Being impulsive has never been Jeno’s thing.
He thinks with his mind calm even in the stormiest of situations. Waves would clash as people would yell, trouble stirring beneath the gray clouds, and he would still assess the situation passively. He adapts to changes and overcomes them as easy as breathing. He’s never been afraid of the Reaping nor the Hunger Games itself.
But at this moment, his heart thunders even more than it ever has.
“For the male tribute… Zhong Chenle!”
His hand shoots up quicker than anyone else’s in the field. Barely taking in a breath, he yells,
“You－Jeno Lee, what were you thinking?!"
Jeno knows the voice well. The one that would calm him down when he was still a little baby, crying helplessly in his arms; the one that would announce dinner every night; one of the two people he loves most.
His cousins. The only family he has left.
He smiles, looking up at the figure. “Hyung.”
“I can’t believe you did that! You idiot!!” Doyoung hisses. Despite the anger in his voice, he still pulls him in for a hug, burying his face in his chest. Jeno can hear his heartbeat. It’s accelerating fast, afraid for him.
“I had to,” Jeno croaks. “Chenle’s too young. You’d do what I did if you were in my shoes.”
“I’m only three years apart from you, hyung. Please stop treating me as if I’m a baby.”
Chenle’s voice echoes in the small room. Doyoung lets go of Jeno slowly, glancing at the youngest brother in their household standing at the doorway, his face a crossover between hurt and sadness.
Jeno shakes his head. “My point still stands,” he murmurs, mirroring Chenle’s expression. “You’re our baby brother, I couldn’t let you go like that. I couldn’t.”
Chenle stomps his way over to him, and Jeno finds himself pulled into a hug for the second time today. He blinks, wrapping his arms around his brother. Is this the last time we’ll hug?
As if sensing his thoughts, Chenle’s grip tightens. “Come back home safely, you idiot. We’ll be waiting for you.”
This time, Jeno pulls away first. “I promise,” he says with a shaky smile curled on his lips, and it sounds like a lie. He’s not the best from his district, but he’ll make sure he fights until the bitter end.
The guards shuffle their feet, and the next thing he knows, both his brothers are dragged out the room. Doyoung reaches out his arm towards him, desperation wild in his eyes.
Jeno’s jaw tightens.
“You promised,” Chenle wails. “Come back to us!”
The door slams shut.
Jeno’s escort picks him up not long after. Looking at him this close, his escort’s dressed up exactly like how Jeno expects a Capitol’s doll would－skin layered with thick foundation and flashy eye makeup, body draped in frills and a glamorous looking suit. He fits with the stereotype Jeno’s heard from his friends and family.
Despite him being the culprit that doomed Jeno into the games, he can’t bring himself to hate the man. Not when he has a fairly innocent smile and cute behavior.
“I’m Dong Sicheng, but you can also call me Winwin. I’m the escort assigned to your district.”
Jeno nods. “Jeno Lee. Likewise.”
The man brings him into the train to Capitol. Jeno’s traveled with trains before, but this particular train is far superior than anything he’s ever ridden in his life. Before him lays a meal that he can feasts on its own with his eyes, ranging from simple pastries to luxurious seafood and meat. He’s from District 10－known for their many farms－yet, his jaw still drops at the amount of high quality meat served fresh.
The best service is served for the dead, after all.
He meets his district partner properly the second time, sitting on one of the chairs, sipping wine though underage. Does age even matter anymore when you’re being sent to your death?
He guesses not, and pours himself a glass, taking a seat next to her.
“Hello!” His district partner greets, bowing her head slightly. “I’m Eunbi Kwon, a Truth-Seeker,” she says with a tone as bright as her smile. “And you are?”
Jeno finds it a bit odd that she still can manage to keep an upbeat demeanour at situations as dire as this, especially knowing her Talent－although rare－will be a disadvantage in the game. Maybe it’s because she’s confident in her skills, maybe it’s an act, or maybe the alcohol makes her lax. Either way, he lowers his head at her into an almost-bow.
“Jeno Lee. My Talent is regeneration.”
Eunbi eyes him carefully, though not breaking her bubbly manners. “I hope we can be good friends.”
I’d prefer to stay away from you. “I hope so, too.”
Their mentor is Mark Lee. It’s no surprise; he won the game from five years ago. People call him the Black Horse, the Hunter, the One with Sharp Senses. He’s the youngest Victor they’ve got so far. The Capitol’s darling. But it still unnerves Jeno how young he actually is even though he’s only a year older than him, standing in front of them, posture straight yet jaws clenched. His eyes have long lost their sparkle.
“What are you guys good at?” is the first thing he says. Not their names, not their Talents－just their skills.
“I trained with batons and I’m pretty good with close-combats,” Eunbi says, throwing a curious look at Jeno.
He sighs in return. “I’m pretty good with archery, both crossbow and recurve bow. I’ve played around with ‘em several times before.” He prefers crossbows, though, it’s much more easier to aim with.
“You didn’t get caught?” Mark asks, lifting an eyebrow up.
“I hid it pretty well. And I never trained outside of my family’s farm.”
“Then you’re in luck, kid.”
At the sudden interest directed at his words, Jeno remembers, oh, Mark Lee was the Victor with the Bow. They call him the Hunter for a reason. Combined with his Heightened Senses, he becomes unstoppable. A Victor, but he seems so… lifeless.
Was it worth it, the luxury you gained? The status as a mentor for the rest of your life?
“The name’s Mark Lee, but you two probably knew already,” Mark says with a chuckle, though there is no humor in his tone. “Eunbi Kwon and Jeno Lee, right?”
“Yes,” Eunbi answers for the both of them.
Mark’s gaze becomes piercing. He lowers his head and folds his arms on the table, leaning forward. Jeno has to hold himself together to not shudder. What happened to him, where was the boy who laughs aloud in the interviews, the one with passion in his soul and kindness in his heart?
“Listen. You can survive the games,” Mark starts, voice dropping an octave lower. “But you can’t ever leave it. There’s no going back, got it?”
Jeno gulps. I promised Chenle I’d come home, I can’t give up yet. “We signed up for this, didn’t we?” he asks back. “I’ll do anything to see my family back at home.”
Mark smiles. And it’s not sunshine and rainbows; it feels sinister, almost pitying. Jeno knows they’re fucked. “Welcome to hell, kiddos."
Beside him, Eunbi shivers.
In the Capitol, everyone seems relaxed. They walk and gossip among themselves as if they have all the time in the world, but the workers beneath them are busy. Jeno knows because as soon as he gets off the carriage, he’s pulled into the backroom to dress up for the Tribute Parade.
He doesn’t expect them to be this… detailed, over his appearance. Right after they finish washing his body and tending to his nails and skin, he’s dragged to a seat by a stylist, who combs his hair as soon as he settles in.
“When’s the last time you get a haircut?” his stylist says, scrunching her face in displeasure. “It’s so untidy.”
“I’ve always had my cousin cut them,” Jeno replies, watching as the stylist frowns even more at his hair.
She doesn’t comment, though, and rummages through her equipment silently to find her razor and scissor. She stays silent for a while before she decides for the both of them, “You’ll look good with an undercut and platinum hair.”
Jeno doesn’t understand any of it, so he just nods and lets her do her job. When she finishes, he has to look twice at the mirror to check that it is indeed his reflection staring back at him. His stylist looks pleased, nudging his head op and down to check any inconsistencies, finding none.
Again, he’s ushered out as fast as he had came in. “Alright. Go through that hallway and find your district number. Your designer should be in there, I think.”
A minute of aimless wandering later, Jeno finds himself in front of a door with a giant “10” on it. He sighs, already tired of all that’s going on, and brings a hand up to knock the door.
He’s glad he didn’t, because the door opens and his fist is up against an unfamiliar face. Oh my God, I almost knocked on a stranger’s face－
And then the stranger smiles, easy, as if nothing happened. “You must be Jeno Lee? Mark and the rest are already here, do come in.”
Apparently, “the rest” means Eunbi and Winwin. Good to know.
Mark greets him with a silent acknowledgement in his eyes and makes room for him to sit on the couch. Jeno obliges, wiggling until he’s comfortable in his seat, and waits until one of them opens up the topic at hand.
