For the fifth time since the sixty second countdown began, Haymitch glanced up at the neon readout in the sky over the Cornucopia. 37…36…. Then he looked around him again, for the third time. Most everyone else was still staring around at the arena in wonderment like it was some kind of fantasy land. The girl on the pedestal next to him in Three’s bright yellow was holding her head up with her eyes closed and a delighted smile on her face, drinking in the air that smelled like the most beautiful summer day he could ever imagine, fresh flowers and fruit and newly-mown grass and the damp of water somewhere nearby, all carried on a soft breeze that caressed the senses.
It was too pretty. It smelled too good. For a few moments it had tricked and dazzled even Haymitch once his pedestal was pushed from his stockyard below, but then he’d realized it was Capitol and that meant something was rotten at the core. Shaking it off, seeing most of the other kids in the huge circle of forty-eight were still in a daze, he’d started to plan. If, he told himself, shaking out his arms and legs and trying to keep them from stiffening with nerves, if they’re gonna just stand there like a pack of dumb idiots, I can run for it. Forty-eight at the Cornucopia’s suicide. But if it’s just a few…
He was one of the fastest runners in school. Wasn’t nearly big enough to excel at many other sports, but he knew how to run, and he knew how to fight people bigger than him. If he could get in there and get his hands on some kind of weapon and get away, that would mean everything. Because he knew the victors from Two and Four that had been forced into the mentor roles for Twelve this year—they rotated every single year, which spoke loud and clear about how much none of them wanted to get stuck with Twelve—weren’t going to help much. Both of them had given up all four of the Twelve tributes as hopeless. No, the middle-aged Four woman assigned to him wasn’t going to try too hard for him, at least not until she saw if he survived for a while, and maybe not even then because why wouldn’t she want a Four kid to go home instead? Her younger partner from Two, who’d won the 42nd, had no better reason to give a damn either.
To stand out among forty-seven others enough for sponsors, compared to the usual competition of being one of twenty-four, was no mean feat. The other male Twelve tribute, Dylan Wyatt, big and strong and nearly nineteen, had pulled an eight. Haymitch had a seven and he knew with a lower score and being a skinny, short, snarky sixteen-year-old, the sponsors would inevitably go for the tribute that looked almost like a grown man.
No, he was on his own for this. 22…21…. He crouched into a runners’ stance, as much as he could on the small pedestal. If one hand or foot slipped off and touched the ground, he’d be sent home to his ma and Ash and Briar in bits probably collected in something the size of a shoebox. He tried to shake that unnerving thought off but it clung like heavy winter-thick maple syrup in the back of his mind.
It would be a further distance to run to the Cornucopia than most Games, he realized. Forty-eight tributes meant the circle needed to be a lot bigger and further out than before. That would give him more opportunity to get in there and get the hell out before the more lumbering Careers made it. At least, that was the idea.
This is stupid, they’re gonna snap out of it, and I’m gonna run right into a pack of huge, pissed-off Careers with weapons. A trickle of sweat ran down his back beneath the black, long-sleeved shirt that designated him a Twelve tribute, even though the weather was mild and gorgeous. Eyes darting aside again, he saw they were all still dead to the world. Uh-huh, and they’re all gonna be dead to the world for real within about two minutes if they don’t wake up and smell the roses—ha! Looks like they’re busy doing that already, right? Oh, you’re real funny, Haymitch. Yeah, Caesar Flickerman and that audience just loved how funny you were, didn’t they? Maybe they’ll send you a cake if you don’t die in the first five minutes. Seriously? Cake? Just shut up and focus already. Trying to shut down the nervous stream of thought in his head, he eyed the clock again, muscles tensing with the last few seconds. 5…4…3…2…1.
Mind made up, he pushed off from the platform as the clock expired and the starting gong sounded. Thankfully, his awkward position and frayed nerves didn’t throw off his balance and he landed with his feet squarely under him in the soft black-and-grey sneakers—color coordinated with the black shirt and grey tactical vest, how cute—and he ran like hell for the Cornucopia, not pausing to look back to see who else might be headed his way. Every second was going to count.
In some ways she wished she could just totally lose it, go so nuts that she didn’t even realize what was happening. She knew. She just felt powerless to do anything about it, because she couldn’t even get control of herself. Stupid weak little Johanna Mason, crying there on the reaping stage, stammering her way through her interview with a terrified look on her face. The whole nation knew what a coward she was now. Stop crying. You’re pathetic. You’re so pathetic and weak and you look so stupid right now.
She’d fallen out of a tree and broken her arm and carried on at logging camp in spite of it. She’d stood up to bears and wolves out in the woods. She’d gotten more bruises and cuts than she could count roughhousing with the boys. She’d always thought she was tough, acted like she was immortal. But she couldn’t get a grip on herself right now when it counted, when she apparently had found out just how weak and mortal she really was.
That morning she’d managed to get hold of herself enough to dress in her uniform—the dark green shirt for Seven, warm lined grey vest with all sorts of straps and pockets for holding things, dark trousers, green-and-grey shoes. Having managed that herself, angrily shoving away the creepy barely-human-looking preps who had tried to dress her like a helpless little doll, she’d thought just maybe she might be able to get that final push to get her head above the surface for good. She couldn’t climb out, but at least the fear wouldn’t choke her.
She’d realized how stupid that was the moment she’d popped up in the arena and struggled to not just fall to her knees and throw up right there. Standing there, trembling all over, it was the longest minute of her life.
28…you’re gonna die…27…I can’t I can’t…26…forty-seven others in here…25…training score of two what a joke you are…24…embarrassed everyone in Seven by being such a coward…23…you’re gonna die…22…I saw the way Blight looked at me last night he feels sorry for me even he’s given up…21…I wanna go home…20…I mean I’ve never even been kissed…19….you’re gonna die…18…you’re gonna die…17….they’re going to kill you slowly…16….shut up quit sniveling…15….you’re gonna die…14…Heike’s gonna watch you die and maybe they’ll reap her next…13…will it be quick or are they gonna torture me….12…does it matter if they torture you because you’ve already looked as bad as you can…11…you’re gonna die…10…I wanna go home…9…forty-eight of us….8…you should run for the Cornucopia and make it quick…7…it’s gonna hurt…6….you’re gonna die…5…they’ll be laughing at you as they kill you…4….you’re gonna die….3…please I wanna live….2….please…1….PLEASE.
Gasping and choking like she really was drowning, feeling the darkness swallowing her up again, she stumbled off her platform and swayed, almost falling to her knees. Recovering her feet, she raced for the woods, miles distant. Because of all places, for a child of Seven, the woods would be safe.
She didn’t stop until she was well into the shade of the trees, turning her face up into the alternating shadow-and-sunlight filtering through the sheltering canopy of the leaves as she tried to catch her breath. Shinnying up a tall, beautifully perfect oak tree, far into the safe cover of its spreading branches, she waited, watching the ground below. Nobody came. When eighteen cannons rang out, she struggled to not retch. Thirsty and hungry and still fighting her own terror, she didn’t sleep at all that night, because the slightest sound had her startling awake. Four more cannons in the darkness told her that as opposed to most Games, the night was no longer a safe time. It was a Quell. Of course they would be trying to keep it interesting around the clock. Huddling there in the fork of the tree, shivering from both fear and cold, she kept watching into the darkness, waiting for them to come.
