Tony rolled the dice and he landed two sixes. The girls around him cheered and he pulled all of the chips in the center of the table into his already massive pile. A tall man with a military bearing pushed his way through the crowd and grabbed Tony by the shoulder. Tony turned with a scowl, then laughed when he realized who it was. “Rhodey! Hey! You here to play a game?”
“You know I’m not. We were both supposed to be backstage preparing for the opening ceremonies an hour ago.”
“Why in the world would I be backstage where it’s boring when I could be out here having fun with all of these lovely people?”
The people around him let out drunken cheers. The introduction was always broadcasted live at eight, and it was barely two now, so Tony had no clue why he had to be there so early.
He held out his dice and the woman hanging off his arm blew on them. Then Tony held out the dice to Rhodey. “Come on Honey Bear, give me a little good luck.”
Rhodey knocked the dice out of his hand and dragged him away from the crowd. “We’re late, and President Stane will have both of our asses on a platter if you aren’t there and looking perfect when the cameras start rolling. Come on.”
Rhodey dragged him out of the casino and down the hallways of the hotel until they reached the small door that lead to the stylists, who were all running around in a panic. They gathered around Tony with brushes and powders, dabbing at him furiously with makeup. Tony pushed them off. “I’m fine, I already look fine.”
“Not even close! We needed at least an hour to get you ready!” A woman wailed, while trying to put mascara on him. Behind him a stylist gelled his hair slicked back as he tried to dodge out of the way.
“We have your costume!” A different stylist said, holding up a sequined baby blue tuxedo. Tony shuddered in disgust. There was no way he was agreeing to wear that. He was already in a well tailored black suit, elegant and far more subtle than anything else people at the Capital wore. Fashion these days was unapologetically ostentatious and while Tony liked wearing stupid shit as much as the next guy, this would be his first time on national television and he wanted to look dignified, and not like some punk kid. His only concession to fashion was his goatee, overly elaborate in the current style.
They started to protest and were cut off as the screen above their heads made a loud buzzing sound and a countdown began. One minute until the cameras started rolling. Rhodey pulled open the door to the stage and Tony trotted out, running his hand through his hair and messing up the look the stylists had frantically tried to give him and leaving it tousled. He sank down next to Christine who gave him an unimpressed look.
“Cutting it close, aren’t you?”
Cutting it close? The whole room was empty, they hadn’t even let the crowd in yet. Once the doors were open it was going to be at least a half an hour of people shuffling around to find their seats. Tony leaned back in his chair, putting his hands behind his head and crossing one leg over the other. “I made it didn’t I?”
“You’re lucky you did. I don’t want to think what would Stane would have done to you if you didn’t.”
“Come on, Obie is an old softie.”
“You realize that he-” she was interrupted by a buzzer and the clock on a screen to the side flashed 0. She gave up on what she was going to say. She stood up and held her microphone close to her face, walking up to the edge of the stage with fake cheers played over the speakers mounted above them.
“Hello and welcome to the 74th Hunger Games! I’m Christine Everheart, coming to you live! Who’s excited to get started?”
A fake crowd roared and Tony sat up straighter in his chair. Was this it? Was this the actual interviews? Where was the crowd? In past years this event has always been with a live audience. Christine had said it was live, so what was going on?
In the middle of the aisle a camera watched, recording their performance and broadcasting it to the rest of the Capital and all of the Districts.
Christine paced back and forth, riling up the nonexistent crowd. “We have have excellent set contestants this year, are you ready to meet them?”
The crowd cheering sound played again.
“Excellent, excellent! Please turn your attention to the Coliseum doors!”
They were currently inside the game center, a building devoted entirely to the games. Right now Tony was on stage meant for interviews. There were training rooms below, and rooms for the contestants above, and in the basement was the control center for the actual arena. Leading up to the building was a long stretch of road with bleachers stretching high to the sky on either side, filled with people from the Capital who were lucky enough to get tickets.
On the screen to the side of the stage Tony watched as the doors swung open and the first two contests rolled out on a horse drawn chariot, waving. Each district sent two contestants to the Capital each year, a boy and a girl between the ages of 13 and 19. There were 12 districts so it added up to a lot of contestants, and Tony felt himself start to zone out. A chariot would enter the coliseum, the crowd would go nuts, the contestants would wave for the cameras and be projected for the world to see on the big screen, then it would be on to the next group. Boring. Tony looked down at his phone and started texting Rhodey.
The crowd let out a collective gasp, and Tony whipped his head up. On the screen there was the chariot for District 12. A curly brown haired girl stood beside a short blond boy. The camera jerked away to focus on the precious set of contestants, but not before everyone got a good shot of the blond kid giving them all the middle finger. The crowd on the bleachers was booing and hissing, and from the corner of the shot Tony could see things being thrown down onto the path.
“Who was that?” Tony asked. He had been watching the games his whole life (as was the law) and had never seen a contestant do something like that. This was the biggest moment of these dumb kid’s lives, a huge honor, and he was flipping them off? That kid had balls, damn. Tony hated to admit it, but he was intrigued.
“Some nobody from 12,” Christine responded with a downward twist of her lips. “His interview is going to be a disaster. Sit up straight, the camera’s are switching back to us.”
Christine sat down and gave the camera a hundred watt smile. “Alright, that was quite the entrance from our contestants!”
Above them a fake clapping track played and Tony tried not to wince. The illusion worked on TV, but in person it felt jarring. Were there really no people for this part? Was this new, or has it always been this way and Tony hadn’t paid close enough attention to notice?
“Now all the contestants are downstairs switching costumes and getting ready for their interviews. In the meantime, here’s a word from our illustrious President Stane!”
Fake clapping filled the room as the screens were all taken over by a shot of Stane from the waist up, standing in his office and looking dignified as he always did. He gave the usual spiel about how the Hunger Games were necessary to maintain peace and order, yada yada yada, superiority of the Capital, the Districts would kill each other without them, the games show how the people of the districts will go feral and kill each other if given half the chance, whatever, more on how terrible and uncivilized the districts were, boring. Boring, boring, boring. It was the same every year, and Tony would have thought that Obie just reused the same video if his clothes didn’t change each time. The video ended and Christine appeared back on the screen. “Thank you President Snow. Now listen up everyone, I have an extra special guest with me today. Please welcome Tony Stark, our new Game Master, and the youngest Game Master in the history of the Hunger Games at the tender age of 18!”
Tony stood up and smiled for the camera, waving and blowing kisses. “Thank you, thank you!”
They both sat back down and Christine leaned towards him.
“So Tony, I imagine this was quite the surprise. Remind us what you did before this?”
“Of course. I’m a weapons developer, I’ve built all of the defenses keeping our Capital safe. The Jericho missiles, flamethrowers, the guns our peacekeepers carry, all of that was me. When I was offered the job I refused at first, I’ve never had any interest in the games. I watch the government mandated half hour per day, and that’s it. And by ‘watch’ I mean it’s on in the background while I mess around on my phone. I much prefer the Bachelor, any Bachelor fans in the audience?”
Christine laughed, though the speakers were silent. Whoever was in charge of sound effects was a tough crowd. Tony shrugged it off and continued.
“Wonderfully addicting, isn’t it? I’d much rather watch a nice show about love than all this savagery. Sure, we all know that the people of the outer districts will tear each other apart at the slightest chance, but do we really need to see it? So I have no idea what this job is all about, but when the President himself asks, you don’t refuse! If he thinks I’m the right man for the job then I’m going to do it to the best of my ability, and have some fun along the way.”
The fake crowd clapped and he sat back in his chair, satisfied that he had done a good enough job even if he hadn't read any of the lines scrolling across the teleprompter at the back of the room. It was a live broadcast, they had no way of stopping him and what he was saying was much better than the stuffy lines they had written for him anyway.
“I didn’t even know the last guy retired, he seemed so young.” Tony mused. “I tried to reach out to him to get some tips and I couldn’t find him anywhere.”
Christine laughed nervously and her eyes darted from him to the Peacekeepers standing in their white armor in the back of the room. When had they got here? Were they allowed on the stage?
“Doesn’t matter. Let’s meet the contestants! Bring them out!”
The door where Tony had entered earlier swung open and a tall well muscled boy walked out. He was dressed in medieval armor and had long blonde hair. Just from looking at him Tony could tell he would do well in the games.
He introduced himself as Thor, and after a few inane questions Christine was shuffling him back off stage and bringing in the female contestant. Occasionally the teleprompter in the back would pass over to Tony to ask the next question, then nicely list out the question for him to say, and Tony would ask whatever the hell he wanted.
He tilted his head to the side and looked over the current tribute, a thin boy dressed in ripped purple pants, with his torso and face painted green. This was why Tony never trusted the stylists. Why would they dress the poor guy like this? Awful.
The kid had introduced himself as Bryce or Bruce or something like that and was squirming awkwardly in his seat, clearly uncomfortable with being on TV. Tony wondered why he volunteered if he didn’t want to be here.
“So, what do you think about Moore’s Law?” he finally asked, curious to see if it was possible for the kid to get even more uncomfortable as he tried to bullshit his way through an answer on a topic he had never heard of.
“I think that without the invention of quantum computing it’s fundamentally unsustainable.”
Tony blinked at him. That was actually a decent answer.
Tony had always been told that people in the districts thought that computers were the work of witches and any school beyond learning to spell made them prey to the devil. Who was this guy? Was he special? Who had he learned from? Were there other people in the districts like him?
Before he could ask any more questions the green guy was hustled off the stage and it was time for a new contestant. Tony would have to find him later. For now he suffered through another twenty contestants, Christine cutting him off whenever he tried to talk and the teleprompter no longer showing his name, until they reached the last one.
A skinny blond boy stepped on stage in a blue spandex suit with a white star on the chest and Tony recognized him as the guy who had taken his time in the spotlight to flip everyone off. This was going to be good.
He walked across the stage, and instead of sitting in the interview chair like a good little contestant he charged up to Tony and started jabbing him in the chest with a finger.
“Monsters! Murderers!” he yelled.
Tony stood up and pushed him away. “What the hell is wrong with you?”
Tony had thought the rude gesture earlier was a sign of some spunk, or a way to get more attention. Now it was looking like the guy was just nuts.
“I’m not going to play your little games!” The blond kid yelled, so worked up he was almost spitting. “I’m not going to sit here like a lamb for the slaughter and pretend that this is all ok! This is wrong and you should all be ashamed of yourselves! Our lives are not a game!”
The peacekeepers rushed the stage and grabbed him as he lunged for Tony. They dragged him off as he screamed and cursed, cutting off as a peacekeeper hit him in the head with the barrel of his gun. The boy went limp, and they dragged him backstage. The door swung shut with a click, audible in the silence of the empty auditorium.
Tony sat back down and took a deep breath. He noticed that his hands were trembling and he put them together in his lap to hide it.
“Do you know what he was talking about?” he asked Christine who was staring at the door, grim faced.
In all of his years of (sort of) watching the games, nothing like this had ever happened.
Christine cleared her throat. “And those were our contestants,” she said with a wide smile.
“Christine, what’s going on? Why are you acting like this?”
She ignored him. “They’ll be spending the next week training, and I’ll see you all again for their final score before they go into the games!”
“Thank you, and have a great night!”
The sound of an audience clapping and cheering rained down from the speakers, drawing Tony out as he tried to figure out what was going on. He grabbed the arm of one of the peacekeepers. “What was he talking about? Why is Christine acting like nothing happened?”
The man shook him off. “I need you to come with me. The President wants to see you.”
Tony followed him off the stage, two more guards with guns following behind him. They went to the lower levels and the first guard gestured to a waiting car.
“Thanks, but I think you guys already took care of the crazy guy. I don’t need an escort, I’ll just take my own car.”
The guard pushed Tony's head down and forced him in the car like he was some sort of criminal. He tried the door handle and it was locked. He pounded on the divider between him and the driver. “Let me out! Hey!”
The car pulled out of the underground garage and drove to the center of the Capital, to the tall white building where the President lived and most of the politics of the country happened. The doors didn’t unlock until Tony was inside the building, with six inch thick doors locking them tightly inside the Capitol building. Tony knew that they were just there as a safety precaution for the president, and he had never felt trapped by them before. Tony got out slowly, and the guards walked him right to the door of the President’s office. The door swung open and Obie threw out his arms. “Tony my boy!”
Tony hugged him and Obadiah Stane, President of Pandora, patted him roughly on the back. Tony immediately felt better. Obie was practically his dad, since his parents had died four years ago. And even when they had been alive Obie had been much more of a parent than his actual dad. Obie wouldn’t let anything bad happen to him.
Obie led him inside the tasteful office, and offered him a glass of scotch which Tony gratefully took. He sat down in one of the comfortable chairs facing the desk and Obie sat on the other side.
“How’d it go?”
Tony looked over his shoulder, to make sure none of the guards were in the room. “Terrible. And you need to hire so new peacekeepers, these guys forced me here like some common criminal!”
“They’re just trying to keep you safe,” Obie said patiently. “Do you need to go through the training again?”
Every person in the Capital went through training every month on how the peacekeepers were their friends and were there to keep them safe. That’s why they could be found on every street corner, and had the authority to search your house with no warning. Some people said it was invasive, but those people always ended up having their homes searched and were quickly locked up for illegal activities. There was no reason to fear the peacekeepers unless you had something to hide. And Tony had nothing to hide, he loved the Capital. He had devoted his life to making defenses to keep it safe.
Obie put a hand on his shoulder comfortingly. “You can retake the training, and I’ll talk to them, how about that? Now tell me about that tribute, the one from 12.”
Tony frowned. The guy who had ruined their perfectly nice show? He didn’t want to talk about him. The contestant had sounded so sure of what he had been saying, filled with righteous rage as he spat out his accusations. He had gotten under Tony’s skin more than he wanted to admit, so he played it off.
He leaned back in his chair and crossed his arms. “I don’t know. He was crazy. He called me a monster! All I was doing was sitting there, what’s so monstrous about that?”
Obie watched him closely. “That’s all you think?”
Tony looked away, fiddling with the edge of his shirt. “Yeah, what else would I be thinking? I was more interested in the green guy. I didn’t know the districts were advanced enough to have computers. I thought the Capital had offered and they always turned us down, that’s what I learned in school. Did you make a break through with them? Is that why you’ve been so busy lately? If they’re willing to accept more technology and education I think we could really start improving their quality of life.”
“There are always a million things in the works, you know that,” he said noncommittally, then changed the subject. “I’m glad to see you’re safe. I’m much less happy with your performance. The teleprompter is there for a reason.”
Tony rolled his eyes. “It was so boring, I spiced it up!”
Obie shook his head. “You have to follow the prompter. Being Game Master is a big responsibility, and I was trusting you to be mature enough to handle it.”
“I’m mature! I can totally handle it.” Tony insisted. Suddenly he didn’t feel like a maverick for going off script, he felt more like a disobedient child who had colored outside the lines and now his father didn't want to hang it up on the fridge.
“I’m going to need you to stand in front of the green screen, and read the lines like you were supposed to earlier. Then we’ll edit it in post and it’ll be like you did it right the first time.”
“What do you mean? It was a live broadcast, it’s too late.”
Obie laughed. “Live? Why would you think that? No, everything goes through a round of editing before we broadcast it tonight. It’s so we can edit out trouble makers like the boy from 12. We don’t need to be broadcasting rude gestures and profanity, children watch this show.”
Tony frowned. When he was younger, he had gotten nightmares for weeks from watching a child from district 3 bash another child’s head in with a rock. The sounds had sickeningly wet, and even after the child was lying still and limp, the boy from 3 kept smashing, his labored breaths turning into wild laughs. He didn’t stop until forty minutes later when another contestant shot him through the head. By then there had been nothing left of the first boy’s head except a mushy red pulp.
Tony made sure to watch only the legal requirement's worth of the games after that, and at night when most of the contestants were sleeping and there was nothing going on.
He could still remember the sounds it had made, and it troubled him much more than hearing the other kids swear on the playground.
Still, he didn’t say anything. They did the games the way they did for a reason, and they had been successful for 74 years. That’s what Tony had learned from school. It was important to support the games to keep the Capital safe and remind everyone that the districts were savages, and to remind the districts that the Capital could crush them at any time if they threatened them. It was the way the system had to work. No one ever complained.
Tony obediently stood in front of the green sheet and repeated the lines from the teleprompter word for word. When he was done Obie sent him home with a slice of cake and a pat on the back.
Tony sat on his couch and checked his phone. Three missed calls from Rhodey. He called him back, and as the phone rang the tv turned itself on with a burst of static.
“Please pay attention, the following broadcast is mandatory for all citizens. All drivers please pull over and all manufacturers halt production,” a robotic voice droned. Outside peacekeepers prowled the streets, harassing people who weren’t standing in front of the large public televisions, and using their universal keys to go inside randomly selected houses to make sure the occupants were in front of the tv. Rhodey picked up the phone.
“Tones? What happened today? They hustled you out of there really fast.”
“One of the contestants was getting aggressive, so they wrapped things up quick. Then Obie made me rerecord all my lines because I went off script.”
“I thought it was live?”
“I thought so too.”
Tony looked at the TV as it showed the contestants riding in on their chariots. In the corner the word ‘LIVE’ blinked brightly.
“Whatever. I’ll stay on script next time.”
On the other side of the line Rhodey snorted. “No you won’t. I gotta go, don’t want to get in trouble for not listening to the broadcast.”
Tony put his phone down and turned his attention to the tv where the 11th district had just appeared on screen. After a couple minutes of waving, the camera shifted to District 12. Tony leaned forward and took a good look at the boy. He looked like he hadn't had a good meal in weeks, and he had deep bags under his eyes, visible under the layers of makeup they always slapped on the contestants. He was wearing a red white and blue spandex jumpsuit, with a white star on the chest. It looked as dumb as the other costumes in Tony’s opinion. They showed the chariot emerge from the doorway, and a few seconds as the boy tried to regain his balance on the shifting chariot. The camera cut to Christine the second the boy started to raise his hand, so it looked like he was about to wave, except for the angry face he was making. If Tony hadn’t known what was coming next, he never would have been able to guess the by was about to flip off a whole stadium of people.
The segment with Christine played, and when the camera cut to Tony it was a close up head shot where he said everything he was supposed to. They skipped the whole interview with the boy from 12, instead showing a small banner on the bottom of the screen saying he was sick and unable to come up.
The broadcast ended and the tv switched to playing a reality show. Tony turned it off.
He scrubbed his hands up and down his face. Were the games always like this, and he had never noticed? He had thought that it was all real. How much was cut?
He used his phone to pull up last year’s opening ceremony, and watched it through. They never showed the chariot from district 10. Tony watched the sequence again, sure he had somehow missed it. There was no district 10. In the interviews, there was no female contestant from 10. How had he not noticed? He went back another year and watched through the interviews. The interview with the boy from 11 cut off after less than thirty seconds, as he started rising up from his chair. Tony went back another year. This time both the girl from 12 and the boy from 6 were missing from the interviews. With 24 people, it was easy to lose track of who all had spoken and who hadn’t, especially when the games happened every year and Tony didn’t care to watch closely. He didn’t like to know who the contestants were because then he got upset when they died. It was better to not get invested.
Now he was invested in the skinny blond boy from 12. He pulled up the district 12 reaping ceremony. It wasn’t required watching for Capital citizens, so he hadn’t seen it. Nobody ever watch these, they were supposedly boring as hell. He was under the impression that they rounded up all the volunteers then did some sort of random drawing to pick who got the honor of going to the Capital and competing in the games. Tony would never volunteer for something like that, and couldn’t understand why the people from the districts would want to volunteer either. Fame? Fortune? There was a decent prize at the end, both for the contestant and their district. Maybe they just wanted an excuse to kill. Some of them were crazy enough.
He played the longest video that showed up in his search results and watched shaky handheld footage of the tops of people’s heads as an overdressed woman dug her hand around in a fishbowl full of paper. She pulled out a slip and read, “James Barnes!”
Was that the boy’s name? James?
There was a wail and a woman in the back of the crowd held on tightly to her son. The peacekeepers stepped forward and pulled them apart, and the little girl beside them burst into tears. They dragged the boy to the stage as he panicked and fought.
Tony must have the wrong video, this wasn’t the same boy. This one had long shaggy brown hair, and only one arm that he was using to punch at the peacekeepers.
The Capital woman held up the piece of paper. “By entering your name into the drawing in exchange for extra food rations, you have volunteered yourself for the Hunger Games. Everyone please clap for our first volunteer!”
There was a scuffle in the crowd and the blond boy ran towards the stage.
“I volunteer as tribute!”
Everyone turned to look at him, as he used his thin frame and sharp elbows to fight his way to the front of the crowd where the other boy had been forced on stage.
“I volunteer! Take me instead of Bucky!” he shouted, his breath wheezing.
Bucky held out his hand. “Steve don’t you do this, don’t you dare do this. You have no chance of winning.”
Steve climbed on stage and grabbed onto Bucky. “Neither do you. No one from 12 ever wins. You have your mom and sister to look out for. What are they supposed to do if they lose you?”
Bucky opened and closed his mouth, his eyes seeking out his family in the crowd. They were huddled together, tears streaming down their faces.
Tony noticed that nobody was crying for Steve.
