Despite the hollowness she feels in her stomach, she scarfs down every bit of food she sees before her. There are lines of desserts — some that she never even knew existed; cakes and pies and donuts and some bread-looking things with sprinkles and something else weird-tasting shoved inside. On the table is an array of different dishes — chicken and beef and, god, is that steak? Turkey? Even coming from a livestock district, she is not allowed to touch this kind of food. The food she works to make is for the Capitol.
As of the moment, it is for her. When she takes a bite, she can almost taste the labor behind it. Her skin burns from the sun even when she is not there. The sweat pools at the base of her spine even in the cool train.
Her partner is silent beside her, his expression blank as their escort starts to chatter away about something. She isn't even paying attention in the first place. She's never seen so much food in one place. The world outside her district is speeding by past her but all she can focus on is the giant piece of buttered bread she's trying to shove into her mouth. Their escort pauses in their rambling to stare at her, maybe in disgust. Her partner still doesn't look up, or even move at all. He hasn't touched his plate. She reaches over and starts taking from his; maybe if she eats enough, it'll fill the emptiness she feels inside of her body. Her stomach feels like a hollow pit; nothing she puts in makes it feel any different.
Even so, she may as well enjoy it.
She's chugging the glass of colored and sparkling water (is that purple? ) when the door to the next car slides open. There's a woman standing there, beautiful and incredible but looking deathly tired and wise beyond her years. This woman does not have the face for the weariness her eyes carry. Her hair falls neatly around her shoulders but her clothing is disheveled and her sleeve is damp, in two shaky spots, as if they had been pressed to wet eyes. The woman stares at the two of them down for a long time, leaning against the doorway of the train car and gripping the edge like her life depends on it.
Eventually, after a bit of silence, the escort exclaims, "Shimizu!"
"Kiyoko," corrects the woman, though her tone is flat and offhanded, like she's not even interested in hearing herself speak. She finally steps inside the car, and shuts the sliding door behind her. At first, she doesn't even move, but glances all around the room, and moves to sit over at the nearby couch.
"This is your mentor," explains their escort, and this time, her partner finally glances up, "Kiyoko Shimizu. She won the Games quite a bit ago."
"Did I?" Kiyoko mutters a little bitterly. She then closes her eyes, takes a deep breath, and straightens her back on the couch. "I apologize. I'm quite tired. I’m afraid I never quite caught your names.”
(Their escort had introduced them to the entirety of District 10; their names out in the open, loud and clear. She’ll never forget the way the escort said her name. Not in any way special, but with enough enunciation for her to know it was hers. For her to know that she was going to be the one. With a grin, too. An exclamation. “Yachi Hitoka!”
She wasn’t even sure many of the other children that stared at her even knew who she was. Her partner is popular, but even so, nobody came up to volunteer for him. Nobody does.
When the escort had asked for volunteers for her, all that met her was dead silence. People averted their eyes. Feet shuffled against gravel and stones. Her mother was shaking.
She knew she wouldn’t volunteer in anyone else’s place either, but it still hurt.)
The boy from her District is silent for a long time, so she decides to go first: ". . . Yachi." Kiyoko's eyes immediately shoot to her, and she falters a little at the sudden intensity in her gaze. The weariness is shrouded by fierce curiosity "Hitoka. Um, Yachi Hitoka."
All the attention turns to her partner. Still, he is silent. His head is turned down and his hands are clenched around his scuffed-up knees. He towers over her in height but right now, in this giant steel train, he is small. He opens his mouth once, the popping of his lips echoing in the silence, but he falters, and squeezes his mouth shut so tightly his jaw cracks. He clenches his teeth, and his hands curl into fists.
Kiyoko takes a breath, and leans back. “Okay,” she says. “Alright. Alright, that’s fine.”
The boy beside her just nods, as stiff as their escort’s hair. His face is as white as it, too.
Her costume isn’t anything special. She’s still shaking from how intensely they had hosed the dirt and hay off her that it’s hard to even criticize the way her stylists are tugging and pulling at her. She’s being yanked around like she’s not even a person — rather a doll that they can decorate to their heart’s content. Her hair is folded around her head into a braid that makes her look like she has a blonde halo. Woven into her braid are branches of vines and flowers that press into her scalp and make it itchy; when she tries to reach up to scratch at it, one of her stylists smacks her hand down and wags his finger in her face like she’s a toddler. Her dress is as yellow as hay and the sash around her waist is transparent and sparkling. She wears boots similar to those that she wears in the fields, except this time they aren’t covered in dust and sand and instead sparkle like everything else in the Capitol. She feels stiff and out of place, though she wonders if that may have to do with the layers of makeup on her face.
Her partner is in a similar outfit, except he does not wear a dress like her. He wears something similar to overalls, except the sleeves are puffy and see-through like her sash. His hair is too short to be braided, so he wears a crown of yellow flowers. He sort of looks like a cowboy.
When her stylists are done, they pat at her cheeks and coo at her appearance. One of them tells her how much of a sweet little girl she is. The other tells her to smile. She does, or at least tries to.
All of the other tributes start to gather around their own chariots. She glances over to the front and sees the Careers. There is a tall, muscular boy with white hair who is spray-painted silver and dressed in a tunic decorated in sparkling jewels. At first, she thinks his white hair is odd, but then she remembers how the District 1 tributes had looked in the past. The District 1 is talking excitedly to the chariot placed behind him — District 2. The girl from District 2 is not even listening, but the boy is. They’re both dressed as gladiators, and look absolutely terrifying.
The boy from District 1 suddenly looks at her, and she’s consumed by the visage of golden eyes.
As soon as the first chariot trots down the long road, her smile fades and she starts trembling even harder. Her grip tightens on the edge of the chariot. She can hear the cheering at first, but then everything turns into static. Her chariot jostles as it moves, and the trotting of horses against the solid ground is loudest amongst everything else. She feels like she’s not even in herself, and that she is bigger than her whole body. Her fingers feel larger than they are. Her legs have fallen asleep. She has to lean on the front of the chariot in order to steady herself.
Then, District 10’s chariot comes into the light. The cheering is reverberating. She’s vaguely aware of flowers being thrown. She knows deep down that there’s going to be virtually no one paying attention to her, but somewhere in her disassociated mind, she worries about her image. Is her braid falling apart? Is her sash sliding off? Is she sparkling enough?
She manages to collect herself enough to look up at her fellow tribute. He’s looking straight ahead, jaw clenched. He doesn’t say a word. She still doesn’t remember his name.
In a hopeless attempt, she tries to do the same, but her eyes keep darting all over. Every other tribute’s costume is much flashier than her own. They are all waving and smiling and everyone in the crowd is watching them. She scans her eyes over the Capitol citizens that scream for them. They all look extravagant and gaudy, just enough so to look tasteless. They cheer for children that they will watch die. That very thought is what sparks the onset of panic in her. She can’t breathe, and her vision goes blurry, and she’s wobbling around so much that her partner suddenly has to grab her arm just to keep her upright. She wonders if, without him, would she fall? Roll into the ground and scuff up the golden costume her stylists spent hours perfecting? Lay right in the line of four more trotting horses, to trample her and make a show of it?
Before she can even think of falling backwards, the chariots come to a stop before the president, and he welcomes all of them, and thanks them for their sacrifice.
She glances over at her partner and remembers there can only be one winner.
(To her embarrassment, as soon as the chariots pull back in to be unloaded, she starts crying. Sobbing. Wailing so loud that every other tribute looks at her and her partner. Her fellow tribute walks away, not wanting to be involved or even considered part of the ordeal, but two tributes from the front begin to walk over to her.
Before they can reach her, her stylists take her by the arm and drag her away, fussing about her makeup.)
Their temporary residence is an elaborate suite that makes her burning eyes bug out before her. She has not stopped crying since she left the Tribute Parade, but the sight of crystal chandeliers and neon furniture is enough to calm her down, at least a little, and take away her attention of what comes in a week.
Their escort is saying something about enjoy this while it lasts, but neither her nor her partner are listening. Her partner immediately goes to find his bedroom, while she finds herself wandering over to the feast on the table. It’s similar to the one on the train, but more elaborate, and there are many more options than there were before.
In the corner of her eye, she sees several people standing in corners, hands folded before them, their heads hanging down. One of her stylists beckons one of them close, and they move automatically, like a machine, and pour some sort of colored beverage into a strangely-shaped cup.
Everyone is moving to sit down, so she does the same. Her mentor goes to sit across from her. She hadn’t even noticed Kiyoko walk into the room at all, and flinches when her eyes move to her.
“Have you been crying?” she asks.
Surely she must have known. She figures she’s a laughingstock among the tributes by now. A target. Instead of answering with words, she looks down and shamefully nods.
Kiyoko lets out a breath. She lifts her hand and one of the people from the corners walks up to her. “Will you fetch me a couple tissues?” she asks. “The real soft ones.”
The woman attending to her nods, and scuttles away hurriedly.
She shakes her head. “I’m fine.” Her voice shakes with her words, and she sounds small. She is small.
“It’s okay to cry,” Kiyoko says, taking a bite of the steak in front of her. “Just maybe not in front of the other tributes next time.”
Her shoulders lose their tension. “ . . . Sorry.”
