So this is it! I had a lot of fun writing this, and I'm wicked excited to continue writing for Solivagant. Still, I never thought I could actually finish a fanfiction. I feel really great! Thanks to everyone who read & review anything I've ever written on here, especially KellBellx, who had never failed to comment one of my works with lengthy reviews! It always makes my day. c:
"How long?" Micah asked because Ace couldn't.
His mother, Delilah, had been carding her delicate, wrinkled hands through his hair lovingly, like she had never done before, and there was an underlying irritation he felt, the kind of emotion that nestled into a knot in the back on his throat. He almost forgot about it.
"About a week after Ace left," she said carefully. Her voice was fragile and shaky, with an air of someone who had time to grieve but did not completely recover. Did one recover from something like that? Ace didn't know. He didn't think he would ever have to, yet in the past month or so he knew more—more than his old person, more than his mother, more than Micah, in some ways. He had always prided himself on knowing more, and yet now he wanted nothing other than to numb his brain, to wipe his memories and emotions and live like a shell. The strain that had been placed on his shoulder, on his brain at that, did not dwindle when he arrived in his district, as he had hoped. Instead, it stayed very constant. Anxiety tied itself to him anywhere it could: the nape of his neck; in the knot of his shoelaces; the arch of his brow; and in the concave of his slightly curled fringe.
Wrong, he thought, and then he said it aloud. The word was so weird. Weirdly spelled, weirdly said, the roll of his tongue when spoken. Foreign. He did not like the word.
"Wrong what, darling?" Delilah whispered. Ace turned his head and then pulled it back in shock when he noticed the water in his mother's pale eyes. She was still crying from before.
"Everything," he said honestly. "Because you're lying."
"I'm not lying," she told him. She seemed to have expected this. "Darling, I'm not."
"Don't call me darling!" he nearly growled. "You're lying to me and to Micah! What did you want, more attention? Is that why you're doing this? Where is he; where is my brother?!"
She pursed her lips and for a second looked like herself. It was there like a flash, a memory of what she used to be, all curled fists and sharp retorts and days alone in his room, because that face, that face, had always been the crux of his problem and his loneliness and his bitter reflection of the world. Or maybe the problem was himself...
But it smoothed out. Her wrinkles and frown lines, the little cracks around the corners of her eyes seemed to lift from her face and instead he saw a child. There was something very belittling about watching his mother cry. She'd always been so mean, but maybe she had just been strong. He always somehow felt she was invincible from anything, even from Noah's disease.
The headstone was marble white, carved cleverly with curves at the top and a single word written on it: Brickham.
Ace thought that was probably the worst part of it: he couldn't have his name printed on it, because for all anyone knew, it was Ace down there six feet under. When someone died in the games, your family didn't exactly get the body, so who really knew who was sitting in that box? And more importantly: Who but the Brickhams really cared?
This was his proof. This was the evidence. His brother really was gone.
The grass had just started to grow back in front of the stone, a long, patchy rectangle of dirt. Ace laid next to the patch with his back on the grass and his face towards the sky. It was slightly obscured by the thick canopy of leaves, like a curtain of different golds and reds, but through the veil he could see the blue sky tinged white with puffy clouds and slight rays of sun.
"Oh, Noah," he said to himself. "I tried to take your place, and yet you still wouldn't let me."
Micah and Ace had told Delilah about their situation. They had to find a new home as quickly as possible before the Capitol found them. He watched as they scrambled for their things, his mother packing her possessions and then a few of Noah's. Ace didn't have anything he wanted to take, not really. He had a few articles of clothing in a bag around his shoulder, but everything else made his stomach turn. One thing he did take, though, was the engraved pocketwatch Micah had given him before the games. Ace had been sure that it would be somewhat beneficial throughout his journey, yet he had not used it once. It was only then he realized that the pocketwatch had been more beneficial in keeping his sanity and reminding him of home than helping him keep time. Ace turned it over in his palm. OLIVER BRICKHAM. He thought of another family member he never got to see.
Ace felt somewhat incomplete, like even as they stood in front of their home for so many years and the mess he'd been in was coming to a close, he still didn't think it was over. There was something missing, something other than Noah and Anastasia and Isla and Genevieve and Ezra. Something other than those who died in the games, and something other than the mundane finality of their personal massacre.
He found himself, mindlessly, in front of a large mansion in the center of town. All of the town officials, mayors and governors alike, got a home in a very large, gated community. It did not take him long to find an alternate route into the neighborhood and he wandered until he found a small mailbox with the gold letters nailed on, spelling out RICKSHIRE.
It was a pretty home with a cut lawn, painted white shingles, and an easy façade. Ace stumbled up the driveway in his own non-alcoholic intoxication and rapped his knuckles against the door, hitting the doorbell twice.
A tall man entered. Ace knew him. He'd seen him. On the television, around the city.
And it is clear from the man's reaction that he has seen Ace, too.
Suddenly, he is being pulled by the collar of his shirt into the house and was wrapped so quickly in a hug that he didn't have time to breathe. This man was big, broad, and stern looking, but in a moment of weakness, his bear-hands clutched to Ace's jacket and he was crying slightly into the smaller boy's hair.
"Oh, God," the man sobbed. "Oh, God. You're him. You were with my little girl."
"Come, sit, son. Sit down. I need—wait here."
The man pushed Ace into a very soft, white seat and ushered out of the room. He returned moments later with a small, childish woman that looked too much like Anastasia than to be possible. Her skinny limbs and small dark eyes reminded him fiercely of the girl he'd gotten to know. The tangle of dark hair on down her shoulders curled slightly and gathered at a point at the small of her back.
