In every district of Panem, people crowd around every available screen, watching with bated breath as President Mane reaches into a small box, pulls out a yellow envelope and opens it.
“For the seventh Quarter Quell, tributes will be reaped from the males of each district,” he announces, and the girls in nine districts sigh in relief, while the girls in districts 1, 2, and 4 make various sounds of disappointment that they won’t be able to volunteer.
A few minutes later, live footage from the district 1 reaping is streaming live all over Panem. Before the escort can take a single step towards the reaping ball, two strong, confident voices ring out in unison.
“I volunteer as tribute!” The other potentials deflate in disappointment. They had all been planning on volunteering at the earliest opportunity, they just weren’t fast enough. Some watch listlessly, while others glare as Dan Flint and Josh Franceschi head for the stage, both smirking triumphantly.
The live coverage cuts to district 2 a few moments later, only for the same thing to happen almost instantly, as Brendon Urie and Dallon Weekes volunteer within seconds of each other.
In district 3, no-one volunteers, and there’s some suspense as the escort makes her way to the reaping ball and makes a show of swirling her hand through the slips of paper for almost a full minute before grasping two of them. She totters slowly over to the microphone on seven inch platform heels, every potential tenses as she slowly opens both slips of paper and scans them, before leaning into the mic.
“The tributes from district 3 are Max Helyer and Matt Barnes,” she announces with false sweetness, an equally false smile fixed firmly in place. They both head for the stage, giving each other a nod of grim resignation as they reach the escort.
The reaping in district 4 is over just as quickly as the first two, Chris Miller and Matt Kean volunteering as soon as the live feed moves to their district.
There are no further volunteers as they move through the districts, just grim resignation and a few screams of despair and denial as tributes are chosen. The worst scenes come from districts 5 and 8, where two sets of brothers are reaped. The screams from Carol Sykes as her eldest son is reaped for district 5 are bad enough, but when her youngest son is also reaped moments later, her cries of anguish are bad enough to make more than a few people switch off screens in every district. When the same thing happens to Sean and Jay Smith in district 8, even people in the Capitol can’t bear to watch.
Once all of the tributes have been reaped, they’re herded onto the trains that will take them to the Capitol. On the train leaving district 11, Jack Barakat turns wide, scared eyes to stare at Alex Gaskarth.
“How can you be so calm about this?” He asks softly, and Alex shrugs with a tight smile.
“I was expecting it, my name was in there 107 times,” he explains, and Jack chokes on a gasp.
“How could you possibly have your name in there so many times?” He asks, his voice trembling, and Alex shrugs again.
“This was my last year, and I have twelve older siblings. I’ve taken tesserae for myself and all fourteen members of my family every single year, it all adds up. How many did you have?” It’s a weak, desperate attempt at making conversation, but he feels he has to try.
“30, I did the same with the tesserae, but there are only six of us, and I still had two years left, so…” He trails off, and Alex nods and clears his throat.
“So, how come I’ve never seen you before? 11’s not that big,” he tries to sound casual, but the slight tremor in his voice ruins the effect.
“I dunno. I guess we must have grown up in different areas. My parents are wheat farmers, so…” Jack seems completely unable to finish a sentence, but Alex can’t find it in him to blame him.
“Yeah, my family works in the orchards, so we wouldn’t have really crossed paths,” he informs him, and Jack nods, watching his hands as they twist together in his lap. They’re silent the rest of the way to the Capitol.
In district 9, Gavin Butler watches sadly as the other tribute, a tiny, terrified 14 year old named Rhys, has to be physically dragged onto the train by Peacekeepers. When they finally get him onto the train, he curls up in a chair and cries softly all the way to the Capitol, while Gavin stares out the window, quietly coming to terms with the fact that he’s more than likely going to die soon.
Once at the Capitol, the tributes are quickly led to their stylists and prepped for the tribute parade. Josh and Dan from district 1 are draped in gold silk and elaborate jewelry; Brendon and Dallon from district 2 are made up to look like stone statues; Max and Matt Barnes from district 3 are made to look like circuit boards; Chris and Matt Kean from district 4 are transformed into glistening mermen, brandishing lethal looking tridents; Oli and Tom from district 5 are dressed in unitards covered in dozens of tiny spotlights; Matt Nicholls and Lee from district 6 are wearing the uniforms of train conductors; Jordan and Gareth from district 7 are lumberjacks; Sean and Jay from district 8 wear costumes that are a patchwork of a dozen different textiles; Gavin and Rhys from district 9 wear burlap grain sacks; Matt Davies and James from district 10 are made to look like cattle; Alex and Jack from district 11 are dressed as wheat sheafs; and Rian and Zack from district 12 are coal miners.