Ten clears his throat and clasps his hands together. “Hello, Tributes and old friends. I’m Ten, the designer responsible for your clothes. It’s nice to be working with you.”
His name oddly fits with their district, Jeno muses, was it planned?
He moves to reveal a large cloth draped over what seems like statues, and Jeno can feel the anticipation rising in the room. Ten must’ve sensed it too, because he grins, fingers already gripping the edge of the cloth.
“Let’s cut to the chase, shall we?”
The parade goes by like a blur.
The suit Ten has made for him is simply gorgeous. It’s a simple white suit, bordered by gold and held together by a belt on his waist. The back of the suits are long enough to trail on the floor, but not enough to be stepped on by anyone. On his shoulders lay feathers in the same aesthetics as his suit, a small fire dancing on each one of them.
“The feathers and fire are a last minute addition,” Ten had said to him earlier when he tidied Jeno’s suit. “When Winwin told me your Talent is Regeneration, I knew I had to add it into your clothes. It was supposed to be a bird, but a Phoenix seems more fitting.”
A Phoenix, huh. Jeno likes the sound of it.
If Jeno’s the Phoenix, then Eunbi dresses like a swan. Her skirt is short and frilled until it forms a big half-moon on her knees. Her arms are coated in pure feathers, glittering pure silver from the reflection of light against it. The coat on her shoulders are translucent, yet it holds many jewels, enough to make it gleam and catch anyone’s attention. A matching white cropped suit is draped on her shoulders. She looks like a princess, almost.
Anyone with eyes can tell they belong in the same district. Gold and silver, Phoenix and swan. Elegant and charismatic.
The announcers go wild once they see them, and proceeds to praise Ten for his work. Jeno feels a bit proud of his designer, even if they have only met once. He deserves it. Jeno can feel his passion poured into their clothing, from the concepts to the details.
He doesn’t pay attention much until one of the announcers says: “Is that Jaemin Na? The one clad in that gorgeous silk?”
“Oh, it is!” the other chirps. “Jaemin Na of District 1. He’s beautiful! Though, it’s a shame that he’s talentless.”
Jeno whips his head towards the boy in front of him and shares a look with Eunbi. Talentless? Those kind of people exist…?
“That’s right, folks,” as if sensing his doubts, one of the announcers exclaims, “He’s a Talentless! A first in Panem indeed, but look at how confident he is. Isn’t he cool?”
Despite the comment, the crowd starts to boo him. And yet the boy－Jaemin Na, Jeno will make sure he remembers－looks up, proud. On the screens, his smile pops off; it’s scary how charming it is, Jeno finds himself amazed and curious of the boy.
The commotion eventually dies down when the announcers move on to a different district. For now, at least. God knows everyone will be yapping about it soon.
After all, the ones who stand out most get berated.
Jeno can't help but to think it's a little unfair.
They have their first dinner in a hotel that is, again, way too luxurious for someone as good as dead like them. And while Jeno appreciates the thought, he doesn’t want the Capitol to remind them hey, you’re possibly gonna die five days from now on, so enjoy your the rest of your days in luxury!
That’s probably the reason they did it, though. As a reminder rather than a celebration. Jeno thought he cannot hate the Capitol more than now, but clearly, he was wrong.
Mark goes on about his experience in the Games. How the environment is more dangerous than the Tributes in it, and how to get Sponsors to like them. He says that Jeno’s Talent will be super useful in the Game later on, and though Eunbi’s is a bit weaker, she can be more careful when picking allies and enemies.
“Someone’s bound to ask her to join them,” Jeno says, and then pauses. “Right?”
Eunbi shrugs. “I can only hope so.”
“You’re a pro in close combats, they would want you to join.”
“Amen to that,” she shoots back, bitter, as she stabs a piece of meat. “And you have better chances than me in winning. Your talent is advantageous.”
“That’s not true. It has its own cons.”
Jeno almost, almost falls into her trap. He opens his mouth before pressing it into a thin line, an imaginary zipper sealing his mouth shut. “I’m not telling you.”
Eunbi pouts. “Fine. Be that way.”
Jeno hums without a thought, shoving another spoonful of mashed potato into his mouth.
See, the thing is, people think his Talent is amazing because it sounds akin to immortality. Spoiler alert: it’s not. While he doesn’t exhaust himself too much whenever he has to use his Talent like other people－bless him for his stamina－he only heals if he has an intense adrenaline rush. Meaning, if someone manages to catch him off-guard, well…
Jeno rubs his face into his palms. He can only hope nobody can figure this weakness of his out. Or that nobody attempts a sneak-attack on him. Both are near-impossible to be true, but he hopes nonetheless.
He’ll need all the luck to survive the Game.
“By the way, the Talentless…” Jeno perks at the familiar nickname leaving Eunbi's mouth. “Is he really, you know…?”
“He probably is, if even the Capitol signs him up as Talentless. Just because it’s never happened before, doesn’t mean it can’t.” Mark steals a glance towards Winwin. “Isn’t that right, hyung?”
Winwin frowns. “As far as I know, yes. It’s my first time working as an escort, but I won’t doubt the legitimacy of the data they give us. Why would they lie about someone from… you know.”
Other districts below them, Jeno thinks, and it leaves a bitter taste in his mouth. They want us to frown upon ourselves, they wouldn’t lie unless it’s about their reputations.
And he doubts Jaemin Na holds any importance to the system. The boy may look like he dropped from Heaven, but he seems fragile underneath the surface. A Talentless Career. Everyone will be going after him, including the Career Pack themselves, regardless of their similarities.
“I know that look too well, Jeno. Don’t think he’s weak just because he is Talentless,” Mark warns with a glare. “Even a worm will turn.”
“You’ve been hanging out with Yuta-hyung way too much, honestly. You even talk like him now,” Winwin says, and Mark laughs at the comment, face scrunching upwards. The sound is unexpectedly cute to everyone’s ears.
“You should smile more,” Eunbi says with a small smile of her own. “Happiness is a good look on you.”
Mark stops, looking like a deer in the headlights. He lowers his head in a somewhat bashful manner, rubbing the back of his neck and uttering a small, “Thanks.”
“She’s right, you know. We’re not your enemies. There’s no need to be hostile to us,” Winwin says, dead serious. Mark senses the urgency in his tone and nods, shoulders finally drooping.
“I’ll try.” There’s a finality in his tone that satisfies everyone in the room. Sensing that the topic has ended, Jeno parts his lips to ask more details about the mysterious Jaemin Na, but Eunbi voices her thoughts quicker.
“I think I’m going to bed. It’s been a long day,” Eunbi murmurs, standing up. “Thank you for today.”
“No need, we’ll be together until the Game anyways. It’s our job.”
Eunbi shakes her head at Mark’s remark. For what, Jeno doesn’t know, however it seems that both the elders in the room understood what she meant.
After Eunbi retreats into her room, Winwin faces him and nudges his head towards his room. “You should sleep too. Tomorrow marks the beginning of the training sessions, after all. Save your energy, I’ll clean up.”
Jeno’s about to argue, but his body is already heavy from all the stuff that happened today. “Thanks,” he utters, already walking towards the bathroom to clean up and rest.
He hears Winwin yells at him that it’s nothing, and chooses not to respond, grabbing a cotton to remove his makeup instead and finds his reflection staring back at him. Blonde hair, foundation-layered face… who is he? This isn’t the Jeno back home, it’s… someone who’s about to become a murderer－
No, Jeno tells himself and begins to clean his face instead, the movement oddly robotic. No time to dwell on it now. It’s already happened, let’s follow it until the end.
“Thinking about it now, you were stupidly brave, you know that?”
Taken aback by Eunbi’s statement, Jeno lowers his bow and focuses on his district partner instead of the target. “Yeah? Thanks for the encouragement.”
“No, I mean,” Eunbi sighs, her hands playing with one of his arrows. “You volunteered for your cousin. And I get it, really, you’d rather risk your own life than your cousin’s. But even if it’s stupid by my standards, it’s so brave of you."