“Please, Buck, you must’ve saved my life a hundred times over, and who knows how many more winter’s I’ll last anyway, especially without your help. Let me do this. I have to do this.”
Bucky held onto him until the guards ripped him away and forced him back down to the muddy town square. His family immediately rushed to him, and he held onto them as he looked up at Steve with guilt ridden eyes.
The Capital woman held Steve’s hand in the air.
“Our male contestant for the 74th annual Hunger Games!”
The footage cut off before Tony could see the crowd’s response.
The black screen reflected his face back to him and he looked like he had just seen a ghost.
“What the hell?” he whispered to himself. He fisted his hand in his hair and leaned forward, staring blankly at the floor.
That had to be a joke, right? That was nothing like how a reaping was supposed to go, it was supposed to be a great honor to be picked.
He had seen people edit children’s movies into horror movie trailers, so this was probably something like that. He searched around and found the official video, posted by the Capital broadcasting center. The same woman drew a paper out of the bowl.
It cut to a close up shot of her face, the same way it had done for Tony’s redone lines in tonight’s broadcast. “Steve Rogers! Who graciously volunteered earlier this morning.”
It cut to a shot of Steve yelling that he volunteered, as he ran towards the stage.
It cut back to the Capital woman, who held Steve’s hand in the air.
“Our male contestant for the 74th annual Hunger Games!”
It went to a shot of a train, which played for the rest of the video as it drove through grassy meadows. Stats scrolled quickly across the screen in a loop listing Steve as 18 years old, 5’4” and a hundred pounds even, and that was the end of the video.
It felt incredibly fake next to the handheld footage shot from someone in the crowd. He went back to the first video and got a notice that it had been taken down. He switched back to the train video, watching it again with a frown. It felt even faker and more disjointed the second time.
How could the official channel be lying? All of the contestants wanted to go into the arena, right? Why would they have to fake it?
He dialed Rhodey and waited as the phone rang.
“The contestants are volunteers, right?” he asked desperately when Rhodey picked up.
“Hello to you too. Yeah, they are. Why do you ask?”
“Did you watch the reaping for the guy from 12?”
“No, those are always boring as hell. It’s like ten minutes of train footage.”
“I found a video from someone in the crowd, and-”
“Someone in the crowd? You can’t trust random videos, they’re fake. You can make up anything you want with computers anymore. You remember the movie we saw last weekend? You really think they found an octopus the size of a house and had him eat the actors? No. It’s not real.”
Tony let out a sigh of relief. “Yeah, you’re right. Thanks Platypus.”
He ended the call and flopped sideways on the sofa. The contestant from 12 had gotten under his skin more than he wanted to admit. He had seemed so sure of himself that he had had Tony questioning everything he had ever learned. This guy was just crazy, that was all there was to it. The games would go on, and Tony would be proud to run them.
You weren’t supposed to be able to meet the contestants during training week, but Tony was the Game Master, the guy in charge of running the arena once the games begin, so he had no trouble talking the guards into letting him inside the training room where the contestants were practicing.
As the door slid open Tony looked around. In one corner there was a shooting range, and a boy was shooting arrows into the center of a target with deadly accuracy. Beside him, a red headed girl was doing just as well with her set of knives.
The guy with long blonde hair from district 1 was lifting weights, and the trouble maker from 12 was talking to him. Tony gave them a wide berth, he didn't want to get yelled at again.
He found out who he was looking for in the corner of the room, trying to learn how to start a fire with sticks.
Tony walked over and crouched in front of him. “Hey, mind if we have a chat?”
Bruce’s eyes widened and he nodded, following Tony to a table outside the room.
“Whatever I did-”
Tony held his hands up non threateningly. “No, no, you haven’t done anything wrong. I don’t know much about the district’s computer use and I hoped you could tell me a little?”
After hanging up his call with Rhodey, Tony had spent the rest of his night tossing and turning in bed, unable to sleep. Who had faked the video? And why?
He wanted to know what technology the districts had access to. His first stop had been the public database library, which primly told him that the districts refused to use anything more advanced than a wood burning stove, which clearly wasn’t true. He needed to go directly to the source, and who better than the guy who had opinions on quantum computing?
Bruce explained what they had, and it was significantly more than Tony had been expecting.
“Districts 1, 2, and 3 have the most, since they’re closest to the Capital. I’m familiar with everything you guys have here, at least that I’ve seen so far. It tapers off as you get into the more rural areas, and personally I don’t think Steve has ever used a tablet, though he is familiar with telephones and cameras. Steve is the guy from 12,” Bruce said.
“Oh, I know who Steve is.” Tony said with a lot more emotion than he had intended. Bruce raised an eyebrow and Tony cleared his throat. “So all the districts have the ability to take and upload video?”
Bruce nodded. That answered one question. It was possible for the video to be real. The next was finding out if it could have been faked. He didn’t see any motivation for someone in the Capital to make a video like that. It wasn’t funny, and they could be arrested for posting anti Capital propaganda because all uploaded content here was scanned by bots for dangerous messages. The father away connections had less security, and if the Capital wasn’t willing to admit that the districts were connecting at all, they probably had no filters on what they could upload.
“Do you think you have good enough stuff to fake a video?”
“Fake a video?”
“Like make it look like someone was reaped against their will.”
“Why would you need to fake that?”
“Exactly, what point-” Tony said, and at the same time Bruce said “That’s already what happens-”
They both trailed off, and Tony tried to process what Bruce had said. That was already what happened? Bruce hadn’t volunteered?
“You don’t want to be here?” Tony asked, trying to make this new information fit into his established view of the world. Bruce seemed offended by the question.
“Of course I don’t want to be here. I’m going to die! Or murder other people! Probably both! What sort of psychopath would agree to that?”
He pushed his chair out and walked back to the training room. Tony followed a step behind. “Hey, wait, I’m sorry-” as soon as he stepped inside the room Steve was in his face, grabbing him by the shirt and slamming him into the wall. He was much stronger than his slight frame suggested and panic started to build in Tony’s chest. All the stories he had been told about the district people being violent rose to the forefront of his mind.
Steve gave him a shake. “What are you doing to Bruce?”
“Nothing! We were talking about cameras.”
Steve looked over his shoulder at Bruce who nodded. Steve let go of Tony and turned away, muttering. “Capital scum.”
Tony braced himself against the wall, keeping himself from sliding all the way down to the floor. What was wrong with this guy? He hadn’t been doing anything to deserve being roughed up! “Hey!” Tony yelled, his confidence coming back now that he had more space to breathe. “What have I ever done to you?”
Steve turned and Tony gulped at the fire in his eyes, the anxiety immediately coming back, though he hid it behind a cocky smirk. Steve snorted. “You’re kidding me, right? You’re the guy in charge of the area where we're going to die, you've got the blood of 23 people on your hands.”
“You volunteered…” Tony said weakly. He wasn’t going to kill anyone, they were going to kill each other without any involvement from him. All he was doing was making sure the arena was functioning and no one got out.
Steve started laughing, a terrible wheezy thing. “We volunteered? Hear that, guys? We volunteered!”
All the contestants laughed and Tony back out of the room. Steve followed him, fists clenched.
“You’re one small cog in a big system all based around zero accountability. By your action or by your inaction, we are going to die. The least you can do is recognize that!”
Oh God, Steve was going to murder him, he was actually going to murder him. Tony turned tail and ran, charging down the hallway as Steve yelled at him and the other contestants held him back.
He ducked around a corner and pulled out his phone, dialing Obie. It rang once and went to voicemail.
Whenever Tony disobeyed Obie punished him by ignoring him and while it was annoying enough normally he really needed to talk now.
Tony rushed outside and drove to the center of the city. He pulled his car to a stop on the curb outside and scanned his card to get inside. He went up the stairs to Obie’s office where four peacekeepers stepped in his way.
“I need to talk to Obie!”
They refused him silently, blocking his way.
“Obie!” Tony yelled, and the office door open.
“Let him in.” Stane yelled through the door.
The guards stepped back and Tony went into the office, pulling the door shut behind him. At his desk Stane quickly closed all the files he was working on.
“Tony, I don’t have time for any of your games, I'm very busy man.”
“Obie, there's something wrong. The contestant’s aren’t actually volunteers, we can’t send them into the arena.”
Obadiah got up and walked around his desk to Tony. “And who told you that? The boy from 12? The one we both agreed yesterday was crazy?”
Tony bit his lip. “I-”
“Are you saying you trust him more than me? After all I’ve done for you and for the Capital?”
“He’s trying to mess with you. The people from the other districts want nothing more than to drag the Capital down into chaos, because they’re jealous of everything we’ve accomplished while they’ve spent the last 74 years playing in the mud. I’m banning you from the training center and I don’t want you talking to the boy from 12 again, do you hear me?”
He put a heavy hand on Tony’s shoulder and he felt himself bending under the weight. He ducked his head, keeping his eyes on the ground.
“That’s my boy. I’m doing this because I love you. And to avoid any more trouble, I’m assigning you a peacekeeper.”
One of the white armored guards stepped forward and Tony took a half step back, blocked by Obie from retreating any further.
“Spend the next few weeks watching Tony,” he ordered. “Tony, if you break my very reasonable and easy rules, then he’s going to report straight back to me, and you won’t like what happened next. Got it? I made you Game Master and I can take it away just as easily.”
Tony nodded and left the office with a quick goodbye. Tony felt his shoulders hunch up to his ears as the guard followed a step behind him. God, this was embarrassing. He should have known that the people from the districts were lying to him. It made much more sense than the whole Capital and Obie himself being the one’s in the wrong. Obie had always been the one person he could trust completely, the one he could turn to when his own father didn’t have time for him. And after his parents death’s Obie had been the one by his side, offering a guiding hand. If he couldn’t trust Obie then he couldn’t trust anyone.
He had gotten himself worked up over nothing, and now had to deal with a babysitter like he was some sort of kid.
Tony kept his head down for the next week, steering clear from the Colosseum where the tributes were and staying inside his apartment. He had plenty to work on anyway, and maybe if he finished the perimeter defense designs then Obie would be less pissed. He’d work on Game Master tasks but Obie still haven't given him any information on how the games functioned from a practical standpoint or what he needed to do.
While he worked, he let the games from the previous year play in the background. He paid close attention to the girl from 10 who had been missing from the interviews. She got the worst score in the skill test, and didn’t show up for the final interview. She died the first night in the arena and her death wasn’t shown. The cause was listed as hypothermia, and her name was quickly lost of the long list of casualties for the first day. He wondered if maybe she had been deathly ill from the start, before she even stepped foot in the arena, and that’s why she had volunteered for the games. If she knew she didn’t have much longer to live it would make sense to volunteer and save someone else from dying. That's probably what happened.
As the week passed Tony got antsy and started venturing out more. A peacekeeper followed him wherever he went, occasionally switching out with another identical guard. They all looked the same with their blank white helmets. It made Tony nervous, even though he had nothing he was hiding. As Tony walked down the street all of the peacekeeper’s heads turned to watch him. It was eerie and even when he was alone in his room Tony found himself looking over his shoulder. For the first time in his life the sight of a peacekeeper stopped making him feel safe. Now that he started noticing them he couldn’t stop, they were everywhere. Had there always been a peacekeeper at the corner of his building? And another at the supermarket? And another at the park? No one else seemed to find it odd.
At the end of the week Tony was required to go to the skill test to help rank the contestants. It was not televised, in order to help competitors preserve the advantage of surprise for the arena, but the final scores would be projected throughout the Capital. A good score would help the contestants get sponsors, who could send them small helpful gifts while they were in the arena. Many times it made the difference between life and death.
The peacekeeper escorted him to a viewing room outside where the contestants had been training earlier. There was a thick layer of glass between the training room with all the weapons and the conference room filled with papers and stale donuts. There were ten other people there, all experts in different forms of combat, here to add a trained perspective and help rate the contestants as accurately as possible. Tony was glad for their help, he had no idea what he was supposed to be looking for. He wanted to do a good job since he kept fucking up on everything else so far.
The first contestant entered and the skill trials begin. Each contestant was ranked between 1 and 12, the higher the better. There was no set requirements for what they had to do, it was up to the contestant to show off what they thought was most impressive.
Mostly it seemed to be weight lifting. Lots and lots of weight lifting. They picked something heavy up. They put it back down. Boring. No wonder this wasn’t televised, no one would watch it, mandatory or not.
Tony got the impression most of the contestants didn’t have any fighting skills, with a few notable exceptions. The two candidates from 8, the red headed girl and the blond boy, both used the target range, and they hit the bulls-eye over and over again with deadly accuracy. Tony got the impression that they would have rather been shooting the judges than the targets.
When it was his turn, Bruce made a small fire. Tony clapped politely. The other people in the room were not impressed.
As the male contestant from 12, Steve went last. He had gained weight since Tony had last seen him, and he looked much less gaunt, though he was still too thin, especially compared to the beefier contestants that had gone before him.
Tony was curious to see what skill he would display. He was too small to do any impressive lifting, and he didn’t seem the type to be good with a bow. Steve took a handful of white chalk from the gymnastics bars and one of the water bottles near the front. He approached the glass separator and wet the chalk, using it to draw a sweeping line across the glass. The peacekeeper babysitting him rested a hand on Tony’s shoulder. “It’s time for you to go.”
"What? Why?" Tony asked. This was the only part of being Game Master that he had done right so far, he wasn’t going to leave in the middle!
“I have to see his skill, then put in my scores for the rest of the people,” Tony insisted.
“My orders are to not let you see the boy from 12. Get up, or I will force you up.”
The other judges watched the scene play out in silence. On the other side of the glass Steve worked. The peacekeepers hand tightened until Tony let out a tiny gasp of pain, the white armored glove leaving bruises as they dug into his shoulder.
“Fine, whatever, I’m going.”
He got up and stalked out of the room, and peacekeeper shutting the door behind them and standing in front of it with his arms crossed.
“You’re preventing me from doing my job. We were separated by glass, there was nothing he could have done.” Tony complained.
The peacekeeper didn’t respond, staring back at him with his blank white helmet.
Tony slid down the way to sit on the floor, holding his shoulder. Fifteen minutes later the peacekeeper let Tony back in. He immediately looked at the glass, shimmering with water droplets where it had been freshly washed.
Whatever Steve had drawn was gone.
“What was it?” he immediately asked the other judges.
They all glanced around nervously.
“It was bad. No points awarded.”
Tony took a deep breath. Why were they so nervous? It was just a picture. He stepped forward and rested a hand on the glass, completely dry and untouched on his side.
Behind him the judges quickly set the rankings and slid the pad and stylus across the table. Tony looked it over and was unsurprised to see that they ranked Steve last.
That was fair. All he had done was draw a picture, that skill wouldn’t be any use in the arena. Ranking him last made sense.
At the bottom of the pad there was a line for his signature. As the guy in charge (supposedly, he hadn’t actually gotten a say in anything so far) it was his job to sign off and submit the final decisions. Before he could second guess himself he dragged Steve’s name to the top of the list, signed it and hit submit. Screw them for trying to hide things from him. They wanted to play games with him? Well Tony was the motherfucking Game Master. He’d show them games.
He shut the pad off before putting it back down on the table so all the others could see was a black screen.
“Are we done here?”
Everyone shuffled together their things and got up, leaving the room as a tired pack. Most of them headed towards the dining center but the peacekeeper held Tony back.
“I think you’re done for the day. I think you should go home.”
Tony acted disappointed. “I guess you’re right.”
He let the guard lead him back to his apartment and he got a vindictive sense of satisfaction from slamming the door in the peacekeepers face. Once safely inside he propped a chair in front of the door and pulled out his laptop.
Did they really think they could stop him from seeing the picture by locking him out of the room? The whole Capital was covered in cameras, nothing went unseen.
The problem was that all of the systems were unhackable, and Tony knew this because he had built all of them himself. He had also built himself a neat little back door. He knew it was going to come in handy.
Getting the security footage of the skill trials took only seconds, and soon enough he was fast forwarding to Steve’s part. Steve stepped up to the glass, and on the other side Tony watched himself be dragged out of the room. He hadn’t realized at the time that Steve had paused painting. He looked worried, and left a white hand print on the glass where he leaned against it. He might have been talking but the footage had no sound. After a couple seconds pause he went back to his work. He used the full length of his arm to draw a circle on the glass, then drew a smaller circle inside of it. At the center he drew a star and stared definitely at the judges, some of which had jumped to their feet. Four peacekeepers entered the room to drag him out, and he didn’t fight. Instead, he kept his eyes locked on to the judges the whole time, and through the cameras Tony could feel the heat of his glare.
Peacekeepers entered with buckets, and tossed water on the window until it all washed away in white streaks. Tony stopped the footage.
Now he was more confused than before. What had that symbol meant? It seemed harmless enough to him, something he might doodle on paper while on the phone. Not something that needed to be washed away with such urgency and brought the judges to their feet in shock and outrage.
Was it an obscenity, the modern version of spray painting a dick? A gang symbol?
His fingers hovered over the keyboard. He typed the best description of it that he could, and hit enter.
Nothing came up.
He took a screenshot of the footage and reverse image search.
Nothing came up.
Whatever it was, all references to it had been scrubbed from the hyper-sanitized search system the Capital citizens were allowed to use.
He slammed his laptop shut. What did it mean? It was going to bother him until he figured it out. Rhodey wouldn’t know. He couldn’t ask Obie without admitting to hacking the footage. If he wanted to know what it meant, he had to go straight to the source... Steve Rogers.
They had one last interview with the contestants tomorrow night, where they would be discussing the scores and their strategies for the arena. If he could sneak away before or after the show, he might be able to catch Steve for a quick minute. The next morning they would be inside the arena, and it would be too late. The puzzle would remain unsolved.
When Rhodey walked into the room backstage at the coliseum the next day, he found Tony already there.
“You’re early? I didn’t even know that was possible. I was about to go over to your place to drag you back here.”
“No dragging necessary. And look, I’m even letting the stylists do whatever they want.”
They had him in a truly awful baby blue suit (why did they always try to put him in baby blue?) that looked and felt like it was stapled together, but while the stylists had fussed over his suit and hair for a half an hour, he had been able to use his phone to hack into the building’s broadcast system. He cued up a command so all he had to do was press a button, and all of the peacekeepers would go running. He tucked his phone back into his pocket, and chatted with Rhodey as the stylists did terrible things to his hair.
When it was time to go on, he sat perfectly straight in the chair with his feet flat on the floor, and made sure to follow the teleprompter exactly. Most of the contestants were quiet, answering most questions with a simple yes or no, their attention focused inward on the trials they would be facing tomorrow. At five minutes an interview, it took them almost two hours to reach the end. Tony was shocked when Steve stepped out onto the stage alone. Were they really going to allow this? What if he attacked someone, like he had done every other time Tony had seen him?
The peacekeeper assigned to Tony watched from the corner of the stage, but he didn’t interfere. Steve wobbled his way across the stage and half fell into the chair. Christine greeted him with a wide smile, like their last meeting had never happened.
“Mr. Rogers! Are you excited to enter the arena tomorrow?”
Steve squinted at her, covering one eye with his hand. “I- what?”
Tony watched him closely. He didn’t seem hurt; if anything he seemed drunk. Christine plowed ahead as if he had given a reasonable answer to her last question.
“Do you have any alliances going? Contestants who form alliances tend to last significantly longer than those without, and a few of the other people we've interviewed tonight have dropped your name.”
Steve considered the question for a concerningly long time, before saying, “I think I’m going to throw up.”
Christine clapped her hands together. “And that’s all the time we have! Thank you Mr. Rogers, and may the odds be ever in your favor! And to our viewers at home, thank you for tuning in, and have a wonderful night!”
The light on the camera shut off and Tony stood, grabbing Steve as he toppled forward and keeping his head from slamming into the wood paneled floor. “I’ve got him, come on, let’s go.”
Tony dragged Steve off the stage and into the backstage area, the peacekeeper right on his heels. He leaned Steve against the wall and reached into his pocket for his phone. He activated the program and a voice blasted from the overhead speakers.
“All peacekeepers, please report to the Capitol building immediately, report to the Capitol building immediately, this is not a drill.”
The peacekeeper cursed. “Don’t you dare move until I get back, got it?”
Tony nodded. “Yeah of course, I’ll stay right here.”
The peacekeeper spun his heel and ran out of the room. Tony looked around to make sure no one was paying attention to him, then pushed Steve into a small storage room.
“Please make the room stop spinning,” Steve begged, bunching Tony’s shirt up in his fingers as he tried to orient himself. “They said it was cake and now everything is weird and I don’t like it.”
Cake? Tony mentally scrolled through the list of drugs he had personally had a chance to try. There were always a lot of things floating around the Capital, no laws against it unless it made you violent. If anything Obie liked it when everyone was either blissed out or hungover because they meant they weren’t trying to cause him trouble.
Tony had had the drug they gave Steve before, pretty fun while it lasted but it had a bitch of a drop afterwards. Steve would be fine in a couple hours. Tony did his best to hold him upright. Steve was small, but it wasn’t like Tony was some sort of weight lifter.
“Hey, focus, I need to ask you something. What was that symbol you drew? What did it mean?”
