Etienne is surprised when they come upon him in the night. He shouldn't have been, really. The surprise should have been that he's lasted as long as he has. He hasn't been clever or particularly skillful, has survived on combination of dumb luck and quick reflexes. His height helped a bit; he doesn't tower over the bushes like most of the tributes his age.
The tall ones had gone down quickly. Stuck by roses, human pincushions for the thorned things.
Etienne used to think roses were pretty. But, he had learned, that was the Capitol for you. Twisting, subversive. They took what you thought you knew and molded it into something else. Citizens of the Capitol like Etienne were supposed to be safe. Coddled. Tributes didn't come from the Capitol, only the districts.
Etienne had thought life was pretty. But then, he'd never expected he'd have to fight for it.
He used to think sleep was pretty too- full of peaceful breathing, and comforting darkness. Of dreams: fanciful, fleeting images. Girls in short skirts. An elephant peeling back the skin of a banana. A girl with a gap in her teeth and a stripe in her hair. Sleep is where wishes come true, where Etienne skips the months of waiting to tell her, to touch her, to hold her and laugh, and they have forever, an eternity to smile into each others' mouths and wind their limbs around each other.
But sleep is not pretty. Sleep is deadly. In the arena, like so many other things, sleep is the enemy.
Etienne knew that. So really, the rustle of dried leaves scraping together shouldn't have had him blinking drowsily over at them as he struggled to pull himself awake. He should have already been alert, despite the suffocating heat.
He shouldn't have wasted time stuffing his meager belongings into his pack. Shouldn't have tripped over a rock like a clumsy oaf. Shouldn't have had to scrabble away from the sound of movement like a deer fleeing from the sound of a gunshot. But Etienne and the deer weren't so different. Both were hunted. Both were prey. And prey is easy to send scurrying into a trap.
Etienne should have been alert. He should have paid attention. He should have at least seen the crouching figure of the career from District 2 shrouded in shadow before he stepped into the sliver of moonlight, tanned hands waiting and ready before he snapped Etienne's neck.
Etienne should have had time for a last thought.
It would have been Anna.
The knife slides back into its makeshift sheath easily, much like the way the short boy's body has fallen to rest between them. His arm is twisted beneath him, his legs tangled. Alex is glad that the head faces the dirt. The way he fell, Alex is sure that the eyes are still open, sight unseeing and but somehow still accusing. Alex hadn't lain a hand on the boy, but the eyes would accuse him just the same and they wouldn't be the first.
Kartik, the last one of Alex's allies, toes the body; making sure that he's really dead before he looks up. "This is it, you realize."
He keeps his voice low. If Alex's count is right, there is only one more of them left and it is the one with the deadly roses. Two of them will be dead soon, whether it's done at each other's hands or by a trick of the Gamemakers.
Alex had been lucky to ally with Kartik and the other Careers. They'd taken Alex based on his claim that he could fashion weaponry and shelter from nature. Alex could make something from nothing, he boasted in an obvious attempt to live longer. They'd accepted him and he'd stuck to his word, but lived among them carefully.
These were the Games and trust was a luxury he could not afford. Affection would be worse. Here, it really would be fatal.
In a way, he'd been grateful for the melee when the Careers turned on each other. It had given him time to flee while they were distracted with each other. Kartik, dark eyes unfathomable, had fallen into a run beside him and Alex understood that he was choosing to hold on to their partnership. For now.
A light wind ruffles the dead boy's hair and there's a wrench inside of Alex, a chunk of himself is pulled away, leaving an open, gaping vortex. It pulls a desperate whine from him. "It shouldn't be like this," Alex says. It seems an obvious thing and the words fall lamely out of his mouth into the dead air.
Kartik's mouth twists. He spits. "This is the way it is."
They turn and walk steadily away from each other. The understanding that the next time they meet, their alliance is over and done with hangs over Alex.
And the accusing eyes weigh down his shoulders.
The trick from the Gamemakers comes faster than Alex expects. Dawn is just reaching its fingers up from the horizon to stroke color into the sky when the acrid smell of smoke hits his nose.
That's what he's done, all his life. He has survived. It is his greatest skill. Alex is good at surviving. It's why he's lasted as long as he has.
Alex is quick, but fire roaring across fields of dried brush, engineered by the Gamemakers seems far quicker. It's a blink of time, a heartbeat of an instant before the fire is burning behind him, licking heat at the back of his neck.
It shouldn't be like this, Alex thinks again and he stops. He is too tired to keep running and too tired to resist, and for the first time in his life, too tired to survive. He keeps his eyes open as the flames gobble him up greedily. He wants them open. Wants the screens that are on him, watching, to see the accusation in them. He wants his eyes to follow them the way the eyes of other tributes followed him through his last hellish blur of days.
It shouldn't be this way.
And it wouldn't be that way for Alex any longer.
It was to be expected when Kartik's brother, Amar, stepped forward to volunteer in the place of Pratik. That was the way of District 2, where Career Tributes were born and bred, but more importantly, that was the way of the Rakshana.
Kartik wasn't worried about Amar. Raising his hand, shouting "I volunteer," he wasn't even worried for himself. He clapped his brother on the back good-naturedly as he passed him by in the crowd. If he had a bit of a swagger as he walked up, it couldn't be helped.
He was confident and comfortable. Death would not come for Kartik anytime soon.