“You’re one of the youngest tributes this time,” Kiyoko goes on as if she had never spoken at all. “One of the smallest, too. You’re already a target like that. A lot of the tributes this year are in their later teens. How old are you?”
She hesitates. “Fourteen.”
“Then there’s only one tribute younger than you. It’s the kid from District 4. He’s thirteen, I think.” The woman from the corner walks up to Kiyoko with a box of tissues. They’re in a colorful box, and when Kiyoko nods to her and pulls out quite a few, she can see the subtle glimmer in their fabric. “You have an advantage, though. Since you’re small you can escape more easily. Hide. Run faster. A lot of people won’t be paying attention to you.”
She can barely find her voice. All of this is so overwhelming. “Isn't—isn't that a bad thing?”
“Not necessarily. Bad in terms of sponsors, good in terms of tributes. Usually the other tributes are so worried about their bigger opponents that they forget about the little guys.”
“. . . Is that how you won?”
Kiyoko pauses mid-chew. She doesn’t say anything for a long moment. Then, “I killed people to win.”
A tremor runs down her spine. “I don’t want to kill anyone.”
The table is silent. Her escort and stylists are trying to eat quietly, but the smacking of their lips gives them away. Kiyoko is bouncing her leg so much it starts to shake the table. For once, she has not once touched her food. Her drinks still sits full. The tissues that sit near her go unused.
She thinks about the Games. At home, all she does is help her mother herd the cattle and clean the house. There are no skills she could gain from that — none that can help her at all in the arena. How is she going to win with only the knowledge of how to help a goat give birth? How is she going to survive with only the knowledge of how to distract a cow long enough to herd him into a pen?
Kiyoko still isn’t saying anything. Angrily, she grabs the handful of tissues and stands up from the table so hard the chair behind her clatters to the ground. Everyone around her flinches, and she tightens her fists against the surface.
“Manners!” her escort scolds.
Gritting her teeth, she feels the onset of tears behind her eyes. “Excuse me,” she bites out, and storms over to the elevator. She doesn’t even know how to work it, or how to get to her room, but she just has to get away. Be alone.
Anything other than just sit there and listen to her mentor tell her all about her faults.
Her room at home was big enough for two, because she was supposed to have a sibling who ended up never coming. It was dull and grey and hardly decorated, but she had a photo of her parents at her bedside table and that was enough.
Her room here is big and colorful and exorbitant, but she hates it. It’s impersonal and general and there are no photos of her smiling mother. She wonders just what kind of people have stayed in this room. What were the other tributes of District 10 like? What sort of hopes did they have? Could she have known any of their family back home?
The pajamas she wears are luxurious but uncomfortable. She scratches and pulls at them and prays for her old clothing back. Enjoy it, her escort had said, but how could she possibly enjoy this false lavish lifestyle, and especially not one that is even hers?
There is a remote control on the bedside table, rather than a framed photograph. When she picks it up and plays with it, the images on the giant wall in front of her start to change. First, a forest. Then, a safari. Finally, she halts it on the moving image of Capitol residents simply walking down a street. They are all dressed in bright, fancy clothing, holding umbrellas over their heads but she can’t see any sort of rain. There are some children that run along, and even though there is no sound, she imagines she can hear their excited squeals.
She wants to hate them, but she can’t possibly bring herself to. The Capitol people may cheer for a bloodbath, but they are set right in the middle of it too. What is it like for the children of the Capitol, who live their lives in peace and harmony only to go to school and learn that their entire lives revolve around death? Are there any Capitol citizens who hate the Games? Are there any who pray for the kids involved? Or is everyone complacent? Accepting?
(There are no winners in the Hunger Games. You just have to be lucky.)
That night, just before she is about to fall asleep, there comes a knock on her door. She has no inkling of who it could possibly be, so she sits up, waits a moment, and calls, “Come in.”
Kiyoko is the one who opens the door. She steps inside immediately, no hesitation, and that alone makes her tense up, makes her toss back the blankets and scoot backwards on the bed.
“Sorry,” Kiyoko says. “Sorry,” she says again, with more emotion in her voice. “I . . .” She frowns, and carefully goes to sit on the edge of the bed. “Mentoring isn’t the easiest thing in the world,” she starts. “You spend a week looking after a couple of kids only to see them die right away. And all I can do is tell them to survive, to do whatever you have to, but . . .” She bites her lip. “Sometimes I forget not everyone is as ruthless as I was.”
She glances down. “You . . . you just had to do what you had to,” she says, but even she doesn’t believe a word she’s saying.
“I killed to win, ” says Kiyoko. “Not because I had to.”
She feels sick, like she’s going to throw up. Instead of replying, she just pulls her knees up to her chest and holds them there.
“You shouldn’t have been chosen,” goes on Kiyoko. “Someone should have volunteered for you.”
“Nobody wants to be in the Games . . .”
“That’s no excuse to let a fourteen-year old girl walk to her death.”
“You think I’m going to die?”
Kiyoko closes her mouth, and then shakes her head. “No. No. I don’t think you are.”
Her eyes well with tears again. God, she’s such a baby. “You’re a liar.”
“I am,” Kiyoko agrees, “but not about this. You have a chance. Everyone has a chance.”
“I don’t have any skills.”
“What did you do at home?”
She pauses, and thinks back. The memories of her mother praising her for her work tug at her heart and make her chest burn. “I helped raise cattle. I would herd them into their stables and chase them down whenever they’d try to run away.”
“And how long would you chase them for?”
“I—I don’t know. Hours, maybe?”
“So you have stamina,” Kiyoko decides. “You can run fast. Even the biggest, strongest person could be most likely to win but could tire out after a few swings of their sword. Fatigue kills.”
“But . . . I—I can’t fight or anything.”
“You don’t have to fight. You just have to defend yourself. What else did you do at home?”
“Um . . . my mom really did most of the work sometimes, but . . . I’d help grow the crops that fed our cattle. And she’d let me give them medicine.”
“So you know how to apply medicine,” Kiyoko says.
“To animals. ”
Kiyoko hesitates. “It’s not anything different.”
She lowers her head. “Y’know,” she says, “even with all this . . . I still have the lowest chance of winning.”
“Yachi,” Kiyoko says firmly, “tomorrow is when training starts. For a week, you’ll be allowed to brush up on your old skills and pick up new ones. Pay close attention to the survival-related skills, because that is what kills off most people first. Look at the other tributes and see what they’re focusing on most — analyzing each tribute will give you an advantage and help you predict what they’re going to do in the Games.”
She looks up at her, giving her a gaze that’s more than a little accusatory. “Why aren’t you telling the same thing to the other tribute?”
Kiyoko exhales through her nose once, and then gives a tiny smile. “Because I don’t like him as near as much as I like you.”
“Isn’t that, like, not allowed? Or something?”
“Maybe,” Kiyoko says, and her smile gets a little wider. “But I won’t tell if you won’t.”
For the first time since the escort had called her name on that stage, the smile she gives is genuine. “Alright.”
Kiyoko was right. Virtually every other tribute is much bigger and older than her. Not many of them pay much attention to her but some of the Careers lear towards her with big, threatening grins. The girl from District 1, in particular, keeps nudging her fellow tribute and pointing at her. Her fellow tribute is the boy with the golden eyes from the parade, but even so, he hardly looks anywhere in her direction.
She isn’t sure which training course is going to help her improve her stamina. All of the courses related to combat and exercise look daunting and full of the older tributes. She remembers what Kiyoko had said to her, and walks over to the fire-starting station. There’s one other tribute there — she has a patch on her shoulder with the number five. She looks up at her when she approaches, and grimaces, but doesn’t say anything else.
The mentor at the station starts to tell her how to start a fire, but also warns that the smoke and the light can attract other tributes. She relays the mentor’s words in her head — twist your hands, move downwards, twist your hands, move downwards. She blows in the smoke and jumps back when a fire ignites before her. The mentor applauds her, and then proceeds to teach her how to start fires with materials other than matches and wood.
At the end, she feels a lot more knowledgeable than before, and starts smiling, but it quickly fades when she sees the looks the other tributes are giving her. The Careers, and the boy with golden eyes, in particular.
There is a boy working with the station that teaches one about edible plants. She watches him work for a while, eyeing the different plants he marks as edible and nonedible. He eventually gets every single one right, and the mentor eyes him with a pleased look of surprise. When he walks away, she takes his place, and to her surprise, manages to memorize most of the plants he had marked.
Rubus fruticosus, Cichorium intybus, Hemerocallis fulva, Morus nigra, Allium trucoccum, Nymphaea odorata . . .
During lunch, she sits with no one.
She can hear the unmistakable sound of alliances being formed, but she is alone. Even her fellow tribute is off somewhere else, sitting near the Careers — probably in an attempt to somehow get onto their side.
The Careers themselves are notorious for creating alliances amongst one another. The strongest team up to take down the weakest until they are all that’s left, and then they quickly turn on one another to prove who is truly the strongest. It’s an awful, unfair game, but then again, the entirety of the Games is too.
Most of the Careers are sitting together, though the boy from District 4 is elsewhere. The two male tributes from Districts 1 and 2 seem to be off in their own little world. They sit closer together than anyone else in the room, who are trying to make alliances but also keep their distance because of the general knowledge that there can only be one. To these two, that seems to be nonexistent. Their arms are touching. Their voices are hushed towards one another.