She quickly covered her mouth with her hands and ran to Ace, throwing her arms around him. Just as breakable, she was as fragile in his arms as Anastasia was.
"Please, please, sit and relax. Oh, dear. Oh, lord."
"I just wanted to—," Ace cut himself off. What had he wanted? He didn't know. Ace had felt that lack of closure and in a moment of panic thought these polite, regal people could help him.
He cleared his throat and started again. "I just wanted to meet you guys before I left."
"Where are you going?" her father said. They both sat forward on the couch in front of him.
"The Capitol is after me, because frankly I should be dead. They, um, injected some kind of poison to stop my heart in their hovercraft, but it didn't work successfully, and I was snuck out of the premises by a friend who was, um, working there. The point is, I'm leaving to keep my family safe, but I wanted to make sure you knew I am alive. I wanted to meet you."
"Why would the Capitol want to kill you?"
"I'm not who you think I am."
Ace shook his head. His hands were splayed on his lap, and he tapped his fingers on the holes of his jeans five times in ten second intervals. Always five times. Always ten second intervals.
"My name is Ace Brickham. Noah was my brother. He died shortly after I took his place from some undiagnosed disease he was born with. I got home but hours ago."
The woman gave an intake of breath. "And you're leaving so soon?"
"I told you. I have to keep my family safe."
"This is ridiculous," her father said, hands balled into tight fists.
"We'll do fine on our own. Trust me. I just wanted to let you know that your daughter… your daughter didn't… she didn't die in vain." Ace swallowed loudly under the intense gaze of a dead girl's heartbroken parents. "She was thinking of you."
"We know… We know. Trust us."
"Should I get Jamie?" the woman asked. She made a move as if to get up, but the man stopped her, his hands gently pulling her back down.
"He isn't ready." He turned back to Ace, who was staring at the ground regulating his breathing.
Ace felt as though he could see more now, the way the world reacted to certain things, the way the leaves moved because of the wind, the way his hair tangled when he ran his hands through it, the way the carpet got darker every time one of Anastasia's mother's tears hit it.
"If there is anything you need, please, please, just ask," they said in a tanged monotone.
Ace looked up. "There is one thing."
Their new home was small and cottage-like, alone in the woods and covered with vines and ivy. It gave no impression that it was old—its paint was fresh and crisp, and the walls were not chipped or crumbling. It radiated new, but it also radiated away. Micah, Ace, and Delilah were completely cut off from civilization, alone in the forest, in no particular district. The home was built and insured by the Richshires.
"This place is so cool!" Jamie said. He had the air of Anastasia, happy and likable, but his face was more like his father's. He pranced around the woods and snapped branches and twigs beneath his sneakers.
"We didn't let him watch the games. He knows he doesn't have his sister, but he doesn't know exactly why," his father said. They were off to the side, watching over the scene as Delilah and Micah heaved their bags into the building.
Ace breathed heavily. "You know there are tapes in some old archives you can get."
"Maybe one day," he replied, like he wasn't so sure of it. "I don't want him to have to watch it."
"I never got to see…" Ace mumbled. "This means… a lot."
"You did a lot." The man's, William's, voice is strong. "I want you to know that. This temporary stay… it's the least I could do. And I'll make it my quest to ensure that you will not have to stay here forever. One day, I'll get you a proper home with proper neighbors and a proper lawn…"
"Who won the games?"
There was a long pause. "The girl from four," William said finally. "No one really expected it."
He couldn't remember her. All the details seemed to blur, and whatever he did know of the girl did not seem a vital part of his memories anymore. He clung more to the memories of people like Anastasia and Noah than of this winner, who he made a private goal to seek out one day.
Ace didn't want to think about the words he couldn't say, so instead he helped push the bags in and tidy about. It was a nice place, three rooms, and two bathrooms, all one floor with a tiny living area and connected kitchen.
"Oh, this is… this is lovely," Delilah crooned, touching the countertop with renewed hope. She had light in her eyes Ace had never seen before. "Things are going to be alright from now on, I can feel it."
"You can come visit us or your old home whenever, though I do think you should contact us beforehand so we can make sure that you don't get caught. This whole search will blow over soon, it always does. When that point arrives, we will come get you," the woman said. Aurora, she told him. Aurora.
William went and put his arm around her. Jamie ran to their feet and grinned up. "Can I come here again?!"
William quirked a sad smile. "Of course, buddy. We'll be back soon."
The whole day passed in a blur. The Rickshires stayed for hours after their arrival, making sure they were settled and happy with enough food in their fridge and clothes in their drawers. Delilah had stayed attached to Ace at the hip, cradling his head in her arms, telling him how much she loved him. (It was something no one had done before, and while he felt irritated with an overwhelming desire to push her away, he couldn't. Partly because he knew she needed it, and partly because, despite how much he hated to admit so, he needed it, too.)
"You're so different," she said, half fondly and half miserably.
Ace shrugged indifferently. He didn't know if he felt different, just that he felt, which was more than he could have asked for.
It wouldn't be until later that night, as Ace laid awake in his new bed, would he let himself think of his brother. When he closed his eyes, he pictured the sky he saw above his brother's grave and the canopy of fall trees, and the colorful leaves littering the ground with a grace anyone could have appreciated. He remembered, with a smile, how much his brother loved autumn, and he fell asleep with the name on his lips like a last hope: Noah.