Chapter 1: Twenty-Four
The gong sounds and I’m off the launchpad before the echo fades away. I snatch up a knife in a sheath and that’s all I have time for before the bloodbath begins. The boy from District Two grabs a scythe and slices the nearest person open, laughing as a fourteen-year-old girl tries to hold her intestines in with her hands. My heart’s pounding, the sunlight’s blinding and I can hear people screaming, laughing, bones cracking and muscles tearing. I’m splashed with something, I think it might be brain matter, and if I don’t get my ass out of here I’m going to be meat. I yank the knife from the sheath just as a scrawny beanstalk of a guy tries to gut a twelve-year-old boy with a spear. I stab the beanstalk in the back, under the ribs and into the heart, like Talia taught me. She didn’t tell me how the blood would feel on my hands, hot and wet, but it’s too late to get squeamish. The kid I just saved bolts away, carrying a scrap of plastic for his trouble.
I planned to grab food, supplies, more weapons, but there’s too many enemies in the way. I see something nearby and grab it because I can. It’s a backpack. Something rattles inside when I sling it over my shoulder.
I whip around at the sound of my name and see Zoanne, the other tribute from District Eight, stretching out her hand to me. She’s impaled on a sword, blood trickling from the side of her mouth. “I’m sorry,” I say. The girl who killed her yanks the sword out and Zoanne collapses, dead. My stomach twists, but I can’t afford guilt. I never promised her anything.
The boy from District Two heads right for me. He wipes his sleeve on his face and it leaves a bloody smile that looks grotesquely like a clown’s makeup. His scythe will slice me open before I get close enough to use my knife and I don’t want to throw my only weapon. I back up and stumble over someone’s body. I reach out to regain my balance and my hand hits a stack of food. I grab a can and throw it at his face. He ducks, but it gives me the moment I need to turn and run. Something whistles past my ear - a knife? Another can? I don’t know and I don’t care. It missed me, so I keep running. I run until I’m breathless and aching, my sides splitting, expecting every moment to get a knife or an arrow in the back. I can’t turn to look; it’ll only slow me down. I run until the noise of the battle fades and I’m sure the only footsteps are my own. Then I walk and keep walking until I find water.
We’re in a desert, a gorgeous, deadly red desert. The terrain rises and falls in low, rocky slopes which form into full-fledged hills in a few places. I don’t know where to go, so I keep moving forward. After a bit, I see a few spiky trees gathered in one spot and head for it. There’s a stream running through them and a tiny waterfall pouring over polished rocks. I stick my hands under it and watch the clear water turn dark and cloudy as I scrub the blood from my hands and knife. The water’s fast and cold and soon runs clear again. It leaves my hands clean, bare and pale against the red of the stones.
Most of the screentime will be focused on the bloodbath right now, but they’ll cut to me now and again to show I’m still alive. I splash cool water on my face and check the backpack. I spot the canteen first and dig in the pockets until I find a little bottle of iodine. I fill the canteen, treat the water and look through the rest of my supplies. There’s some dried meat and a few packets of nuts, a first-aid kit, an extra pair of socks and a roll of wire.
The cannon fires repeatedly, eight solid booms shaking the arena. Eight dead. The survivors will be moving out from the Cornucopia, dispersing into the arena. All except the lucky few, the kings on the mountain, who will take control of the bulk of the supplies and remain well-fed while the rest of us starve. Happy Hunger Games.
I recognize one of the plants growing at the edge of the stream. I gather its roots and stuff them into the backpack. They don’t look very tasty, but I’ll be hungry soon enough. Besides, it’s good to show the sponsors that I remember how to identify the plants I learned about in training. I take off my boots and walk upstream for a bit in my bare feet. I don’t suppose it’ll fool anyone who’s really good at tracking, but maybe they won’t be the ones following me.
I lift my chin, looking forward, not smirking, not over-confident. Solid. Tough. Smart. I’ve shown them I can kill and that’ll get me points, but they need to know I can survive. No sponsor wants to throw money at a kid that’ll poison himself in the first forty-eight hours.
I stuff my jacket in the backpack. The Gamemakers gave us thin mesh shirts and now I can see why. The sun’s beating down on me. There’s a light wind, but it’s so dry that it sucks the sweat from my skin without cooling me down. The water feels wonderful around my ankles, but I’m going to bruise my feet if I keep walking on rocks. I leave the stream and put my boots back on. As I’m tying my laces, a silver parachute drifts down. I have a sponsor! I resist pumping my fist in triumph, since Panem’s certainly watching me The parachute’s attached to a small tin of cream. I twist open the lid and sniff, but that gives me no idea of its purpose. Rubbing some on my arm doesn’t do anything. I even touch my tongue to it, but it tastes horrible and is probably not for eating. I give up and tuck it into my backpack. Maybe it’s in preparation for something I’ll encounter later.
The sun’s going down and there’s a chill rising in the air, so I start looking for a place to spend the night. The landscape's pretty bare. I decide to climb a rock and hope having a high vantage point will balance out the lack of cover. We're low on big rocks in my part of District Eight, but we've got plenty of crumbling buildings to scale. I pick one about twice my height, climb up and try to get my bearings. I see mostly red rocks and dirt, same as on the ground. There's some scattered greenery and a few dark shapes I can't identify. None of them are close enough to explore before dark.
I choke down some of the fern roots for dinner. My skin's hot, tight and sore and I realize I'm sunburnt. I wonder if the mystery lotion is to treat that, but I lift my arm in the setting sun and see a pale patch where I'd rubbed the stuff on earlier. Sun cream, then. I feel foolish for not realizing it earlier and hope the sponsors don't notice how dumb I was. I'll have protection tomorrow, at least.
I put on my jacket and lay down, using the backpack as a lumpy pillow. The sky darkens, the anthem plays and the Capitol seal is projected on a screen above the arena. All the tributes from One and Two have survived. The girl from Three is dead and the girl from Four. The girl from Five is the fourteen-year-old girl that I watched the boy from Two slice open. The girl from Six is dead. And there's Zoanne. I feel a pang in my chest at the sight of her face in the sky. I didn't know her well, but she was a familiar face from school and the factory. I also feel a wave of relief that I won't be forced to kill someone from home.
The next face is the boy from Ten, the tall, scrawny guy I'd killed myself.
The screen shows both the boy and the girl from Eleven and then the Capitol seal reappears. Eight dead. Sixteen of us remaining. I let out a long breath, close my eyes and try to get some sleep.
I wake up in the middle of the night, shivering with cold. The wind's risen in the night and it blows right through my jacket. I curl up on my side, trying to shelter myself from the gusts, and I spot a light out of the corner of my eye. I freeze, hoping I haven't been spotted. I turn my head slowly to get a better look.
It's a campfire. Someone's lit a campfire in the middle of the night and it's either an idiot or a trap. I should just go back to sleep, but my teeth are chattering now and I don't think I'll get any rest until the wind dies down. If I move, I'll at least warm up a little. I pick up my pack and climb down the rock, drawn like a moth to the light and the promise of heat. I draw my knife. It's got a wicked, wavy blade that shines in the moonlight. I hold it along the underside of my arm to hide the glint.
I'm near the fire now. I stop behind a rock and peer out to gauge the situation. The kid I saved this morning is curled up beside the small blaze, wrapped in his sheet of plastic. In the shelter of another rock, to my right, the boy from Six has a bow drawn and an arrow pointing at the kid. I don't think, I just move. I take a few quick steps and then I've got Six's hair in my grip. I yank his head back and slash his throat. Blood spurts against the rock and a moment later the cannon fires. I grab his bow and arrows and pat him down to see if he's got any other supplies. I don't find anything in a quick inspection and I don't have time to do a full strip search because I can hear footsteps heading my way.
I sling the bow and quiver over my shoulder and run to the fire. The kid's awake now, woken by the cannon, and he stares at me, wide-eyed and frightened. I realize my knife is still dripping with blood. We stare at each other for a moment, then I wipe my knife on my pants and shove it into its sheath. "Run," I tell him.
He's still staring and I hear the footsteps getting louder, boots crunching on rocky dirt. I grab the kid by the collar and drag him to his feet. "You're my ally now. Run." It's the stupidest thing I could do, taking this kid as my ally. I should kill him myself or leave him as bait in a trap, but the words are out of my mouth and I won't take them back.
We run. Kid's fast, at least. I spot a low, rocky hill with a shallow incline and lead him up it. At the top, I push him behind me, nock an arrow on the bowstring and turn to face our pursuers. It's the boy and girl from Nine. She has a short sword and he has a big rock. I draw the bow and point it at her, but I don't fire. We stare at each other, these other kids and me and the boy I just rescued. I'm not a huge guy, but I had a growth spurt just before my sixteenth birthday and these two are smaller than me. They lower their weapons slowly and start to back away. I lower the bow a bit and watch them. They keep backing away until they've put a large rock between us and then I hear their footsteps pick up as they run away.
I let out a long breath and put the arrow back in the quiver. Luckily, they didn't call my bluff. I can barely hit a standing target. "What's your name?" I ask the kid. I recognize him as the tribute from Five, but I didn't pay much attention to him in training.
"Bart," he says. He's got big eyes and fluffy, brown hair.
"I'm Jason," I say. "What the hell were you thinking?"
"Well," he says, "I was freezing and I'd learned to make a fire in training so I got some sticks and leaves together and it actually worked…." His voice trails off when he sees my face. "It was a bad idea, wasn't it?"
"Really bad," I say.
"Do you really want to be my ally?"
"I didn't kill you, did I?"
"Not yet," he agrees.
"Do you want to be my ally?" I ask, because maybe he doesn't.
"Sure," he says. He pauses, then asks, "Do you have anything to eat?"
I give him what I have left of the fern roots. "We better get moving." At least the action has warmed me up. We spend the night walking. Bart tries to chat a few times, but I shush him. We're making enough noise just walking along. Dawn approaches. I share my sun cream with Bart, but we need to find the stream again. We've drunk up all the water in the night and with all the running around, I'm not sure how to get back to it. Bart climbs up a rock to take a look around.
"There's a green spot over there," he points, "and one there - no, there's someone over there."
"Get down!" I say. "Before they see you!"
"No," he frowns, "she's not looking this way, she's…" He squints, trying to make out what's happening, then his eyes widen. "Run!" He scrambles down the rock.
"Who is it?" I ask, wanting to know what to expect. Maybe we should stand and fight.
Bart shakes his head. "Birds!" he yells and takes off running.
I look back. Coming our way are long-legged, long-necked, round, fluffy birds, at least as tall as me. They're almost comical, the way they bounce as they run, until one gets near enough that I can see the torn flesh hanging from its beak. Muttations. Some kind of animal the Capitol built for killing and released on us.
I follow Bart. He's still in my sight, though he's got a good lead on me. I don't know where he's going, but I don't think it's a good time to split up. We run under the rising sun, heat already beating down on our heads. We crash through the trees, stumble down a long slope and splash through a stream. I desperately want to stop, drink and fill the canteen, but one of the birds is right on my heels and it snaps at my leg. I try to make a mental note of where the stream is, in case there's a chance we can come back.
The bow catches on a spiky bush, but I don't dare leave it behind. I can't risk it falling into the hands of another tribute. Bart heads up the other side of the slope. My side aches, my throat feels like sandpaper and my feet are so heavy I can barely lift them, but I suck in a deep breath and charge up the slope. I'm halfway up when a rock shifts below my feet. I stumble and fall to my knees. I see a flash of pale brown feathers and a bird's beak sinks into my side. I scream and grab my knife, striking out at the first thing I see. I slash its skinny neck open and it falls over, but there are plenty more. One bites my calf and I cry out again. The audience must love watching me get torn apart by a pack of oversized chickens. Way more entertaining than plain old starvation.
A rock flies over my head and strikes a bird. It doesn't seem to do much damage, but the bird falls back. Another bird darts at my leg and a rock knocks it away. "Come on, Jason!" Bart yells. The next rock catches a bird in the eye and it squawks indignantly, like Bart's pebbles are an affront to its feathery little honor.
I try to push myself to my feet, but the slope's steep and I end up scrambling up it on my hands and knees. I know I'm dripping blood. Bart's rocks are confusing the birds. They snap their beaks in the air, trying to fight an enemy they can't see. The rest of the flock's nearly caught up, though, and he can't hit them all at once. At the top of the hill, Bart's hands grab mine and he pulls me to my feet. We run, me stumbling and swearing, him dragging me forward. I notice, after a few minutes, that the noise behind us has stopped. I turn around and see the birds at the top of the hill. They're hissing at us through open beaks, but they're not following us. Bart stops too and looks at the birds.
"I guess they reached the end of their territory," he says.
"Yeah," I gasp, trying to catch my breath.
"Yeah," drawls an unfamiliar voice and the boy from Nine smashes his rock down on my head.
I fall down and the world spins. Bart screams in pain, but I can't see what's happening to him. I'm going to puke or pass out and if I do either, I'm dead. I remember there are cameras on me and if I stop moving, my mother's going to watch me die. My knife's still in my hand, so I slash out blindly, hoping I don't hit Bart. I don't, but I don't hit anything else, either. I give up trying to pretend the world's not moving and flop over onto my back. A rock comes down at my head and I roll in towards the boy from Nine, sinking my knife in the flesh of his thigh. I rip the knife out and there's blood, gushing from his leg and falling onto my face. I taste it on my lips, salty and foul, and I spit it out. The world's still spinning and I hear a girl screaming something, maybe a name.
I stab again and hit bone. It sends a shock up my arm. The boy from Nine falls back.
"Let's go!" the girl from Nine yells. She slashes out with her sword, but both Bart and I are out of reach.
The boy limps off, dragging his leg as the girl supports him. They're easy targets now, leaving a trail of blood that anyone could follow. I reach for an arrow, figuring it's worth trying to put one in his back, but the movement sets the world whirling again and I vomit up pieces of fern root instead.
The heat presses down on me and the sunlight stabs my eyes. I feel Bart's hands under my armpits and then he's dragging me into the shade. He props me up against a rock. I waver in and out of consciousness, but I wake right up when he dabs something on my side that burns like hell. "What the fuck," I gasp, wondering if he's decided to kill me slowly.
"Disinfectant," he says and I realize he's holding the first aid kit from my backpack. "I need to stitch you up. Don't worry, I took the workshop in training." I want to pass out, but Bart keeps pulling me back as he weaves fire through my skin. After he's satisfied with the job on my side, he stitches up my calf. "You need water," he frowns.
"So do you," I say. I can't tell if he's hurt. He's smeared with blood, but it could be mine or someone else's. I notice he's holding his arm against his body. "What happened?" I ask, reaching for it.
"She got me with her sword," he says. "But I put my thumb in her eye."
I poke at his arm while he grits his teeth and decide it's got to be stitched up. I'm no healer, but I'm from District Eight, Textiles, and I can handle a needle and thread in my sleep. Lucky that, because I can barely focus my eyes. Bart dabs the disinfectant on himself and I clumsily stitch up his arm while he grits his teeth. I wrap a bandage around the wound and tape it up. That should hold off infection and keep us from leaving a blood trail.
"Can you walk?" he asks anxiously. "We need to move. They'll be back."
Will they? I'm pretty sure the guy from Nine will bleed to death within the hour, but she could come after us in revenge. And who knows if they've got allies?
I lean heavily on the rock and drag myself to my feet. The movement makes the pain in my side and calf flare up, but that clears away some of the fuzziness in my head. I take a few steps and I get steadier on my feet. The calf wound is painful, but not deep. "Water, food and shelter," I say.
Bart nods. "Let's head north," he suggests. I glance up at the sky to get my bearings. North's parallel to the hill where we left the birds and the opposite direction of where the tributes from Nine went. North sounds good to me.
Bart takes my arm and helps steady me as we walk slowly. I give him the bow and arrows to carry, but the bow drags on the ground and he gives them back, taking the backpack instead.
"You should have a weapon," I say.
He shrugs, but collects a few small rocks and finds a stick that'll work as a small club. It's not much, but it's better than nothing. If my head clears up, it might be worth taking a scouting trip back to the Cornucopia to see if we can steal any weapons. Odds are good that it's the Career tributes who have taken control of the bulk of the supplies. Five of the kids from One, Two and Four are still alive, and they may have other allies, but someone who's fast and clever might be able to slip in and grab something useful. Right now I'm neither, so it'd be suicide to try.
I worry that my head wound has done real damage to my brain, but after walking a little ways, the dizziness fades enough that I don't have to lean on Bart. "I owe you," I say. "You saved my life back there."
He smiles. "You saved mine first. Let's call it even for now."
