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“Caduceus. Look at me. Breathe.”

Yasha’s trying to inspire some color into her fellow mentor’s face the morning of the reaping. Caduceus Clay is dressed in the very best you could find in Twelve and having a full-blown panic attack in Yasha’s kitchen as she brews their morning tea. 

“I’m trying, but I can’t stop worrying it’ll be her.” Caduceus whispers as he takes several shaky breaths in what Yasha sincerely hopes is a genuine attempt to stall the rapid rise and fall of his chest. He looks stranger and stranger to her every year he has to strip his pink hair back to its natural pale gray for the games, though he would probably say the same about the annual return to her artificial coal black.

“It won’t be.” Yasha pointedly does not look out her kitchen window, which has a direct eyeline of the front porch of Caduceus’s home. No one will be there; the rest of the Clays have already left for the square. But Caduceus would catch even the thought of a glance, and it would only worry him more. “Despite what Da'leth would have you believe, you’re still very adored in the Capitol. All of the sponsorship our tributes have gotten the past five years directly tie back to your influence.” Make him remember about himself first, that he’s real and his actions have tangible impact, then expand outward to include other people. Yasha is by no mean an expert in grounding Caduceus, but she’d like to think she’s getting better. "Clarabelle’s eighteen but she looks fourteen, all she’d have to do is blink those doe-eyes once before sponsors would bury her in gifts. That won’t be exciting for the Capitol. And her name is only in there seven times.” She doesn’t bring up the fact that Caduceus put his name in eight times and still got picked over Colton, who had twenty-one entries that same year.

Caduceus puts his head in his hands and mumbles something, but it gets lost in the scream of the tea kettle. He seems relieved by this as Yasha turns to answer the promise of hot tea and isn’t eager to clarify himself.

Yasha turns off the stove and pours them both very full cups. Caduceus wraps his fingers around his mug, brows tightening the only give away that the tea is too hot and the ceramic of the cup is too thin. He does not repeat his comment. 

“Mm?” Yasha tries as she pulls the honey out of the back of her cupboard and adds a generous spoonful to her cup. 

Caduceus sighs, eyelashes fluttering down as he tries to hide in the half of his hair that isn’t shorn thin. “They had family mentoring last year.”

Yasha wasn’t going to be the one to say it, but that was the main reason her heart hasn’t been beating out of her chest in fear for the youngest Clay. Thank the Stormlord for that bright-eyed girl from Four with a propensity for beheading her fellow tributes with an axe and her very dedicated mother. Yasha had never felt a greater sense of ease wash over her to have both of their tributes dead after the second day and to be out of Marion’s warpath. It hadn’t made bringing Darby and Gemma's coffins home any easier, but temporary relief is still a hell of a drug. 

Most importantly for Clarabelle’s sake, Caduceus is right. “If there’s one thing the Capitol won’t let themself be accused of, it’s repeating an outfit."

 

---

 

You have to be tough to make it in the Seam, and twice that to make it alone like Yasha had. A mine explosion took both her parents before she’d dedicated their faces to memory. All they left behind was a ghost of a child, with mismatched eyes and impossible white hair. She has her lucky stars to thank that Twelve takes care of their own, and no part more than the Seam. She was passed between families who managed to find abundance required to take another hungry mouth in until Yasha was old enough to sneak under the fence without a concerned adult grabbing her by the scruff and dragging her back to the square. 

Yasha watched the older men and women desperate enough to break the law and enter the woods after grueling shifts to figure out how to make the perfect snare. Trapping was most of what she was good for, as she didn’t have the luxury of a stolen Peacekeeper’s gun or anything else to go hunting with and still was expected to attend school. She could set snares the night before or even in the morning and check them when she was released. Yasha sold her findings to Madame Musk in the Hob, and in exchange she was allowed as much soup as she could ask for and the right to sleep in the woman’s stall. 

Zuala had been the first exciting thing to happen to her. Yasha caught the other girl poking around one of her snares after school let out. She’d had been ready to beat her with a stick when her hood fell back and Yasha saw that tell-tale merchie blonde hair. Yasha recognized her as one of the apothecary’s brood, the mellow one who spoke out in class about as often as Yasha did, which was to say never. She’d been trying to learn how to make snares too, her parents were getting lots of patients complaining about inflamed joints and the butcher still charged a pretty penny for left over bones and marrow. Yasha may not be the most business minded person, but even she could see a problem that she could provide the solution for. She struck a deal with Zuala right there, that she’d be willing to provide them with her successes when they were needed if she was allowed to call upon the apothecary when she needed them. Zuala had been all too eager to agree, and Yasha thought she had gotten the steal of the century. 

The first night she had appeared on their back porch with an entire fox hidden in her coat, Yasha realized she’d horribly miscalculated. It had nothing to do with the apothecary or her husband, no. Zuala’s parents had been so appreciative and kindly, insisting she come inside. Her mother had been ecstatic about the condition of the fox, talking about dressing the animal and turning its pelt into one of the blankets they used to warm folk who came to their door chattering in the coldest parts of the winter. Her father had practically forced Yasha to sit at the dinner table, insisting she eat with them and did she have any ailments she needed looking at right then? It hadn’t been Zuala’s siblings, running around like they owned the house and acting far too wild for their age. 

It was when Zuala smiled at her in thanks, when that feeling fluttered in her chest. And Yasha knew she was a fool, because Zuala had waltzed off with something far rarer than the occasional snared animal. She had Yasha’s heart. 

Zuala would kiss her first, years later when they were fourteen and Yasha had insisted on accompanying the merchant girl on her covert operation of gathering wild herbs. Yasha froze in pure shock over the fact that her treacherous heart was not just being encouraged, but reciprocated, before her mind had broken through and screamed at her to kiss Zuala back. The way Zuala would laugh about it afterwards, now that was something Yasha dedicated to memory. She had such a soft heart, yet her laughter was such a rare thing. More precious than any fox or rabbit Yasha could ever catch.

That year had been the most peaceful one Yasha has ever known. Yes, she spent most nights sleeping next to the coals of a fire that had been used to cook soup in her district’s black market, broke the law more times than any sane person would by crossing the fence, and every other spare moment was spent on the latest obsession of Seam kids her age, preparing their bodies to work in the mines with increasingly ridiculous shows of strength that Yasha became more and more determined to come out on top of. But she’d also had Zuala that year. They kept it a secret, not because there weren’t other people like them in Twelve, but because it was exciting, to have something just for themselves. When you take care of your own, you know everyone’s business. Secrets are very novel things in Twelve.

“Why do you bother with those stupid competitions?” Zuala had asked one day, feeding Yasha blackberries as they rested at the foot of a tree halfway through Yasha’s usual snare route. 

She’d been feeling playful that day. “You think they’re stupid?” She’d responded with fake hurt, hand draped dramatically over her heart. “But all Sky ever does anymore is complain that you’ve tune her out when the Seam kids are, what does she say, ‘making coal-miner asses of themselves’ is it? I thought you my greatest fan.”

Yasha'd flexed her bicep just for emphasis, which had the very pleasant side effect of Zuala pulling her in for a heated kiss. 

It had been a year full of moments like that, ones Yasha wished someone was capable of putting in amber so she might fill a bookshelf with them, perfectly preserved and never to be eroded even by something as grating as time.

But then the summer came, and Yasha’s year of peace ended as everything in her life seems to, with a reaping. Zuala’s name was called, time stopped and then had the audacity to carry on. Yasha would have volunteered for her if Zuala wouldn’t have strangled her for it on the spot. You don’t often see volunteers in outlying districts, not when it’s a death sentence. It had been Zuala who had been unlucky enough to have her slip of paper wander into their insufferable escort’s fingertips, not Yasha. This wasn’t a trade she’d let her strike.

Zuala told her as much, during what would be their last time together. And worse, if Yasha against all feasible odds survived, Zuala swore she would never have been able to look at her again. She was being strong, but her worry was so blatant. It had been clear since her name had been called, and Yasha knew nothing in the world she could remedy the fear of being taken away to the games with. It was unthinkable, even though they watched two children leave home every year and their deaths among twenty-one others. The games were real, but they didn’t happen to you or your family, not someone you loved.

“I’ll keep you family in good marrow supply, I can get their herbs too.” Yasha remembers saying as she plastered a smile, she’d been trying to stay brave for her. “I care for them as dearly as you do.”

“I do not deserve a creature so selfless.” Zuala whispered as she tightened her grip in Yasha’s hands as the attendant stepped towards them, about to announce the end of their time together.

If fear did one thing to Yasha, at least it made her bold. “I do not care what it costs you, Zuala.” Yasha had said as she returned the strength of Zuala’s hands back to her, even as there was a pull on her shoulder, and she was forced to rise from her seat. “Come back to me, whatever unforgivable thing you think I will never look you in the eye for, know nothing could ever make me leave you.”

She never heard her response. The door had been slammed shut, the walls too thick. Her father said that Zuala had told them to tell Yasha she would give it everything. He held her when she broke down sobbing in his arms and took her to their home that night.

She’d hoped the first time she’d sleep in Zuala’s bed it would not have been alone, but at least the fading scent of her hair kept Yasha company before she fell asleep.

Yasha spent the next week practically glued to the television in the apothecary, often forgetting to breathe between the long moments that went between them showing Zuala. She appeared to be middling, which was borderline outstanding coming from a merchie Twelve girl like her. Yasha knew she was sharp, a natural talent with plants and she was sure Zuala could be capable if the right weapon found its way to her hands. She took comfort in the strip of blanket Zuala's mother had somehow found the time to turn into a bracelet for her quiet daughter, one side plush fox hair. She had a bit of Yasha with her there, reminding her of home. 

Her token had done her as much luck as anyone tribute who has the misfortune to come from Twelve had done. Yasha had thought she’d allowed herself to be cautiously optimistic, but the presence of optimism is where she went wrong. 

Zuala didn’t go out in the bloodbath, or even the first day. The arena had been similar to the woods beyond the fence, she made her way in the wilderness just fine until the career pack happened to stumble upon her. 

If your murderers haven’t done much to be proud of yet and they’re relying on others sponsoring their brutality to survive, there’s a big canvas for creativity. Watching what they deemed acceptable to do to Zuala in the hours before she finally passed lit a rage in the very pit of Yasha’s stomach that burns for the Capitol and those careers that has yet to go out, even though more than a decade has passed since she watched the games take her childhood love. 

One of the careers had objected to their mutilation of Zuala, and the dwarf girl abandoned them on the spot when her protests went ignored. She came back that night and murdered Zuala’s three tormenters on the spot. Efficiently, with a warhammer, better than they probably deserved. She wept over the state of Zuala’s mangled body and kept a distant guard until the hovercraft came for it. Yasha still felt like she owed her something for it. 

She would never tell Keg who Zuala was to her, in the years after. The only time her very existence was ever acknowledged was during Yasha’s victory tour, when Keg made a passing remark that Yasha’s token in the arena reminded her of a girl who, in Keg’s opinion, had drawn one of the shortest straws in the history of the games.

“We didn’t even do her the justice of hunting her properly.” Keg had practically spat into her whiskey glass; eyes trained on Yasha’s now bare wrist. “She was just in the wrong place, at the worst possible time. I don’t think I can ever pay her family the debt I owe them, for allowing what happened.”

Everything had been a blur for a while after Zuala was murdered, until two years later when the odds would have it that Yasha would be representing District Twelve in the games. She had no one to wish her goodbye. Zuala’s family still grieved their daughter, as Yasha did, and they no longer spoke except when Yasha would drop them off a pelt she hadn’t been able to sell or bones for marrow or herbs she’d found that Zuala used to collect. She hadn’t expected them to come, nor anyone else from Twelve. They'd raised her, and now she would die for them.

Now that, that would be a fair trade.

Or at least Yasha had expected to. Truthfully, Yasha’s anger about the fate given to Zuala hadn’t much burned brighter than it did during that summer in the Capitol, playing along in these terrible games and trying to appease her mentor, a newcomer cambion named Obann from the Capitol who was entirely too enthusiastic about his job. He dyed her hair Seam black in place of her inhuman white and promised to turn her into something the world had never seen before.

Frankly, Yasha had been mostly interested in getting revenge. Zuala had never spoken of her the entire time she was living out her final weeks in front of a camera, and Yasha extended that same courtesy to her. Somehow, she still felt like everyone knew. When forced to speak, she talked about growing up as an orphan and being raised by all of Twelve, and how she was going to fight for every forgotten member of her district, prove that coal miners could be more than what met the eye. 

Yasha doesn’t know how she fought. She remembers rising out into the arena, taking in a stony highland covered in clouds and a raging thunderstorm with nary a tree in sight, and then she remembers waking up on the table, Obann’s smiling face practically hanging over hers. 

Yasha’s been told she spent a lot of time with a career from Two named Ganix, she’s been told that his very brutal kill was her last, and she’s celebrated for being the surviving tribute with the highest kill count. She refuses to watch her tapes, and she can’t remember. It’s cowardly of her, but no one would accuse her of it. Not when they all can remember just how well she can swing a great sword.

Her thoughts on the matter are her business and no one else’s. They keep her up the nights she thinks too much about them, so Yasha mostly just tries to forget with help from the bottle. She was an entirely solitary creature for a while, kept herself dedicated to keeping her body in shape in case her money does run out one day, and she has to go down the mines. She spends her stipend casually, happy to overpay people in the Hob, buy stock for the apothecary before they can even think to send out another one of their children beyond the fence, even just straight up give it away when any of her district are brave or desperate enough to approach her.

To the Capitol, she’s the sensationally brutal Orphanmaker, as her victory is held accountable for the surge of children left in special orphanages in career districts, with hefty donations attached to their names with the intention to create more children who will fight just as hard as Yasha did, be just as brutal and desperate as she apparently was to return home and have been made something special. 

In District Twelve, she is the girl many of them raised that now lives isolated in her gilded cage in the Victors’ Village, more of an omen of death than a real person. When her hair goes from white to black, that’s the sign that she will take two of their children and create another set of bereaved families.

She could scarcely believe it herself when she came back with one of them merely five years later. Caduceus Clay, only fifteen and one of the morticians’ brood, came back without any real blood on his hands and fumes from his decaying arena likely still trapped between his ears.

They hadn’t been that lucky again since, but Yasha’s allowed a little bit of that selfish relief that she doesn’t have to live in this enclosure of marble homes alone anymore. She thinks she is, at least.

 

---

 

They’re met in Yasha’s house by the new escort. It’s some insignificant elven man who’s name Yasha doesn’t bother to learn and that Caduceus treats with that very special hateful politeness he saves for the worst people. He’ll either get the promotion he’s clearly chasing, or he’ll be like their last one, and tire after a year or two of having to breathe coal dust for twelve hours a year. What a terrible thing. Yasha hopes it’s been enough to give every last one of them miner’s lung.

She can’t stand any of them. Not the escorts, not the stylists, not the stand-in mentors, not the gamemakers. Anyone who touches these games out of their own free will can and should go rot in the hells. The host of most of the fanfare, Dranzel Grin, is a decent man. He makes the tributes look as good as he can, he’s patient with the mentors, and has never spoken a single ill word about the districts that’s reached her ears. Yasha wonders what kind of blackmail the president and his gamemakers have on the half-orc that he comes back year after year.