Steve blinked up at him. “Are you real? I saw them drag you away yesterday, and no one comes back once they take you.” He giggled and started singing. “Play the wrong game, back the wrong horse, it’s all the same, they take you away, didn’t say goodbye but I got nothing left to say, it's time for the bad kids to go away.”
He poked Tony in the chest and gave him a wicked grin. “That’s us. The bad ones.”
“I’m nothing like you,” Tony insisted. “I made Game Master at 18! The President is practically my dad! I’m going great places, I’ve got my whole life ahead of me.”
Steve giggled. “Wow, they really got you guys good up here. Sh’ funny. I’m living in a cage but at least I know it.”
Tony hesitated, trying to puzzle through Steve’s meaning. He shook his head to clear his thoughts. This was why Obie wanted him to stay away, Steve had a unique ability to fill Tony’s head with traitorous ideas. He loved the Capital. The Capital was his home, it was perfect, what the hell did this guy from the districts know?
He gave Steve a shake. “What did your drawing mean? Why was everyone so upset?”
Steve laughed and pulled Tony close, like he was telling him a big secret in a crowded room and whatever he had to say was meant only for the two of them. His breath brushed lightly against his ear and Tony shivered.
“It’s the symbol for the rebellion.”
The door of the supply closet burst open to reveal several peacekeepers, with Stane at the front. Chrsitine stood behind them, holding a camera.
“Get them out of there,” Stane ordered.
The peacekeepers dragged them out of the closet and threw them on the ground, still half tangled together. Tony pushed Steve away and got up.
“Obie! Hey! I can explain-”
“Lock them both up in the tribute’s room. Christine, with me. I need to find a way to spin this.”
“Spin what? Obie?”
Stane turned his back to him and one of the Peacekeepers slammed Tony face first into the wall. His chin bounced off the slick surface and he felt blood filled his mouth where his teeth cut into his cheek. The peacekeeper dug his hand into Tony’s pockets and pulled out his phone, and threw it to the ground where another peacekeeper stomped on it. They hustled them down the hallway, Tony disoriented and still half carrying Steve who was too out of it to stand.
“Where are we going? Hey, you can’t do this to me! Obie! OBIE!”
Steve pushed himself up long enough to take a swing at one of the guards, who dodged his sloppy punch and hit him on the head with the barrel of his gun. Steve dropped to the ground like a sack of bricks and the peacekeeper kicked him a few times for good measure.
“Leave him alone! What is wrong with you?” Tony pushed the man away and felt a sharp pain in the back of his head, and everything went dark.
Tony woke up on a lushly carpeted floor. He pushed himself up to an elbow, his face sticking uncomfortably to a pillow where blood had dried. Steve must have not been able to move him and had settled for getting him a pillow and resting a sheet across his back. He rubbed at his mouth and the dried blood rasped across his skin like sandpaper.
“You’re missing the broadcast.”
Tony turned his head to see Steve sitting on a large bed, holding ice to his head. He wasn’t looking at Tony, instead watching the large TV that took up most of the back wall. Tony got up and sat on the corner of the bed, the blanket wrapped around his shoulders. On the TV contestant's scores from the skill tests were flashing. Steve received last place.
Tony tried to speak and his voice came out as a rasp. How long had he been lying there? He cleared his throat and tried again. “I moved your name to first. You were supposed to win.”
Steve ignored him. Why would he care? He thought the whole games were a joke. Tony rubbed at his eye. Everything felt slightly out of focus. “Where are we?”
“This is where they've been keeping me in between all the dog and pony shows. The machine to the left has ice if you want some.”
Tony didn’t want to get up, instead letting his eyes unfocus and the sounds from the TV wash over him. Apparently they hadn’t been able to get any usable footage from Steve because they skipped his interview again with no explanation as Christine talked to everyone. Then Stane appeared on TV. Instead of the usual spiel about the glory of the Capital, he announced that he had some terrible news.
“Our Game Master has turned against the Capital, and us as a people. As of today, I denounce him as a traitor.”
There were gasps from the audience and Stane nodded his head grimly. “Shocking, I know. He had always been a good and loyal citizen, and I believe that he would have remained that way if not for the influence of this man.” They showed a picture of Steve glaring at the camera on the screen while Stane continued to talk. “He is the tribute from District 12, and he has been a threat to our citizens and our way of life since he arrived. He has no respect-”
Footage of Steve flipping everyone off in the chariot with his hand blurred out played on the screen.
“And he is nothing more than a mad dog-”
Footage of him yelling at the first interview,
“Lazy, drunken, degenerate scum-”
Footage of him drugged up at the second interview.
“Who needs to be put down. He is the perfect example of why the districts need the control of the Capital, because they are made up of people like this. People so bad, they corrupt any good thing they come into contact with. In this case, our beloved Game Master. Though Tony was wise beyond his years when it came to the construction of machines, he was still naive in the ways of the heart. Rogers seduced him.”
More gasps from the audience. In the room Tony and Steve looked at each other.
“I seduced you?”
On the TV it showed them in the supply room, where Tony had been wrapped around to Steve to try to hold him up and Steve had been leaning in close to tell his secret. Without context it looked like they were two lovers who had snuck away for a private moment, and that's how Stane described it to everyone watching. He also pulled up records showing that Tony had broken into the training rooms and talked to Steve, and that he changed the scores from the skill test to put Steve on top. Stane even brought up the fact that Tony had watched Steve’s reaping video thirty times, and not bothered with any of the other contestants.
“I was looking for inconsistencies,” Tony tried to explain as Steve frowned at him. “It was mostly train footage, I’m not stalking you.”
The final evidence was an overhead shot of Tony pushing the peacekeeper who had hit Steve.
“Assaulting a peacekeeper is a federal offense punishable by death. However, Tony was no ordinary citizen. He was the Game Master, a huge honor which he has rejected for some district rat. He needs to be made into an example for any who would think to follow in his footsteps. Therefore, I sentence Anthony Stark to compete in the Hunger Games.”
Finally getting to the good stuff! Next chapter it's time for the games to begin!
“This is a joke. This is a joke! Good job Obie, you really got me! Time to let me out now!” Tony paced back and forth frantically.
“Can you quit yelling? My head is killing me.”
“No! Because this is all some big mistake! I’m not a traitor, I’m not in love with you, and I’m certainly not going to fight in the games!”
Steve covered his head with a pillow to block out the yelling. “You’re so delusional it hurts.”
“No I’m not! Look, you’ve been here a week, you don’t get how things work around here. This is wrong! It’s all wrong!” Tony insisted.
The door slid open and Tony rushed over.
“Yes, thank god! I was getting worried we'd be trapped here forever, I-”
The peacekeeper slapped him across the face, and as Tony stumbled back he felt the cut inside his mouth reopen. He carefully pressed his fingertips to his cheek where the skin strung hot and red and looked up at the guards. Steve stepped up behind him and pressed an ice pack into his hand and held Tony’s wrist until he held it up by himself. Steve put an arm around his waist and tugged him forward, with two peacekeepers in front and the other two falling into step behind.
“Where are we going?” Tony demanded. Everyone ignored him. He was about to ask again when one of the peacekeepers raised a hand threateningly. Tony shut up.
This was all wrong, the peacekeepers were supposed to keep him safe from the dangerous district people, yet it was Steve who was helping to hold the ice gently to his face, and Steve who was rubbing a hand up his back whenever Tony’s breathing started to speed up into a panic.
Tony stayed quiet as they took an armored train far outside the city, to the large dome that covered the arena. He held the ice until it all melted away and he was left shivering, his hand and face numb. The armed guards brought them inside and down a ramp under the arena. Twelve doors lined the hallway and Tony and Steve were forced inside the last one. Once inside people handed them both identical jumpsuits, and they changed as the peacekeepers watched to make sure they didn’t transfer any weapons. There was no privacy or dignity here.
A woman in scrubs injected a tracker in the corner of Tony's elbow and he rubbed it where it stung. The nurse checked the screen and nodded at the peacekeepers. She left the room and the guards advanced with batons raised until the two of them were backed onto the platform, where the walls of a tube rose from the floor, trapping them inside. With the click of the glass against the ceiling the shock Tony had been in wore off. He pounded on the glass, screaming.
“No! Let me out! This is a mistake!”
In the tube beside him Steve was standing with military stiffness, his legs spread and hands behind his back. The platform started to rise, bearing them up to the surface and the waiting arena.
Tony threw himself against the glass. “No! No!”
His ears were ringing and his mouth was filled with the coppery taste of blood. “NO!”
As he reached the top, there was no more glass walls, and he was hit by a gust of cold air as he was exposed from the chute. The platform jerked to a halt, and Tony stumbled, almost falling off the pad. He dropped to his hands and knees to avoid tipping over. The base was surrounded by landmines, ready to go off if a tribute tried to cheat and get a head start. They automatically diffused when the timer hit zero, and it was the stupidest way to lose the hunger games, dying before they even started.
He looked around and saw the rest of the tributes forming a large circle around a metal cornucopia in the center. It was overflowing with supplies, and some tributes were already eyeing it eagerly. Above them a timer was projected on the ceiling of the dome, counting down. It was at 30 seconds.
Tony took heaving breaths, trying to force himself to think.
He was in the games. He was actually in the games. He had to survive until Obie realized what a horrible mistake this was and got him out. He could do that, he only needed to last a day, maybe less.
The timer ticked downward and Tony tried to force himself to calm down enough to strategize.
Was the cornucopia worth the risk of being caught? The number one cause of death in the arena was the bloodbath that took place on the first day at the starting point. Number two was hypothermia, three was dehydration. Tony scanned the arena and it looked like a normal forest, as much as Tony knew what a forest looked like. He had never left the Capital. Did forests get cold enough to kill? Would there be water?
Despite being appointed Game Master, Obie had kept him far from anything to do with the actual running of the games, especially after he started getting worked up over Steve. He didn’t know anything about this place.
The timer went off and the time for thinking was over. He charged forward on impulse, eyes on a small backpack near the edge. He grabbed it and skidded to a stop, darting back the way he came, blood pounding in his ears and breath catching in his throat. An ax hit the ground an inch from his foot and Tony pushed himself to run faster. He made it into the cover of the trees and kept running as fast as he could. He tripped over a root and rolled down a hill, bruising his ribs on a rock and landed in a river. He heard two cannon blasts. Two people were already dead, less than a full minute into the games. He pushed himself up and looked around, panting. All of the trees looked the same. He took a step forward and collapsed to his knees. His ankle felt weirdly loose and floppy. He used a tree branch to get himself upright, and once he started walking he was able to keep moving. Three more cannons sounded. He made his way down the river until he found a small cave, and he crawled inside. He used his branch and a few others to cover the entrance, and tried to catch his breath.
He was in the games. He was actually in the games.
Tony had been three when he got his first nightmare about the games. At the age of two, he hadn’t understood what was going on. The TV had pretty moving colors, and he liked sitting with his family. Everyone was there, Mother and Jarvis and even his Father! Father was never around, this was a rare treat.
The next year when the family settled in to watch the games, Tony had stared at the screen, uncomprehending. What were these loud noises? Why were people running and crying? He started to cry too, and tried to hide his face on his mother’s shoulder. Howard pulled him away and forced him to face forward, eyes on the screen as a tribute took an ax and hacked away at the girl in front of him. The first stroke was enough to knock her to the ground, the second cut deep into her stomach. She held up her arms and the next stroke separate her hand from her wrist in a spray of blood.
Tony felt tears streaming down his face as Howard's large hands dug into his side, his lungs tightening under pressure until he could breathe. Tony whimpered, and tears squeezed their way out of his eyes.
“Is she ok? She’s going to be ok?” he asked desperately, looking from his mom to Jarvis, searching for reassurance. They all looked away, and Howard was the one to respond.
“Don’t be stupid, she’s dead.”
On the screen there was one last meaty thwack, and the boy moved on to look for his next target.
Howard shook him roughly. “Knock it off, Anthony. Stark men are made of iron, we don’t cry. This is all part of the games, you need to get used to it.”
“Why?” Tony asked.
He had found in life that there was always a why. The toaster cooked bread because of electricity, the sun rose in the mornings because the earth rotated, and he couldn’t have more snacks because it was going to ruin his appetite for dinner. As he watched child after child die, he couldn’t see it, couldn’t understand it, couldn’t force it into a shape that made sense. And everything usually made sense to Tony, his teacher said he was the smartest in the class.
Howard patted his head condescendingly. “Because this is how the real world works, and it’s important that you understand. Look at them.”
On the screen a boy screamed as a girl tackled him to the ground, stabbing at his face with her knife. Blood sprayed and Tony forced himself to keep his eyes open.
“This is what the people in the districts are like,” Howard said, matter of fact. To him, this is how things were. The sky was blue, gravity pulls things down, the districts were made up of monsters.
“They’re not like you, or me, or any of the other people in the Capital. If you set them loose in an open space like this, they’ll kill each other. That’s why they need us. That’s why the Capital is in control, and all the districts must follow our rules.”
“They’re hurting each other just because they wanna?”
Tony could hardly imagine that. He had knocked over Rhodey at school yesterday on accident and he had felt awful about it for the rest of the day.
His mother spoke for the first time that night. “They don’t get a choice. Only one person can win. If they don’t fight, they die.”
Howard scowled at her. “No one has ever said that they have to kill each other.”
“They’re dumped into an arena full of weapons and told only one person can leave, what are they supposed to do?”
“They could all refuse,” Howard insisted belligerently. Maria narrowed her eyes.
“And if they all refuse? Then what? They starve to death, one by one, until the Capital has their champion?”
“Enough!” Howard slammed his hand down, making a loud noise and startling them all into a nervous silence. This was already much further than Maria used dared to push Howard.
He took a deep breath. “It’s never going to happen. The day the tributes refuse to fight is the day the games are no longer needed. Until then, the districts need to be reminded that we’re the ones in charge, and the people around here need to be reminded of the savagery of the districts. I think you should watch an extra hour tonight, Maria. And keep Tony with you, he needs toughening up.”
Howard passed Tony over to her, and left the room. Maria let Tony hide his face against her shoulder, and he tried to ignore the awful sounds coming from the tv, as a tribute beat someone’s head in with a rock, laughing hysterically.
For the rest of the week he dreamed of being sent into the games, and trying to run away before being caught and forced to the ground, the district boy looming over him, chopping off his hand or bashing in his head. It was months before he stopped waking up in the middle of the night screaming, and the next year they all came back, him dying over and over at night after spending the day watching in graphic detail every possible way to die.
Now he was actually in the arena. This wasn’t a nightmare he could wake up from.
He needed to plan. But he couldn’t, his mind was filled with static, his blood pounding in his ears. He could die at any second. He could die.
Tony had always known he was going to die someday, but right now it was staring him in the face. There were so many things he had never gotten to do. Would Rhodey miss him? Would Obie? Or did they both think he was a traitor? How could Obie do this to him? He was supposed to be family.
Tony curled his knees to his chest and hid his face, his breaths coming out harsh and his heart beating uncontrollably in his chest.
While he was in here, there was nothing he could do to prove his innocence. He had to trust that Obie would look into things more and let him out when he saw the truth. He trusted Obie more than anyone. He would be ok, if he could wait it out. He could stay right here, and not even meet another contestant. He would be fine. Tony rubbed a hand through his hair. He was going to be fine. This was like a fun little camping trip, he tried to convince himself. Tony had always wanted to go camping, but you weren’t allowed to leave the Capital without special permission so he had been stuck inside like everyone else.
What was the first step of camping? Probably set up the campsite. He unpacked his bag to see what he had got. He made a mental list:
- Thermal Blanket
- A black rock that he recognized from watching Bruce as a firestarter
- Water bottle, filled with water
Tony had been hoping for more, but getting this had been risky enough as it was. His face hurt from where he had been hit and his hands hurt from hitting the glass and he didn’t even want to look at his ankle. He wondered how Steve was doing, entering the games just as beaten up and hungover to boot. The start had been so frantic he couldn’t remember if he had seen him. What if Steve was already dead? The thought bothered him. Steve might have been crazy but he was sweet in his own way and didn’t deserve to die on the first day in the arena.
Tony stayed in his cave until nightfall, shivering as his clothes dried slowly from the river water. Occasionally another cannon sounded, marking the death of another tribute. He thought he heard footsteps, then they faded away as quickly as they had come. Tony didn’t see any wildlife, not that he would be able to kill it anyway. He ate a small amount of jerky and his stomach still growled. Tomorrow he might have to start eating leaves and hope none of them were poisonous. Once the sky had completely darkened, loud music played, and the dome of the arena lit up with the symbol of the Capital. 12 of the 24 tributes had died today, their pictures flashing by quickly as a cannon sounded. Tony was relieved to see that both Bruce and Steve had made it through the first day. Tony waited for the announcement from Obie clearing his name and saying that he could come home. Instead the screen fizzed then transitioned to a shot of a ostentatious office. Justin Hammer stepped into the frame and Tony hissed in disgust under his breath. Hammer had always been a thorn in his side, copying whatever Tony did then passing it off as his original idea. He always talked a big talk and didn’t deliver, all flash and no substance.
On the screen Hammer gave them all a wide smile and finger guns. “Hello hello tributes! Congratulations on surviving the first day! I have wonderful news for you all… After the unfortunate loss of our last Game Master, my best friend Tony who will be dearly missed;”
Tony made a face of disgust. They were not friends.
Hammer pumped a fist into the air in a cheer. “I’ve been promoted! Please, hold your applause, you wouldn’t want to give away your position, would you? I’ll be running the games from here on out, and I’ll make sure it’s a show for the ages. Good night, and may the odds be ever in your favor!”
The broadcast ended. There was nothing more saying Tony’s name had been cleared and he could go home. If anything, Hammer spoke of him like he was already dead. Tony took a deep breath. Maybe Obie needed more time? A day should have been more than enough to uncover the truth see what was really going on. Someone else must have been upset over his promotion to Game Master, and they were misleading Obie. Probably Hammer. He had always been jealous of Tony, he must have set everything up to falsely discredit him and steal his spot. That meant that no help was coming.
Tony laid down on the hard ground and closed his eyes. Now what was he supposed to do? Sit in this cave until the other tributes killed each other? Tony wasn’t going to try to kill anyone, and he didn’t intend to die either. Could he even win the games, since he was here as a punishment instead of as a district tribute? Or would they wait until he was the only one left and shoot him where he was standing? That assumed that he would make it to the end, and not be found and snuffed out by a tribute, which is what was looking like his most likely end.
Between his troubled thoughts and physical discomfort, he found himself unable to sleep. That's why when there was a small click at 2 in the morning, he immediately sat upright. He recognized that sound, that was the sound of the pilot light igniting from the flame throwers he had developed about a year back. He crawled out of his cave and looked around. A glint of metal in the moonlight caught his attention, and he stumbled over, his ankle stiff and swollen. The end of the barrel was level with the side of the tree. Tony felt around the bark until his fingers caught on a tiny edge. He dug his fingers in, and pulled the front of the tree open like it was a door. The tree was fake and hollow. Inside was the flamethrower, along with a pile of wires, one cluster stretching up the trunk. Looked like optic cables, so most likely there was a camera up there. Tony was much more concerned with the fact that there was a flamethrower pointed right at his cave. It was quick work to disable it, and Tony looked at the gas line running into the ground. How many of these things were there? Why were they here at all? Tony followed the direction of the gas line, to the next tree. After a few seconds of fumbling for the latch he was able to disable this one too. He did a third and a fourth, and was about to do a fifth when he heard the sounds of a fire. It was far off, but approaching fast. Tony gave up on trying to disable any more, hoping that what he had done would be enough to keep his little area safe, and that the fire wouldn’t spread too far. He went back to his cave by the river and blocked up the entry with branches and his blanket. In the distance he heard screaming.
On the broadcasts they always made it look like a careless tribute had lost control of their campfire, whenever flames started to spread. Little did viewers at home know that military grade weapons had started the blaze. Apparently there was more to being Game Master than making sure no one got out of the arena. Now that Hammer was in charge, he wanted to give the people back home a show to remember, and that meant fire and excitement.
Smoke filled the air and Tony covered his mouth with his shirt, wetted with river water where it lapped against the entrance of the small cave.
Tony jerked back, his shoulders hitting the rock, as someone crashed into the river, just two feet away. It was Steve.
He collapsed to his hands and knees in the water, making desperate wheezing sounds. Tony watched from his cave, paralyzed. Outside the smoke grew thicker, filling the air with ashy grey haze. Inside the cave Tony was spared the worst of it, with entrance covered in sticks and the blanket keeping the smoke out, and clean cool air coming in through the inch wide gap over the water. Outside Steve climbed up the side of the stream bed like he was going to keep moving, then collapsed, his thin body wracked with coughs. The smoke was much worse higher up, and though Steve realized it, it was too late, and he didn’t have the breathe to climb back down. Within a few minutes he would be dead.
Tony shoved the sticks and blanket out of the way, limping through the water and up the bank. He coughed roughly as the smoke hit his throat. This was a bad idea, this was such a bad idea. He wrapped and arm around Steve’s shoulders and dragged him into the cave, where the both collapsed. Tony quickly put the sticks back up and covered them with a blanket, the smoke that had gotten in slowly clearing from the air. Tony rubbed Steve’s back as he coughed, slumping back against the wall as Steve finally drew in a full breath. Steve pushed himself into a sitting position against the wall and tried to wipe the smoke out of his watering eyes. He blinked a few times and squinted. “Tony?”