For as little as she’d managed to eat or drink the day before the Games, she still had to pee early the next morning. She didn’t want to end up sitting in it so she carefully climbed down to do the job, but she noticed her urine was already looking dark. That plus her cotton-dry mouth made her want to go find water, but her heart pounded with terror at the idea. Hearing a noise nearby, she climbed back up the tree in a hurry, scratching her palms up in the process. Finally after another full day up there without moving, her head pounding and with her swollen tongue feeling like a sawdust-covered board, she knew she was going to die of dehydration. This is the only safe place, the dark monster in her mind told her, if you leave here they’ll kill you.
But if she didn’t get water she’d die anyway, and the agony of dying by thirst made her think a knife to the throat would be better. “Either way I’m gonna die, right,” she muttered, feeling her dry and cracked lips splitting and tasting the hot salt and iron of her own blood as she gave what probably looked like a crazy smile.
Climbing down the tree with her entire body locked tight and stiff from being folded into that position for so long was no easy task, and her muscles were clumsy and weak from lack of food and water besides. It didn’t help she was shaking with terror all over, from the voice in her mind whispering that she was doomed the minute she set foot on the dirt. Ten feet from the ground her fingers slipped and she gave an involuntary cry of alarm as she felt herself falling.
Instinct saved her—she’d fallen from trees before—and she twisted so she took the brunt of it on one hip rather than on her skull. But as she lay there with the wind knocked out of her, now in more pain than she already had been, she saw another pair of sneakers come into her view. These ones were red and grey. Not Six’s bright crimson, but a dark, almost rusty red—Two. Then there were more feet: another, smaller pair of red and one of blue-green and grey—Four. She let out a breathless laugh as the big red sneakers nudged her in the ribs, the boy saying lowly to his friends in a concerned voice, “We’d better do something here to make this one look interesting for the sponsors and keep them engaged. ‘Cause they won’t care about her getting knocked out of contention—this is the crybaby from Seven and she’s already half-dead anyway.” The monster had been right. She’d left that tree and now she was going to die.
He thanked sheer dumb luck that the water canteen in his own backpack had been full and he’d been in such a hurry that he hadn’t gone towards the one stream he’d seen in the distance that afternoon, because it was before the safe cover of the woods. He’d be dead right now if he had stopped for a water break there rather than taking a few small, well-rationed sips of the stale, plastic-tasting water in his canteen. That hadn’t killed him, so obviously it was the water sources in the arena. Glancing around him at the fruit hanging enticingly on the bushes, he shook his head, realizing it was probably all poisoned. The sudden pang of panic at realizing his foraging and hunting skills had just been rendered absolutely useless, that sponsorships alone would decide who got safe water and food, almost brought him down. By the time he survived long enough for a sponsor, he’d probably be in rough shape from dehydration and weakness and wouldn’t keep their attention for long. The deck was totally stacked for the Careers already, with their stockpile of weapons and food and water and ample sponsor attention. As if they didn’t have the Games almost handed to them already every single year, the Gamemakers had to make it even more obvious now?
The crushing despair was replaced by a surge of anger—if they wanted him dead he wasn’t going to cheerfully comply—and he glanced up at the sky almost defiantly. “Try harder,” he muttered to himself. “I’m gonna be smarter than your stupid arena.”
He was careful the second day, not hiking too hard, trying to not end up exerting himself enough to need a lot of his strictly rationed food and water. At least they kept the weather pleasantly mild, though there was no guarantee they wouldn’t suddenly turn it up on a whim and start roasting them all or send in lightning or a blizzard or who knew what else. But still, he made a beeline towards the edge of the arena, and a thick tangle of hedges circled him right back towards the center of the woods just before he stopped again for the night, frustrated and feeling utterly trapped.
Being attacked by a bunch of beautiful, riotously colored butterflies that apparently had venomous bites didn’t help. He spent most of the evening gingerly prodding and dubiously eyeing the ugly dark swellings on his hands and forearms. Rolling up his sleeves in the midday sun was a decision he regretted now because it had just given the little shits something more to bite. Finally he built a fire, careful to keep it small, and reached for the knife, sterilizing it in the flame. He lanced the wounds, trying to not throw up at the rancid smell of the discharge, carefully trying to get every bit of it out that he could. The butterflies were even more of a lesson to trust nothing in this arena because it was out to kill him, no matter how pretty it might seem. Perfect for the Capitol, he thought with a smirk. The dark cynicism of it startled him but he didn’t seem much like a kid anymore. But then, he’d watched eighteen faces in the sky last night and six more tonight, and little twelve-year-old Heather Davies was one of them. He wasn’t sure, but it was likely she’d been in his brother Ash’s class.
In the afternoon of the third day he heard voices as he was skirting the edge of a clearing in the middle of the forest. Ducking behind a tree, his eyes widened as he spied a Two boy, a Two girl, and a Four girl standing there over someone lying in the dirt. He saw long dark hair and a dark green shirt. One of the Seven girls, and she wasn’t dead yet, because there had been no cannons for an hour. She’s still alive, he thought, a sick feeling churning in his stomach. He didn’t want to watch this, but he wasn’t sure he could sneak out of here.
You’re gonna just let them do it? But then he asked himself, what could he do? Even the Four girl was bigger than him, and there were three of them, and all he had was a single knife. Besides, in this arena it had to be everyone looking out for their own survival. If he saved this girl now, chances were he’d have to kill her later or worry about her trying to kill him. If he jumped in there he was going to get killed for no point. She was in a bad way anyway, wasn’t she?
Still. All his justifications, logical as they were, didn’t help. He watched, feeling sicker and sicker yet as the Careers debated in low voices and the girl on the ground gurgled out a choked laugh. Suddenly he felt a searing flash of pain in his left arm and looked down to see a fluffy, cute-looking golden squirrel there with its teeth fastened in his arm, which was still a bit painful from the butterflies. While he’d been distracted by the events in front of him, the bloodthirsty little bastard had crept up on him. Before he could think better of it and stifle himself, he’d let out a howl of pain and rage as he peeled the squirrel off of him by the scruff of its silky-furred neck, feeling the clenched teeth rip his flesh further as he flung it away. The Careers all turned towards him as one.
The dark-haired Four girl let out a laugh, which sounded weirdly relieved to him, like she was happy to see him. Great, she was overjoyed to have someone else to kill. “Looks like a two for one special. Not your lucky day, Twelve.”
Hell with it, he thought, in an instant realizing it was over. He couldn’t outrun them forever, because he hadn’t eaten enough or had much water for the last forty-eight hours, and the barrier of the hedges was still close enough for him to end up cornered. He didn’t give them time to prepare, just drew his knife with his still-steady right hand and charged in, leaping instinctively at Four girl, his attention drawn by her talking.