The reaping is the same as it is every year. Yasha and Caduceus stand at the back of the stage in their matching black turtlenecks that defy the logic of the summer heat and do not speak. The Capitol propaganda is played to a point of near parody. Two of the unluckiest kids in Twelve join them on stage.

Ragwort Grue and Misti Jonas are their charges this year. Both Seam kids, both with loving families if the cries of horror when their names are called is anything to go by. Ragwort is a halfling and Misti a half-elf, something that Yasha is sure some terrible announcer at the Capitol is already cooking up half-assed jokes about. They’re young, small and underfed. In two weeks, Yasha knows they’ll both be dead.

She doesn’t tell them this. She never does, even on years like this where she can just feel it so deeply in her bones. On the train, Yasha encourages them to eat everything they can hold down. Caduceus manages to get complete sentences out of them, which already is much better than last year. Ragwort is the fastest kid his age. Misti’s good with numbers, which means she’s got a quick mind. They even feel brave enough to ask small bits of advice, and Yasha sends them off to bed early with the promise of showing them how to make small animal snares in the early morning.

Yasha clears the table the best she can to help with the servants, and Caduceus digs through the bar in search of cocktail ingredients. He makes her something clear in a sturdy cup that smells like it will burn her nose hairs out. Caduceus leads the way to his room for the night, no drink needed as he pulls out a small handful of homegrown dried mushrooms that always make Yasha’s head spin far too fast for her liking.

They’ve taken to sharing sleeping spaces on bad nights, and they’ve yet to have a single good one while in the Capitol. More often than not, it’s Caduceus’s for the single virtue of it not having a six-foot tall instrument also in residence. When she’d gone on her victory tour, Yasha took advantage of her victor funds to get harp lessons and master the instrument, hoping to find peace in music. Now she wishes she’d picked a hobby that got her hands in soil, like Caduceus had with floral arrangements. It was something he’d already had experience in, he liked doing the flowers for funerals, but now it also meant that he was provided with the latest information on lab created mutations and research biology. Yasha was hounded by new sheet music and a bulky instrument that she did adore but couldn’t mentally divorce from the blood that’s stained on her hands. At least soil might have covered it up.

“I was certain by now there’d be some terrible rumor about the two of us sleeping together.” Caduceus says dryly as they turn their backs to strip and dress in their night ware.

Yasha barks out a laugh as she pulls one of Caduceus’s nightgowns over her head, which only fits by the virtue of him being a good foot taller than her. “You, with me? Surely someone in the Capitol has lost enough of their mind to propose it at least.”

“I’d know about it.” Caduceus says with such confidence Yasha doesn’t even need to see him firmly shake his head no. “Not a peep. Reaping replays ought to be on by now.”

They end up both sprawled on his bed, Yasha thumbing through a book on flower biology and pointedly not looking at the screen as she nurses her drink. Caduceus has the television on mute, subtitles playing and muttering updates under his breath when he thinks it’s something Yasha needs to know. The careers look underfed this year, something promising for them all. Dagen has been outfitted with a new wheelchair that matched the designs Twiggy had them look over last year. Five’s male tribute looks very strong, likely has been working a physical job their power plants, something Vence and Zana will surely be unbearably smug about.

When Caduceus cannot stop a sudden gasp that escapes him, Yasha is compelled to look up. They’re in District Nine, home of their friends Caleb and Veth. A small, feathered thing is making her way up to the stage, head ducked. Yasha will eat the pages of this book if she’s older than twelve.

“She’s a kenku.” Caduceus says with borderline reverence. “I honestly didn’t know there were any still living in the Districts.”

Yasha’s memory of Exandrian history is hazy at best, but she thinks she knows what Caduceus is referencing. “Didn’t their entire population get relocated to the Capitol during the First Rebellion? They were the inspiration and genetic blueprint for Jabberjays, no?”

His scrunched nose is all the conformation she needs. “She’s on her way to die and she doesn’t even get to have a voice of her own.”

An image of Veth’s very young son flashes in the back of Yasha’s mind as the kenku girl announces herself as Kiri. Come to think of it, ever since Luc had been born Nine’s girl tributes had all been tiny things. Yasha’s heart sinks for Veth and the next unfortunate girl who’s been chosen to be her punishment for daring to create her own happiness.

The reapings, the games, mentoring, the Capitol already takes so much from them. It’s not right that they still see it fit to tighten that chokehold when one of them finds something that makes them smile.

 

---

 

It’s a death sentence to volunteer if you’re from an outlying district. Colton hadn’t volunteered when Caduceus was reaped. Calliope had tried her hardest to, but that dark part of Yasha that she doesn’t normally let see daylight has always secretly wondered if Calliope knew she’d be rejected, but still fought to replace Caduceus because she knew their brother wouldn’t.

It’s not unheard of, volunteering outside of careers. But it’s always an act of desperation. Family saving itself, lovers trying to protect one another. The Capitol always bends a kind ear, listens intently, then licks their chops as they wait to see just how much harder these people who were so desperate to save their loved ones from the games will be willing to fight to return. No one volunteers from an outlying district and wins.

Except Beauregard Lionett.

Yasha has her reaping tattooed in her mind permanently. It was Caduceus’s first year mentoring, and they’d been alone in his cabin that night watching an even later replay of the reapings than they were this year, due to the extended press that was still happening due to Caduceus’s recent victory. Normally, it would have died down by now, but he’d won in such a memorable way he was still the talk of the town, much to his chagrin. 

As it is with most years, there isn’t much to miss in the reapings. It’s just terrified child after terrified child and their crying families who are trying not think about the box their babies will return to them in. They make it all the way to Eleven before Yasha’s lids begin to droop. It’s the same story in Eleven as all the outlying districts. People are poor and starving, and as long as it’s not your child you can grin and bear the burden. Even Caduceus, weary from his first day on the other side of things, is only watching with one eye.

Clementine Muckbuckle is called. It’s the youth of the girl reaped gets to them. Yasha is alert, watching this twelve-year old gnome, wide eyed and putting on the bravest face she can as she makes her way to the stage, crutch under one arm to stabilize an uncorrected clubbed foot.

The camera cuts to a different girl, standing surly with the older kids, throws out her arms when little Clementine begins to make her way towards the stage. Her expression reads loud and clear. Really? No one else is going to say anything? So she throws an elbow to shove her way to the aisle, and shouts out in a voice so calm and level Yasha could have sworn she had practiced it a thousand times like a career and says,

“I volunteer as tribute."

She walks to the stage, head held high and ignoring a cry of disbelief from where the adults are roped off. She introduces herself as Beauregard Lionett. No, she doesn’t know the girl who she volunteered for. She did it because she was sick of watching the children of her district die. 

A boy from the thirteen-year-olds gets reaped next. No one is willing to stick their neck out for him.

Yasha and Caduceus didn’t watch his reaping that year, watch the moment hope drained from his face as he stepped forward, swallowed his tears and made his way from the near end of the crowd to the front. Yasha hadn’t realized who he was that year when he died, run through with a broadsword during the bloodbath.

They hadn’t been able to because Caduceus burst into tears, his silent ones that went with full body shaking that indicated when he was at his lowest. She let her own tears fall, just as noiseless as his, as she rubbed his back and pulled him into a tight hug. 

He was sixteen, younger than Beauregard was when she won that year. She’d made a show of killing when she had to, but she really won by never setting a foot on the ground of the rainforest that was full of nothing but traps and gigantic mutts trying to kill the tributes. She drank her own piss when she ran out of water, rather than risk descending her perch to search for fresh stuff. She’d made some sort of terribly smug joke about it tasting like Lionett Wine’s latest vintage, which had pulled and honest laugh out of Yasha while she had been consoling Caduceus over losing his first tribute with a strong drink. When it rained the next day, Beau had a knowing grin on her face. 

It was easy to like Beau, as unapproachable and gruff as she tried to seem. She was here because she stuck her neck out for another child she hadn’t known. That sincerity Yasha saw at her reaping occasionally breaks through, in a too-loud laugh, in a terrible joke, in an intoxicated moment of vulnerability, and a warm feeling washes over Yasha every time.

It was harder to like Fjord after he managed to kill both of their tributes in the bloodbath the next year. He did it clean, which was all you could hope for, but Yasha’d never have the same tribute take both of hers, let alone have to look them in the eye at the end of it all. When Yasha looked at him, all she could see were Lo and Chaney’s too-small coffins. She hadn’t expected the pair of twelve-year-olds to make it far, but to have them both fall to Fjord and then for him to win was something she’d never had to process before.  

When there was very hushed talk about Fjord’s handsomeness being an inspiration to revitalize some more traditional services provided by the tributes when they stayed at the Capitol, they all closed ranks around him. Yasha may have had difficulty looking him in the eye, but he was one of them. She loves him, the way she loves all of them, loves everyone whose ever bleed and suffered and died as punishment for this slight they weren’t even guilty of committing. 

Yasha lost Sage in the bloodbath the next year, and Caduceus’s Asher managed to stay alive for a handful of days until dying unceremoniously in a collapsed cave. Sage took down Fjord’s tribute Marlin before getting herself run through. Fjord had made an active effort the rest of the games to spend time with Yasha, fetch her drinks when she started to look twitchy, humored her by playing her in chess despite neither of them knowing the rules, even slipping her some of the more high-class psychedelics he was getting access to as a reward for being the most recent victor. In those moments, it was easier for her to see the Fjord that had won the games not with his sailor’s dexterity or ability to swing a falchion, but with the luck of being able to outswim five other tributes when the dam holding all of the water in that desert town arena burst.

When Twelve’s station went dark and Caduceus had to put the headset away, he joined in on whatever social ambush Fjord had planned for her. He’s better than her, he’d had no trouble accepting Fjord into their circle. Of course, Caduceus remembered better than her what it was like to feel new and awkward amongst the rest of the tight-knit victors. And Fjord was mostly alone in navigating, as Marion was busy doing an excellent job in keeping her girl alive until the final four.

By the time they were boarding the trains to leave until the next terrible summer, Yasha could look at Fjord and just see him for who he was. Someone who was from nothing, just like her, but had been so desperate to make something of himself he almost burned out. 

The next year, when Yasha found him in Twiggy’s room giving such a detailed explanation of what the mentor’s monitoring rooms looked like when she arrived to take Three’s victor on her mandatory first night out, to the point where they were hunched over a massive piece of paper covered in diagrams, Yasha found it easy to like Fjord.

 

---

 

On a new mentor’s first day back in the Capitol, it’s customary for a group to take them out to brace them for the level of insanity they’ll be expected to function at until they can get lucky enough to guide someone else to replace them. Yasha can’t remember how she became the unofficial mascot of this group, but she’s been fetching new mentors since Mollymauk managed to luck his way into a victor only two years after his own improbable survival. On Reani’s first night in the Capitol, Molly had been summoned for another “discussion” about his uncouth nature, and Yasha had stepped up to show her the ropes. She’s always the one to fetch new mentors, even if they have District partners more than willing to do so. She’d even taken out Fjord on his first night, as difficult as it had been at the time. She’s ever so thankful that she did, as it’s only his third year in the Capitol but he’s already become one of the few shoulders she can really trust herself to lean on.

Yasha can always be relied upon to go out because she’s found out the best way for her to cope with leading two children to their deaths year after year is a firm grip on the bottle and a narrowed brow to keep nosy reporters and obnoxious Capitolites off her back to be the winning combination. She’s stays as sober as she can while her kids are in the arena, but once they’re dead and packaged up for shipping home, there’s no need for her to keep herself sharp. And now that she’s got Caduceus, she rarely gets pulled for interviews due to how poor of a guest she is.

It hasn’t always been an option for victors to lie as low as Yasha likes to. Once, they’d been expected to be at the beck and call of the Capitol for all sorts of entertainment, including the type that lights that same rage in Yasha that she’d found after these miserable fucks took Zuala from her. Unsurprisingly, a large group of people who had risen to popularity due to their well-honed ability to murder didn’t entirely take this lying down. There had been a Second Rebellion, right before the 50th, that officially rose up in protest of the double reapings. It was nowhere near as grand as the first had been, so the total punishment to the districts had been much less harsh, just some very bloody and difficult games in the years following. Some of the most vocal members were former victors, a good third of which got themselves publicly executed for their trouble. Once it had been ended and its surviving members scattered, their identities and games had been wiped from the public record, so they didn’t infect their uncompromising rhetoric on unexpecting individuals. It’d happen before Yasha was born, so all she knew of the survivors were whispers that hadn’t quite been crushed by the steel boot of the Capitol. 

Half-elven twins, born to Twelve but raised in Two, careers and brutal in their games, adored by the Capitol. Privately, Yasha thinks that Two’s playing power in the games has become so reduced because of these two. Another half elf, this one from Seven, who had an unnatural ability to make fauna see her side of things and recruit them to fight battles for her. A pair from Ten, one goliath and one gnome, both former mentees of Shakäste. He spoke about them in a hidden way, and his parrot the Grand Duchess Anastasia would occasionally do imitations of their voices when they knew they weren’t being watched. There was another gnome, from One, who had been the origin of so many outlandish rumors even Caduceus had trouble making heads or tails of much of it. Last but not least of the ringleaders was that human from Three, whose games never fully left the public consciousness because he’d been the reason for major restructuring of what items were made available to tributes because in two days the boy had managed to fashion himself a gun and take the remaining tributes down with ease. 

One man’s name had been made very public as a result of that incident. Taryon Darrington, who used his reputation as an air-headed Capitol brat to get the resistance what they needed, effectively drained his family’s savings to back the resistance fighters. His capture was public knowledge, as is his current imprisonment at the order of President Dwendal. When she thinks about it for too long, as she’s doing while the elevator takes her to the fourth floor of the tribute apartments, Yasha wonders if the rest of them are out there somewhere, alive and still bitter about the state of Exandria and these pointless games the Capitol makes the children of its districts play.

Thanks to their sacrifices, the mentors no longer have to worry about unwanted hands and have the freedom of their own time. This includes the liberty to go out into the heart of the Capitol and get as wasted as their hearts desire until they’re needed to keep an eye on their tributes in the arena.

When Yasha knocks at the door, Jester is dressed and waiting for her. Fjord gave her a heads up. Good, she knows what’s coming.

“Yasha Nydoorin.” Yasha offers her hand to the tiefling. “Twelve.”

She’s pleasantly surprised with the strength her handshake is met with. “Jester Lavorre. Four.”

“Ready to reap the fruits of your victory?” Yasha asks as she gently pulls on the other woman’s hand as to lead her through the threshold.

“I thought that’s what I’ve been doing, the entire last year I’ve been allowed to live?” Jester plasters obvious fake confusion as she allows herself to leave the apartment.  

That makes Yasha really laugh. “You’ll fit in just fine with the rest of us. We’re going drinking. You’re coming.”

Jester gives her a nod and lets herself be led out of the quiet of the training complex and into the insanity of the Capitol days before the festivities of the games with a smile.

She’s bright, entirely too cheery, and still painfully obviously eighteen. Yasha wants to pluck her from her reaping a year ago and protect her innocence back then when it was real and not partially an act. She hopes Marion won’t mind her mother henning her daughter.

 

---

 

Yasha’s first summer mentoring had been unpleasant, to say the least. Her tour had been so fast paced much of it was blurry, and she spent much of her year curled up in her mansion in the Victor’s Village, alone and contemplating walking out in the woods to never return. But she was checked in, had someone on the Capitol’s payroll in her house at least once a week making sure she wasn’t completely wasting away and would still be presentable next year when she’d be shown around before her status as most recent victor was replaced.