“Hi Steve. Welcome to my cave. Please don’t kill me.”
The more he thought about it the more he realized what a risk this was. He could have gotten trapped in the smoke too, he could have given away his location, he could have welcomed a threat into his safe spot. So far more than half of his interactions with Steve had ended in violence.
“My god, it really is you. How the hell are you still alive?” Steve asked.
Tony was mildly offended. “Hey, I’m doing pretty well for myself. You’re the one who needed rescuing. You’re welcome, by the way. You can stay in my cave until the fires burn out. I disabled the flamethrowers nearby so this area should stay relatively safe except for the smoke in the air.”
Steve tilted his head. “You disabled the traps?”
“Yeah. It was easy, I was the one who designed them. Though they were meant to be to protect our borders, I have no idea who approved their use in here. Once I’m out of here I’m going to be having strict words with people, I don’t know how this mistake could have happened.”
“How are you this smart and still this stupid?” Steve asked, almost in wonder. At Tony’s scowl he held up his hands. “No, no, I’m sorry. I’d be dead if not for your help, so thank you. What are your plans for the rest of the games? Are you going to stay here?”
“I don’t know. I’m going to need to find some food eventually, but I haven’t thought beyond that. Speaking of food, do you want some jerky?”
Steve stared at him. “Tony, we’re in a fight to the death. Why are you offering me jerky?”
“Do you not want the jerky?”
Steve shook his head and took it. “You’re nuts. We’re eventually going to have to kill each other, and you’re giving me your food. Are you still thinking that this is all some big mistake and your friend the President is going to swoop in and save you?”
Tony looked away.
“Shut up! I know no one is coming for me, alright?” he yelled, and Steve’s eyes widened at his vehemence. He continued, quieter. “No one is coming for me, I’m under the mercy of the games as much as you are. And maybe you think it makes me stupid, but I’m not going to kill anyone, and I’m not going to sit around and let someone die because somebody else decided that that was how its supposed to play out.”
“Your morals might get you killed,” Steve said slowly, almost as if testing him.
“Neither of us is going to win anyway,” Tony said, matter of fact. Steve scooted closer. “We might.”
Whatever test he had been posing, Tony just passed it, because he offered, “You should join our alliance. It’s me, Bruce, Thor, Natasha, and Clint. We promised each other that no matter what happens, we will protect and avenge each other. There’s only 12 people left, and if you join us our alliance we’ll make up half of it.”
“And when we’re the only ones left?”
“We’ll stand together. All the way to the end.”
Steve seemed very sure of himself, so Tony dropped it for the moment. The members of the alliance would most likely turn on each other like rabid dogs, just like every other year Tony had watched the games. Still, until then it could be useful. Tony had limited food, and Steve knew the location of his cave so he would have to move on anyway. If he had to survive in the woods he would rather do it with people who had been outside a city before.
“Where are they now?”
Steve shrugged. “We got separated by the fire. As soon as the smoke clears I need to go find them. Until then, I’d like to rest.”
It was still night, though the sky was starting to lighten, and Tony felt tired down to his bones. He nodded in agreement and they both tried to settle more comfortably. The cave was cramped for two, and they barely fit lying down on their backs. They were pressed together from shoulder to knee, and the water lapped gently at Tony’s sleeve before he crossed his arms over his chest, where his shirt was still damp from running through the river. Tony closed his eyes and couldn’t relax. What if Steve was lying and decided to kill him in his sleep? What if there were more traps he hadn’t disarmed? What if another person stumbled upon them and killed them before they had a chance to react? Beside him Steve had managed to drift off, clearly more used to sleeping in difficult situations than Tony. In his sleep he scooted closer to Tony’s warmth, and Tony rolled on his side to face away from him to regain a few scant inches of personal space. His plan backfired because Steve only scooted closer again, and now they were spooning. It wasn’t uncomfortable enough to risk annoying Steve by waking him, and it was warmer, so Tony let himself relax.
He spent the rest of the night with his eyes half closed, staring out through a gap in the branches for any movement. The haze of the smoke gradually cleared, and the world lightened with the artificial sun. Tony hadn’t realized that he had fallen asleep until he woke up to the sound of water splashing, and bright light hitting his face as the branches were ripped away from the entrance of the cave. It was the deadly knife girl.
“Look here, I found a little rabbit in his burrow.”
Two people came to stand beside her, the archer and Bruce. Tony made a strangled sound and tried to push himself deeper into the cave, smooshing Steve into the wall and making him grunt. Steve pushed Tony to the side and immediately the other tribute’s faces brightened.
“Steve! You’re alright!”
Steve crawled out of the cave and the girl helped pull him to his feet. “I’m fine. Are you all ok?”
“We were able to find a sheltered spot further down the river and ride out the blaze,” the girl explained. “It was smokey but we survived. We’re still looking for Thor. Who’s your friend?”
Tony had stayed in the safety and darkness of his cave until this point, but Steve pulled him out with an insistent hand. “This is Tony. He’s joining the Avengers.”
As soon as they recognized him most of the group was disgusted, Bruce being the only exception. Steve crossed his arms.
“No whining. He helped me out of a tight spot, and he knows how to disable all the traps. He’ll be useful.”
Tony nodded frantically as they fingered their weapons. “I have a compass. And a blanket. I’m very useful.”
The archer threw his arms out. “He’s from the Capital! He was going to be the one killing us off!”
“If he was really one of them, why’s he in here?” Steve countered. “He wouldn’t do what they wanted, so they threw him away, just like they do with us in the districts. He’s one of us now.”
Tony didn’t know if he’d go that far, he was still a Capital citizen in his mind, but he didn’t want to get stabbed so he nodded along with whatever Steve said. The group seemed to accept it and the tension bled out of the air, the matter was settled for the time being. Steve lead them forward to continue the search for Thor, and Tony took two steps forward and stumbled. His ankle was still hot and swollen, and had stiffened up overnight to the point of being almost useless. Steve caught his arm and lowered him to the ground, Tony trying and failing to hide his wince of pain. The group didn’t want him there as it was, if they thought he was going to slow them down then they would leave him, or worse, kill him. Steve felt around Tony’s ankle, leaving his boot on. Tony couldn’t hold in a small gasp of pain.
“Sprained,” Steve said after a moment's inspection. “From last night?”
“Right when the games started.”
“And you still came changing into the river after me?” Steve shook his head. “Of course you did. No self preservation at all."
Though his words were scolding, he seemed almost impressed.
"Does anyone have anything we could wrap this with? Natasha? Clint?”
They both shook their heads and Tony filed away their names. Tony dug through his backpack.“I have my blanket. Could I rip some off?”
Above them there was a faint beeping and they all tensed, forming a circle and facing outwards with weapons at the ready.
“More traps?” Natasha asked.
“It’s coming from the parachute,” Clint said, pointing. Their eyes followed his finger to land on a white speck, coming closer and closer. It landed on the ground in front of them, still beeping softly. Steve stepped forward cautiously and picked it up. There was a white paper note attached to the top of a metal container. Steve twisted the container open to reveal a thick roll of white bandages.
“It’s a gift from a sponsor,” Tony said with delight. “What does the note say?”
Steve read it through quickly and crumpled it up in his fist, his face going red. “Doesn’t say anything important. Tony, hold out your leg, I want Bruce to take a look at your ankle before I try to wrap it. Nat, Clint, go find him a good stick to walk with.”
Steve brought the bandages over as Bruce slowly eased his boot off. It didn’t look as bad as Tony had feared, most swollen and bruised an ugly purple. They way it felt, he would have guessed a bone would be sticking out.
Tony had never been hurt before. He had been a quiet and studious child, spending his lunches inside studying instead of playing. Even as he got more adventurous as he aged, he was still kept safe. All dangerous activities were banned from the Capital, and their medical technology had advanced to a point that they could heal any injury fully within minutes of it being received. When he got sick, he took a pill and was better seconds later. When he sprained his ankle on the stairs, he was fully healed and back on his way seconds after the medical team arrived.
He had never experienced this constant dull pain, that ebbed and flowed and lurked like a monster in the back of his mind. Every time someone touched his foot it lit up with sharp sparks, and he didn’t know how to handle it, didn’t know how anyone handled it. His face still hurt from where he had been hit too. How long were things supposed to take to heal? Days? Weeks? Months? Tony genuinely didn’t know.
Bruce probed around his ankle and Tony shut his eyes and held in a pained whimper.
Bruce nodded. “Yeah, it’s just a sprain. Hold still and I’ll wrap it.”
He started to wrap the bandage and Tony grabbed onto Steve’s hand in a death grip. Steve shook him off and back away, his face red, uncomfortable with being touched now despite how close they had slept last night and his blase attitude about it this morning. Tony would have wondered about it more if it didn’t feel like someone was going at his ankle with a hammer. Could they just chop the whole foot off? It might hurt less at this point.
Bruce worked quickly, and as soon as it was wrapped they forced the boot back on, to provide extra support. Clint brought him back a thick stick with a slight curve to the top like a handle, and with it, Tony was able to stand up and hobble forward. Steve was walking away almost before Tony was fully to his feet. He was clearly upset about something. Was Steve mad he was slowing them down? Did he regret inviting him to the alliance?
He did his best to keep up as the group traveled through the forest, focusing on putting one foot in front of the other and not falling over any tree roots. Steve lead the way, while Clint watched for other tributes and Natasha stood guard in the back. They searched along the river first, since that had been the only place safe from the smoke and flames. After an hour of looking, they came up empty, and decided to go back to where they had been separated, and search outwards from there. It meant that they had to go all the way back the way they came. Tony wanted to cry. He should have stayed in his cave.
The trip back was miserable, Tony’s ankle hurting, and the group silent and worried for their friend. Plus something had clearly gotten under Steve’s skin, as he did everything he could to avoid looking at Tony and was short with the rest of the group. They took a break back at the cave, Clint had managed to shoot a few squirrels and Bruce made a fire to cook them over. Tony was too hungry to refuse, and did his best to pretend he was eating something else.
After lunch the search continued. They had to be quiet to not attract the notice of the other tributes, and it made searching hard when you couldn’t call out someone’s name. As they ventured farther from the river and the little path where Tony had disabled the flamethrowers, the damage to the forest grew worse. The air was still filled with a peppery smoke, and ash drifted into the air as they walked. Most of the trees were dark shadows, their leaves burned away along with their color. Tony pressed a hand to a trunk and his fingers came away black.
It was Clint who eventually spotted Thor, and they all rushed over. Thor was half hidden under black soot, and it stained him from head to foot. He was lying on his face and when Natasha rolled him over they all gasped. Unlike the rest of them, he had been unable to find a refuge from the flames, and was horribly burnt, his skin red and blistering. He was breathing so weakly that if Bruce hadn’t confirmed he had a pulse, Tony would have thought that he was dead.
“I can’t- I don’t-” Bruce said weakly, his hands clenching. “There’s nothing I can do. I can’t help him.”
Natasha kneeled down beside him and pulled him into a hug. Clint bowed his head in grief.
Steve grabbed Tony’s arm and pulled him deeper into the trees. “I need to talk to you. Alone.”
Tony did his best to follow, and when they stopped Steve helped him sit down, making sure his ankle was ok. Steve stayed standing, pacing back and forth. He dug through his pockets and handed Tony a crumpled piece of paper. It was the note from the parachute. Tony carefully unfolded it and read the message. He looked back up at Steve. “I don’t understand. They think we’re cute and want us to win? We can’t both win, how would that work?”
Steve sat down and leaned in close so he could whisper quiet enough that the camera couldn't pick it up. “They believed it. When Stane said we were in love? The people in the Capital believe it. They sent those bandages to us because they’re invested in our relationship.”
“We don’t have a relationship.” Tony said petulantly, leaning away. “That was just an excuse to send me here.”
Steve pulled him back to keep whispering. “The people watching don’t know that. They saw you help me, they saw us sleep together, they saw me ask for bandages to help you, and they sent us bandages. Now Thor needs help, and I know the Capital has the kind of meds that could heal him in a heartbeat.”
“So what do you want me to do?”
Steve took a deep breath. “Pretend to be in love with me.”
“Please, I know it sounds stupid, and I don’t like this any more than you do, but it’s the only thing I can think of to help Thor," Steve finished, equal parts desperate and uncomfortable. Tony thought it through. Thor clearly meant a lot to the team, and it didn’t sit well with him to let anyone die if he could help. He didn’t think that Steve’s plan was actually going to work, but it seemed harmless. Steve was nice enough when he wasn’t yelling at him or flipping him off, and he had let him into his alliance and helped him with his ankle.
“Alright. What do you need me to do?”
“Just play along.”
Steve started talking loud enough for the hidden cameras to catch. “I’m so glad to have a moment alone with you, I’ve been missing you all day. It’s hard being so in love.”
Tony raised an eyebrow. That was what he was going to start out with? Steve was a bad actor. A very, very bad actor. However he lived his life, it didn’t seem to involve lying, and it was refreshing. Sometimes in the Capital Tony felt like he was in a play, everyone spouting lines for a cynical audience, weaving together the stories of things that never happened with sharp smiles.
Tony would just have to make up for Steve. He leaned forward and rested his hands on Steve's shoulders and leaned in so their foreheads were touching. Steve stiffened up but didn’t push him away.
“I’ve been missing you too, Darling,” he drawled, low and husky.
Steve immediately flushed bright red and Tony smiled. Oh, this was going to be fun. “It seems like we’ve hardly had a moment together before unfortunate circumstances are ripping us apart. First being sent here, then the rest of the team finding us, and now poor Thor.”
“Right, Thor, he needs help.” Steve was awkwardly trying to lean back without looking like he was pushing Tony away. Tony leaned forward, immediately closing the space again.
“It’s such a shame, because I had plans for you this morning before the group found us.”
“Plans?” Steve squeaked, going even redder. This was hilarious. Tony wondered how far he could push him.
“Plans, lots and lots of very detailed plans. We could finally be together, after all the Capital has done to keep us apart. If only Thor wasn’t hurt, we could right now. I’d show you a good time, would you like that?”
Tony ran his hand down Steve’s back and Steve grabbed his hand and stopped him before he got below the ribs. “But Thor is hurt so we can’t. We have to go back.”
“Right.” Tony agreed with an exaggerated sigh, like being apart from Steve was the worst thing he could think of. What next? What would they do now if they were actually in love?
“How about one kiss? Then we’ll go back?”
Steve nodded slowly and waited for Tony to take charge. Tony stayed where he was. It was one thing to tease the poor guy, he wasn’t going to actually kiss him if he was uncomfortable with it. If Steve didn’t make the first move then Tony would drop it.
After a couple seconds of awkwardness Tony was ready to call it all off when Steve leaned in and mashed their lips together.
It wasn’t the worst kiss Tony had ever received, that honor went to the time Tiberius kissed him without permission while drunk then immediately threw up on his shoes. This one was still bottom ten though. The cut on Tony’s lip stung and Steve drew back before he had the time to process what was happening.
As awkward as it was, it seemed to work all the same, as above them there was a beep and they looked up to see a parachute slowly descending. Steve scrambled to his feet and grabbed it, impatiently twisting off the top. Inside was a thick green cream. Tony read the note off the top. “It’s for Thor. Our fans send their regards and hope we bone soon.”
“There’s no way it says that.”
Steve grabbed the note from him, crumpling it up and shoving it in his pocket with the other one, and they went back to the group. They were still gathered around Thor, and the group shot them dirty looks as they reappeared.
“Where were you?” Natasha asked angrily. “He’s dying, and you decided to wander off? We agreed to stick together.”
“We were getting this. It’s for his burns.” Steve carefully passed the container over to Bruce, who looked it over and used his fingers to spread some of the cream over the blisters on Thor’s arm. The skin healed back to a healthy pink as soon as the cream touched it, and the people in the group from the districts gasped. Tony didn’t know why they were impressed. Wasn’t that how all medicine worked? Surely they had medicine in the districts, the Capital would never deny them something like that, right?
Seeing their reactions, Tony was forced to realize that they did not. Whenever they were hurt or ill, they suffered. It made him feel sick to his stomach. The Capital could help, why weren’t they helping?
Bruce rubbed the cream over all of Thor’s burned skin, and by the end he opened his eyes and the group cheered. Clint helped Thor sit up and lean against a tree
“Thank you friends. I thought that my time in this arena had come to an end.”
“It was a close call,” Steve said grimly. “We need to try harder not to get separated. We should start looking for a safe place to stay, somewhere we can meet back up if we do end up apart.”
Clint had a suggestion. “While we were running from the fire I saw a few large trees we could climb. We could stay up there, no one ever looks up, and if anyone tried to climb after us we could jump branches to a new tree.”
Tony frowned. “I don’t think I’ll be able to climb anything with my ankle like it is.”
Tony did not mention that he probably wouldn't be able to climb a tree even in full health.
They decided to look for a cave big enough to fit all of them, and picked a direction at random to start their search. Being in such a large group provided safety in numbers, and Tony felt himself relaxing as the others joked around. Clint loved to make stupid jokes and Natasha’s dry whit shocked a few laughs out of him. Thor was relentlessly cheerful, and this was the first time Tony had seen Bruce start to open up. Steve seemed happier and more open too, now that the group was reunited and everyone was safe and accounted for.
Tony found himself liking everyone more and more as they chatted and walked. They didn’t have the unending need to show off like the people of the Capital, and they didn’t make cruel jokes or give backhanded compliments. He started to believe that Steve’s plan of them standing together through the end might have a chance of working after all. Expectations of the games be damned, he couldn’t imagine any of them turning on each other or him.
They searched for an hour and didn’t find anything good in terms of shelter. Tony was sick of walking and came up with a new plan.
“Let’s try to find a maintenance tunnel. They’ve got to have them, they need something to run all of the wires of the cameras through. Tap on the trees, let me know when you find one that’s hollow.”
All of the trees were covered in a thin layer of ash, and it muffled the sounds of them knocking. Tony ended up being the first to find a tree that sounded wrong, and he felt around the trunk until his fingers found the barrel of a flame thrower, flush with the bark. He probed around more until he found the tiny latch, and it swung open. Inside of the tree was the barrel and body of the flamethrower, and a thick cord of multicolored wires leading up to the top where there were cameras. The wires and the gas line disappeared into thin holes bored into a sheet of plastic, which was attached with screws to the sides of the tree. Natasha was able to use her knife to undo the screws, and she and Clint were able to pull out the sheet of plastic flooring, with the flamethrower still attached. Tony unscrewed the gas line from the barrel and knotted it shut, and Bruce and Clint worked to roll it away and bury it under ash and crumbling branches. As they rolled it off Tony saw the President's official seal stamped into the bottom, meaning that Obie had personally approved the shipment.
He didn't want to think about what that meant. Later, once he was back in the Capitol, he would get the full story for why his weapons were being misused like this.
Natasha lowered Steve down into the tunnel. It wasn’t very tall, maybe 5 feet, and thick wires and gas lines ran along the wall. It was lit brightly with emergency lighting, and twenty feet down each side there was a door, which was tightly locked shut. Once Steve gave the all clear, the rest of the group came down, Steve giving an extra hand to Tony and Thor. Natasha swung the door of the tree shut and for the moment, they were completely safe. There were no traps, no cameras, and no other tributes. They all heaved a collective sigh of relief.
“I don’t think we were allowed to do this,” Clint said gleefully as he poked at the wires on the wall from where he sat. “This feels like cheating and I love it. It was totally worth it letting Tony on the team even if he’s slow,” he teased.
“Hey!” Tony said. “You try walking around with a sprain. It’s hard.”
Steve half heartedly kicked Clint from where he was sitting. “Leave Tony alone. He’s been very helpful with a lot of things.”
“Oh, I bet. I saw him helping you out in the woods.” Clint said, wiggling his eyebrows. “You guys didn’t get that far with limpy there and they don’t call me Hawkeye for nothing.”
Tony could see the blush building on Steve’s cheeks. “It’s not like that.” He dug the notes out of his pocket and the group passed them around, everyone getting a chance to read.
Natasha was the first to understand. “So as long as you guys pretend to be in love, sponsors will send you free stuff?”
Steve nodded. “Seems so. I don’t think I need to explain how useful that is.”
“And you’re alright with it?” Bruce asked.
“I’m fine,” Steve said, glancing over at Tony who nodded in agreement.
“I had no problem giving Steve a smooch or two for stuff that's going to save our lives. Do you think they’ll send us food? I’m hungry.”
Natasha got up. “I can go hunt or look for berries. We should try to save the gifts for important things.”
Clint gave her a boost to get out, and followed behind her with his bow. Bruce fussed over Thor, rubbing more cream where his skin was still red and tender. Steve turned to Tony. “Your ankle doing ok?”
“I don’t know. It still hurts.”
Steve started to unlace Tony’s boot, and carefully pulled it off his foot. “That’s normal. A bad sprain can last for a week, even if you ice it and stay off it. I’m sure hiking around the woods all day today didn’t do it any good.”
Steve’s hands were gentle and cool as he undid the bandages, and the relief from the tight pressure felt good. Tony sighed and let his head tip back to rest against the wall. After taking a look Steve rewrapped it again, much looser, more to keep Tony from accidentally jostling it than to try to force it to support the weight.
