Linwood stands in the elevator with me, accompanying me to the rooftop where he says the hovercraft will take me to the arena. What little space between us was filled with the soft whirr of gears and cables turning above our heads. The sounds did nothing to quell my growing insecurities. I wish he'd say something or at least send a snarky comment my way but he does neither of that, leaving me to mull over the hazy recollections of the last time I had ridden in the cold ice box of an elevator. The very night before.
"I didn't expect you to be up here again."
The voice was distant now, muffled, as if contained by a body of swirling water. Despite the darkness of the night and the intensity of the winds, the anger in my veins and the uncertainty in my heart, I remembered him clearly. The fragile shoulders, his narrow face, the blue-striped shirt that flapped in the breeze and those wide grey eyes that reminded me so much of the rain.
"I'm not here to be friends with you," I remember my snarky reply.
"Truthfully, Chris, I don't know what you're here for, but if it's to yell at me again, you best be on your way back to your room." Of course I took that as a challenge. He was from another District, a Career, a trained killer. And that made him my enemy.
"Is that a threat?"
"Well, I don't know," he had shot back. "You seem to know everything about me so why don't you tell me?"
There had been silence after that, from exasperation, fatigue or just plain anger, I couldn't remember. My memories were a blur, a swirling amorphous jumble of words and lights and music reminiscent of the brightly coloured interviews mere hours before. In my mind's eye, time had lost meaning, shards floated about without any respect to order. I saw Tom's back turned towards me, stark against the indigo backdrop of the sky. Then, I saw Nyssa's head hanging over her clasped hands while she prayed at her bedside. The knowing glint in Marka's eyes as she smirked at my declaration. Facet's hungry glare; Sheer's indiscreet wink; Nyssa leaving her gingersnaps behind on the table; the arrows on the floor; Tom's outstretched hand; the first time I heard his laugh. Even Luke and Liam found their way into the intangible knots of my memories, made incoherent and blurry by the copious amounts of wine Brill had made us toast to during our final dinner.
But there was an exchange of words that rang clear through my head. Under what circumstances they were said, I wasn't sure anymore; maybe I had asked Tom why he was on the roof again or maybe he had just begun to talk to himself. Regardless, they echoed and repeated, reverberated and resounded like a murmur you'd whisper into an empty cave. I didn't think they bore any ill-intent, so I allowed it to run its course through my mind.
"... I have this saying... If you've got something to say, say it from the rooftops."
The elevator lurched to a jerky halt and I had to take a step forward to stop myself from losing balance. Linwood cast me an inquisitive look but said nothing, keeping his muddy eyes trained forwards and glaring at something that lay beyond the sleek metal doors and the Training Centre building. I didn't know what it was and I didn't question. Somehow, the five days we've spent together had totalled to a sort of... unspoken mutual understanding of each other. I didn't want to admit it, but there was just something about him that had grown on me.
"So, fireball... big day today," was his gruff mutter as the elevator doors slid open.
"Yeah..." I nodded in agreement, though hesitant. "Big day," I echoed.
We stepped out into the open air of the rooftops, though I know that that itself was another one of the Capitol's lies. Brill had told me once that the entire top half of the building was protected by an impenetrable barrier; one of the "fun facts" that she frequently powdered Nyssa and I with. Like always, Brill was wrong about the concept of 'fun'. The thought had only managed to fill me with a deep sense of dread. It told me that the Capitol was willing to go to whatever means necessary to keep others out... as well as the tributes in.
"Well, I won't be meeting you in-person for awhile after this," said Linwood. I was about to roll my eyes when he continued. "Better make sure you do."
I pondered over his words for awhile. Was Linwood... wishing me luck?
"Yeah, I hope I make it back too," I replied uncertainly.
"Luke hoped he'll make it back," he murmured. "You're making it back." And with that, he placed a heavy hand onto my shoulder, his knobbly fingers squeezing my collarbone. I felt the warmth leave my face at the way he had said it. Hopeful, almost, with a tinge of sorrow. It was then I considered the fact that maybe Linwood had been the one to mentor my brother...