If he survived all of this, he thought he would never forget the choked grunt she gave as he slammed the knife into her, feeling the resistance as the broad blade scraped bone, stunned green eyes going wide. The moment seared itself into his consciousness and as he yanked the knife loose, he felt her blood spraying out over his fingers, sticky and hot and coppery-smelling and it was just like a deer’s blood, but this wasn’t the same thing, not at all, the deer never looked at him like that as it died with green eyes like that, with the terror and agony of knowing she was dying. Panicking for a moment, he barely ducked the Two boy’s strike, spying it out of the corner of his eye and acting more on instinct than anything.
Trying to keep hold of the knife in blood-slippery fingers, in a matter of seconds he’d managed to duck inside the massive boy’s guard, taking a wound to the arm for his trouble, and cut the boy’s throat, trying to tell himself It’s just like a deer, isn’t it, don’t think, just do it, just do it and as he backed away, blood-soaked, he heard a scream from the remaining Two girl. It was a sound unlike anything he’d ever heard, as if he’d ripped the heart right out of her. She attacked him and with the sheer ferocity of it, and her greater size, knocked him off his feet and the knife flew from his fingers. Yanking his head back by his hair, he heard her panting and sobbing—was she crying?—as she tried to steady the knife at his throat, feeling the pressure and sting of the keen edge. Her own hand was shaking. He knew it would take only the barest stroke to kill him and he just waited for it.
Suddenly, there was another of those startled grunts like when he’d stabbed Four girl, and the knife fell away from his throat as he saw the shadow of the girl standing over him disappear. He heard her hit the ground. Scrambling away, turning to see what had happened, he saw Two girl on the ground with an axe planted squarely in her back. The blood showed almost black against the dark red of her uniform.
Seven girl was on her hands and knees, breathing like she’d run a hard mile, looking up at him with intense brown eyes. Holy shit, he realized. She looked like she could barely stand and she’d thrown that axe perfectly, must have crawled over and picked it up from where the Four girl had dropped it when he killed her. She licked her lips, which he could see were dry and cracked and bleeding even where he sat, a good ten feet away from her, and told him, “You look like shit, Twelve.”
“You’re not sittin’ much prettier, Seven,” he retorted, stupidly feeling his pride stung. Recognizing insulting someone who’d just kept him from getting his throat cut wasn’t the best idea, he managed, “But thanks for saving my hide.”
“Well.” She gave a shuddering deep breath and pushed up to her feet, swaying alarmingly. “You saved mine too, here. If we get past being about three-quarters dead right now, looks like we might live longer together.”
He didn’t remember her from training, to be honest. There were so many kids they all blurred. But obviously she’d been wise enough to not get poisoned, and she’d taken the smart play of running away from the Cornucopia. Just her bad luck everything in the forest brought death—being from Seven she probably had depended on the woods to provide for her too. “You proved that neat enough,” he admitted, pushing up to his own feet, feeling the sting on his neck and knowing the Two girl had cut him there. He resolved to not look over at the bodies. “Allies?” he offered. It couldn’t last forever, but at least for now, having someone to team up with given that solo survival was impossible, seemed like a good idea.
“Yeah,” she confirmed.
Slowly, they started raiding the packs for what valuable supplies they might contain. He tried to not look at the dead kids, tried to shut them out of his mind, tried to pretend they’d just found those backpacks out here in the woods. She moved at a snail’s pace, but she kept going nonetheless. When a silver parachute suddenly floated down into the clearing, a parachute packed full of food and fresh water and bandages and antibiotic ointment, a total sponsorship dream, he knew that allying with her had been the right call.
Johanna wasn’t quite sure how, but somehow the moment she saw that Twelve boy had killed two of them but the third had him and was about to kill him, that had broken through the barrier of her fear. She’ll kill him and then she’ll probably torture you.
It had taken almost every ounce of effort in her heavy, trembling limbs to grab the hatchet the Four girl had dropped, sight on the broad back of the Two girl, and let it fly. The knowledge that if she failed she was going to die gave her a surge of adrenaline that seemed to steady her hand and give it strength. She heard the thwock of the axe striking home and distantly, like it was something she’d seen on television rather than something she’d just done, she thought that it sounded nothing like tossing an axe into a tree. Wood made a sharp, solid sound. This was more like the ripe, squishy, hollow thud of pumpkins they threw axes at during competitions for the Harvest Festival—the pumpkins always got turned into stews and pies and the like. It was too much trouble to get them from Eleven for them to not be used fully. Staring at the girl face down on the grass now, the puddle of blood spreading around her, Johanna shuddered almost convulsively. That was no pumpkin. It was as much the shock of that as the inability to keep upright that made her drop back down to all fours, bracing herself up on her hands as well as her knees as she breathed deeply and tried to not pass out.
Twelve, scrabbling backwards on his ass, stared at her in shock. He was probably around her age, small and wiry, where most Seven boys tended towards strapping and broad. Black curly hair and startled light fog-grey eyes. She wondered if he’d kill her too and narrow down the field. She was in no more shape to resist him than a newborn puppy.
But instead he offered to ally with her, and hurriedly they tried to sort through the Careers’ packs before the hovercraft arrived, or any other tributes. The silver parachute with food and water and medical supplies made her close her eyes in gratitude, thinking, Thank you, towards Blight and Cedrus. She didn’t know who was looking after Twelve boy here. They didn’t have any Twelve-born mentors, but obviously whoever it was, they were on point.
A lot of the Careers’ supplies were useless crap, studied and quickly thrown aside, but there was a bounty of food and clean water and medical supplies that they added to their growing cache. She glanced at the hatchet in Two girl’s back, knowing she ought to retrieve it along with its partner still near Four girl.
“A blowtorch?” Twelve asked dubiously, studying it and turning it over in his hands. “What in hell were they thinkin’ people would do with this?”
“Make for some real fun deaths?” she muttered lowly to him, hoping the cameras wouldn’t hear.
He shot her a wry look but there was a snarky smirk on his lips that told her he appreciated the black humor. “I’ll bring it. Be nice for lighting fires in a hurry.” He lowered his own voice. “Or setting up a barrier fire in a rush if we’ve got to make a quick getaway.”
“I‘m Johanna,” she offered finally, throwing another packet of dried fruit leather onto the pile.
“Haymitch,” he answered, though his accent was thick enough she wasn’t quite sure she’d heard him right. “You able to walk?”
“Yeah.” She’d have to be, or else he’d probably leave her here. That was only fair. He couldn’t be expected to drag her sorry ass across this entire arena. Only one of them was going to make it out alive anyway. She reached for a bottle of water, clutching it in her shaking fingers, and undid the screw top. It was warm and a little stale but it tasted like heaven, and she found herself gulping it down. It hit her cramped, empty stomach and she fought the spasm of nausea, forcing it to stay down.
“Did you just drink that whole thing?” he said, looking up suddenly from sorting through more food, a dark, angry look crossing his features. “Hell!”