“The swelling has gone down, that’s a good sign. Maybe tomorrow you could stay down here, and it’ll give it a chance to heal up more. Is the pain alright?”
The pain wasn’t alright, but it was more because Tony wasn’t used to it than because it was debilitating, so he shook his head. “I’m fine. I might complain more to piss off Clint.”
“You shouldn’t try to antagonize him.”
“He was trying to embarrass you.”
“So? So do you. If it was a competition for who could get me redder you would be the winner.”
Tony shook his head. It was different, somehow, between what Clint did, and what he did, though he couldn’t put the feeling in words.
Steve patted his hand. “It’s ok, I asked you to play along at being in love, and you did great. We got what we needed, didn’t we?” he said, moving away. Tony grabbed his arm.
“Are you upset?” Tony didn’t know why he asked, Steve clearly was. “Did I push you too far?”
“Ok, fine, maybe.” Steve snapped. “I know we had to, but I didn’t like it. I always imagined my first time being a lot more special, you know? Instead it was in this stupid arena while Thor was dying and god knows how many people were watching us and you got blood on me and I didn’t like it at all.”
Tony blinked. That was a lot to take in. “Was that really- I mean, I was your first kiss? Aren’t you like 18?”
“If you say one goddamn word-”
“No, no, I’m sorry. I’m sorry for the kiss too, alright? I wouldn’t have asked if I had known.”
Steve settled down next to Tony, leaning against the wall. “It’s alright. There are worse fellas it could have been.”
What a glowing compliment. At least Steve wasn’t going to try to punch him over it. If Tony had kissed him closer to when they had first met he bet he would have gotten a knuckle sandwich, sponsors or no sponsors.
“Look, I’m declaring it null and void. Your first kiss is whatever you want it to be, ok?” Tony insisted. His next thought was to offer to kiss Steve again and make it good enough that he’d want it to count. It felt important that Steve knew Tony could give him a good time, if he asked for it. But there were no cameras down here, so why would Steve want a thing like that?
Steve tilted his head up to look Tony in the eyes. “Don’t think it works that way.”
“Look, I’m the smartest guy around-”
“The most cocky maybe-” Steve replied, but he was smiling, and Tony felt something inside his chest tighten. Steve needed to smile more. Today was the first time Tony had seen him something other than angry or scared, and it was a good feeling to know Tony had been the one to make him grin.
“I’m the smartest guy around, and if I say it doesn’t count, then I know best.”
“I guess I can’t argue with that.”
Tony smiled back widely. It felt good to be close to someone in the chill of the tunnel, and being around Steve made him feel better. He had been scared out of his mind when he first entered the arena, and he had been in a constant panic until Steve stumbled out in front of him and he dragged him into his cave. Having someone else there, someone else to turn to when he was hurt or struggling, was the only thing making this horrible experience bearable.
Steve sat up. “- wait, do you hear that?”
They both looked down the tunnel to the door at the end. There was a thumping, growing louder. Steve leapt to his feet, and pulled Tony up. “Bruce, Thor! We have to go!”
The door burst open and peacekeepers flooded into the room, half bent over in the tight tunnel. The other door opened and Bruce and Thor were grabbed before they could take a single step. Tony boosted Steve up through the tree, and Steve immediately spun and reached his hand back down to pull Tony up. Before he could, one of the peacekeepers had Tony by the arm and threw him to the ground. Tony scrambled backwards on his hands and knees as they stepped forward from both sides.
“Tony!” Steve called desperately, still holding out his hand.
Steve jumped down and landed on top of the peacekeeper who was reaching for Tony, knocking him to the ground. Steve got back to his feet and held up his fists. He decked the closet peacekeeper and got a baton to the face for his efforts. He went down like a rock and Tony forced himself onto his hurt ankle to stand over him. “Don’t you dare touch him,” Tony hissed. The peacekeeper swung his baton at him and Tony held up his arms to protect his face. It hit is forearms with a meaty thwack and Tony screamed in pain. A peacekeeper hit him from behind in the small of his back and Tony fell to one knee, still trying to cover Steve. One last hit to the head knocked him the rest of the way down, and he was unconscious before his face hit the dirt.
Thanks for reading!
Loud music was playing when Tony startled awake with a gasp. His throat filled with ash and he coughed roughly, struggling to breath. Overhead the dome of the arena showed the fallen tributes, a quick scroll of names accompanied by a canon last that seemed to echo through Tony’s aching head. While he had been unconscious, the sun had set on the second day of the hunger games.
The list of the fallen ended, and Tony tried to remember how many people were left. Four? Maybe 5? How much of the list had he missed before he woke up? What if he had missed someone from his team? What if Steve was dead?
A chill ran through his body. The Capital could have decided that he was too much trouble and killed him off camera. Or they could have dumped him unconscious near another tribute who could have easily finished him off. Tony had no way of knowing if he was ok.
More music played, and on the screen above, Hammer appeared. He looked frazzled, though he was trying to hide it. “One final message before we sign off for tonight. Tampering with Capital equipment or trying to break out of the arena or into non-regulation areas is strictly forbidden. This was not clearly stated in the rules before now, so no punishment was awarded.”
No punishment? Tony felt like he had been put through a meat grinder and he had no idea where the others were.
“Any further attempts to do this will result in swift and immediate retribution. May the odds be ever in your favor.” Hammer signed off, and the sky went dark.
Tony tried to take stock of the situation. He didn’t know where he was, or any of the others. The others might be dead for all he knew. The burned trees all looked identical, and stretched as far as he could see. He had lost his backpack, and his boot which Steve had taken off to rewrap his foot. He had no food or water, and the ash was so thick in the air he was struggling to breathe. Night had fallen, and with the projectors off it was too dim to see clearly.
He tried to resist the crushing despair. He had to keep fighting.
Tony pawed around the ground until his fingers found a thick branch. He used it to lever himself to his feet. Now alone and weaponless, it would be too dangerous to spend time out in the open. He needed to find a new cave or a thick bush where he could hide. He stumbled forward, picking a direction at random. He tried to be as quiet as he could, his feet shuffling through the ash as he walked, his bare foot stinging as he stepped on the uneven ground, and his head pounding in time with his steps. After a half hour he started to clear the burned area, the soot on the ground turning to fallen leaves and the air becoming fresher. He felt more sheltered under the canopy of the trees. He leaned against a tree to rest and catch his breath. In the distance, he could hear the burble of a stream, and he was reminded of how dry his mouth was. He had lost his water bottle along with his backpack, so he was parched. Was it safe to drink water directly from the stream? He didn’t have much of a choice. He set off in the direction of the sound, and after a few minutes of painful limping he broke through the trees and found the stream. It was much narrower and more shallow here than when it passed his little cave, the water being maybe knee high, and he wondered if he would be able to find his safe spot again if he followed it upstream.
He dropped his stick and fell to his knees on the river bed, the damp sand soaking into his pants. He cupped handfuls of water and drank quickly, the water sweet and cool against his ash covered tongue. He splashed water over his face, wiping away the soot and trying to wake himself up. He had barely slept at all in the last few days, being knocked unconscious non-withstanding, and it was wearing on him heavily. Maybe he could rest here for the night, and continue walking in the morning?
Behind him a twig snapped and Tony turned, too late. A large hand grabbed him by the throat and forced his head under the water. Tony panic, and water rushed in to fill his throat. He tried to cough it out, his head held firmly under the surface. His hands scrambled at whoever was holding him, and he kicked and twisted desperately. He managed to get a few fingers between the hand and his throat and he ripped the hand away, pushing himself out of the water and desperately coughing up water. Before he could so much as open his eyes the other tributes was on him again, forcing him face first into the sand and pinning him down by sitting on his back. He was not even an inch away from where Tony had been struck by the baton, and whenever he shifted pain shot up Tony’s back from the bruise. Tony continued to cough as he blinked the water and mud out of his eyes. It was the tribute from 9, a brute of a boy with a cruel taste for weapons, if Tony remembered correctly. He pulled Tony up at a little and slammed him back into the sand and the world spun dizzyingly.
“You’re the boy who was supposed to be Game Master, aren’t you? You were interviewing us for the tv.”
Tony squeezed his eyes shut, too overwhelmed to think of a clever answer. He squirmed feebly, trying to loosen the other boy’s grip. The other tribute leaned forward, his weight pushing Tony deeper into the sand and mud. “It was an interesting thing Hammer said tonight. He said someone was tampering with the stuff the Capital has hidden away in here…. I’m thinking that there’s not a lot of people who could do that. I’m thinking that it was you.”
Tony spat mud and sand from his mouth. “Why do you care?”
“I have a great idea, and I need your help to pull it off. There’s landmines buried around the starting point for each tribute. If a tribute steps off their platform before the timer stops and the games begin, they get blown to smithereens. None of us stepped off early, so that means there’s 24 perfectly good bombs in the center of the arena. Imagine how easy it would be to win, with a few strategically placed landmines. The games could be over by the end of the day. ”
Tony didn’t doubt that he could get them working if he tried. There was a better than even chance that he had designed them in the first place. But if he did, then Steve and the others would have no chance. What was a bow or a knife compared to a bomb? The tribute could throw them, or hide them then draw the group over it, and it would be game over for them.
“I’m not going to help you.”
The other tribute punched him in the back of the head and Tony screamed, thrashing in the sand and getting nowhere. The other tribute got up and dragged him back to the water, forcing his head under as Tony tried to push him off. The cold was a shock, and Tony clamped his eyes and mouth shut, holding his breath. After a few seconds the boy dragged him back up, and the second Tony breathed in, he forced him under again, and Tony’s mouth filled with water. He gasped and choked and struggled, screaming his distress, the sound muffled by the swirling water and mud. The tribute pulled him back up, holding onto him with an iron grip in his hair and around his throat.
“You are going to help me. This is good for both of us, less competition. And once you do this for me, I’ll let you go.”
He wasn’t going to let him go. After Tony did this, he was going to be the next to die. He shook his head and was forced under the water again.
Tony didn’t know how long it lasted for, being forced under while he struggled, and held in the dark wetness until his struggles weakened and he was pulled back up to cough out what felt like gallons of sludge, then forced under yet again. Each time Tony had less force to his desperate punches and kicks, and each time it was harder to cough up the water, his lungs protesting with every breath. As his head slammed into a rock on the riverbed a thought came to him with perfect clarity; if he didn’t agree then he was going to die.
The other tribute dragged him up again, and before Tony coughed up all the water he was gasping out his acceptance. The other boy let him go and Tony crawled away, coughing and hacking.
“I knew you would see things my way. Come, my camp is this way.”
He grabbed Tony by the wrist and dragged him, pulling him over sharp rocks and sticks. Tony had nothing left in him to fight it. After about fifteen minutes they arrived at the camp, which ended up being a small wooden structure of branches put together with mud and twine. Surprisingly there was another tribute there, a small thin boy. The first tribute dumped Tony by the smaller boys feet.
“Fix him up, as soon as he can stand we have work to do.”
The smaller boy knelt down, and Tony flinched away as he reached towards his head.
“Don’t worry, I’m not going to hurt you. My name is Yinsen, I’m from district 10. I was planning to be a doctor when I grew up, and I can help you.”
Tony was too weak to protest as the boy pulled off his wet shirt and pants and hung them next to the small fire. He tutted over Tony’s ankle, and rewrapped the soggy bandage tighter, also tying up a stick tight to his ankle to offer extra support. He used a scrap of his own shirt to clean the mud off from the still healing cut on Tony’s lip and carefully felt around his head to make sure there weren’t any more cuts. Tony winced when he touched where the peacekeeper had clubbed him, and Yinsen quickly apologized. He also looked over Tony’s forearms, where they had turned a mottled black and blue in a thick horizontal line, as well as his back where he was bruised even worse.
“I’m sorry, there’s not much I can do. At least nothing is broken.”
Tony was shivering violently at this point, from cold or from shock he didn’t know. Yinsen helped him closer to the fire.
“Why are you with him?” Tony asked quietly, and Yinsen looked over his shoulder to make sure that the other boy was still inside their wooden lean to.
“I wasn’t offered much of a choice. Raza thought I might be useful, and without this alliance I would not have made it this far through this special hell of ours. I’m not one for violence, and it’s hard to win a game of death when you’re not willing to kill.”
“I’m not going to kill anyone either. You should join my alliance, we call ourselves the Avengers, and we’ve promised to protect each other to the end. Then we’ll all go home.”
It sounded stupid to Tony even as he said it. They couldn’t all win. Eventually they were going to have to turn on each other. He didn’t want to think about it.
Thankfully Yinsen didn’t fight him on it.
“Going home sounds nice. I could see my sister again. Do you have anyone you’re trying to get home to?”
Tony was silent. His parents were dead, Rhodey and Obie believed he was a traitor. There was no one waiting for him. At least Steve and the Avengers were out there looking for him. He hadn’t realized how attached he had gotten to them until they were separated. Kind Bruce and capable Natasha and cheerful Thor and he was even missing Clint, as annoying as he was.
And Steve… If Steve were here everything would be better. Steve would stand up to Raza with no hesitation, and get all three of them out of there where they could be safe again. And he would fuss over Tony’s injuries like he always did, and give him little earnest smiles that made something inside Tony ache. He had to find his way back to them.
Tony cleared his throat. “I’m only playing along with Raza until the Avengers find us or I can find a way to escape. I’m not going to build him bombs.”
Yinsen nodded. “I will help you hide this for as long as I can. Raza is not the sort of man who should be gifted with weapons.”
They rested for the rest of the night by the fire, and despite the pain of his injuries, exhaustion dragged Tony into a long and deep sleep. Raza shuffled them both out into the woods the next day, waving around a large knife to keep them quiet and in line. It was a short trip to the cornucopia that rested in the center of the arena, even with Tony’s limp.
Once they got there, they all looked around carefully before venturing out from the safety of the trees and into the exposed field. They went to the closest platform, and circled around it to the front where it would be most likely to have a landmine, and the platform offered some shade from the rising sun. Raza kicked Tony to the ground, and ordered him to dig. With no tools, Tony started to scrape away at the hard ground with his fingers. Yinsen dropped down beside him and started to help. Raza slunk back into the woods to keep guard form a more covered position. Only Tony and Yinsen were left vulnerable.
Digging was hard work, and it wasn’t long before both of them were sweating as they scraped at the dirt. The ground was hard and rocky, and after an hour of digging they had made it about six inches deep. Tony knew from his own forays into designing mines that they were getting close, and it was important not to disturb the mine too much. Even if it was inactive, it still contained explosives. Their fingers finally hit metal, and Tony carefully brushed away the last layer of dirt. It was one of the ones he had designed. He wasn’t surprised anymore, though he still felt the sharp sting of betrayal. Obie's personal seal was stamped on the bottom. Whatever was misuse was going on, Tony couldn't ignore the fact that Obie was at the root of it. He wasn't the man that Tony had always thought he was.
The things he had designed were never meant to be used like this, they were supposed to go on the borders to keep everyone safe from the mutated animals that roamed the wilds. Using his weapons to blow up innocents went against everything he stood for, and everything the games were supposed to stand for. The games were meant to show that when they were left alone, the people of the districts would tear each other apart. Instead, five of them had formed a loyal group and called themselves the Avengers, and welcomed Tony in to it. They had shared their food and protected each other and stood together even when they could have run. Meanwhile the Capital had used underhand traps, and sent in peacekeepers to hurt them when they didn’t follow the Capital’s rules. It made Tony think that maybe the Capital wasn’t the beacon of moral purity that he had always assumed. Seeing how the people of the districts reacted to computers and medicine made him realize that what they told him in the mandatory loyalty training was very different from reality. They were lying to him, and the rot ran deep.
Tony had to laugh. They had sent him here calling him a traitor, when he was loyal to the bone, and now if he ever made it out he was finally going to be guilty of the crime he was sentenced for.
He and Yinsen carefully pulled the landmine from the ground, then moved on to the next platform to start all over again. They spent the rest of the day that way, digging in the hot sun under Raza’s watchful eye.
Tony contemplated running, but with his bad ankle he had no chance, Raza would catch up in seconds. He was forced to keep his head down and do as Raza asked.
They got six mines before Tony threw up his hands and refused to dig anymore. He got to his feet and limped a few steps before Raza stepped out from the trees and got in his face. “Where do you think you’re going?”
“To get a drink and food. It’s been hours and I’m not digging any more until I get something to eat.”
Raza’s eyes narrowed but he agreed, and helped them gather up the mines they had so they could head back to camp. They passed the river and Raza shoved Tony towards it so hard he stumbled, thankful not dropping any of the mines.
“You said you wanted water? There you go.”
Tony eyed the river, and the thought of bending down and drinking from it made him shudder. He could still taste sand and mud in the back of his throat, and feel the water rushing in, choking him in darkness.
He shook his head and Raza laughed cruelly. “Not so thirsty after all, huh?”
They headed the rest of the way back to camp and Raza tossed them both some jerky. He had several of the little backpacks that Tony had grabbed during the beginning of the game, either because he snatched them up from the cornucopia, or he killed their previous owners. Tony stalled as long as he could, ripping the jerky up and eating it strip by strip until there was nothing left and he was forced to start work activating the mines. With Yinsen’s help he was able to pry a mine open, and he sorted through the wires inside. The detonator signal was triggered by a heavy touch, and the wire connecting the sensitivity plate to the explosives had been severed by a small wireless timer that was most likely bluetooth enabled to connect with the countdown clock. Once disabled, the landmines could not be re-enabled remotely, which was good, because Tony didn’t want to know what Hammer was planning as retribution for Tony messing up his game this time. He didn’t expect to get a second warning not to mess with the Capital’s traps, and if his life hadn’t been on the line anyway he never would have touched these things.
It looked like they would be easy enough to rearm, he simply had to reconnect the wire to the touch plate by twisting them together, then any sufficient amount of force would set it off. Tony didn’t tell Raza that, or course. He pointed to random parts of the device and used random complicated sounding words to explain how much trouble it was going to be. “Might not be able to do it at all,” Tony finished with a shrug.
Raza scowled as he looked over his shoulder at the wires pouring out of the landmine. He knocked Tony to the ground with a backhanded swipe. “You think I’m stupid? You will have them working by sundown today, or else I’ll kill your little friend.”
Yinsen took a step back, his eyes wide. Tony held out a hand. “No, wait, I’ll do it. Alright? I’ll do it.”
Raza nodded and went back to sit under the lean to, where he slowly sharpened his knife in a quiet threat. Tony heaved out a deep breath. He had no doubt that Raza would follow through if Tony didn’t produce something, but he didn’t want to give him a working bomb to hurt someone else with either. They would have to try to make a run for it. Tony pretended to work, while keeping a close eye on Raza. When he got up and wandered away to go to the bathroom in peace, Tony grabbed Yinsen by the arm and started dragging him into the woods in the other direction.
“What are you doing?” Yinsen asked, pulling back.
“Escaping, come on!”
Thankfully Yinsen didn’t fight him, instead looping an arm around his shoulders and helped to support his weight as they traveled as quickly as they could. The forest was large and they could have headed in any direction, so Tony hoped that Raza wouldn’t be able to catch up despite their slow pace because of Tony’s limp. They traveled for about ten minutes, and Tony felt hope building in his chest. Maybe they had escaped safely?
There was the loud beep of a parachute, and Tony looked up to the sky. Why were they getting gifts now? The first parachute dropped to the ground in front of them and Yinsen twisted it open. Inside was a tube of chapstick, the cheapest item you could send. Tony knew this because one year a group of pranksters had spent the whole games bombarding some poor tribute with thousands of useless chapsticks, much to the entertainment of the citizens watching back home.
Tony read the note on top of the parachute. “No hard feelings, but I have to win this bet and I put your name to die next,” he read aloud.
“What does that mean?” Yinsen asked, as more parachutes started to fall from the sky, all beeping loudly and glaringly bright white, coming down in a straight line leading back to the camp.
“It’s a trap,” Tony realized. “The parachutes are leading Raza to us, we need to run!”
There was a low growl behind them and they turned to see Raza, advancing towards them with his knife. Tony pushed Yinsen behind him and picked up a large branch. “You run, I’ll hold him off.”
Yinsen darted off into the bushes and Tony held up his stick, ready to swing it like a bat. Raza stepped closer, trying to guess his odds of cutting Tony before he could finish his swing with the stick. He kicked towards Tony’s stomach, and Tony twisted so it hit his hip instead and hit Raza in the gut with the stick. Raza snarled and took a few steps back. He picked a branch of his own and advanced again, knocking Tony’s branch away with a swipe of his arm, and then lashing him across the face with it, the sharp twigs sticking out of it cutting his face. Tony touched a hand to his cheek and it came away red, and his right eye was dripping, whether with tears or blood he didn’t know. Raza dropped his stick and wrapped both hands around his knife, raising it above his head to stab downward with crushing force. Now defenseless Tony tried to cover his head with his arms and closed his eyes.
Before Raza could strike there was a shout, and Yinsen came charging out of the bushes behind them to tackle Raza to the ground. As Yinsen made contact Raza spun and lashed out with his knife, but Yinsen had momentum on his side and they both fell to the ground, Raza bashing his head against a rock and going limp. Tony limped over and pulled Yinsen up, gasping in horror as he saw the long cut running across his throat.
