throwing. He should have given up a lot sooner and gone on to something more useful and easier. He'd need to know how to survive in any sort of arena they might throw at him. With a sigh and his head hanging, Jeff moved towards a different station for the last hour of the day. He might as well get something useful out of his time.
He didn't have much of it left.
Harrow glanced up as he heard someone snap their fingers impatiently. Across the room Tereze was lounging around, doing nothing in particular. She'd been there all day as far as Harrow was aware – he'd gone out earlier to check out the competition and maybe scrounge up some sponsors, and she'd been getting off the elevator when he left. From the other side of the room, a white-clad Avox scrambled to be by her side in a moment, eyes wide. Harrow raised an eyebrow, recognising the boy Jeff had reacted to the night before. Tereze tossed her head, her formerly spiky hair now in loose blue waves around her shoulders, and spoke in a haughty tone.
"Fetch me a glass of… oh, I suppose it should be water. I do want to make this detox work. Ophelia would be so upset if I didn't at least try it."
The Avox nodded once and left to carry out the order. Harrow watched him go. He had no doubt that the boy had been placed here on purpose. It couldn't be coincidence that he and Jeff had known each other. The Capitol was renowned for their cruelty and showing off their little tortured toy to his best friend before he was thrown into the arena was just the sort of thing they would do. But there was no way that Harrow was going to let them get the best of his tribute. District 10 was going to win this year if it killed him – even if only to rub the backfired plan in Snow's face.
The Avox returned, carrying the glass of water in shaking hands. Tereze held out her hand and he gave it to her, stepping back as she sipped it with an irritated sigh. Harrow waited a moment until the woman started muttering to herself about 'silly Ophelia' and 'silly detoxes' before standing and gesturing for the boy to follow him. "Come with me."
The younger nodded and did as he was told, trailing behind the man as they left the room. When Harrow was sure they were alone and out of earshot, he made his move.
With the speed and power he'd used to slaughter more than half of the tributes in his Games, he turned and pinned the boy to the wall. Though his eyes widened in fright, his muscles tensed and his mouth dropped open slightly out of reflex, he gave only a strangled grunt – the best he could do. He quickly shut his mouth, lips sealed so what remained of his tongue was hidden from view.
"Now I want you to listen to me very carefully. I'm holding you here because I want you to understand just how serious I am. Acknowledge me."
The boy nodded shakily. Harrow bit back the slight twist of guilt in his gut at the fear in his eyes. After years of mentoring tributes since his win he'd learned how to handle Avoxes, but he couldn't help but be reminded that this was just a kid. A kid like all the boys and girls he'd watched die in the arena. Like Serenade and Jeff.
"This is an order, and I expect not to be disobeyed," he continued "You are to stay away from Jeff when it is possible. Of course, if he gives you an order you will follow it, but keep your distance. I know you have a past, but that is where it remains. Do you understand?"
Another nod, and Harrow let the boy go. He slumped to the floor in a heap, breathing heavily. Quietly, the older man said, "Get up." The smaller brunette staggered to his feet, brushing himself off and staring down respectfully.
"Go back to your duties," Harrow ordered "But don't forget what I've just said."
The Avox walked away, and Harrow noticed that he glanced down at something in his palm. And then he was gone. There was a clatter of noise from the direction of the elevator and with a sigh, the mentor went to greet the two tributes returning from practice.
"How did you go with training?" was the first thing out of Harrow's mouth as he approached Jeff and Serenade. The blonde sighed and rolled his eyes, ignoring the question and instead walking off towards his room. For a moment he thought the man might stop him, but he was allowed to leave with just an assessing glance.
As soon as he reached his room, Jeff slumped on his bed with a defeated sigh. He was completely useless. He'd never survive the arena. At the rate he was going, he'd be slaughtered in the initial bloodbath. He just couldn't see himself surviving until the end – his plan was unravelling in front of his eyes, and he knew it had been since he'd looked into his brother's eyes after being reaped.
There were so many things wrong with his plan. He was leaving behind his brother and mother, who would have to watch him die. He already had a soft spot for Serenade, who would have to die in order for him to win against the Capitol. He couldn't fight. He couldn't defend himself against the strong career tributes. And then there was Nick.