She’d shaved her head after her victory tour, wanting nothing but her artificial black hair that screamed Capitol to be gone. It had grown a little passed her jaw before a stylist came to dress her for the reaping dyed it again. It was then she first came to understand that playing to please the Capitol doesn’t stop after the games.

Yasha was their Orphanmaker, and she was to look the part every year. She did miss her long hair, weaving braids in it had been one of Zuala’s favorite pastimes. She vowed in the future to just strip the dye when she came home. It was expensive, but if there was one thing Yasha had lots of now, it was money.

Her first pair of tributes had been an elven boy named Coney and a human girl named Bluebell. Coney was sixteen and Bluebell was fourteen. Both too young. Not that they were ever old enough, but still. Yasha hadn’t had much advice on the train ride other than to eat. Twelve’s former district escort had received a promotion to a better performing district after her win, so there was a new bumbling woman at her side, who spent so much time chattering the rest of them could hardly get word in edgewise.

They were exhausted when they got to the Capitol, so her kids went off to bed fairly quickly. Yasha had been surprised to find that the suite of Twelve’s tributes had recently started accommodating a harp, so she’d sat with it nestled into her shoulder and played it until her fingers were starting to feel raw and there was a knock on her door.

She was met by Marion Lavorre, who insisted she get dressed and be ready to actually meet her fellow mentors. She’d taken her to a slightly musty bar that reminded Yasha of the speakeasy tucked away in the Hob, and they were met by six’s Dimble, who’d won only the year before Yasha, the already aging Shakäste, bright-eyed Nila from two and her mentoring partner Pumat. They’d all talked at her for their introductions, and Yasha found herself silently drawn to the pair from Two, as there was a small family of firbolgs in Twelve that ran the district’s mortuary. They looked nothing like the Wildmother worshipers did, but they were more familiar than goliaths or tieflings were to her, as none of those kin made residence in Twelve. Shakäste was a human, sure, but something about him made Yasha feel like he could look right at her soul, and she’d feared he wouldn’t like her if he got too close of a look.

Pumat began to deal out a pack of cards he’d brought to start some sort of complicated game that Yasha could make neither head nor tails of. Dimble had declared herself too sober for this, taken several long pulls of her beer before rising and decided to attempt to dance to the mildly intolerable live music the band was playing.    

Yasha took that excuse to not embarrass herself at cards and joined the other woman. She was clearly excited by the company, and Dimble used her free hand to help spin Yasha around on the floor for a bit and work up a pleasant sweat before she realized that neither of Yasha’s hands were occupied.

“Oh you poor thing, Marion didn’t get you a drink!” Dimble said and raised her drink to Yasha’s lips, clearly expecting her to open up.

Yasha did so and found herself chugging a fair amount of the other woman’s beer. She miscalculated a breath and wound up coughing a bit back up, which cued the goliath that she needed a moment to catch her breath. Dimble gave her a cheeky grin as Yasha had practically gasped for air. There was something almost normal, about being in this bar with another woman both on the edge of laughter that Yasha had to remind herself that she was in the Capitol and about to lead two children barely younger than her to their likely deaths. She finally summoned the courage to stir herself out of that dumb stupor and speak. “Thank you, Dimble.”

“Gods, never call me that again.” The goliath snorted into her now mostly empty stein. “My own parents call me Thaydeen, only the idiots in the Capitol know me by Dimble.”

“Then thank Thaydeen.” Yasha corrected and was rewarded with a clap on the shoulder and the woman slammed her drink down to take Yasha to the bar for flaming shots. She showed her how to blow out the flame quickly before drinking the liquor, something that took a couple of shots for Yasha to master. When they made their way back to the table, Thaydeen had demanded that Yasha be delt in.

She’d protested but was still sat between Nila and Marion who promised to help her. Beginners luck was not on Yasha’s side, but thankfully Marion was doing quite well and was using her success to explain strategy to Yasha.

When the tiefling woman won the hand, she stuck out her tongue playfully to Shakäste, which made her look about ten years younger and made her feel much more like an actual person than a terrifying victor to Yasha.

Shakäste held up his hands in defeat. “I would never accuse you of cheating, Lavorre, but I do wonder about that twitchy arm of yours.”

Marion laughed into her wineglass. “Oh sure, I’ll just find the doctor who managed to reattach most of my arm after one of yours nearly took it clean off and tell him that he gave it a mind of its own. I’m sure it’ll be all the rage when we come back next summer.”

Yasha felt herself go very still and knew her pale countenance was looking even more sickly when Nila discreetly nudged her and whispered to make sure she was alright.

“They’re talking about the games.” Yasha had whispered, brows drawn tight in worry. “I thought we didn’t do that.”

Nila placed a motherly hand on Yasha’s face that she felt comforted in, never mind the fact that she wasn’t much older than her. “Yasha dear, we either laugh about it or it festers and rots away from the inside. Can’t you feel it, that gnawing in your chest?”

No.” Yasha whispered back in horror, looked around the table to realize that the entire group of them were all now taking her in. “You all remember?”

Marion had sucked in a breath, though clearly tried to hide it. “Miss Nydoorin,” she whispered, “what can you tell me about your games?”

She told them the truth. That she remembered arriving and then nothing until the table, that she didn’t watch the recaps and had been so vague in interviews because she’d had nothing more to go on. Yasha had thought this to be normal. Evidently, she had been wrong.

Shakäste had regarded her with a long, careful look. “Do you want us to watch them with you sometime this week?”

Yasha shook her head in a way that one would politely say was violently.

Marion grasped her hand very tightly. “Stick with us, child. We’ll show you the ropes as long as you need them. We take care of one another.”

“But we’re going to joke.” Nila warned her. “We’re going to talk about it like this, we need the humor or this thing that we have to do will gladly eat you alive and spit you right back out.”

Yasha had nodded, and Pumat delt everyone new hands for their next game. The next morning, Dagen was waiting for her after she dropped her tributes off to give her a tour of the mentoring building. Marion’s mentoring partner, Vandren, gave her an extensive lesson of the drink and drugs that she’d now have access too, and their levels of enjoyment and danger. Yussa taught her how the light rail around the Capitol worked. Dairon had taught her actual dinner etiquette over a meal that Vence and Zana had explained how she was to earn sponsorships.

If she had a question, one of them would answer it without hesitation. She lost Bluebell and Coney within hours of one another and had wept into her headset. Nila still had her tribute, but she’d passed watch over to Pumat so she could console Yasha. Neither of them spoke for an hour, they just passed a bottle of something putrid tasting between the two of them until Yasha could collect herself.

By then, another tribute had died, one of Shakäste’s. All four of their tributes dead and the night looking like it would be a slow one, they received notification that they’d be doing an exit interview in ten minutes. Shakäste prepared her as well as he could, but Dranzel Grin was just as patient for her now as he’d been what she herself was a tribute, so Yasha managed not to muck it up too badly.

For the rest of the summer, there wasn’t a moment in the Capitol she spent alone, and she’s thankful for it. Her final morning, after the showy purple tiefling from Eight was allowed to return home after receiving the golden laurels, Marion had been waiting for her at the train station.

“Remember to laugh.” She had said as she kissed Yasha’s brow. “Play your harp, remember what it feels like to be loved. If you need to visit any of us, write. We’ll fetch you as soon as a train can get to Twelve.”  

On his victory tour that year, Mollymauk had asked if they could walk out in the woods, before he broke down and asked her if he was supposed to remember it, or anything beforehand. Yasha had been honest, told him yes, that she couldn’t’ recall her games either but did know her life, and they stayed out there talking until the sun began to rise and they both knew he was being sincerely missed.

Mentoring was one of the worst things demanded of the victors. But none of them were alone in it, though they all had different roles to play. So they joke, they make fun of one another, they get wasted together, they visit when allowed to during the rest of the year, they write, they do whatever it takes to survive this year after year. They teach one another how to smile through fury, how to never say the wrong thing, how to make sure the Capitol still adores you enough that Da’leth can’t sink his claws into you and turn you into a full-time resident of this neon city helping kill the children whose shoes you once stood in.

Winning the Hunger Games isn’t the end of the show, it’s only the beginning. But, at least once you make it out, you’re not playing alone anymore.

 

---

 

The club they wind up at is loud and obnoxious and the perfect place for Jester to take a full plunge into this side of mentoring. The mentors are out in full force tonight, Yasha was pleased not to meet just Caduceus and Fjord as expected, but also Beau, Twiggy, their friends from Nine, Caliana from Two who started their nights off with absinthe of all things that Jester had been wise to refuse, as well as the ever-watchful Shakäste and his parrot, who was not drinking but would be good for making sure they all made it home safe.

Yasha introduces Jester to the group, who all embrace her. Introductions are a whirlwind, but Jester seems to take it all in stride. She’s laughing, and winds up nestled under Caliana’s arm begging her to go dance with her. Satisfied, Yasha leaves them to order more shots, making sure Jester never truly leaves her line of sight.

The bartender isn’t surprised by her, as this club is one that they frequent during the games. It’s easier to go places you’re expected rather than have to deal with bumbling reverence or fear from people. Sometimes they get stalked by nosy reporters, and Yasha’s certain there’s some kind of surveillance equipment here to make sure they’re all staying in line. If this is the trade they make for not being treated like freaks, she’s fine with it.  

“Keeping an eye on the new girl?” Beau’s snuck up on her, one of her favorite hobbies. She never stopped being soundless and quick, two things that kept her alive when she was eighteen. Yasha occasionally wonders which of her arena mannerisms have still stuck to this day.

“Of course.” Yasha responds, fitting six of the shot glasses in her hands. “Do me a favor and grab the rest.”

Beau has the other four in the blink of an eye. “Fjord’s useless now. He’s so worried about how she’ll take to it he’s no fun."

Odd. Even someone as wet behind their ears as Fjord knows that there is no easy taking to the job they’ve been forced upon. “You reckon he’s sweet on her?” It’s the only option that makes sense.

“Reckon? She’s only the daughter of the Ruby of the Sea, voice so soothing she sings snakes to sleep. Born in the middle of Marion’s victory tour, the most famous person from Four as far as the Capitol is concerned. I don’t think it’s wild to propose that Fjord’s had a crush, and probably for a while, before Jester proved just how good of a performer she can be.” Beau’s gaze falls on the blue tiefling, who currently looks almost purple under the flashing neon of the dance floor. "I mean, wouldn’t you?”

A bubbling laugh comes up from where the youngest of their rank is, as the unkempt Caleb Widogast, a human that since his mysterious reemergence to mentoring gets to hold the unfortunate title of mentor Yasha has most in common with, spins her up into a silly waltz that doesn’t match the rhythm of the music pumping form the speakers. Fjord is watching her, eyes drawn with more careful focus than Yasha’s ever seen him give to one of his weavings. 

Yasha rolls her eyes. “Alright, message received.” But despite the weird flash she feels at Beau’s question, she can’t deny the impact Jester has on her, as she somehow finds freedom in this crushing spider's cocoon that is the Capitol without even a taste of a balm as mild as liquor. "And yes, I get it."

Her joy reminds her of someone else, the same person Caleb reminds her of now.

 

---

 

“It’s evil, isn’t it.” Molly had whispered in her ear one night, years back and late into the hours of monitoring their tributes. It was before Caduceus was with her, but most years then and now she was lucky to be monitoring her tributes past the second day. 

Eight had been in a similar situation to Nine back then, but for different reasons. Caleb had been spirited to the gamemakers before he’d ever properly mentored. Yasha remembered the scandal well, even though she’d been young and the fact that the gossip had burned its way out of Twelve with an alarming speed as it really had nothing to do with any of the citizens. After the little rebellion before the 50th had been put down and one mentor ended up on the end of her noose, Eight, Nine and Twelve had been left without any mentors, resulting in Capitol stand-ins until the districts could produce victors again. A halfling girl, Veth Smyth, had managed to win the year before, finally booting the last of the stand-ins from the mentoring room.  It was certainly odd, that Twelve, Eight and Nine won back to back to back. But it meant the three of them were alive, and Veth was already proving to be a good drinking buddy, so Yasha wasn’t going to look a gift horse in the mouth.

There’d been a tiefling woman with silver hair who won for Twelve a good many decades ago, Yasha learned after her victory. There weren’t any tieflings in Twelve anymore. She wonders if that knowledge in the back of her mind is why she latched on to Mollymauk so tightly.

“What’s evil?” Yasha had mumbled, more preoccupied with trying to beat down the guilt that had been rising in her the past half hour as she’d come to that terrible realization that she was going to need to take a nap and leave her tribute alone. 

“All of it.” The headphones are tangled in Molly’s horns and his arms are crossed as his back is practically turned to his tributes while he takes this moment to bitch with her. “The costuming, fattening them up, parading them around like prize livestock, making me care every fucking year."

Yasha would have made a remark about someone listening, but it was no secret that Mollymauk’s tongue had him under unusually strict surveillance even back then. “That’s the whole point of it, Molly. How else could we remember that this is punishment?” A joke between the two of them that while the cameras might pick up, they won’t understand because they weren’t in the woods out in Twelve the first time Yasha and Molly had a conversation like this during his victory tour. "That Reanminere of yours is fucking efficient through. Maybe you can hold out hope this year.”

“You know.” Molly mused as he covers one ear with his headset to check in on his most promising tribute. “There’s a vigilante in Eight, so I’ve been told. They crack down on lawbreakers of all sorts, from abusive shift managers to petty thieves to actual Peacekeepers who fail to live up to the title.”

“Huh.” Is all Yasha offers him as she scrolls through the selected list of gifts she could buy for her boy before she has to leave him. She didn’t have enough sponsor money the first day to even buy bread for him. Thanks to a relatively bloodless bloodbath, the pack hasn’t thinned out enough yet for sponsors to really start betting, and Harz had done little to earn himself anything beyond that first day. 

“I’ve heard word that the vigilante hasn’t struck once since the reaping.” Molly says as he pulls the cup away and carefully positions the band that connects both ears around the back of his head so it can rest comfortably without pressing on his horns.

Yasha gives that pause. “Really?”

“Yup.” Molly pops the p as he offers her what he must think is a comforting pat on the hand with his tail as he saunters back off to the lonely setup of District Eight to watch his pair. Reanminere has kept her district partner alive, a dwarven boy her age that she’s clearly fond of. Yasha hopes for her sake it doesn’t come down to the two of them.

As Yasha reclined her chair back and the pod form activates in an attempt to cocoon Yasha from the total craziness that can be the mentor room so she can get a handful of winks in, all she could think of is Molly’s little vigilante, whose hobby of disciplining their district with justice landed her in a murdering competition, her blond merchie boy whose most standout ability is his singing voice which has done nothing to help him survive as long as he has, the pack of children who have been raised their entire lives to do this that will surely start hunting soon, and the collection of every tribute in-between, ripped from their lives and their families to come die while a room of what isn’t quite twenty four creates a bond that defies district borders so that they can survive this year and ever year after, every unlucky soul that has the misfortune of surviving this little annual death tournament that has to choose to not completely loosing themselves to a cocktail of chemicals to cope with their murdering of children while they were also a child.

It’s a lot of things, what the Capitol does to them. There are more words than Yasha knows for how to describe what’s being done year after year after year, but Molly hit the nail on the head with his single biting whisper. It was evil.

