A weird universe i just thought of: but one where Creed doesn't go into the games for whatever reason (maybe he had an accident and isn't fit anymore) and Alec /does/ go into the games and wins. How does Creed deal with that?
this grabbed my brain last week and wouldn’t let go, but it’s also getting a bit out of hand. so rather than wait until i finish the whole beast i’m going to post this in parts. once it’s done i’ll dump the whole thing on LJ
PART 1: the injury
Creed was born for this.
He heard his teachers say so once, standing together on the playground, talking low in that way they do when they think the kids are too busy playing to pay attention, that it’s like he has one foot in the Arena already. It’s not just how they can’t ask him to write anything about the future or his plans for when he grows up, because he’ll write ‘victor’ or else sit there staring at a blank page for the whole class. It’s the way he always seems a little far away, like he’s older than he should be — not wise, or mature, saying things beyond his years, but old, like sometimes his eyes unfocus when the rest of the kids are playing and you know he isn’t thinking about tag or pyramid or races but sand-blasted vistas and stockpiles of shiny weapons. Like he’s lost in a memory of something that hasn’t happened yet.
He knows they worry. Knows they try to draw him out, make him care about the game everyone is playing or the book they’re reading in language class or factoring. He tries to care, because he likes them, but it’s so easy to look out the window and feel his mind slip sideways to the clash of steel and the burn of sun on the back of his neck.
(Mrs. Keen actually does make factoring click, after keeping him in during recess: if there is an average of twelve bloodbath kills, what are the different ways the Careers could divide them out? Each person could get two, or three people could get four, or four people could get three, or three people could get two and two people could get three — And if on Day Seven the sponsors send four water bottles, six apples, and ten protein bars …)
After Residential there really is nothing else. They don’t learn math in Residential, and they don’t read books. The only history is Games history, and the history of Two and why they fight. Creed drinks it in like water. Every day the trainers tell him: this is his purpose, this is why his parents made him, this is why they raised him and gave him up. Not with words, maybe, but with each new test, each high pass, each new bead and black strand around his wrist.
Everyone knows, but Creed hasn’t mentioned his parents since he was seven, because Dad said family and privilege are gifts, not weapons, and you don’t get to use them to get your way. They probably hate him for it underneath, but in the Arena they need to work together and then kill each other so this is nothing. Are they friends? No, but no one in Residential is. That’s not what they’re here for. It’s not hard to get them to like him, or at least forget for a little while that they wish he’d fall and crack his skull open on the ropes course and give someone else a shot.
And then they post the pair of Volunteers, and Creed gets a gold bead to match the others on his wrist, and it doesn’t matter what anyone else thinks. He will be the volunteer, he will go too the Arena, and he will fulfill the destiny he has chased since he was old enough to understand.
And then —
There is a pop, and a tear, and a flash of blinding pain that shoots out from his knee. For a horrible second it whites out everything else — but that can’t matter, the Arena will be worse, there will be swords in his gut and blades slashing his limbs and he can’t, he can’t let one little twist the wrong way stop him — and he thinks of the trumpets and blood on his hands and pushes himself up —
And then Paxton’s foot hits his knee and shoves, hard, and there’s the pain again, sharper and stronger, and an awful grinding sound, and Creed is on the mats, biting hard on his tongue so he won’t scream. He can’t, because if he screams then he can’t take the pain and if he can’t take the pain them they won’t choose him. (“Excessive force,” calls a trainer. Paxton shouts back that he didn’t do anything, and she says that’s worse, at least if it was on purpose she could give him points for technique.)
“Creed,” the trainer says. She sounds far away.
He swallows blood. “Yeah,” he spits out. “Yeah, I’m good.”
“Go to medical, get that checked out,” she says, but it’s disinterested, automatic. “When you get back we’ll work on your footing, that twist was sloppy.”
He stands — the leg buckles, but he shifts his weight in time — and manages to limp out of the training room without making sound.
(He doesn’t go to medical. He stops in long enough to ask for a compression bandage, wraps it around his knee and hobbles back. He gives himself half an hour in the bathroom to rest and cover for skipping the actual examination, then slips into the training room. It’s fine. It will be fine.)
“Good, you’re back.” The trainer eyes him, but he must not look that green. “Let me check your footwork again. Show me what you were trying to do at the end there.”