“Oh god, oh god, it’s going to be ok, I’m going to help you, just stay down.”
Tony ripped off the bottom of his pant leg and held the fabric to Yinsen’s neck, trying to stop the blood. Yinsen grabbed his hand.
“It’s alright, this was how it was always going to end.”
“No no no, I’m going to help you, you’re going to be ok, and you’ll get to go back to your sister.”
“My sister is dead. She was reaped last year.”
Tony jerked back as the unfairness of it all hit hit. “Yinsen-”
Yinsen’s eyes fell closed and his head lolled to the side.
“No, no, no,” Tony whispered, still holding the blood drenched cloth to the cut. A canon boomed over head and he let his hand and the cloth drop. It was no use; Yinsen was dead. He bowed his head in grief and took a shuddering breath.
What was he supposed to do now? Leave him here? After he died for him, Tony was just supposed to walk away?
Behind him Raza shifted. He could wake up at any second, and then it would be over for Tony.
Tony crossed Yinsens’ arms across his chest and brushed the hair out of his face. He zipped his jacket all the way up to the top to hide the cut, and it almost looked like he was ok. He covered him in one of the blankets from the backpacks and swung the bag over his shoulder and picked up a walking stick. Overhead the motors of a hovercraft roared, slowly descending to pick up the body.
Tony walked away with his head down, not watching where he was going, trying to escape. He walked and walked until the sun set and he kept walking as the broadcast appeared and he fell to the ground, covering his ears. He didn’t want to hear who had died today, he couldn’t take any more of this. It was all a huge waste.
Yinsen was going to be a doctor, he was going to save lives, and instead he died before he even made it out of highschool. And for what? Entertainment? To prove the same point that had been proven over and over for years?
It wasn’t worth it, nothing was worth this.
He kept his hands over his ears and his eyes to the ground until the leaves were once again hidden in shadow as the broadcast ended and the light faded away. He let his arms fall to the ground and he closed his eyes.
Above him the wind rustled through the trees in a mournful whisper. A twig snapped and Tony tensed up. He pushed himself up to his knees and elbows then relaxed as he recognized the voice.
“What did they do to you? Oh Tony, look at you.” Steve said softly.
He left himself fall back down to the ground, the peppery scent of the leaves filling his nose, the cool ground leeching the heat from his bruises. Steve sat down beside him and cupped Tony’s head in both hands, tilting his face up so he could see his eyes. Steve sighed and wiped his thumbs under Tony’s eyes to clear away the tears. He hadn’t realized that he was crying. Steve moved so that Tony’s head was resting in his lap, and his back was against a tree. He stroked a hand through Tony’s hair and the soothing repetitive strokes had Tony’s eyes drooping.
“Go to sleep, and I’ll keep watch,” Steve promised. “I’ve got you, you’re safe now.”
“It hurts,” Tony rasped, not sure if he meant his bruises, the loss of Yinsen, or the whole situation.
“I know, I’m sorry, I don’t have anything to help you.”
Tony wished he had enough energy to tell Steve that he was helping, just by being there. It felt good not to be alone, to feel someone else’s warmth and comforting touch.
They spent the evening that way, Tony lightly dozing and Steve keeping a careful watch. After sunset it grew colder, the heat from the day leaching into the air and dissipating. Tony felt himself shiver and Steve carefully set his head down on the ground so he could get up. Tony was immediately awake, shooting out his hand to grab Steve’s ankle. Steve patted his hand to calm him. “I’m going to try to help warm you up, alright?”
Tony nodded and Steve stepped out of sight. Tony curled up as tightly as he could, and made sure his jacket was zipped up to the top. Steve came back a few minutes later, and half carried half dragged Tony to a sheltered space in a gully that was protected from the wind by a bush. Steve helped him get his backpack off and sorted through it, noting the jerky and rope but no blanket. He handed it back to Tony who clutched it to his chest, adding another layer between skin and air. Steve laid him down and curled around him, his back providing another barrier against the wind. He wrapped an arm around Tony’s stomach, below the bag. His arm was solid and warm.
“Is this alright? You ok with this?”
“S' good,” Tony assured him. He could feel Steve relax behind him.
“That’s good. I used to sleep like this with Bucky all the time, back when we had no heat and the wind whistle through the house like it was trying to hold a tune. Winters always get cold, down in 12.”
Tony fought down a wave of jealousy. Why did he care that Steve used to hold someone else like this? Everything they were doing was either practical or a lie for the cameras. All that mattered was that Steve was alive, and he was here. Tony shifted backwards to press tighter against him.
“I’ve never been this cold before,” Tony grumbled. He had never been cold at all before the first night of the games. It was an interesting sensation from an academic standpoint, between the goosebumps and shivers. He would enjoy it more if it wasn’t against his will while he already felt like garbage. “All the buildings in the Capital have heat, and all out coats are designed for weather much worse than we get. No one is ever cold. I don’t like the feeling.”
Steve snorted. “Yeah, most people don’t. It hasn’t gotten this cold here yet, I wonder if it’s going to snow. Maybe the crowds back home are bored and they need to make things more interesting…” Steve trailed off. “Did you ever watch the games?”
That was a stupid question, everyone had to watch the games. “It’s mandatory,” Tony said dryly.
“Sure, for the districts.”
“For the Capital too.”
Steve took a moment to consider that. “You don’t get a choice? I figured that the people in the Capital did whatever they wanted, and it was the Districts who had to be careful of the rules.”
“Lots of things are mandatory when you live in the Capital. Watching the games, watching any government broadcasts. I have to go to training four times a year on a bunch of things. Our history, why we can’t trust the districts, how the peacekeepers protect us. Obie signed me up for another training on the peacekeepers because I got mad when they took me by force. I got out of it because I ended up here.”
“That was when they thought you were a traitor?”
“A little before then. Peacekeepers have the right to strong arm anyone they want, traitor or not, no questions asked. I should have known to shut up after that. Now I'm locked up in here and going to die.”
“You’re not going to die. We’ve made it this far, right? The games never last longer than a week, we’re almost done. Then we can go home.”
That didn’t make him feel any better. Once the games were over (and assuming that they both lived despite the fact that that was a clear violation of the rules) Steve was going to go back to his district, and Tony was never going to see him again. Steve hated the Capital, he wouldn’t want to stay there with Tony, and Tony couldn’t leave for the districts until he found out who was misusing his weapons.
Once the games ended, would they never see each other again?
Steve must have had the same thought because his arm tightened around Tony. They both were quiet for the rest of the night.
When Tony woke up the next morning, Steve was still curled around his back. The air tasted clean and fresh, and the leaves overhead were covered in a thin layer of frost, though they had both remained dry in their little gully.
Tony was content to lay there while Steve slept, and he grumbled when Steve started to shift around as he woke up, letting in cool air. Steve tried to pull his arm away to stretch and Tony latched onto him, holding him tight.
“No," Tony mumbled.
“No? No what? Moving? Getting up?”
“All of it. No.” Tony insisted and Steve's breath puffed warmly against the back of his neck as he laughed. “You’re so grumpy in the morning.”
“Probably because everything hurts.”
Steve sat up and Tony let out a sad little sound at the loss of warmth. “Oh god, I’m sorry. What’s the worst? Ankle?” He was already looking it over. “The bottom of your foot is a mess, where is your boot?”
Steve tried to unwrap the bandage and Tony screamed. Tony covered his mouth and Steve put his hand over top a second later. Tony felt tears build in the corners of his eyes.
They both waited in perfect silence to see if anyone had heard and was coming. After a few minutes of tension they both relaxed, and Steve didn’t try to touch his ankle again.
“There’s no way you’re going to be able to walk.” Steve said, rubbing his face. With one of them immobile, it was going to be difficult to get water or travel around to try to find the others. They would also be trapped if they were found by another tribute not on their alliance. Tony was dreading running into Raza again.
“If you want to leave me, I’ll understand,” he offered.
Steve shook his head. “No, we’re not getting separated again. Look, we were able to get you something to help your ankle once, let’s do it again.”
“You mean we should ask the sponsors?” Tony asked, and Steve nodded. Tony shook his head. “It made you upset last time when we kissed. I’m not going to force you.”
All the same, now that Steve had brought it up his eyes dropped down to Steve’s lips, pink and chapped. Their first kiss had been so short, so unsatisfying. If Steve gave him the chance Tony knew he could do better. Tony licked his lips and grinned as he saw color start to rise to Steve’s cheeks. He stood up quickly, clearing his throat. “I’m the one who suggested it. It won’t bother me, come on.”
Steve half dragged him out of their burrow, careful not to nudge his ankle. Outside the air was much colder, and the wind stung their cheeks. Steve helped Tony lean against a tree.
“Are you doing ok?” Steve asked loudly, trying to be heard by the cameras over the wind. Tony hoped one was nearby, otherwise the whole conversation might be lost in static.
“I can’t walk. I don’t know if my ankle is broken, but I can’t stand on it.”
That set up the problem nicely, everyone back home now knew what was going on. Next step was to entice them to help. Tony expected Steve to lean in quickly and get it over with. Instead he pulled out a scrap of what had once been a part of his jacket, and looked it over to make sure it wasn’t dirty. Steve carefully wiped the dried blood off of Tony’s face, and the scratches stung. They didn’t hurt half as much as his ankle and having Steve's undivided attention focused on his face brought a slight blush to his own cheeks. He was practically squirming with the anticipation, and at the same time guilt churned in his gut, because Steve didn’t really want this. If Tony grabbed him by the back of the head and pulled him into a kiss like he wanted to, then it would be no better than assault. He had to let Steve decide where this went. He started slow.
“I’m glad I found you again, otherwise I would have froze last night.” Tony paused, trying to think of a way to make it more romantic without making Steve uncomfortable. Implying they were doing anything other than sleeping was out of the question. What if Steve got embarrassed and decided to sleep further away next time? Unacceptable. He wanted to be back in the den where it was warm and hidden with Steve holding him right now, instead of screaming into the wind and hoping that it was loud enough for the cameras and not loud enough to attract danger.
“Much safer and warmer to have a partner,” he finally concluded, passing the ball off to Steve to see if he could do any better. Why was this so hard? He found himself stumbling over his words, his mind blank of any thoughts beyond wondering when Steve was going to kiss him again.
Steve gave him a small smile. “That’s true. I would have been happy to find any of the Avengers, but I’m glad it was you.”
Steve put the rag he was using in the backpack and handed Tony a piece of jerky. Tony gnawed on it halfheartedly. With everything hurting, it didn’t leave him with much of an appetite. Steve took some jerky too and finished it off in a few bites. They were going to need to find Natasha or Clint soon, their food was limited and neither of them were hunters. While Tony’s mind wandered Steve had moved closer. He swung a leg over Tony’s and sat so he was sitting across Tony’s thighs, his arms resting on his shoulders. Tony’s arms came up reflexively to rest on Steve’s hips. Oh, this was a blessing. Steve was relatively light and he helped to block some of the wind so it felt like a little cocoon of safety and warmth between them. Tony tried to subtly pull him closer, shifting him down his thighs into his lap. Steve allowed himself to be nudged, leaning forward until their chests were touching.
“See, the whole time we’ve been here, I haven’t been able to get you out of my mind.”
He was doing a much better job of acting this time, Tony noticed. If he didn’t know better he would even think Steve was happy to be sitting on him, leaning close with half lidded eyes, one hand on his shoulder balled in his shirt, and the other sliding down the small of his back.
“You’re a puzzle, a contradiction. The first time I met you, you were just another uncaring bastard happy to send me off to my death. I didn’t expect to see you again after the interviews, let alone for you to end up in here with me. Then when we got separated at the cornucopia I thought that that was it again… what chance did a pampered Capital boy have of surviving alone in the woods?”
“I did better than you,” Tony complained. “You were the one who needed help first, I was nice and safe in my cave.”
Steev nodded. “You saved me when you should have left me out to die in the smoke. Then you helped me save Thor when you had no reason to care. When the peacekeepers came after us you tried to get me out first. You ended up being nothing like I expected.”
“You thought I was a bastard, huh? Don’t worry, you aren’t the first, there’s lots of people back home who would agree.”
Tony was aware he wasn’t the most likable person, he wore the label of ‘difficult’ like a badge of pride, and like a shield against the cutting words. If people were going to hate him, then he’d give them something to hate. And if they hated the larger than life, most flashy and aggressive version of him, then that was alright. That version could take it. It could take it and take it and take it, and underneath it all the version of him with the sharp edges sanded down and an openness about him could hide away, only emerging cautiously around Obie and Rhodey where he could trust that it was safe to be softer. And now Steve too, who saw through him with piercing blue eyes, and held him with calloused hands, and smiled at Tony like happiness was a secret shared only between the two of them.
“You’re not a jerk, and that’s the problem. You were the Game Master, you were the symbol of everything I’m trying to fight against, and I don’t hate you. Things are very black and white in the districts. I don’t know if you know this, but everyone in the districts hates the Capital.”
“And that’s the problem, because I like you very much. More than I should.” Steve spoke so softly and earnestly, and Tony could hardly bear it.
“Well, we are in love, Darling,” he said flippantly, trying to break the tension that was rising between them.
Steve’s brows drew together, and he frowned. That had been the wrong thing to say.
Steve leaned in close enough to whisper, so the sound would be lost to people watching. “Don’t call me Darling.”
Tony couldn’t see his face with Steve’s mouth pressed up close to his ear so he couldn’t tell what he was feeling.
“You only do it when we’re pretending. I don’t want to pretend any more.” His grip on Tony’s shoulders tightened. “You told me the first kiss didn’t matter…that it didn’t count unless I wanted it to. I want it to count, and I want you to make this one count too.”
He leaned back, his body tense like he was entering a fight. Tony blinked a few times, trying to clear away all the static and clutter in his mind to process what Steve was saying.
He wasn’t pretending? Before he could make it past that, Steve leaned forward and pressed their lips together again, gentler than last time. He pulled back slowly, his face blushing red.
Tony blinked a few times. Holy shit, Steve wasn’t pretending.
He wanted this, he wanted Tony. Tony felt a laugh bubble up in his chest. Tony stroked his hand up and down Steve’s side, and Steve let him, because he wanted this. Amazing. He was trapped in a fucking death arena and Tony had never been so happy.
He brought up a hand to cup the side of Steve’s face and his eyes fluttered shut. He pulled Steve in to press a kiss to his cheek. He kissed the other side, then his forehead, then his mouth. Steve let out a small gasp of surprise and Tony took the opening to deepen the kiss. Steve let out a low groan and tilted his head to get a better angle, and Tony tangled his fingers in his hair, trying to take everything Steve was willing to give him. They broke apart to breathe, both gasping. Above them there were the soft beeps of a parachute.
Tony pressed kissed to Steve’s neck and collar bones, holding him tight as he tried to lean away to grab the parachute.
“You can stop now,” Steve said, finally getting a grip on one of the strings and pulling it over.
Tony paused to look at Steve, his eyes so blown he could hardly see a ring of blue, his hair sticking up, and his lips red and wet.
“So was it better that time?” he asked smugly.
“Less blood,” Steve said matter of fact, like he didn’t look absolutely wrecked. “Last time your lip was split and you got blood in my mouth.”
“Now it’s only my entire face that’s bleeding.”
It was meant to be a joke but it only made Steve’s face filled with concern.
“Come on, let’s get you out of the wind and we can try to use whatever they’ve given us for your injuries”
Tony stayed limp as Steve dragged him back into their little burrow, then brushed at the ground to hide the scuff marks. He slipped back into the burrow, bringing the parachute and carefully unscrewing the container.
“Looks like two pills.”
“I recognize them, I’ve taken them before. They speed up your body’s natural healing, about one week per pill. Should help with everything.”
“Useful. Do you want to read the note?”
“Does it say we’re cute and we should have sex, preferably where the cameras can see?”
“Pretty much. The people back home are getting impatient.”
“I don’t have a lot of shame, but I’m not willing to blow you on national television. Pass me the pills.”
Steve handed them over then grabbed Tony’s hand as he brought it to his mouth. “We need to make sure your foot is set in the right position first. If the bone is misaligned it’ll heal wrong and you still won’t be able to walk.”
“Please don’t touch my foot. I think it’s already in the right spot. It’s fine.”
Steve stuffed the rag into Tony’s mouth and started to unwrap the bandages. Tony’s back arched off the ground in pain, and he dug his fingers into the hard dirt. He howled and the rag muffled it, barely.
Steve worked as quickly as he could, pulling the bandages away from the bottom of his foot where they were stuck together with blood and blister pus. He felt around the swollen joint and started pressing in on the right side, the pain and pressure building until it leveled out into a sort of relief as it went back into the correct position. Tony spat out the rag and swallowed the pills. His skin started to stitch itself shut and his bruises faded back into his skin. It burned in a way that felt good while boarding on painful. Steve kept careful hold of his ankle as the swelling went down.
“You doing ok? You’re starting to look better.”
Tony let his head loll to the side. “I feel fucking fantastic.”
Steve let go of his ankle and laid down beside him. Tony buried his head in Steve’s shoulder and let out a sigh of relief.
“Nothing hurts. I forget what that feels like. Thank you.”
Steve brushed it off. “I didn’t do much, and you’d do the same for me. Now that you’re feeling better we should get moving again. We need to find the others, and we also need to find water.”
Water sounded nice, Tony’s mouth tasted like the rag. “Do you have any idea where we are?”
“Near the edge of the arena, on the west side. We were on the east side when were separated, and I’d like to see if anyone is still hanging around the tree leading to the tunnel. That’s where we agreed to meet if we were separated and all of the others are still alive so they might be there too.”
Tony had missed the first part of the broadcast two days ago, and all of the last broadcast, so he didn’t know how many people were left. It seemed to be too good to be true that none of their allies had fallen in the past two days. And had it really been three days? If someone had asked him last year how long he would survive in the Hunger Games, he would not have said three days. Maybe three minutes.
They crawled out of their burrow and Steve consulted the compass and set off, Tony following a step behind, still favoring his ankle slightly.
The weather stayed cold, and the occasional snowflakes drifted down, covering the ground in a thin layer of white. The snow muffled sound, and the forest was silent except for their breathing. They didn’t cross paths with anyone, and didn’t see any footprints. There were so few people left, and the arena was a huge place. They reached the cornucopia around midday, and in the center of the arena there was no wind or snow, like the eye at the center of a storm. The wind picked up again as soon as they stepped out of the clearing and into the trees, and they both shivered in their thin coats. The stream was near the cornucopia on the east side and they had no trouble finding it. Steve knelt down to drink, and Tony fell to his knees beside him. He leaned forward and froze, the sound of the water filling his ears like tidal wave. His breath seemed to catch in his throat, and the taste of mud filled his mouth. He scrambled backwards on his hands and knees, stumbling to his feet and turning his back to the water. He pressed his head to a tree and closed his eyes. He was fine, Raza wasn’t here. If he tried to get a drink no one was going to force him under. Behind him he heard Steve get up and he felt a cautious hand on his shoulder. “Tony?”
“Give me a minute.”
Tony hunched his shoulders up, pushing Steve’s hand off. “I’m not thirsty.”
“We’ve been together since last night so I know its been at least that long, and you were far from water when I found you. You need to drink.”
“I said I’m not thirsty!”
He heard Steve back away, and he felt a pang of guilt. Steve didn’t deserve to be snapped at. He turned around to apologize and saw Steve climbing up the river bed with his hands cupped. Steve came closer and offered his his hands, filled with icy river water.
“Is this ok?”
Tony had to clear his throat before he could respond. “Yeah. Yeah, this is ok.”
No questions, no judgment, no teasing. A simple solution, offered with Tony asking.
He leaned over and wrapped a hand around Steve's wrist, holding his hand steady. He could feel his pulse hot and quick under his fingers as he drank carefully from Steve’s hands, the gesture leaving him feeling vulnerable and open in a way their kiss hadn’t.
Tony was used to kissing, he was used to sex. It was just for fun, it never meant anything, he was always out the door the next morning before they woke up. They kept things fun and casual in the Capital.
He didn’t know what this was, this thing where he felt stripped bare, and the whole world narrowed down to the two of them, and the thin line of connection tied between them.
The air was heavy with an unspoken tension, and Tony was relieved when they continued their journey. As they walked deeper into the woods, the wind picked up and the snow grew deeper, rising up to their knees and soaking through their pants and shoes. They walked farther and the snow continued to rise, while more pelted down on them from above. Tony’s ears and nose burned, and he kept his hands tucked under his armpits. He couldn’t believe that he thought he was cold this morning, when this was real cold, where everything alternated between numbness and terrible burning. When it got to waist height Tony grabbed Steve’s arm. “We can’t go any farther!” He shouted as loudly as he could, struggling to make himself heard over the lashing snow.
“We agreed to meet at the tree if we were separated!” Steve yelled back.
“If they’re at the tree then they’re under ten feet of snow! We have to turn back!”
Steve cursed but he followed Tony as he fought his way back, doing his best to stay inside the trail they had already made. Without having to cut a path the travel back was easier, and Tony swore he could feel the snow lightening and the breeze lessening with every step they took back towards the center of the arena. The storm was obviously the work of the Game Master, trying to drive everyone together for a final showdown.