“There’s water in the meadow.” She’d been too busy running in terror, but she had the fleeting impression of a large, gorgeous pool with a stream and a small waterfall. “If we’re lucky we can maybe slip in and get so—“
“It’s poison,” he cut her off curtly. Something shifted in his expression and he didn’t quite look at her. “I saw one of the Six boys die after drinking it, first night in here. I figure everything in here is poison. The only safe stuff is from the Cornucopia—‘least, I’m hoping so,” he nodded towards the Careers’ supplies, “or whatever sponsors send in.”
But at least they had a sponsor now, and one who’d been generous at the idea that the Twelve boy and the terrified Seven girl had teamed up and taken out three of the stronger contenders. “Then we’d better be careful with our rations from now on,” she told him softly, wiping her mouth with the back of her hand and feeling guilty that she wanted to drink down another whole bottle of water. “I’m sorry,” she added, feeling a little stupid. “I didn’t know.”
He looked at her, really looked, and there was something almost like concern in his eyes now. “You had anything to eat or drink since the starting gong?”
“That was it,” she said, nodding to the empty water bottle. She wasn’t going to tell him that she’d been too mindless with fear to even think about that for the longest time. If he didn’t remember she was the sniveling, useless little Seven girl, that was all to the good. There was something to be said for a huge field like this—it rendered her more safely anonymous.
Three cannons rang out then. “Time to go before we have more company,” he said, shouldering his pack and getting to his feet, offering her a hand. “Here.” He handed her a packet of dried fruit. “Eat that while we’re on the move. I’d give you the jerky—“
“That’s just going to make me even thirstier,” she said, shaking her head. Already the water had helped a little. She still felt lightheaded and weak, but no longer on the verge of passing out. The black spots on the edge of her vision had receded a bit, and the determination to press on helped a hell of a lot too. If she was going to die, she was going to go down fighting now. The monster had retreated and though she could feel it faintly prowling around in the back of her mind, this time she controlled it rather than the other way around. Following his footsteps, they pressed on into the woods. Eventually she ended up taking point, with her sharper eyes for the forest. She had the feeling he’d been out in the woods a fair bit, but he hadn’t been raised to them like she had. To be honest, it was a relief to feel like she had something to contribute besides whatever gratitude he had that she’d saved his ass back there.
“Where are we heading anyway?” she asked him after telling him how to find west based on the moss patterns. She was slowly sipping another small water bottle, determined to make it last.
“Edge of the arena,” he said, tying his shoelace again, and resettling his pack.
“Careers have the center, they always do,” he said impatiently, as if explaining something patently obvious. When she thought about it, he was right—the Cornucopia and the ideal arena areas almost always belonged to Careers. “I headed for the edge, but there were some pretty thick hedges turning me back to the center. That’s where I found you. But I figure, we get through that—that blowtorch, maybe—might be there’s something we can use.” He shrugged swiftly, took another bite of the jerky. “If nothing else...it’s a good place to lay low a while?”
Let the field thin out a bit more, she understood, and maybe she’d recover a little more of her strength. Not a bad plan, all in all. “I’m game,” she answered, brushing a lock of hair back behind her ear from where it had come loose from her ponytail.
“You good for a while yet?” he asked.
“Stop babying me,” she snapped at him. “I’m still standing, dammit.” Stupid, stupid—he was thinking like this was outside still. She couldn’t look weak, not if they wanted sponsors to keep paying attention. She had plenty of weakness to make up for already, and he wasn’t helping her by treating her like some frail little old auntie he wanted to bundle up in a shawl and bring tea.
“Yeah, well, you drop in a faint, Johanna, I’m not carrying your sorry butt around all day long, so if you’re feeling sick, speak up,” he retorted, slapping a stick of jerky in her hand.
“I’m fine, Haymitch,” she insisted through gritted teeth, taking a bite of the jerky and pushing off from the oak she’d leaned up against, heading again to the west. Chewing the jerky made her mouth water, and the richness of the meat, lean as it was, satisfied a craving in her that the fruit hadn’t. Her other hand she kept warily near the twin hatchets now fastened to her belt, ready for the first sign of trouble. “Make sure you can keep up, miner-boy,” she told him, looking back over her shoulder and giving him a confident, cocky smirk, pushing her trembling, rubbery legs ever onward. See? Just fine. She had some food and water in her now—with that and a good night’s sleep, she was sure she’d be all right. Well, as all right as anyone in this place could be.
“I’ve been sleeping in the trees already,” he said, exasperated and a little annoyed, like she thought he was some kind of inbred idiot who didn’t even know to get the hell out of sight before giving in to the vulnerability of sleep. “Here.” He handed her his backpack. “Put that on you and grab on.” He gestured to his back. He knew she had to be in no shape yet to climb. Maybe after a decent meal and a good night of rest, but right now, she was stumbling along. The starvation and dehydration were showing.
The way she stood there reluctantly for a moment, looking embarrassed, told him that he’d hit her pride pretty hard. Not to mention, he realized with some chagrin, he probably made her look bad to the sponsors too, made her look weak. There can be only one of you left alive in the end, he reminded himself once again. It wouldn’t pay to get too close to this girl. But at the same time, he wasn’t going to be callous enough to just hop merrily to that mindset, not yet.
She slipped his backpack on over her own, and as he stooped a bit, climbed onto his back, wrapping her legs around his waist and her arms around his neck. He’d given piggyback rides to Ash plenty of times, and remembered playing with Briar out in the woods, her jumping on his back, laughing playfully in his ear. She was built more solidly than Briar’s slimness or Ash’s skinny eleven-year-old body, so she was heavier than that, but he wasn’t going to embarrass her more by pointing it out.
By the time he reached a safely hidden limb, his arms were trembling to the point he was worried about falling or dropping her, but he pushed on. Binding themselves to the tree with cord from his backpack, they sat and ate some of the dry rations from the sponsors’ bounty, though he noticed they carefully avoided the stuff that would just make them thirstier.
She pulled out a dark grey sack that had been in the sponsor parachute, undoing the cord and pulling out a thick, plush sleeping bag. “Wow, that’s nice,” she said with relief, reaching out to him on the next limb around the trunk so he could feel through the nylon lining that it was probably stuffed with down feathers or the like. “It’s been cold as hell up in these trees.”
“I know,” he answered, remembering huddling up the past nights, shivering, trying to stay warm.
She kept digging, and her eyebrows shot up abruptly. “Uh…they only sent one.” Her face was a study in embarrassment.
“You take it,” he said quickly. She needed it more tonight anyway.
“Don’t be stupid,” she snapped back, fingers clutching the dark material. “It’s big enough for us both. You’d really rather sit there and shiver? Afraid I’m going to try to jump you? Here?” She flung a hand out, indicating the arena and its ever-present cameras.
Flustered and a bit pissed off, he leaned in closer and hissed, “Shut up, OK, I’ve got a girlfriend.” He tried to think of Briar watching him sleeping in the same bag as another girl, and how she’d feel, and he was chagrined at how distant she seemed to him right now.
Johanna leaned closer and said, tone equally fierce, “Then she’s gonna be happy you didn’t freeze your sorry butt to death trying to be some kind of stupid gentleman to a tribute from another district, isn’t she?”