I don't know what effect knowing that would have now, but that didn't stop the shock that followed. I had always assumed one of the other victors had been his trainer. There had been other Victors from my district, of course. I've seen them spending their days splurging coins in the market; but rarely did I ever come across Linwood when I made my rounds to buy grain and milk... especially after the yearly reapings. I paused. Was that because he had been the one to mentor most of the recent tributes? The thought was not impossible.
I was lost for words. "Linwood, I--"
Like water breaking through a dam, the air was suddenly filled with the overpowering, shrill hum of machinery. I had to cup my hands over my ears as the hovercraft neared, looming over us like a dark cloud bringing a storm. I swallowed and glanced at my mentor... Luke's mentor, all of a sudden feeling so lost and confused. Linwood had been looking at me, an unfathomable gleam in his brown-green eyes.
You can do it, he mouthed.
I allowed myself a moment's hesitation but he seemed to have taken that as weakness.
He grabbed my arms and gave me a firm shake, gripping me tightly as if I held every single hope he ever had. He said the words out loud now; I could hear it over the high screech of the engines.
"You CAN do it!" it blared into my ears.
From the corner of my eye, I see a glint of silver spilling from the side of the hovercraft. A metal ladder tumbled down and unwound, the end of it coming to a clattering rest by my feet.
Linwood yelled something I didn't quite catch before giving me a rough shove. Disoriented, I staggered a few steps back, latching onto the ladder to stop myself from falling. I wanted to ask him to repeat the last bit but I found myself unable to speak... or move... my fingers frozen in place along the metal rung.
As I was pulled into the hovercraft like a stone statue, I cast my mentor one last glare, not at all impressed by his methods.
And through his amused, cocky smirk, I could’ve sworn I saw tears.
The room I was led to seemed far too large for a single person.
The ceiling stretched far above my head, to the very top of the hovercraft, I guessed, judging from the flickering lights spilling down on the grated floor. A row of seats lined the entire left wall, each of them empty and with safety belts buckles clattering along their sides. It seemed all too extravagant for each tribute to be transported this way. The fuel used for each craft could be put to better use, I thought acidly as I took my seat. My left hand was pressed over the stiff, angry swell on my right arm, where they had injected the tracker into me. Back in District 7, the Peacekeepers would pierce the ears of cattle with tags and write the names of their respective households on them. I couldn't help but akin myself to the scrawny goats and sheep that freely roamed the marketplace.
"Would you like anything to drink?" the officer who had tagged me asked.
I stopped myself from snapping back a harsh 'no', taking a moment to gauge myself, my body. I was about to step into the arena where I will fight for my life; I won't be coming out for at least two weeks... If I'm alive, that is.
I winced at the morbid thought.
"Water, please," I rasped, hoping that it would be enough to quell the parasitic anxiety in my chest.
Thirty minutes later, I was in the launch room and the unease hadn't died a bit.
The basket of fruit and clear glass bottles of drink were left ignored as I paced up and down, down and up, side to side, occasionally running my hand along the clear tube that would bring me up into the Games. The throbbing tracker at my arm and the claustrophobia from being underground only made me feel even more like a caged animal. I bit my lip. That's what I am, isn't it? A plaything, a pet, a spectacle for their enjoymen-- I stopped myself. This was not the time to let my resentment for the Capitol get the better of me.
"Focus on the goal," Luke's phantom of a voice whispered from my memories.
A cool shiver ran down my spine, as if someone had broken a vial of liquid ice along my back. I drew in a deep breath. "If you keep your goals in mind, you'll think clearer." My thirteen year old self had listened in awe to his words, grasping tightly onto each and every one, taking them all to heart. To me, Luke had been more of a father than our real father ever was. His memory was what had been fuelling me this entire time, right from the moment I volunteered for Liam.
I'll do him proud. I will win this for him.
'Attention tributes, the Games will begin shortly,' a cool female voice drifted in from unseen speakers. 'Please enter the respective launch tubes to prevent any inconveniences and delays.'
This is it, I told myself. This is it.