Yasha doesn’t know why she hadn’t seen it so plainly before, but she knew she wouldn’t be able to think of it any other way now. Sure, she’d hated the games her whole life. But not like this, not knowing she wasn’t alone in the way that her constant fury at the cards dealt could burn in her gut.

 

---

 

That first week in the Capitol goes by too quickly, just like it does every year. There’s so much for Ragwort and Misti to do, and nowhere near enough time for them to do even half of everything. Yasha’s optimistic that their clothes are looking a little more snug. Sometimes, it’s all she can offer to the tributes.

Ragwort and Misti are bolder than their usual stock. They have become chatty, always asking questions, trying to put on every ounce of wisdom Yasha and Caduceus can offer. They’re useless with advice for weaponry, as Caduceus never picked it up and Yasha can’t remember, but they’ve got plenty of tips for staying alive and finding ways to live off the land. The arena isn’t usually toxic, but they still stress the importance of finding ways to test their environment. If worse comes to worse, if there’s trees, then the bark will always be edible. Water and shelter are to be prioritized above all else.

Every night, Yasha plays them the harp before they all go off to bed, windows open so they can be cooled by the summer air instead of the artificial systems the Capitol has a seemingly infinite supply of. They deserve a respite from all the talk of death, they deserve something beautiful before they go into the arena. Every year, Yasha is bitter she can’t give them something better.

They’re hypothetically allowed breaks from training, but their kids choose to never take any. They’re constantly quizzing one another, practicing forms in the sitting room that they ask Yasha to clear out, and having Caduceus help them be able to sell themselves in interview portions.

It’s not for nothing. When training scores are announced, Ragwort is rewarded with a seven and Misti a six. Twelve doesn’t have the luxury of some other districts, where they can shoot for lower scores and surprise the rest of their tributes in the arena. It’s better than Yasha had expected, much better than the two fours they were given last year. Anything six and above gives them a leg to stand on, especially since the highest score this year is a pair of tens, one from Lorenzo’s boy and the other from that boy from Five that Caduceus had pointed out on reaping day.

She has a small inhale of sympathy for Veth when she sees that her kenku girl is given a two. They hadn’t seen Veth since the first night, even though she usually joined in on their revelry with enthusiasm. She’d stayed sober and talking with Shakäste, and otherwise hadn’t been seen anywhere but Kiri’s side. If Yasha was asked to pick who got to win, she’d bring her tributers back every year without hesitation. But this year, if she couldn’t take Ragwort and Misti home, she’d want Kiri to win if for nothing but the expression on Veth’s face every time she looks at her.

Yasha has nothing for Misti their final morning together that she hasn’t said all week. She makes sure she’s got everything ready, that she hasn’t forgotten her token, a wedding ring that she wears around her neck on a cord. Clearly her father’s, given to her in a rush before she left Twelve forever. Yasha ties the cord around her wrist that morning. If someone strangles her to death with it, her father will never be able to touch it again.

“I’ll avoid the bloodbath.” Misti promises as Yasha walks her to transport. “I’ll be careful, I’ll use what you’ve taught me.”

Yasha gathers the half-elf’s face in her hands and presses the sweetest kiss she can to the girl’s brow before wishing her farewell. She does it for all of them. It brough Caduceus back to her, maybe it’ll work again this year.

She meets Caduceus back at the apartment and they pick over breakfast together. They dress formally, both in matching dark dresses. They like to coordinate when in the Capitol, often alternating between suits and dresses depending on the event. Yasha and Caduceus are a unit, and matching outfits makes them difficult to separate even in something as fleeting as memory. If you think of one, then you think of the other, then you’re thinking about Twelve, and wow their tributes are still doing well, maybe you should find one of them to talk about sponsoring.

Yasha plays a short song before they head for the elevator that will take them down to their short walk to the mentoring building. She does so every year. It’s a funeral song from Twelve, one that she remembers from the event that was held in honor of her parents and the other fifteen miners that died in the same explosion. Yasha sheds a handful of tears, as she does every year, and Caduceus gently wipes them away as he takes her hand to pull her upright from her seat. Wordlessly, they leave the penthouse of the Twelve suit, and depart.

The mentoring building is next door to the tribute center, so their walk is thankfully short. The first floor is full of screens showing betting odds, already full of Capitol citizens buzzing around with sickening excitement. This is where they’ll rub elbows and talk people into sponsorships when the time comes for it. Keg, Pumat and Vence are already working the floor, which is expected from careers and anyone who’s had a particularly outstanding tribute so far. Someone from Four should be here, but Fjord is likely helping Jester settle in. The system that Yasha and Caduceus have in place that he does all of the talking unless she has a girl that breaks the top six, which is when she’ll start pleading her case. Since Caduceus joined her, Yasha hasn’t had a tribute make it that far.

They pass through the room quickly, giving nods to Keg and Pumat. Vence and his fellow district mentor Zana are two of them mentors that Yasha keeps at a healthy arm’s length away. They’re devout loyalists to Da’leth and even President Dwendal who tolerate no slander of the games or even making fun of the Capitol. They’d loathed Mollymauk and frequently snitched on his criticisms, which earned them Yasha’s spite. Besides, Zana can’t even hold her liquor. She’s terrible drinking company.

They’re the mentors that Yasha and Caduceus interact with the least, but there’s a good majority that they don’t talk to outside of the games. One and Two’s mentors are surprisingly mild-mannered, bar the weirdly vicious Lorenzo who once threatened to run Molly through with a glaive one night, but proper district hierarchy mandates that they don’t keep in close contact with Keg, Pumat or Caliana when it’s not summer. The pairs from Six and Seven also now prefer to keep to themselves, but that’s for far different reasons. Thaydeen has fallen back into abusing sleep syrup, as Yussa had confessed to Caduceus a couple years back, necessitating privacy to try to hide this from Capitol tabloids. Oombad and Soorna, the aging siblings from Seven, are just not really the social types. They stay close, do their required duties, and don’t let anyone else in. Before Beau had started mentoring for Eleven, Yasha hadn’t known much about the last pair of mentors from their either, though both Demid and Dairon had seem perfectly nice. They now know that it’s because they’d both been hooked on morphling, and while Dairon’s retiring from mentoring has given the space they needed to recover and they monitor Demid to make sure he doesn’t completely spiral out of control, he still is very much reliant.

Yasha won’t judge anyone for how they choose to cope. Her grip to the bottle has left her a functioning alcoholic, but that doesn’t carry the same stigma that being reliant or drugs or even psychedelics does. She can be seen in public, completely blackout, and it’s barely worth noting. Hells, most of the Capitol seems to enjoy drink as much as she is reliant on it. But too much morphling leaves you looking wilted, sallow, and ugly. And there’s nothing worse to these rich assholes than not looking the part.

Caduceus prefers to use the staircases in the mentoring building, since they’re almost novel as far as the rest of the Capitol goes and neither of them are yet reliant on any walking aids. The mentoring room is on only the second floor. It’s behind a set of heavy doors, to keep out the noise downstairs and the hustle and bustle of the rest of the building. It’s supposed to be a secret what it’s used for, but when Caleb was released by the gamemakers, he confirmed what many of them suspected. While this wasn’t where they were based out of, it held many of their offices for the rest of the year, when the games weren’t in season, but they were still being worked on. It was mostly abandoned this time of year, except for the lowly workers who hadn’t risen to be anything of note to their Head, Ludinus Da’leth.

Behind the double doors was sight as familiar to Yasha as her own home. The long wall across from her was decorated with twenty-four large screens, all currently black. They each had a high-tech recliner fastened into the floor in front of them, marked with a bold number between each pair that ranged from one to twelve. The chairs are able to lean back and have a shell spring from the floor to cover them, allowing the mentors to sleep if needed. They’re allowed to leave, return to the tribute suites to shower, change and sleep if they desire, but it’s hard to leave when your kids are still alive.

There’s more to the room of course. There’s a general lounge area on either far sides, seating for them to relax in when their tributes no longer need to be watched over but the mentors still want to spend time tucked away from the worst of the Capitol. They have access to plenty of good food and drink here, as well as any drug you can think of. There’re bathrooms, discreetly tucked away with both toilets and showers. Living in here is absolutely doable, though if you want a change of clothes you’ll need to ask one of the other mentors to run a building over for you.

Yasha’s chair is the one on the right, furthest away from the rest of her mentors and in her opinion, the most private. “State your district and name to receive access.” The chirpy Capitol accent that greets her every year plays from the speaker hidden somewhere in her chair as she touches the screen nestled in the arm.

“Twelve, Yasha Nydoorin.” Yasha says and can hear Caduceus doing the same to her left. The other arm pops open to reveal the headset that she’ll wear for the majority of time that Misti stays alive. The screen lights up, and the two quadrants its split into show her sponsorship funds with purchasing options and Misti’s vital signs. She’s getting feedback, which means that she’s been injected with her tracking chip and likely soon to be in her tube, waiting to be thrown into the arena.

She’s got zero sponsorship money right now, as do they all. Technically, they can’t collect any until the games start. The betting types on the floor below them will start once the gong sounds, however.

For all the hubbub until now, it’s quiet in the early afternoon in the mentor’s room. The rest of the screens by the food and drink are mercifully on mute, likely done by one of the other mentors. Yasha’d bet it was Twiggy.

A tone plays over the intercom system, alerting them that they’ve got five minutes before the games will start. Those not in their chairs sit in them, and they all wait for the sixty second count down that will reveal the arena of the year. Yasha slides the headphones on one minute before the countdown starts, and all she can hear is gentle static before her screen lights up and Misti's stressed, ragged breathing becomes her companion.

As the cameras pan out from the Cornucopia, a sprawling swamp is revealed. If she had an ear free like some of them do, Yasha would hear the murmur that spreads through the mentoring center. No one district is particularly well-known for swamplands, so no one is going to have an obvious advantage this year. All the mentors know that environments like this also imply lots of mutts. Death by mutt is never pretty.

Slowly, the tributes rise up from the ground. They're wearing heavy boots, with durable pants, lightweight jackets with patches numbering them, and what appear to be tank tops. Normally, the tributes are properly dressed for the first few nights of weather. Yasha sends a small prayer to the Stromlord that this is a normal year.

The gong sounds, and Misti keeps her word. She doesn’t even go for a small pack that’s right by her podium that Yasha’s willing to bet has some sort of cord or food in it that would be worth the risk. A glance the screen over shows that Ragwort does manage to grab a promising backpack before also high tailing it away from the Cornucopia. Since their tributes stay away, Yasha and Caduceus will be spared the intensity of the bloodbath.

The next couple hours pass between them in silence. Their headsets are on, and they’re watching their individual tributes. Misti tries to stay away from the worst parts of the swamp, always stopping and listening to make sure she’s not walking towards danger. A couple times, she walks right past clutches of fiddleheads that would make a good snack if she could start a fire to heat them up. Yasha tries to telepathically beg her to grab them. Each time, Misti just treks forward.

At least she’s alone. Yasha had feared that she might pair up with Ragwort, as close as the two have seem to grow. Whatever partnership they had before seems to have ended once they entered the arena. It won’t come down to just the two of them, but it’s still for the best. Yasha remembered what Caliana looked like after she killed her district partner at the end. She said she was pretending to be in love with him, all part of some grand manipulation, but Yasha knew when she looked in her eyes on her victory tour. Trick or not, killing him haunted her. It’s one thing to kill strangers, even if they are children. It’s another to kill someone you know, who if nothing else, shares a home with you.

When she frees one of her ears and looks to her left, Caduceus is strung tense in his chair. “It’s not enough.”

Yasha only nods. Whatever’s in the pack will be good for his boy, but neither of their tributes made much of a showing in the bloodbath. Granted, they likely wouldn’t have survived any other way, but sometimes even Twelve can get lucky and fall into a display of strength or speed or wits that gets wealthy Capitol citizen’s attentions.

Every year, Yasha and Caduceus pray they won’t need it. Every year, they regret it when it doesn’t happen.

They let another few hours pass in silence. It’s not worth going downstairs to grovel to the Capitol citizens, not when they’ve got no angle to work with other than better than average training scores and moderately successful interviews.

When Yasha takes a glance of the room, she can note that more than third of the screens are black. Lorenzo’s, all the way on the other side of the room, surprises her the most. But Keg’s is still good, as are Pumat’s, Caliana’s and Jester’s, though Fjord’s is black as well. Dagen and Twiggy are both focused on their one lit screen, both from five are still on, though all four of six and sevens’ are dark and stand before empty chairs. Reani’s got one of hers, Caleb and Veth are both dialed in, Shakäste is trying to balance attention between both his tributes, and Demid sits alone to their direct left.

About as average of a year as you’d expect. Misti and Ragwort haven’t done anything particularly spectacular in surviving. To lose two careers to the bloodbath is unexpected, though Yasha hasn’t checked in to see how many unofficial members they’ve added to their pack this year.

The year before Caduceus came back to her, her girl Sparrow had been eighteen, from the Seam, and already working in the mines. The careers snatched her up, took advantage of her strength, then shoved her off one of the many cliff-sides in the giant mountain of an arena. It had been Caliana’s doing, but Yasha didn’t hold it against her. But ever since then, she had been adamant about them avoiding the career pack.

As the sun begins to set and it looks like no more blood will be spilt, Yasha takes advantage of their moment’s respite to stand and stretch. Misti’s on a rare patch of dry land surrounded by tall swamp grass and is making herself some kind of small nest. Yasha checks the temperature on the large screen, above another display of Misti’s vitals. Not too hot, not too cold. Good, but it’ll be a miracle of the weather stays as mild later in the games.

When she looks a screen over, she watches Ragwort pull himself into a tree. He’s taking off his belt and strapping himself to a branch, making a new hole in his belt with a knife that must have been in the bag he got.

“Look at us.” Yasha coos, with a small smile to Caduceus. “Two tributes alive, relatively normal blood pressure, everyone looking like they’re making smart sleeping choices.”

The firbolg sighs, raises his hands to his temples to rub them. “We need to keep ourselves alert if they’re going to keep this whole surviving thing up. I’ll watch them both, bring me a plate back?”

By now, Yasha knows Caduceus’s favorites as well as she does her own. The food that’s left out for the mentors is nothing compared to the drink and drugs. It’s meant to sustain them, keep them going, sober them up when necessary. But nothing fancy or particularly delicious. Occasionally, there’s bugs left out for her if Twelve tributes make it particularly far. Yasha hates that it feels like some sort of twisted reward, but she still eats them.

She’s filling two plates as quickly as she can. As many greens as she can for Caduceus, sneaking in some fruit so he gets some source of hydration and a little bit of sugar to keep him alert. She’s getting much of the same but treating herself to some promising looking bread as well. She finds herself drawn to the dark rolls full of seeds, and she takes one there’s a laugh behind her.

“Ugh, how do you stand the stuff?” Beau’s managed to sneak up on her again. Yasha’s clearly spending too much time in her own head. Beau’s holding a cup of coffee and entirely too relaxed looking for the late hour of the first night.  

Right, her screen is dark. She's probably only sticking around in case Demid needs a break. Yasha holds up the seeded roll for conformation. “You should see what the tesserae rations get you in Twelve. The only time we ever see bread like this is during the games.”

“Grass is always greener I suppose.” Beau says gently, taking one of the seeded roles for herself.