“I’ve better chances on surviving,” he ends up saying. “He learned no survival skills nor has he played with weapons. He’s too young to kill somebody.”
Eunbi’s eyes flashes a deep yellow before frowning. “Those are just a load of excuses, aren’t they? You do it for love－it’s as simple as that. It’s okay to feel, you know. They keep you going.”
Curse Eunbi and her Truth-Seeking Talent.
Instead of replying, Jeno pulls his bowstring back－the arrow a familiar, comforting weight in between his fingers－and shoots. Yet again, he scores another nine, and he curses himself for his lack of concentration.
“You should be proud of yourself. You scored bullseye twice in four attempts,” Eunbi laughs, patting his shoulder encouragingly. “I’m gonna go ahead and train. Gotta make sure we’re equals in the battlefield!”
She slips him the arrow she was playing with and turns to walk away, but not before murmuring into Jeno’s ear, “Aren’t we all too young to die, though?”
She jogs off before he can say anything else. Jeno lets out a soft exhale, preparing to shoot once more, only to have his concentration disturbed by a certain name being jeered at.
“Jaemin Na! Fancy seeing you here,” a boy from District 4 jeers. “Finally showed up to show us your Talent, huh?”
The laughter that ensues afterwards makes Jeno sick to the stomach. He can practically hear Mark’s words from last night－”Don’t look down on someone. Even a worm will turn.”－and he knows the boy will get a taste of his own arrogance because of the dangerous gleam in Jaemin’s gaze, like a predator picking its prey.
Jaemin ignores him, though, opting to go straight to the throwing knife section instead. And the boy is either brave or stupid; he keeps on taunting him, calling him names as Jaemin tries to focus on the knives in his hand and the target far away.
Jeno thinks it’s impressive that he keeps on scoring high even when distracted. Was this what Eunbi felt just a moment ago?
“Hey, Jaemin Na!” the boy yells. “Did you hear what I just said?” He grabs Jaemin’s arm and yanks him forward, nearly dropping the poor boy onto the floor.
Jaemin frowns. For the first time today, his poker face drops. “I’m sorry, what?”
Jeno’s jaw almost drops at the response. It seems so… nonchalant, like he genuinely didn’t listen to the boy, and somehow it makes his words worse. The boy’s face gets redder and redder, Jeno swears he can see fumes going out his ears.
The boy pulls back one of his fist and Jaemin yanks free of his hold. He moves sideways to avoid the punch－lethal and elegant, like a snake striking its prey－and kicks the boy’s calves forward, bringing him down.
Jaemin’s fingers graze over the knife in his hand. He feels the lightness of its weight, the cold metal familiar in his hands—and lets go.
It barely grazes over the boy’s ear before he finally collapses on the floor. The boy is shaken, Jeno can tell just from his quivering body. Hell, even Jeno’s scared and he’s not even the one fighting.
“Y-you missed!” the boy screams, hysterical, pointing a finger towards Jaemin. “Haha!! You didn’t hurt me, you Talentless－”
Jaemin hovers over him, ice in his smile. “Take a closer look.” Despite the low volume, his voice echoes in the soundless room; every Tribute frozen in their places and too afraid to do anything.
Jeno glances towards the target and gulps at what he finds.
“I never miss my mark.”
Jaemin Na leaves the training room just like that. He stuffs his hands into his pocket and walks towards the exit, every step true and cold. Untouchable.
At the center of the target, a knife embeds itself deep into the red circle. Bullseye.
“Are you sure he’s just a Career, hyung? He seems more of an assassin than anything.”
Winwin denies the accusation for the ten-thousandth time today. This time, it’s with a glare. “No. Why would the Capitol let an assassin into the Game, Jeno?”
“I don’t know! Maybe they’re planning something. Maybe they want the Victor to be Jaemin Na. He seems too… strong, even the Careers are intimidated by him.”
Mark snorts from Jeno’s left, rubbing his arms together. He finds the situation amusing, yet at the same time, confusing. “You seem to forget he’s a Career too, though.”
“But he’s on a whole different level than the rest! Right, Eunbi?”
At the mention of her name, Eunbi flinches, putting down her spoon almost immediately. “I don’t know what you’re on about,” she says with her lips bitten, “however I do admit that he… intimidates me.”
Mark looks at Eunbi’s terrified face, and then back to Jeno’s smug one. “Jaemin Na is a special case,” he starts slowly. “Talents aside, he looks like he was born to be in the Games.”
“How do we win against him?” Eunbi asks and for some reason, Jeno’s shoulders tense. “He’s too good to be in a normal Game like this, don’t you think? He should’ve participated the Quarter Quell instead!”
“The Quarter Quell isn’t until next year,” Mark reasons. “And he’s aged eighteen this year. Though I do agree that he’ll be a huge roadblock for you guys.”
Winwin butts in just when all hope was starting to drain out of the room, “He doesn’t plan to win, actually.”
Jeno blinks several times before realizing that yes, he heard that correctly. “What, why?”
“From the interview I attended today, he’s not that competitive. For some reason, he told us he’d prefer to hide more than to kill. Which is understandable if it came from someone else. But with the way you described him, he seems like a cold-hearted person… why he wastes his skills like that, I don’t know.”
Scratching the back of his head, Jeno mutters, “That doesn’t solve anything.”
Mark pats his back in sympathy. “Anyway, regarding Jaemin.” Eunbi especially leans forward now that he seems to have an answer to their biggest problem. “I think it’s better if you team up with him.”
“You can’t be serious.”
“Mark-hyung, as much as I appreciate your actually-reasonable advice, I think we have to decline.” Jeno deadpans. “He doesn’t even let anyone approach him.”
“Maybe because you’re too afraid to do so?”
Well, that’s technically true, but… “I’m not afraid of him, though?”
From his peripheral vision, Jeno sees Eunbi’s eyes flashing the same strong color as they did today. “He’s not lying,” she mutters, looking at him as if he had grown two heads. “Are you really this brave?”
Jeno isn’t sure what she’s referring to－he nods nonetheless. “He’s nice enough to warn us, right? And he didn’t hurt anyone this morning.”
“He injured Hosuk’s ear－”
Ah, Hosuk? So that was the bastard’s name. “He did it as a warning. You heard him yourself: He never misses. If he wanted Hosuk dead, he would’ve pierced that knife through his thick head.”
Their mentor pinches the bridge of his nose, exhaling slowly. “Alright, guys, how about this. I’m pretty close to his mentor, so I can ask what his deal is, alright? I’m not sure if Taeyong-hyung will give any information regarding him, but I’ll try.”
“Thank you! You’re the best, hyung.”
Mark eyes him for a while before he shakes his head. “Of all the guys in here, you just had to be interested in the hardest one to get, didn’t you.”
A flash of confusion ripples through Jeno. “What do you mean?”
“Nothing. Absolutely nothing,” Mark says and it lowkey sounds like sarcasm. By how Eunbi and Winwin are snickering along, Jeno guesses it is. “Alright, kiddos. Time to sleep. You’ve still got three restless days to go."
The rest of the training days blur together, and the next thing Jeno knows, it’s evaluation day.
He chews the bottom of his lip as he look around the room. Everyone’s up and about, talking excitedly with each other, save for some who would rather to not be involved with the others. One of them is Jeno, of course.
It’s his turn next, and he doesn’t know how he’ll do it. His palms are already cold and clammy from the thought of messing up. He paces back and forth in the waiting room in an attempt to calm himself down, but it only makes him all the more fidgety.
The door opens and it reveals the Jaemin Na. He looks like the polar opposite to Jeno; his posture straight, strides confident, and gaze piercing. Untouchable.
Jeno stands on shaky legs and walks towards the open door. He passes by Jaemin and－well, he expected the boy to ignore him, but Jaemin seems good at breaking everyone’s expectations.
“They’ll like you,” Jaemin murmurs into his ears. And he leaves, like nothing happened.
Jeno’s legs are ready to give up any second now. First, the evaluation, and now, Jaemin Na talked to him. It barely counts as a conversation but hey, it’s still a win! That means they’re on good terms. They’re okay.