He'd tried to force all thoughts of Nick from his mind while training, and now they slammed down on him all at once. He couldn't stop the guilt that had stacked up in his chest since finding out his friend was alive and it was starting to hurt, taking up all the space he had and more. He couldn't deal with this. Nick had been his closest friend, the only person he could trust outside of family – and he hadn't saved him. He'd let him go. He'd let them take Nick away to the Capitol knowing what they would do. Except they'd done a much more evil thing than murder. After hearing what they'd done to him, Jeff was sure that death would have been a mercy the Capitol would never grant. And while knowing Nick was alive made it that much harder to contemplate dying in the arena, it also strengthened his resolve to fight those torturing bastards to the very end. They had been so cruel to Nick, tearing him apart and forcing him into servitude instead of just killing him, and it sparked a fury in Jeff that he hadn't felt in a long time. Not since his father had died.
It suddenly dawned on Jeff that Nick was probably on this floor right now. He could be on the other side of the door. The thought was terrifying. The boy who had been so carelessly treated because of his arrogance was so close, with all the scars of Jeff's stupidity, and there was nothing he could do to fix it. He curled up into a ball, shaking. He wanted to close his eyes but he knew what he would see – those images of Nick being dragged, bloody and beaten, into the Justice Building. The absolute fear in his eyes because he knew what they would do – except he hadn't. No one had had any idea of the horror the Capitol could inflict.
There was a knock at the door and Jeff jerked his head up, startled. Quietly the door swung open to reveal a girl dressed in white who bowed low in the doorway.
"Get out," Jeff rasped, surprised at his own voice.
The girl nodded and closed the door without ever making eye contact. As soon as she was gone the blonde hugged his chest and before he knew it he was crying again. None of this made any sense and it was all so overwhelming. The Games, Nick; he just wanted it all to stop. He needed to take a breath, step back so he could try to understand what was going on, but everything was moving too fast and things were being thrown at him from all different directions – training, the upcoming interviews and prep for that, the Games themselves, his plan to die, his friendship with Serenade, dealing with Nick's current state, stupid Capitol people – and he just couldn't cope.
Nick knew his purpose was to stand in the corner and look as small and invisible as possible until someone called for him. He was supposed to be paying attention to the movements of everyone at the table so he could know in advance when he would be needed. But it was so hard to concentrate when there was an empty place at the table and he knew who should be filling it.
Jeff hadn't shown up for dinner and Harrow had asked Tereze to allow him a little while to come on his own before being sent for. After all, he had a lot to take in and absorb and he may have just lost track of time, Harrow reasoned. She had agreed, but now it was halfway through the first course and an unusually patient Tereze had finally given up.
Nick missed the first two times she snapped her fingers. The other Avox in the room stared at him – she wasn't allowed to heed the woman's call as she was on the other side of the room. He missed that too. It was only when Tereze turned in her chair and fixed him with a dark look as she raised her voice that Nick finally caught on. He moved to her side quickly, bracing himself in advance when she gestured for him to kneel.
"I should have you punished properly for such blatant disobedience," Tereze snapped in annoyance as she struck him across the face, the sound too loud in the room that had suddenly gone very quiet. Nick saw the redheaded girl flinch and look away. He thought he knew her, but only knew her name from overheard comments. Serenade. A more well-off girl, if he remembered correctly. Not rich, but close enough.
"I want you to fetch Jeff for dinner," Tereze ordered "Immediately."
Nick stood and bowed as he knew he should before walking away from the table to do as she asked. He heard her speak again behind him. "Honestly, I don't know how anyone deals with them. They're so unruly."
The order didn't really sink in until he was standing outside the door to the room of the boy who'd been his closest friend. It seemed like such a long time ago, all that. A lifetime. But it was only a year. Only a year since he'd been dragged away into some continuing nightmare that he knew he would never escape from. And he'd hoped so much when the reapings started and he'd been given his assignment to serve District 10 that no one he'd know would be chosen – and it had to be Jeff. The boy he'd left behind.
It was fear of further punishment that forced his hand to knock at that door. He was terrified of facing Jeff again, but more so of Frediano and what he might do. That thought led him to the small disc hidden away in his pocket, and biting his lip, he reached for it and turned it on. He felt sick. He was betraying his friend for the ones who had ruined his life – it was all so wrong. Carefully he pushed the door open and paused.