When she put it that way, he could hardly argue. He looked at his hands, at the sticky dark lines of blood caked into the creases and around the nail beds. They couldn’t spare more than just a tiny splash of water for him to scrub the worst of it off. He’d tried to not think about eating with bloody hands. He’d tried to not think about the fact that now he was a killer, that he’d taken two lives with these same hands that afternoon. Briar, he thought, what do you think about that? Next to having killed two other kids, sleeping chastely with another girl for warmth seemed like a little sin.
But as he settled into the sleeping bag next to Johanna, tying it in place on the branch, it rankled just the same, because it felt like he was being forced to give away another piece of himself to stay alive in here, and he knew the Capitol was probably enjoying this just as much as the deaths. He tried to keep as far away from her as the tree limb would allow and to give her that privacy, but it really wasn't much and they still were more or less pressed against each other. “Do you have anyone back home?” he ventured finally.
“What?” Her breath was warm and humid against his neck. Then she understood. “No,” she said flatly. Her tone didn’t invite any further questions on that. “No boyfriend.”
“Why do you care?”
“Well, it’s either that or we lay here and we each pretend the other doesn’t exist and we make this real awkward, don’t we,” he snapped, “so I figured a bit of talking might not go wrong.”
“You’re a real winner, Haymitch Abernathy.”
“You’re a real piece of work yourself, Johanna Mason.”
She huffed out a short, angry breath and said, “One older brother. Bern. He’s twenty-two. One younger sister, Heike, she’s fourteen. My mom and dad are both still alive. No grandparents left. You?”
“My daddy died when I was real young.” Good riddance. Haymitch was too young to remember, but by all accounts he’d been a worthless, violent drunk jackass. “My ma, she’s alive, and I’ve got one younger brother, Ash. Eleven.” He wasn’t going to get into the fact that everyone in the Seam knew Blair Abernathy hadn’t fathered Ash, unless his ma had somehow been pregnant for about two years.
“Shit. Not reaping age yet,” she murmured sympathetically.
“Yeah.” If he died in here, the terror started all over again next year for his ma, with Ash facing all seven years of reaping. “At least your brother’s out of it, and your sister will be soon.”
The faces played in the sky. In addition to the Two girl, Two boy, and Four girl they had killed, they’d heard another two cannons that day. Johanna let out a soft, distressed whimper to see the face of a dark-haired, dark-eyed Seven boy, just a little kid. “That’s Buck. His parents were on the same lumbering crew as mine.”
“Were you close?” Thoughtlessly, he reached out, hand mindlessly rubbing her arm in an attempt to soothe her just a little. It was nothing about sex at all, but when she froze like a startled animal, he realized what he’d done. He jerked away like he’d been burned, face suddenly on fire with embarrassment.
“No,” she said, voice a little unsteady suddenly, and he didn’t know if it was her district partner’s death or the touch. “No, we weren’t. He was only, what, twelve or thirteen…”
“Sorry,” he told her. Such a waste of a little kid’s life, he thought, looking up as they beamed the picture of an Eleven girl to finish it out. He thought about it and realized Dylan, and Maysilee the merchie girl, were still out there somewhere.
He finally fell asleep, lulled into it by his own exhaustion and strangely comforted by the warmth and nearness of another human presence. He wasn’t alone in here anymore.
He kept up pretty gamely, though, which was more than she’d have expected from Twelve. She’d always gotten the impression their tributes were skinny and weak and easily exhausted. He wasn’t big, especially not compared to the boys back home, but there was a lean strength to him, and a sense of constant energy and awareness that told her he wasn’t just going to lay on down and die easy.
The distant mountain exploded that afternoon, filling the sky with gritty ash, blocking out the perfect blue with fluffy white clouds and turning it the colors of fire—crimson, gold, orange. They climbed a tree to watch as the lava poured forth, glowing brightly, oozing down the mountainside, eerily beautiful for all its destructive power.
“How many?” she asked him, turning to look back over her shoulder at him, seeing him shading his eyes against the sun with one hand, a kerchief tied over his nose and mouth against inhaling the ash in the air, just as she had.
He looked back at her, grey eyes solemn and even grim. He shook his head. “Enough to make it a show, I’d guess,” he said.
Ten cannons soon provided the answer. Johanna wondered if there had even been anything in the way of bodies to retrieve from the lava, and a rough, almost convulsive shudder worked its way down her back at the thought.
When the nightly anthem played and they displayed the dead kids from that day, the butcher’s bill hit the Careers particularly hard: two from One, one from Two, one from Four. “That’s only, what, one girl from One, one boy from Two…and Four’s got one boy left also.”
“Career pack must have been chasing a bunch of people along the mountain.” She looked up again and let out a small cry of dismay.
Annike Douglas’ face shone among the stars. “You know her more than you did that boy from the other night?” he asked.
“My class at school,” she said unsteadily, “but we were together only in the winter. But…I knew her enough.” Still, it hurt. She realized she was the only Seven tribute left now, thought of the families that would be left mourning back in the winter town, pulled away from their crews to come and receive a coffin.
Twelve's symbol came along and they showed first a blond fair-skinned girl and then the heavy-boned, handsome face of an older boy who was as dark as Haymitch. “Maysilee Donner. Dylan Wyatt,” Haymitch said, smacking the bark of the tree with an open palm, a look of thinly veiled anger on his face. He looked over at her, determination and fatigue at war on his features. “Looks like you and me are it for Seven and Twelve.”
“Looks like,” she answered. As they settled down in the sleeping bag again, she wasn’t sure whether it would be worse to have Haymitch be the last opponent and have to kill him herself, or watch his face up there in the sky. But that was a question she didn’t have to answer that night.
For the next few days they made their way through the arena with care, rationing food and water carefully because there were no more sponsor gifts unless they did something more interesting than swap stories and endlessly hike around the arena.
Johanna started to grow used to the ugly, sticky feeling of the blood caked on her hands and in her hair for lack of the chance to bathe. Finally they came upon an older Eight girl in company with a Nine boy and would have let them go on their way for now. But when the girl charged at them with a knife, green-gold eyes bright with determination—that decided it.
Back to back, fighting together as a team, they made short work of the other two. They had almost nothing on them worth keeping, although Johanna snagged the sewing kit from the Eight girl’s pack, seeing a huge bleeding cut on Haymitch’s forearm. Given how poisonous everything was in this arena, she wondered if the girl’s knife had something on the blade.
“I can’t sew,” he admitted that night, avoiding her eyes with more than a hint of embarrassment in his expression.
“You think ‘cause I’m a girl of course I can?” She sighed. “Hold out your arm.” He bore it stoically, and she knew her stitches were a bit crude, even though she knew the needle passing through his flesh had to hurt like hell. She made sure to burn it in a flame before using it, just in case.
The parachute dropped right beside their small fire after the anthem. Both of them pounced on it immediately, tearing into the provisions. “Candy,” she said with a gasp of surprise, holding up a packet of chocolate. She'd tasted chocolate only twice in her life before the Capitol, as an exciting New Year's treat. Something as little as that almost brought tears to her eyes, which was stupid, and she didn’t know why.