We walk a little while longer in silence, until Bart says, "You're different than I'd thought you'd be."
I'm surprised that he put any thought into what I'd be like. "What were you expecting?"
He shrugs. "I thought you'd join up with the Careers. You seemed so sure of yourself in training and you did volunteer." He looks up at me. "Why did you volunteer?"
A weariness hangs over me. I consider brushing off the question like I did in my interview, but none of the other tributes are around to hear my answer and the truth might be appealing to the audience. "My mother's really sick," I say. "She's going to die soon, unless I get a Capitol doctor to heal her."
"She wanted you to volunteer?" Bart asks.
I laugh, but it's a bitter sound. "I didn't tell her. I only told one person I was going to volunteer."
"Talia. My mentor. I asked her to tell me about the Games." I say. It was four months ago. The apothecary told us he couldn't do any more to help my mother and the District doctor wouldn't even see us. I took my mom home, helped her into bed and then slipped out. I knew Talia already. I used to deliver messages for her when I was younger, before I started working in the factory after school.
She answered the door wearing a long, silk robe and carrying a wine glass. "Jason?"
"I want to win the Hunger Games," I said. Might as well get straight to the point.
"For fame?" she asked dryly. "Money? Glory? You would kill for such things?"
"For my mother," I said. I told Talia about my mom's illness. "If I won the Games, I could get a Capitol doctor to heal her, couldn't I?"
She swirled her wine glass. "Perhaps. You would have the money, certainly, and you'd have an excellent chance to attract a Capitol patron who could assist you."
"Then I need you to do it. I need you to train me."
"Technically," she pointed her wine glass at me, "training potential tributes before the Reaping is illegal."
"They do it all the time in One, Two and Four," I said.
She sipped her wine, weighing her options. "Come back tomorrow," she said. "I'll consider it."
The next day, she sat me down and we had a talk. "There's no guarantee you'll win," she said. "Even if I had a lifetime to train you and you were the strongest, fastest, cleverest tribute in the arena, you could still be taken out by a lucky shot, or by an avalanche, or die of thirst. I am prepared to send you to your death. I do it every year. But are you prepared to die?"
"No," I admitted.
She gave me a small smile. "Good. A death wish won't make you a winner. Are you prepared to kill?"
I knew the right answer to that question, but I didn't see any point in lying. "I don't know."
She nodded. "I can teach you all the soft points on the human body, all the known natural poisons, teach you how to shoot a bow and throw a spear and wield a knife, but I can't teach you how to take a life. That you will have to learn in the arena. But one rule will help you." She leaned forward. "Forget they are people. They are objects in your way and nothing more. Give them a clean death, if you can - suffering benefits no one - but you owe them no more than that."
I don't tell Bart this, or how I practiced hand-to-hand combat against Talia and her eleven-year-old son. Victor's children have a higher than average chance of ending up in the arena, even though the Reapings are supposed to be random. Talia had been training her son for the arena practically since birth.
"Next year I'll show them all," Damian bragged. "I'll be the youngest volunteer and the youngest victor in history."
"You will not," Talia said sharply. "You'll go when you're reaped and not before."
He sniffed and said to me, "They'll wipe the floor with you. I bet you don't last eight hours."
Well, he was wrong. It's been at least twenty-four hours and I'm still going.
Bart peers at me. "Do you have any brothers or sisters?" he asks.
I shake my head.
"Where's your father?"
"He died a few years back." Strung up by the neck in the Town Square after getting caught stealing. I watched him struggling on the rope, kicking the air and clawing at his throat. My mother didn't stop crying for a week, but she went to the factory every day, stitching feathers onto clothes for Capitol people and keeping her tears from falling on her work.
"What will your mother do if you don't come back?" Bart asks.
Die, I think. Same thing she'd have done if I hadn't volunteered for the Games. "I'm going home," I say.
Bart smiles. "I think you might." But the smile doesn't reach his eyes. There can't be more than one victor. Ever. One year, a girl tried to play the Capitol, threatening a double suicide if she and her boyfriend couldn't both win the Games. The Gamemakers surrounded them in a ring of fire and they swallowed poison berries so they wouldn't be burned alive. They still rerun that Game every February, the tragic romance of the star-crossed lovers from District Twelve.
I don't ask Bart about his family. I don't want to know.
"Everyone but you is dead the minute they step into the arena," Talia told me. "All you do is make it official."
The cannon fires and I know that the boy from Nine is dead. That's three I've killed so far. I wonder if their families were watching. I wonder how my mom feels, seeing me kill. But I'd rather have her alive and hating me than dead and thinking I'm still her little boy. I realize my hands are covered in dried blood, so I scoop up a handful of sand and use it to scrub off as much as I can. I've got dirt rubbed into my knuckles now, but I feel cleaner.
I wonder how the betting's going. Does anyone favor me to win?
The dry air feels like it's sucking the water from our pores. We find a bush full of red berries that Bart and I both recognize from training, so we gather all we can find. We wrap a few up to save for later, but we eat most of them right away. The sun-heated berries are tart and warm, but they're edible, blessedly moist, and way better than the fern roots.
Bart climbs a rock, wincing when he puts weight on his injured arm. He spots a clump of trees that looks like a prospect for water. We head that way. Maybe we'll also find some edible plants, or even fish.
"Have you ever caught a fish?" I ask Bart.
"No, but I learned how to make fishhooks in training!" he says.
I smile. "You learned a lot in training."
"I pick things up quickly," Bart says. "I'm not very good at combat, though. I don't want to hurt anyone."
"That's not how it works here," I say.
"I know," he says sadly. He brightens a bit. "But you're good at it! Maybe you can teach me?"
"How to hurt people?" I ask. My head aches and I'm feeling queasy again.
"How to fight," Bart says.
He's my opponent. I shouldn't do it. But he's also my ally, and the stronger he is, the better chance I have at survival. "There's a couple of things I could show you," I say. "But let's find water first."
We approach the trees slowly, circling around and looking for tracks, but there's no sign that humans have ever been here. We fill my canteen and treat it with iodine. It's terrible, waiting for the water to purify when there's so much of it in front of us, but getting sick will likely be fatal.
I splash some water on my face. It makes the thirst worse, but it feels marvelous on my skin. Bart strips down to his underwear and hops into the stream to bathe. The water's about knee-deep and he splashes around, then ducks his head under water and pops up a moment later with something squirming in his hand. "Fish!" he cries gleefully. "I caught a fish!"
The fish gives a desperate flip of its tail and pops out of Bart's hand. I laugh at his expression and then strip down to join him in the stream, though I strap on my knife just in case we get visitors. The water's blessedly cool and full of small fish. We use Bart's shirt as a makeshift net and manage to snag a few of them for lunch. We drink the water as soon as it's safe. Bart builds a small fire and roasts the fish while I try to scrub the blood out of our clothes.
I lay the clothes out on a rock. Between the sun and the arid air, they should be dry in no time. Bart and I sit in the shade in our underwear, drink more water and eat the fish. Bart cooked them up with some of the fern roots and the fish makes even those awful roots taste good.
After we eat, I show Bart a simple combat move, one where you grab the opponent's arm when he takes a swing at you and use it to pull him off balance. We practice a bit until he's got it down.
As the sun moves lower in the sky, we get dressed again and bury the signs of our fire. We walk upstream a bit in the water, then put our boots back on and head away from the stream. Our canteen and our bellies are full and we stand less chance of being spotted if we're away from the water source.
We find a rock braced against a hill and a natural alcove beneath it. We settle in and watch the night sky. The anthem plays, the Capitol seal appears and I see the face of the boy from Six, the one I'd killed at the fire last night. Then the boy from Nine, who I killed earlier today. Last, the girl from Twelve.
"The birds," Bart whispers.
I guess she's the one he watched die this morning. The Capitol seal appears again. Two out of three of today's dead were my kills. I hope that makes some sponsors very happy.
Bart and I curl together for warmth and I take the first watch. When the moon is high in the sky, I rouse Bart and we shift places so he can sit up for the watch. It feels odd. I haven't slept next to another human being since I got too old to crawl into my parents' bed. But having Bart's arms around me is not unpleasant and I'm a dozen times warmer than last night.
He wakes me at dawn, we eat some berries and head back in the direction of the stream. I make a mental note of where our little alcove is, though it's probably not safe to return to the same place every night.
We find the stream and refill our canteen. We also wash, disinfect and re-bandage our wounds. I've still got a low-level headache, but the dizziness from yesterday is thankfully gone. As we walk upstream, searching for more roots or berries and a good place to catch fish, I realize we're in pretty good shape. We've got water and a decent night's sleep, we're in a good position to get more food and our wounds aren't infected.
"There's berries!" Bart grins. I smile back. The kid's good moods are contagious. He jogs ahead to the berry bush and I see the ground crumble beneath him and swallow him up.
Chapter 2: Thirteen
It's someone's trap, a pit in the ground covered with branches and dirt. I grab the bow and nock an arrow to the string. A red-haired boy steps out from behind the berry bush, a short spear in his hand. He stands over the pit, ready to skewer Bart.
"Don't touch him!" I yell, pointing the arrow in his direction. I recognize him as one of the tributes from Seven and after a second, I remember that his name is Roy and he got a nine in training, like me. He looks like he's a couple of years older than I am.
Roy gives me a calculating look. "Tell you what," he says. "You give me the bow and arrows and I'll let your friend walk away from this."
"How about I just shoot you?" I ask.
He snorts. "If you could shoot that thing, you'd have fired already. Besides, you're pointing it at my toes."
"I'm aiming for your toes," I say, but I lift the bow.
"You don't have a clue how to use that, do you?" he asks. "Give it to me and I'll let the kid go."
He's pretty desperate to get his hands on the bow. He must be a real archer, not someone like me who's had just enough lessons to look vaguely competent.
"So you can shoot us the minute you get it in your hands? No thanks," I say.
Roy hefts the spear. "I'll kill him."
"I'll cut you open before his heart stops beating," I say. I want to drop the bow and grab my knife, but for all his talk about my crappy archery skills, the drawn arrow seems to keep Roy from moving.
Bart yells something from the pit and Roy looks down at him, startled.
"Bart!" I call out, glad to know he's okay. I'm not sure how deep that pit goes.
Bart yells again and this time I can make out the words. "He should join our alliance!"
I meet Roy's eyes and I realize with a start that he's considering it. I weigh our options. I could fire an arrow at Roy, but it'd be pure luck if I hit him. I could run at him, but he could easily kill Bart before I reach him. Then it'd be my knife against his spear and I don't know which one of us would survive that.
"He doesn't want to kill us and you don't want to kill him," Bart calls out.
True. We'd already be fighting if we did. But want doesn't factor into this equation.
Still, an archer would be a deadly asset to our little team.
"If we team up, I'll give you the bow and arrows and you'll give Bart the spear," I say. Bart needs a real weapon.
Roy nods. "We split up when the field's down to six," he says. Unspoken are the words if any of us live that long.
"Deal," I say, glad to have a concrete deadline. Roy could still stab Bart and me in our sleep, if he chose, but I like the idea of having another fighter on my side. I think it's worth the risk.
Roy slowly lowers the spear as I lower the bow. When he lets the spear fall from his hands, I put the arrow back in the quiver. Together, we pull Bart out of the pit. The kid's hair and face are covered in dirt, but he doesn't seem to have been injured in the fall.
He's also grinning ear to ear. "I'm Bart!" he says. "And this is Jason."
"I'm Roy," Roy says. He picks up the spear and puts it in Bart's hand. As promised, I hand over the bow and arrows. He slings the quiver over his shoulder and runs one hand along the bow like a caress. He looks like a thirsty man who's been given a drink of water. He draws back the string and I wrap my hand around the hilt of my knife, but Roy doesn't pull an arrow out. He's just trying out the bow and he seems satisfied with what he finds. He notices my gesture and smirks. "I need to test it out," he says.
I send Bart upstream to search for more edible plants and I stand guard over Roy. He picks a slender tree trunk as his target and the first two arrows fly right past it.
"You're not very good, are you?" I ask, popping a berry into my mouth.
Roy shoots me a dirty look. He examines the bow and arrows, adjusts his grip and fires again. This arrow hits squarely in the center of the tree. "Better?" he asks.
He swings the bow around abruptly and I don't even have time to hit the ground before an arrow whizzes past my ear. "What the hell?" I demand, belatedly ducking.
He smirks and points past me, where a rabbit lies dead with an arrow through its eye. "You hungry?" he asks.
I can't help it, I'm impressed. "Not bad," I say, going for nonchalance. "Little small for the three of us, though."
He cocks an eyebrow and says, "Let me see what I can do about that." He marks a spot on the string with a bit of berry juice and waits for another rabbit to dash by. By the time Bart gets back, Roy's nailed three of them. He shows me how to clean them and cook them over a small fire. Bart's found more berries and some wild parsnips and we make a good meal of the food. We split two of the rabbits between us and wrap one up to save for later.
I pick up a branch and use it to teach Bart a few moves with the spear. I show him how to hit the soft spots on the human body, since he doesn't have the strength to break bone and the tip of the spear is too wide to slip through someone's ribs. His injured arm's bothering him a bit, but his other arm is steady and he can wield the short spear one-handed.
Roy volunteers to be a practice dummy and lets Bart poke at him while I give instructions. Bart doesn't hit very hard, but Roy staggers and pretends he's in mortal agony whenever Bart gets in a good blow. Pretty soon, we're laughing too much at Roy to continue the lesson. I call Bart off Roy and give him the real spear.
"Go stab the tree," I say. "You need to practice hitting something hard."
Bart bounces over to attack the tree while Roy and I compare supplies to see what we've got. Roy's got a tin of sun cream with a parachute too, so I guess he's got a sponsor. He's also got a backpack with a canteen, a bottle of iodine, flint and steel, a folding shovel, and a packet of crackers.
We tuck our stuff back into our backpacks and split up the food. We drink as much water as we can and refill the canteens.
We bury the fire and the inedible parts of the rabbits. We can't hide all the signs we've been here - the tree's got significant damage from Bart's spear - but we don't have to let our opponents know our every move. Bart and I clean and re-bandage each other's wounds. The cuts on my side and calf are healing well and the pain is minor. The slash on Bart's arm is deeper, but there's no sign of infection. I'm grateful for the first aid kit.
The three of us trek back to the alcove where Bart and I spent last night. Our tracks are the only ones visible, so it doesn't look like anyone else has found the place. We make camp for the night. I haven't heard the cannon today, but I check the sky anyway when the anthem plays. No faces tonight.
Roy's watching the sky as well and he's got a grim expression. I know what he's thinking, because I'm thinking it, too. If there aren't enough deaths, the Gamemakers will throw something into the arena to liven things up.
"We need a plan," I say. "We can't just wait for something to happen."
Roy nods, but Bart looks troubled. "Do you mean we should hunt people down?" he asks.
"Maybe," I say. I draw my knife and run my finger along the flat of the blade. There's flecks of dried blood still clinging to the steel. "You're the hunter," I say to Roy. "What do you think?" Hunting's illegal in the districts, but some people do it anyway, when the alternative is starvation. Roy's too good to have just picked up his skills during training.
Roy watches the knife in my hands. "I think it's better to be the predator than the prey." His eyes meet mine. I slide the blade back in its sheath.
Bart's looking back and forth between us and chewing on a fingernail. "What do you think?" I ask him.
"I think I don't want to kill anyone," Bart says.
I shake my head. "That's not an option."
"Yes, it is," Bart says.
Roy and I both look at him, puzzled. "Not if you want to survive," I say.
"It's not a great option," Bart admits. "But that's my choice." He picks at his fingernail. "If you want to split up, I understand."
I look over at Roy, who shakes his head. "No," I say. "We'll stick together." I scrub my hands through my hair. "Let's get some sleep. We'll figure out a plan in the morning."
We crawl into the alcove and settle down with our packs as pillows. With the three of us huddled together, it's warm enough for comfort. I take first watch. Bart curls up and goes right to sleep, but after a while, I realize that Roy's still awake.
He notices me watching him. "Have you killed anyone, Jason?" he asks.
"Yes," I say. "Three, so far. What about you?"
"Not yet," he says. "Does it get easier?"
"I killed two guys to save Bart and one to save myself," I say. "I didn't have time to think about it. Would you have killed Bart today if he hadn't offered an alliance?"
"Maybe," Roy says, in a way that means "no". "I would've killed you, though," he adds defensively.
I smile. This guy's starting to grow on me. "You may still get your chance," I say.
"I should be able to kill people," he says. "I've killed animals, and it can't be that different, right?"