They start training early the next morning. While Dan is choosing a bow, he overhears Alex and Jack speaking what seems to be nonsense to each other.
“The eagle swoops low over Panem,”
“The crickets chirp loudest at dawn,” he gives them both a baffled glance, grabs a bow and moves to the target range.
What Dan doesn’t know, is that late the night before, they had huddled by the windows in Jack’s bedroom and painstakingly created a code to converse in, when need be. He has no idea they were actually talking about him.
“The mean looking one from 1 is watching us,”
“Ignore him and he’ll leave.”
As the day goes on, Alex and Jack approach several of the more scared looking tributes, tentatively forming alliances with them, teaching them bits and pieces of the code. They avoid the Careers, so as time passes, Dan gets more confused and irritated as more of the tributes start talking gibberish.
Finally, he decides he’s had enough, when Alex and Tom walk past him, and Alex casually remarks;
“The cat bathes in orange sunlight,” Dan lets out a snarl as he spins around, dropping the axe in his hand as he grabs the collar of Alex’s t-shirt, lifts him off his feet and slams him against the wall.
“Right, I’ve had enough of this shit. What the fuck is going on?!” He demands, ignoring Alex’s whimper of fear.
“I-I don’t know what you’re talking about,” he stammers weakly, but Dan snarls wordlessly, pulls him away from the wall only to slam him against it again, and Alex realises that he’s not going to be able to talk his way out of this one. “Ok, ok, I’ll tell you, just let me go, please,” he begs, and Dan complies. He doesn’t move back, glaring at Alex as fear alone keeps him pinned to the wall.
In a hesitant whisper, Alex explains that he and Jack have been forming alliances with some of the other tributes, with the hope of escaping the arena together. When he’s done, Dan eyes him thoughtfully for a moment, then nods.
“We want in,” is all he says, and Alex frowns in confusion.
“You and…?” He asks hesitantly, and Dan sighs.
“Me and Josh, and Matt and Chris from 4,” he fills in, and Alex’s frown deepens.
“But… Didn’t you guys volunteer?” He asks softly, and Dan sighs again.
“Yeah, but only because it was expected of us, none of us want to be here any more than you do. I don’t know about the guys from 2, though. They seem pretty thrilled to be here,” he explains, and Alex nods.
“Yeah, we’ve been avoiding them. Max overheard them talking earlier, they were discussing which of us looked the weakest and arguing over which of them gets to slaughter each of us,” he tells him softly, flinching when Dan bares his teeth.
“Let the little fuckers try, I’ll happily rip both of them to shreds,” he snarls softly, relaxing his face into a more neutral expression when he sees the looks of fear they’re both giving him. “So, are we in, or what?” He changes the subject, and they both relax slightly.
“Yeah, if you guys are serious about getting out, then we’ll be glad to have you,” Alex assures him, and both he and Dan tense when Tom clears his throat and nods to something behind Dan. He turns on his heel and finds one of the trainers striding towards them.
“Problem, gentlemen?” Her tone is casual, but holds a steely undertone that lets them know she’s not to be fucked with.
“No, ma’am. Just a slight misunderstanding, all sorted now, nothing to worry about,” Dan assures her politely, and she eyes them doubtfully for a moment, but ultimately decides that he’s telling the truth, nods once and turns away, walking over to Dallon to correct his grip on a bow. “Yeah, ‘cause that’s what we need, her teaching him how to kill us all better,” he grumbles softly, then turns back to Alex. “So, the gibberish, it’s actually a code?” He asks, and Alex and Tom start teaching him the more important parts of the code.
Once all of the mentors, escorts, and stylists are asleep, those that are in on the plan sneak up to Alex and Jack’s floor. The tributes from 1, 3, 4, 5, 6, 11, 12, and Jordan from 7 are all there, making plans in soft, furtive whispers.
“Once we’re out, where do we go? We can’t go back to our districts,” Lee asks worriedly, and they all go silent as they think it over.