She has a very bad feeling about it.
The two tributes suddenly look up at her, and she quickly turns away, looking down at her half-eaten tray of food. She’s eaten her dessert first, and she regrets it, because she wants to feel the sweet taste on her tongue again. She takes another bite of the meat, and she doesn’t even care what kind it is, because if she’s going to have a chance she’s going to need protein. If she’s going to build her strength she has to eat, even if the pit in her stomach is still unfulfilled.
There’s a tap on her shoulder. She turns her head to see the two male tributes from the Career districts, and her face goes ghost white.
“Hey,” the one with the golden eyes says. He’s smiling, and it looks out of place with the atmosphere in the room. His tone is kind, too, and it sounds wrong knowing what Careers are.
“H—” She tries to respond, but her voice dies. She’s so terrified she doesn’t know what to do. Kiyoko had told her that she’d be unnoticeable, but here she is, being stared down by two Career tributes. “Hello . . .”
“What’s your name?” asks the District 1 tribute. The other one is completely silent. His arms are crossed as he stares down at her.
She wonders if she should say it, but she figures he would find out sooner or later. “Um. Yachi Hitoka.”
“Hitoka!” exclaims the District 1 tribute. “I’m Bokuto! Bokuto Koutarou!” He gestures to the other. “That’s Akaashi Keiji.”
The latter simply raises his hand to do a small wave of acknowledgement. She doesn’t know what to do in response. She wants to ask why they are here, but she is afraid of the answer.
“Oh!” Bokuto says, like he’s just remembered something. “I forgot!” He sets down his tray and holds out the plate of dessert on it, untouched. “Do you want my dessert?”
It’s such an odd question that she reels back and stares at him with wide eyes. “What?”
“I was watching you earlier. You went for your dessert first, so I figured you must like it! I wanted to give you the rest of mine.”
She doesn’t have the bravery to analyze just what he said; not properly, anyway. All she can focus on is the notion of him watching her. They both had been, which must mean that all of the Careers are paying attention to her, too.
She shivers, clenches her jaw, and takes the dessert. “Thanks.”
Bokuto smiles again in response, but it doesn’t make her feel any better.
After she’s gone through most of the survival courses, she moves on to the more combat and strength-related ones. They are still crawling with all of the stronger tributes, and when she walks up to them, the gazes they give her make her want to run away and hide.
Still, she’s determined to stand her ground, if not for any reason other than spite.
She goes to the ropes course first. She’s able to leap onto the ropes easily, but when she starts to climb up to the ceiling, her legs get tangled and she’s stuck in place for a good few moments. She slides down a bit, and very nearly falls, but hooks her ankle around the edge of the rope and lets herself hang there. After she catches her breath, she leans up and grabs onto the ropes again, this time keeping her legs away from the bigger holes of the ropes that are easier to get tangled in. When she makes it to the top, she’s already out of breath and can feel her muscles start to burn, but she’s not even close to being done. She’s surpassed the limits of her body at home plenty times before.
She climbs across the ceiling, swinging her arms quick enough to not feel the pain as she moves along the ropes. The momentum of her body as she swings gives her enough leverage to grab onto each rope as they get farther and farther away. Eventually, her hand slips, and she’s hanging with one hand for a few seconds before she tumbles to the ground. The breath rushes out of her and she coughs and hacks, rolling over to her side. Her body screams with pain but she’s made it far enough on the course to please herself.
When she glances up, it isn’t just the two male tributes from before who are watching her. The boy she came with is too. His eyes do not look kind.
There are some mandatory courses for the tributes. One of them is hand-to-hand combat. When she steps up onto the stage, the mentor that is teaching her almost immediately knocks her to the ground. She can hear the snickers of the Careers from afar, but manages to stand back up, and she holds up her fists in a weak attempt to fight back.
In the end, she doesn’t think she’s improved much, but now she knows how to throw a punch and make it hurt.
(It has to be worth something.)
A lot of the inexperienced tributes migrate over to the knife-throwing station for lessons. The mentor there looks a little intimidating, however, so she stands back and simply watches, hoping to gain at least a little knowledge from the limited view she has.
Her life is never that easy, though, and when the two male tributes from before walk up behind her, she flinches and very nearly screams in shock.
“Sorry,” says the District 2 one, Akaashi, she remembers, and realizes that it’s the first thing he’s said to her. “We just noticed you standing here.”
“Are you into knives?” Bokuto asks.
She isn’t sure how she’s supposed to respond to that. “Um,” she replies. She doesn’t want to admit that she’s too scared to go up.
“Here,” says Akaashi, and gestures for her to follow him. “I’ll show you.”
“Show me?” she automatically echoes, and then shuts her mouth when the other tributes at the knife-throwing station move out of the way for the two of them and watch her. Even the mentor goes quiet in sight of Akaashi. She wonders if this is against the rules — a tribute teaching another how to fight.
Akaashi picks up three knives, and when he notices that she’s stopped a few feet behind him, gently holds onto her arm so he can pull her up beside him. “Knife-throwing is one of my specialties,” he explains. “The most important part of throwing a knife is having a relaxed position. That is, well . . .” He shrugs. “Being in the arena, you aren’t always going to be relaxed, though. If your stance isn’t correct, your aim is going to be off. Are you right or left-handed?”
“Right,” she answers.
“Okay,” he says. “Me too. Copy my position.” He shifts his stance so that his right foot is placed forward with his left foot behind him. She doesn’t for a moment, but decides not to question it when he turns back to look at her. “You’ll want to throw the heavy end first.” As he says this, he balances the knife in his hands and spins it a few times. “There are plenty of ways to hold the knife before you throw it. Choose whichever one feels most natural to you.” He follows up by demonstrating his way: he positions the knife parallel to the palm of his hand, and lays his thumb across it, making the number four with his fingers to hold the knife in place. He raises the knife to his eye-level, leans back, and throws, and the movement is as easy as breathing. The blade punctures the head of the target.
She feels goosebumps rise on the back of her neck. Is this his way of intimidating her? Of showing her that she has virtually no chance? She’s heard of Careers mocking and tormenting their opponents before, but when she looks up into Akaashi’s eyes, she does not see anything of the sort.
“Here,” Akaashi says, and steps closer to her. He takes the second knife and slides his hands up to grab into hers. She suddenly freezes, and cannot move, so she lets him move her hands to his heart’s content. He moves her fingers around the knife so that she’s pinching the tip of it with her thumb and the second knuckle of her pointer finger. Her hand automatically curls around it like a fist. “Lean back and throw it. Make sure to stay relaxed.” Instead of moving away like he should, he just steps behind her, his hands out like he’s going to save her if anything goes wrong.
Okay. Okay. She takes a deep breath, closes her eyes, and exhales. Remembering Akaashi’s movements, she leans back, and throws. The blade of the knife does not hit the target, but instead punctures the area near the shoulder. Still, it’s a throw, and it stuck.
Akaashi nods at her. “Okay,” he says, and places the third knife in her hands. “Try it again. Relax your shoulders this time.”
She follows his instructions, and nearly jumps out of her skin when he halts her and moves to curl her fingers around the knife in the proper position. She repeats the same process — breathe, lean, throw — and the knife punctures the neck. She throws her hands up in the air and starts smiling with excitement, and turns to Akaashi to thank him, but it doesn’t hit her until after training about just what she was celebrating, and just what the dummy target is supposed to actually represent.
Her partner storms into her room that night, face red with anger.
“Are you trying to make an alliance with the Careers?” he asks desperately.
“What?” she asks. “No.”
“Then what the hell was that? The knives?”
“ They came up to me, ” she insists. “I don’t know why.”
He eyes her up and down, and frowns. “Bullshit.” With that, he stomps out, and rudely slams the door behind him.
There is no reason for her to try and strain herself like this, but a tiny part in her tells her to try anyway.
The gauntlet before her is a daunting obstacle course full of ascending platforms and slippery landings. The mentors swing clubs at the tributes who pass by them. While there is no specific time limit, some of the tributes laugh at those who make it through slower than others.
She waits until everyone else has finished their turn with the gauntlet. The Careers are standing off to the side, chatting, but the noise slowly dies down when they notice her walking up to them. The gauntlets are a terrifying course — tributes who are smaller and weaker never dare to walk them. But she does not want to be seen as small or weak, and she wants to try.
If she can learn how to throw a knife, she can run an obstacle course.
She wipes her hands on the fabric along her thighs and takes a deep breath. Her body tenses up and she wiggles her fingers a few times to get the blood flowing through her body. After procrastinating enough, she darts towards the first platforms. She manages to leap up the first five with no problem, but she’s immediately knocked over by the club the trainer smacks her with. She tumbles onto the ground, landing hard on her side.
Distantly, she can hear laughter. She can hear ringing from all over but all she does it get back up and run back up the platforms again. She dodges the trainer, but the sudden movement very nearly causes her to slip off to the side. The second club comes at her, and she ducks down, but not quick enough to dodge it. She slips this time, and grabs onto the side of the platform, but loses her grip, and tumbles down. This fall hurts a lot less than the last, and not even a second later she’s back in line and back running onto the platforms.