"I don't know," I say. "I've never killed an animal."
The night is uneventful. It's nice to have time to rest up, but the quiet makes me nervous. I hope that some of the other tributes are providing entertainment.
In the morning we eat a breakfast of cold rabbit and berries. I'm licking the last of the rabbit grease from my fingers when I notice the fog. It's absolutely gorgeous this morning. It seems to be catching the rays of the sun, because it's a pure, golden mist.
A mist that's moving rapidly towards us, sliding over the rocks and sand like a deadly snake. I force myself to stay calm and say, "I think it's time for us to get the hell out of here."
Roy and Bart turn around to see what I'm looking at and jump to their feet. We cram our stuff in our packs and start running. The fog moves fast and it's curling around us, forcing us southeast. We hop over boulders, shove our way through bushes, cross the stream and scramble over rocks. My hands and arms are covered in scratches and the cuts on my calf and side are pulling painfully, but we don't dare stop. The rabbits are running, too, and I see a few other animals; foxes, turkeys, other birds and some I can't even name.
From the mist, there's an agonized scream. I can't tell if it's a boy or a girl. They keep screaming, this horrific, agonizing sound that cuts through the air like an open wound. I keep expecting the sound to stop and the cannon to fire, but it just goes on and on.
I stumble. Roy grabs my arm and drags me up before I can fall. A little later, he stumbles and this time it's me catching him.
We burst through a particularly thick tangle of bushes and stop dead. We're face to face with the boys from One and Two.
Blake from One and Joker, from Two. I'd watched them during training. Blake's a blond guy, with shaggy hair and quite a bit of muscle. Joker's wiry and thin with dark hair. They must be nearly as surprised to see us as we are to see them, because we all stand and stare at each other for a moment. Joker's armed with a scythe. Blake's got blades strapped to the back of his hands. He reminds me a bit of a lion with deadly steel claws.
Blake recovers first. He slashes out at me and I jump back. His claws just miss my throat. I reach for my knife and watch as Roy puts an arrow into Blake's neck. Blake staggers back, making a horrible, gasping noise as he tries to draw breath through the hole in his throat. I'm reminded suddenly of watching my dad die, seeing him struggle to breathe and trying to tear the noose off his neck.
I've got my knife in my hand, but nobody's moving now. We're all watching Blake die. Roy's face is white under his freckles and he's frozen with his hand on an arrow. Blake turns to his companion with a silent plea for help and Joker calmly rips the arrow from Blake's throat. The movement tears his jugular open and blood gushes out.
"Wow!" Joker says, spinning the arrow in his fingers. "I guess he got the point!" He winks at the audience.
Roy snaps out of his daze and nocks another arrow on the string, but Joker grabs the dying boy by the shoulders and shoves him at Roy. Roy falls to the ground with Blake in his arms and Joker takes off running. I take a few steps after him.
"Jason!" Roy yells. I turn around. He's wide-eyed, drenched in blood and pinned under Blake's body. "There… there could be traps," he says, taking shallow breaths.
I glance back over my shoulder, but Joker's out of sight. "You're right," I say to Roy. "Dumb thing to do, go crashing through the bushes and letting an enemy lead the chase." I kneel down and help him roll Blake onto his back. Roy gently closes the boy's eyes. The body is nearly still now, except for the occasional twitch. Roy picks himself up off the ground and a moment later the cannon fires.
The golden fog has stopped advancing and it's starting to fade away. Probably a Gamemaker's trick to push us toward other tributes in hopes of causing a death. Well, points to them. It worked.
I look over at Bart, who's hugging himself and chewing on his lower lip. "Are you okay?" I ask him. There's still screaming in the distance.
Bart nods. "Nobody touched me."
It's not exactly what I meant, but the arena's not a place for heartfelt chats, so I let it go.
The color's starting to come back to Roy's face. He kneels down and takes Blake's backpack and claws. He holds up the claws to Bart and me and we both shake our heads, so Roy lays them down on Blake's chest. They'll be taken out of the arena with his body.
"Let's move," I say. "Joker might be coming back with allies." I'd love the chance to take him down, but Roy's in no shape for a fight.
Roy hands Blake's pack to Bart, who doesn't have one yet, and we try to find our way back to the stream. The cannon fires again and I realize the screaming in the distance has stopped.
When we reach the stream, we don't even have time to refill our canteens before Roy yanks off his boots and clothes and throws himself down in the stream to scour his skin clean. I hand Bart the canteens so he can fill them upstream of Roy while I stand guard over both of them. When Roy's washed the blood from his body, he scrubs his clothes on the rocks. I notice thick scars on his back, the signs of a whipping long healed. I think of his skill at hunting and I don't say anything.
Once his clothes are clean, Roy calms down a bit. He squeezes the water from the fabric and gets dressed again. He's soaked, of course, but he'll dry off quickly in the sun. He looks at me and says softly, "It's not like killing an animal." I just nod, because what can I say?
We search through Blake's pack and find a length of rope, a half-full canteen, a couple of hunting knives, which Roy and Bart take and a pack of throwing knives, which Roy hands to me. The only other thing in the pack is a bundle of fern roots.
"That's all he was carrying?" Roy asks.
"They must have a camp nearby," Bart says, looking nervously over his shoulder.
Roy and I agree, so we start moving downstream. Something's bothering me about those roots and after walking for a bit, I figure out what it is. "Why was he foraging for food?" I ask.
"To eat," Bart says.
"But there were all those supplies at the Cornucopia," I say. "I thought the kids from One and Two and Four would have claimed those."
"Maybe they split up?" Bart suggests.
"Maybe they never teamed up," Roy offers.
"Possibly," I say. They looked cozy during training, but things can shift quickly in the arena. "But if these guys," I jab my finger back towards where Blake died, "had a camp, someone must be guarding it." I think back to the bloodbath at the start of the Games. Roy, Bart and I got our supplies and ran, but someone must have won that first fight and claimed the bulk of the goods.
Roy says what I'm thinking. "If they don't have the supplies, who does?"
"I want to find out," I say.
"We'll have to go to the Cornucopia for that," Bart says.
I raise my eyebrows and look at them. "You up for that?" It's risky, but so is staying still.
"Yes," Roy says.
Bart looks at both of us, then nods.
"All right," I say. "Let's go."
We don't talk much the rest of the day. Bart's fidgety, but quiet, and Roy just looks grim. We follow the stream south and gather roots and berries whenever we find them. Roy shoots a couple more rabbits as we travel. Around midday, we stop and make a small fire to cook them. The wood's dry enough that there isn't much smoke, but Roy keeps an arrow nocked on the string while I cook, just in case we get visitors. We're not in the mood for guests. We split one rabbit between us and save the other for later.
When the sun reaches the horizon, we look for a place to camp for the night. We find a spot where two rocks meet in a V shape, which will give us some protection from the cold wind and make it difficult for anyone to sneak up behind us. We eat cold rabbit and berries for dinner and watch the sky. The anthem plays and we see the Capitol seal, then the faces of Blake and the boy from Twelve. He must have been the one who died in the fog.
"Eleven of us left," Roy says quietly. I just nod.
Bart takes the first watch and Roy and I huddle together for warmth. I fall asleep quickly, but I'm jolted awake a few hours later by the sound of the cannon. Ten now.
We're up the next morning at dawn and make our way back to the stream to refill our canteens. We've seen several rabbits already, but I don't think starting a fire is a good idea. No need to advertise our location so close to the center of the arena. Roy and Bart agree, so we spear a few fish instead and eat them raw with roots. My mom and I ate some pretty terrible food in the first few months after my dad died, but this meal tastes worse than any of those. It's not a fair comparison. My mom can do miracles with a frying pan and a bit of salt, and even raw, the fish and roots are likely healthier than what we ate back them. Doesn't make this meal any easier to swallow.
By mid-morning, we can see the glare of sunlight reflecting off the Cornucopia. We move away from the stream and find a large rock. Roy climbs up it and surveys the scene. He comes back down looking puzzled. "Nobody's there," he says. "No camp, no supplies."
I scratch my chin. "I guess we should take a closer look."
We draw our weapons and approach the Cornucopia with caution. Bart throws small rocks ahead of us as we move, hoping to trigger any traps before we get caught in them, but nothing happens. We reach the launchpads safely. Somewhere underneath us are twenty-four launch rooms where the tributes all waited alone with their stylists before being lifted up into the arena. Fourteen of those tributes are already dead.
The Cornucopia is to the right of us and to the left, there's a pond that's being fed by several streams. Ahead of us, the desert fades into a lightly wooded area.
We circle around the golden horn. The last time I saw it, the mouth was piled high with food, weapons and supplies, and kids were slaughtering each other to grab what they could. The bodies and supplies are gone, now, but I can still see puddles of dried blood staining the sand.
Roy finds a trail and we follow it, keeping our weapons drawn and still checking for traps. At the mouth of the southmost stream, the mystery is solved. The supplies must have been stacked at the base of a large rock, but now the stone is scorched and all that remains are ashes, melted nylon and burnt-out barrels. Whoever staked a claim on this stuff is long gone, along with anything they could salvage from the fire.
"Admiring my handiwork?" There's laughter somewhere above us. Roy raises his bow and looks for the voice. The girl from Seven leans out from where she's perched on one of the high rocks. "Hello, lover," she says to Roy.
Roy's lips tighten, but he doesn't fire. "Cheshire," he says.
"Glad to see you're still alive," she says. "This wouldn't be as much fun without you. And you found friends! I hope you're not too attached to them." She lifts a thin tube to her lips and blows something right at me. I raise my arm to protect my face and feel something sting. Cheshire laughs. Roy finally fires his bow, but it's too late. Cheshire's disappeared and the arrow whifts uselessly through the air where she'd been.
Dread fills me. I look down at my arm and see a small dart sticking into my forearm. It's barely a pinprick, but when I pull it out, I can see the swelling's already begun.
Cheshire's poisoned me.
* * *
Chapter 3: Ten
The dart is a tiny little thing with green and black feathers. I roll it in my fingers, staring at it in shock.
So, wow. This is bad.
"Jason!" Roy gently takes the dart from my hand and stabs it into the trunk of the nearest tree. "We're moving," he says. He puts his hands on my shoulders and pushes me into motion. We move northward, past the Cornucopia. Bart follows, wide-eyed and anxious.
"Was that your girlfriend?" he asks Roy.
"She used to be," Roy says.
"She doesn't like you very much," Bart muses.
Roy lets out a short laugh. "Half the time, we didn't get along even when we were dating."
Bart frowns. "Why did you date her, then?"
Roy snorts and just ruffles Bart's hair.
Roy finds a rock outcropping that offers some shelter and helps me sit down. I know I should be less passive, try to do something, since all the screens in Panem are probably showing us right now, but I don't know what to do. I can't fight or run from poison.
"Guard him," Roy orders Bart, who obediently stands in front of me with his spear while Roy goes looking for something. He's a sweet kid. I'm glad he'll have Roy to watch after him.
Roy returns a few minutes later with a handful of leaves. My heart's pounding furiously and I'm drenched in sweat. Roy chews up the leaves and sticks the gloppy mess on the spot where the dart entered my skin. He wraps a bandage around my arm to hold it in place. I get an odd, displaced sensation watching him do this and I realize it's because I can barely feel his fingers. My arm's going numb.
"Will this help?" I ask. I rest my head back against the rock.
"It works for tracker jacker stings," he says. Roy holds a canteen to my lips and I drink. It stays down for about five minutes before I vomit it back up, along with what's left of the raw fish and roots I had for lunch. Roy just wipes my mouth and makes me drink more water.
"You're good a' this," I say, My lips and tongue feel heavy and slow. "You a healer?"
Roy wets one of the extra socks in my backpack and presses it to my forehead. "I look after my kid sister when she's sick."
"Parents?" I croak out.
Roy shakes his head. "Mia and I grew up in a Community Home."
My arm's numb up to the shoulder. "I miss m' mom," I say softly. It's not something a sponsor wants to hear from a potential victor, and I should be censoring myself, but I may not have a lot of words left so I'm going to say whatever I damn well want.
Roy soaks the sock with water again and pats it gently on my forehead.
"Wastin' wa'er," I say. There's a tightness in my chest, like someone wrapped a hand around my lungs and squeezed. I try to breathe normally, but I keep gasping for air.
"A stream's nearby," he says. He examines my arm and frowns. It's so swollen now that the bandage strains against the skin and I can't feel his fingers at all.
Bart's still standing guard with his spear, but he keeps sneaking glances back at me.
Roy sits back on his heels and looks up at the sky. "Hey!" he says. "Anyone out there interested in keeping this kid alive? 'Cause now would be a great time to send some help!"
I put my good hand on Roy's arm. "Look after Bart, 'kay?" Highly specific medicines, like the anti-venom I need now, are some of the most expensive gifts in the game. Only the richest Capitol citizens would have the money to -
I stare up at the sky, sure I'm hallucinating the silver parachute drifting down. Roy follows my gaze and jumps up to snatch it from the air. A moment later, he tears the bandage and the useless leaves from my arm and shoots something into my vein. It feels like ice running up my arm to my heart; ice so cold it burns.
Roy watches my face closely and I feel the tightness in my chest gradually loosen. I nod at him. "It's helping," I whisper. And then I vomit again.
He has a tiny smile on his face as he cleans me up. "Someone has a lot of money riding on you," he says. He takes the canteens to refill them. When he returns, he takes over guard duty from Bart and the other boy sits with me, getting me to drink water and eat a few crackers. The swelling in my arm is down, but I'm still sicker than I've ever been in my life. I start shivering terribly, even though we're in the heat of midday, and Bart puts his jacket over me.
They nurse me throughout the afternoon, taking a few trips back to the stream to refill our canteens. On one trip, Bart brings back a couple of fish and he and Roy eat them raw. One look at the fish and I'm vomiting again, so that's not an option for me. Roy goes out a little later and gathers roots and berries. I manage to stomach a few berries and the rest of the crackers, at least for a little while.
The anthem plays and we see the face of the boy from Three. He must have been the one who died late last night. I hope his death and my misery keeps a few people entertained. Roy and Bart split the watch between them and I try to get some sleep. I have vivid, feverish dreams, most of which are about the people back home showing up in the arena and dying horribly. I see Talia torn up by birds and my friend Stephanie getting an arrow to the throat from Roy. When I stab Roy in retribution for Stephanie's death, he turns around and I realize it's my mother I've just killed. I wake up shaking and sobbing.
I'm pressed up against Roy for warmth and I feel his arm wrap around me. I shouldn't find comfort in this, I remind myself, because sometime in the next few days, I will have to either kill him or watch him die.
I want to be home. I want my mother to make me vegetable broth and read to me from one of Dad's old books while I sweat out the fever. I want the Hunger Games to just be background noise on the television, for all the death and suffering to be happening in some far away place to kids I don't know.
I can't have that, so I take what's available; the warmth and comfort of being close to another human being. I drift off to sleep again and this time, the dreams are muted and vague.
It's dawn, and Roy's pressing a hand to my forehead. "Your fever's down," he says. "How are you feeling?"
I pull myself to my feet and run a quick evaluation. My arm throbs a bit where the dart struck it, but the swelling's totally gone. Every bit of me aches terribly and I think I've torn the stitches in my side, my throat's dry and my stomach's empty. Compared to yesterday, I feel freaking incredible. "Hungry."
"Me too!" Bart says.
Roy cracks a smile. "That's a good sign. For both of you. Jason, are you up to moving quickly if we have to? Because we could risk a fire."
"Yeah, let's do it," I say.
We clean and re-bandage our wounds and Bart fixes the stitches on my side. Bart and I pack up the camp while Roy does a quick patrol around our perimeter. He returns with a large rabbit he's shot and we cook it for breakfast.
"What's that on your token?" Bart asks me, gnawing on a rabbit bone. "Is it a bird?"
I touch the flat disc at my neck. It's strung on a length of carefully braided thread. "It's a robin," I say. "My grandmother painted it for my mother as a gift when I was born." It's gotten worn over the years, but you can still tell it's a red-breasted bird. My mother gave it to me after the Reaping so I'd have a personal token in the arena.
Roy leans in to get a good look at the disc. "She's talented," he says.
“She wove beautiful tapestries. I heard they were very popular in the Capitol,” I say. They’d paid my grandmother the bare minimum and sold her work for a fortune. She’d gotten ill one winter and died because we couldn’t afford the medicine the apothecary said would help her. "Do you have a token?" I ask him.
He hooks his finger in a bit of twine around his neck and pulls a roughly carved wooden arrow from inside his shirt. "My sister made it for me, when she was a kid," he says. It's painted red, though the color has faded with time and wear.