Jeno slaps himself. Of course we’re in good terms, we don’t have anything to disagree about. Get it together, Jeno!
He sighs and walks into the room. If he missed a few shots during the evaluation, he blames Jaemin for existing.
Turns out he scores higher than what he deserves.
“NINE!!” Eunbi whoops beside him, jumping up and down as if she were the one who got the score. “FREAKING NINE!! That’s pretty high, Jeno, you should be proud of yourself!”
Winwin pats his back and beams at him with such intensity that Jeno thinks he might be going blind just from seeing it. “You did good, Jeno-yah!”
“I don’t know what you were nervous about. We all knew you’d score high,” Mark comments as the screen floods with names he’s way too familiar with along with their scores and ranks. Eunbi’s got an eight, so she’s just below him at rank seven. What catches his attention are the top-ranking ones.
“Mingyu scored eleven, Hosuk scored ten… Jeez, they’re both gonna be banding together, I can already tell,” Mark complains as though he will be the one participating in the Game.
Jeno sighs. “Why did they rank Jaemin last? I don’t get it.”
And everybody sort of stopped, the spotlight now on him. Jeno swallows thickly. The atmosphere changes into one that suffocates－he doesn’t like it one bit.
It’s Mark who breaks the silence. “He’s Talentless, Jeno. Talent makes up for sixty-percent of the point.”
“But... but that’s not fair! Not everyone has good Talents, so why…?”
“I heard he agitated the higher-ups too,” Winwin adds. He gazes at Jeno with pity in his eyes. “He threw a knife at their food just to get their attention and left.”
That... actually seems like what Jaemin would do. “So that’s why there was an apple on the wall.”
Eunbi groans, digging her palms into her face. “Jaemin’s cool, but he’s gonna be sooo bothersome in the battlefield tomorrow!”
“He’s weak without knives, though,” Mark says. “I talked to Taeyong-hyung yesterday and he let out that Jaemin’s weak in close combat. He’s only good with throwing knives and any far-distance weapons. So be sure to kick his knife away and you’re good.”
Jeno frowns. “That’s disadvantageous as hell. How did you coax Taeyong Lee, anyway?”
“Hyung’s pretty gullible,” Mark replies. “I only needed to get him to drink a little and bring up Jaemin, and he talked.” This time, guilt seeps into his voice.
Eunbi’s eyes widen almost comically. “So he still has weaknesses.”
“Of course he does. Use it to your advantages, kiddos.” Mark ruffles both their hair, standing up to call it a night. Their last night together. Tomorrow, who knows, maybe Jeno will die. Or both will. Jeno isn’t sure he’s going to survive, but he sure as hell will try.
Winwin follows suit, smiling at them with the same softness he sees whenever Doyoung bids him good night. Perhaps they all became attached, after all－if any of them could retreat from the Game, they all would.
But the show must go on. Tomorrow, lives will be taken, canons will be fired. And someone is going to have to survive throughout the shitshow.
Flashing them a look of understanding, Winwin whispers,
“May the odds be in your favor.”
Mark and Winwin hugs them tight the next day, at six in the morning. Jeno would’ve complained about the time, but this is possibly his last goodbyes to them all. He has to push back the tears into his eyes at the thought.
“Good luck, you’ll need it,” Mark says as he fixes Jeno’s jacket. “Remember, allying is good, just don’t get attached. Don’t panic. Stay alert with your surroundings; the environment is more dangerous than the Tributes, and it’s better to run away than risk your life and go for the things in Cornucopia. The weapons will be scarce, so everyone will be fighting for it!”
“Take care, both of you,” Winwin says, softer than Mark’s scolding. “We’ll watch out for you guys, promise.”
Jeno grins back at him weakly. “You too, hyung.”
As the helicopter lands in front of them, Eunbi shares a look with Jeno, and he sees his emotions mirrored in hers; anticipation, fear, hesitation－all mixed into one horrified look.
Jeno gulps and walks forward first. He doesn’t look back.
Ten sees him off last.
“I have faith in you,” he says as he slips in a feather in between Jeno’s fingers. It’s the same feather he wore the day of the parade, Jeno realizes, and it warms his heart even more.
“Jeno,” Ten calls when he steps into the tube. Jeno looks at him, expectant, and Ten’s lips curve up, although it’s shaking. As if he’s trying to hold his emotions at bay.
Jeno understands. Even if they didn’t talk much except at occasional dinners, Ten’s still his hyung; he’s seen countless kids whose clothes they wear belonged to Ten, and it’s sick. It’s sick how they can kill off kids like they kill off bugs, with a swat of their hands and no empathy at all.
And Ten had to see it happen to them countless times. Mark has, and Winwin surely will too－all of which, Jeno can’t imagine them going through something like that. Now he knows why Mark seems so dead the first time they met. And how Ten’s smile never quite reaches his eyes. The two of them are seasoned and yet they still get attached to the kids they know will die at the end. It’s so, so sad, if not tragic.
And then Ten’s next words came and he just sort of－stops.
“Never, ever lose hope. May the odds be in your favor, Jeno-yah.”
Jeno nods, and just like that, the tube ascends.
He’s met with the unforgiving sunlight invading his vision. His ears ring, his skin burns in the heat, but all he can focus on are the other Tributes and the Cornucopia in the center of it all.
And, you know what? Jeno’s gonna do something really dumb.
“It’s better to run away than risk your life and go for the things in Cornucopia,” Mark’s voice chimes in his head. And yet, the second the countdown ends, Jeno runs towards the Cornucopia.
He catches Eunbi turning back and running off into the distance. Good, at least she doesn’t gamble with her life. Not like him.
He stops as soon as he sees a bow and a quiver of arrows. His hands reach the objects and he slings the quiver onto his shoulder.
Get out, get out－ his mind screams. Run away!
But he’s met with an axe in front of his face. Mina－he remembers－swings back the axe to knock him out. Jeno can’t even close his eyes.
Time ticks slowly like this.
Is this it? Is this how he’s going out?
－And then Mina falls face-first onto the ground instead of him, a knife in her back. Jeno jumps, scrambles away and looks forward, only to find a familiar face staring back at him.
“Duck,” Jaemin mouths, and so Jeno does, nearly falling to the ground.
The next thing he knows, he’s running with Jaemin in hand. The adrenaline rush is enough to keep his Talent up; the familiar tingling feeling in his body welcome. At the moment, his fear isn’t for his own safety; it’s Jaemin’s.
They eventually stop at a particularly large tree, chest heaving as they catch a breath. Behind them, fire explodes; a sign that someone－Mingyu, probably－is already putting their talent to use.
Seven cannons sounded before they recover.
“Why did you do that?” Jeno rasps out. “You could’ve gotten killed.”
“Says you,” Jaemin scoffs, which is… a good point, actually. “You’re not afraid of me.”
Jeno’s eyebrows shoot up at the last sentence. “What?” How’s that even a reason?
“You stare when we train, you know.” Jeno’s ears burn hearing that, desperately trying to avoid eye-contact with the other Tribute. “At first I thought it was out of fear, like everyone else. But then I realized you were curious. You’re just… fascinating, Jeno Lee.”
He remembers my name? Jaemin Na, honest to God, remembers…?
Jaemin laughs, still a tad breathless, and pinches his cheek slightly. “You’re cute,” he coos, and turns away as if he didn’t just break character just like that.
Jeno’s mind malfunctions from the adrenaline, his activated Talent, and Jaemin’s existence overall. “Hey, wait for me!”
If anything, it made Jaemin laugh harder. Jeno finds that he doesn’t mind the company, after all.
The night comes quicker than expected. They’re both by a river, sipping water from their cupped hands. The first day was… dull. Besides cannons going off an additional three times, they haven’t met anyone. Yet, anyways.
“Doesn’t it bother you that we haven’t met the other Tributes yet?”
Jaemin snorts, leaning back. “And why do you think that is?”
“Uh.” Was Jeno supposed to know?
“I made us avoid them,” he says simply. “Taeyong-hyung taught me how to, so I did. Because I don’t like fighting. And there are some Talents I’d like to avoid.”