“District 13,” Zack whispers, and they all look at him in surprise. “The underground bunkers are still there, as far as I know. Once we’re out, we could try to head there,” he adds, and a few of them nod.
“That could work, but what about food? I highly doubt there’s any left down there,” Rian agreed, and Josh shrugged.
“We take as many weapons with us as we can, bows and arrows, axes, knives, swords, anything and everything we can carry. We’d need to, anyway, we’ll probably need to fight our way out of the Capitol. Once we’re out, though, we can use them to hunt on the way to 13. I don’t know about the rest of you, but Dan and I can hunt pretty well, should be enough to keep us alive until we get there,” he suggests, and they all nod. Jordan, Rian and Zack all volunteer to help with the hunting, Chris and Matt Kean offer to catch fish from any streams or rivers they find, and Alex and Jack tell them that they can identify and harvest any edible fruits, plants, and crops they come across, and Jack’s pretty good with a scythe, which may come in handy.
“Brilliant, that’s really brilliant. I really think we’re going to be able to pull this off,” Josh grins at them, but Oli frowns.
“We still haven’t figured out how we’re going to get out of the arena, though,” he comments softly, and they all sigh, but then Matt Barnes has a stroke of genius.
“Remember the third Quarter Quell? Katniss Everdeen took out the force field with an arrow. I know at least three of you are seriously good shots, and I don’t know if any of you saw earlier, but Dan is seriously good with an axe. If we take out the force field, I have no doubt he could get through the wall of the arena,” he suggests, and all of them look to Dan for confirmation.
“Yeah. There’s a good chance it’ll be steel, but it should be pretty thin, I don’t think I’ll have too much trouble with it,” he confirms, and they nod and grin.
“In that case, I think we might just get away with this.”
The rest of their training goes faster than any of them would have liked, except for the Careers from 2, of course. They try to recruit everyone except the Careers to their escape plan, but they’re not interested. Gareth turns out to be a bit of a Career. His dad and older brother spent most of his life training him for the Games, he’s all about self-preservation and the glory. Sean tells them that while he won’t stand in their way, he wants no part in it, and refuses to let them talk to Jay about it. His one priority is to get Jay out of the arena alive, and he’s convinced that they’ll get him killed. Gavin’s become too convinced of his impending doom to be of any use to anyone; Rhys is too young, too scared, and too inexperienced to be of any help, but they approach him anyway. All they get in response is a wide eyed, blank look, which they assume is a no. Matt Davies and James don’t even give them the chance to ask. They rebuff any attempts at conversation, and refer to the rest of the tributes as ‘the enemy’. Josh insists that even if they’d managed to talk to them, he wouldn’t have wanted them to come with them anyway.
“I’d never feel safe enough to sleep with them around, I’d end up killing them eventually, just so I could get some sleep,” is the reason he gives, and no-one argues with him.
Before any of them know it, they’ve completed their private training assessment and received their scores. Dan, Gareth and Alex take the lead with 11. The rest of them score high, apart from Jay, Gavin and Rhys. Jay and Gavin barely scrape a 4, while Rhys ends up with 1, which doesn’t really surprise anyone. They can’t help feeling sorry for him, though.
What seems like seconds later, they’ve done their interviews with Caesar Flickerman, it’s the morning of the Games, and each of them is being led to their Launch Rooms. Almost all of them worry at the clothes the Gamemakers have given them. They’re thick, thermal, and there’s a lot of them. Heavy boots with snow grips; two pairs of thick, woollen socks; thermal leggings; heavy, padded salopettes; a thermal undershirt; thermal t-shirt; a heavy woollen jumper; knee-length, fur-lined parka; two pairs of gloves, one woollen, the other ski gloves; woollen, thermal hat; balaclava; scarf; and UV filter snow goggles. The stylists insist they put all of it on, which worries them all more, but none of the stylists will answer any questions as they each usher their tribute into the tribute tube.
As they’re launched into the arena, Dan’s first thought is to be glad for the goggles. They’re instantly bombarded by a howling blizzard, and the glare from the several feet of snow already on the ground would have immediately, probably permanently blinded them all. While the timer ticks down, Dan squints towards the Cornucopia, hoping to spot something useful he can head for. As the timer counts down the last ten seconds, he spots a large, sturdy axe, surrounded by several backpacks that could hold something useful.