The Rakshana had agreed that someone else would be the Tribute that year, so Kartik took his place on the stage quite sure of himself. His eyes sought and found Amar in the crowd as the District 2 escort asked if anyone else would volunteer. For the first time since the Reaping had begun, Kartik's heart stuttered.
Amar did not meet his eyes.
Brotherhood did not exist, Kartik thinks bitterly, picking his way across the cliffs. When the Gamemakers weren't herding them like sheep, the arena had an aimless, meandering feel to it. A small, tainted world in and of itself. Unholy. Made to look wild.
It would be beautiful if it wasn't so evil.
The Gamemakers engineered friendships and brotherhood here the same way that they'd engineered the tracker jackers and muttations. The other Careers were not his brothers. Alex is not his friend. Back home, Kartik had thought that he could count on people. He'd had so-called 'brothers,' friends there, scads of them. After the Reaping, he understood. The Rakshana was no brotherhood, as he'd been taught to believe. Blood did not make someone a friend. He can only count on himself.
He's lost in his musings, but the training he's had since birth is not lost. He hears the skitter of rocks upon rocks, falling, and that is all it takes for Kartik's weapon to be out before him. To his knowledge, no one has seen the flower-hurling specter since he'd raced away from the Cornucopia, but they'd seen his victims enough times. On their backs, eyes closed, the stems of roses protruding from their chests. Some were still clutching at the roses like a bizarre funeral bouquet as their bodies were lifted from the Arena.
Kartik sees him now though, rising from the rocks not far from him. His hands are empty.
The eyes get him first, the twin points of blue searing across the space between them, the same color as the hottest part of a flame. It strikes Kartik suddenly despite their difference in coloring, how alike they are; how alike they all are really. The Capitol dresses them in the same clothes and tries to make them think the same, act the same. But some people are different. Some people don't fit, and he is sure that that is why the Rakshana turns against him.
Kartik is sure that he is not alone. That there are others out there who do not fit. Maybe even others who dissent, who would defy, the Capitol. He thinks briefly of Alex, but pushes the thought away. If he lives through the fight with the blue-eyed man, if Alex hasn't been died already, Kartik will have to kill him. So much the better. The Capitol would have him put down for his words anyway.
There must be others out there. Kartik wants to live long enough to find out.
It's this thought that spurs him across rocky ground, baying like an animal, weapon outstretched before him. The other Tribute dodges and Kartik darts forward again. He is slashed at the side this time and puts his hand there to staunch the flow of blood that gushes forth. That wound could kill him, he understands, if he doesn't kill the other man first and get taken back to the Capitol for medical treatment.
Stumbling a little, he aims a blow for the man's head. He doesn't dodge, lets the strike knock him back a few paces. The heat is unbearable and Kartik is panting as he brings his staff down for another hit. The blue-eyed man catches it before it can touch him. Drops of sweat are falling from his brow. His eyes are pitying and Kartik has the strangest thought that it is like his skin is crying.
Maybe it is the idea of crying that distracts him, something that Kartik has not let himself do since he was a child, for in that brief stall before Kartik tries to pull his staff back, he never sees the rose flying through the air to bury itself in his heart.
He pulls the flower out wonderingly after he stumbles backward. Pricks his finger against the sharp steel-tipped point of the stem. Blood wells there along with a bitter perfume. Bringing it to his lips as the edges of his vision blacken, he understands. Poison. He is almost grateful that at least death will be quicker.
His legs slacken. His limp hand tries, and fails, to catch his torso as it falls to the ground. Sound grows distant, the world is halting, a television show with interference, and Kartik's fingers hum with it.
"I am sorry, brother," the blue-eyed Tribute whispers, sliding Kartik's eyelids down.
Brother. In the darkness, for just a moment, Kartik believes the word.
And a moment is all that it takes.
It's a hollow victory, Mamoru thinks, but it had to be done.
President Snow is walking towards him, hand outstretched in congratulations. Mamoru takes it and forces a smile to stretch across his face and split his dry, cracked lips as Snow pumps his hand enthusiastically. Snow's hand is cold in his and Mamoru's anger swells when Snow's scent wafts to him. He has perverted not only Mamoru's planet, but his roses too.
He thinks of Usagi. Of the girls hidden away somewhere where the corrupt government that spills over his planet cannot find them. He can already see Usagi flying towards him, pigtails and tears streaming behind her.
She'd be furious with him, that he'd slipped his name into the reaping of some random District. She'd been horror-stricken over the Games when they'd arrived back on Earth earlier that year, but any pleas she'd made with the people had fallen on deaf ears. They'd wasted a fair amount of planetary magic erasing citizen's memory of the odango-ed dissenter.
The Games were terrible, she'd said, but he needed to have faith. The people would realize that. They were good, inherently good. They would put a stop to it, this year before they started, surely.
No. They wouldn't. They didn't, clearly.
It had been a fight- one of their worst, with real anger behind the words, before Mamoru left in a rage for one of the districts. Mercenary, yes, but Usagi would see, finally, that the Games would not stop without prompting, without force. Now that the violence of it is real and close, she will be furious, with him, but with the people too, that they still do not see how wrong it all is. Angry tears would rise in her eyes as she lifted the ginzuishou to freeze the Earth.
And Crystal Tokyo would come again.