Now his fingers are on one of his knives, and Jeno should be scared. Jaemin Na is unstoppable with his weapon of choice. Jeno doesn’t even have his Talent activated, too tired to do so. Besides, there’s no danger as of now, what’s there for his adrenaline to run on?
As if reading his mind, Jaemin flips a knife and asks, “Why are you not afraid of me?”
Jeno’s thoughts stutter into a stop. Why, indeed.
“I don’t know,” Jeno admits. His voice is soft, but Jaemin picks on it anyway, despite the loud cicadas going on in the background. “I just thought you deserve more, if that makes sense.”
There’s a pause. And then, a chuckle. “I can never understand how your mind works.”
Yeah, Jeno thinks, and vice versa. Because he can spend the rest of his short life with Jaemin and he still wouldn’t understand him. Was he really Talentless? How is he allowed to be a Career despite so? Why does he hate violence so much, if he’s proficient with it?
Countless questions fly around his head, every single one of them without an answer.
The silence didn’t last long. A buzzing noise occurs and both their heads perk up, finding a hologram display flickering in the sky.
Faces after faces appear; an announcement for the ones who passed away. Jeno doesn’t know how he feels at the end of it. A part of him is glad that Eunbi’s safe, but a part of him feels disappointed she isn’t so that he wouldn’t have to kill her.
Jaemin notices. He cocks his head to the side, and under the silver moonlight, part of his face shines－his dyed-white hair, large eyes, perfect lips. Jaemin Na is gorgeous, everyone knows. But not everyone gets the privilege to see him up close like this.
“Jeno?” Jaemin asks, amusement lilting his voice as he watches Jeno snaps back into reality with a jolt.
“I, um. Sorry, did you say something…?”
“I asked what made you look so relieved, Jeno.” He looks like he’s barely holding himself back from laughing. “Is it your district partner?”
Jeno shouldn’t be taken aback, but he is. At this point, if Jaemin said he actually had a Mind-Reader as a Talent, Jeno would’ve believed his words. “Am I that readable?”
“I just know people too well.” There he goes, saying ominous-sounding sentences without giving any real answer, Jaemin Na’s style, he's learned. “Anyway, Eunbi Kwon, right? Your partner?”
“I’m surprised you remembered her name.”
Jaemin scowls. “Contrary to popular belief, I’m not heartless, you know.” Jeno does know. He’s starting to believe it himself. “Are you close to her?”
“Unfortunately.” Jeno lets out a strained laugh. “It’s kind of dumb, really. My mentor warned me not to get attached to anyone, to ally but not make friends, but I… can’t do that. I think we all got attached, at some point. I just realized it a little too late."
“Is it… that bad, to get attached to people?”
“It’s not too bad, is it?” Jaemin continues regardless of the frazzled response. “You’re all humans. They grow stronger when they share a bond. I’ve been there, seen it happen to people, it’s just, you need to learn how to let go afterwards.”
Then why are you talking like you aren’t one? “That’s actually helpful, Jaem. Thank you.”
Jaemin looks proud and offended at the same time. “Of course, it’s me you’re talking to. What else did you expect, huh?!”
Anything else but this.
Jeno shakes his head and nudges him towards a tree. “Go rest,” he says instead. “I’m gonna be taking the first watch tonight.”
That night, one of his hand slides into the pocket of his jacket and plays with the familiar golden feather in it. He remembers Ten’s sweet encouragements, Mark’s laugh, Eunbi’s soothing voice, and Winwin’s adoring smile. He remembers Doyoung’s nagging and Chenle’s sarcasm, and he can’t believe he’s saying this, but he misses them. So much.
He revels in the memory, just a bit more.
He jolts awake at the sound of someone conversing just below their tree.
“Hey, Jaemin-ah, you wanna play?”
And then, an all-too-familiar voice replies, cold and desolate and nothing like him last night, “You’re all bad at games. Why even bother?”
Another voice growls in frustration. “You’re making it very enticing to kill you, you know?”
Jeno adjusts his position, trying to get a good look at the group. He’s lucky the branch he slept on is hidden from the amount of foliage in front of him－however, it also means that he won’t be able to aim very well.
Please be safe, Jaemin.
He pulls back an arrow nonetheless, eagle eyes watching every one of their moves. Jaemin must’ve known he woke up somehow, because the next time Jeno blinks, he’s already throwing his hands up in the air, yelling,
“Then fucking do it already, cowards!”
Jeno lets go.
There’s a scream and the next second, he’s already rolling on the ground. Jaemin drags him deeper into the woods. He’s frantic, Jeno notes, too frantic for his own standards. Just who are we facing…?
Then an something scorching hot hit his back and they’re rolling down a hill.
Oh, it’s Mingyu, isn’t it?
“Does he not get tired using his Talent every two seconds?” Jeno wheezes out. He tries to stand and predictably, he fails on the first try. A tingling feeling surges into his back as his skin repairs itself－the pain still prominent but slowly, it’s fading.
Jaemin groans from where he lies. “I don’t know. Why don’t you tell me?”
Jeno blinks. His vision blurs, and it’s not from his bad eyesight this time. “I’m already tired.”
“Wh－hey, Jeno, stay strong for me!” Jaemin half-yells, shouldering Jeno despite his own pain. “Damn. Talents are a big disadvantage, huh.”
“I usually last longer than this,” Jeno grunts. “I think it’s just… the wound is too big.” He lifts himself from Jaemin’s shoulders and glances back. The shouting hasn’t faded, it’s safe to say the group is still looking for them. “Let’s go.”
In the end, it’s Jeno who carries Jaemin on his back; his wounds are recovered, but Jaemin's hasn't. The boy moans in pain every time the fabric of his clothes brushes by the wound. Jeno winces, desperately trying to keep on going, even if it hurt his ally.
“You think they’re still hunting us down?”
“Surely－shit,” Jaemin gasps out when Jeno stumbles on a rock. With a whispered apology, Jeno sets him down nearby another river, tossing his jacket somewhere on the shore ripping his shirt into tatters. He's going to have to lend Jaemin his own set of clothes, then.
He tries not to wince at the burn on his back, the flesh a fresh red while the outskirts of it burned black. “We need to get you into the river,” Jeno murmurs. “Can you stand…?”
“I can try to.”
The end result is, predictably, Jaemin falling into the water and Jeno following suit, holding him up for stability. “Are you－”
“Yeah, I’m okay. Darn, that feels good,” the other Tribute bemoans. Jeno tries to desperately fend off the heat on his cheeks, not the time, brain! “I’m sorry for the bother.”
Jeno eyes him, confused. “That’s what allies do, right?”
Jaemin blinks repeatedly, before sagging into Jeno’s hold. Maybe it’s the fatigue, maybe he’s delirious from the pain－whatever the cause is, the boy mumbles into his neck, “It sounds nice, having allies.”
Jeno doesn’t know whether to feel hurt or puzzled at the words. It sounds so intimate, the way he says it, like he’s not supposed to say it in the first place.
He keeps his quiet instead, waddling over to the edge of the river, only to find Jaemin already asleep on his shoulder.
Jeno stirs awake at the sound of something beeping continuously. He reorients himself with his surroundings, finding that it’s already afternoon, and looks up. There, a metal canister sits between the branches. It’s a no-brainer to figure out it’s something a Sponsor sent, really.
He climbs up the tree silently and opens the canister. It contains a plain shirt made from durable materials and a can of petroleum jelly. The jelly smells like herbs and something grandmas would make, which is a good sign.
A note is stuck on it: For your loverboy -M.
Jeno finds the camera in the tree and dramatically rolls his eyes, before jumping down the tree to where Jaemin is sleeping.
“Jaemin-ah,” he whispers, shaking the boy awake. “Hey, get up. I have something for you.”
He’s met with a groan. “Five more minutes,” Jaemin mumbles, curling up into a ball. Jeno would find the sight endearing, if not for the urgency in the situation.
“Jaem, come on,” he begs. “Get upppp!”
At the whine, Jaemin actually stirs, opening a bleary eye to glare at him. “You can’t act cute to get what you want like that, it’s unfair.” He pouts, and Jeno’s struck again with the realization that this is the same boy who intimidated everyone, even though he’s without a Talent.