She moves fast, dodging the first two clubs and leaping onto the swinging rings. The momentum of her jump gives her enough power to swing and even skip a few of the rings, but she gets ahead of herself, and falls once more. The drop is a lot taller since she’s higher up on the gauntlet, and there’s a sudden pain that shoots right up through her leg. She groans, grabbing onto the area, and digs her nails into her skin.
She sees Akaashi and Bokuto in the background, legs twitching like they’re ready to jump over and help her in a moment’s notice, for whatever reason. She grimaces, jumps up to her feet, and walks right back over to the beginning of the gauntlet.
This time, when she runs, she can feel it all throughout her body. She imagines she’s in a forest, or maybe a mountain, climbing on some rocks. She’s avoiding someone; she’s being chased. Or maybe she’s running towards someone. The different platforms are the levels of rocks. The clubs are the branches she has to avoid. Or maybe they’re other tributes. Weapons. Before she knows it, she’s made it to the rings again. She swings all the way through, not even stopping once to revel in her pain or think about her progress. She lands onto the other platform and looks over to the second set of the gauntlet. The next trainer to club at her manages to knock her off.
When she falls, she lays there for a moment, then gets right back up, and runs back onto the gauntlet. The Careers have stopped chatting, have stopped laughing. She can feel all of the tributes’ eyes on her. The Gamemakers are watching her now, too.
She is not even out of breath.
“How am I even supposed to show off my skills?” she asks.
Kiyoko takes a long chug of her drink, and then all but slams it down. She thinks the movement was unintentional. “The Gamemakers watched you on that gauntlet over and over. They even watched you do it again after you’d completed it the first time. They’re going to have something like that for you there.”
“But what do I do if they don’t? ”
“You can throw knives now, can’t you? Your new alliance helped you out with that.”
She frowns. Wrinkles her nose. “I don’t have an alliance. ”
Kiyoko scoffs. “Sure seems to me like they wanted to team up with you.”
The fact that a couple of Careers wanted to team up with a little girl from District 10 was beyond her. “But why me?”
“I have no idea,” Kiyoko answers honestly. “Maybe they figured out that they shouldn’t underestimate the little guys.”
Despite her anxiety, Kiyoko was right, as always. When the automated voice calls her name, she steps inside the room where the private session is held, and what lays before her is an elaborate obstacle course. She stops in front of it, noting the amount of jumps and ropes that she must leap through. She does not have excellent arm strength or power.
The Gamemaker clears his throat, and she looks up. “You have fifteen minutes,” he explains, and waits.
Then she realizes. The goal is not for her to finish it, exactly. They just want to see how much she can endure. How much she can go through before she has to tap out.
A test on stamina.
She takes a deep breath, flexes her fingers, and starts running.
Waiting for her score is one of the most nerve-wracking moments of the pre-Games preparation. She sits practically miles away from her fellow tribute on the couch. Kiyoko sits close beside her, her arm draped behind her on the back of the couch as if protecting her. Most of the stylists sit next to her partner — she thinks that they prefer him over her. She doesn’t really mind that.
Most of the Careers get scores around eight and nine. Bokuto himself gets a nine while Akaashi gets a ten. No other score manages to top Akaashi’s — not even close.
Then, they get to District 10. They announce her partner’s score as a six, and she looks over at him, wondering just what he had done to get the Gamemaker’s attention. The stylists and their escort fawn over him and applaud, but the entire room goes silent when the announcer calls out her name.
“ Yachi Hitoka, with a score of . . . ” She holds her breath. “ Seven. ”
Her jaw drops. It’s a lot higher than anyone would expect from such a young tribute, and one from a livestock district, of all things. The attention all goes to her, and their escort takes her hands and shakes them in excitement. Kiyoko’s arm drops from the couch and her hand ruffles at her hair.
The excitement is not shared by everyone. While she is smiling alongside her team, her partner’s angry frown goes unnoticed.
“So . . . Koutarou. Anyone special back home? Anyone you’re trying to win the Games for?”
“Ah, no. Well . . . not at home, at least.”
“The hardest part about the Games is getting attached to people here. Ones that you’ll never see again after this.”
“Ah . . . I see. Well. I hope it all turns out alright in the end. Best of luck."
“With a face like that, I think everyone would be at your feet in minutes, Keiji!”
“Well, it sure won over Koutarou right away.”
“Are you his secret paramour?”
“I suppose. I wouldn’t call it that. There are few luxuries in the world. It’s better to enjoy everything while it lasts.”
Her stylists dress her up in a gown not so different from her parade outfit — except this time it’s long, made of iridescent golden fabric, complete with a tiny pair of shimmering wings at her back and a halo around her head. The clip for the halo is completely transparent; so much that even when she stares at herself in the mirror, it isn’t completely obvious that there is a wire attached to it. While the stylists seem to have gone for the angelic approach for her, her partner is anything but. He wears gold but it’s but a simple suit. Somehow, it makes him look intimidating. She liked him better when he only looked like a cowboy.
She is called before her partner, and when she hears the interviewer say her name, all time stops. She thought she had been prepared, or at least knew what she had to say, but everything in her head sounds like static and she cannot even think about moving. One of the officials ends up grabbing her by the arm and dragging her out. She tries to resist, but immediately ceases when she hears the roar of the cheering crowd. The interview is smiling at her, and he whistles into his microphone as soon as she steps into view.
“Oh, wow! ” he all but shouts, letting the crowd cheer for a few moments. He reaches out and takes her hand, spinning her around once. “Are those wings real?” She wants to answer no, but when he and the crowd laugh, she realizes it was just a joke, and she feels a little sick. He leads her to sit down, and he crosses one leg over the other. It takes a lot in her to not do the same thing.
(When she sits, her feet barely touch the ground.)
“So, Hitoka — can I call you Hitoka? — I heard that you made quite an impression on some of the Gamemakers during training,” says the interviewer, not even stopping to let her get a word in. “Leaping across the platforms like you were flying! Is that the inspiration for this outfit?”
She has a brief flashback — Kiyoko telling her to play it up, put on a personality for the Capitol, and be likable, because it gains more attention and more sponsors.
So, in a somewhat shaky voice, she answers, “ Outfit? These wings are real, actually.”
The crowd laughs again. The interview lets out a guffaw. “Oh, she’s cheeky! I love that!” He wipes at his eyes and leans forward in his chair. “So, Hitoka . . . tell me. What do you possibly do in District 10 that got you so good at obstacle courses?”
She decides to answer honestly. She shrugs once, with one shoulder, and kicks her legs. “Um . . . well, nothing, really.”
“ Nothing? ” presses the interviewer.
“I just—I just have a lot of energy,” she says. “It’s not the jumping I’m good at. It’s just that I can do things for a long time.” As if suddenly remembering something, she glances up, and giggles a bit. “Back home, sometimes the cattle would get loose from the stables, and I’d have to run out into the fields for hours and try and chase them back.”
“Ooh!” exclaims the interviewer. The crowd echoes him. “And were you tired by the end of it?”
“No,” she says, shaking her head, and this is the moment where exaggeration starts to fall into truth. “I think my mom was, though. Of me, at least.” This gets a laugh from the crowd. “Sometimes I’d turn it into a game, making the whole process longer than it actually needed to be. Like hide-and-seek, but with animals. By the time I’d get home, my mother would be fussing over me and she’d say Hitoka, look at you covered in dirt and sand, you may as well be one of the cattle! ” The crowd is laughing harder by the end of her story, and she smiles nostalgically. Her mother must be watching, and will be watching the whole time.
The interviewer hums. “You must love your mother very much.”
“I do,” she replies. “More than anything.” The crowd lets out an aww.
“Is there anything that you want her to know?” curiously asks the interviewer. “Anything that you didn’t tell her that you wish you did?”
She had hugged her mother and cried and tried to tell her goodbye but when she opened her mouth her mom just covered it with her hand and kept crying. There were no words exchanged, but now, she wishes that she had at least said something. She doesn’t even remember what the last thing she said to her mother was.
“I . . .” She hesitates, looking down at her hands. She fidgets with them for a moment, and then looks up at the camera. “Mom . . .” She can feel the tears, again, and prays that she doesn’t start crying on the live broadcast. “I love you. I—I hope you know that. A-and I hope . . . that no matter what happens, that you’ll be proud of me.”
Another aww. Some sniffles, even.
“Anyone would be a fool to not be proud of you,” says the interviewer, and if it weren’t for the fact that he treats the Hunger Games like just another spectacle, she would feel as if he were being earnest. “And I know she loves you too.” He reaches out and pats her hand, and is quiet for a few moments.
Then, he stands, taking her up with him. “Everyone give it up for District 10’s angel, Yachi Hitoka!”
That night, she can’t sleep. Every attempt leaves her tossing and turning and imagining every possible horror that await her. She sees blood and death and cries so hard that she ends up throwing up in the nearby bathroom.
She’s about to give up and try to sleep on the bathroom floor when Kiyoko walks in. She immediately falls to her side, pressing a cool towel to her sweaty forehead and stroking her hair out of her face. She flushes the toilet when the smell of vomit causes her to gag again. She takes a cup of water from the sink and helps her up so she can rinse out her mouth.