"What about you?" I ask Bart.
He holds out his wrist and shows us the strip of leather he's wearing. It's stamped with a lightning bolt. "'Cause we're District Five - Power," he says. "My Uncle Max made it super quick after I was Reaped, so I'd have a district token to wear. Hey, is there any more food?"
"We'll see if we can get another rabbit this morning, okay?" Roy ruffles Bart's hair. We've been eating well for the arena, thanks to Roy, but we're still burning up calories much faster than we're consuming them. I don't know how much Bart and Roy usually eat, but they both look thinner than they were when they started and they didn't have a lot to spare. I sure don't. Food's been tight back home since my mom got too sick to work.
"Who's left?" I ask. I tick them off on my fingers. "The girl from One. Her name's Scandal, I think. The boy and girl from Two, Joker and Harley." I frown, trying to remember the others.
"The boy from Four," Bart offers, but none of us can remember his name.
Roy frowns. "Cheshire."
I nod. "The girl from Nine and the girl from Ten." I can't remember their names, either. I wish I'd memorized more about the other tributes, but there had been too much information to absorb during Training and no time to learn it all. I don't know the names of the boys I killed, either, and for some reason, that bothers me. "And us." I look at my fingers. "Ten remaining."
"What do we know about them?" Roy asked.
"Joker's got a scythe," I say. "He's very likely teamed up with someone and odds are good it's Scandal, Harley and the guy from Four."
"Could've split up by now," Bart says.
"Let's hope so," I say. "Be easier if we don't have to take them on as a pack."
"The boy from Four's a dead shot with a crossbow," Roy says.
"Is there a crossbow in the arena?" I ask.
Roy nods. "Yeah, I saw a small one at the Cornucopia. I tried to grab it during the bloodbath, but I couldn't get close enough."
I really don't like the thought of someone besides Roy having a ranged weapon. "Maybe Cheshire destroyed it."
"If we're lucky," Roy says. He looks at me, and I shake my head. If we were lucky people, we wouldn't be here.
"The girl from Nine has a short sword, and I killed her district partner," I say.
"You think she'll be after revenge?" Bart asks.
"Could be," I say. "Not like she really needs a reason to kill me, though." I consider our options. "We could set traps," I say.
Roy snorts. "I tried that. Ended up with allies."
"You regret that now, huh?" I say. He smiles at me and just shakes his head. "No, listen, here's my thought," I continue. "We find a defensible spot with a good water source, we set up camp and we set traps. If someone comes after us, we'll be ready."
Bart chews on a thumbnail. "What kind of traps?"
"Ones that capture, not kill," Roy says.
"I'm not going easy on them," I warn him.
"Me either," Roy says. "But if we surround ourselves with traps, there's a high risk of getting caught ourselves, especially if there's a fight."
Bart nods so hard he bounces a little.
"All right," I relent. I don't point out that if we catch someone, we'll still have to kill them. Roy knows that and Bart… Bart's resistance to killing is sweet, but I hope that when he's face to face with an enemy his survival instincts will kick in. "Let's get moving."
We sling our packs on our backs and start walking. We head west along the stream bank, which makes me feel slightly displaced until I realize this isn't the same stream we'd followed down to the Cornucopia a day earlier. We're headed into new territory. We don't see as many rabbits here. It's possible they're hiding, since I spot a couple of hawks drifting overhead. There's still fish in the stream, but around midday, Roy takes down a wild turkey. We cook it up with roots and eat about half of it for lunch. Bart's eyeing the rest of the turkey, but I start wrapping it up to save for later.
"Oh, let him eat some more," Roy says.
"We've got to be careful with the food," I say.
"I'll shoot another bird later," he says.
"What if we can't risk a fire? What if there's no birds around to shoot?" I ask. Bart's eyes dart back and forth between Roy and me as we argue.
"What if your pack gets lost? What if we get separated?" Roy responds. "Safest place to store it is in our bellies."
"Please?" Bart asks, looking at me with big eyes. I notice his collarbones jutting out and wonder how much weight he's lost in the last few days. I sigh and cut off a wing for him, then pack the remaining turkey away. I think Bart says "thanks", but it's lost as he stuffs the meat in his mouth.
"Aw, look at that," Roy teases. "Big tough Jason brought down by a pair of puppy-dog eyes."
I scowl at him. "You made a strategically sound argument."
"And Bart gave you puppy-dog eyes and you caved." He grins at me.
I roll my eyes, because clearly there is no reasoning with him, and hoist my pack on my shoulders. "Does your sister give you puppy-dog eyes?"
"Unfortunately, yes." Roy buries the remains of the fire as Bart sucks the last bit of juice off the turkey bones. "She knows it's my one weakness."
His grin's infectious. I smile at him, but then I wonder what the viewers think of our little domestic scene. Are they recalculating the odds of us killing each other? Have they brought in guest commentators to discuss the dynamics of friendly alliances and show bloody clips of how other alliances have come to an end? My smile disappears. "Let's move on," I say, more harshly than I intended.
Roy's grin disappears and I bet he's thinking along the same lines. "All right," he says. "We need to find a good camping spot by sundown."
About an hour later, we find an excellent place to set up camp. There's a steep, rocky hill on one side, with a big rock jutting out at an angle that'll give a bit of shelter from the wind without blocking our eyeline. The stream runs to the right of the rocks and there's a thicket of trees along the waterline. There's still some open space between the trees and the hillside, but I figure that's all to the good, so we don't box ourselves into a deathtrap.
I take the shovel and start digging a trench in the open space. We'll cover it up with leaves and dried grass and hopefully anyone who's running through there unawares will break an ankle. Roy and Bart take the wire and rope to string up some more elaborate traps around the trees. Roy knows a few hunting snares, but Bart's the one who adapts them into human-sized traps, scratching calculations in the dirt to compensate for additional size and weight. Apparently, it's more complicated than just using a bigger piece of rope.
Roy takes a break a little before sundown to go hunting while Bart and I finish up the traps. Roy returns with a wild turkey and a smug look. "Wow," he says. "Look at all the food we've got."
I roll my eyes and start building a fire. "Go nuts, kid," I say to Bart when the food's ready. He does, finishing all the leftovers and nearly half of the fresh turkey.
He looks up finally and gives us a guilty look. "Did you want more?"
Roy and I both shake our heads. "Nah," I say. "I'm full." I'm not, but I've had enough. I worry a bit about not having any leftovers, but Roy's got a point; if it's in our stomachs, we don't risk losing it. Besides, there's a bush full of berries by the stream and plenty of fish.
The anthem plays, but no one's died today. We put out the fire and Bart takes first watch, standing guard with his spear. Roy and I curl up together and try to stay warm in the cold night.
I fall into a dream. I see a distant parade of faceless boys I've murdered. There's dozens in this dream, all drenched in blood, but only one person weeps. He's a young man, with fair skin and dark hair, and he's dressed in the outfit that all of us were assigned to wear in the arena. He's sitting with his back to a rock, his arms around his legs and his head against his knees. A wavy-bladed knife dangles from one hand, blood dripping from the tip.
"They were dead the minute they stepped into the arena," I tell this boy. I know before he lifts his head that I'm looking at myself.
"You had a choice," he says.
"And I made it," I say. "Do you think if I'd let them kill me or Bart that they'd have survived? You think the world would be better with them alive instead of me?"
"I'm not crying for them," he says, and before I can figure out what he means, something snaps me awake.
A noise. A rustling, a grunt and a cry. A stranger's cry.
"Jason! Roy!" Bart yells. Roy and I jump to our feet at the same time, snatching up our weapons and taking a back-to-back fighting stance while we evaluate the situation. The moon's nearly full and it's bright enough to get a good look. There's two kids tangled in the rope by the stream. I'm proud of our traps, proud of Bart and Roy and what they managed with a bit of rope and wire. For a moment, I think we've got it under control. Until I realize those kids aren't alone.
Bart approaches the trapped kids cautiously, holding his spear out. His grip's terrible. He's not going to get any force behind a hit when he's holding his weapon like that.
And he doesn't see them.
The boy from Four steps out of the shadows and fires his crossbow.
Roy and I both yell, but it's too late. The crossbow bolt sinks into Bart's chest. He turns to look at us with a puzzled expression, then crumples to the ground.
The boy from Four falls down with one of Roy's arrows in his chest.
"You idiot!" one of the captured kids yells. I realize it's Joker, and I'm guessing from the signature blond pigtails that the other kid caught in our trap is his district partner, Harley. They're struggling to get free of the ropes. Their weapons lay on the ground nearby, just out of their reach. He's still got a scythe and she's picked up a large hammer at some point. "You IDIOT! I told you to shoot the archer first!"
The girl from One slips out of the trees. She's got a couple of blades strapped to the backs of her hands. As she steps into the moonlight, I can see they're attached to gauntlets. I draw my knife and run at her. She takes a fighter's stance and slices at me when I get into range. I turn sideways, pivoting on my heel, and she just catches the edge of my jacket.
She's fast, and she's putting power behind her blows, but she can't bend her wrists in those gauntlets and she's telegraphing her attacks every time she swings. I can dodge her blow, but I can't get in close enough to strike her with my knife. She's good. I'm good. We slip into a lethal dance. Strike, parry, dodge. I feel my feet moving in patterns Talia taught me. I'd almost enjoy this test of skill if I couldn't hear Bart dying a few feet away.
"Dammit, Jason!" Roy yells. "Move out of the way!"
The world's narrowed down to me and this girl from One. I don't know where Roy's trying to shoot, but I twist anyway, taking half-steps back and sideways, leading the dance away from Bart.
Suddenly the girl from One stops mid-swing and jerks in place. She gasps for air and blood trickles out of her mouth. She finishes her strike at me, but it's weak and goes wide. I parry it easily and step in to shove my blade in her heart. When she falls, I'm not surprised to see one of Roy's arrows in her back. I hear the cannon fire.
"Dammit!" Roy screams. He fires a couple of arrows across the stream, but they're useless. I realize that Joker and Harley have cut their way free and escaped.
"Why didn't you shoot them?!" I yell at him.
"Because you were in the way!" he yells back.
"You should have shot around me!"
"I should have shot through you!"
Bart makes a horrible croaking noise and that stops the argument dead. Roy drops his bow and runs to Bart's side.
I go collect Roy's arrows and any useful gear from the fallen kids. The kid with the crossbow is still trying to draw breath, so I slash his throat open and the cannon fires again. Floyd, I remember now. His name was Floyd.
"Jason," Roy says.
I don't look at him. I know Bart's dying. What good does it do if I watch it happen?
"Jason." This time it's a command. I reluctantly come over and kneel down next to Bart. Roy's got him turned on his side with his head in Roy's lap. The crossbow bolt still sticks out of his chest. It must have punctured a lung, because there's a horrible sucking sound each time Bart tries to draw breath. I take his hand in mine and he squeezes tight. I grab the bolt, intending to pull it out, but he makes an awful sound and his body arcs in pain, so I let go. It doesn't matter. My first aid skills aren't up to patching a wound like that.
"Bart," Roy says, touching the boy's cheek. "We're here." Bart looks up at us with wide eyes and nods weakly. I don't say anything. I feel like I should, but when I open my mouth to speak, my throat clamps shut and I have to put all my effort into drawing breath.
I don't know how long we sit there, in the moonlight, the three of us waiting for Bart to draw his last breath. He's in agony and can't take in enough air to speak. I wonder if I should cut his throat, ease his suffering, but I can't bring myself to do it. Every moment he's still breathing, a chance for a miracle, for a silver parachute, maybe, to drop from the sky with a Capitol healing potion that will let him breathe again. I wrap both my hands around his small one and hold on.
He exhales one last time and doesn't draw in breath again. There's no miracle. Just silence and moonlight and blood. Roy reaches out a shaking hand to close his eyes and the cannon fires for Bart.
We sit there for a few more minutes anyway. I'm not sure why. Finally I squeeze Bart's hand one last time and let it go. Roy lets out a long breath. He lifts Bart's head off his lap and lays it gently on the ground, then brushes Bart's hair out of his eyes. Bart doesn't look like he's sleeping. No one looks like they're sleeping with a crossbow bolt in their chest. Besides, Bart can't go five minutes without kicking one of us when he's sleeping and now he's completely still.
Roy and I silently pack up the camp. We don't discuss it, but neither of us wants to stay there any longer. I remember the packs I took from the kids from One and Four and I dump the contents out onto the dirt. Knives. Berries. Crackers. Sun cream. I dig the heel of my boot into the crackers and grind them into the dirt. I don't want anything from them. We were doing just fine with what we had. We were - I realize there are tears, traitorous tears running down my cheek. I scrub at them with the sleeve of my jacket, but they won't stop coming.
I look over at Roy and his cheeks are damp too. I look away, knowing I'm going to fall apart in a minute if I don't keep myself together. He walks over to me and touches my cheek, wiping away a tear with his thumb. His face is close to mine, close enough that I can count the freckles on his nose. I should pull away, but I don't. I want to see what he does and what he does is press his lips against mine. I kiss him back, tentative at first and then, as we discover this desire is mutual, our tongues find each other. I want to drown myself in him. I shove up his jacket and his shirt so my hands can find his warm, smooth skin. His fingers dig bruises into my hips and I need him, need desperately to be close to him, like I need water and food and my knife.
The cannon fires and we pull apart, startled back into reality. Another one dead. Good, I think fiercely, hoping it's one of the kids from Two. Maybe they broke their necks running away. Roy's watching me now, watching with his brow furrowed and an expression I don't understand, until I do the math. There are only six tributes left. Our alliance is officially over.
* * *
Chapter 4: Six
Everyone but you is dead the minute they step into the arena, Talia's voice reminds me.
Sometime in the next few days, I'm going to watch Roy die or kill him myself. I need to separate myself from him, let him become a stranger again, so that when we face each other for the last time, I can kill him without hesitation.
I want to kiss him again.
They are objects in your way and nothing more.
If I kiss him again, I'm a dead man.
I pull away from Roy. "We should split up the supplies," I say.
"We don't have to," he says.
"Doesn't really seem fair if I leave you with nothing," I say.
He runs a hand through his hair and lets out a long breath. "Okay," he says. "What have we got?"
We gather everything we have and sort it into piles. Food, water, weapons, first aid kits and other supplies. I pick up the crossbow that killed Bart and turn it over in my hands, examining it in the moonlight.
"He shouldn't have been here," I say.
"None of us should be here," Roy says. His voice is calm, but I see his hands clench into fists. We could say more, so much more, but the Capitol's listening to every word and there are people we love back home.
I stuff the crossbow and bolts into my pack. Roy doesn't need it and I'll have to start doing my own hunting. We divide the stuff we want between us and bury the rest of it under some rocks at the edge of the hillside. When we're packed and ready to move, we turn to face each other.
Roy shifts the weight of his backpack on his shoulders. "Good luck," he says and offers me his hand.
"Good luck," I say, shaking his hand. We hold on just a little longer than necessary, then we drop our hands and walk away from each other. Roy heads upstream, going west. I turn and head downstream.
I hope that we don't meet again.
I follow the stream back to the Cornucopia and the pond. I keep my knife in my hand and my eyes and ears open. There's no one to watch my back anymore. When I reach the pond, I follow the stream that heads north. The kids from Two had a camp by this stream and they may be running back to it. I plan to find them and finish them off. It's not revenge. It's just good strategy.
It's a long way back to the spot where Blake died, and by midday I decide to take a break and try hunting for some food. I take out the crossbow and practice shooting at a tree a few times to get a feel for it. It's a little smaller than the ones I've shot before, but it's got a lot of power. I do some damage to the innocent tree trunk and figure I've got it down.
Rabbits are fast little suckers. My aim's fine, but by the time I pull the trigger, my target's yards away. I try to anticipate where the rabbit's going to run, but I'm still too slow. I shoot through all my bolts without even hitting a whisker. By now, I've frightened all the rabbits away, so I collect my bolts and walk upstream a bit. I load the crossbow, perch on a rock and wait.
I see a tiny nose peek out of a hole, but I hold still. It twitches, sniffs the air and ducks back into the ground. When it sticks its head up again, I'm ready. I fire right at the hole. The rabbit disappears and the bolt flies past the hole and lodges in the dirt. I curse, load the bow again and wait. The nose reappears. This time, I wait until most of its body is out of the hole before firing. I could swear that rabbit smirked at me before slipping back into its hole.