“Blueberry,” he sighed happily, picking up a packet of hard candy with half-closed eyes like he was in rapture. “I love blueberries, they’re my favorite.”
The most lifesaving thing was a dozen bottles of water, of course, but the sight of the treats was almost unbearably wonderful. A little giddy, they spoiled themselves with a few goodies before they packed it all up, doused the fire, and headed up into the safety of the trees.
Lying there warm in the sleeping bag with him, suddenly the sensation of contentment shattered and she felt a little sick, the chocolate sitting heavily on her stomach like she’d throw it up. Two more deaths today and look at all they’d suddenly gotten for it. Obviously the sponsors were well pleased with them. She hadn’t thought about it with the first parachute after the three Careers, desperate and unsettled as they’d both been, but it hit hard now. “We killed two kids and they sent us candy. And I was grateful,” she whispered into the hollow of his shoulder, shuddering.
“I know,” he said, and his voice wavered, cracked a little in a way that she doubted had anything at all to do with hormones. “I know. I was too.”
She lay there, certain that he shared her sensation of suddenly feeling shameful and disgusting in a way that would never wash out, even if they’d somehow sent them a shower with all the rest of it. So when she pressed closer to him, it wasn’t for warmth, but for the comfort of someone who understood what that sudden swell of terrified self-hatred was like.
So the next morning the two of them stopped fucking around with just wandering, and he pulled out the blowtorch from his backpack. “Let’s see what’s past that hedge.”
It took the greater part of the day. Two more cannons sounded in the distance. But between the blowtorch and some judicious blows of Johanna’s axes, knowing where to best strike to cleave the wood with minimum effort, finally they burned and hacked their way through the tight, torturous hedge.
All they found was a cliff, bleak grey stone giving way to the sudden drop-off. He peered down into the emptiness, couldn’t even see the bottom. For a wild moment he considered just stepping off, telling the Capitol they couldn’t kill him on their terms. But he thought of his ma, and Ash…and the guilty, gut-twisting thought of Briar. No, he couldn’t just give up.
“Well, hey, this was a fun hike,” Johanna said, hands on her knees, looking over the cliff herself. “Your idea didn’t work, Haymitch. There’s absolutely nothing here at all.” She brushed her hair back from her face. As she moved back from the edge, she kicked at a rock, sending it flying into the abyss.
He shrugged, sighing. “Guess there’s nothing for it, then.” The disappointment was acute, though. He’d been so convinced that somehow, he’d find something there. He was just turning when he saw a rock come flying back out of the canyon, heading right for Johanna’s knees. Wide-eyed, he dove for her and tackled her to the ground.
She fought back against him, a look of rage and betrayal on her face as she yelled, “So this is how it’s gonna go, huh?”
“Idiot!” he snapped, pushing back from her and holding his hands out so she could see he didn’t have his knife drawn. “That stupid rock you kicked was gonna take you right at the knees, OK?” He gestured to where it had landed, leaned down, picked it up, and flung it into the canyon. It flipped back to his hand a few seconds later as she watched. “It must be a forcefield around the arena.”
Her green-tinged brown eyes narrowed above those wide cheekbones. “Fine. Sorry. So now you’ve got a nice toy. And what do you intend to do with it?”
“Don’t know,” he had to admit, feeling the depressing weight of being let down as his elation at having figured it out faded fast. It was a nifty trick, but he really didn’t see anything he could do with it right at the moment. Maybe if he got an opponent out here he could make use of it, if he could duck their weapon fast enough, but what were the odds of that? Shouldering his pack again, he sighed in quiet frustration and said, “All right, let’s get out of here.”
She gave him a quietly gruff, “Thanks,” as they passed back through the hedge barrier. It was only then he realized he probably could have just stood aside and let the rock injure her, maybe hurt her knee badly enough for him to take advantage and take out one more opponent that way. The thought hadn’t even crossed his mind until that moment. How the hell am I ever gonna kill her? he thought, shaking his head. That question would come up far too soon since it was down to them, the three Careers, and one Nine girl.
Then after the next day, it was just them and the Careers. Two kids from some of the most hopeless districts in Panem against three highly-trained Careers. Well, it had happened once before in that clearing and he and Johanna had been the ones to walk away. He just didn’t know if lightning striking twice was even possible.
The recap show the previous night must have been boring as anything. So Johanna knew that soon enough the Gamemakers would do something to liven it up. Release some new mutt, or somehow try to force a confrontation between their two alliances. She found herself wishing the others would get found by a mutt or turn on each other or something before that happened, and then felt nauseated with herself for thinking it. But the fact was that she wanted to live, and the flame of that in her chest burned ever hotter the further away she stepped from that panicked girl who couldn’t get a grip.
A high scream sounded through the woods, and immediately Haymitch had his knives in hand, having gained another weapon from the sponsors, and she clutched her hatchets, fingers curled tightly around their leather-wrapped hilts. She glanced at him, wondering what they should do. If it was a mutt or the Career pack finally breaking apart, did they really want to stumble right into the middle of it?
Still, standing there listening as she heard another cry that sounded half like a sob of terror, she felt that sickness in her stomach and her soul. If she stood by, if she let them do this to her and turn her into that kind of thing who just listened to somebody die, maybe she really didn’t deserve to live. Looking over at Haymitch, she saw the grim resolve on his face, and he nodded to her. He hadn’t just let her die, after all, so he must be thinking the same thing. “Let’s go.” With that he took off in the direction of the sounds.
Someone was down on the ground, and she couldn’t even see their shirt color because they were mostly buried beneath a pile of sandy blond fur. One of the mutts turned and looked at them, and the effect of the huge sweet yellow-green eyes and adorable long whiskers of the cat were suddenly spoiled as it hissed, unfolding a set of blood-streaked dagger-like fangs, more like a snake’s than anything belonging to a cat.
Haymitch silenced it with a knife thrown right into its guts. By the time they chased the pack of them off, they’d found out the things also had razor-sharp claws in those cute little paws, and they liked trying to climb clothing and go for the throat. Bloody, badly scratched and panting, they turned to see who’d had less luck with the mutts than them.
It was the Four boy. Only a few bits of his uniform showed the original blue-green. They’d completely shredded his vest, and she saw some blood-streaked grey that she thought might actually be his guts bulging out from a wound in his abdomen.
Dropping to her knees beside him in the grass, she didn’t even know if that particular shade of reddish hair was natural or if it was blood-streaked. He looked deathly pale beneath his naturally brown skin. He opened his eyes—eye—and looked at the two of them leaning over him.
“I’m beyond help,” he said matter-of-factly in an accent reminiscent of Haymitch’s thick twang, but more of a drawl, like the roll of a slow-moving river rather than a brook tripping quickly over stones. But the look of fright in his remaining green eye told Johanna how terrified he was in a way he was trying to hide from his words.
“Anything we can do?” Haymitch asked, eyes scanning over the older boy again, and his gaze met Johanna’s, troubled.
“No. Don’t waste your water or anything.” He gave a wheezing cough. “You’ll need it. Ain’t cause for you to be stupid this close to the end. Might as well take my pack too.”