(Why didn’t she say anything to her mom before she left?)
She spits into the sink, feeling drool fall down her chin, followed by tears down her cheek. She sniffles, snot overflowing, and drops over the sink, her arms barely supporting her on the edge.
(Why didn’t anyone volunteer for her?)
“I’m scared,” she spits, voice shaking so much she doesn’t even sound like herself. “I’m scared. I want to go home.”
(Why does the Capitol let children kill each other for fun?)
Kiyoko tries to shush her, but then she starts yelling. “I want to go home! I want to see my mom again! I don’t want to kill anyone!”
She wants to feel the heat of the hot sun on her face again. She wants the dirt and the sand and the mud all over her body and clothes. She wants the constant animal noises to fill her ears each night. She wants to feel her mother’s arms around her again, rather than the constant reminder of her tears, of her hopelessness.
She wants to stop accepting her inevitable death.
But here, she does not get what she wants. There is nothing anyone can do, but even so, she feels angry. She’s angry at Kiyoko for just sitting there. She’s angry at the other tributes. She’s angry at the Capitol for watching with blind eyes.
As she thrashes and sobs, Kiyoko holds her close, rocking her back and forth. “I know,” she repeats, over and over again. “I know.”
The boom of the countdown echoes all across them. Nowhere in sight is her partner, but on a platform a few tributes down, she spots Bokuto, who is eyeing a backpack in the center of the Cornucopia.
Their arena is one made of tall mountains and hills that disappear into thick forests. The air is cold and it is so windy that it’s hard to even keep her eyes open without them watering. On the peaks of the mountains, she can see snow. The Cornucopia lays at the top of one of the hills that is at the base of one of the mountains. It is sleek and silver and filled with various weapons and supplies. She knows to avoid it, Kiyoko said to avoid it, but without some sort of supplies she is sure to die of exposure within days.
The horn blares. Every single tribute starts to run. She pauses for a moment, debates whether to run away or go towards the Cornucopia, and then finally makes her decision.
The backpack she is aiming for is bright yellow and right in the open. Most of the other tributes are running towards the weapons, and the first one to reach them is the girl from District 1. She unsheathes the sword from the stand it sits on, and whirls around to slice across the chest of the boy that comes up behind her. He immediately falls to the ground, blood spilling across the barren grass.
She halts in shock, breath catching in her throat and realization catching up to her. More and more tributes are falling victim to the weapons others grabbed first, and she’s just standing there. She remembers the backpack, remembers survival, and starts running again.
She’s fast, and she can last longer than anyone else, but she can’t fight. She can’t fight, which is why when one of the Careers lunges at her with a spear, she screams and barely dodges to the side. The blade of the spear slices her cheek, and she feels the blood on her skin, but that alone isn’t enough for her attacker. She scitters back like an animal, and feels the strap of the backpack when she frantically reaches behind her. The Career goes to lunge the spear through her, and she quickly knocks the spear away from her with her backpack. The Career stumbles in shock, but tightens his grip on the spear, and goes for her again.
Suddenly, he’s knocked over by a flash of white. Bokuto is standing there in his place, and he twirls his hatchet in his hand once before sending it right through the Career’s skull. She covers her mouth with her hand to keep from screaming again, and bile rises in her throat. She tightens her grip on her backpack and wonders if she can use it as a shield.
Bokuto then looks towards her. His hatchet is covered in blood. She wonders how many he’s killed already.
“Hey!” he exclaims, and she leans back. “Hey, no, I’m not gonna hurt you. Come with me!” What? What? What is he talking about? “C’mon, we have to get out of here. It’s a bloodbath!”
She doesn’t get up, not at first, and thinks that maybe if she ignores him, he’ll leave her be, but all he does is reach down and grab her by the elbow, pulling her up to her feet with such strength that she knows that she would never stand a chance against this boy. She’s running alongside him, his grip unrelenting. She throws the backpack around her shoulders as they disappear into the forest.
Maybe he wants a more secluded place to kill her. Maybe he wants to enjoy it. Maybe he wants to give them a show.
She doesn’t know when they stop, or how far they are from the Cornucopia, but when they do, she almost falls over again from how he lets go. She steadies herself, and stands there are Bokuto takes a moment to catch his breath. She could take him now. There could be something in her bag, and she could attack him while he’s distracted. She’d take down a Career. She would—
The two of them whirl around immediately. She steps back while Bokuto lifts his hatchet. But it’s Akaashi standing there, twirling a knife around his fingers. There’s blood splattered across his face and a backpack around his shoulders.
“Who was it?” Bokuto asks.
Akaashi reaches up to wipe the blood from his face with a grimace. “District 12.”
Bokuto clicks his tongue and looks down. “Damn it.”
“What?” she tries asking. She’s never seen any Careers who regret killing before. The two of them look at her, and she immediately regrets saying anything. She should’ve just run off. Her eyes go wide and she starts to hyperventilate.
“Neither of us are going to kill you,” Akaashi says quickly. “We want you to team up with us.”
Her heart is racing. “What? Why? Why me?”
“Because we like you,” is Bokuto’s reply.
“Because you’ll die without us,” is Akaashi’s reply.
Bokuto looks at him with a disapproving look. “Akaashi!” She notices the way he pronounces his name.
“It’s better to give it to her straight,” Akaashi says, and pockets his knife. “We aren’t safe here. We need to find somewhere to set up camp.”
“Alright,” Bokuto agrees, and looks over at her. “So? Are you going to join us?”
A Career had killed another Career just to save her, and now two Careers were vying to keep her on their side, like she was anything special. Like she wasn’t from District 10. Like she wasn’t the youngest, or the smallest, or the shortest.
“Okay,” she says. She doesn’t have much of a choice.
Her backpack contains an empty water bottle, some rope, bandages, and some dried beef strips. They are nowhere near any source of water, but the beef strips are a lucky find. She tucks those back into the bag, and tugs on the rope to test its durability.
Bokuto had only managed to grab a hatchet and a sickle, keeping both around his belt, while Akaashi had grabbed both a set of knives and a backpack. His contains a bottle of disinfectant, crackers, and a sleeping bag. He takes one look at the disinfectant, and then walks up to her.
“Give me the bandages,” he instructs.
She’s too scared to do anything but shakily hand them over. He kneels down, screws open the bottle, and rips off part of his shirt to use it as a cloth. He dabs the disinfectant over the wound on her cheek, and she grimaces, but he just holds her in place. Afterwards, he takes the bandage and covers the cut, pressing it down hard so that it stays, even if it hurts.
“I—” she starts, but isn’t sure what she’s going to say. Akaashi looks at her, and furrows his eyebrows, so she says, “Thanks.”
He nods. “You’re welcome.”
She leans back against the tree she sits at the base of, bringing her knees to her chest. It’s cold, and as the minutes pass on, it only seems to get even colder. They’ve gone up higher through the forest, presumably up one of the mountains, and she can see the bit of frost on the dirt.
Bokuto opens his mouth like he wants to say something, but as soon as he does, the cannons begin booming. They do not boom during the bloodbath, as there is usually too many deaths that happen at once to accurately show how many have died.
She counts them as they occur. One . . . two . . . three . . . four . . . five . . . six . . . seven . . . eight . . . nine. Then it stops. Nine. Fifteen tributes left, including them.
“Twelve,” Bokuto says.
“Fifteen when you count us,” Akaashi says.
“The other Careers are most definitely alive. District 1, 2, 4 . . . well. Only one of the District 4 tributes.”
“I saw both of District 12’s tributes die.”
“Damn it. We could’ve used them . . .”
“Used them?” she asks before she can help herself. “For what?” The two of them look down at her. It is then that she realizes that she is the only one sitting. When they don’t reply, she swallows down her fear, and goes on. “Did—did you just bring me out here to make fun of me? Y-you guys are Careers. Why aren’t you with the other Careers? Why did you pay attention to me? Why me? ”
Even after her rant, the two are silent. They glance at one another. Eventually, it is Bokuto who steps forward and sits down across from her. She curls back into the tree, tightening her grip around her knees.
“I volunteered for the Games to save the kid who was chosen in the first place,” he explains. “You know how Career district work? They select from the top ten in the academy. Well, this year’s choice was a fifteen year old. He was at the top of the class but he was fifteen. I’m eighteen. I volunteered so he could at least have a few more years.”
“. . . Why? I thought the Games were—are a great honor for you.”
Bokuto is quiet for a moment. “I used to think they were.”
“. . . What happened?”
“I watched my little sister die two years ago. She was so excited to be chosen for the Games. You know how she died?”
“It wasn’t even a tribute. The Gamemakers decided it would be funny to send in muttations of her favorite animal. She never stood a chance against them.”
She lowers her eyes. “I—I’m sorry.”
Akaashi speaks up this time, “I always hated the Games. My entire district revolved around them.”
“So . . . did you volunteer? Or were you Reaped?”
“Volunteered. Like everyone else does.” Akaashi’s eyes then gleam. “But not for the reason everyone else does it for.”
She perks up. “What’s the reason?”
His smile turns a little dark. “There’s too many cameras around here to have a real heart-to-heart.”
Something about his reply gives her a weird feeling. The way Bokuto just grins at him gives her an even weirder one. There is something up about these two. Careers don’t act like this.