Jeno wants to laugh at them. What were they thinking, Jaemin isn’t scary. If anything, he’s soft and fragile behind the mask, almost like a child like this.
“So, what did you want?”
Jaemin’s voice breaks Jeno out of his thoughts. By the smug smirk on his face, Jeno’s caught red handed, again.
He clears his throat. “Turn over, please?”
Jaemin groans, but obeys nonetheless, exposing his burned skin. There are bubbles of puss on it now, Jeno notes with a pained expression of his own. Thank God for Mark’s help.
He smears some of the jelly and Jaemin hisses, tensing up at first, and visibly relaxing when the effect kicks in. “That feels good,” he moans as Jeno continues to awkwardly slather his body in the substance. “Is it from the Capitol?”
“Yeah, I’m pretty sure,” Jeno replies, gulping. He's nervous. Why is he so nervous? “It seems… expensive.”
Jaemin giggles. Giggles! Can the boy get any cuter?! “My back feels like it’s gonna recover in a few hours like this, so yeah, I can guess so.”
Jeno coughs, but doesn’t reply. He applies the jelly as quick and efficient as possible, before wiping the excess on his own clothes, patting Jaemin’s shoulder. “It’s done. Here, change your clothes. I’m gonna hunt now, stay where you are and don’t move, alright?"
“Not like I can anyways,” Jaemin snorts. Jeno takes that as a yes. “But isn’t it better if you leave me here?”
Jeno stops, turning around to face Jaemin. They meet eye-to-eye. “What are you talking about?” he asks, careful and soft. He really doesn’t want to ruin whatever they have. Doesn’t want to make Jaemin feel unwanted.
“The Sponsor, it was from you, right?” Jeno nods and Jaemin smiles, bitter. “If you keep allying with me, Jeno, your supporters will decrease. Eventually, there will be no one to help you left. I’m Talentless, I scored the lowest point, nobody will send me Sponsors and it’ll get to you eventually－”
“Stop,” Jeno says, shaky. His gaze turns into a glare. “You don’t know what you’re saying.”
Jaemin scowls. “I know very well what I’m saying! I’m a burden to you, everyone knows, that’s why they try to take me out first. Because I’m weaker than anyone else. I’ll only weigh you down, Jeno-yah, please－”
“I like you, Jaemin,” Jeno interrupts, before realizing what he said and adds in rather quickly, “as a friend.”
Jaemin looks at him as if he’s an alien. Jeno sighs.
“I do this because you were the one who encouraged me in evaluations, you saved me in the Cornucopia, but most of all, because I like you as a friend and ally. You’re agile, smart, dangerous－but that’s only a front, isn’t it? You’re a sweet boy underneath. You act like that to scare off people so you wouldn’t have to kill them, right? I like you for who you are, Jaem, and that’s all there is to it.”
Jeno shuts up, realizing that he’s rambling so much, is he gonna hate me for it? Before looking at Jaemin and realizing that he’s actually rendered the man speechless, mouth opening and closing akin to a fish.
“I… wow,” he says, scratching the back of his head. “I don’t－I don’t know what to say to that.”
Jeno grins. “That was my goal. Alright, I’m off, stay put!”
He glances at Jaemin inquiringly.
“I like you too.”
Jeno’s face flushes a deep red as he raises a hand to flip his ally off… or should he say friend now? Friend is nice. It sounds nicer than allies. You’re getting attached, again. Never learn, huh, Jeno Lee?
But this time, he lets himself fall into the honey trap. Because trusting Jaemin sounds better than dying without anyone by his side, and at least, until the very last moment, he has a friend to depend on.
And as Jaemin said, it’s okay to be attached. He’ll just need to learn how to let go afterwards.
“I see you’re still alive.”
Jeno jumps from where he stands, nearly dropping the two birds in his hand. “Don’t scare me like that!”
Eunbi stifles a laugh, approaching him. She doesn’t take out her weapon of choice, Jeno realizes, which is a bad thing and a good thing at once. She trusts her like he trusts her to not hurt him, however it also means that at this moment, both of them are vulnerable to outside attacks.
“Mark probably berated you for running into the Cornucopia, you know,” she says. “I nearly got a heart attack when I saw you, too. I thought you were dead meat.”
“Me too,” Jeno confesses. “And I would’ve been, if not for Jaemin.”
Whatever she was going to say next, it’s thrown at the window. Jeno knows, because the way she widens her eyes－dumbstruck－is how she reacts whenever he did or say things out of her predictability.
“You’re the luckiest in the world, huh.”
Jeno scrunches his face at that. “Uh, no?” Sure, it’s the Jaemin Na, but he’s still human like the rest of them. He’s nothing different.
Eunbi reads him as always. “Not that, you idiot,” she sighs. “You’ve had a crush on him for a while now, right? And it’s Jaemin Na; he’s like, a world away from us, and you managed to get him anyways.”
“Oh,” Jeno splutters waving his hand around and knocking the two birds’ head together several times. He winces. Respect your food, he can already hear Doyoung nag at him from miles away.
It takes a minute for him to compose himself entirely. Right. Eunbi hasn’t known who Jaemin really is yet, she still looks at him the way Jeno looks at Jaemin at first glance. Ice cold, deadly, and untrustworthy.
“He’s not that bad,” Jeno says, surprising himself with how soft his voice sounds. “He’s a bit weird, sure, but he’s not a bad guy.”
Eunbi smiles at him. “Nice to see you’ve found yourself a good man.”
“Jeno?” A voice asks from the distance. Both their heads whip towards the source, only to find Jaemin standing there, a knife in hand and back leaning to the nearest tree.
Jeno rushes over and frets, a million possibilities already running through his head. “Jaemin, are you oka－”
“I should be asking that to you, idiot.” To others, he might sound indifferent, but to Jeno, he sounds worried. Maybe they’re starting to know each other really well, after all.
“I told you to stay put!”
“Sorry. I heard some talking, and I don’t wanna take my chances.” Jaemin diverts his gaze at Eunbi. “You must be Jeno’s district partner, then? Eunbi Kwon?”
Eunbi stares at him in shock. “You remember?”
“I’m not heartless.” Jaemin deadpans. Although, right after he said that, the knife in his hand lowers. I’ll trust her if you do, Jeno catches the meaning behind his actions, and he’d be lying if he said his heart didn’t flutter at the show of trust.
Eunbi walks up to them, face bright in wonder. “Jaemin, huh? Can I trust you to keep him safe?”
Jaemin answers without a beat of hesitation, “Yes.” He glances at Jeno. “I’ll make sure he stays alive.”
Eunbi’s eyes flash a yellow color. Jaemin almost, almost flinches, but then Eunbi ruffles his hair and grins. “Jeno’s hit the jackpot with this one, huh. Good on you, Jen!”
Jeno scowls at her, trying desperately to avoid her hands, which reach up to squeeze his cheeks. “No, stop! I’m not a child."
“You act like one, though."
Jaemin shakes his head, no. “He acts more like an emo teenager more, with his brooding and all.”
“Now you two are teaming up against me. How’s that fair? And I'm literally still a teenager, as you two are!"
“No one says we're being fair to begin with,” Eunbi says, shrugging. “But anyways, I’m gonna go now. Someone needs me besides you guys.” She winks and turns around, already walking off.
Jeno and Jaemin glance at each other, about to go too, when Eunbi faces them one last time and they freeze on the spot. She looks at them with melancholy in her smile, like she’s about to perform her swan song. Jeno doesn’t like it one bit.
“Take care, Jaemin, Jeno-ah.”
She sprints away after that. Jeno reassures himself that she’ll be fine, she’ll get through the Game. He has to trust her like how Ten and his cousins trusted him to come back home. With faith, and unyielding loyalty.
So why does it feel like a goodbye?
Half an hour later, as Jeno and Jaemin both stay inside a cave nearby the river they stayed at, the acid rain came.
A cannon cuts through the pitter-patter of the rain, and Jeno’s stomach churns.
It’s also why he’s not surprised to see Eunbi’s name and face in the announcement later on. Tears drip from his eyes and it won't stop; he clutches the golden feather Ten gave him, with Jaemin by his side.