“Your name?” Johanna asked him. It seemed important to her suddenly. She didn’t know the names of the other three Careers, the ones back in the clearing, including one of this boy’s district partners. She would find those out, if she lived. But right now this wasn’t a Career trying to kill her, spoiled and raised rich and specially trained and Capitol-favored. This was just a boy in pain, scared as he was dying.
“Bream Shaunessay. If either of you make it…on your Victory Tour…”
“We’ll talk to your kin, tell ‘em you love ‘em,” Haymitch promised him, gently putting a hand on Bream’s shoulder. “I swear.”
“Thanks.” After having mustered that much effort, Bream now lay back with the limp exhaustion of clearly having no more energy left. But Johanna saw that his chest still lightly rose and fell, the air gurgling through the blood. She didn’t know how long it would take him to die, but it wouldn’t be nearly fast enough. Maybe they should have left and cleared out once it was obvious there was no hope, rather than risk One girl and Two boy finding them there, but she knew she couldn’t leave this boy to die alone, especially when his eyes were still open and it was clear he was conscious and feeling these last moments of pain and the knowledge of his own death.
She heard the rasp of steel and saw Haymitch had drawn his knife, looking down at Bream with a look of pity on his face. She immediately understood what he was thinking. End it and give a dying boy a bit of mercy. But he stood there, caught in indecision for a moment, because to kill in self-defense was bad enough, but to deliberately take the life of someone unarmed and defenseless, even as a mercy, was another thing entirely. It felt like one more terrifying step on a path where taking a life became too easy and thoughtless. She thought perhaps he was afraid of turning into more of a killer than he already was, and she found she couldn’t make him take on that burden alone.
So she stepped forward and touched the back of his hand lightly, feeling the tension in his clenched fingers around the hilt of the knife. “Together,” she suggested softly.
He looked up at her. For just a second there was a flicker of unspeakable gratitude in his eyes. “Together,” he agreed.
It took only one carefully placed thrust of the knife, right in Bream’s heart, both of them clutching the hilt tightly. Another death marked now as Bream finally went still and the cannon sounded, and she thought now more than ever that she’d never forget the sight of fresh blood against green grass. She reached up and closed Bream’s eyes with a shaking hand, but she reached for his pack all the same. After all, he’d said to take it.
As the hovercraft left, she saw that Haymitch touched the middle three fingers of his hand to his lips.
“What’s that?” she asked him.
He looked at her, that look of furtive embarrassment coming over his features again. “We do that at funerals,” he said, jamming his hands in his pockets, shoulders hunching forward. “It’s…just a goodbye. He died brave, you’ve gotta give him that.”
“Don’t have to explain to me,” she told him quietly. It may have been done in the name of decency and mercy, but to deliberately take the life of someone unarmed and defenseless still felt a little bit like one more uncomfortable step on the road to darkness. She didn't know exactly what she was becoming in this place, but it scared her.
So after hurrying away, knowing they’d probably stayed too long already, they didn’t stop for a few hours before they silently divvied up the contents of Bream’s pack. Haymitch added the machete to his supplies. Then it was back on the move again, with no destination known at all.
As they stopped that afternoon to gnaw on some dried fruit and jerky, a sponsor gift drifted down. Cookies, still warm and spread thick with pastel frosting, shaped like a fish. “I don’t know if this is some kind of thanks for being decent,” Haymitch said lowly, huddled close to her and staring at them with his brows furrowed like they’d sent rat poison instead, “or the Capitol’s idea of a cute gesture.”
“I don’t know,” she said wearily, not understanding him and too weary to care just then. “Just eat ‘em.” They might not be starving, but she’d felt the flesh melting off her bones, and knew what padding she’d had was probably gone by this point. Neither of them had the luxury of refusing that kind of bounty of calories, even if the intended message behind them might or might not be fucked up.
“One of the two Twelve mentors for this year, my mentor, she’s from Four,” he blurted suddenly, looking up at her in astonishment. “I…what was her name...Maeda. The other’s from Two, Scipio, he won a few years back. They’re on loan from their districts, guess they got roped into it, since we’ve got no living victors back in Twelve. But I figured neither of them was gonna do a damn thing for me or any other Twelve tribute. They didn’t seem to have much to say beforehand, you know? I kind of figured they resented us. But some of the stuff’s come from them already, hasn’t it…can’t have all come from your mentors…”
“So let’s assume Maeda and maybe Scipio and Blight and Cedrus decided to give us a pat on the back, and eat your damn cookies already.”
At that point, she just about dropped her fish cookie in the grass as the announcement system boomed to life with a flourishing brassy fanfare of trumpets. The somewhat unctuous voice of Claudius Templesmith piped up loud enough to be heard across the entire arena. “Hello to our final four! This is indeed a very special occasion for a very special Games, because our beloved President Snow has asked to address you directly!”
This never happens, she thought in something like a panic. Snow never said anything during the Games, not even on television, and certainly he didn’t directly address the tributes. That was always left to Claudius, or sometimes Caesar Flickerman. After greeting the tributes at the end of the Tribute Parade every year, Snow always stayed aloof and apart from the rest of the Games until the time came to crown a victor. She didn’t know what this meant, but she wasn’t sure it could be good, because this meant something big, something momentous, and at this stage of things there was enough uncertainty and fear without springing some kind of surprise on them.
Suddenly there came the sound of the grave, dignified voice of President Coriolanus Snow. “Tributes of the 50th Hunger Games! You’ve covered yourselves with glory, demonstrating your bravery, your skill, and your intelligence to the eyes of a grateful nation. You’ve done great credit to your districts.” If this was home she’d be snorting derisively inside her head, and probably verbally later to her friends, but as was, she felt like she was a mouse paralyzed before a hawk, unable to do anything but listen to someone she knew full well held her life at his whim. What was he planning? “In these very special Games, the monumental occasion of a Quarter Quell, we are reminded most deeply of the Dark Days. But the Capitol is also compassionate. And I’ve decided that in the spirit of moving beyond our painful past, given that twice as many tributes were reaped for these Games, there can be two victors this year to help balance the scales in the interest of merciful justice. Good luck to our final four. May the odds be ever in your favor.”
She stared into the distance for a minute, taking it all in. Then, taking just a moment to jam the rest of her cookie in her mouth so it wasn’t wasted, she lunged for Haymitch, wrapping her arms around his neck, wanting to laugh and cry all at once. Swallowing it, giving a quick hiccup that might have been half a sob, she whispered, “We can both get through this, we can both survive, don’t you see?”
He hugged her fiercely in return, and she was surprised to really feel the remarkable strength in that wiry body. It was only later that he asked dubiously, muttering half to himself as he walked alongside her, “But what’s the catch?”
Then she glanced around them nervously and said, with her voice still barely above a whisper, “Look, we’d better cut it out with the hush-hush stuff or they’re going to really wonder what we’re talking about here.”