As soon as the timer hits zero, and the klaxon blares, Dan springs from his Launch Plate and sprints through the snow, eyes zeroed in on the axe. He’s three feet away from it when he hears someone call his name in warning. He dives, grabbing the handle of the axe as he rolls, lands on his feet, stands and swings the axe, blindly trusting the voice. He realises it was the right thing to do as the axe buries itself in Brendon’s skull. He’d been less than a foot behind Dan, with a sword raised.
Dan takes the sword Brendon had been planning on killing him with. Spotting a utility belt nearby, he secures it to his waist, attaches both the sword and axe to it, then grabs the three backpacks that are at his feet. As he starts to head away from the Cornucopia, the cannon fires three times. He turns back toward the Cornucopia with slight panic, looking around frantically. He knows one of them was for Brendon, but who else…? He sighs in relief as he sees the other two fallen tributes. He feels a small amount of sadness, but no surprise, at the sight of the tiny crumpled body that can’t be anyone but Rhys, lying in a pool of blood beside the Cornucopia. The slightly larger body a few feet away can only be Matt Davies, and while Dan’s slightly annoyed that he didn’t get the chance to take down the little fucker, he’s glad that there’s one less Career to deal with.
Since he seems to be the only one still at the Cornucopia, Dan decides to take more time to look for more weapons. He finds a bow and a quiver of arrows; a heavy wooden baton; a few knives and daggers; a length of rope; three water bottles, two of which are full of hot water; a blanket; sleeping bag; a first-aid kit; and three boxes of matches.
Once he’s taken everything he thinks is useful, he starts jogging through the snow, looking for some kind of shelter. After almost half an hour, he hears a voice call his name. He turns and sees Oli waving him over. When he reaches him, he realises he’s standing beside the mouth of a cave, the large boulder in front of it both shielding it from the worst of the blizzard, and making it difficult to see.
He follows Oli into the cave and finds Tom, Josh and Alex already in there. There’s just enough room for all of them to get comfortable. As Dan’s getting settled, he notices Tom shivering violently. Oli sees him looking at Tom and sighs.
“He fell through some ice. I managed to get him out within seconds, but a few seconds was enough. The fact that Davies tore up his leg isn’t helping,” he explains, and Dan nods, then starts rummaging through one of the backpacks he’d picked up.
“I saw Davies’ body at the Cornucopia, I take it that was you?” He asks as he pulls out a box of matches, one of the bottles of hot water, the first-aid kit and the sleeping bag.
“Yeah, I- Shit, you made out like a fuckin’ bandit, didn’t you?” Oli laughs, and Dan shrugs and grins as he hands the bottle to Tom, the first-aid kit to Josh, and keeps the sleeping bag beside him. Better to wait until he dries off. He starts feeling around the floor of the cave as Oli and Alex help Tom strip out of all the layers and Josh starts patching up Tom’s leg. By the time Josh is done, Dan’s managed to find enough twigs, branches, and dry leaves to make a decent sized fire. Once it’s lit, he urges Tom as close to it as possible, lays Tom’s clothes out beside it, dries him off with the blanket, then helps him into the sleeping bag. Once that’s done, he goes to the mouth of the cave, fills the two empty water bottles with snow, then sits them in the fire to melt the snow then boil the water.
While the water boils, Alex empties out the backpack full of food he’d managed to grab, and starts rationing it out. Once he’s done, he puts most of it back into the backpack, and hands each of them a small bread roll and a few strips of dried meat.
“It’s not much, but it’ll keep us alive, and the longer we make the food last, the better,” he mumbles, smiling slightly when they all nod in agreement and mumble their thanks.
They stay in the cave overnight. They all huddle close to the fire, each of them taking turns keeping watch while the others get a few hours sleep. Tom’s the only one who doesn’t, after the rest of them insist he get as much sleep as possible. The cannon fires three more times before morning, and while they’re all worried, no-one says anything.
When morning comes, they put out the fire, help Tom struggle back into his clothes, and Josh creeps to the mouth of the cave to scope out their surroundings. He comes back a minute later and nods.
“No-one around, and the blizzard’s over, thank god,” he tells them, and they make their way out of the cave.