My stomach's rumbling. I've got some beef strips in my pack, but I really, really want roast rabbit. I reload the crossbow. Wait for it to move. Fire. You'd think the rabbit would learn after the first couple of times, but it keeps popping up again. Or maybe there's a whole colony of them down there and they're each taking a turn to look at the idiot who can't shoot a damn rabbit.
I fire my last bolt without hitting anything other than grass. I sigh. Fine, I'll go catch some fish for lunch. The fish are tiny, and not nearly as tasty as rabbit, but there are plenty of them in the stream and I can use my shirt as a net. I turn around, jump down off the rock and freeze, knees still bent from the landing.
Joker's standing there, still as anything, with a huge grin on his face. I have no idea how long he's been standing there. I was so focused on shooting the stupid rabbit that I forgot to watch out for people hunting me.
I drop the empty crossbow and reach for the knife at my waist. Joker takes two strides forward and before I can get my fingers around the hilt, he's thrust a flower in my face. The blossom's familiar. I've seen it blooming around the arena, but I don't know why this guy's threatening me with greenery. I draw my knife and Joker squeezes the plant. It sprays a red juice directly into my eyes. Instant agony. I lash out with my knife, but I only hit air.
My eyes clamp shut on reflex and I force them open, but I still can't see a thing. My eyes are on fire. I feel moisture dripping down my cheeks and I'm sure it's my eyeballs melting away. I slash the air wildly with my knife, hoping to keep Joker at arms' length, while I reach for my canteen with the other hand. If I don't wash this stuff away, I don't know if I'll have any vision left. I thumb the cap off my canteen and dump the contents on my face.
The tepid water offers momentary relief, but it doesn't quench the burning. I try to move forward, feeling the ground with my feet, still slashing at the air. Stay away, I think. Keep away from me and I might have a chance. Maybe Joker's alone. Maybe he's counting on the loss of my sight to completely disable me. I need to stay calm. I need to stop and listen. I hear him, chuckling softly in front of me.
"Always take time to stop and smell the flowers," he says. Yeah, keep laughing, clown. As long as he's laughing, I know where he is and if I know where he is, I can kill him. I practiced fighting blindfolded. I didn't have to deal with searing eye pain in practice, but being in lethal danger helps you overlook the small things.
I step forward, slowly. Feel the movement of air as Joker steps aside. He's stopped laughing, now, maybe because he realizes I can find him that way, but I can hear him breathing and hear the crunch of dirt and rocks beneath his feet. Hear his footsteps… and then another set of footsteps. Someone's behind me.
A solid object crashes into the back of my skull.
I fall forward, dropping the canteen and my knife. My hands and knees slam into the ground and I welcome the impact because otherwise I'm not sure I'd know which way was up. The world's spinning, I can't see a thing and I dig my fingers into the dirt to keep from falling off the planet. I feel myself fading away and I cling tighter, holding onto the ground and consciousness with both hands. A boot slams into my ribs and another stomps on my back, forcing my stomach to the ground. I reach out and try to grab a leg, but only catch empty air.
They kick me again, and again, and grab my arms, twisting them behind my back. I writhe, trying to pull away, trying to get my legs under me so I can have some leverage. They kick my feet away and push me down. They throw themselves on top of me and use their body weight to pin me in place as they wrap wire around my wrists, then they force my knees back and bind my ankles tightly to my hands. I'm still struggling, still trying to pull away and get free. It's not over until my heart stops beating.
One of them - Joker, I think - grabs me by the collar and drags me across the ground. My eyes are still burning but at this point, I'm not as worried about going blind as I am about dying. I twist and struggle and try to force the shirt to tear, but the fabric's too sturdy. Joker deposits me on the dirt and binds my wrists and ankles to something. A tree, I think; I can feel the bark when I stretch out my fingertips. If it's a tree, it's one of the spiky, bare ones because I can't feel any shade.
"I thought we were gonna kill him." Harley's voice, high-pitched and whiney.
"Oh, he'll die," Joker chuckles. "I'm just getting bored of cutting people open." A knife tears into my pants and I tense up, ready for the worst. But he just cuts the legs off my pants and slices my shirt open. "Enjoy the sunshine, honeybunch," he whispers into my ear.
They walk away. I'm confused. Is it a trick? Why leave me alive? I try to pull my hands free, but the wire slices into my wrists. I lick my lips. If I can get free, I'll be alive. I can wash out my eyes and gather my gear and have a chance to survive. I can get a drink of water…
I realize it's not a trick. The desert sun beats down on my bare skin and I know they've left me to die. If no one finds me, I'll die slowly of thirst and heat. If someone does find me, I'll be dead faster, but probably not less painfully.
I try to get my fingers under the wire, find a spot that I can exploit, but the kids from Two knew what they were doing. I scrape my wrists and ankles raw in my struggle, but I don't make any progress.
My eyes water terribly, trying to flush away the flower's pollen and I squeeze them tight, trying to hold in the moisture I can't afford to lose. It doesn't do any good, of course, so I give up after a few minutes and let the tears flow. Maybe I'll be able to regain my vision if I survive.
I force myself to take slow breaths and stay calm. I evaluate my options. My options are "get free" or "die" so that doesn't take long. I go back to working on the wire, trying to find a sharp rock or a rough spot on the tree that will weaken the wire and let me slip free. My shoulders and knees cramp up painfully and I try to shift around, to stretch my joints and relieve the cramps, but I've got no room for adjustment.
I have no idea how long I lay there, fighting hopelessly against the wire. My head throbs horribly and my eyes burn. Is anyone watching me? Will my slow, agonizing death be aired live or am I too boring to stay on the screen? Maybe they'll show me die in a time-lapse video on the evening recaps, where my hours of torment can be trimmed into a sixty-second montage with dramatic musical cues.
I finally stop struggling. It's not doing any good. I need to save my strength and be smart about this. I need to rest up, be ready for action when the opportunity strikes.
I slip into a restless, painful sleep, where rabbits chew my wrists and ankles and Joker hammers iron spikes into my knees and shoulders. I see a lake, a beautiful, cool, blue lake and I crawl towards it, pulling myself forward on my elbows. The beach stretches out as I crawl and no matter how far I go, the lake is just out of reach. I finally stagger to my feet and throw myself at the lake. The water catches and embraces me, cool and soothing on my burning skin. I scoop up a handful of water and try to drink, but when the water touches my lips, it turns to sand. The lake freezes around me, pinning me in place, and the ice closes over my face.
I wake up, gasping for air and shivering in the cold. Night's fallen. I thought I was cold the first night, huddling alone on a rock, but at least I had clothing and a jacket to keep me warm. This is a thousand times worse. I'm badly sunburnt. The heat pours out of my skin and is torn away by the wind and sucked up by the dirt until there's none left for me.
I pass the night in agonizing cold, drifting in and out of nightmares. When the sun finally rises, I welcome its warmth, but soon I'm burning again. My mouth feels like sand and even my tears have dried up.
I hear footsteps. I don't have the strength left to be frightened. Good, I think. It's almost over. I open my eyes and I've regained some of my vision, because I can see a blurry figure standing over me.
"Still alive, hm?" says Joker. He kneels beside me. "Would you like a drink of water?"
I get a last request and it's the thing I want most in this world. What a lucky guy I am. "Please," I whisper.
I hear him unscrew the top of a canteen and I can smell the water. I stretch out my neck, trying to get closer to it.
He empties the canteen into the dirt, a few inches from my nose. "No!" I cry out. I strain against the wire binding me. I'll suck the water from the mud if I can, but I'm still too far away. Joker giggles. I feel a cold knife against my neck and I think this, finally, is the end, but instead he cuts my district token free.
"A bird. Cute," he says, examining the tiny disc.
"A robin," I whisper. Not that it matters now.
He tucks the token into his pocket. "I'll be back, little robin. Unless the hovercraft flies you away." The wind carries me his laughter as he walks away.
I drift back into dreams. I'm in the lake again, but the water's turned red and when I try to drink it, I catch on fire.
I hear the cannon fire and I think it's for me, at last. But death is the same dry, burning place, and I wonder if this is it. This is my afterlife and I'm going to be on fire for eternity.
Fingers touch my chin and I wish I had the moisture left to spit in Joker's face.
Water dribbles into my mouth.
Water. Real water. I lick my lips and I'm given a little more. The afterlife has water. Good to know. Maybe I did do a couple of good things in my life.
"Jason, wake up!"
Someone's shaking me and I finally open my eyes. "Roy?" My voice is barely a whisper. "Are you dead, too?"
"Neither of us are dead, idiot," he says, relief in his voice. "Not yet." He draws a knife and saws away at the wire binding me. I can feel blood trickle from my raw wrists, but it's not like I'm going to complain. He stops a couple of times to feed me a few more swallows of water. "I don't want to give you too much at once," he says in apology. I nod, not having the strength to explain that he's giving me a feast.
He finally cuts me free and I thought it'd be a relief, but my cramped limbs scream in agony as I try to move them. I whimper, in too much pain to care about looking tough. Roy tries to help me by massaging my legs, but the touch of his hands on my sunburnt skin makes the blisters burst. He gives up and lets me stretch by myself.
While I try to force motion back into my limbs, Roy searches the area. He finds some of my things where they were dropped and brings them back. My jacket. My backpack. My knife. The crossbow and bolts are gone, along with my canteen and supplies, but Roy finds the pants legs Joker cut off. I'm glad I have my knife because I'm going to slit Joker's throat with it.
Roy drags me to my feet despite my protests. "You have to get out of the sun," he says, and he's right, but it's hard to make my legs work. I stagger to my feet and take a good look at him. He's got a split lip, his face is badly bruised, he's limping and his shirt's torn and bloody. I can't tell if it's his own blood or not.
"You look like hell," I say.
He bursts out laughing. "And you look like someone tried to fry you like an egg," he says.
I snort. "That's pretty accurate." He gives me a bit more water and lets me lean on his arm while I remind my legs of their primary purpose. He hauls me about a hundred yards until we find a shady spot where a couple of rocks intersect. I'm panting from the exertion and my whole body's screaming in pain. He lowers me to the ground and props me against one of the rocks. I hiss as it scrapes my burned skin. Roy feeds me crackers and small sips of water. It's only slightly cooler in the shade, but I'm suddenly shivering terribly. I must have a fever. My head's still pounding and every bit of light that strikes my eyes increases my pain.
I push Roy away when he tries to give me another sip of water. "Roy, what are you doing?"
"Uh, trying to hydrate you?" He brings the canteen to my lips and again I pull away.
"We're not allies," I say. "I could kill you."
"Not right now, you couldn't," Roy says. Okay, true. I doubt I could even draw my knife, let alone gather the strength to push it into someone's body. "I couldn't let you die."
"You'll have to."
"Not yet," Roy says firmly. "Not like that."
"That's not how the game is played," I say.
Roy sits back on his heels. "All right," he says. "You want me to leave you alone? I will. I'll leave you some water and walk away right now. Or we can be allies again and watch each other's backs. Your call."
"It's going to end badly," I warn him.
"There was never a chance it wouldn't," he says wearily.
It doesn't take me long to decide. Our odds are better together. And nothing will make it easy to kill him, not after today. "Allies then," I say.
Roy nods and pushes the canteen into my hand. He digs into the first aid kit and finds some pills to help with the headache and fever.
I see a flash of silver and Roy catches the parachute. It's attached to a small tin filled with some kind of cream. Roy dips two fingers into the tin and brushes some on my thigh.
I hiss at his touch, but it quickly turns to a moan of relief. I look down and see that the blisters have faded away, leaving tender, pink skin. If this is a sample of Capitol medicine, then I must be doing the right thing for my mother. "That's amazing," I breathe. "Give me some more."
Roy chuckles at my reaction and scoops more out of the jar. He applies the lotion to my skin with long, smooth strokes. It feels like a miracle. He finishes applying the lotion to my legs and moves upward. I close my eyes in pleasure as his fingers stroke my chest, bringing blessed relief with each touch. Roy chuckles. "If you wanted my hands all over you, you just had to ask."
I open my eyes and he's grinning at me. I smirk back. His hand moves low on my stomach, rubbing the lotion in slow circles. His face is just inches from mine. I lick my lips and hesitate, because nothing has changed. At least one of us is still going to die.
Is that a reason to hold back or a reason to give in?
Before I can decide, Roy pulls back, taking my hesitation as a lack of interest. I reach out to touch him, maybe pull him closer, but when I put my hand on his waist, he jerks back with a hiss of pain.
"Let me see," I say. He obediently lifts his shirt and I can see the long gash from just under his ribs down to his hip.
"It's not deep," he says.
"Deep enough," I say. The edges of his flesh pull apart as he moves. "I'll stitch it up for you."
He grimaces. "Not the way I want your hands on me."
"Shouldn't have gotten sliced open, then," I say. "Is there anything else?"
He shows me a cut on his thigh, long and shallow, but also in need of stitches. I finish applying the burn lotion to my face and arms and then Roy hands me the first aid kit. I clean my hands as best as I can and proceed to stitch him up, disinfect and bandage him. By the time I'm done, the sun's getting lower in the sky and I know we can't spend the night here.
I tell Roy how Joker came back once already and how he's sure to return. "We need to move before dark," I say.
"All right," he says. "How's your head?"
It's feeling better and my fever's gone down. We drink some more water and eat a bit of roast rabbit that Roy has in his pack. He stands guard while I peel off my pants and shirt and stitch up the tears. They won't pass for new, but they'll give me some protection against the sun and cold. I also clean and re-bandage the cuts on my calf and side.
"Ready to go?" Roy asks, once I'm dressed. He clasps his hand around my forearm and helps me to my feet. My vision's still fuzzy and my head's still pounding, but I'm a thousand times better now than when he found me.
We reach the stream and fill the canteens. I wait the bare minimum time for the water to be purified and then drink heavily. I only realize once I've set it down that I've emptied the whole canteen. "Sorry," I say. I refill the canteen and start the purification again.
Roy laughs. "Drink all you need. It's better inside you…." His smile fades and I know he's thinking of Bart. "Well, you need it," he finishes gruffly.
"Who's died?" I ask. "I didn't see the sky last night."
"The girl from Ten died yesterday and the girl from Nine died this morning." His lips tighten and I know she was the one who gave him those wounds. I put a hand on his arm and he sighs. "I'm still alive. Let's get moving."
We fill the canteens again and walk upstream, looking for a good camping spot. "Why did you volunteer?" he asks.
I tell him about my mother being sick and her only chance being a Capitol doctor.
He lets out a low whistle. "That's a hell of a risk to take for your mom."
"She's all I have," I say quietly.
"He was a thief," I say, aware of the cameras all around me. "He paid for his crimes."
"Mine was a poacher," Roy says.
"Gallows?" I ask.
"Firing squad," he says.
We lapse into painful silence for a bit. Finally, he asks me if I had a job back home. I tell him about the factory where I cut white fabric into pieces that are sewn into Peacekeeper uniforms. He tells me about his job in the sawmill, where he started out sweeping sawdust when he was twelve. He'd have been assigned his own sawing machine this year, after finishing school, if his name hadn't been drawn in the Reaping.
Even if one of us wins, those lives are over. Winning means we'll be so rich we'll never have to work again. I haven't really thought about that. I've been focused on getting my mother healthy again that I hadn't thought about what I'd do with the rest of my life.
Or maybe this is the rest of my life. Me and Roy and the desert.
Roy spots the alcove where we've stayed before and setting up camp provides some distraction from my thoughts. We inspect the area first, for any signs that others have been there, but it looks untouched. Roy rigs a wire around the perimeter and sets it to trigger a fall of small rocks if someone crosses it. The rocks aren't big enough to do much damage, but they'll give us a warning.
Neither of us feel like it's safe to start a fire, so we dine on roots and berries.
We watch the sky as the anthem plays and see the face of the girl from Nine. Roy sits back against the rock, rests his arms on his knees and stares down at the ground.
I reach out and squeeze his knee lightly. He turns to look at me, sorrow and guilt weighing heavily on his face. I want to wipe that misery off his face, but words are dangerous here. Guilt at the death of a fellow tribute won't play well with the sponsors. Besides, are there any words that would comfort him? All I can give him are a few minutes of distraction from his thoughts. I lean in and kiss him.
It's not a light kiss. It's hard and urgent and he returns it in kind. I slide my hand up the back of his neck and grip his hair. His hand finds the bottom of my shirt and slides under my clothing, dry, calloused fingers scratching the newly healed skin on my stomach. I lean into his touch. I take his hand and guide it lower.
"Are you sure?" Roy asks in a low voice. His fingers hesitate at the top button of my pants. "The audience…?"