She’d like to say that maybe Careers are changing, but she knows she’d be wrong.
They just aren’t like this.
Seeing the faces of the fallen tributes is hard. They don’t even show their names — just their portraits, and their districts, reducing them to nothing but a sacrifice for “the greater good,” or whatever it is the president calls it. Their individuality is enhanced throughout the pre-Games, but as soon as they step into the arena, it’s completely washed away under the guise of a noble hecatomb.
They are sleeping in shifts, and though it is Bokuto’s turn to keep watch, she can’t find it in her to close her eyes. She shakes with every rustle of branches, and not just from the cold. Her eyes dart around the darkness in an attempt to see right through it. Her body tenses up like someone is going to leap through the bushes any minute. Every time Akaashi moves in his sleep, she scoots a little further away from him, like she’ll wake up to a knife in her back.
She wants to trust them, but she can’t. She’s watched the past Games. She knows what happens to tributes who turn their gaze away for just a moment. One distraction can lead to death. A rush of emotion can ruin her in an instant. She’s afraid of turning around and seeing a blade charging at her.
(Despite her worries, no one shows up for the whole night. She suspects it may be due to Akaashi and Bokuto’s influence.)
“We need to find a water source,” Akaashi insists the next morning.
“It’ll be closer to the mountain,” Bokuto says. He’s testing the hatchet’s weight in his hands, swinging it out in front of him. “We’ll also need to find a food source.”
She blinks. “I remember the edible plants.”
“Hm?” Akaashi asks.
“I—um.” She pauses. “In the Training Center. I memorized the lists of edible plants. I remember what they look like.”
“Good job,” Akaashi praises. “Keep an eye out for them. I’ll look out for animals we can hunt, and Koutarou.” At the call of his name, Bokuto glances up immediately. “Find us a water source.”
Bokuto grins, and gives a mock salute. “Yessir, Captain Keiji!”
Akaashi rolls his eyes. She glances between the two of them with amusement, and he just shakes his head at her.
Their next few hours are filled with hiking. They have to stop several times to catch their breath — well, Akaashi and Bokuto do, at least. She simply stands and watch them start to falter behind her, for her endurance is still unmatched, even for a Career.
As they traverse further and further up the mountain, it only gets colder and colder. She manages to find one of the edible flowers, except there are only a few. Most plants do not fare well in cold temperatures, so she suspects that most food sources would be situated towards the bottom of the mountain. Figures that the water source and the food source would be at two completely opposite areas.
Eventually, just when she is starting to feel the onset of fatigue, she can hear the sound of running water from afar. All three of them look at one another, and start running. She forgets about all tiredness that she may have suddenly had — everything is thrown away for the sake of water. They push back trees and branches and finally make it to a small stream running down the side of the mountain.
She pulls out the empty water bottle from her backpack and kneels down in front of the stream, dipping the bottle in to fill it. The water is so cold that it makes her fingers tremble as soon as she touches it. As soon as the bottle is filled, she chugs down more than half of it, not bothering to wipe the trail that runs down the corner of her mouth before she’s refilling it again. Beside her, Akaashi and Bokuto are cupping their hands and drinking straight out of them. Akaashi rubs the water all over his face and around his eyes.
She moves to hand the water bottle to him. They go through a process of chugging the entire contents of the bottle before refilling it, only to do the same again. It’s only been a day and a half, along with several hours of nonstop hiking over mountains, but Akaashi and Bokuto already seem to be suffering the effects of dehydration. She fills up the water bottle again when they hand it back to her.
Just as she’s twisting the cap over it, there’s a rustling from one of the bushes on the other side of the river. Bokuto jumps up and grabs his hatchet, while Akaashi moves to step in front of her. She moves up to her feet, her eyes going wide in fear.
What comes out is one of the tributes. It’s the boy from District 3. He looks at them with shock as soon as he spots them, and freezes in place. Bokuto and Akaashi both let their guard down a little bit as soon as they see his shaking form, but after a moment, the boy composes himself and draws out a bow from behind his back.
“Hey, wait!” Bokuto tries, but the boy is already drawing back the bow with an arrow and preparing to fire. The arrow whizzes right past his head when he dodges, and the boy is already setting up for another. “Damn it,” he curses, and leaps across the river to strike the hatchet through the bow.
The boy stumbles back and looks down at his destroyed bow, and then decides to charge at Bokuto with his bare fists. He knocks Bokuto onto the ground, lunging over him, clawing at his face and punching. Akaashi then steps in. He jumps forward and takes out one of the knives from his back pocket. It happens in such a blur that she doesn’t even realize that the knife has pierced the boy’s forehead until the cannon booms and the boy’s body is rolling down into the water. Blood spills out into the stream and stains it red.
Akaashi curses loudly.
Bokuto sighs, one of the scratches on his face drawing blood. “Now we have to find a new water source.”
“Sorry,” Akaashi says, but his tone is angry. “Fuck. Sorry.”
“It’s okay,” Bokuto tries, and waves the other off when Akaashi leans down with disinfectant. “No, Keiji, stop. I’m okay—”
“Be quiet.” And with that, the argument ends, and Bokuto just closes his eyes as Akaashi moves to clean his face.
In the back, on the other side of the stream, she shakes. She knows Careers are trained to kill but she can never understand just how easy it seems to come to them. Sure, the boy had attacked first, but Akaashi had not even hesitated. He had thrown the knife so fast she hadn’t even seen him do it.
She cannot tear her eyes away from the boy’s corpse. The knife is still sticking out of his forehead, and the blood contaminates the stream. The weight of the full water bottle is suddenly a lot heavier, and she puts it into her backpack to reduce the temptation of chugging it all.
She tries to look over at her supposed allies, but the moment they’re engaged in looks so intimate she wonders if she should step off to the side for a few minutes.
(She wonders if it’s real, or all just for show.)
(That night, when Bokuto holds Akaashi’s head in his lap and kisses him gently when he thinks she’s asleep, she decides it must be real.
Not even love can survive the Games, though.)
“Remember how I taught you?” Akaashi says lowly, leaning behind her and holding onto her shoulders. “Wrap your hand like a fist. Right foot in front of the other.”
Her form is unsteady as she stands on top of the rock. The hare is a few feet away, its back turned to them, shuffling a bit. The knife wobbles in her grip, and her body feels anything but relaxed. She feels wrong trying to kill an animal like this, even if it is for survival.
(Back home, she and her mother had a sort of practice every time they had to send an animal away. The night before, they’d feed the animal as much food as they wanted and then thank it for everything it had done. Every animal they have ever raised has been given a name. This hare is nothing but a wild animal — it does not have a name. It has no purpose other than to be eaten by them right this moment.)
“If you can’t do it—”
“No,” she says too loudly, and the hare lifts its head. The two of them go dead silent for a long moment, until the hare drops back down. “No,” she says again, whispering. “I can do it. I just . . . I don’t know.”
“It’s okay,” Akaashi assures. “Just remember that we need to eat tonight. We’re about out of those beef strips.”
She nods, but the words don’t really soothe her. She swallows down her discomfort, tells herself stop being such a baby, because she is so useless under the protection of these two boys. She feels like a child, and even though she is one, it is no excuse to keep hiding in the shadows while Bokuto and Akaashi fend off the dangers for her, and feed her while they’re at it, too.
So she takes a deep breath, leans, and throws. The knife hits the hare right in the back, and it lets out a horrible sound when it twitches and dies. She feels the blood drain from her face in regret, but Akaashi is giving her a thumbs up. He walks over and takes the knife out, picking up the hare by the feet, and she swears she can see the betrayed look on the animal’s face.
(In the end, she eats it, nonetheless. She tells it thank you, too.)
(They’re in the middle of a conversation when a cannon erupts and ruins the mood. In the company of unsteady friends, it is easy to forget your surroundings, and your circumstances.)
Akaashi is a much better sleeper than any of them. Even if he tosses and turns his eyes remain shut. She can’t tell if he’s actually sleeping or just pretending.
Bokuto pokes at the fire a few times. Smoke billows out from it into the trees and makes her simmer with anxiety, but it protects her from the cold, and there is a lot more frost surrounding them at night.
“Keiji tells me that you’re getting good with a knife,” Bokuto says, trying to make conversation.
She wraps her arms around herself, shrugging. “I guess.”
“He said you’ll be able to fend off anyone with a throw like that.”
She has a feeling that he did not say that. Still, “I don’t want to kill anyone.” It comes out soft.
Bokuto is silent for a moment. “That’s alright,” he says quietly, rather than what he wants to say. “You’re not a fighter. You’re a runner. I swear you could hike for miles and not even break a sweat. You looked really cool on that gauntlet.”
She gives him an incredulous look. “ Cool? ”
“Yeah!” Bokuto exclaims, the mood lightening up, and drops his fire stick. He lifts his hands in the air, and starts to move them around to emphasize what he’s saying. “You may be small, but you’re, like, really strong, honestly! Most of the tributes gave up after one go — even the Careers! But not you. Even when you got hit with the club you just got right back up and tried again!” Now he’s grinning. “And after you finished the gauntlet, I think we were all real impressed, but then you went back to do it again! I couldn’t believe my eyes.”