She was right on that. Whenever tributes talked too low for the cameras, Caesar and Claudius always speculated. He supposed maybe they could get better microphones that could pick up anything, even a whisper, but in some ways he thought the Capitol people thought a little mystery was even more delightful. “Nothing fun here, we’re just talking about our favorite kinds of food,” he drawled loudly, looking around him with a bit of a smirk.
“Shh,” Johanna said, giving a bit of a nervous snicker, elbowing him in the ribs lightly even as she laughed. “Shh, c’mon. Quit it with the whispering. People are gonna say we’re in love or something.”
That sobered him like a slap in the face. Thinking of Briar, trying to draw that ever-more distant picture of her back to him and cling to it fiercely, his snarky attempts at humor dried up instantly. “OK,” he said, grimly determined to get down to business.
As he turned, the look on her face tugged at him but he didn’t want to sit and think about it too long. There were two other tributes out there and sooner or later they’d have to confront them. The Gamemakers would assure it. It was better to try and make that stand happen on their terms, he thought.
Hurried footsteps caught up to him, and her face was hard, focused. She asked, “Where do we want to try to make this happen?”
“Get them away from the meadow. That’s their turf, they’ve been there so long.” Confronting two bigger, stronger tributes right out in the open, near their weapons stock, wasn’t the best idea. “You and me, we’re better here in the forest. We stay in here.”
Somehow he wasn’t surprised when they saw a flash of One gold through the trees a few hours later, and then Two red. Whether it was chance or Gamemaker assistance, this was the end. Just for a moment he reached for her hand, gripping her fingers tightly in his. “I hope at least one of us makes it back,” she said.
“Either of us doesn’t, we do it for each other on the Victory Tour like we promised Bream?” She nodded. It was cold comfort to imagine this Seven girl trying to console his ma and Ash, but at least she would be someone who’d cared and been with him until the end.
Then he let go of her hand and went for his knife instead, knowing the two Careers had spotted them and were coming on fast. They still stumbled through the woods some, he noticed, compared to the swift sure footing he and Johanna enjoyed. He intended to use that.
The One girl had a wicked-looking axe and the Two boy a large sword. “Oh fuck me,” he muttered, finally recognizing them. Of the field of forty-eight, these two had gotten a good bit of attention from the Capitol. “It’s the legacies.” Each had a victor as a parent. Every single time a legacy entered the arena the Capitol went nuts. Having two in it this year just made the whole Quell all the more special, didn’t it? Somehow he shouldn’t have been surprised that these two were the last ones standing, but it took him aback just the same. There had never been a legacy victor. So maybe they had even more to prove.
“We ought to use the trees,” Johanna said, her voice suddenly a bit unsteady.
Compared to how he’d just said to hell with it before and launched himself at the three Careers, this time he tried to play it smarter, use the surroundings. So instead he backed away and Two boy came after him, charging with all the size and massively muscled strength of one of Ten’s bulls that the Capitol sometimes showed on television for a bullfighting spectacle. Apparently killing kids once a year was enough and animals sated them the rest of the time.
It became a running fight. Two was as fast as he was, but Haymitch used his smaller size and sheer agility to weave his way between the trees, doubling back on his own trail and leaving the other boy crashing after him, cursing. Two was in splendid condition, no doubt, and he wasn’t going to get tired quickly, but taking opportunities to slash at an arm, a leg, or the like from the protection of a solid tree trunk or inside his guard or before the other boy could turn around, it would mount up as a toll of blood loss and injury.
Nasty way to fight, more like the pesky jabs of a mosquito, but at this point it was smart. Keeping the fight in tight quarters with obstacles and constantly moving, taking away Two’s ability to just plant his feet and swing that sword in a head-lopping arc— that was the way to win this. He knew it with all his instincts.
It was working too. “Stand still, you little fucker,” Two grunted in frustration, having swung his sword and stuck it into a tree trunk.
Haymitch started to get a little too confident. Because when he closed in again, he found out he’d forgotten in his giddy adrenaline rush of I’m gonna go home I’m gonna live that Two kids trained for years to be far more than just dumb sword-swinging brutes. He barely felt the slash at first and then it was just a bright, hot sensation in his guts, but the pain followed a moment later, and he saw Two had abandoned the sword for a knife himself.
Trying to keep it together, one hand sliding down to press the wound and stop the bleeding—and fuck was that greasy, ropy sensation actually his guts poking out, just like Bream—he realized he couldn’t run and hide anymore. Two closed in, something like relief on his pale, strained face.
Down to one knife, he waited, nerves frayed almost beyond bearing with pain and fear and the instincts within him shrieking that the other boy was getting too close and he was going to die. His other hand pressed to his stomach, trying to make sure those guts stayed in. Just one more moment, before Two was too close to dodge.
His hand was surprisingly steady and strong with all his might focused on this last-ditch effort as he threw the knife right into the throat of the Two boy. The look on his face as he fell and the gurgles and rattles of a kid choking on his own blood barely a foot away were going to stay with Haymitch forever, assuming he didn’t die of shock before Johanna’s own fight finished—whatever way it finished.
Round and round they went, weapons clashing and catching each other’s blades. Johanna got a lucky chop in, a split-second quicker, and felt the resistance of steel cutting through bone, too much like chopping through tough green twigs. Suddenly that was it for three of One’s fingers from her right hand, and she couldn’t hold that axe any longer.
Johanna paid for it, though, when One pushed through the pain and caught her a little struck dumb by the sight of axe and fingers both lying there in the grass. At the last moment she dodged just enough that the blow didn’t catch her right in the neck. Instead it sliced levelly into the joint of her left shoulder, and she gasped aloud at the pain and heard the snap of bone as her arm went dead.
Just then, a cannon boomed, echoing through the arena and she heard the squawking as it upset some of the birds nearby. Whether it was panic and potential grief for Haymitch, fear that the Two boy would come for her now if he was the one left standing, realization that her arm was useless and she was done for if the fight lasted, or just the sheer aggravated rage of an animal in pain lashing out at an attacker, she struck back with an answering blow, and another, and another, one last spike of adrenaline fueling her.
She stopped only when she heard the cannon and realized the other girl’s head was hanging by a thin strip of flesh. Oh fuck, I did that, she thought with revulsion and horror. Dropping the axe, she stifled a retch. She glanced down. Her arm was still there, she’d been half-afraid it was actually lopped off, but the bleeding was steady, pulsing out with every beat of her heart. Clapping a hand over the wound, biting back a groan of pain, she tried to put some pressure on it.
Her gaze was blurring a little already as she saw a figure coming towards her, steps unsteady and painful. Black, not red, and she let out a soft sob of relief at that. He caught up to her and she looked at him, the pain glazing his grey eyes, and he told her roughly, “C’mon, we did it. All we’ve gotta do is stay alive.” Clinging to each other to stay upright, staying alive sounded like the hardest thing in the world. She didn’t much remember what either of them said to each other right then, but keeping talking and focused rather than slipping into the greyness starting to appear around the edges of her vision seemed to help.
Even more than Claudius’ announcement of them as the two victors of the 50th Hunger Games, the hum of the hovercraft as it lowered down over them sounded like the sweetest thing she’d ever heard in her life.