He’d been trying to fall into a sweep, but his foot had caught on the edge of the mats, keeping his leg in place when the rest of him spun around to the side and dropped. Creed nods, swallows the nausea and matches her stance. His knee feels wobbly, like the pudding they serve in medical when you really take a pounding without crying. Maybe if he’d gone in he would have gotten one, but he can’t risk it. Not with the Arena so close.
“Okay, let’s see it,” the trainer says.
This time, he screams.
“I don’t need it,” Creed insists the whole way to medical. “I’m fine. I just need to walk it off.”
The trainer glares at him. “Creed, if you don’t shut up and let the doctors do their job, we’re going to have to sedate you.”
He shuts his mouth. He wonders if she’s scared for her job, if she’ll get in trouble for not checking on him when it first happened. Except it’s fine, it’s just his knee, he’s tweaked it before. All he needs to do is push it back into place, brace it and keep going. The faster he lets the doctors check him out, the faster they’ll see everything is fine.
(He has to go away into his head for the exam, it hurts so much, all that holding his leg down and moving his knee around in different directions, but it’s fine. It’s fine. The Arena will be worse.)
“So,” he says when they let him sit up — sort of, he’s still in the bed, but he’s allowed to scooch himself up with his hands until his back hits the pillows. “Can I go?”
The doctor trades looks with the trainer, and no. No, no, no no no no —
Surgery. Bed rest. Crutches. Six months of gruelling physical rehabilitation. For what, a little sprain? Creed twists his hands in the plain white sheets until he feels the fabric tear beneath his fingers. “No,” he says.
The doctor shakes her head. “The good news is, you have plenty of time now.”
“No.” Panic scrabbles hard in his chest. “The Reaping is in two weeks. Just — put a walking brace on it. Give me painkillers. I can do it!” They say nothing, only stare at him, and for the first time in eleven years — for the first time in his entire life — Creed says the words “My father —“
“— would love it if we sent you into the Arena on a severed ACL,” the doctor says, relentless but not unkind. A memory stirs, absurd and unwanted: dark eyes and gentle hands, the quirk of a smile at the edges of a no-nonsense stare as he’s scolded for letting Selene goad him into something stupid. “You fought well. Now you’re done.”
It’s all a dream, he tells himself through the haze of painkillers. Except the painkillers mean it’s not — they don’t drug trainees outside of recovery from the Field Exam, getting the good stuff for a training injury means you’re out, everyone knows that. But then the doctor injects him with something that makes the world soft and shiny and sparkly around the edges and it’s real, it’s really happening, the world has turned sideways and dumped him over the edge and there’s no going back.
He wakes up to a thick, hinged brace from halfway up his thigh to midway down his calf. A box sits on the chair next to the bed: his belongings, gathered from the dorm room. A handful of photographs, a rock he and Alec found that looks like the president’s nose, his baby blanket. Stupid things. They’ve folded a fresh uniform on top, ready for him.
The head trainer walks him out, the box of Creed’s things under his arm. Creed hates the crutches, hates the way they dig in under his arms, hates the moment of instability every time he swings forward. Hates knowing that if he tried to walk without them he’d collapse to the floor.
They’re sending him home, not to the detox dorms. He asked, they said he had a choice. Creed tried to imagine healing with hundreds of washouts around him, thinking they’re the same, and the thought nearly made him throw up. His parents might think he’s a failure but they have to take him, don’t they, even if they only promised until eighteen? It’s better than strangers, anyway. Maybe then he’ll figure out how he’s supposed to pay them back, not only for the first thirteen years of his life but for every day going forward.
“Wait.” He stops. Pryor frowns but waits as Creed cranes his head backwards. “Where’s Alec?”
Pryor raises an eyebrow. “You washed out, not your brother.”
It hits him like — well, like Paxton’s foot to his knee. Like the awful shock of ice water for their winter swim test as the cold hits his lungs. His parents promised a Seward for the Arena: they can’t have Creed, and now — “No,” Creed says. Again. How many times can he ask them not to? How many times will they refuse? “No, he’s coming with me. He’s going to be a Peacekeeper, he’s supposed to go when I go —“
“You’re not a package deal,” Pryor says, calm and inexorable like an ice storm. “You go. Your brother stays. Whether he graduates is on his own merit, like everyone else.”
“No!” It tears loose in a shout that echoes down the hallway. Voices in the nearest gym fall silent. “No, you can’t have him, he’s not yours, you don’t get to keep him, you can’t have him, you can’t have him —“
He really is out of the running. Creed the Volunteer would have heard the doctors’ shoes slapping against the floor, would have seen the arm come up behind him. The syringe slides into his neck and he falls limp.