They arrived at the edge of the clearing in the center, and lurked at the edge of the trees to see if anyone else had arrived. There was a blond boy and a smaller brown haired boy sitting on top of the cornucopia, and Steve ran towards them with Tony a step behind. “Thor! Bruce!”
Both the figures perked up and started waving. “Steve! You’re ok!”
“Yeah! And Tony’s with me, he’s fine too! Have you seen Clint and Natasha?”
“We’re right here.” Clint and Natasha stepped out of the woods, both covered in snow. They all met up in the center, patting each other of the pack and laughing in relief. They had all made it and were finally together again.
“Have any of you run into the two remaining people?” Thor asked.
“Who’s left?” Tony asked.
Clint held out two fingers and tapped them as he said the names. “The boy from 9, Raza, and the boy from 7, Ivan. Natasha and I ran into Ivan, he got us a few times with his whip before Nat took it and used it to tie him to a tree. That's the last time we saw him.”
Tony spoke up. “I ran into Raza. He was unconscious last time I saw him.”
He climbed up the cornucopia to sit next to Bruce and Thor, and the metal was wonderfully warm. It must have been heated, there was no way it would have been giving off that much heat naturally. “Are we going to hang out here until they show up?”
“You want to go back out into that snow? Hell no, we’re staying here.” Natasha said, levering herself up on the cornucopia too. Clint climbed up beside her, and Tony offered Steve a hand and pulled him up beside him. Tony felt the snow melting off his clothes into slush, but the warmth of the heated metal kept him from shivering. Steve leaned against his side and he put an arm around his waist.
“You two still doing that?” Natasha asked, with a tilt of her head. “You get any more stuff?”
“Enough to get Tony back on his feet.” Steve said, and left it at that. They couldn’t explain that it was real without first letting the audience in on the fact that it had originally been fake, and Tony didn’t think they’d take kindly to being tricked. It rackled slightly that the group thought they were faking, and he pressed a kiss to Steve’s cheek to make himself feel better, and was rewarded with a small smile.
They hung out on top of the cornucopia chatting for the rest of the day, Steve passing out the rest of the jerky they had in the backpack, and Thor sharing some berries he had found. The sky dimmed into night, and no one else showed up in the clearing. Loud music belted out from above, and two cannon blasts rang out while Raza’s and Ivan’s pictures flashed across the top of the dome. Hammer appeared on the screen. “There are now six tributes remaining in the Hunger Games. There can only be one winner, and no one will be leaving the arena until everyone else is dead. May the odds be ever in your favor.”
Hammer signed off, and they were left in silence. The group looked at each other. This was the problem Tony had noticed in their alliance from the beginning; they couldn’t all win. After being separated he had been half hoping to see the other’s names in the sky, because as horrible as it would be for them to have died, it was better than having to face them like this.
“What do we do now?” Bruce asked. “Wait them out? Hope they change their minds?”
Clint shook his head. “We can’t, we’re out of food and none of the squirrels or plants will have survived that blizzard. The games will end with whoever starves the slowest winning, and that’s not how I want to go out. I say we draw straws, and the longest straw gets to go home. As for the rest of us…” Clint took a deep breath. “I have my bow. I could make it quick, painless. Or we could go into the snow. I heard hypothermia isn’t a bad way to go… you get warm again at the end, and it feels like going to sleep.”
“It’s our best option, but no straws. Tony should be the one to live.” They all turned to look at Steve, who continued calmly, like he hadn’t suggested his death and the death of all his friends. “Think about it, he’s the only one who has any sort of sway back at the Capital. If anyone could shut the games down permanently it would be him. Isn’t that the best case scenario? It’s too late for us, but maybe no one else will have to go through this.”
No, no, no, Steve couldn’t die, not after all they had survived together. None of them should die, and not for something as worthless as Tony’s life and the minuscule chance that he could shut down a tradition that had been running strong for 74 years.
“I can’t promise I’ll be able to change anything, I’ve been branded a traitor, no one would listen to me-”
“But you’ll try. You know who’s in charge, and you’ve built all the weapons they use to maintain their power over the districts. They’ll listen, or you’ll burn them to the ground.” Steve said, his eyes steely.
Tony grabbed his hand desperately. “You can’t do this, I’ll dig up the rest of the mines, I’ll arm them and we’ll blow our way out of here.”
“We’ll never make it to the borders of the arena with this snow.”
“Steve-” Tony begged. Steve hugged him and Tony buried his face in his shoulder. “Please don’t do this,” he gasped, his breath hitching in his throat.
Stark men were made of iron and Tony hasn't cried since he was four, but he was crying now, water soaking into Steve’s jacket.
The Capital was filled with so many cruel stupid malicious people, people who lived their lives in complete excess and waste, and now Steve, the best man Tony had ever met, the kindest, bravest, most genuine person, was going to die for their entertainment and they wouldn’t care, and Tony would have to go back to face them, alone.
He’d rather walk into the snow and die with Steve.
Natasha cleared her throat. “So you two are faking all of this for the cameras? Steve, you don’t actually like him enough, to say, hypothetically, try to put his life above everyone else's?”
Steve stiffened in his arms, and Tony found himself being pushed away.
“We said it was fake, didn’t we?” Steve said sharply.
“Doesn’t look so fake to me,” Clint agreed and Steve snarled at him.
“It is. What the hell, we’re not getting out of this anyway, might as well tell the truth to the whole world. Everything between us? It’s all been for the cameras, a way to manipulate people to send us whatever we wanted. We were never in love, we never even liked each other. You think I would spare a second for a Capital boy? I’d rather choke. I did choke, anytime he kissed me and I had to pretend.”
Tony pressed a hand over his eye. He knew Steve was lying, he was trying to convince Natasha, but each word cut deep, because most of it wasn’t too far from the truth, was it? Their relationship was founded on lying and manipulation. Steve had hated him the first time they met, and the longer they had spent together the better they had started to understand each other. What could grow between them if they were given a year? Two? Ten? Instead they got three days, three short days locked up in an arena where pain and death hid around every corner, and their number one priority had to be survival over honesty.
“Tony is the logical choice, emotion has nothing to do with anything.” Steve finished his eyes locked on Natasha’s, lying to help Tony one last time.
“Then you won’t mind drawing straws. Clint, give me your arrows.”
He handed over the quiver and she drew out all six arrows, and broke the tips off of five. She put them back in the quiver and slid off the side of the cornucopia to the ground, where she stuck them into the ground in one big fistful, hiding the tips in the dirt and making them all stick up the same height. She stepped back and gestured at them. “Gentlemen, draw your straws.”
Clint picked first, pulling an arrow from the ground and sighing when it came up broken. He stepped back and Thor was the next to pull. His face stayed blank as the broken tip was revealed. Steve pulled the next arrow and his shoulders slumped in relief when it was broken.
Tony wanted to curse at him. The self sacrificing jerk was relieved not to win. Why would it be such a bad thing, for Steve to go home? He could go back to his best friend and maybe he’d be upset for a few months, sure, but he’d be alive, and if Tony had to go, he’d rather do it knowing Steve was safe. It might even make this whole terrible experience worth it, to know that he had helped to get Steve out safely. Tony squinted at the remaining arrows, the feathers all sticking up high. If he drew the winning arrow, could he give it to Steve?
There were three arrows left, and the one with the tip was still there. Natasha had been the ones who sunk them into the ground, so she had to go last because she had a greater chance of knowing which one it was. Tony and Bruce looked at each other, and Bruce held out his arm, offering Tony the next pick. Tony slid down the side of the cornucopia, and shivered as he stepped away from its heated warmth. He carefully considered the three arrows remaining. All their feathers ended at the same height, and none of them showed in cracks in the wood of the shaft that might have indicated that they were broken. There was no way to tell which one was the one. He took a deep breath and pulled one at random, closing his eyes as he pulled. The arrow slipped from the dirt smoothly and he knew the result before he opened his eyes.
“No!” Steve screamed, and Tony looked down to see a broken tip.
The gods of chance had spoken, and Tony had lost the hunger games.
Tony stepped back, half in shock. Steve grabbed him and hid his face in his shoulder, and Tony could feel him shuddering.
Whatever happened next, whoever drew the arrow with a tip, Tony was not going to be the one to survive. It was a relief in a way. He wouldn’t have to worry about uncovering years of betrayal, or fighting against a vast and uncaring system to try to end the games. He could follow Steve into the woods where it was quiet and dark, the snow falling until all his sins were wiped away under a smooth white blanket, and underneath it he could drift off to sleep, and dream of a world where they all made it safely home.
Behind him, Bruce jumped off the cornucopia and stepped forward to draw an arrow. He picked one and pulled it slowly, revealing more and more wood as he pulled it inch by inch, until it ended in a sparkling silver tip.
Tony sighed. He was happy? Or maybe it was relief he was feeling? Bruce would get to go home, and that felt good, that felt right. Out of the group, Bruce had been the least of a fighter, the most out of place as he made his little fires while everyone else practiced with weapons. Tony had noticed it from his first question in the first interview; Bruce didn’t belong in this place.
Bruce turned and walked back to where most of the group was huddled against the wrath of the cornucopia. He held out the arrow to Tony. “I want you to have it.”
Tony looked down at the arrow then up at Bruce who gave him a sad smile. “Go on, Tony. Take it. Steve had a point, you could do some good if you made it back. And what do I have to go home to? A life living alone in the local victor’s house, trying to keep my head down to avoid the wrath of the Capital?”
Though the arrow was lightweight wood, it felt like it weighed a hundred pounds as Bruce passed it into his hands. “Go home, Tony, and make sure no one else is taken from theirs.”
Around him the others started stripping off their coats and pulling off their pants, leaving them in their underwear and thin undershirts.
Steve tried to pull off his jacket and Tony grabbed his hand. “Steve, Steve,” He struggled to think of any argument to convince Steve to stay, any plan that could keep them all safe.
Steve put his other hand on top of Tony’s and looked up into his eyes, his blue eyes clear and calm. “I’m going to miss you. For what it’s worth, I was lying earlier, it’s been real for me.”
Steve leaned forward and kissed him, and Tony put everything he had into it, trying to convey the love inside him that was so large and sharp it felt like it was tearing him apart from the inside out.
“I’m not letting you leave, I’m coming with you,” Tony promised. “We’ll all die, let’s see what the Capital thinks of that.”
Steve pressed a kiss to Tony’s forehead. “I love you. Avenge us.”
Steve knocked him on the side of the head and Tony felt himself fall to the ground as everything went black.
Tony woke up to the sound of a cannon firing. His eyes shot open and he pushed himself up so quickly the world spun and bile rose in his throat. He leaned against the cornucopia and looked around the clearing. It was empty except for five coats, one of which had been draped across Tony’s chest like a blanket. The snow had encroached further into the clearing, and it was now only a few feet from the cornucopia before the heat radiating off the giant metal structure melted it. Tony ran around the cornucopia, searching for footprints, trying to guess which direction they went. Between the wind and snow, there was nothing. How long had he been out? Minutes? Hours? A day? Who had the cannon been for? Another cannon blast sounded.
He screamed and the sound echoed through the clearing. He went back around to the side with the discarded coats and charged into the snow. Within ten steps it was up to his knees, and within twenty it was up to his waist. He waded through it as quickly as he could, his desperate calls whipped away by the wind into nothingness. He was surrounded by white, the trees blending together into identical pillars of black sticking out of the white like gravestones. The deeper he went the more the wind picked up, until he couldn’t see more than a few feet ahead because of all the flurries. He shivered violently, and the tears on his face started to freeze. His foot hit something and he dropped to his knees, digging through the snow desperately. Maybe it was Steve? Bruce? It was a branch. A fucking branch.
Tony threw it as far as he could, curling up into a ball and covering his face. His clothes were soaked through, and his teeth were chattering so hard it hurt. Overhead there was another cannon blast. That made three. Tony forced himself back to his feet and kept searching through the woods, picking directions at random, lost in the blinding white. He stumbled upon the river. It was frozen solid, the only sign it was there a long dip in the height of the snow. Maybe Steve was in the cave? The one from the first day, where they had been safe and warm together. Tony waded through the snow upstream, searching for any dip or mound that might signal he was there. Another cannon sounded. Four. One left.
Tony made it to where the snow got higher as the bank of the river rose, and he started digging in front of it, scooping out armfuls of snow as quickly as he could. He cleared the top of the opening, and though it was dark he could feel that the inside wasn’t fully filled, his hand meeting air as he reached for another handful of snow. If Steve had gotten in here he might still be ok, it would have acted like an igloo and protected him from the wind. Tony worked the snow away from the top as the storm grew worse, the wind so harsh he couldn’t hear his own breath, and he could hardly keep his eyes squinted open. As soon as he had a big enough gap he stuck his head inside, ready to grab Steve and drag him back to the cornucopia. The cave was empty.
How was it empty? It couldn’t be empty. Tony shoved more snow to the side, and forced his way in, rolling down the slight hill of snow and hitting the back wall of the cave. Out of the wind he could finally fully open his eyes.
The cave was empty. Tony curled himself into a ball. Steve wasn’t here, had never been here.
The final cannon sounded.
Wherever they were, the Avengers were dead.
I'm getting my wisdom teeth out today, weather and snow permitting. Wish me luck.
Tony was back in the Capital in less than an hour and forced into the hands of the stylists to make him presentable for the cameras. They gave him several of the healing pills and he felt the last vestiges of damage fading away like they had never existed. They shaved off his scruffy four day beard, and styled his hair back in neat waves. They put him in a black suit, with a black shirt and tie. No more tacky baby blue.
They spun him around to look in the mirror and he hated how familiar he looked. A little thinner, a little tanner, but otherwise identical to the time he had stepped out onto the stage as Game Master. The games had ruined him on the inside, and on the outside he was as untouchable as he always was. A perfect shell wrapped around a splintered core.
He hadn’t realized how long he had been staring until a stylist offered him a hand to lead him on stage. They were all treating him like a wounded animal, speaking soft and low, every moment telegraphed to avoid startling him.
How many victors had lashed out against anyone that came close, Tony wondered, their minds ground away by the arena until everyone and everything appeared to be a threat?
Outside canned clapping played and that was his cue. He ended up in the chair across from where he had sat to interview the tributes, four short days ago. Now he was in the tribute chair, and Hammer stood at the edge of the stage in the empty room and riled up an audience who wouldn’t see him for another three hours and several rigorous rounds of editing.
Hammer sat down and grinned at the cameras. “Alright, let’s get this show on the road! May I present the 74th winner of the Hunger Games, Tony Stark!”
Above them fake applause played and Tony dug his fingers into the arms of his chair. Winner? All he had done was lose, from the second he was appointed Game Master. Lost his job, lost his faith in Stane and in the system, lost his Capital citizen status, lost his freedom, lost Yinsen, lost the arrow draw, lost the Avengers, lost Steve. He tried to think of anything he had left, as the lights glared down blindingly and Hammer talking and laughing, existing in a world completely separate from Tony, one where pain was something that happened to other people and the worst thing he ever lost was a bet.
“A real underdog story, and a love story to boot. Our ratings were off the charts, people were tuning in every night to see you and Rogers.” Hammer jumped into his first question. “Tony, could you tell the crowd what your strategy was in the games?”
“Most of the time I was just trying to find Steve.”
Hammer laughed and more laughter played from the speakers, the sound grating on Tony. It wasn’t funny, that he had been stumbling around cold and hurt, not knowing if Steve was dead or alive. It wasn’t supposed to be a joke.
“That’s right! Things were always coming between you poor star crossed lovers. Terrible for you, great for ratings. Thousands of people were tuning in to watch you two, this has been the most popular hunger games in the past five decades! Everyone was rooting for you.”
Was that supposed to make him happy? People loved to watch them suffer, great. He took a breath. He had to be nice while on camera if he wanted to keep the good will of the general public.
“I appreciate all the support. We wouldn’t have survived for as long as we did without the gifts from our sponsors.”
“Yes, yes,” Hammer agreed. “Several gifts, this has been the first time a tribute ranked last in the skill test received a sponsorship. And technically you didn't receive a score at all. Sponsorship's always add an interesting layer to the game, extending contestant's time much further past what was initially expected. The both of you lost a lot of people a lot of bet money, no one expected either of you to last as long as you did, with you coming in first and Rogers in sixth. A few more minutes and he would have been top 5 and that would have sent a lot more people to the poor house.”
Tony’s hands tightened on the armrests of the chair. “What?”
“The betting really picked up once they went into the snow. They were all going to die of course, but in which order? Guessing was so much fun. Rogers was the obvious choice to die first, thin as a twig and so ready to walk to his death, and he didn’t disappoint.”
Tony felt his breath catch in his throat. Steve had been the first cannon, the one that woke him up. The whole time he had been searching, begging, clawing at the snow, Steve had already been dead.
Hammer continued on, oblivious. “Banner was next. Another small, thin boy. Then Barton and Odinson. Romanoff was last, and I made some good money on that. Everyone thought it would be Odinson because he was the largest but Romanoff has been a wily one from the start, and it gets so cold down in her district. You gotta watch the interviews carefully, that’s where you get the insider information. Rogers was too sick to interview, and he died first. Clear correlation.”
He tapped his head like he was telling Tony a clever little secret. Tony was mostly trying not to throw up or cry.
He stood up. He couldn’t do this. He stepped towards the door and a peacekeeper stopped him with a hand to the chest.
“You’re supposed to complete the interview.”
“And if I don’t? You’ll do what? Put me back in the games?” Tony started to laugh, a harsh wheezing thing, cut off as the peacekeeper hit him in the face. The peacekeeper grabbed him by the arm and dragged him along the ground and threw him in the chair. Tony bent over, holding a hand to his eye, still laughing under his breath. Beside him Hammer had gone white as a sheet. Tony could practically see the perception of the peacekeepers being there to keep everyone safe falling away. Tony put his hand down so Hammer could see the full glory of his swollen eye.
“First time seeing this side of things? You’ll get used to it. Happens a lot, all part of the games. You think that once you’re promoted to Game Master they’d let you have a peak at what’s really going on, but I had to find out the hard way too. Oh well, it doesn’t matter. You won’t be around for the next games anyway.”
“What do you mean?” Hammer asked, his eyes still locked on the peacekeeper standing in the corner.
Tony leaned forward in his chair. “You let me win. I was never supposed to win, I was a problem. I was supposed to die the first night, from something tragically boring, maybe hypothermia, maybe bad water. I wasn’t supposed to come back.” He leaned forward and grabbed Hammer by the tie, pulling him close. “Because now I’m here to burn it all to the ground.”
The peacekeeper stepped forward and hit him again, dragging him from the stage.
Tony grinned up at him with bloody teeth. “You can’t kill me, the whole world is watching! They all want to see the winner of the games and there will be questions if they don’t! You want to take my winnings? Go for it! I have more money than I know what to do with! You want to beat me? Good luck doing anything worse than what I’ve already been through.”
The peacekeeper threw him into the supply closet where he had been caught with Steve and the door locked shut with a click. Outside he could hear the peacekeeper talking, most likely on the phone with Stane trying to figure out what to do with him. That made Tony wonder...he got on his knees and shifted around the boxes on the floor until his eyes landed on smooth black rectangle. When they had pulled him and Steve out of here, they had stomped on his phone and left it on the ground. In the commotion it had been kicked to the back of the closet, where it had sat collecting dust ever since. Tony hit the power button and the screen lit up. Like they could destroy Tony’s tec by stomping on it. He had designed this thing to withstand the force of a small explosion and gave it enough battery to last a month. He unlocked it and the application he had made to hack into the building’s systems popped back up. This was too easy. He disabled the electronic lock on the closet door and slipped out side white the peacekeeper was arguing with his phone. Tony went to the make up station where he had been earlier and smeared the thick cream over his eye to hide the red deepening into purple.
Two more peacekeepers guarded the exit and Tony walked past them like he had every right to be there, and in his Capital clothes with his snooty Capital attitude, they didn’t question him.
He entered the parking lot and scanned the rows of cars, looking for his. It wasn't there. After he had been entered into the Games they must have towed it. How the hell was he going to get to the Capital building?
He decided to do the same thing he had been doing whenever he was in a shitty situation since the age of 14 and call Rhodey. He picked up on the first ring.
"Hey pal, you mind giving me a lift?"
"Goddamn, you really did it, you really made it." There was wild laughter on the other end of the line. "Yeah sure, I'll give you a ride, I'll be there in ten."
Tony stood in a corner and kept his head down until he recognized Rhodey's car. He slid into the passenger seat and Rhodey lunged across the center console to hug him. Tony leaned into it, allowing himself to relax for the first time in days.
"I didn't believe you were a traitor for a minute, but by time I found out what was going on you were already in the arena, and Stane refused to speak with me. There's something rotten going on in the Capitol."
"More than you realize. I need you to take me to the Capital building. I have unfinished business."
Obie was going to answer for all of this. Tony could no longer pretend that this was all some mistake; the evidence had piled up too high. As President, Obie would have known the truth of the games and their needless cruelty and misused weapons, the truth about the people from the districts and how they were suffering, and truth about Tony. He hadn’t been a traitor, but he had been too close to uncovering things Obie wanted him to stay ignorant of.