The metal plate 'clang'ed as I stepped into the tube and I looked down curiously my boots. I took this moment to survey the clothes they had provided me with one last time, still uncertain of what lies in store for us later on. The shoes were heavy and reflected light in a bizarre manner that wasn't like leather or rubber. Straps and buckles ran down each side, hinting that they were built for security. Security against what? I turned my heel to examine the other side. They didn't seem too runnable, but neither were the lumberjack boots back at District 7. To me, the weight bore certain stability that was familiar. I wasn't sure about the other tributes though.
The trousers and jacket were bulkier than the material of our training suits, reminding me of a stiffer, more durable form of leather. Surprisingly, it only rustled softly when I moved, probably a stealth factor added in for the Games. The shirt underneath seemed to be the most normal article of clothing, despite the odd sheen of the inner lining. My survival trainer had explained that this sheen was characteristic of heat-reflecting fabric. Was I going somewhere cold?
All in all, the entire outfit was reminiscent of the clothes I wore at work, sans the extravagance of the high-tech cloth. Durable, weighty boots and thick jackets and trousers for the cold. It was always awkward the first time, but once you get around it, chopping wood is an easy task.
The familiarity of it all was unnerving.
They were doing this on purpose.
The platform abruptly rising almost sent me falling to my knees but I held my ground, my back and legs stiffened from pure nerves. I shoved my hands into the jacket pockets to hide my shaking, drawing in deep breaths that echoed along the glass walls and into my ears. Sunlight spilled down onto my head and I winced at the brightness, forced to squint as I was brought higher and higher up. Into the arena.
For a moment, I was completely blind, relying purely on sound and smell to gauge my surroundings. A second ticked by. Everything was silent and there was no scent. I stopped myself from panicking and forced a cough.
That seemed to have cleared my system because I was greeted with the cheerful chirrup of birds and the soft, characteristic fragrance of... pine?
As my eyes adjusted, the flurry of colours solidified to more precise forms of trees and grass and mountains and clouds. I had to rub at them once before I could coherently make sense of it all.
Cornucopia stood tall, proud and shimmering gold right next to a large tree I couldn't name the species of. It looked like a cross between an oak and something... Probably the result of a Capitol experiment. The branches stretched far and wide and the base was uneven, as if covered by large warts the size of apples. I took my attention away from the tree, to the mouth of the horn, eager to examine the supplies they had provided us with this year.
There were none.
I started to panic again, not keen on the prospect of a great bloody fist fight. Running a hand through my hair, I took one quick glance around to inspect the arena for anything nearby I could use as a weapon. There were forests of pine behind me and thickets of other trees - unfamiliar hybrids, just like the one at Cornucopia - to my right. The rocky tips of mountains seemed to be present at each direction, providing a perimeter of some sort to the Games. There were far off though, so I didn't fret too much about running space. A number of them were relatively close though, the morning shadow almost touching the edge of the tribute circle. In the distance westwards, there was a bumpy stretch of white-grey rocks and boulders.
But the problem now was weapons and food, not mountains and hills.
"Pssssssst," was a soft hiss. I turned my head to see Sheer a distance away, looking right at me. In fact, she seemed to be the only one looking at me; everyone else's attention was eagerly fixated on the tree. She raised her finger and pointed towards it.
Taking the message, I glanced back to the middle of the circle, wondering what on earth they were all looking at.
Then I saw it.
The leaves were glittering.
More perplexed than ever, I simply gawked at it. Was this normal for them? Did all the other Districts have trees like this that shimmer in the sunlight? I was completely lost and Kanaky's booming voice counting down wasn't making my situation any easier. Close to giving up, I looked back at Sheer to tell her I had no idea what I was supposed to do. But something curious caught my eye... a metal teapot on the edge of the branches.
I almost slapped myself when I realised it.
The supplies were in the branches.
Then my face paled.
We were supposed to climb the monstrous tree... in our heavy boots... and survive the bloodbath... at the same time?
This was not good, this is a lot more dangerous. A fall from one of the middle-branches could snap someone's neck.
That was probably the point, though. We're just cattle after all. The more interesting the deaths, the better.
I see a few of the tributes edging away from the middle, ready to run in the opposite direction.
They've got the right idea. I should run. No, wait, I can't. The Careers, I'm supposed to--
In that moment, Time stopped.