They walk for most of the morning, finally meeting up with the rest of their group just before noon. When Oli mentions that they were worried for the others when they heard the cannon, Zack nods.
“We were the same, but while we were looking for you guys, we found the three of them. Dallon seems to have fallen through some thin ice, and frozen to death after he managed to crawl out. James was lying in a ditch, his head was caved in with a rock. I dunno if one of the others killed him or if he fell. Gavin looked like he tried to sleep under a bush and died of exposure,” he reels off, and they nod.
“Alright, the Smiths aren’t going to bother us, so it’s just Gareth we need to worry about, now,” Tom comments, in code, just to be safe, and they all nod.
“I don’t think we should hang about. Let’s start looking for the edge of the arena and see if we can get out of here,” Lee suggests, again in code, and they all agree. They start trying to figure out which way to go, and finally, Max realises the obvious. It doesn’t matter what way they go, they’ll find the edge of the arena eventually no matter what.
As they start to walk, most of them give Dan confused glances as he frequently crouches to pick up any small stones and twigs he sees. Their confusion only grows as he starts throwing a stone or twig in front of them every minute or so. When he finally notices their confusion, he grins wryly.
“I don’t fancy finding the force field by walking into it, do you?” He asks rhetorically, and they all nod in understanding.
After walking for a little over two hours, Dan tenses when he notices movement from the corner of his eye. Something human shaped, heading towards them. Without hesitating, he pulls his bow from his back, drawing back the drawstring and loading an arrow to it in one smooth motion as he spins on his heel towards the movement.
“Down!” He barks, barely waiting for those around him to duck before he looses the arrow.
He realises half a second too late, and can only watch with rising guilt as the arrow tears through Jay’s throat. He’s frozen by guilt as he watches Sean run from a copse of trees to Jay’s body, crouching beside it and clutching it as the cannon fires. Suddenly, Sean looks up at them, sees the bow in Dan’s hand, and jumps to his feet, running at them with a roar of rage. Dan knows he should do something, that Sean is going to kill him, but he can’t move. He doesn’t have to, as a dagger flies past him and sinks into Sean’s chest. The cannon goes off before he hits the ground.
Dan manages to pull himself together as he watches Chris retrieve his dagger and Dan’s arrow and come back to the group. He nods his thanks as Chris hands him the arrow and slides it back into the quiver, slinging the bow onto his back again. Jack walks beside Dan as they press on, taking a handful of stones from him, the two of them taking turns throwing them as Jack softly reassures him that it wasn’t his fault. It could have been Gareth, and if Dan had hesitated, even for a second, they could have died.
Finally, after three hours of walking, Dan throws a stone and it hits the force field with a sharp crackle. They all stop walking and turn to Dan for instructions.
“Back up about ten, maybe fifteen feet, just in case,” he tells them, and they nod, doing as he asks. He’s just pulled the bow from his back when he hears a commotion behind him. He turns and finds Gareth and Josh rolling around in the snow. Gareth has a machete, which he’s doing his best to kill Josh with. Josh is managing to hold him off, but Dan knows he won’t be able to forever, and none of the others can get a clear shot at Gareth.
Dan doesn’t hesitate. He drops his bow, sprints to them, grabs Gareth as he rolls on top of Josh, and snaps his neck before he gets the chance to do anything else. Dan throws the body to the side and holds out a hand, hauling Josh, breathless and indescribably grateful, to his feet.
“You alright?” He asks softly as Josh pulls him into a hug, sighing in relief when he feels Josh nod against his shoulder. He releases Josh and steps back with a nod, then turns back to the force field. “Right, let’s get out of here, then,” he comments, pacing back over to where he’d dropped his bow. He takes aim and looses the arrow, watching with satisfaction as it strikes the force field, which crackles, flickers and falls.
As soon as it starts to flicker, Dan returns the bow to his back, and pulls the axe from his utility belt. He starts to jog towards it, and strikes the wall of the arena three seconds after it becomes visible. His assessment that it would be thin steel turns out to be correct, and he’s made a hole large enough for them to climb through within five minutes.
When Dan starts on the wall with his axe, the others ready themselves. They’ll have to be quick. They make sure they’re completely ready to run, and Tom is securely on Oli’s back. There’s no way he’ll be able to run with his leg injured so badly. As soon as he lowers his axe and waves them over, they’re by his side, sliding through the hole one at a time.