Yasha leaves her to muse over bread as she goes further down the table to find some chicken. She takes breast for herself, and satisfied with her two small plates, turns to head back to where Caduceus is manning two screens, but is stopped by Beauregard as she attempts to walk past her.

“They’re showing one of yours an awful lot on the main broadcast.” Beau mumbles into her coffee as she points with the hand she’s brought up to take another long sip out of her mug.

She’s right. Yasha had been so focused on the food she’d forgotten to keep one eye trained on the screens with the main broadcast. She manages to not drop the plates on the floor, and shakily set them on one of the sofas sprawled out around them.

It’s Ragwort, who looks like he’s just about to fall asleep. Yasha takes a glance at the rest of the tribute screens, but none of them appear close to him. She looks back to the screen Beau’s watching, taking in the rest of the arena around him. The grass is still, no arena monster appears to have caught his scent and is stalking him. The tree looks a little odd, she supposes, now that she’s seen some of the others on other tribute cameras. The bark almost looks like it’s slowly rolling, the leaves quiver slightly, and – oh gods, the trunk just moved like it’s breathing.

Yasha recognizes the tell-tale signs of a tree mutt a moment too late. She turns to shout in the direction of the chairs in front of the stone number twelve in the flooring. “Caduceus-”

The tree splits itself in two in the spot where Ragwort is nestled before she can take a step or get another word out. His sleepy eyes shoot open, and their gray telegraphs pure fear as he screams out into the heavy dark of the arena. He tries to throw himself out of the tree as the branches shift beneath him, but he’s stuck thanks to his careful work with the belt. He manages to twist himself though, so when the tree comes together to take its first bite, it only takes of most of his lower half. Ragwort’s cry of fear had been one thing, but the sound that comes out of him after that would have made Yasha vomit if there was anything left in her stomach to do so with. Yasha looks away before the tree takes a second bite and waits for the screaming to stop playing over the sound system.

Caduceus stares at his now black screen, mouth open just the slightest to reveal his shock. Yasha knows the headset is beeping at him to remove it and stow it back in the chair, where it’ll stay until next year. But his eyes are glazed over, and his hands are shaking as his breathing picks up.

Beau’s hand is on her shoulder, giving a comforting squeeze. “I’ve got your girl.”

Yasha nods and moves as fast as she can to get Caduceus’s headset off before she practically carries him out of the mentor’s room.

There’s a service stairway that you can take to exit the building without going through the betting halls. You’re shown it during your first year, just in case. Yasha takes it now, Caduceus in her arms, as she leads them to the alleyway it will exit to, which she’ll take to the pseudo-privacy of their Twelve suite.

 

---

 

Caduceus made it through his games without ever killing another tribute with his own hands. On his victory tour, he’d talked about how being raised in a mortuary and having more knowledge with how to care for the dead than interact with the living at all. It had earned him laughs, which was good. It let Caduceus’s sheer lack of a violent nature slip through the public consciousness. The Capitol doesn't like tributes who don't get a good amount of blood on their hands, but Caduceus had the blessing of being an entertaining tribute to watch, so he was forgiven. But, if they thought he hadn't enjoyed the act of killing in the arena, that would have been a slight that made him fall far out of their favor.

It’s urban legend that a firbolg’s appearance is representative of the environment around them. Nila had beautiful dark fur and hair that the public has associated with her parent’s jobs in stone quarries, and Pumat’s blueish coloration was attributed to the cool colors associated with the buildings used to train Peacekeepers. Coming from Twelve, everyone in the Capitol had expected to see a thin, pallid child with a full head of gray hair at fifteen. Before he’d even been put in the arena and his playstyle came to fruition, Caduceus had been nicknamed ‘The Ghost’ by the risky gambling sorts.

The reality was much more boring. Caduceus had told her that, like his father, he’d been born gray. There were plenty of kinds of lichens, mosses and other additives found in nature that could alter a firbolg’s appearance, but they just weren’t very plentiful in Twelve and they were hard to keep alive and most crucially, expensive. Anything that cost anything was hard to find in their district.

Lyra, Yasha’s girl that year, had a more severe problem of the same kind. The human was as blind as a bat and had been going without her thick glasses after a classmate had broken them for around a year at that point. Yasha fought for her to get replacements in the Capitol, long-lasting contacts, even surgery. She’d been denied at every turn.

Her girl died first that year. Lyra misread the countdown clock, forget about the bell in her nerves, and blew herself up on her tribute platform. In hindsight, it was perhaps the kindest fate she could have had.

The arena that year was a forest not too dissimilar from the one beyond the fence in Twelve, but with one important difference. Everything was primed to kill the tributes, even the trees. The forest looked like the cursed kind from the fairytales that terrified more than they delighted, sunlight couldn’t break through the canopies, and there was this ever-present fog that, even at the end, never really lifted from the lowest parts of the arena.

Caduceus’s overall monochromatic look blended in quite well to this graying forest. He was slight and could go longer stretches than you’d expect from him without eating. He was resourceful too, and once he figured out that there was a vast mix of poisonous berries and fungi in the forest, he began to collect and hoard it as he moved around. Other tributes only ever found him if he let them. Caduceus’s signature move wound up being setting up a false camp, and leaving out enticing piles of berries, mushrooms, anything poisonous he could find, let his hungry competitors assume he knew what was safe and let them take as much as they wanted.

After all, he’d been so easy to spot studying in the plant safety training part of the tribute center. Surely no one knew better than Caduceus.

Later, when Yasha asked him if he’d planned this, he told her that he’d genuinely wanted to brush up. It hadn’t occurred to him that other tributes would be watching him. It was his saving grace that firbolg are about as rare in the games as kenku and considered a far, far greater threat.

That wasn’t the only way Caduceus cut down his competition that year. Near the middle point, what remained of the pack of careers caught his scent and pursued him. Caduceus had forgotten that they’d allied themselves with the girl from Eleven that year, and he paid the price for it when he let her spot him and she rallied for reinforcements. They chased him up a tree, thankfully not one that was designed to eat those who spent too long in its branches.

Also thankfully, it was one with a tracker jacker nest. Yasha cursed into her headset for a solid minute when she’d realized it, before the cameras even panned up for the big reveal in the main broadcast. Caduceus was rapidly turning into her best prospect she’d had in years; his wit was his greatest weapon and now she was certain she’d lose him to a bunch of nasty bees of all things.

But since his wit was his weapon, Caduceus also was quick to spot the nest. He shimmied his way to the top of the branches in the dead of night, used his teeth to ever so slowly gnaw away at the wood until it was thin enough for him to break, and threw himself into the next tree just as the nest hit the ground and the tracker jackers exploded.

He’d still managed to get stung twice, but Yasha received such an influx of sponsor cash after all five of the career pack was clearly beyond saving that she was able to send him ointment for them. That’s the most money she’d ever spent on a tribute, and she hasn’t come into donations like that ever before or since.

Obann was proud of the fact that he never sent her a single sponsorship gift. She doesn’t need her memory of the games to get pissed off at him for that.

On the broadcast, it had been explained that this nest was farther away from plants the tracker jackers used as food, hence why they’d been more subdued until Caduceus turned the nest into a bomb. Yasha knew they’d found a way to subdue the hive once Caduceus silently telegraphed his intentions to the cameras. He’d never been able to really explain how he always knew where the cameras were hidden in the arena, but he could talk to them like no other tribute that year.

“I don’t know Yasha,” Caduceus moaned to her one night in the dead of winter, both of them drunk off their asses on his favorite drink, Jager tea. “It’s just this feeling, like someone’s watching who shouldn’t, it makes my hair stand up on end and every single time I looked at where it was coming from, I found a camera.” He’d sloppily grabbed her face between his palms, a motion that almost stirred her to tears because it was something Molly would do, and he’d been missing for two years at that point. Fuck, it still hurt every single time she was reminded of him. “One time, the camera blinked back at me. I was watching it from where I was nestled in the roots and the lens went from on, to off and back to on again. Yasha it was one of the creepiest fucking things I’ve ever seen.”

Caduceus poisoned his final competitor, sneaking into his campsite and mixing fungi into the soup that had come from him in a gift from a sponsor while the other boy was sleeping. Caduceus walked out into the fog of the woods and kept walking for hours until the final canon blasted. Then, he sat in crossed legs, closed his eyes and prayed to the Wildmother until a hovercraft came to fetch him.  

Worship of the gods was something that wasn’t illegal but was seen as a very district sort of thing to do. It fit into the idea that they were all dim-witted savages, reliant on forces that did not exist to carry them through their sad miserable lives. Yasha found the Stormlord after her turn at the Hunger Games, inspired by a side reference in a children’s book she had been mindlessly paging through. One of her only memories from the arena is rolling thunder, and it’s the one thing that’s always brought her comfort instead of a sinking feeling.

Caduceus grew up worshiping the Wildmother. It’s common knowledge about the firbolgs in Twelve. Yasha instructed the same way she had every tribute, to keep their faith private. It chases off sponsors. He’d done as she asked, but Yasha still occasionally caught his hands clasped and his fingertips tracing the swirl shaved into his head, which Yasha knew was symbolic of the Wildmother’s power. It wasn’t until the end, when he collapsed to his knees in what he would say was relief but Yasha recognized as hunger, that he was caught explicitly in prayer.

If Caduceus has prayed to the Wildmother since for anything not related to the games, Yasha hadn’t seen him do so.

Yasha and Caduceus started sharing rooms during his victory tour. He’d wake her up in the dead of night, crying out in fright from the room over, and Yasha would always be the one to rouse him, to calm him. It was really saving herself the extra step. That was her excuse. He never brought up the fact that she’s prone to waking violently just as often as he is.

That’s when they spoke the most. He told her about the trees, how he’d sworn they whispered to him, cursed him for letting them be turned into mutations. He’d known it wasn’t his fault, but he felt like he’d let down the Wildmother by not being able to help them, useless to fix a problem that he was devoted to. The poisonous, decaying nature of the whole arena never sat well with him. It reminded him too much of home, made him fearful for what the Capitol might turn the woods of Twelve into if they knew how often the Peacekeepers looked the other way.

He told her he’d wanted to burn the whole forest down while his last competitor from Seven succumbed to the fungi. That he would have, if he’d had the means on him to do so.

Caduceus’s win had never sat properly with the Capitol, and for years after Yasha prayed to the Stormlord that he wouldn’t be punished for surviving. Colton was too old the next year, but Calliope and Clarabelle still had a chance of being reaped. They no longer needed to put in for tesserae since Caduceus could keep them fed, but they still had to enter the mandatory number of times. Calliope only had to make it one more year, but Clarabelle had only been thirteen when Caduceus was reaped. She put on a brave face every year, but it didn’t always stand up to inspection

Last year, when she was seventeen and her name was in six times, Clarabelle had wept the entire day before out of pure fear. Both Caduceus and Yasha spent the night with her, his hair gray and hers black contrasting the pinkish rainbow that splayed out between them that belonged to Clarabelle.

“I don’t understand.” She’d managed between tears. “It’s not even the last time, I don’t know why I’m so frightened.”

Yasha didn’t know what to say other than run her fingers through the girl’s hair and weave small braids in her mane. It had been Caduceus, usurpingly, with the right words.

“You know, Belle.” He’d said as he propped himself up on an elbow and pressed a kiss to where a tear was bubbled on his sister’s cheek. “I didn’t cry the entire time I was in the Capitol. I couldn’t make myself, I felt like I should, if out of rage if nothing else. It wasn’t until after, before that big fancy banquet dinner that I even felt afraid. Our emotions aren't logical, and that's more than fine. You feel how you feel because that's how it is. Don't ever feel ashamed for that."

It was good advice. Yasha wished Caduceus could take his own sometimes, because it sounds nowhere near as soothing coming out of her.

 

---

 

She spends that night in their suite, curled up on Caduceus’s side and arm thrown over to be a steadying presence. They both rouse early, before the sun comes out. In silence they eat, dress, and walk back to the training center.

At least she knows Misti hasn’t been killed in the night, or one of their mentors would have been waiting for them at the apartments. A ragged Beauregard is in Yasha’s chair and passes the headset over with a tired but relieved look. Yasha slides in the chair, rubs her eyes, and dedicates herself to her little half-elf girl.

In the background, she’s vaguely aware of Caduceus insisting he’ll walk Beau to the apartments, and her brushing him off, before Caleb interjects and insists that she take him up on his offer. When Beau can spare a glace, she sees that his screen has gone black as the one on her immediate left.

Misti’s making her way toward higher ground, clever girl. The mutts will probably be water based, and she’s got a better chance of finding food. She’ll need to stay hydrated, but she’s smart. It looks like it’s about to rain, maybe she’ll use on of the fronds to collect water? She’ll have to come up with something, because Yasha’s sponsorship money for her is still a big, fat zero on the screen.

She keeps looking over her shoulder, looking slightly paranoid each time Yasha gets a spike in in heart rate. She can’t hear anything through the headset, so Yasha scans the screen for what might be causing it. She supposes that the water in the distance looks like it’s rising a little, a glance to the larger screens confirms that a small flooding event appears to be happening in a section close to Misti, but why would that bother her?

Oh gods. Misti can’t swim, can she? Yasha never asked, fuck she normally remembers to ask, send them to swimming lessons if they can’t, fuck, shit, godsdamnit. Their pair had been so on top of it, intellectual and asking all the right questions, it had slipped her mind. Most of the time, it wasn’t a big deal, tributes normally had to worry about too little water rather than too much. But a swamp, that looks like it’s flooding? Misti better get as high as she can.

She keeps a steady pace for another two hours before she takes a break, clearly trying to forage. Her jacket is tied around her waist her hair’s braided back, Yasha doesn’t need to look at her vitals to tell she’s running hot in the muggy swamp. She’s lucky, and stumbles upon a great patch of greens that Yasha immediately recognizes as watercress. Misti does too, thankfully, and eats them right out of the puddle of water they’re growing in with obvious hunger. After clearly considering it, Misti takes several slow spits of the water too.

Yasha wants to smack her for it, but she’s already eaten the greens. If there’s something in the water that will kill her, she’s come into contact with it by eating the watercress without cooking it. Yasha glances at the main broadcast and is relieved they’re focused on a what is a surprisingly small career pack. If Misti had just caused her death, they’d be broadcasting her right now. Probably.

Misti takes advantage of the mud in the area and covers her arms and neck in a thin layer. It’ll keep her cool, and Yasha appreciates the effort to keep her face clean. The Capitol likes pretty things.

She continues her hike upwards to little fanfare. Caduceus comes by with a plate for Yasha, offers to keep watch while she takes a bathroom break. When she returns, he says he’s going downstairs to try to collect some sponsors.

“She’s proved she’s smart, they cut to her finding the watercress and her covering herself in mud. Misti just needs someone to send her a knife so she can risk a fight if one comes to her, and it’s still the second day. Weapons aren’t outrageously expensive yet.”

Every gift is outrageously expensive. Mentors and any people from the Capitol involved in the games aren’t allowed to place bets or be sponsors, but if they were Yasha and every other mentor would go broke if all they tried to do was keep their tributes fed. Still, she nods, and he heads out the double doors with a small smile.

It’s not quite eleven when Misti hits a running brook of water near some stalks of leaves that Yasha doesn’t recognize, but her tribute clearly does. She’s looking around, cautiously optimistic, stopping every few steps so she can listen for mutts or tributes. Misti’s eyes are drawn low, looking for any rustling plants that betray the presence of something else in the swamp with her.