Jeff was curled up on his bed, seemingly asleep. Even from this distance Nick could see how red his face was and knew instantly that he'd been crying. A sharp pain in his chest made him wince and he closed his eyes for a split second. When he opened them again, Jeff had looked up and was moving to stand.
"Nick," he said in a strangled, hoarse voice. He reached out a hand but stopped himself midway, pulling his arm back to his chest with a confused look. Nick wasn't sure what to do. He knew he was supposed to bring Jeff back to the table for dinner, but he just couldn't move. He couldn't tear his eyes away from the blonde's face – unchanged after all this time– and he almost couldn't bring himself to care when Jeff crossed the room in a flash and wrapped his arms around him, shaking.
"What have I done?" Jeff mumbled into his shoulder.
Nick closed his eyes, revelling in the feeling of his friend holding him, and he lifted his arms to return the hug. But he caught himself and instead pushed Jeff away, shaking his head. The blonde stared down at him, not letting go of his shoulders no matter how hard Nick tried to force him.
"What happened?" he asked softly, noticing his red-stained cheek from being hit a few minutes before. When he moved his hand to touch it, Nick saw his chance and took it, stepping back and trying to maintain some sort of professionalism when all he wanted to do was melt right back into those arms and let Jeff hold him forever.
"I'm so sorry." Jeff's eyes were red-rimmed and bloodshot, his voice a whisper. "I should have saved you… I thought you were dead."
I wish I was.
Nick turned and gestured for Jeff to follow him out of the room, knowing he had to get his job done. There was no need to give anyone any more reason to hurt him. The blonde hesitated for a moment before doing as he was asked, shutting the door of his room quietly behind him. As they headed down the hallway, Jeff hung back and stared at the floor.
"I am sorry, you know. I just stood there while they beat you and took you away."
Nick shook his head. He didn't want to hear it. He'd had enough nightmares of that day and what came after, and he didn't want anymore. He didn't want Jeff apologising for something that wasn't his fault. He didn't want any of this.
They reached their destination and Nick quickly took up his place in the corner, leaving Jeff to sit beside Harrow at the far end of the table. He switched the recording device off surreptitiously, that sick feeling returning to his gut.
"Jeff, you look dreadful," Tereze exclaimed. Nick stared down at the floor to avoid Jeff's gaze and Serenade's curious eyes.
This was going to be a long night.
Nick was off-duty that night, and as he headed back to his room his head was full of thoughts of Jeff. How his chest had ached when he saw him again, that overwhelming urge he had to fall into Jeff's arms and never move from them, and how tears were pressing against his eyelids at the mere thought that he was going to have to watch his best friend die.
But that wasn't true anymore, was it? Jeff wasn't his best friend. They weren't friends at all. He'd thought about it earlier when Frediano had demanded he spy on Jeff. They had different loyalties now. All Jeff had to think about was saving himself and getting home – something so far away and foreign to Nick now. His version of home now was a small locked room. And Nick had so much more to think about – like getting through the day with as little pain involved as possible, and concentrating on every little thing to make sure nothing was missed and everyone was kept happy. It was hard just surviving each day, especially on some of his previous assignments. He'd worked for a few months while in 'training' at a high-ranking government member's house and the slightest mistake had earned him a harsh beating. He still carried the scars across his body.
His concentration now was shot and as he made his way down the corridor back to his room, he didn't notice the man standing in the shadows, watching him carefully. The first he knew of his presence was when he cleared his throat, startling Nick and making him gasp. His jaw snapped shut instantly and he turned with a hasty bow to see who wanted him. When he looked up, his heart dropped to the pit of his stomach.
"Did you do as you were ordered?" Frediano asked with a cruel smile. Nick hesitated for only a moment before nodding.
"Good. Give it to me."
Nick did as he was told, handing over the disc from his pocket. Frediano seemed pleased as he inspected the device before handing a second one over.
"You've done well, Nick," the man smirked, patting him on the shoulder and making Nick flinch – at both the touch and the name. He was playing with him. Avoxes didn't have names; they left all that behind. Frediano was trying to mess with his head.
And it was working.