The heat outside the arena almost floors them. They know they don’t have time to strip off, though. It’s a miracle that there are no Peacekeepers around, they were too fast for the Gamemakers to figure out what was happening and scramble the Peacekeepers. They have to move fast, the more ground they cover before the Peacekeepers are mobile, the less fighting they’ll have to do.
As soon as they’re out, they all ready whatever weapons they have, and look around frantically.
“Quick, this way,” Matt Barnes hisses, leading them down an alleyway, which turns out to be the first in a series of labyrinthine pathways, which Matt leads them through with surprising speed.
“You know where you’re going, right?” Dan hisses to him as they pass a group of terrified people, all dressed in the ridiculous, peacock-esque outfits synonymous with the Capitol. As he passes them, Josh glares at them as he presses his finger to his lips to signal them to keep quiet, his other hand coming up to show them his sword in a vague threat. They nod in terror as the procession of lethal, armed to the teeth tributes file past them.
Dan stares at the back of Matt’s head impatiently, until they pass the group, and Matt decides it’s safe to answer.
“Of course I do. Half of the time I was meant to be training before the Games, I was actually hacking into the Capitol’s servers. I memorised entire maps and blueprints of the whole city,” he tells him without a trace of smugness, which Dan admires him for.
“And this is the best way to get out?” He asks, and Matt nods.
“Yeah. This route will takes us to about twenty feet from the city walls. We’ll probably have Peacekeepers between us and the wall, but once we get past them and through the gate, we’ll be in the mountains, they likely won’t follow us on foot, so we’ll have some time,” he explains, stopping as he comes to the end of the last pathway. “Alright, just around the corner, and we’re there. Everyone be ready, they’ll probably have every Peacekeeper in the Capitol waiting for us,” he announces to them all softly, and they nod, readying themselves for the fight ahead.
The fight is over relatively quickly. There’s only two dozen Peacekeepers waiting for them, and they make short work of them. They move quickly through the gate and into the mountains, several of them ignoring injuries until they can find somewhere safe to deal with them. They make it seven miles before the adrenaline wears off and Dan’s injured knee gives out, refusing to hold his weight any longer. Jordan and Matt Nicholls support him as they make their way to a densely covered clearing. Once they sit Dan down on a tree stump, Jordan sorts everyone out, making sure everyone who’s been injured has someone to help them sort themselves out. Dan retrieves the first-aid kit from his bag, relieved to see that it’s still mostly full, and that they have at least three more kits between them all.
He takes a small bottle of disinfectant, some bandages and a couple of splints from his first-aid box, then hands the box to Jordan.
“Here, make sure everyone has what they need,” he tells him, and Jordan quickly checks to make sure Dan has what he needs from it, then takes it from him with a nod before moving over to hand it to Lee.
As Dan starts struggling out of his clothes, Max appears at his side and starts helping him. Once he’s down to the base layer, and Max is disinfecting the wound, Dan looks around at the others, trying to take his mind off the pain.
“How is everyone?” He asks through gritted teeth, and Max shrugs, focusing on the bullet wound just below Dan’s left knee.
“I think yours is the worst. Josh took an arrow to the shoulder, but thanks to all the layers he was wearing, it’s pretty shallow-” Dan cuts him off at this point.
“Wait, wait, I didn’t think the Peacekeepers used bows?” He asks, momentarily forgetting the pain in his leg, and Max shrugs.
“They don’t usually, but I think they had to move so quickly, they just grabbed the first weapons they could find. Anyway, other than you and Josh, most of us are fine. Alex reckons his arm is broken, but most of the other injuries are just gashes and bruises from batons,” he finishes as he starts bandaging Dan’s leg.
Max is just finishing securing the splints when Matt Barnes clears his throat.
“Right, if I’m correct, we’re on the edge of district 7. I think the best thing to do is cut through 7, then 5, then 9, then there’s a lake or something between 9 and 13, I think we should head North and go around, rather than risk trying to go across. After that, there’s only a few miles of woodland, then we’ll be in 13. It should take about a week on foot, as long as we take turns carrying Tom and Dan. If either of them have to walk, it’ll take longer. Everyone agree?” He rattles off, and although Dan hates being a liability, he can’t ask them to risk their lives for longer than necessary just because he’s stubborn, so he nods in agreement with everyone else. Once that’s decided, Chris goes around them all, cutting out each of their trackers in turn and bandaging the wounds.