“I’m sorry.” The words slur, his tongue thick with sedatives. Maybe he’s not saying anything out loud but the words are sharp in his mind, sharp and burning, the pressure to release them pushing hard in his chest like drowning. The car window, cool against his forehead. Sometimes the car turns a corner and his head thumps the glass. He doesn’t feel it. Wool coats his brain. “I’m sorry, I failed, I’m sorry, I’m so sorry —“
A voice, more distant rumble than words. “You don’t need to apologize.”
It strikes a memory deep inside and pulls it loose. He laughs. It hurts. “I know. I need to do better.”
Silence. A short, sharp sound, like a sudden hiss. “No,” the voice says, sounding shocked. And okay, that’s funny. He’d laugh if he had the breath. “No, I — you have nothing to be sorry about. That’s all.”
Well, that’s not true, but he’s too tired to argue. He lets the drugs pull him back under as the engine hums.
His mother hugs him. That’s how he knows the world has really ended. He lets her, because some long-dormant part of his brain knows it’s rude to shove your parents the same way image training hammered in that you don’t sass the prep team, but when she asks him what he needs he says he wants to sleep.
They help him up the stairs, and then they leave him be.
(It’s not until later, after he’s slept, that it hits him what’s so weird: they’ve redone the room, his and Alec’s. The bunk bed is gone, the double dresser, the twin desks. The toy shelf. It’s a young man’s room now, done up in local wood and blue trim, waiting politely for that young man to come back. No, not any young man: Alec. Because they gave Creed up when he turned thirteen, and whether he lived or died in the Arena, he wasn’t coming back. It was the grave or the Village for him, not his childhood home. Not ever again.
Their faith in him is … touching, really.
He leans over the bed and vomits into the solid new trash can.)
They all eat dinner in his room, and the sky keeps falling.
Creed tries to argue: dinner at the table has always been sacred ever since he can remember. Even during the Games, his parents scheduled the evening meal so they could all eat together and send the boys to bed before the nightly recap. Other kids, he knew, took food up to their rooms and ate while doing their homework, or reading, or hanging out with friends; some families even ate while watching entertainment broadcasts, a habit that Creed’s father found absolutely abhorrent and forbade at all costs. In any case, Creed can’t remember a single night in his childhood where dinner wasn’t spent around the table, either at his house or the Valents’.
“Think of it like a picnic,” Dad says as Creed gapes at him, and wonders if maybe the Capitol Gamemakers haven’t come and replaced him with some kind of super-muttation. His father has pulled up a chair next to the bed and is eating his meal off a tray balanced in his lap as if that’s perfectly normal and not the strangest thing Creed has ever seen in his life. When Creed keeps staring he finally snorts and shakes his head. “A good, home-cooked meal in my lap is hardly an emergency. Your mother and I spent a solid year arguing over the best field rations while on assignment out in the wilderness beyond the district boundary.”
“Casserole,” Mom says with finality.
“Stew,” Dad argues immediately. “Higher meat ratio. You need the protein if you’re out on the field.”
“Only because you’re afraid of a little vegetable,” Mom shoots back. “Married a whole year before I could get this man to eat a salad. ‘Inefficient caloric intake’. What are you supposed to do in the field if you get scurvy?”
Creed knows what scurvy is, the trainers tell them it’s a mild Arena risk because most mentors will prioritize meat over fruit in late-game sponsor gifts but nothing to worry about because no Games have ever lasted longer than a month. It’s bizarre to hear his parents talk about Peacekeeping assignments like he and the other candidates compared notes on their field exams, or ration packs in the same way they used to debate Arena meals. To hear his parents joking at all, not an unknown phenomenon but rare enough that he and Alec always sat up and took notice.
They never would have done this before. Even if he’d been sick enough to stay in bed for dinner, they would have eaten without him and come up to check on him later. This — he really is out. The weight presses on his chest again. “What do I do now?” Creed bursts out.
Dad, fork halfway to his mouth, sets it down again. He misses the end of his plate and smears sauce against his pant leg. “Anything you want,” he says, too brightly. “I’m sure you could get a job at Eagle Pass. Or as a trainer, or working in recruitment for the Program. Or there are plenty of other jobs around town —“
Creed can’t breathe, everything is too much, too big, like all the walls have disappeared, everything that kept him safe and protected and on the right path, and now it’s him and a web of ropes stretched out along an endless chasm and he’s trying to balance but the ropes keep shifting and there’s a blinding light in his eyes and he can’t see his feet —
“Joseph.” Mom gives him a look. “Rest. What you need to do is rest.“
“What happens after the Arena?” Mom asks. Creed falls quiet, brain spinning into confusion. “You don’t worry about that, because that’s not your job, your job is to get there. You have knee surgery coming up. Your job is to rest and work with the doctor on your therapy so you can be ready for the procedure. Nothing else. Can you do that?”