Jaemin can’t erase the hurt, but he made it bearable.
He knew they should’ve taken her in when they had a chance, yet regretting it now will do nothing, right? He remembers Jaemin’s words: “It’s okay to be attached, you only have to learn how to let go afterwards,” yet this already hurts more than it should’ve. Can he bear more?
As he looks at the man beside him, his heart breaks into two at the realization.
Will I be able to let you go, Jaemin-ah?
“No one on the right?”
“No one,” Jaemin stands up, hands dirty from checking the dirt beneath them. “Looks like everyone else deserted this side.”
Jeno hums in agreement, following Jaemin deeper into the woods. During the five days after Eunbi’s death, they’ve been hiding from the others, hunting in silence instead. So far they’ve taken out two people; one of which is a team work while the other is entirely Jeno’s.
Jeno wants things to stay like this. It’s peaceful, almost monotone. Yet he knows better, from how the number of people alive can be counted with fingers now.
“I’m thirsty,” Jeno croaks out. Even his voice grates against his own ears painfully. “Is there really no water…?”
“They poisoned them all, I’ve checked,” Jaemin sighs, sweat dribbling from his forehead.
“How are you so certain about that?”
“I.. may have sampled a little bit.”
If Jeno weren’t exhausted, he probably would’ve yelled at the boy. About how reckless he is being. But alas, his mouth is too dry to even speak, let alone yell.
At this rate, they’ll die of dehydration soon. And the Capitol must’ve known, because the next thing they know, the speakers come to life, crackling and fuzzing out before clearing eventually.
“Attention to all Tributes. This afternoon, we will restock the Cornucopia. All of you need something, and for that, the Capitol will be gracious and give you the things you need. It will be in a bag for your representative district. Good luck. May the odds be in your favor.”
“The Capitol will be gracious, they say,” Jaemin mocks, glaring at one of the cameras. “If you were gracious, then you wouldn’t have sent us into the Game, damn it!”
“Calm down, Nana,” Jeno soothes. He pats the ground beside him, inviting Jaemin to sit with him. “Let’s just reserve our energy first, yeah?”
Jaemin stops, and then sighs, obeying his friend. “You can’t say my nickname and then order me around like that. You’re so unfair!” he whines, puckering his lips. Jeno holds himself back to coo at the boy.
He doesn’t reply, choosing to lean on Jaemin’s shoulder instead to save his energy. Beneath the hot sun, Jeno can pretend that, for a moment, they’re just kids having a picnic together, on a casual date, and not in some kind of cruel killing game. Such delusion is dangerous, however. They’re no ordinary kids. And they never will be, after the Game.
Jeno finds himself not caring, as long as he can stay with Jaemin, at least for a second more.
“I’m gonna run for it.”
“Be safe,” Jeno breathes out, patting Jaemin’s back. It’s not even him who’s charging straight into the Cornucopia, but he finds himself sweating bullets. “I’ll cover you.”
Jaemin smiles at him and takes off. He runs as if being chased by a monster, unsteady and almost clumsy－Jeno blames it on the lack of water. He’s starting to feel it, too. His vision blurs, his head spinning stars, and really, he just wants to get back and rest up. Hopefully, with a bottle of water.
Nothing goes his ways.
He doesn’t notice it, at first. But the more he breathes in, the more something pungent fills his nose. It starts to burn his lungs. The second he looks down, he feels his heart stops.
Beneath, stood Mingyu, fire and a flint in his right hand and a bunch of plants in the other. Is he burning toxic berry bushes? Oh, shit.
He tries to fight it, holding off his breath and desperately tries to yell out for Jaemin’s help. What comes out instead is a choked breath. The next thing he knows, gravity’s already pulling him down onto the ground.
“Ooh, what’s wrong, little Jeno can’t do anything without his Jaemin, huh?” the words are practically spat out as Mingyu crouches and yanks his chin up, unbothered by how the other coughs his lung out in front of his face. “Disgusting, the both of you.”
He throws Jeno on the ground and shuffles towards him. “You know, I admired you, Jeno.” Something glints in his hand. A knife? “You have a great Talent, great marksmanship, and always so, so humble. I was gonna team up with you, but then you had to befriend the failure.” Jeno scowls at his words, and tries to stand up and fight. “I guess weaklings are attracted to weaklings, huh?”
A sharp pain embeds itself into one of Jeno’s hand. His jaw drops into a silent scream, his heartbeat rings in his ears. There’s a tingling feeling but instead of relief, he only feels pain.
He can’t heal nor can he move like this. Not with a knife through his hand.
“－So I thought to myself,” Mingyu’s still talking. God, how is he still talking? “You can heal physical wounds, but can you survive poison? I guess not, huh?”
“You’re still worried about him? Don’t worry, I’ll make sure Hosuk finish him off quickly－”
A crackle of wood resounds through the forest. It’s not from the fire, it’s not from Jeno’s struggle or Mingyu’s feet, either. It’s…
“Shotaro, what are you doing?"
A boy, whom Jeno doesn’t know of, stands directly behind Mingyu, his hands stretched out as if trying to control something. When Mingyu’s lips turn blue and his fingers tremble, that’s when Jeno realizes.
Water-Bender. He’s strong enough to control the flow of Mingyu’s blood…?
Just then, a drop of blood trails down from Shotaro’s nose to his chin, and his eyes get bloodshot. He meets his eyes and a mutual understanding. He may be able to control Mingyu’s blood flow, but he won’t survive this. This is his limit.
Jeno mouths a “thank you,” at him and grips on the handle of the knife holding his other hand. With all his strength, he pulls it out.
There’s a sensation of a thick, hot liquid dripping down his mouth from biting his lip too hard. And then it’s gone. He’s numb, but for some reason, he’s still moving.
Two cannons sounded in the battlefield. With it, a scream, “JENO!!!”
It always comes back to him, huh? The person he’s willing to die for, and the person he’s willing to live for. Jaemin Na, his ally, friend, and first… love?
…Love, huh. Maybe it’s too soon to label his feelings that. It’s just… It sounds so nice, to finally be in love with someone, even if it’s in his last moments.
“Give it up. He’s dead.”
Hosuk’s voice rings in his ears. Jeno stops, the world blurs once more before coming back together. There, on the edge of the field, lies Jaemin. On top of him is Hosuk’s foot, pressing down hard enough that Jeno can hear the crack of his ribs.
And Jeno sees red.
“GET OFF OF HIM, YOU BASTARD!!”
Where the hell did the strength to push Hosuk and shout at him afterwards came from, Jeno doesn’t know. What he does know, however, is how he supports Jaemin back up and he himself almost falls afterwards. How Jaemin looks at him with relief and worry mixed together. Jeno just wants to kiss it all away, tell him it’s gonna be alright, that everything will end up fine.
Until countless hisses echo behind them.
“Shit.” Jaemin loops his arms around Jeno’s waist, and murmurs, “Hold on.”
His vision fades, but when it comes back, Jaemin’s face is too close to his. It’s so shaky. He’s being… juggled? No, wait, carried. Yeah, carried sounds like the appropriate word.
“Sorry beforehand,” Jaemin mumbles. Before Jeno can ask what he means by that, he’s being flung upwards, onto one of the reachable part of the Cornucopia’s building. He lands on the concrete with a sharp hiss, immediately sitting up to help Jaemin upwards.
His heart drops when he sees Jaemin midway on the building, desperately trying to kick away something. Or someone.
Hosuk’s holding him off. And right below them is a pit of black snakes, slithering their way up towards the building. Some falls back down, and some has already reached Hosuk’s feet.
The boy screams as one of the serpents bite through his pants. Jeno clenches his jaw, inhaling, exhaling－and places an arrow on his bow, the weapon grounding him down.
He shoots. And despite the dizziness, he manages to hit Hosuk, just slightly off the center of his neck.
The boy gurgles out blood and looks at Jeno in both terror and resignation. He falls, limp as the snakes chow down his body. Jeno has to look away and inhales shakily, the grip on his bow tightening until it starts to hurt.
“Jeno-yah,” an all-too-familiar voice calls for him. “Lend me your hands.”