Once Dan’s put a few of his layers back on, and stuffed the rest into his backpack, and the others pack up everything they’ve used, Oli tries to lift Tom back onto his back, only to be stopped by Jack.
“You’ve been carrying him for hours, let me,” he insists, and Oli reluctantly agrees, lifting Tom onto Jack’s back. Rian helps Dan onto Zack’s back, and they head out, spreading out slightly and moving at a steady pace, but not too fast, keeping an eye out for Peacekeepers. They reckon Matt was right that they wouldn’t follow on foot, but they’re still cautious, just in case.
They have a few close calls. They’ve almost crossed 7, when they run into three lumberjacks. The largest of the three immediately puts his finger to his lips to silence them.
“Five Peacekeepers are nearby,” he whispers, and they nod their thanks, hiding in undergrowth and under piles of logs until the Peacekeepers are long gone. When they slowly come back out, the three lumberjacks are still there, and one of them nods to Jordan.
“I’ll let your Da know you’re alright, he’s been beside himself. Good luck, boys, you’ll need it,” with one last nod of acknowledgement, they turn and leave.
Dan and Josh are hunting in district 5, the others hidden and waiting in a cave, when Josh clicks his tongue twice to get Dan’s attention, then nods to something ahead. Dan squints through the trees, and sees them. Two Peacekeepers, moving slowly and scanning their surroundings. Dan turns to Josh and nods, and in unison, they raise their bows and each loose an arrow at them. Dan’s arrow pierces the Peacekeeper’s helmet and goes halfway through his skull, Josh’s goes through the other’s chest, the tip coming a few inches out of his back.
They retrieve their arrows, then stand completely still for a few minutes, listening intently. When they hear no signs of any more Peacekeepers, they resume their hunt, managing to fell a decent sized doe, which keeps them all fed for two days.
They’re halfway across district 9, out in the open, when they hear a loud whirring from overhead.
“Shit, hovercraft, run!” Lee hisses, and they sprint to the trees several metres away. They manage to scramble into the undergrowth just as the first hovercraft appears, and a horrible thought occurs to Tom.
“They’re not equipped with thermal imaging, are they?” He asks Lee, who shakes his head.
“Not as far as I know, thankfully,” he replies, and Tom relaxes slightly. They hang around for a few hours, but thankfully don’t send any Peacekeepers to the ground, and eventually give up and leave.
As they skirt around the lake at the edge of district 9, Matt Kean notices Dan shifting and fidgeting on his back.
“You alright? We can stop so you can stretch your legs, if you want?” He offers, but Dan shakes his head.
“No, I’m fine. I’m just worried. They don’t seem to be trying very hard to catch us,” he finally voices, and Matt thinks about it for a while before he answers.
“Maybe they’re just looking in the wrong places. Any time we’ve seen them, it’s seemed like they were only looking for one or two of us. Maybe they think we’ve split up and gone back to our own districts,” he suggests, and Dan nods.
“Yeah, that’s probably it,” he agrees, but the worry still niggles at him.
Dan continues to worry as they get closer and closer to 13 without encountering any more Peacekeepers. Once they’ve gotten around the lake, Matt Barnes pulls a folded piece of paper from his pocket.
“I thought of printing a map of the entire of Panem, but it would have been too obvious, so I memorised the rest of it and printed off the most important part,” he explains absently as he studies it, then turns. “Alright, as long as we keep going in this direction, we should get to 13 in a few hours,” he announces, and they all follow him into the trees. Dan, still worried, speaks up.
“I think we should move slowly. I don’t like that we haven’t really seen many Peacekeepers, they might be waiting here for us, in the trees,” he warns, and they all nod, slowing down and keeping a constant watch on their surroundings.
A few hours later, Rian’s about to ask Matt how much further they have to go, when he gets his answer. A large stag comes wandering through the trees, stops to sniff along Jack’s arm, then meanders away into the trees again.
“Well, at least we know it’ll be easy to hunt here, for a while, at least,” Josh mutters, getting a few small laughs and nods of agreement.
A short while later, they stop for a rest, and for Dan and Tom to stretch their legs. Matt consults his map, using a pencil he’d gotten from god knows where to scribble what little he knows about 13 onto the back. After a few minutes, he looks up and sighs.