She blushes. “It wasn’t that impressive.”
“Oh, it was.”
“Impressive for someone like me?”
“Not someone like you. Just you.” His smile loosens up a little, and looks more calm in nature rather than the excited one he wore moments ago. “As soon as I saw you I wanted you on our team. Everyone underestimates the little guys.”
“. . . My mentor said that.”
“Well, your mentor is smart,” he decides, and pokes at the fire again.
In the silence, the question that has been burning inside her bubbles. It festers, growing and growing like the fire until it cannot be stopped any longer. It punches its way out of her, and as soon as she says it, she regrets it, but she has to sate her curiosity; she cannot hold it anymore:
“Why are you here?”
The question doesn’t even seem to surprise him. He just looks at her with a blank expression.
“How are you going to . . . avenge your sister here? Why would Akaashi volunteer when he hates the Games? Why aren’t you with the others from your own district?”
Bokuto looks away, and pokes the fire again.
“If I told you, they’d kill me instantly.”
(In the night, there are three more cannons. Lined up, one by one. Like they had happened all at once.)
When she wakes up, Akaashi and Bokuto are gone. Her backpack and water bottle are beside her, but all of the others’ things have disappeared. She looks around the area frantically at first, wondering if something awful had happened, but she sees nothing that would indicate a fight or struggle. No blood. No weapons. The fire has been stomped out.
Did they leave her?
Maybe they finally realized just how useless she is, and packed up and left her while she was asleep. They took everything they needed with them, but left her own stuff with her to give her a fighting chance.
She feels her heart break. Betrayal sets in. She had started to trust them. She had started tolike them. She feels the sadness first, and then the anger. Her movements are rough and hurried as she stuffs her belongings into her backpack. She slings the bag around her shoulders and stomps away from their makeshift camp. The ground is wet and cold and still frosty from the night before. As she continues to walk, she comes across voices.
“. . . lling you, it’s just us out here.” Akaashi.
“Oh, so you’re just telling me you’re on a romantic getaway? Your sweet angel is nowhere to be found?” This second voice is unfamiliar.
“That’s exactly what we’re saying.” Bokuto.
“Bullshit. Tell me where the fucking girl is.”
“I already told you we don’t know where she is.”
Her heart drops to her stomach when she realizes they’re talking about her.
“Then come help us find her. She’s gonna be an easy kill.”
“Oh, I don’t know about that. ”
“ Koutarou— ”
“She’s a lot quicker and a lot smarter than any of you combined. She’s going to take you all down.”
“You fucker, I knew you knew. Tell me—”
The unfamiliar voice is interrupted by the sound of weapons clanging. In a heartbeat, she’s running, rushing towards the direction of the voices, and she rounds the corner of a tree to see Bokuto, Akaashi, and the other remaining Careers locked in battle. It’s all the remaining girls from Districts 1, 2, and 4.
The girl from District 1 looks over at her with wide eyes. “I knew it. She’s mine.”
“Fuck you,” says the girl from District 4. “My partner died trying to kill her. I’m the one who gets to kill her.”
Bokuto grits his teeth angrily. “ None of you are going to kill her!”
He lunges forward with his sickle, catching the one from District 4 off-guard. He manages to slice her shoulder but she jumps back, her arm instinctively going to clutch her wound. Blood seeps through her fingers and spills down her arm. She growls in anger and pulls out her weapon. Their blades clash against one another and she quickly realizes just how terrifying a battle between two Careers is. Akaashi himself is trying to fend off two of the girls, but with only his knives, he’s failing. He manages to get on top of one and goes to stab her in the chest, but the other girl leaps behind him and yanks him off her. He kicks and squirms as the two girls lunge at him with their swords.
“Keiji!” Bokuto yells, and in his distraction, the girl from District 4 stabs him in the side. He chokes, coughs, and falls to his knees.
Her entire body breaks out in a cold sweat. She has no strength. She has no skills. There is nothing she can do in this moment that would be of any use.
The pocket knife in her bag suddenly burns a hole. She quickly throws her bag to the ground and fumbles through it with shaking hands. She picks up the pocket knife, drops it once, and picks it up again. Her body is too tense for her to relax properly. Her fingers are shaking too much to wrap around the handle like Akaashi taught her. But still, she puts her right foot in front of the other, breathes, leans back, and throws.
The knife whirls right past the District 4 tribute’s head, and misses. But it catches her attention, and she looks up just as she’s holding the blade above Bokuto’s fallen form. Anger colors her face as soon as her eyes land on her, and she gets up from Bokuto, stomping on his wound for good measure. Blood is pooling out from underneath him.
“ You, ” growls the girl from District 4, and she attacks.
She may not be able to fight but she’s fast, and she manages to barely dodge every swing of the weapon thrown at her. The blade grazes her hair a few times, and when she sees that she has an opening, she rolls away from another swing of the weapon and kicks at the tribute’s knees. They lock, and the tribute falls over from the sudden motion, the weapon tumbling from her grip and rolling down the mountain. She gets up and glances over where it falls, and then back over at her. The tribute stands and jumps onto her, raising her fists and slamming her elbow into her nose. The world gets dizzy during punch after punch. Slam after slam. Her head is bashed against the cold ground. Her vision is spotted with black.
Distantly, she feels her legs kicking beneath her, trying to get back at the tribute above her. She manages to scratch at her neck and her legs, distracting her, if only for a moment. Suddenly, the attacks stop, and there’s a yell, followed by a cannon. Another cannon quickly follows.
Someone shouts her name, but her eyes slip shut, and she falls into darkness.
There’s the wet feeling of leaves on her face and neck when she opens her eyes. Her vision is partially blinded, but the world feels so much brighter than it should be. When she tries to shift her body, all she feels is pain. Her muscles protest at the movement.
“Hey,” Akaashi says. His voice sounds distant. “Lay back down.”
She listens without another word. Her head lolls to the side, and she can see three bodies off to the side. All girls. All unmoving. To the other side of her is Bokuto — there is blood stained on his shirt and his clothes are removed in order to better access the wound on his side. It’s bandaged up, but it still doesn’t look good.
She wants to sit up again, wants to ask what happened, and if everyone is okay, but fatigue is taking her away again.
Fatigue kills, Kiyoko says in her head, and she falls asleep.
The next time she opens her eyes, she can see more. The world is not as bright. Her body does not hurt as much when she moves, but her bones crack when she sits up.
Akaashi helps her up, and tells her that a few days have passed. He also tells her that there are only five tributes left, including them.
“How’s Bokuto?” she asks desperately.
Akaashi’s jaw tightens. “Not good. I used the rest of your bandages on him. Sorry.”
“Don’t be,” she says. “I would have wanted you to.”
The two of them are silent. She feels absolutely useless. She couldn’t even save either of them. She just ended up getting herself beaten up, and made Akaashi care for them both.
“So all the Careers are dead?”
“Not all of them.” He’s talking about the two of them.
She exhales. “Right.” Not all of them.
She doesn’t want to think of what’s going to happen when there’s only three left.
As soon as Bokuto’s recovered enough to move, they travel further up the mountain, finding another water source. They stay there for a day or two, eating the rest of the crackers and beef sticks from their backpacks.
Bokuto’s condition only worsens.
(On one particular night, she witnesses Akaashi leaning over his sleeping form in despair. He grips at his own hair and bangs his fists against his head over and over until a beeping parachute drops from the sky. Inside the silver casing is a jar of clear cream. She watches Akaashi sniff it, observe it, and then spread it all along Bokuto’s wound.
She doesn’t say anything about the limp she sees in Akaashi’s steps.)
After the medicine, Bokuto’s wound is much better, but he still has a fever. Another day goes by and he shows no signs of improvement. He walks around and talks a lot more but she can tell that he is hiding much of his pain. His bleeding has stopped but all of his blood rushes to his face. He sweats a lot more.
Akaashi tries to hide it, but his worry is much more prevalent on his face than he thinks.
Just as Bokuto’s fever starts to go down, there is a rumbling in the earth beneath them. She and Bokuto both rise up from their slumber immediately, and Akaashi is already on his feet when they wake up, scanning the area, his knives clutched in his hands.
They cannot see a thing in the dark nighttime, but a sudden explosion above them draws their attention. The horrifying realization hits them all at once — as the coldness in the area suddenly dissipates and is replaced with heat; as the air suddenly becomes thick and smokey and hard to breathe in.
The mountain is a volcano.
Lava and fireballs start to rain down from the sky as the air is filled with thick, black smoke. The ground is shaking and splitting apart. Their weapons rattle with the movement and create an awful clunking sound. If the fire does not kill them, the toxic air will first.
“ Fuck, ” Akaashi curses. “We have to get down this mountain!”
Bokuto scrambles to his feet, but he stumbles, and falls down a moment later. Akaashi rushes over to his side, slinging his arm around his shoulder and carrying him down with them. She hurries to get in front of them, climbing down the rocks and looking back every so often to help Bokuto down. The earth shakes so much that it is hard to keep steady, and they all very nearly fall off the cliffs several times. The volcano explodes again, and the lava starts pooling down closer and closer to them. It’s so close that she can feel the heat of it on her skin. The fireballs raining down get more and more intense and crash around them, breaking apart the ground.