No, he wants to say, no, that’s ridiculous, she can’t pretend that’s anywhere near the same thing, the Arena is a goal that makes sense and he was worthy when he chased it, this is a stupid goal for babies and failures and she can’t pretend there’s any honour in it. Except she doesn’t take it back, and when he looks at Dad, Dad only lets out a quiet breath and nods. And it’s stupid, it makes no sense, but the blinding light fades and the ropes fall away and there’s a path before him, steady and solid.
Rest. Therapy. Surgery. Everything else can wait.
He sucks in a hard breath, hears it rattle wet and messy with a horror that tears out his ribcage. Dad glances over, looks away fast and stands up, brisk and businesslike. “May as well start now,” he says, gathering up the dishes. “Let’s let the boy have his rest.”
“Thanks, Dad.” Creed keeps his eyes squeezed shut against the burning until the door closes softly behind them.
July rolls around and Creed straps on his brace with the mindless proficiency he once reserved for machetes, struggles into his old uniform, and makes the long journey downstairs. At the front door he hears the floor creak, and his father’s voice from behind him, dry as paint thinner: “And where exactly are you going?”
That voice used to make Alec start babbling and confessing to crimes real and imagined, but Creed only tenses. “I’m going to the Reaping. I’m still eligible, I should be there.”
Long pause. “I see. And how are you getting there?”
They’ve always driven to the Reaping square, him and Alec respectfully silent in the backseat of the car in their best suits, playing finger games across the middle seat and snatching their hands back when Mom shoots a sharp warning glance back. Had Creed ever gone to the Justice Building on his own from home? He knows the way from the Centre, he knows the way to the Centre from home. He could figure it out. It might take him a little longer, that’s all. Already the muscles in his thigh tremble from standing so long.
“Hm,” Dad says. “What are you going to do when you get there?”
Stand there, with the other eighteen-year-olds, and watch as one of his classmates — maybe even Paxton — stood up on that stage and took the honour that belonged to Creed, the only thing that made his life worth meaning. Creed grips the door handle until his fingers cramped. The crutch digs in under his armpit.
“Stand there in the square like a good citizen and let the chosen volunteer do his duty, will you?” Dad’s voice is relentless, driving into his back like spear thrusts. “You aren’t thinking of speaking out and going in his place?”
Creed hisses sharp enough he bites his tongue. “You did this to me!” The Creed who left this house would never speak to his father like this. The Creed who left this house had never killed three men and two women and let their blood dry on his hands. Had never practiced taunts with image trainers saying again, sharper, meaner, try it with your eyebrow raised, don’t look at me like you’re sorry after, a victor is never sorry. “I would have been a victor for you, I would have died for you, and now I’m nothing, because of you! I’m going to go to the Reaping and you can’t stop me.”
Dad works under the mountain now but he was a field officer once, and before that he was a tribute candidate like all the rest of them. Creed doesn’t even hear him move. One second Dad’s behind him, the next the door is shut and Dad has one hand around his wrist and his eyes hold him pinned in place harder than any trainer’s lock. “I can,” Dad says, slow and final, “And I will. We are watching from home. Stand. Down.”
“But —“ His next breath is a hiccup, the one after that a shudder, and he can’t, the trainers will fail him and he’ll never get to volunteer —
Dad’s hand on the back of his neck, solid and steady. “Okay,” he says, and Creed is so grateful he can’t breathe. “Let’s get you set up on the couch.”
Creed watches Paxton volunteer from his living room sofa, Mom at the far end massaging his leg.
Two weeks later, Paxton chokes on his own blood on the dusty concrete of the ruined city as Creed takes his daily walk up the path through the neighbourhood and back. Dad doesn’t call him in to watch. Creed says he’ll catch it on the recap, but both Mom and Dad say no; he argues long enough for Dad to shut him down, then lets it go.
There’s a stream in the forest out behind the house where he, Selene and Alec played tributes, and he eases his legs over the side and lets the water run over his calves. The stream is cool and cuts the ache in his joints, at least for a little while.
Cicadas scream in the trees above, and Creed is alive.