She should have remembered to look up too. A lanky boy swings down from one of the trees, one hand holding on to a short cord of robe, the other filled with a long, heavy metal tool that curved to form a semicircle with a point on the tip. Yasha recognizes him as one of Shakäste’s just before his butcher’s weapon slams into Misti’s side.

How’d that boy from Ten be so lucky to get a meat hook? He hadn’t he’d fashioned one from a crowbar of all things, Yasha realizes when he pulls it out from its purchase between Misti’s ribs.

The poor girl has nothing to fight back with. She’s too slow when he swings again, nailing her on the top of the skull this time. Just after the wet thud he makes upon contact, Yasha’s screen goes dark and her headset begins to politely beep at her.

With a heavy sigh as her latest tribute’s fate begins to sink in, Yasha places the headset and leans deep back in her chair, covering her eyes with her hands despite also closing them, and takes several deep, slow breaths to

When she can open her eyes and muster the strength to rise from her chair, a wiry human is waiting for her with a drink in each hand.

“Shame that Aubrac found the taro before Misti. Can I interest you in some gin?” Caleb asks, with an extended arm and expectant eyebrow.

“Does Veth not need your support anymore?” Yasha reaches for it, but he pulls it back a moment later.

Caleb’s got quite the shit eating grin for a face Yasha’s very confident she could easily smash in. “Kiri’s still kicking and breathing, I know because I stayed up with her all night and most of the morning. Veth’s given me the day off, so step outside for a drink with me.”

Yasha follows him down a winding maze of hallways to a lone patio before he finally gives her one of the glasses. It tastes very strongly of pine and juniper and nothing else.

“Caleb Widogast, did you just pour me a glass of straight gin?” Yasha asks as she takes in the still-sleepy Capitol, fairly quiet despite the sun being a respectable height in the sky. Most everyone is given time off to enjoy the games. How terrible.

Caleb simply shrugs, taking a sip from his own without changing the blankt expression on his face. “I meant to add tonic, but it may have slipped my mind.”

Yasha takes another deep drink. “I thank you for it. You’ve picked out a terrible view for us to enjoy it to, though.”

That makes him a little uncomfortable, but he only betrays it by rocking his weight between his legs. It’s something Molly used to do too. “I used to come here a lot, before my breakdown. Or at least I have memories of doing so. Gods know if they’re true.”

“Just another reason to drink.” Yasha says.

Caleb nods. He’s silent again, awkward as she’s always known him to be. “Fuck. I wish I’d brough Frumpkin.”

“How’s he taking to the Capitol?” Yasha asks, genuinely curious. It’d been Veth’s idea, to get him that cat the year after his return to mentoring. Caleb had apparently always been fond of them, but hadn’t had one since before he’d been reaped. Caleb normally kept him in his house in the Victor’s Village, but he’d had a difficult year last time after watching his tribute be immolated with flames. Their close-knit group had all encouraged him to bring Frumpkin this summer, even Fjord who was apparently terribly allergic.

His smile was plain and easy. Caleb loved that damn cat. “Much better than I’d thought he would, though I suppose he has no reason to despise it here as we do. Beau’s met him, and he’s taken a liking to her. Fjord refuses to be in the same room as him, but I think Jester will break him sooner rather than later.” Something in his face shifts, and he catches her eye carefully as he asks what must have driven him to take her so far away from the mentoring room. “Speaking of taking liking, what about you?”

Yasha briefly considers throwing herself off the balcony out of sheer embarrassment but leaving Caduceus to mentor their tributes alone every year after would be selfish of her. She also considers playing dumb, but Caleb is far too shrewd for that to work. So, Yasha is left with the truth of the matter. Maybe she only needs a slippery fraction to escape his grip. “Affections I have are not worthy of concern. We only see one another once a year, it is hardly anything reasonable to build a romance on.” Their visits to one another are technically against the rules, and work to accomplish. They still happen, but formally, the mentors try not to talk about them.

“And yet we mentors have so many dear friendships between us.” Caleb says, blue eyes sharper than glass as he pours what remains of his drink into her cup. As if to encourage her, because he knows that’s not Yasha’s only reservation.

“I am damaged goods.” Yasha insists, crossing her arms but taking care not to spill her drink.

That doesn’t impress him. “We all are Yasha, we are the remains of children that the Capitol has chewed up and spit out.” He’s disgusted, but not with her. “I cannot image anyone capable of coming out of that undamaged.”

“It is my heart.” Yasha finally confesses, looking away because she cannot bear his reaction for it will surely be brutal. “That you must understand.”

She hadn’t wanted to grow old alone. She’d thought she’d have Zuala, ever since that crazy girl had kissed her first. Yasha hadn’t meant to let her heart grow cold after she was taken from her, but Yasha hadn’t finished mourning before she was thrown in the games. It wasn’t like Yasha had sworn of romance entirely after her victory. She’d taken up her fair number of lovers when she wasn’t busy mentoring in the Capitol, once with Thaydeen when they’d both been much younger and not so world weary. But over time, she’d watched some of her mentors find real romance, deep connections, and the cost of that terrified her. Veth came back after her first year of mentoring married, confessing that she and her sweetheart had be waiting to tie the knot until after they aged out of reaping, as was common in the districts. Nila had waited to get married and have children until one of her charges won and replaced her as the District Two mentor. Caduceus’s first year mentoring had also been accompanied with pictures of a tired but happy Nila, a bashful Ketor and newborn baby Asar. Veth and Yeza would add Luc to the Brenatto clan the year after.

But having a family didn’t mean you got to keep them safe from the Capitol. Just look at Jester and Marion. Nila, who had once been far more headstrong and adamant they stick together, had fallen out of touch with mentors that lived outside of Two.

The more attachments you made known, the more the Capitol knows you have to lose. The more that they’ll threaten, the tighter the chain they’ll pull to keep you in line. Yasha’s almost thankful she didn’t have anyone in her life that the Capitol could threaten, her attachment to Zuala and by extension the Twelve apothecary somehow remaining secret. Caduceus and his family had been an unexpected complication, but Yasha wasn’t the most effective mechanism to get at them through. Caduceus had kept himself distant from Mollymauk not out of a dislike from him, but because of a very casual threat that Gamemaker Athesius Uludan had let slip regarding his sister’s eligibility as tributes.

Yasha can let herself love the mentors, love the tributes as she does because the Capitol has already gotten to them in every way that matters. If she lets someone into her heart, then she opens them to even more danger Yasha lacks the imagination to imagine. She’d never do that to someone else, especially not if she loved them.

Caleb is quiet for a very long time. He’s cautions when he breaks it. “I can. I knew a woman once, one of the students with me. I thought she was the one, Yasha. But then I saw what we were making, I really saw it and I am glad to have every part of me ripped out that was ever okay with it.” Another heavy silence. “Thought I believe it cost me my heart. And I do not know what has hurt yours, for as loving as you are,” he grabs her arm and pulls her gaze with his words and shit, Caleb really means what he’s saying, “Yasha, you never let us see what goes beyond behind those wild eyes of yours. I do not know the name of what has wounded you, but Yasha I know you because part of us is the same. So I know you still hold her in it, however damaged it may be.”

Yasha hates that he’s right. “She deserves better.” She whispers into her cup as she throws the last of it back in her throat. “I’ll just put her in danger. She deserves someone whole, someone who has not been broken in the ways we are. Someone who will love her pure and true and right.”

“Nein, fuck deserve.” Caleb spits. “What of what she wants?”

The glass leaves Yasha’s grip, but she neither hears it crash on the grounds far below or sees it bounce back to her with the forcefield. “You are mistaken. You know us both well, but whatever you think it is, you’ve misunderstood her.”

“I cannot make you drink at the water, simply lead you to it.” Caleb says, raising his hands up in defeat, but never breaking her gaze. He’s got her thinking about it again, it considering for the first time in a long one.

No, she cannot. She is selfish enough with Caduceus. She cannot let herself drag down another.

Another silence comes, as is often with them. Caleb was still mostly catatonic the year he started mentoring, and the pair of them had spent much of that summer in comfortable silence together, drinking. Truthfully, they talk of their times before mentoring least of all out of their merry little band. Between one another, they will occasionally reminisce with metaphors extended to a ridiculous level of hyperbole. Caleb’s purple prose was another thing that reminded her of Molly.

She wonders, sometimes, if her and Molly’s memory loss were somehow Caleb’s doing, or if theirs had been the inspiration for his before the gamemakers dumped him back in the districts. It didn’t matter, not really, but Yasha was curious if it was what compelled them, drew them to one another.

It takes a while, but Caleb does drop his gaze with a defeated sigh, though it’s not the most morose one Yasha’s heard him made. He’s likely more frustrated with her than anything, but that’ll just have to do. Yasha will never make the first move, it’s not something she’s ever been intitled to.

Yasha knows she is pressing him here, but she has to ask. “What about you? Do you love her?”

Caleb blinks at her, very slowly. “Who?” He asks, carefully considering the way he furrows his brows and purses his lips at her.

She thinks of the way his eyes get when he talks about his fellow students of the gamemakers, how it’s very similar to the way she sees him steal glances of Jester, Fjord, and most rare of all, Veth. Suddenly, she wants to ask him about all of them, for Caleb Widogast may see himself as a broken thing but Yasha thinks that it’s also cracked his heart open and made him that much more willing to love. But she’s said her, and that means her options are limited. So, she settles with “I don’t need to tell you who.”

He blinks again, making him look far more owlish than he normally does. Then his breath intakes, and something looking like real panic begins to stir across his face.

Shit, this wasn’t what she had wanted. “I’m sorry, Caleb.” Yasha rushes, hand coming up to rub circles in his back. “I just…” She considers him again.

He knows what she’s about to tell her. She doesn’t need to say it. But maybe it’s a good reminder, for both of them. Gods knows she wishes Caduceus would take his own advice more often. “We’ve both lost people we’ve loved very much.”

“Ja, it’s the nature of being a tribute.” Caleb manages through his panic, laughter that comes out obviously forced.

“Then we both know.” Yasha says, dipping her head expectantly. When his expression looks blankly at her, she adds. “How important it is to say things before it’s too late.”

Caleb just shakes his head, gaze going over the balcony that Yasha dropped her glass. “It’s too late.”

“No.” Yasha feels something stir in her gut that makes her take his arm. “No. They’ve taken everything from us, I refuse to believe that they’ve stolen our time. Maybe not now, Gods know I understand that Caleb. But never too late.”

He’s got tears gathering in his eyes, so Yasha pulls him into a hug. She feels him shudder against her as he takes a deep breath, and she does her best to keep her breath steady.

“Every time they die, I convince myself.” Caleb mumbles. “I convince myself that my destiny is misery that it’s all I’ve been made to know.” He pushes out of her embrace so that he’s holding her by her forearms, eyes sad but still sharp. “We have to choose to love. And scheisse, it’s hard.”

Yasha squeezes his arm and begins to move them towards the door. “How is Kiri doing?” Their moment is over, done for now. Maybe they’ll pick it up sometime later this year, maybe it’ll be the next, maybe never. But they’ll let one another rest, for now.

“Good. Jude died for her.” Caleb says, opening the door back inside for Yasha. “Did you know that Jester’s girl formed an alliance with them? She killed Champ, Lorenzo’s, in the bloodbath when he went for Jude.”

That’s a surprise. “I thought for sure it would have been Vence’s kid, taking out the competition.”

“She’s good at inspiring loyalty.” Caleb says. “Her mimicry has come into play in a way I hadn’t expected. Maybe she’ll manage another win for little old Nine.”

Yasha snorts. “Between you and Veth, Nine isn’t looking so nonthreatening anymore.”

 

---

 

“I don’t understand how you can stand to get married.” Yasha had moaned into the drink that Veth picked out for her. It was Caduceus’s first year mentoring, it was the night before Pytor and Nelly would have their interviews and two days before they’d be thrown in the arena. While he’d come on their first night out, he’d been pretty reserved the rest of time and Yasha had let him get away with it. She was protective of all the new mentors, but the pair of them literally slept together. She couldn’t keep a much closer eye on him if she tried.

Veth had regarded her with a very fun look. “I mean, I was in love.” She replied, eyebrow raised. “Still am, in fact. Do you have a better solution I’m not aware of?”

Yasha waved her away with a sloppy hand. “No. I dunno. It just seems like waste, doesn’t it?”

Veth looks at her appalled, which takes some difficulty because her face is still swollen from the ink she’d just gotten. Face tattoos were not common in the Capitol, but Molly took Veth to the tortle who had done all of his work, and Yasha had been promised that when it healed it was going to look badass. “Sorry, a waste? Love, a waste?’

“They just take it away.” Yasha said with disgust as she grabs the flask that Veth keeps on her and nearly throws her head back at the smell of it. “Shit Smyth, that’s strong stuff.”

“They already killed my family because I complained about the gills, the fuck else is left? And it’s been a year, call me Brenatto if we’re throwing around last names, Nydoorin.” Veth complained as she grabs her flask back and drinks it like it is water and not the strongest whiskey Yasha’s ever smelt. “Why do we do anything, Yasha? I love Yeza, he loves me, being afraid of losing one another doesn’t take the first part away.” She squinted at her, as if she was trying to look into her soul. “I like a lot better with white hair. Makes you look less angry.”

Veth had gotten a glimpse at Yasha’s natural color when Caliana had brought out her photo album several nights ago when they were drinking in her room the night after the opening ceremonies. Yasha tried not to attend the events with the ugly costumes and the stupid parading, not since she’d been made to strip naked and cover herself in black dust because some airheaded Capitol stylist told her to. But Caduceus, as beloved as the little ghost still was, was going to be ambushed by reporters and was relying on Yasha’s stern jaw and strong arms to keep them off him. So she went, and had been rewarded later with an invitation to get plastered in a private apartment that Caliana kept in the Capitol.

“I-I-I-‘ve an uncle here.” She’d hiccupped as she opened the door. “Keeps my stuff mostly in case I need to do shoot, but it’s private.”  

Once Caliana had retired from urumi whips and garroting, she picked up a camera. Once her victory tour had concluded, she’d taken another six months to travel around the districts and photograph the mentors in their day to day lives for a series she’d eventually present in the Capitol. This was how she was in possession of a photograph of Yasha with her natural white hair, in the woods by Twelve’s Victor Village that wasn’t on the wrong side of the fence, gathering kindling in the dead of winter. She was going to the Hob that night and planned on bringing Madame Musk some much needed firewood, but obviously hadn’t wanted to take Cali there. The shot composition had been beautiful, and Yasha looked so small backed by the towering trees and snowy skies, a near impossible feat.

Veth, because she’s a bitch, had immediately complained that Yasha looked far nicer when her hair wasn’t black.

“You think I like my hair like this?” Yasha said as she returned to her much more mild drink. “I have no say in what I look like, none of us do.” Not that Veth, of all people, needed that explained to her.

“Does that make you afraid of the Capitol?” Veth asked as she flagged the bartended to make them another round.

Yasha actually laughed at that. “No. Just makes me angry.”

“That’s why I married Yeza. They don’t scare me, with their threats.” Veth flashed the bartender a rare smile, slid him a fat tip as she asked to close out. “They piss me off. I told you who met me at the train station, the summer after I got married right?”