“Alright, I’ve run out of useable knowledge, we’re going to have to wing it. I have no idea where any of the entrances to the bunker are, so we’re just going to have to search everywhere-” He’s cut off by Tom’s cry of pain as he trips over and lands hard.
They all rush over to him, but while the rest of them help Tom up and fuss over him, Alex is staring at the ground where Tom fell.
“Are you fucking kidding me?” He laughs, and they all turn to him, then look to where he’s staring. Sticking out of the ground is a rusted handle, the one that had tripped Tom.
“It can’t be that easy,” Matt Nicholls insists, going over to grasp the handle and pull. There’s some resistance, but it comes open, revealing a tunnel that drops deep into the ground. “There’s a ladder, looks pretty sturdy, but there’s no way Dan or Tom are getting down there on their own,” he tells them, and they think about it for a few minutes.
“Alex and I both grabbed some rope from the Cornucopia, but even tied together, they wouldn’t reach down far enough,” Jack tells them thoughtfully.
“I’ve got some, too,” Dan and Chris announce in unison, then turn to grin at each other.
“Alright, in that case, we’ll tie the four lengths of rope together, tie one end to a tree stump or something, the other around their waists, I think a couple of us should go down first, to help them when they get to the bottom. Once they’re both down, we’ll untie the rope and throw it down before we come down,” Max decides, and most of them nod, but Dan clears his throat.
“I think Alex and Josh should use the rope. Not to lower them down, but they’ve both got injuries to their arms, I think it would be a good idea, just in case they lose their grip or something,” he suggests, and they all nod.
Once Dan’s been lowered down, he and Max start feeling along the walls.
“Once I find the control room, I can get this place running again, but for now, let’s hope there’s some torches or something,” Max mutters. Dan makes a small noise of agreement, just as his hand makes contact with a small box on the wall. He fumbles with it for a moment, then lets out an ‘aha!’ of accomplishment as light fills the narrow corridor. He uses the same match to light the other three lanterns, then limps over and hands them to Max, Jack, and Lee.
Once everyone is inside the bunker, they follow the corridor, splitting up each time they come to another corridor branching off, until a distant call from Matt Kean tells them he and Josh have found the control room.
It only takes a few minutes for Max and Matt to get the electricity running and light the place up, then they split into pairs, each taking a radio from the stash they find, and go exploring. They find bedrooms, workrooms, medical bays, but it’s Alex’s triumphant voice over the radio that gives them hope. He and Jordan have just found a storeroom full of food, all freeze-dried or preserved and still edible.
“This will keep us going for months, and who knows, this might not be the only storeroom,” he adds, and they all change tact, looking for more storerooms. In the end, they find two more storerooms, and the three of them hold enough food to keep them going for well over a year.
“Actually, it’s more like two or three years. I mean, I still plan on hunting game, I think we’d all benefit from regular fresh meat, so…” Dan corrects their estimate, and Josh nods.
“Same here, I think it’ll be a long time before we have to worry about food,” he agrees.
They all spend the next few weeks setting things up the way they like them, while their injuries heal. A week after Dan regains full use of his leg, he and Josh go out hunting. Josh was right, it’s easy pickings, the deer don’t run away from them, they could probably just walk up to them and slit their throats if they wanted.
As they’re walking back to the bunker, each with a dead deer over their shoulders, Josh stops and sits down the deer. Dan does the same, and they stop to catch their breath. After a few minutes, Josh smiles hesitantly at Dan.
“Y’know, I never did thank you for killing Gareth, you saved my life,” he comments softly, and Dan shrugs with a smile.
“No need to thank me, I’m just glad he didn’t hurt you,” he insists, but Josh shakes his head, closes the space between them and leans down to kiss Dan’s cheek.
“Thank you, really,” he murmurs feelingly, then steps back, hauls the stag up onto his shoulders again, and strolls away, leaving Dan staring at his back, touching his cheek with a slightly stunned expression.
As time goes by, they slip into routines, running like a well oiled machine. They all grow closer, ending up more like a family, and while they all miss their own families, they know their loved ones will be safer as long as no-one knows where they are. As years pass, they occasionally get a little bored with the quiet, unassuming existence they’ve adopted, but then they remember the alternative. At least they survived.