Jeno does, kicking the air as he’s being pulled up. He’s met with a breathless Jaemin underneath the sunlight. They look at each other and break out into giggles, hysteric and delirious from pain and exhaustion.
We did it. We survived.
But it’s not over yet. Only one of them can go home.
“Jeno,” Jaemin whispers his name and it feels like a prayer, holding him from falling down into insanity. Jeno feels the same. “No-yah, do you trust me?”
Jeno’s response is immediate. “Yes.”
Jaemin’s gaze softens. He cups Jeno’s cheeks－delicate, as if Jeno’s made out of glass－and pulls him into a kiss.
Jeno’s eyes flutter shut as he pushes back against Jaemin’s lips, chasing more. He feels like how Jeno imagines him to be－soft, gentle, and careful. For a moment, he forgets about the Game. About the death of those who were around him just a week ago, about the cruel reality around them.
In this moment it’s only Jeno and Jaemin. And everything feels right.
Jeno can hear his heart beats faster in each nibble Jaemin gives. This time, instead of tingles, his Talent activates like how a thunder would strike a tree. Unforgiving. Powerful.
That’s it. Jaemin makes him feel so powerful.
“Jeno,” Jaemin whispers as they pull apart. “Jeno, I－” He winces, voice breaking down into small sobs. “I’m...”
Jeno opens his mouth to ask what’s wrong, but he gets his answers from how something sharp digs into his back－
－and pierces through his heart.
Jeno chokes on what feels like blood and falls forward. Jaemin’s there with him, his tears falling as he whispers a litany of “I love you”s and “sorry”s. Jeno wants to reply back, so bad. That it’s okay. That he expected it to end like this. It’s better than seeing Jaemin dying instead of him, as selfish as it sounds.
When Jaemin pulls out his knife, his Talent gives up. The sound of canon echoes, and in the middle of the battleground, Jaemin Na is pronounced as the winner.
He wins, at the cost of his own lover.
—And then Jeno breathes in a lungful of air that he immediately coughs out.
Someone’s shouting frantically in the distance and Jeno can only hope they shut up soon. His head is ringing, his vision is blurrier than ever, and then suddenly, it clears up when he recognizes who the voice belongs to.
“Jeno!” Mark Lee shouts just beside his ear and, God, can he get any louder? “Jeno, can you hear me?! How many numbers am I holding?"
“Three. Now shut up for a sec, will you,” Jeno groans, turning over to curl himself into a ball in hopes it’ll calm down the migraine. It doesn’t.
“A lot of things,” Mark blurts out and Jeno doesn’t even try to hide his eye-roll. “I’m serious, Jen. It’s… a lot to take in for you right now.”
“Tell me anyway,” Jeno prompts, forcing himself to sit up. “What happened to Jaem?”
Mark sighs. He flickers the monitor in front of them on, and only then it occurs to Jeno that they’re in the hospital. That he's still alive, somehow. “It’s better to show you.”
Jaemin stands tall on the building, yet his face is anything but victorious. It’s stained with tears and his lips are still trembling. The inside of his pupils are hollow, like a candle blown out. This, is a face of a boy who sacrificed his lover for something as mere as riches and golds.
Because at the end of the day, Jaemin’s still a Career. And Careers, like it or not, train to get the wealth for themselves. For their own future.
Jaemin won the war, but lost the battle.
But then, he smiles. It’s sly. It feels like the Jaemin Jeno knows before they allied themselves with each other, merely a mask for a show to be performed.
He rolls up his sleeve to reveal a snake there, slithering quietly. The wind blows at his hair as he lifts up the snake on the same level as his neck. In one last act of defiance, he glares at the camera, baring his neck for the snake to bite.
The Gamemaster screams at him to stop what he’s doing, that he’s a victor already and that there’s no need to do this. But it’s too late.
The snake bites into Jaemin’s skin.
It bites and it bites and it bites. Its venom should be flowing into Jaemin’s veins right now, clogging his blood and killing him from the inside. And yet, he stands still, eyes closed as if he’s in peace instead of pain.
Carefully, he removes the jaws of the snake from his neck. Blood drips down the bite marks but there’s no sign of pain in his face. He lets the snake slides down, onto the ground and joining the rest of its pack, and they all flee to the edge of the forest.
The realization strikes everyone watching the scene like a thunder right before the storm.
Jaemin Na is not Talentless.
He’s a Poisoner.
And somewhere on the side, Jeno’s chest rises up again. The adrenaline rush Jaemin gave him is enough to stitch his heart back up. Jaemin gives Jeno the power he needs, and Jeno gives him the bravery to execute his plan.
The Game ends with a foul.
“Damn,” Jeno whispers, pride surging up his chest. “He really went and did that.”
To think Jeno doesn’t know of Jaemin’s Talent, when the hints were there all along. Jaemin tasted the poisoned water and he didn’t die. He’s never afraid of toxic berries and its shrubs. He’s always been immune to poisons. It’s all there, and Jeno didn’t see it.
He laughs and applauds Jaemin. For his courage, for his brilliant plan, and for everything he’s ever done for Jeno. He’s so, so brave. Eunbi has complimented Jeno for being “stupidly brave” before, but honestly, Jaemin’s on a whole different level. How can he be so brave?
Mark cocks his head at Jeno’s reaction. “You’re not angry?”
“What? Why would I be?” Jeno asks incredulously. “He did a good job.”
“He did, but… he betrayed you, didn’t he?” Mark asks, bewildered. “Aren't you mad at him?”
Logically, Jeno should be mad. As Mark said, Jaemin betrayed him by sticking a knife in his back without Jeno even knowing. He hid so much things from Jeno when they were supposed to trust each other.
But for some reason, he isn’t. It hurts a bit, however he understands why Jaemin did it. They were surrounded by cameras; he can’t possibly told Jeno the plan, or else he’d fail.
And anyways, they’ve spent too much time together when they can die at any given moment. They get chased by the shadows of their future and the haunting realization that, sooner or later, they’ll be forced to kill each other. And against all odds, they stayed together, survived until the end, and managed to foul the game.
They shared their perils, went through the same hell, and pulled through because they had each other. Perhaps that’s why they hit it off so quickly; being in stressful situations together is a good－or horrible, depends on your perspective－way of bonding.
“He asked me whether or not I trusted him before he stabbed me, you know,” Jeno says, fond, like it’s any justification for what Jaemin did to him. “And I said yes, because I did, I still do. And I know why he did it. I can’t possibly be mad at him when it ends like this, the way I never imagined it to happen.”
Mark looks at him as if he’s grown two heads and shakes his head. “You never fail to surprise me.”
“That’s because you’re that bad when it comes to people.”
“That attack was uncalled for. I talk to people more than you, you know!” Mark punches his arm playfully. Jeno laughs at his response, and gets another punch, this time harder than the last.
Mark pauses before he murmurs, “Are you okay with this outcome, though, Jen? Eunbi, Jaemin, and you have started a revolution, you know.”
Wow. What a way to drop a bomb.
“Revolution…?” Jeno repeats, his migraine already starting to feel worse. Mark wasn’t kidding when he said a lot of things happened. He shouldn't have asked him to elaborate.
“Eunbi cared for and saved a kid named Shotaro from acid rain. She used her body as a shield for him, because she knows from the start that she won't survive.” Jeno’s heart drops, the imagery almost churning his stomach upside-down. “And Jaemin basically said fuck you to the Capitol and broke the rules to make his own. It gets the other districts moving. You guys showed compassion and love like none other can in such situations, it gives the people enough courage to rebel.”
Whatever Jeno was expecting from the whole ordeal, it’s clearly not this. “I think I’m gonna have an aneurysm.”
“Please don’t. You gave us enough heart attacks already. Besides, you have to do one last interview after this. With Jaemin.”
Jeno groans, flopping back onto the bed. “I forgot we’re actually celebrities now. Damn.”
Mark smirks. “Welcome to the club. Well, at least you’re not doing it alone, right?”
Jeno pauses, and then, he lets a smile curl up on his lips at the thought of Jaemin. “Yeah.”
With him by my side, I’m fearless.