Yasha tried to recall, but either Veth hadn’t or her mind was so muddled with drink she couldn’t remember. “Tell me again.”

“It was that jaundiced looking Gamemaker, icky thong or something.” Veth waved her hand. “Doesn’t matter. He asked me how my wedding went, I told him it was beautiful and that it put me at peace to know that even when I die, someone on this earth will have truly, really loved me. I said it was the one thing above all else that comforted me before bed every night.”

That made Yasha’s head spin, a combination of impressed and terrified for both Yeza and the Gamemaker that they had been so close to a creature such as Veth. “What’d he say back?”

Veth snorted. “Him? Fucking nothing. I asked him who that was for him, and when he stared at me slack jawed like a moron, I left him on the platform and joined up with my tributes.”

Yasha waited for Veth to say she was kidding, wait for the punchline to hit, but the other woman just holds her gaze, deadly serious.

“Nothing happened to me or Yeza that year. If you don’t fear them, and those you love are out of their reach, they can take nothing from you, you understand me Yasha?” Veth’s gaze had been something fierce and she took Yasha’s hand with nearly enough force to break it.

“I understand you.” Yasha’s voice had been so distant at the time, she hadn’t realized she was speaking and being so honest. “But I am not you. I’m afraid of them, Veth. I’m tired of being the cause of other people’s pain. My district sees my hair like this,” her free hand went to pull at her dark hair, “and they can’t look me in the eye because it means I’m the Orphanmaker and two more kids are going to die. There’s no one left on this earth who could love me, Veth.”

Veth’s eyes went from fierce to sad. “Yasha dearie, I can’t fix fear. I can tell you what I have, I can tell you what you deserve, but you have to choose to say ‘fuck you’ to the Capitol. Maybe there is no one in your district for you. But there’s a whole planet of people. Don’t say it’s devoid of love.”

She’d kissed her on the cheek before paying the bill. Yasha had felt emboldened by Veth for a while after, it made Molly’s absence the next year sting a little less. The pair of them were just as odd as she and Mollymauk were, but they made it work. Yasha made sure Veth was never alone and that she never forgot how to laugh, and Veth beat back Yasha’s ever present nihilism with as big of a stick as she could muster.

When Luc was born, Veth became gradually more withdrawn. She minded her tongue, didn’t go out as often, and was thankful to have Caleb’s mysterious return mean she had the benefit of a mentoring partner.

Yasha showed up to her room, one night after both their tributes were dead, with a bottle of sweet wine that was bound to give them both a hangover. As they split it, Veth whispered to her what Yasha had feared happened.

“I’m frightened, Yasha. I get it now. They took my family from me, but when they left Yeza I thought that they couldn’t ever touch me again. But if they take Luc, I don’t know what’ll become of me, and I’m afraid if they perceive a slight, he’ll be gone when I return home. I don’t think you should guard yourself so closely but, well, I understand.”

She hadn’t cried. That wasn’t Veth’s style. Yasha let her finish the bottle that night and made sure that year and every year after to keep a spare bottle of the same kind in her room, just in case Veth came knocking. She’s done so twice since her confession.

 

---

 

It gets down to the final four and Yasha has made herself very comfortable at the bar when Jester finds her. Yasha watches as her blue hands move quickly, pouring a drink that would be very appropriate for a party, if a little sweet for Yasha’s taste, if they were at a normal event. Nothing about their setup right now is normal.

“You’re going to want to make that stronger.” Yasha advises from her deceptively clear glass. From across the room, you might assume she’s nursing a tonic water, but as close as Jester is Yasha knows she can smell the incredibly heavy pour that takes up three quarters of her glass.

Yasha can still taste the elderflower and champagne she added. She thinks she can, at least.

Jester shakes her head, keeping a determined smile. “I need my wits about me. I’m due for an interview with Dranzel during the next lull.”

She tries to think about who else lost a tribute since then. “With Shakäste, right?” His girl had gotten eaten by an alligator mutt in the early hours of the morning, if Yasha recalls correctly. 

“Yeah, I know he’s buddy-buddy with Dranzel so I’m less worried about having to speak.” Jester slides her glass back and forth between her fingers, apparently trying to convince herself to take a sip.

Yasha offers Jester her own drink and takes her glass of cranberry-something. She’ll add more vodka when Jester leaves. “I am sorry about Mare. As much as I can be.”

“I’m so proud of her.” Jester’s eyes tear up, and Yasha genuinely thinks it’s not from the burn of her too-strong drink. “It’s exactly what I would have wanted to do. She is such a sweet and strong girl I-“ her voice catches in her throat, and Jester takes a long drink as she lets a few tears roll down her cheeks. “Is it always like this? Fjord says it'll depends on the year, but I can never not imagine feeling like this."

And Gods, does that question throw Yasha. It’s something only another mentor would ask, the Capitol doesn’t care and everyone in the districts views you as an omen of death. For Jester’s sake, and maybe Yasha’s cowardice, she needs tackle something first. “You’re not going to talk about Mare like that to Dranzel, right?"

“Oh, trust me, I know.” Yasha’s drink is more than half gone, she should really check with Jester to see if the elderflower is coming through at all. “I’m humbled by her compassion, but I would have liked to see a little more initiative out of her, she was a real contender and took herself out by taking on Kiri and removing herself from the career pack…” Her head droops a little, and Yasha rubs small circles into her back. That’s what Caduceus likes.

Yasha takes a small, polite sip of her drink as Jester’s breathing slows to a more relaxed rate. Once her tears are back in her eyes, Yasha carefully dabs away the lines in Jester’s makeup as she gives the kind of focus Yasha usually reserves for her harp on finishing her drink. When Jester is done, she drops the glass on the counter with a heavy thud. The muffle of the broadcast comes from the screen behind them, Yasha thinks the tributes are being allowed to settle down for what will likely be their final night in the arena in relative peace.

“I love them, every year.” Yasha says slowly in response. “If that’s what you mean. I root for them, even in arenas like this where Ragwort and Misti would have had little chance if they had made it as far as when the water started rising. But I’ve stopped hoping. We don’t get to win in Twelve, and after Caduceus’s little stunt, we won’t be winning for a long time.” Jester takes a sharp inhale at that. “I love him, more dearly than anyone else in Twelve. I’m glad to have him with me. But Ragwort was our best shot we’ve had in a while. Good score, nice kid, likable in his interview, even got a bag at the bloodbath and how’d he go? Randomly, to a mutt tree, just like the ones from Caduceus’s arena.”

“It’s just a game to them.” Jester says hollowly, looking into the glass like it might have an answer for her.

“I believe they do call it the Hunger Games.” Yasha teases as she takes the glass from Jester’s hands. “And take it from someone who does. Don’t go looking for answers here.”

Jester squints her violet eyes at her. “What do you suggest, then?”

What had her talent been again? Painting? “Art, for once thing. Music helped me, some.” Yasha tilts her head, considering if she’s ready for honesty. Who’s she kidding. She’s a mentor, just the same as the rest of them. Jester doesn’t need to be shielded, protected from the horror. She’s seen it firsthand, been responsible for some of it.

“Love is the only remedy I think really works.” Yasha says.

Jester raises an eyebrow. “I don’t see you with anyone on your arm.”

Yasha shrugs. “I love Caduceus, I love everyone in this room. I told you I love the kids. It’s not the same, but it’s not worth any less. Someone on my arm would be nice, but I don’t like to gamble. I fear what price they’d have to pay by loving me.”

That gets an actual laugh out of Jester. “Yasha, if it’s that kind of love, then any price is worth it, isn’t it?”

What is it with her and making Yasha consider things so deeply? If it had been Veth asking Yasha would have laughed in her face, but something about the genuineness that Jester wields makes her take pause. “Maybe.” And she leans in to whisper conspiratorially to Jester, making sure her hair falls in front of her mouth so any cameras can’t pick her up. “Revolution would be the ideal answer, but we saw how great that worked out last time.”

A chime plays on the intercom, summoning Jester and Shakäste. Jester springs from the chair flashes Yasha a grade-A performance smile. “Who knows, Yasha? Maybe it’s all about to change.”

Yasha wants to ask her which of the two she’s referring to, but by then she’s gone. Revolution would sure be nice. So would Caleb and Jester, and in a roundabout way, Veth being right. Right now, the former seems far more likely, and Yasha's optimism about living to see the Capitol overthrown disappeared with Molly.

 

---

 

District Eight has many parts that remind Yasha of Twelve. In the wrong parts, the air is difficult to breathe, it’s a bitch to live in, and its people are restless. The restlessness is much more active here than in Twelve though. Maybe it’s the fact that the whole district appears to be urban and there’s not a blade of grass in sight, no nature to ground them and lull them to a sense of stillness.

Molly certainly entertained that line of thinking from Yasha. She’d made arrangements to stay with him for a month that winter, both of them desperate for company.

“I think our houses have the same floor plan.” Yasha remarked when he showed her to his room that they’d agreed to share.

“Figures.” Molly said. “Capitol’ll always find a way to be cheap with us.”

They most certainly would not be talking like this indoors. “How was Veth when she made it your way?” Yasha asked, placing her small bag of belongings on the chair facing a window.

Molly’s lips draw very tight. “As well as I would expect her to be. She gave me a beautiful jacket from her fashion show.” He throws the closet door open with a little more force than necessary, showing her a beautiful blue and silver duster. If she looked closely, Yasha thinks she’d find symbols of Bahamut sewn in.

“Beautiful.” She’d presented Yasha with a beautiful black warm robe, with silver thread that gave her the illusion of wings. She wondered what aspects of each mentor inspired the clothes Veth made.

She was worried about the halfling, as every mentor probably was. She had appeared at her Victory Banquet looking very unlike herself. Veth played with a crossbow and by sticking to the shadows. Keg’s girl had come very close to beating her in the end, as she held the other girl beneath water until she believed she had drowned her. Turns out Veth had been playing dead exceptionally well, and the career was rewarded for her mistake with a knife that emptied her guts into the stream.

Caleb Widogast hadn’t won that long ago, but he’d been recruited to work for the gamemakers, and the traitor had taken them up on the offer. Molly hated him for it, and Yasha can’t help but wonder what kind of leverage had been held against him that made him agree to it.

But no district mentor meant that no one had been there to fight for Veth’s rights when she went on the table. Most of them undergo some sort of modification after the games, and Molly and Yasha also having won under a Capitol mentor, means that they’re no stranger to this. Both had escaped relatively fine, Yasha just having padding added to certain parts of her body to make her look like more of a woman and less of the bag of bones and muscle she’d been when they pulled her from the arena, as well as a resulting of her face to make her look less severe and laser removal of all her body hair that had grown back from the shave she’d received before going in the arena. Yasha hadn’t watched enough of Molly’s games to understand the red eye tattoos the Capitol had covered him in, but she had been fully supportive of the cacophony of other ink he’s gotten since to cover them up.

Veth didn’t have the fortune of a fairly apathetic mentor. Hers had apparently been the one to suggest the green-tinted gills that she wore on her neck. They had been on display on her victory tour with her dark hair pulled into a low bun, but she’d noticeably bristled when asked questions about them.

The look they exchanged said enough. They were both worried.

“I told her nothing feels better than a tattoo needle.” Molly said in place of criticizing the doctors who had changed their appearance.  

“I told her my liquor cabinet is always full.” Yasha responded in place of saying that she drinks every time she thinks about the games.

Molly told her he’s found this hole in the wall place in the district that apparently serves bugs, and Yasha jumped at the chance to go. He took a dizzying path that ended up with them in a dingey alleyway, halfway across the district.

“I don’t smell bugs.” Yasha complained as Molly had practically slammed her against the wall.

“Yasha. Take me seriously for five minutes.” Molly begged as he looked around her, backwards, and up before being satisfied that they were alone.

Yasha raised an eyebrow, tried to decipher what was going on, before giving up. “Clock starts now, Tealeaf.”

Molly’s tail trashed the way it does when he’s excited. “Say I’ve gotten word from a district that doesn’t exist. And they’re talking revolution, for us, from the Capitol. No more games. No more children dying.”

Molly.” Yasha had stressed, now frantically looking around for cameras or anything that might hide a recording device. “Last time I checked, that didn’t end very well.”

Molly’s eyes only brightened at this. “They didn’t have the cards we do. We have things those idiots in the Capitol couldn’t even dream up. We outnumber them, there’s no reason in the heavens or hells that they should treat us like this. They would starve without us, they’d be naked, they’d be without any of the power that keeps their neon city running.”

“Even if it’s true.” Yasha whispered. “You know what it’s like in the districts. It’d take a miracle to convince everyone here that we stood a fighting chance, not when the Capitol has guns and the power to take away more children away from us than they already do.”

“I believe in it.” Molly said, taking her arm in his as he began to walk them away from the way they’d came. “Just let me know if I can count on you.”

“Of course you’d have my support Mollymauk.” Yasha had said. “You always can count on me.”

Time passed, as it does. Molly got Reanminere, Yasha got Caduceus. They didn’t talk about revolution ever again, never so blatantly. But Yasha let herself hope, just a little. She always reminded Molly that he could count on her.

When a tear-stained letter arrived from District Eight in Reani’s handwriting one cool fall afternoon, Yasha gave up hope of any other district, Thirteen or otherwise, ever being able to rise up. It was a nice idea. But look what it got them the first time. Look at what happened last time. The Capitol held all the cards, and they never got to win.

Even if they won the games, they still lost. That’s what happened when you struggled against the Capitol, Yasha should have come to terms with that much sooner than she did.

 

---

 

Veth’s Kiri makes it. Against all odds, a twelve-year-old kenku wins the Seventy-third Hunger Games. At her Victory Banquet, she looks just as she did when she managed to force a knife in the neck of Vence’s tribute Atom. Her speed was just enough to beat out his strength. Veth doesn’t look pridefully, mostly just relieved and exhausted. She leans on Caleb a lot that night, and both of their protective gazes hardly leave Kiri’s side all night.

It’s a tradition that Caduceus and Yasha go out drinking after the Victory Banquet. Always just the two of them, to the most abandoned bar they can find in the Capitol that night. It’s normally one that’s dancing around a handful of health code violations, which makes it twice as clean as the Hob.

They keep themselves to fairly light stuff, normally beer, mead if it’s been a rougher year. Caduceus and Yasha have a proper wake for their tributes that year, passing whatever memories of their kids that don’t make them cry between one another. It’s always a somber affair, but Yasha’s been doing it since it was just her. She even snuck out during the celebration that had been thrown in Caduceus’s honor, managed to escape for an entire hour to hold a vigil for Lyra.

At least, they plan to keep to themselves. Somehow, they find Keg waiting for them in their usual booth.

Keg has a soft spot for Caduceus, as do many of the older mentors. They all recognize in him what the Capitol fails to see. Unlike the rest of them, there's no part of him that's a killer. Not in the violent, bloody way the rest are so numb to. So, the grumpy Keg from One with a strong attachment to cigarettes, is always gentle with Caduceus, seeks him out every year for at least one hours-long chat. Eventually, that kindness in her has also been extended to Yasha.

Yasha wonders if Keg remembers her victory tour. She wonders if she remembers the way Yasha had looked when Keg said Zuala's name.

“Join me?” The woman asks, with an expectant look.

Caduceus nods, but Yasha still doesn’t like it. “Can I get you a drink?”