"Want to give them a show?" I ask grimly. I loathe the audience, the Capitol, and their tiny, prying, night-vision cameras, but when the cameras are gone, this chance will be lost. I'm sunburnt, filthy and underfed - nobody's idea of a pin-up model - but I yank off my shirt with a flourish. I try to grin at him, but it feels like I'm baring my teeth. It's more like a challenge than a seduction, but Roy accepts it, pushing me on my back and tugging my pants down.
I've never been with a guy before. I've never been with anyone before. I fooled around with a couple of people back home, but we never had the time or the opportunity to get very far. Wish I'd had the chance for a dress rehearsal, at least, before going live on screens all over Panem.
Roy seems to know what he's doing, though. We strip off our clothes and lay them on the ground so we've got something between our bare skin and the dirt. My heart's pounding, equal parts aroused and terrified. It's not just performance anxiety. Even with alarms rigged up, it's risky to let ourselves be so distracted. I can't let myself fully give in to what Roy's doing with his hands and mouth. I keep my ears open, keep flicking my eyes up to watch the perimeter. I bite down on my own fist to keep from making any noises that will give us away to hunters.
Roy grins when he notices this and slides up my body to kiss me again.
"Roy," I whisper.
He drags his teeth along my neck, just below my ear. "I'll keep watch, Jay," he says. "Let yourself go." He stuffs the sleeve of my jacket in my mouth to keep me quiet and twists his hand in just the right way. I arch my back and ride the waves of pure physical sensation.
It takes me a moment to come back to myself and I'm still breathing heavily when I open my eyes. Roy's stroking my chest lightly with his fingertips, smirking at me.
"My turn," I tell him. I wrap him in a wrestling grip and flip us over so he's lying on his back and I'm straddling his waist.
"Bring it," he grins. I pin his wrists at his side and lower my mouth. He tastes of sweat and dirt and under that, of something green and woodsy, like he's still got a bit of District Seven under his skin. I'm not as skilled with my tongue and fingers as he is, but I've got an idea of what feels good. Soon he pulls a hand free of my grip so he can keep his own cries silent. I wish I could just bury myself in his scent and his taste and what he looks like when he's losing control, but I have to be watchful now. I'm not even looking at his face when I hear a low groan in the back of his throat and feel him shudder all over.
The chill of the night is setting in, but we clean up and dress slowly. I tell him I need to check his wounds, but mostly I just want to slide my hands over his bare skin again before he's gone. Our bandages are intact though, and we haven't pulled any stitches, so we pull our clothes back on.
A silver parachute drifts down and I don't need to open the basket to know what it is. It's applause. It's a reward for a show well performed. It's a reminder that even our most private moments belong to the world and they won't let us forget it, even for a night. I want to yell back at them and toss it in their faces.
Instead, I stand up and take a bow. "Thank you!" I say to the empty air, knowing there's a dozen cameras trained on me right now. "Thank you, ladies and gentlemen of Panem. I'm glad you enjoyed the show. Stay tuned tomorrow night! You may get a repeat performance or you may get a bloody massacre! Every day's an adventure in the Hunger Games!"
Roy stuffs a roll of bread in my mouth before I can say anything worse. It's warm and soft and so fresh that I can see steam rolling off it in the cool night air. Our show has earned us six rolls, a bit of goat cheese and two large, fresh apples. We eat four of the rolls, half of the cheese, one of the apples and save the rest for tomorrow.
Roy offers to take the first watch. He leans against the back of the alcove. I sit down between his legs and lean back. He wraps his arms around me. I feel safe in his arms and I shouldn't. I shouldn't feel safe anywhere. I check my knife to make sure it's still buckled at my waist.
"I barely know you," I say sleepily.
He covers my hand with his and links our fingers together. "My favorite color's red," he offers.
"Mine, too," I say, with a smile. It's a tiny connection, but it's something real, something that isn't all about the Games.
Roy's thumb brushes against the bare spot at the hollow of my throat. "What happened to your robin?" he asks.
"Joker took it," I say bitterly. "As a trophy."
"Then you'll have to take it back," Roy says. There's steel in his voice.
"Tomorrow," I decide. "Tomorrow I'm taking it back." I close my eyes.
Roy wakes me in the middle of the night and we change places. I curl around the warmth of his body and try not to let his heartbeat lull me back to sleep. How much of tonight's activities were the people back home watching? We must have been live on all the screens. Being watched by anonymous crowds is bad, but being watched by people I know is stranger and more disturbing. What will it be like to go home and face everyone? I'm not sure why being intimate with a guy feels more dangerous than killing multiple people. Maybe because murder is part of the deal and love -
No. It's not love. It's companionship, shared warmth and physical comfort. Not love. Not friendship. Having an ally will help me win, but caring about another tribute will get me killed. There's no room for genuine feelings in the arena.
I hear the clatter of rocks falling and I shake Roy awake. He grabs his bow before I can say a word. I draw my knife and we emerge from the alcove, ready to take on the enemy.
What we see are rabbits. Dozens of them, running like they ran from the golden fog. Running from the huge sandstorm that's bearing down on us all.
* * *
Chapter 5: Five
We're trapped, with the steep hill on one side and the sandstorm bearing down on the other. I grab my pack, ready to risk the hill, but Roy yanks me back. All the animals charging over the hill have loosened the dirt and rocks are tumbling our way. I look around at our very limited options and drag Roy back into the alcove. We pull our hoods over our heads, our shirts up over our faces and huddle together against the rock. I squeeze my eyes shut and hope we're not about to get buried alive.
The storm hits us like a body blow, sand and heat and wind whirling together. Dirt and small rocks grind at me through my jacket. I put my arms up over my head to protect my face and my jacket pulls up, exposing a bit of skin on my back just above the line of my pants. The storm tears at my freshly-healed skin like a cheese grater, especially my unprotected hands. Blood trickles down my wrists and under my sleeves, where it mingles with the sweat pouring from my skin. It's stifling hot with my jacket up and the hot wind pouring in from all sides. I'm desperate for a drink of water. I know my canteen's within reach, but I don't think I can find it by touch and if I open my eyes, I could be blinded permanently.
The wind comes in waves; the grinding torrent of sand falters for a bit and then I hear the wind howling through the rocks before it slams into us again. I don't know many times it hits us. When the wind finally dies down for good, the silence is so thorough, I wonder if I've gone deaf.
I push my hood back and shake my head to loosen the sand from my face and hair. I scrub my hands over my face and use my shirt to try and wipe my eyes free of sand before I open them.
"Still alive?" Roy croaks. His throat must be as dry as mine.
"For the moment," I reply. I finally open my eyes and discover I'm kneeling in a pit of sand about a foot deep. I dig out a canteen and take a few big gulps before I hand it to Roy. I take a look outside the alcove. From the sun, I'm guessing it's only been about an hour since the storm started. Our little clearing is destroyed. Not only is the ground about a foot higher than before, but it's also peppered with rocks that must have tumbled off the hillside. Most are the size of my head or larger. I'm glad we had the alcove for protection.
We dig out our gear and supplies and try to shake everything clean, which is a hopeless cause. I've got sand in every crevice and if I don't bathe soon, there's going to be some serious chafing. Water's our first priority, so when we've packed up our gear and bandaged our raw skin, we head for the stream. The sand drags at our feet and it's slow going, so when we don't reach the stream right away, I think we've underestimated how far we had to go. And then, after a bit, I think we've gone the wrong way. It isn't until we reach the tree Bart wounded with his spear that I realize what's gone wrong.
Roy realizes it at the same time. He slips his pack off, retrieves his folding shovel and kneels down to dig. I come over to watch. He gets past the layer of fresh sand and I reach in, grabbing a handful of soft, damp earth. We're in the right spot. The stream's been buried by the storm.
We've got about a canteen of water left between the two of us. It'll last twice as long if there's only one of us. His bow's slung over his shoulder now. I've got a hand near my knife and I put a finger on the hilt. I could cut his throat before he could reach for an arrow. I think of how it felt, dying in the heat of the sun with no chance of a drink. This partnership can't last. Why not end it now and save some suffering?
Roy's watching me now, eyes wary, and he shifts subtly, ready to fight or run. His hand creeps toward his bow. I could draw my knife, let him grab his bow and get this parody of a friendship over with. Would I lose sponsors if I turned on Roy, or would I gain them for being ruthless?
But I drop my hand and Roy relaxes. "There's got to be water left somewhere," I say. Watching us all die slowly of thirst isn't what the audience wants. "The pond, probably."
I don't want to lose Roy. Our companionship may have only the barest threads of friendship, but he's the only one here. The only one who knows what it was like to sit with Bart as he died. The only friend I have who won't hate me for becoming a killer because he's had to kill too.
Forget physical intimacy. Nothing brings a couple together like murder.
Roy nods and stands up. He folds up the shovel and brushes the dirt off his hands. "Let's head to the pond, then."
It's a long trek on half a canteen of water each, but maybe our sponsors will be generous. Water will be incredibly pricey in the middle of a Gamemaker-created drought, but with only five tributes left, there must be a lot of people betting on us.
We trudge southward. The sandstorm buried the grass and filled in the rabbit holes. All we can see now are rocks and thin, spiky trees. It's emptier. More desolate. Maybe that's just because the last time we came this way, we had Bart's chatter to fill the silence.
My feet drag in the sand and I move slower and slower. I realize I don't want to go south. We're almost certainly not the only ones heading for the pond now and that means the end of the Games is near. As much as I want to go home - and I desperately want to go home - I don't want to face what's coming. I can't push my feet forward anymore. I stand in one spot, staring southward.
Roy pauses. "Jason?"
I slide my pack off my shoulders and fumble in it for the canteen of water. We need hydration and it's the only good reason to stop. I swig a small mouthful and let it swish around in my mouth to moisten it before I swallow. The water's hot and stale and wonderful. I pass the canteen to Roy.
My mouth is dry again the moment the water's gone, but when Roy hands the canteen back to me, I screw the cap on tight and shove it back in my pack. It's so tempting to drink more, but we need to ration carefully or we'll never make it to the pond.
Roy puts his hand on my shoulder and I brush it away. "I'm fine," I say, forcing my feet to move again. How much of his attraction to me is real and how much is calculated for the audience? Does he think a "romance" will play well with the audience? I remember that I started things last night and I'm even more confused. How do I know what's real? And does it matter? It's not like this relationship ever had a future. "Nothing here is real," I mutter to myself.
"We are," Roy says.
I don't answer him.
"Let's keep moving," he says softly.
Roy keeps his bow ready, but there's no game. All the animals are fled or buried, I guess. No fish left, with the stream gone, and the roots are buried as well. The berry bushes were stripped clean by the storm. I suppose I should be worried about food, but we'll die of thirst long before we starve to death. I'll worry about food once we've found water.
The sound of trumpets cause us to draw up short. We both look up, even though there's nothing to see but sky. The voice of announcer Modius Spatterdash booms through the arena. "It is my honor to invite all of you to a feast," he says. "Tomorrow morning, at dawn, please join us in the center of the arena as we celebrate your continued survival with the most glorious food and drink that the Capitol has to offer."
I look at Roy and lick my dry lips. "That's very generous of them," I say. "Would you like to accompany me to a feast?"
"It would be my pleasure," he says grimly. He takes my hand in his and squeezes it lightly. It'll be our first date.
We're all going to be there at dawn. I'll check out the pond when we get down there, but I'd put money on it being empty. The only food and water we're going to find in the arena will be at the feast and every tribute will be there.
We could stay away. We could hope that our sponsors are generous and that the others kill each other over the feast, leaving us alone. But back home, people who rely on generosity and luck to stay alive usually end up dead in a back alley. I don't think the arena's going to be much nicer. Besides, we've still got each other. At the feast, there's a chance that someone else will kill Roy so I don't have to.
We take a break at sundown and rest for a few minutes. We eat a bit of food and pass the canteen back and forth for a few small sips.
Roy screws the lid back on the canteen and puts it back in the pack. He looks over at me and brushes a smudge of dirt off my face with his thumb. "Jason…" he begins and then pauses.
"There's nothing to say," I reply. My throat is dry and my voice comes out gravely and gruff.
"No." Whatever this is, it'll be over tomorrow. Throwing words at it won't make things better.
Roy nods. "Okay." He leans in to kiss me and I meet him halfway. It's a gentle kiss, this time, not full of grief or urgent need. We pull apart and Roy rests his forehead against mine.
"We need to move," I say. "We've got a lot of ground to cover if we want to get to the Cornucopia at dawn." Roy gives me a long look, but he nods and we move on.
The sky's beginning to lighten at the edges by the time we reach the center of the arena. The golden Cornucopia is there, solid as ever, but the pond's been drained. In its place is a spiral, cut into the ground, with two paths leading to the center. One path is ordinary grass, the same we'd seen growing by the streams before the sandstorm buried them. The other is something black and soft and oozing. Both paths are a couple of feet wide at the edge of the pond and get narrower until they touch the center, a round steel plate about two feet in diameter. They're maybe six inches wide at the smallest point. You could walk the whole path without touching the black goo, if you have good balance and didn't have to make any sudden movements.
We prepare a small diversion. We find a large branch that was torn off during the storm. We tie it to one of the taller trees, dangling it over a bit of rock outcropping. Once that's done, we walk away a bit. Roy picks a rock and climbs it. It's about eight feet tall, high enough to give him some advantage and low enough that he can jump down without injuring himself if he needs to move. The rock angles up on one side and there's a tree on the other, so he's got some cover. We're both covered head to foot in dirt at this point and while the chafing's not fun, we blend in pretty well with the scenery. I take cover at the foot of the rock.
Just after the sun crosses the horizon, the steel plate splits in two, and folds away under the table that rises up to take its place. Baskets of fruit and bread surround the base of the table. A breeze blows my way and I catch the scent of the bread, fresh and sweet. On the table itself is a silver fountain with clear water pouring from the center. The water splashes from a central pillar and fills a basin. No matter how much water pours from the top, the basin never overflows. The only other thing on the table is a single crystal goblet.
I lick my lips, aching for just a taste of the water. Roy and I finished our supply about an hour ago, figuring it was better to go into battle hydrated than save any for a later that might not exist. But I hold my position and wait for the others to approach first.
I wait for a while. It occurs to me, after about fifteen minutes, that we might be the only ones here. We're frozen in place when we could be drinking that fresh, clear water. But, no. The others are here. I can feel them.
A couple of minutes later, Joker strolls out into the center of the arena with his hands in his pockets. "I'm going to grab a drink," he says to the open air. "Want me to get you something?" He holds out one hand, palm up, and slowly turns in place, addressing the tributes hidden in the scenery. "Apple? Bread? No? More for me, then."
He whistles a tune I don't recognize, sticks his hand back in his pocket and takes slow, exaggerated steps up to the edge of the former pond. He puts one foot on the grass path and starts walking the spiral.
I look up at Roy and nod. He fires an arrow, severing the rope holding the branch a dozen yards away, sending it crashing to the ground.
Joker pauses mid-step and a grin creeps across his face. "Ah, there you are. Harley, greet our guest."
The girl from Two steps out from behind a rock at the other side of the arena. Roy's got her in his sights by the time she fires the crossbow at our distraction. She tries to duck for cover, but I hear her scream as his arrow finds its mark. I slap the side of the rock next to me as a signal to Roy and run in.
Joker turns to see me and raises his eyebrows in what might be genuine surprise.
"Yeah, I survived," I say.
"Little birdie," he says. "I was hoping we'd meet-" I slam into him, knocking his feet off the ground and the words from his mouth.
"Yeah," I say. "Me too." I straddle his hips and slam my knife into his shoulder. His scream quickly slips into laughter, alternating with gasps of pain. I pull out my knife, ready to stab him again, and he surges upward, throwing me to the side. I put down my left hand to catch my balance. My palm slips off the edge of the grass and into the black goo. The goo sears my skin. I cry out and try to pull my hand free, but the goo is thick and sticky and I can't get free. My hand's buried to my wrist, I'm off-balance and Joker's coming right at me. I still have my knife hand free, though, and I slash him across the face. A line of blood blooms on his cheek.
He kicks me in the stomach, hard, and I gasp for air. My hand slips further in the goo. My skin feels like it's being eaten away. I'm afraid that if I get my hand out, nothing will be left but bones.
I have to live that long first.
I slam a foot into Joker's knee, bringing him down to the ground next to me. I drop my knife and grab his arm, using his weight as leverage to pull myself free of the black muck. I shove my goo-covered hand in his face, trying to stick my fingers in his eyes, and he screams in agony as his flesh starts to burn.
I reach for my knife again, but I pause before striking. I want him to suffer because he made me suffer. I want to slice him open and watch his intestines slide out. I could cut his tendons and leave him in helpless agony as I battle the others.