He hadn’t been a traitor before, but he sure as hell was planning on being one now.
When they arrived at the Capital building they went around back and Tony got out.
"Is there anything I can do?" Rhodey asked.
"Provide a distraction for as long as you can."
Rhodey nodded and drove off. Tony approached the door and jiggled the handle of the back door they used for deliveries and trash. It was locked. It was also electronic, and that meant it was only a few seconds work for Tony to connect to it with his phone and hack it. He made his way inside the building, ducking behind corners whenever he heard footsteps. He made it to an emergency stairwell and descending into the lower levels of the building to where the electrical systems were stored. Before he could get to Obie he had to make it past several layers of automated security, including scanners, automatic weapons hidden in the walls, and silent alarms that would summon peacekeepers from all over the city. Rather than try to hack through all of them, Tony was going to shut the whole system down.
The basement was cold and felt vaguely damp. Tony followed the thick wires running along the hallway, hoping to find a control room. He turned a corner and froze as he saw a peacekeeper standing in front of a doorway, rifle held loosely, staring straight ahead. At the slight scuff of Tony’s shoe, the peacekeeper’s head whipped around and Tony knew he had been spotted. If he tried to run the peacekeeper would sound the alarm and he would be caught. In a panic Tony charged forward, swinging wildly at the peacekeeper before he had a chance to react. Tony got him in the head, and the peacekeeper fell back into the wall, hitting his head again, his helmet making a sharp ringing sound as it struck the concrete. Tony stood over him panting, clutching his hand where it arching. Tony waited for someone else to come around the corner, attracted by the noise. There was nothing. Tony heaved a sigh of relief. Why had there been a peacekeeper down here anyway? He must have been watching the door to the control room. Tony pushed the door open and it wasn’t a control room at all. There weren’t any wires or computers, and no fuse boxes. Instead there were five tall tubes, covered in a thick layer of condensation. The temperature in the room was significantly colder than the hallway, and Tony started to shiver as he stepped closer to the first tube. He couldn’t tell what they were supposed to be for. They didn’t look like any air conditioner or freezer he had ever seen. Maybe a weapon? There were wires running into the tops of the tubes and coming out to connect with a wide array of machines, all beeping along.
He reached out a hand and rubbed away the condensation, and jumped back in shock.
There was a person inside there.
He wiped away more of the water and felt frantic hope start to build inside his chest as he saw fiery red hair. That wasn’t any person, that was Natasha, he would bet his life on it, and according to the machine that Tony now realized was a heart rate monitor, she was alive. And that meant… Tony looked at the other four tubes. All the Avengers were here.
After they died in the snow the Capital had collected their bodies, and instead of dumping them in the incinerators with everyone else, they had brought them here. Because they froze, the Capital had been able to use their advanced medical technology to revive them, like a makeshift version of cryogenics. Maybe Obie had intended to use them as a bargaining chip to get Tony to behave, maybe he intended to revive them to question them about the rebellion. Either way, here they were, defrosted and sleeping in a thick cryogel.
Tony hit the big green ‘revive’ button and waited with baited breath as the tubes started to drain, the liquid flowing out through tick tubes. The room started to warm, the frost on the glass turning into water droplets and sliding down the sides of the tubes. Tony starled backwards as Natasha slammed her hand into the side of the tube. He looked down the control panel and hit the open button. Natasha stumbled out of her tube first, with the others seconds behind. Steve was the last to step out, unsteady and shivering violently. Tony ran forward and pulled him into a hug, not caring as the slime soaked into his clothes and smeared across his neck and Steve hugged him back.
“Steve you goddamn bastard you’re never allowed to leave me like that again.”
Tony kissed him and Steve pulled him closer.
Steve was alive, he was really alive, solid and firm and real, the strength of his arms pulling Tony closer and holding him tight, the two of them holding onto each other like if they let go for a second the other person would disappear.
Steve wrapped his arms around Tony’s neck, and gave him a goofy smile. “Hi Tony. I missed you.”
Tony left his head fall forward so their foreheads were touching. “I missed you too. Very, very much.”
More than he could convey with words. How did he say that without him the world felt like a very cold and very cruel place? How did he say that when Steve died he had taken a piece of Tony with him?
Steve kissed him and Tony responded eagerly, almost desperately, trying to bury himself in all the tiny mundane details that meant Steve was alive and real, the beat of his heart under Tony’s hand, Steve’s own hands dragging down Tony’s back. Blond eyelashes pale and fine resting against cheeks flushed pink and healthy.
Steve seemed to be doing the same to him, taking him in like he had never seen him before. He brushed his hand down the side of Tony’s face.
“Not to interrupt the love fest, but where the hell are we?” Clint asked, leaning against the side of the tube. Tony regretfully pulled away from Steve, still keeping an arm wrapped around his waist to keep him close.
“We’re in the basement of the Capital building. The Capital of the Capitol. I came here to wreck some havoc and found you guys.”
“Havok? I like the sound of that,” Natasha said with a feral grin. “Where do we start?”
“I was going to start by shutting off the power. But even with the automatic defenses down, there’s still going to be almost a hundred peacekeepers between us and the President.” Tony responded. Steve smiled.
“Someone find me a phone, I might have a solution for that.”
Tony passed his cell phone over and Steve started to dial from memory. “You remember how this all started? You trying to figure out what the symbol I drew was? It’s a shield. That’s the name of the rebellion, and I bet they’d like to know that you’re about to shut down all the Capital building’s defenses. They have people inside the city that could come help.”
“I could do more than that. I could shut down the whole city’s defenses if you needed me to.”
They all stared at him.
“What? I built them, I can take them down.”
Steve nodded. “Do it. I’ll let Shield know and they’ll mobilize all the rebels in each district to march on the Capital.”
“How much time will it take?” Tony asked, worried that someone would come looking for the missing peacekeeper lying in the hallway.
“Maybe two hours?”
“Two hours?” Tony asked in shock. “Before they’re here? Don’t they need to prepare? Convince people?”
Steve grabbed his hands. “This has been building for years, Tony. All the districts are ready, we have weapons and plans and we’ve trained for this. Our only obstacle was getting past the perimeter defenses. This is it; the Capital falls today.”
The phone picked up with a click and Steve held it to his ear. “Fury? It’s Rogers. Assemble the troops.”
While Steve explained the situation Tony went back out into the hall to try to find the control center, Clint and Thor coming with him in case there were more guards. Clint had taken the peacekeepers gun and Thor his baton, so when they rounded a corner and found another peacekeeper Thor quickly bashed him over the head and he dropped to the ground, unconscious. He had been guarding a large door, and this time when Tony pushed it open it was the control room. Fuse boxes for the building lined the walls, and people sat in front of screens and screens of security cameras. Clint stepped forward and waved his gun threateningly. “Everyone put your hands up and stand against the back wall!”
They rounded the people up and Clint glared at them as Tony sat in front of the main computer and cracked his knuckles. Since he was in the Capital building itself, he was able to connect to the internal secure server and start disabling the defenses. Whenever it asked for administrator permissions he simply entered his own code. He had built most of these systems and the most top secret weapons, his security clearance was only short of the president and his advising cabinet. When he was blocked, the screen flashing red warnings, he paused, thinking. Obie was an incredibly smart and secretive person. He was also old, and like every other old person, had a complicated relationship with technology.
Tony’s parents had died when he was 14, and he hadn’t been able to legally live on his own until 16. For those two years he had lived with Obie, and you don’t live with someone for that long without learning a few of their habits. Such as using the same four passwords for everything, and keeping those passwords written on a sticky note under the keyboard.
He entered Obie’s old password and the screen flashed green. He was in.
Step one was to shut down all of the cameras, then all the security scanners. Automatic defenses went next, along with all emergency broadcast systems and early warning alarms. Manual fire defenses were last, and he revoked everyone’s authorization for use.
It took him over an hour of frantic typing, and he hit the final key as peacekeepers stormed into the room, guns raised. Outnumbered, Clint and Thor lowered their weapons. One of the peacekeepers grabbed Tony roughly and pulled him from the room. As they passed the cryogenics room he looked for Steve and didn’t see him. Either he was hiding or captured.
Two peacekeepers stepped inside the elevator with him. When they arrived at the penthouse, more peacekeepers flanked the office door. It swung open to reveal Obie sitting at his desk like old times, like the last week hadn’t happened and Tony was being called in here for a light scolding because he was late on a design.
Tony cautiously sat in the chair meant for guests, and Obie blew a thin stream of smoke from between his lips, tapping his cigar on the tray on his desk. Tony hated that the smell reminded him of solid hugs and a comforting supporting presence.
How much of their relationship had been a lie? Had it started as something innocent before rotting away into the twisted thing between them now? Had there been a point where Tony mattered as much to Obie as Obie did to him?
Or had Obie been distant from the start, viewing Tony in terms of how much usefulness he could squeeze out of him while plying him with false praise and honey words?
What was wrong with Tony, that his father didn’t love him, and now Obie didn’t either? What about him was so broken that the only thing he was worth to those around him was what he could be used for?
Obie steepled his fingers and leaned forward. “I’m glad you’ve decided to come back. So tragic when you ran away in the middle of your interview. What was I supposed to show the districts? There were going to be questions.”
“I’m not back.”
Obie looked at him and Tony resisted the urge to squirm in his chair.
“I’m not back,” he insisted.
“Yet here you sit. You were out, for a brief hour. I had no clue where you were and no way to find out. You could have stayed that way, could have gone to one of the districts and lived out the rest of your life in anonymity. But then again, you were always the sentimental sort, never able to let things go... I saw you found your little friends. ”
Stane hummed low in his throat, a speculative sound. “Normally it’s a pain. This time it worked out in my favor so I suppose I can’t complain. I’ve got you right back where I want you. Hard to believe that I once considered you my successor. That’s a pretty little mask you put on for the rest of the world, you had me fooled. What is it your father was always nattering on about? Stark men are made of iron? It works from a distance.” Stane got up and walked around the desk, grabbing Tony by the chin and forcing his head up to meet his eyes. “Tony Stark, the child prodigy, the boy running circles around everyone else, always faster, smarter, better, hiding behind an armor of of jokes and jabs. And underneath it all? A lonely child, a desperate one. All it took was a stranger offering you the tiniest bit of affection and now here we are; in a horrible mess. Neither of us wanted things to turn out like this.”
Stane made it sound like a clear and unavoidable conclusion.
“Is it such a bad thing, to want to be loved?” Tony asked.
He meant it to come out aggressively; a challenge. Instead he sounded horribly small, less of a question and more of a plea. Stane let go of his face and leaned against his desk, arms crossed.
“You tell me.”
Looking at the man he had once considered a father, who had betrayed so completely, over and over, Tony didn’t have an answer.
“What do you want from me?”
“I want the golden goose to keep laying eggs. There’s been rumblings of discontent in the district, the Capital needs new armaments more than ever.”
“I’m not building anything else for you.”
“Then I’ll kill your friends.”
Tony stiffened in his chair, his eyes wide.
“Oh, now I’ve gotten your attention? I found all of them in the basement, and stored them away somewhere you won’t be able to find them. I want you to redo your final interview, and make sure everyone knows that you’ve learned the error of your ways and are back to being fully loyal to the Capitol. Then you’ll go back to work as usual, and if you’re a good boy, I’ll give you back your friends. Otherwise… I don’t have much use for the losers of the Hunger Games.”
Tony tried to calm his racing heart. This was actually a good thing. This meant that his friends weren’t dead yet, and for every second Obie talked, the rebels were getting closer. Obie hadn’t brought up the disabled systems so he didn’t know yet, some poor computer tech must be downstairs right now trying to puzzle out everything Tony did, being blocked by firewalls and a lack of security clearance at every turn. The best thing he could do right now was stall.
“How do I know you’ll keep your word? You seem to have a habit of lying to me.”
Obie sighed. “Tony, Tony, Tony. You were happier when you were ignorant, I was doing you the same service given to all the Capital citizens. They all want to laze about and have their parties and drinks and fun, and they don’t want to think about what’s going on in the districts. What’s the old folk saying? No one wants to see how sausages are made? Don’t be so naive.”
Outside there was a loud bang and yelling. The President frowned and walked over to pull aside the drapes and look out the window. His grip tightened into a fist.
“What did you do?”
Tony sat back in his chair. No matter what happened next, the defenses were down and the rebels were in.
“I evened the odds. Turns out there’s a downside in having one person design every defense system you use; I know how to disable them. It’s over, Stane. All the districts are rebelling.”
Stane grabbed him by the throat, pinning Tony down into his chair. “Over? Over? The Capitol has ruled over the districts from generations, and I’m not going to let you mess it up.”
“You’re the one who messed it up! Withholding medicine and technology, hiding the truth so you could better control us. The only thing your stupid Hunger Games have proved is that the districts don’t need the Capitol. It deserves to burn!”
Stane dragged Tony from the chair and slammed him down on the desk, knocking the breath out of him and sending papers and pens flying. Tony’s hands scrabbled at Stane’s hand where it was wrapped around his throat, trying to force him off. Stane slammed him down again with a snarl. “The Capitol will prevail like it always does, and at the end of this waste of time I’m going to kill every single district rat involved, and I’m going to start with you.”
Stane kept his eyes locked onto Tony’s as he reached around his desk, his hand closing on an envelope opener. He raised it above his head, the sharp edge gleaming. He stabbed down and Tony kicked his legs out, hitting Stance in the gut. His grip loosened and Tony pushed his way free, sliding over the desk to land on the other side. He pressed a hand to his chest where Stane had cut him. Blood wet his palm.
He had survived the fucking Hunger Games, like hell he was going to die back home from a knife an inch longer than his thumb. He advanced on Stane, fists raised.
Stane yelled for the peacekeepers and no one came, they were all downstairs trying to hold off the rebels at the entrance.
Tony swung a fist at him, and as Stane raised his arm to block the knife went skidding across the room. Stane lunged after it and Tony tackled him to the ground, feeling the knife skitter across his ribs as Stane slashed at him. Tony wrestled the knife away and held it to Stane’s throat, straddling his chest and keeping him pinned to the ground.
Outside there was a loud roar as the rebels broke through the front door, knocking down the last of the peacekeepers and rushing through the building.
“Surrender,” Tony demanded. Stane let his hands fall to the ground, open palmed. Tony got up, and held out a hand to Stane. He would get a trial, and his fate would be decided by the people he controlled for so many years. Stane grabbed his hand and used it to pull him to the ground. Tony clipped his head on the corner of the desk and fell with a pained shout. Stane got up and stomped on Tony’s hand, forcing his fingers to open around the knife. Stane grabbed him by the front of the shirt and slammed him on the desk. He stabbed him over and over, Tony’s back arching with pain and his mouth filling with blood while he screamed. The knife got stuck in a rib, the handle too slippery for Stane to pull it out, so he left it and rested with one hand on the edge of the desk, panting as Tony struggled to draw a breath. Tony felt the world grow dark and fuzzy around the edges, the pain seeming to grow until it was the only thing he could feel, his hands and feet going numb. His tongue felt thick in his mouth, fighting for space against the blood welling up and pouring out down the corners of his mouth. He tried to speak and it came out as a gurgle.
Stane leaned forward. “Last words? Feels fitting that I’m the one to hear them, I was there when you spoke your first words, you know. I’ve known you from beginning...”
Stane tapped at the handle of the knife, still lodged in Tony’s chest.”... to end. Speak up Tony, let’s hear what you have to say.”
Tony made a choked sound and Stane leaned in closer with a frown. Tony spat and growled, “I said fuck you.” He grabbed a metal pen from the desk and drove it through Stane’s eye.
Stane reared back in shock, and continued his trajectory until he toppled over backwards, hitting the ground and lying there, still, as a pool of blood started to form around his head.
Tony let his head thump back onto the desk, and pressed a shaky hand to his chest. He felt blood welling thick and hot between his fingers.
There were several loud bangs and the doors to the office were kicked open, the Avengers rushing in with Shield behind them and Steve leading the way. The last thing Tony saw before the world blurred away was Steve reaching for him, agonized look on his face.
Almost done, I got one chapter left, then some art. I haven't decided if I'm going to post that at the end or as a new chapter yet. Probably a new chapter. I got my wisdom teeth out and it still sort of feels like the time my brother hit me in the face with a snow shovel, so this chapter is more unedited than usual.
“Today is a momentous occasion,” announced Steve from the podium. Below him was an enormous crowd of people, made up of people from all districts and the Capitol, stretching back as far as the eye could see. Large screens showed a close up of the stage, and the feed was being broadcasted out to all the districts.
“It’s the one month anniversary of the rebellion, and our successful coup of the Capitol.” Steve paused to let the crowd cheer, and he couldn’t help but smile. He waved a hand through the air shushing them. “That's not why we’re here. All of the votes have been counted, and I have the election results for the next President. One voted for by the people, who will save us, not their own selfish interests.”
Steve ripped the top off the envelope, and held up the name inside for everyone to see.
There was an enormous cheer and Tony stepped out from the wings of the stage, waving to the crowd.
After Tony had fought Stane, Steve had charged in moments later along with the rest of the Avengers and they had rushed him to the med center and demanded the best doctors in the city fix him. Tony had woken up the next day with Steve holding his hand in a death grip and the rest of the Avengers sitting in uncomfortable chairs half asleep.
If Steve had weighed more than a hundred pounds he would have crushed Tony as he half fell on the bed in his haste to hug him. Tony held him tight while Steve half yelled at him, and half cried in thanks that he was ok.
Tony had been released from the hospital the next day, and no one had known what to do after that. The government was in shambles, the corruption affecting all the top officials and dripping its way down to infect the lower ranks. It was impossible to figure out who was corrupt at a quick glance, and it looked like the trials and investigations were going to drag on for months. That left a huge gap that needed to be filled with new leaders, and after much debate the rebellion decided to put it to a vote, letting each of the districts have a voice.
It was Steve who convinced Tony to put his name as a candidate.
“You’re a nice middle ground,” was the way he put it.
Tony had been on the computer, trying to trace back a shipment of guns he designed that had been diverted from where they were supposed to be. He spun his chair around to face Steve. “Between what?”
“The districts and the Capitol.” Steve handed him a cup of coffee and sat down in the chair next to him. “The people of the Capitol think you’re one of them, and the people of the districts think you’re one of us. And after the Games there’s not a person in Pandora who doesn’t know who you are, so you’ve got the name recognition. You could win.”
“I wouldn’t want to. What would I do as President?”
“What you’re doing right now. Tracking down where things went wrong, and setting them right. It would only be for a year, that’s how long we decided a term was going to last. Put your name in, let the people decide.”
Tony had put his name in, more to make Steve happy than out of any expectation that he would win. It had been a surprise when the ballots were counted and Tony’s name came back with twice as many votes as the next highest name.
“Maybe they should recount? Or repoll? Or something?” Tony asked, a little in shock.
Clint gave him a sloppy salute. “Congratulations, Mr. President. Does this mean I can do crimes and you can pardon me?”
Natasha elbowed him. “Ignore him. Congratulations, Tony.”
“I knew you were going to win,” Steve said happily. His eyebrows drew together in concern. “Tony? You alright?”
Tony was bent over the desk trying to process this. Why the hell had they picked him? He had let the atrocities of the Capitol continue for years, living his life in ignorance and excess. People were dead because he hadn’t kept track of what happened to his designs after he handed them over to Stane. And the worst part was that if things had gone differently, he wouldn’t have changed. If he hadn’t chased after Steve and been sentenced to fight in the arena, he would still be living on like he always had. And now the whole country was expecting him to fix everything?
Steve put a hand on his shoulder. “Hey, you’re going to do great, and all of us are going to be behind you every step of the way.”
Much like in the games, having Steve was the only thing holding him together. He woke up everyday overflowing with guilt, for the weapons he had built, for his misplaced loyalty, and even for killing Stane. He would hide his face in Steve's shoulder, and Steve would run a hand through his hair until his breath stopped catching in his throat. The first few weeks they were back they both woke up at any noise, fists clenched and ready to fight, the arena having trained them to sleep lightly. They'd sit back to back in the dark of Tony's house, eyes watching for a threat to appear, each others company the other thing allowing them to hang on to a thin thread of rationality. Sometimes Tony felt like he had never left, like cameras were still watching him and if he was too loud someone would be coming to kill him. All food seemed precious, and Tony found himself storing jerky and crackers under his bed, just in case. He felt stupid and irrational until he noticed Steve doing the same thing.
What would it have been like to go home alone? To wake up alone in bed shaking from another nightmare, to call himself crazy and broken to keep up the odd habits that had saved his life in the arena and didn't make sense now that he was home. To spend his days missing the friends that had fallen. Whenever he thought about it he had to go find Steve and reassure himself that they were both alive, they were both ok.
Tony didn't feel like he should be in charge of his own life, let alone the whole country. But if the people had voted for him, then he would do it. He owed the people of the districts so much more than a year of his life.
So that’s what lead Tony to where he was now, on stage in front of the whole country, being sworn in and promising to uphold the rights of everyone and to treat all the district fair and equally. The sun was shining and he felt anticipation building in his chest. This was a pivotal point; things could go anywhere from here, and no matter what happened, it would never be the same.
And that's all folks! I hope you enjoyed.