Keg shakes her head, so Caduceus slides in across her and Yasha heads to the bar. She gets two very full glasses of beer and returns to her mentors. In keeping with tradition, she and Caduceus silent toast, take a deep gulp, and slam their cups down. The, they turn their attention to the dwarf.

Across the table, Keg slides them a photo of a handsome elven man, drow, with stark white hair in a neat quaff.

Caduceus picks the photo up. “I’ll bite. Who’s this?”

“Unofficially, our pick for next year.” Keg says, which gets a very raised eyebrow out of Yasha. “He appeared out of thin air two years ago, backed by one of the richest families in One. His paperwork checks out, but…”

Yasha takes the photo from Caduceus to get a better look at the crease in the man’s forehead, the cut of his jawline. “He looks older. Too old for the games.”

“You think he’s a plant.” Caduceus mumbles, covering his mouth with his hand as he talks through a faked yawn. “From a group who’s had enough with Da'leth."

The gears in Yasha’s head had been turning more slowly, but they certainly hadn’t been pointed in that direction. Before she can even think to elbow Caduceus to admonish him for something so outlandish, Keg is nodding. 

“We can’t tell from where. It’s airtight. Which means no one on this side will be able to find out either.” Keg’s mouth is set grim, like she’s unhappy with the entire thing. 

This whole conversation has been rubbing Yasha the wrong way. “So, why tell us? So we can focus on fattening up our kids next year so they enjoy their few days of luxury before getting brutally murdered by one of yours? We already do that.” Her bitterness towards Keg is not really at her, but at the career system. The other woman knows this, but it does not mean Yasha hasn’t still been rude.

Keg shakes her head. “I don’t know why I’m telling you. It’s just… can’t you feel it?”

Whatever it is she’s beating around, Yasha most certainly cannot feel it.

“We’re on a precipice. All of us are.” Of course, Caduceus can sense it. “Several things are hurling their way at us in at such a velocity I’d venture we won’t know what they all are until the dust settles.”

Though she’s never been as good as seeing so clearly as Caduceus, Yasha trusts him with every ounce her gut can spare. “Let’s hope your improbable boy brings his change sooner rather than later. With the seventy-fifth anniversary looking us down the barrel…”

Keg snorts at that. “Quarter Quells are never pleasant.” She agrees.

Yasha returns the photo, and Keg tucks it into the interior pocket in her blazer. Not easily taken without also alerting her. Smart woman. She always has been.

“Same time, next year?” Keg asks them as she slides out of the booth. 

Since Yasha is preoccupied with snorting laughter into her drink, Caduceus answers for the both of them.

“Wouldn’t miss it for the world.”

 

---

 

The first time she ever drank, it was a bottle of wine Zuala had stolen from her parents. They were up in a tree in the woods, waiting for the Peacekeeper shift change so they could sneak back into Twelve.

It was mostly empty and in total they both probably had three mouthfuls full. It had still been exhilarating, their little act of rebellion out in the dark woods.

“Yashy.” Zuala had said slowly, honey blonde hair almost glowing in the light of the setting sun.

“Zu.” Yasha had replied, wondering what was going on behind her two dark brown eyes.

“Do you think we’ll be happy, when we’re older?” Zuala asked her, and Yasha reeled so hard she nearly fell out of the tree.

“What kind of question is that?” Yasha had rasped. “Of course we will, we have one another.”

 Zuala closed her eyes. “Don’t get mad, but say we don’t. Say one of us falls out of this tree and breaks our neck right now and this is it. Would you be able to be happy, if it was just you left?”

Yasha had sat there for more heartbeats than she could count while she genuinely pondered Zuala’s question. Could she be happy, alone? She’d been alone for so much of her life, she didn’t know if she could bear it again if Zuala became lost to her. “I don’t know. I don’t think I could be happy if it were just me, not someone else in my life. You have your parents, your siblings. I just have myself.”

“You have them.” Zuala had insisted, as she leaned forward to pass Yasha the last of the wine. “It would take something unimaginable for them to not look after you.”

“That’s kind.” Yasha replied as she took the bottle and drained the last of it.

Zuala watched her with a fond little smile, the one she wore when she had a grand thought, she planned on keeping to herself. “If we ever lose one another, Gods willing it won’t happen, but if it does. Yasha. Don’t let me be some shackle, something that chains you down from happiness.”

Yasha squinted at her. “Are you drunk off a couple sips of wine?”

“I don’t think so. I can't explain, it's this feeling in my gut I just...” Zuala shook her head. “Forget it. It’s almost shift change, let’s go wait at the fence.”

They shimmied down the tree, buried the bottle in the loose earth at the roots. Wordlessly, Yasha had taken Zuala’s hand and held it the whole walk back and pressed it up to kiss as they reached a tree that was marked as being one just before the eyeline of the fence.

“Zuala, I love you too dearly to ever let you be a shackle.” Yasha said.

Zuala flipped her wrist so she could return the kiss to Yasha’s knuckles. “It’s okay if it takes a while. I just want to make sure you know you’re allowed happiness. You’re so serious sometimes, I worry you forget.”

 

---

 

The close districts can leave that night, but the fanfare of Kiri’s departure means that the station is blocked off and the outlying mentors won’t be able to return to their districts until tomorrow. Caduceus is out with Dagen, Twiggy, and Shakäste under the correct assumption that Yasha will want quiet to reflect while she plays her harp. But she’s still to strung from Keg’s omen earlier that day, and finds herself taking a shortcut to the rooftop to watch the sun set.

By shortcut, she’s climbing out the window of her bedroom with a bottle of port she knows is twice as expensive as anything she’d normally buy herself tucked under her arm. It’s precarious for a moment, teetering on the ledge, but Yasha manages to pull herself up. She doesn’t plan on letting her first and her most powerful weapon, her body, waste away anytime soon.

“You’ve got a lot of faith in those forcefields.”

Beau’s found her way up here tonight too, dressed in pajamas just like Yasha, cigarette hanging from her lip and holding a bottle of dark liquor like she’s on some kind of Capitol propo that tries to scare kids straight. Too little of it is gone for her to be drunk. She pops the lid off the bottle, tosses it off the roof, and catches it with lightning-quick reflexes as it bounces off the invisible barrier.

“I honestly forgot about them.” Yasha admits. Shit, she’s forgotten a bottle opener too, now that she’s thinking about it.

Beau arches an eyebrow as she takes a slow drag. “Long way to fall if you slip.”

“I don’t know.” Yasha says. “I might like the feeling of it.”

Beau tilts her head, considering. “I know it’s inappropriate to talk about our games, but I was convinced that’s how I was going to die once I scaled that first tree. Slip on the wrong branch, then I’m falling two hundred feet and dead as anything. Embarrassing way to go out.”

“I wish I could remember my time in the arena.” Yasha admits, something she’s sworn to keep to herself falling out of her mouth before she’s even had a sip of an intoxicant to blame it on. She’s glad the time is lost to her, truly, but Yasha still wishes she’d never forgotten. If she got to pick, it’s what she would have chosen.

“You could always watch it.” Beau tries. It’s common knowledge between the mentors, Yasha and Mollymauk’s memory loss, and Beau’s smarter than to think it a good idea to play dumb right now. “I mean, it’s only the most popular recorded event in Exandria.”

“It’s not the same.” Yasha says, fiddling with the foil around the lid. Maybe she’s lucky and it’s a screw-top - no shit there’s the cork. “I won’t know what I was thinking. It’s not me then, just something that looks like me that I can't understand.”

The cigarette falls from Beau’s lips, and she grinds it with a bare foot. “If it’s any comfort, I can’t recognize myself in my own. The shit my dad was saying dragged me into watching them, and I can see myself, in flashes, moments when there was some kind of respite from the unending terror. But the rest of the time that girl is afraid, alone, and worried if she falls asleep someone will bash her skull in or shove her out of the tree before she can wake up.” Yasha has to drop her eyes, focus on something else because the grief in Beau’s face is too bright to look at, more on display than any demonstration she’s used to from Caduceus or anything that she’d be willing to give anyone else.

Beau’s still going, though. “Maybe that’s it though, no one can be themselves in the games because none of us are like this, not in our nature. We’re performing, to a certain extent, molding ourselves into something who could survive such a horrible thing that the Capitol deems appropriate to put fucking children through every single year - what are you doing?"

Yasha’s got the neck of the bottle resting on the edge. “Oh. I forgot a corkscrew so…”

Beau’s laughter is as light as the grin that washes over her. “Yasha you’ll get glass in the bottle I - Wait - Trade.”

The liquor, it’s whiskey now she can smell it, gets pushed into Yasha’s arms as the port is taken. Beau sits on the concrete roof and Yasha joins her to watch Beau take her lighter out and dance the flame along the neck before the cork slowly begins to work its way up. They say nothing, Yasha stealing the occasional sip of the whiskey, before their quiet is broken from the small explosion of the cork popping.

It flies off the roof and is thrown back by the forcefield. Yasha barely ducks out of the way in time, causing them to both be taken by a wave of giggles. 

“Here.” Beau offers the port to her, neck of the bottle leaned her way and oh-so inviting. 

But Yasha shakes her head. “You first. I insist, you’re my savior after all.”

Beau’s chuckle is dark as she tilts the neck her way until the mouth meets her lips. Yasha takes another pull of the whiskey, and when they swallow their sips, they wordlessly trade bottles. 

Yasha tries very hard to not think about Beau’s lips being pressed to the bottle moments before as she takes a sip of the port.

Fuck that’s good. Would have been worth the broken glass, if it came down to it. The flavors of port and whiskey blend together in Yasha’s mouth in a pleasant, rich flavor she hadn’t expected. She would never have picked them out blind to pair well together, but now that she’s tried it she wouldn’t have it any other way. 

“Sorry.” Beau blurts, waving her hand nonsensically as she excuses herself. “For, getting like that, I know it kills the mood, Dairon tells me to keep the fatalism in my house and - “

“It’s true.” Yasha cuts her off, tone playfully daring Beau to challenge her. She doesn’t. “Besides, I like it. Reminds me of how Mollymauk used to talk."

Beau shakes her head. “I think I would have hated him, but the way you all talk of it I fear we would have gotten along like a house on fire.”

“You would have despised one another, but he would have still weaseled his way into your heart. He was good at that. Now, that was someone who didn’t know when to bite his tongue.” Yasha sighs. 

They’ve never talk about how or why Molly disappeared. Officially, Reani just found his house trashed and abandoned one day. But they all know. Thinly veiled serious criticism of the Capitol isn’t tolerated, even from its darling victors. They’ve all been more careful since. What Keg told Yasha and Caduceus earlier, that’s some kind of risky move Molly would have pulled.

“You didn’t hear it from me.” Yasha says. “But next year should be interesting.”

“Hmm.” Beau considers, fingers dancing along the rim of her whiskey bottle. “I’d almost take interesting at this point. Almost.”

“Trying to feel something?” Yasha tries.

That dark laugh again. “Gods. Maybe? Sunlash thinks I’m in some kind of funk, told me to spend the evening somewhere, so I came where I always do.”

It takes Yasha a moment of speculating to herself before she decides it a better idea just to ask. “Why the roof?”

Beau’s smile is pointed at her. “The sunset is nice. And a girl couldn’t ask for a more talented harpist to accompany it.”

A harpist? Oh. She means her.

Yasha knows she’s blushing, but she thinks it’s just from the port. Maybe. “Oh, am I robbing you of your instrumental meditative time?” She teases.

“Company’s better.” Beau’s cheeks are flushed too, probably a combination of her improper choice of shirt, because a crop top on the roof at night would have been a no from Yasha, and the whiskey. 

Yasha thinks back on her and Caleb’s conversation on the balcony before banishing it. She would have no other way of knowing, Yasha’d always been a little dumb when it came to other people’s romantic feelings, so she’ll act as she would with any other friend.

Besides, Beauregard is too dear to her. She will not lose one of the few people in Exandria who understands her so well to a selfish desire.

“I think my bones ache for how long we have to sit in those chairs.” Yasha complains as she flexes out on of her arms in an attempt to stretch.

Beau’s looking past her, towards the night city skyline her arm is now blocking. “Please. She teases. “I think we spent as much time in barstools.”

She can’t help the laugh because, well, it’s true. “You wound me, Beau. You’re lucky I’m not in a fighting mood.”

The other woman leads towards her for a beat, before settling her weight back on her hands, expression unreadable to Yasha for a moment. “I know a couple solutions. Dairon insisted, I think I spend more time boxing back in Eleven than almost anything else. Leaves me worse than the arena, some days.” She pushes herself away from the ledge and takes a final pull of whiskey. “Come, stretch with me?”

Beau’s easy to follow, and Yasha’s slightly woozy brain is thrilled for an excuse to keep her eyes on the lines of her body as she guides them through the motions Beau is familiar with. It’s fluid, and nice for Yasha to settle her very fried mind on something as routine as following someone else’s lead. Their stretches end with both of them on their backs, taking deep breaths together while Beau whispers about recentering themselves and opening their eyes to take a fresh start.

The sun has completely set by now, and they’re treated to something that hadn’t been there before they closed their eyes. The stars are out.

They’re quiet for a beat. The light hasn’t yet completely faded from the sky despite the sun’s disappearance, but it’s dark enough for the majority of the stars to make at least a faint appearance. They’re not as many here as there are in District Twelve, but the light pollution doesn’t make it impossible for Yasha to find the ones she recognizes from home, the ones that used to guide her in the woods when she stayed out far too late with too little in her stomach.

“Want me to show you the constellations I used to make up as a kid?” Beau asks softly, with a whisper barely audible in the cool night air.

Yasha feels something warm flutter in her chest. “Sure. As long as I can show you all the real ones I know.”

They trade star patterns until Yasha can hear Caduceus rumbling around in their suite, most likely on his way down from an upper with a might urge to braid hair. 

“Gotta go help Deucy.” Yasha says as she pushes herself up to her feet, port bottle dangling dangerously loose in her grasp.

Beau props herself up on her elbows to watch Yasha’s very gradual rise. “Be careful on your way down. Don't fall, I mean it.”  

Yasha throws her a lazy wink that is absolutely lost in the dark of the night. “I’ll try.”

“Good.” Beau concedes, and almost lays flat again before jerking into fully upright sitting. “Wait! Trade me, for the rest of the night?”

There’s a good two thirds of the whiskey left. “Oh, I can’t, you’ve got more left than I do.”

“You really can.” Beau insists. “Share it with Caduceus, he likes this stuff in his tea, right?”

Yasha can’t stop the laugh that races out of her. “That’s not whiskey, it’s a digestif Beau!”  

“Please?” Her fingers are clinging to the bottom of the port, and Yasha knew from when she first asked that if Beau pressed it, she would relent.

Yasha slowly releases her hold on the port, and Beau gently places the bottle on the roof. She turns to grab her whiskey, and the moonlight on the curve of her neck really is something. 

The heavy bottle is in her palm, and both of them hesitate just for a moment as their fingertips brush in the exchange. 

“I’ll cherish it.” Yasha promises, doing a little bow that gets one last laugh out of Beau. 

As she nears the edge and maps out the safest way down and into her opened window, Beau calls out to her in the only affirmation the mentors have for one another when they have to part.

“Next year, Yasha?"

The smile she has is private, a secret just for herself. “Next year, Beau.”

With that promise, Yasha begins her slow, steady and safe decent to the suit below, whiskey bottle clutched protectively to her chest the whole way down.