I stare at him and his burnt, bloody face twists into a final grin. "You're my favorite, little robin," he whispers. I stop his giggles when I open his throat. There's no time for revenge.
The cannon fires and I hear a scream of rage and grief. The girl from Two runs at me, hair still in blonde pigtails, left arm drenched in blood from a recent shoulder wound - probably Roy's arrow. She fires the crossbow at me. I manage to dodge the bolt, but my foot slips into the black good. I bend down, slice through my laces and yank my foot free from the boot. She throws the empty crossbow at my face, but I knock it aside with my arm.
"You killed my Puddin'!" Harley screams. I'm confused for a moment until I realize that must be her nickname for Joker. "I'm going to tear your limbs off! I'm going to pry your eyeballs from your skull and shove them up your nose!" She's dragging her hammer in one hand, a thick, heavy thing with a long handle. She swings it back over her shoulder and, in the same motion, brings it down at my head.
I duck, just in time, and scramble backwards in a crab crawl. She swings it down again, right at my crotch. I shove myself back and drop my knees open just in time. The hammer hits the grass path way too close to my personal anatomy for comfort.
Her face is contorted with rage and she's still screaming at me, though I can't even make out the words now. She swings the hammer again and again. She's angry enough that her swings are wild and I can dodge them easily, but I can't move anywhere but backwards and the spiral path is getting narrower.
The next time she draws back the hammer, I sheathe my knife and pull the pack of throwing knives from my jacket. The first one misses, even at this close range. She swings the hammer down and my throw goes wild as I dodge it. The second one hits her right shoulder, but she's so flush with rage, I don't think she even feels it.
The third one goes through her eye and into her brain.
Her body's got enough momentum to finish the swing and I dodge her hammer once more. Then she topples over and the cannon sounds.
I take a moment to catch my breath and to wipe what's left of the black goo off my left hand and arm. It's agonizing to rub the raw skin, even against the soft grass, but I'm relieved to see my skin is mostly intact. It's raw and bloody, covered in blisters and appears to have melted in a few places. But the skin's still there and the muscles and tendons underneath are safe.
I survey the scene and suck in my breath when I see the remaining tributes. Roy and Cheshire are standing by the rock Roy and I had used for cover. They're only a couple of feet from each other. Roy's got an arrow aimed at her chest and she's got her blowgun to her lips.
Neither of them are moving. They're holding their stalemate in place. I don't know if it's fear that holds them, or caution, or some memory of who they were to each other back home.
I draw my knife and charge her. Halfway there, I realize that all deals are off at this point. There's a perfectly good chance that Roy will shoot me and I couldn't blame him for it. Well, I'd probably blame him a little, but the audience wouldn't.
I don't change my target. When I'm just a foot or so away, Cheshire hears me coming and whips her blowgun at my face. I slap it aside and she draws a knife. I fall into a combat stance and she drops into one that echoes mine. I slash at her face and she blocks my knife with hers. The clash of metal meeting metal is loud in the nearly empty arena and I realize that the wind isn't blowing. No birds are nearby. Of course not. Only the tributes are important now. Everything else was to push us into this spot.
Cheshire's smaller than me, but faster. She brings down her knife again and I have to throw up my left arm to block it. I twist my elbow so the knife runs down the arm instead of biting into it. I lose a few layers of burned, blistered skin, but my tendons are untouched.
When she swings again, I wait and catch her wrist in my hand. But when I try to stab her, she grabs my wrist as well. We're caught in a puzzle hold, but I figure my strength gives me the advantage here. All I have to do is-
She lets out a huff of breath suddenly, her back arching, blood running from her mouth. Her arms go limp and she falls to the ground, an arrow in her back. Roy's standing a few feet away with an empty bow. "Roy," she mouths, turning to him with no air left in her lungs.
"I'm sorry, Chesh," he says softly, his eyes damp and sad.
The cannon fires. I adjust the grip on my knife and look across Cheshire's body to Roy. I try to empty my thoughts, my heart, and face him cold and uncaring, because that's the only way I can survive. My heart throbs painfully. I tighten my fingers around the hilt of my knife and hope the shaking isn't visible. "Just us, then."
Roy shakes his head. He pulls something from his neck and holds it out to me. It's a tiny dart with green and black feathers.
I stare at the tiny dart in his hand. "It's not-" The words stick in my throat and I cough to clear it. "It's not over," I say. "If you kill me, you'll win. They'll cure you."
Roy's eyes look down at Cheshire's body and then back at me. His eyes are bleak. "No," he says. "I can't do it twice, Jason." He slips the quiver off his shoulder and tosses it aside. "I won't spend my last moments fighting a friend." I keep my eyes on him and slowly sheathe my knife. He comes over to me, put his hand on my shoulder and presses a kiss to my forehead. He's already sweating, flushed with fever. He cups my cheek with his hand and rests his forehead against mine. He speaks in the quietest voice he can manage, giving us the illusion of privacy. "It was real for me," he says, and touches his lips to mine.
His throat's starting to swell. I don't know how much time we have. I don't want to win this. I don't want to be left alone. I draw my knife and push the hilt into his hand. "Kill me," I beg. "I won't fight you."
Roy's fingers close around the knife and he lifts the blade up to his own neck, where he cuts the twine on his district token. He drops the knife and pushes the carved wooden arrow into my hand. "Idiot," he says softly. "I just saved you." He sways and I catch him, lowering him gently to the ground. I'm on my knees, holding him in my arms.
"No," I say, my sight blurry and my throat tight. "Roy, don't. Don't. I need someone to watch my back. I can't do this without you."
He takes my good hand in his and links our fingers together. "You're the only one left, Jay." His voice is barely audible, even in the empty arena.
I can't explain that I'm not talking about the Games. "HELP HIM!" I scream up at the sky. "Help him, please!" A simple silver parachute can save him. Someone's got to still be betting on him.
Roy's grip clamps down on my hand, so tight I think he might break my bones. I look down and his throat's swelled like a balloon. His lips move but there's no sound and I can't tell what he's trying to say. His eyes are wide and terrified and I should think of something comforting to say, something soothing, but he's eighteen and he's dying and the whole world's watching and no one will save him. There's no lie I could tell that he'd believe and no truth that could comfort him.
I just stay with him, let him hold on to me and pull him close to my chest when the convulsions start. I want his agony to end, but then his body goes limp and his hand slips from mine. "No," I cry. If he can hang on for a little longer, maybe there's a chance. Maybe someone will save him.
The cannon fires.
I keep holding him, long after the life's gone from his body. Finally, I lay him on the ground and take off my jacket to cover him. I've still got his token in my burned hand. I stuff it in my pocket. I can't look at it right now.
I pick up my knife and sheathe it. I get my pack from where I left it by the rock and walk to the center of the spiral, stepping over corpses on the way. I don't know where I lost my boot. It's either dissolved or sunken into the black goo too deep to retrieve. I take one of Joker's boots. It rubs in the wrong places, which'll be hell on a long journey, but it'll keep my feet warm at night, if the Capitol doesn't let me out of the arena.
I reach the fountain. I pick up the crystal goblet and drop it into the black goo, where it slowly sinks. I take out my canteen and fill it from the fountain. I take a long drink, refill the canteen and put it in my pack. I fill the rest of my pack with bread and fruit and then go sit with my back against the Cornucopia to wait. There's no sound in the world except my breathing.
A hovercraft appears. It lifts up the bodies, one by one. First Joker, then Harley, then Cheshire and finally, Roy.
Trumpets blare. "Ladies and gentlemen!" says Modius Spatterdash. "We are proud to present the winner of the Ninety-Ninth Hunger Games: Jason Todd of District Eight!" The arena is suddenly full of sound as the cheering of the Capitol crowd is pumped into the air.
Another hovercraft arrives and this one drops a ladder. I sling my pack over my shoulders and step on. A mild electric current pins me in place as the hovercraft draws me up. It releases me once the hovercraft door closes behind me and a dozen people in white coats move in.
I draw my knife and leave red stains on two white coats before they get smart and move the hell away. "You killed him!" I yell. "You killed him, you sons of bitches!"
The two doctors I've injured are hauled away, probably to have their wounds instantly and miraculously healed. I should've gone for their throats.
I walk forward and the doctors scramble back, but stay in a loose circle surrounding me. "You want entertainment? Come and get me!" I grin and two doctors flinch. I must look wild, all filthy and bloody in my badly stitched clothes. "I'll entertain everyone. COME HERE!" I scream.
Someone pushes through the doctors on the left and I pivot to face this new threat. But it's Talia. "Stop," she orders me. "Put the knife down, Jason. The Games are over."
I didn't expect to see a familiar face among the Capitol ghouls and it throws me. I want revenge. I want to kill all the people who let Roy die, who let Bart die, and my district partner, Zoanne, and all the others. But it's not just the doctors. It's the sponsors. It's the Capitol. It's the President.
If I kill the doctors, I won't have a chance for revenge on the ones who deserve it most.
Talia steps forward carefully, hands raised. "It's okay," she says, as if she's soothing a small child. Or a wild animal. I let her take the knife from my hand. "You're safe now." I see the lie in her eyes. She touches a hand to my cheek.
"Why did you let me do it?" I whisper.
Her eyes are full of sadness. "I wanted to bring someone home."
Cold metal presses against my neck and a needle thrusts into my skin.
* * *
Chapter 6: Victory
I slowly come to a groggy awareness. I don't know how long I've been out. The drugs still hold me down in sleep, but I fight them, dragging myself up to consciousness. I wake up and find myself strapped down, hands and ankles pinned in place and a metal band across my chest. Fear overwhelms me and I struggle to pull free, not caring that I'm rubbing my skin raw. Something floods my system, a cool, heavy feeling that pushes me back into the dark.
I wake up again. I'm still strapped down and my instinct is to fight my way free, but I push down the panic and evaluate the situation. I'm in a pale, sterile room with no doors or windows. I'm wearing a thin gown made of paper and I've got tubes strapped to my arm. Everything's so foreign and strange that it takes a moment for me to realize what really feels off. There's no pain. No cuts, no burned flesh, no aching head. Even the skin I scrapped on the restraints has been healed.
Talia's sitting next to the bed in a plastic chair painted the same color as the walls. "Jason," she says softly. She reaches for my hand and gives it a light squeeze. "Do you know where you are?"
"The Capitol," I say. "In a hospital?"
She nods. "Yes. You're out of the Arena. The Games are over." She says it in a careful, pointed way, like she's talking to a child, but there's something under her words. I'm not her only audience. Others must be watching and listening to us, but I don't know what she's afraid they'll see.
I nod, since she seems to expect a response.
"Good." She smiles and lets my hand go. A panel slides open on the wall and I try to see what's beyond it, but I just see more pale walls. A nurse enters the room. He approaches the bed slowly, watching me intently. I don't know what he thinks I'll do when my body's strapped down.
"Boo," I say, just to see, and he jumps.
"Jason," Talia scolds.
"Don't worry," I say to the nurse. "I know the Games are over now. I don't need to stab any more people." I give him a big smile. Oddly, he's not reassured. He scuttles back out of the room and the panel shuts. A moment later, another nurse enters. She's several decades older than the previous one and doesn't look like she's easily spooked. I let her remove the tubes from my arm without comment.
"Let's get you out of here," Talia says. The metal bands suddenly retract into the bed, which confirms that we're being watched. I push myself up and realize I'm very weak. I'm not sure I can stand, let alone fight.
"How long has it been?" I ask.
"Three days since you were lifted from the Arena," Talia says.
I hold up both my hands and turn them over. There's no scarring and no melted skin. I study my hands closer and notice that all my scars are gone. The thin, white one on my thumb, where my hand slipped on the cutting blade at work. I was beaten for getting my red blood all over the white fabric. The faded one across my palm from when I was five and tried to grab a pan off the hot stove. The rough patch on my forearm I got when my dad and I were playing in the alley and I took a bad fall in the gravel.
"Get dressed and come on out," Talia says. She pats my leg and leaves me alone in the room. There's clothing on the bed, the same uniform I wore in the Arena, only this one's fresh, clean and undamaged. I study my hands again. Nothing to show I'd been in the Arena at all.
I pull on the clothes and I'm glad to find I'm a little stronger than I thought. I need to eat though. I look around for my pack, remembering that I filled it with food. But I'm a victor. I'm not supposed to go hungry anymore. I go to find Talia.
The panel on the wall slides open before I can touch it. Talia's in a room at the end of the hall. She's waiting with my escort, Rutilius, an older man with silver-blue tattoos to match his silver-blue hair and my stylist, Ceria, whose hair and eyelashes are dyed a dark magenta.
They all give me hugs and congratulate me. Oddly, I'm glad to see them. Stuffy, impatient Rutilius and obsessively picky Ceria drove me nuts before the Games, but they're still vaguely familiar faces in a very strange place.
"They gave you a full body polish," Ceria says. She tilts her head and looks me over from head to foot. "Let me see your hands." I hold them up. My nails have been cleaned, filed and buffed. "Well, you're too thin, but your outfit for the ceremony will give you a bit more bulk."
"Marvelous," I say. "I'd hate for everyone to think you've been starving me."
Ceria gives me an unimpressed look.
"Let's get some food," Talia suggests. She links her arm in mine and guides me to an elevator. We emerge in the District Eight apartment in the Training Center.
The dining room table's piled high with food, but I'm only permitted a small bowl of soup and a fresh roll. I discover it's enough to fill my empty stomach, but I still slip two rolls into my pocket for later. When Rutilius is telling a clever story and all the attention's on him, I take the chance to slip a table knife in my pocket as well.
Zoanne was at this table the last time we were all together. No one mentions her name.
The prep team arrives and I get up for my afternoon of being plucked, scrubbed and styled. Talia puts a hand on my arm. "Remember," she says quietly. "We still need a Capitol patron to help your mother. I know someone and you'll meet him tonight, but nothing's set in stone yet. Keep that in mind."
I give her a tired smile. "I'll be on my best behavior."
"Leave the knives behind," she suggests and holds out her hand.
"Just for you," I say. I give her the table knife.
The crowd roars when I come out on stage. If Joker had won, you'd be cheering him, too, I think. I paste on a smile and wave to the audience. My heart's pounding, the lights are blinding and I can hear people screaming, laughing, shouting my name. I throw out a few obscene gestures, but I do it between smiles and waves, so the audience just laughs and cheers.
Someone pushes me towards the victor's chair and I stumble to my seat. I brace myself, knowing I'm going to watch Bart and Roy die again and it's going to be bad.
I forgot that I'm going to see them alive again, too. I watch as their names are drawn in the Reaping. Bart's startled and confused, looking around at his friends for confirmation. Roy's mouth sets in a thin line. He looks grim, stoic, even, but I can tell from how he's holding his fists that he's terrified. Clips play from their interviews, where Bart talks a mile a minute and Roy smirks at the crowd. I feel my chest tighten again when I see him there, wearing a red suit, his hair slicked back and his freckles nearly invisible in the stage lights. I barely noticed him the first time, except to size up a potential threat. Now I see the way his fingers drum on the arm of the chair and remember what it was like when he touched me.
Then there's a boy on stage in a black leather jacket who jokes with the interviewer and tells a story about facing down a gang in streets of District Eight. The story's true, mostly, though the kids were younger and not nearly as big as I tried to make them sound. Talia liked the story, though, and Rutilius agreed that it made me sound tough. Part of the image they sold the sponsors: ruthless, streetwise Jason Todd. I never mentioned my mom.
The Games start. I see the joy Joker takes in killing his opponents and I know that's one death I'll never be sorry about. He laughs, twirls and splatters blood all around him and the audience laughs along with him.
I rescue Bart twice and we join up with Roy. Floyd from District Four negotiates a deal with the kids from One and Two. Cheshire slips into their camp at night and sets fire to a barrel of cooking oil, destroying the bulk of their supplies. We see the kids from One, Two and Four picking through the ashes and moving to a new camp. Cheshire kills a snake for its venom.
Deaths that were just faces in the sky are now vivid, full-screen nightmares. The boy from Twelve dies in that horrible, golden fog, ripping out his own throat to stop the pain. The girl from Ten succumbs to one of Cheshire's darts.
Bart takes the crossbow bolt to his lungs and the audience quiets down to a low murmur. I'm cold and calculating, looting the bodies, while Roy tries to comfort the dying boy. The boy who trusted me to protect him.
It's jarring to watch Roy and I suddenly lock lips while Bart's corpse is only a few feet away. Shame burns my face. We didn't even wait until his body was lifted from the Arena. I can't make myself regret it. I wish I'd kissed Roy sooner. More often. Or maybe not at all. I'm not sure if any of the choices I made in the Arena were the right ones.