Just as soon as they get at least halfway down the mountain, the earth suddenly splits in two. She falls over onto one half and the other two are left stranded on the other. She is safe from the lava, but the other two are trapped. Unless they jump, or somehow run fast enough, they are trapped. Bokuto is sweating even harder now — his weight leans more heavily on Akaashi, and the latter’s feet stumble with the added effort of holding him up.
“You have to jump!” she shouts frantically. They can’t leave her alone. Not now. Not like this. She looks down and her vision blurs at the pit below her.
“Keiji,” Bokuto starts.
“ Keiji. ”
“No,” Akaashi says again, and then yells, “ No! Don’t you even say it!”
“. . . You don’t even know what I was gonna say.”
“No, but I have a goddamn guess!”
“I’m in no shape to try and jump. You are.”
“If you ever suggest I leave you again, I’ll—”
“Yeah, I know.” Bokuto moves so he’s out of Akaashi’s grip. Before the other can even question his intentions, Bokuto grabs him by the back of his head and kisses him, firm and hard and desperately. “That’s what I love about you,” he says. “You’re too stubborn to back down.” And with that, he swings his arms underneath Akaashi’s legs and back and quite literally sweeps him off his feet. Akaashi tries to struggle out of his grip, but Bokuto limps, forces himself to the edge of the cliff, and tosses Akaashi right across the gap.
She catches him and pulls him over before he can fall. He gets angry, though, and even if his anger isn’t directed at her, it sure feels like it. He smacks himself out of her grip and jerks back, running towards the edge so quickly that he wobbles over. When he steadies himself, he looks like he wants to punch something.
“You idiot! ” he screams. “Are you crazy!? Get over here now! ”
“You and I both know I’m not going to make it!”
“You will! You have to!”
“It’s not me that has to stay alive,” Bokuto says. “You know what has to say alive.”
Akaashi clenches his jaw. His eyes are wet. “Forget about the fucking mission! District 13 can find someone else to carry out their stupid ideas. All I need is you. ”
Bokuto doesn’t say anything to that. “Take her and go.”
“Take her and go, now! ”
Akaashi is trembling, shaking all over. His fists are clenched and his face is red. The ground is shaking even harder, and the lava is flowing further and further down the mountain. In only a few moments it will reach Bokuto. The latter does not look fazed in the slightest. He does not move. He only holds onto his wound, and worst of all, he smiles.
“I’ll see you again, Keiji.”
Akaashi lets out an angered sob, turns on his heel, and runs. She cannot bring herself to look, so calling after his name, she runs after him.
Nothing could have prepared her for Bokuto’s cannon. She thinks the cannon is the worst thing about the Games. The viewers get to laugh and point at every little thing that happens on their screens, but here, in the real world, it only emphasizes the horrors, and shows that they are nothing but pawns. The tributes are not who they truly are in the arena. What was their favorite color? What did they like to do in their free time? What was their family like?
Who would they have been?
When she finally catches up to Akaashi, he stands in the center of a clearing in the forest, unmoving. She’s almost afraid to approach him. So instead she stands behind him a few feet, ready to run in case he turns, and ready to comfort in case he does not.
It’s a long few moments. Akaashi finally turns around and makes his decision. His body tenses up like he’s preparing for a fight, and he raises his fists. Higher and higher, up into his head, and his twists his fingers into his hair like that night he cried over Bokuto’s wound. This time, it’s more intense. The tears come harder and faster and snot and drool covers his face. He curls up his body and squats onto the ground and starts wheezing with sobs. He jumps back up and starts punching the bark of the trees. He grunts with each punch and gives his all into every attack. He kicks and pulls and tears at the bark and rips off leaves and stabs his knife into the base of the tree over and over and over and over.
When he’s done, he lets out the most pained scream she has ever heard in her life.
The realization that Akaashi is going to die too comes a lot calmer than Bokuto’s.
Of course he had been wounded in the fight with the Careers, and of course he had hidden it away for the sake of the other two. She wakes up one night to see Akaashi leaning against his attacked tree in a cold sweat, pants rolled up to his knees, a deep and infected wound looking ugly and raw against his yellowed and purpled skin. He’s wheezing with each breath, and this time, there is not a sponsor in the world who can save him now.
Without a word, she lets the tears fall from her face, and crawls up to go sit beside him. He looks at her once, and then lifts his arm to wrap it around her shoulders. She tries to be quiet as she cries, but her sniffles give her away, and she covers her eyes with her sleeve to try and calm herself down.
“Bokuto was supposed to live,” Akaashi says quietly. “He was always supposed to live. Carry out the plan, and all that. Then he saw me and got attached. And he saw you and got attached.” He closes his eyes and lets out a sigh. “That’s always been his one big character flaw. He’s too nice to everyone. You’d think since he’s a Career that he’d be more hesitant to call anyone his friend.” He smiles a bit. “As soon as he saw me he asked to marry me. He told me I was the most beautiful person alive. Can you believe that?”
She doesn’t answer, but she can believe it.
He goes on. “I can’t believe that someone like that could love someone like me.”
This time, she does answer. “I think you’re pretty great.”
Akaashi’s hand goes to ruffle her hair, and stays on the back of her head. His hand is warm. “Thanks, angel. I think you’re great too.”
They are both quiet for a long time. She thinks maybe an hour has passed by. She listens to his breathing get slower and slower. The air around them is cold but the parts of her body that are curled into him are warm.
Another tear rolls down her face. “What’s your favorite color?”
A moment passes.
“Gold,” Akaashi answers. “I really liked gold.”
In the morning, he’s gone.
She surrounds his body with as many flowers as she can find. She puts the golden ones in his hands, and walks over to the clearing to look at the sunrise. The light blinds her eyes but she does not blink and she does not move. The scenery may be beautiful, but she can almost smell the blood on the land. How many families will have to mourn their children today? How many families will have to be forever seared with the reminder that they have lost to the Capitol?
District 13 . . .
(She wonders what it could all mean.)
She takes his knives and the rest of his supplies with her and travels further down the mountain. She notices that all the lava has cooled and that the earth has become steady again, like the eruption had never happened in the first place.
She travels for maybe a day before she has to stop. She sets up camp — alone, for the first time ever. She has no one to watch her back, so she hardly sleeps at all. Every rustle, every breeze of wind makes her snap open her eyes. By the time she decides to give up and keep moving, she’s so tired that even her stamina can’t help her now.
The arena is so lonely and so quiet. She hopes it bores the viewers.
After she’s downed the last of her water, she finds that all of the remaining water sources have been drained. There are no animals or any sort of berries in sight. When she makes it to the base of the mountain, she spots the Cornucopia ahead, and sees boxes set up around it. The Gamemakers must want to lure the remaining tributes out into the open.
Fine, she decides. Fine.
As she walks closer, she notices that one of the tributes is already standing there. It’s the one from District 6. His back is turned and he’s looking down at one of the boxes intently. She could sneak up behind him and he’d never notice her. She stops for a moment to watch him rustle around. Then, he pulls out a knife. It glints in the sun. He tries to twirl it in his hands, but his technique is all wrong. His fingers are in the wrong position. His body is too bulky. His hair is too light. He could never be Bokuto and he could never be Akaashi.
A horrible feeling overwhelms her. Hopelessness and guilt and doubt and self-pity. She almost falls to her knees from the force of it. Her friends are dead and they are dead because of her. The only reason she has made it this far was because of them, and look at how she repaid them. Everything they did was for her.
Akaashi’s knives feel heavy in her bag. All of her horrible feelings are swiftly replaced by anger. Anger at the Capitol, at the president, at the other tributes, at her escort for calling her name in the first place. Anger at the very notion that she is nothing but a pawn, a target, a sacrifice in some fear-mongering scheme. She wants to see her mom again. She wants to see her favorite animals again.
She wants to see Bokuto and Akaashi again.
She does not even reach for the knives. It would take too long. Instead, she takes long strides to pick up a large rock she spots nearby the Cornucopia. The boy is still digging around the box, oblivious. She weighs the rock in her hands, and drops her backpack onto the ground as she steps forward. Her movements feel automatic, like she, herself, is not even in control. Like she really is a pawn. Remote-controlled by the Capitol to do their bidding. Do they want her to kill this boy?
As soon as she gets close enough she smashes the rock into the top of the boy’s head hard enough to kill him, and the blood splatters across her face as soon as the cannon booms.
For a moment, relief fills her. The rock is held high above her head for a long few seconds before she lets it drop. She’s breathless, and backs up a few steps to look at what she’s done.
What she’s done . . .
The realization hits her. She’s just killed a person, for no reason other than obscure, misplaced anger. This boy is— was a victim, just like her. She wants to take back the cannon. She wants to kneel down and patch up his head and tell him it’s going to be okay. But instead she’s killed the last person other than her. Instead she’s sealed her place.
She waits. And waits. And stands there, shaking. But nothing comes. There is no announcement. Nothing to indicate her victory.
That is when she remembers that there had been five remaining tributes before. Minus Bokuto, Akaashi, and the one from District 6, that left two. The two from District 10.
There’s a shuffle, a crunch of a shoe against frozen grass. When she turns around, all she sees is the silver of a blade before everything goes black.