I watch Roy and I split up. He battles the girl from Nine. One of her eyes is swollen and bruised and I remember that Bart stuck his thumb in her eye. Roy takes advantage of this, coming at her from her weak side. She gets a couple of good hits on him with her sword, but Roy disarms her and cuts her throat. The cameras don't linger on him, but I see the expression on his face when he kills her. I could have killed her myself and saved him that small bit of pain.
But I was getting pinned down to die in the desert. They show me getting captured by Joker and Harley, them beating me and tying me down. Joker taunts me again and my hand goes to the empty spot at my throat. I never got my robin back.
Finally, Roy rescues me. He takes care of me, gets me to drink water and rubs me down with the burn lotion. The scene shifts to nighttime and Roy and I are in front of our little rock alcove. I'm guiding his hands and taking off my clothes. I sit on the stage in front of the Capitol audience, my face hot with humiliation. I knew people were watching, of course, but they weren't important at the time. Now Roy's dead and the audience is watching our most private moments and making appreciative noises. I dig my fingers into the arms of the chair. My vision blurs with rage. I could dive off the stage right now, probably take a few of them out with my bare hands before the Peacekeepers shot me down. I force myself to breathe in and out, slow, focused movement of air through my lungs. If I kill any more people, I won't get a Capitol patron. If I kill audience members, my mother will die.
On the screen, I fall asleep in Roy's arms and I expect them to cut away to something more interesting. But when the scene shifts, it's just me and Roy later that night. I frown. I don't remember anything happening then. I'm just sleeping… and then I see my arms lash out and I let out a cry in my sleep. Roy strokes my arm. "You're okay, Jason," he whispers. I calm down and fall into deep sleep. The audience lets out a collective "awwwww".
The rage rises again, but it's different now. It pushes inward and twists my stomach into knots. I didn't know. Everyone else watched and knew, except me. I didn't know I'd trusted him that much. It was real. It was real for me. I didn't know.
The camera keeps catching him giving me soft smiles when I'm looking the other way. I see the moment where we discovered the water was gone and from the way the camera lingers on me, everyone knew I was thinking of killing him. He never would have killed me.
They show Joker's death. Harley's death. I lean forward, press my hands over my ears and close my eyes. It doesn't help. I can hear every sound and I know what the screens are showing. Cheshire's death. The look on Roy's face when he killed her. He could have shot either of us, or both. Why did he choose me? Because she'd already killed him?
Roy's dying now. I squeeze my eyes tighter and keep my head lowered.
"Help him! Help him, please!" my voice begs, and a few moments later, a broken, "No!" A few audience members start clapping, then others join in and it becomes a huge round of applause. For my victory. For Roy's death.
The lighting shifts and I lift my head. President Snow comes on stage to crown me. She's flanked by Peacekeepers in full dress uniform. The "honor guard" is here to keep me from killing her. I calculate the odds that they'd succeed.
She makes a short, flowery speech and places the crown on my head. We're so close I can see a loose eyelash on her cheek. We look into each other's eyes. She knows I want to kill her. She believes I won't dare, that I won't squeeze her throat with my manicured, unscarred hands.
She congratulates me, shakes my hand, then turns her back and walks away, unharmed. Even after everything, her death would cost more than I can afford.
Rutilius sweeps in as soon as I'm off the stage and I'm herded into a car with Talia. She touches my leg. "Jason-" she begins.
"Don't," I say, my throat tight.
She nods. "I can give you something to get you through the evening." The Victory Banquet. It isn't over yet.
I shake my head. "No. I can do this." I can't be drugged. I need to keep my head clear.
"This time tomorrow, we'll be on our way home," she says. She means it to be encouraging, but I just hear that there's twenty-four more hours of this.
The party is at the President's mansion, but the President herself is nowhere in sight. Talia introduces me to a dozen sponsors, all done up in their strangest finery for the occasion. Strange to me, at least. Maybe it's what they wear to the corner store.
They ask me to take photos with them. I grit my teeth and pose as requested. After the second one, Talia leans over and whispers, "They saved your life, darling, try to fake a smile."
I'm pretty sure it's more of a grimace, but I do my best and the Capitol citizens don't seem to notice a problem. I nearly lose it, though, when a chubby guy with blue tattoos slaps a table knife in my hand and says, "Pretend like you're stabbing me!"
Talia wraps her hand around mine and pries the knife from it. "Oh, no, that doesn't look right at all. Here, try this." She pushes a curvy breadstick in my hand instead. After the photo's taken, I open my hand and I've crushed the breadstick to crumbs. I try to eat what's left of it anyway, but it sticks in my throat and I nearly gag. I spit it into a napkin and Talia presses a glass of wine into my hand. "Let's keep something in your hand for the rest of the pictures, okay?" she suggests. I nod.
"Talia!" a man says. "It is wonderful to see you again." I look over at a tall, broad-shouldered man coming our way. He's wearing a black suit with yellow highlights and a long, black cape. He's eclipsed, fashion-wise, by the young man with him who's wearing an outfit made entirely of feathers. It's blue, with a yellow chevron across his chest and yellow feathers dripping from the undersides of his arms, like wings. I'm not sure if he's wearing a bodysuit under the feathers or if his skin's dyed blue.
"Bruce! Come meet Jason," Talia says. She and Bruce kiss each other's cheeks in greeting. "Jason, this is Bruce Wayne. He was your biggest sponsor."
"Jason, it's great to finally meet you." Bruce shakes my hand. "Good job out there. This is my son, Dick." He gestures to the blue-feathered guy, who also shakes my hand. "And my son, Tim… where's Tim?" A boy, about fourteen, slips free of the crowd and joins us. He's dressed all in feathers, too, like his brother, though his are black and red. His are sewn to a visible bodysuit. Guess he's more modest than Dick. "Tim, this is Jason."
"Hi." Tim offers his hand. He's got wide, earnest blue eyes. "You were really great."
"Thanks," I say. I give him a brusque handshake. He picks up on the ice in my voice and his shoulders hunch in slightly. Dick touches Tim on the shoulder and gives me a cold look.
"Let's find a quieter place to talk," Talia suggests. She leads us out to a balcony. "Bruce has expressed an interest in helping your mother."
"I was touched to hear of your situation," Bruce says. "I'll do whatever I can to help."
I guess I shouldn't stab him then. "Thanks," I say. I take a long drink from the wineglass. "You want a photo or something?"
"Absolutely." Bruce drapes an arm around my shoulder. His two birdboys stand on the other side, close, but not touching me. I grit my teeth and grimace at the camera until Bruce removes his arm. "There's one for the scrapbooks," he says. "Shall we send you a copy?"
"Oh, don't worry about it," Talia says. "I've arranged for Jason to get a book of all his photos so he won't forget his time here in the Capitol." She shoos the photographer away.
"Did you win a lot of money?" I ask Bruce brightly.
"Betting on me," I say.
"Oh!" Bruce says. "Yes, I'm very pleased with the outcome of the Games."
Roy's body going limp as he dies in my arms.
I punch him.
Bruce stumbles back, putting a hand to his jaw, and I feel my spine go ice cold. Birdboy Senior steps in front of his father and I realize his lithe body is solid muscle.
I step back and hold up my hands. "I-I'm sorry," I say, knowing it's too late to take it back. After all I've done, I've killed any chance of saving my mother. "Please. I'm sorry. I didn't mean it."
Talia sighs and takes a sip of her wine. "We have got to work on your temper, Jason."
Bruce taps his son on the shoulder. Dick relaxes and steps aside. "You did mean it. I'm sorry, Jason, that was a cruel thing for me to say. I am pleased that you survived the Games. I would have liked - " His eyes flicker to the side for just an instant. "Your friends were good boys, and I understand that you grieve for them."
I shake my head. "They weren't my friends. I barely knew them."
"You knew them well enough," Bruce says.
I clench my fists. If that's a dig at what happened between Roy and me….
Talia touches my arm. "Jason," she says. "Give him a chance."
Bruce doesn't look like he's mocking me. I take a deep breath and loosen my fists. He took the first punch better than I'd thought, but I probably shouldn't push my luck and hit him again.
Rutilius slides the balcony door open and sticks his head out. "Everything all right out here?"
"Excellent!" Bruce shifts moods instantly, now boisterous and jolly. "Jason here gave me a demonstration of his right hook and wow, he packs a punch." Rutilius glares at me and Bruce waves a hand in the air. "No, no, don't give the boy a hard time. I did ask him to do it; wasn't expecting him to have so much strength. Be a good fellow and send over an Avox with some ice, will you?" Rutilius takes that as a dismissal and goes back inside.
I look over at Tim, Birdboy Junior, who has been quiet this whole time. He's got his chin in the air and a bland, neutral expression, which makes me think his father does these rapid personality changes frequently. No one on the balcony seems fazed by it.
"I will arrange for your mother's treatment," Bruce says, now serious again. "Do you want a little time to get settled at home or would you prefer we start immediately?"
"As soon as possible," I say, cautiously, not sure if he's genuine.
Bruce nods. "It will take me a few days to make arrangements. Go home as planned, have your celebration, and I'll send you notice once everything's set. You'll stay with us while your mother's in the hospital. I'll have a room prepared."
An Avox girl opens the balcony door and presents Bruce with a blue gel pack on a silver tray. He picks it up and presses it to his jaw. "Ah, that's much better. Well, I can't monopolize all your time, Jason. I look forward to seeing you when you return to the Capitol." He shakes my hand again and he and his sons return to the party.
"Do you think you can refrain from hitting anyone else this evening?" Talia asks.
I frown. "Maybe."
"Make a good effort," she orders.
It helps, knowing that my mother's going to be safe. I manage to make it through the rest of that horrible part without stabbing, punching, or even swearing at the Capitol citizens who treat me like a fascinating, well-trained pet.
We return to the Training Center. The knife Talia confiscated from me is sitting on the dresser, but there's something else as well. I pick it up. Most of the grime and blood have been wiped off, but the stains on the twine run deep. Roy's district token. The simple wooden arrow, carved by his sister and painted red.
My hand's shaking when I pick it up. I press it into the palm of my hand and wrap the twine around my fingers so I won't lose it. I take the knife in my other hand. It's polished silver, not made for fighting, but it's got a point and an edge. I sit down against the wall, knees up to my chest and wait there.
That's how I spend the night. I wake up with someone standing over me and scare the crap out of the poor Avox they sent to wake me. I realize who he is just in time and pull back my arm. The knife catches on his pants fabric, tearing a long gash. "Sorry," I say. "I just… sorry."
He nods and gives me an understanding look. I hope he doesn't get in trouble for the torn clothes.
I dress. I eat. I snag another knife from the breakfast table. I get poked and prodded and styled by the prep team. Talia confiscates both of my knives. We get sandwiches for lunch, served without silverware. A crew hauls in cameras, lights and equipment and sets up in the sitting room.
I take a deep breath and look to Talia for any final instruction. She gives me a kiss on the cheek. "Entertain them, darling." They push me into an overstuffed chair, turn on the cameras and we go live all over Panem with my post-Games interview.
Julius Flickerman starts off easy, asking questions about my stylist and the Capitol, but he moves into the Games pretty quickly. He asks about my strategy, about what worked and what got tossed out the window the minute the gong sounded. Then he asks about Bart. "What motivated you to take on a twelve-year-old boy as an ally?"
"Well, Julius," I say. "It looks pretty easy to kill someone when you see it on TV, and I'll admit, it's not too difficult if you know where to put the blade. But when you've actually got a kid in front of you, twelve years old, never hurt anyone, didn't ask to be there and you've got a split second to decide whether to slice him open or not, I tell you, it's fucking brutal." I pause. "Wait, can I swear?"
"Say whatever you like, Jason, it's your show." Julius is a pro. His dad used to do these interviews before him. He grew up on TV and probably wouldn't blink if you assassinated the president in front of him. He gives me a perfect television smile.
"Worked out, though." I say. "For me, I mean. He saved my life with those rocks. Pretty much all the same to him in the end."
Julius steers the conversation into a discussion of the arena and the dangers we faced. We talk about a few other things until he comes around to Roy.
"Let me ask you something, Jason - you don't mind if we get personal, do you?"
That's cute, that he asks me. "No, go ahead."
"How long have you known you were attracted to other boys?"
"Roy was the first guy I kissed," I say.
"Have you kissed girls?"
"Yeah," I say.
"Do you like boys or girls better?" Julius asks.
"I think I need to kiss more people before I decide that," I say. There's a weight in the center of my chest that gets heavier with every question he asks.
"Seeing you too connect was something special. We don't get these moments often in the Hunger Games and they're more precious for their rarity."
"Yeah, slaughtering each other puts the damper on romance," I mutter.
"It does carry a higher risk than ordinary dating," Julius chuckles. Asshole. "Tell us, Jason, what made Roy so special? How did you find love in the middle of the Hunger Games?"
It wasn't love. Was it? Could it have been, if we'd had more time? "We understood each other," I say flatly.
"A rare thing," Julius says. He steers into safer topics, then, asking me about my mom and what my plans are when I get home. We wrap up the interview and it's over. Julius shakes my hand and thanks me for my time and I manage not to rip his fingers off, so I guess it went well.
"Was I entertaining?" I ask Talia.
"I think they'll remember you," she says.
We have dinner on the train and I steal a steak knife. Talia says nothing. There's a small library on the train and I pick out a collection of children's stories. We had a book like this when I was a kid; older, more worn and without gold engravings. I remember my mother reading me tales about seamstresses and woodcutters who got their wishes granted in terrible ways.
A crew of cameras and reporters are also on the train, so they can document my homecoming and the celebration in District Eight. They leave me alone for the trip, though.
The first familiar face I see when I get off the train is my oldest friend, Stephanie. Her blond hair's tied back in a ponytail. She strides right up to me and slaps me across the face. A couple of the reporters laugh.
I put my hand to my cheek, stunned. "What was that for?"
"For not telling me you were going to volunteer," she says.
"You would have talked me out of it," I say.
"I know." She looks at me wearily and throws her arms around me. "I missed you," she whispers.
"I missed you, too," I tell her, clinging to her tightly. I can feel the gaze of reporters and cameras boring into us, so I reluctantly let her go.
"Is this your girlfriend?" one reporter asks, her hair pinned into golden squares. She's probably hoping to sell the story of a love triangle between me, Stephanie and poor, doomed Roy.
"No," I say. "A friend."
"Someone's been waiting to meet you," Stephanie says. She calls over a small, red-haired boy. I don't know who he is. "This is Colin Wilkes," she says. I give Stephanie a puzzled look. "He's the boy you replaced when you volunteered. You saved his life, Jason."
Oh. I'd forgotten about him. "Hi, Colin," I say.
"Thank you for volunteering for me," Colin says. "I, um, I made you something." He thrusts his hand out and gives me a small package. I unwrap the paper. It's a wooden disc that sits neatly in the palm of my hand. Colin has painted a red-breasted bird on the disc.
"You're kind of his hero," Stephanie murmurs to me.
I'm no kind of hero. "Thanks, Colin," I say. I tuck the robin carefully into my pocket. Colin gives me a shy smile and runs back to stand with a friend, who I recognize as Talia's son.
I look around for my mom and suddenly realize she's not in the crowd. My heart nearly stops.
Steph lays a hand on my arm. "She's inside. We weren't sure what time your train would arrive, so she's sitting down. She's…" Steph chooses her words carefully. "She's had a rough time. Wait here and I'll get her."
Stephanie goes into the Justice Building. "Catherine?" I hear her say. "Jason's home." She emerges with my mother leaning on her arm. My mom's wearing her blue dress, the one she only takes out of the closet for very special occasions. It's the one she married my father in. She's got a cream-colored shawl wrapped around her shoulders. She looks old and frail and very, very ill. How could she have gotten so much worse in just a couple of weeks?
"Mom?" My voice cracks. Will she hate me for what I've done? The Capitol people are completely silent, watching the drama of the scene play out before them.
"Jason," she says, like a sigh. I see her gain strength at the sight of me, standing up a little taller. She holds out her arms and I walk into them. "I love you so much."
"I love you too," I say, wrapping my arms around her. When did she get so much smaller then me? "I've got good news," I say. "We're going to the Capitol. They're going to help you, Mom, they're going to make you all better."
"You're safe," she says. "I feel better already."
I push down the guilt and lead her toward the car waiting to take us to my Victory Celebration. She's safe. She's going to be healthy. I can live with the rest.
I don't have another option.
* * *