Brace Yourself

Chapter Nine: The Arena, Part IV

Disclaimer: I do not own the Hunger Games

Warnings: Insanity, cursing, graphic content, minor character death.

Notes: This chapter contains spoilers for The Fault in our Stars. If you haven't read TFIOS yet, and are planning to read it, I suggest you don't read the dropkicking fruits paragraph and the few paragraphs after that one. They only contain details and comparisons, so if you skip them, you won't miss much. As for the phobias I list off, if you are curious about them, look them up.

Chapter Nine: The Arena, Part IV

Don't say goodbye, I'll be your friend
I'll keep on saving you over and over again

-Saving You, Chris Ganem

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I don't know what day it is. I fell asleep at no particular point in time, and when I woke, it was nighttime. But I don't know what day it is. How long was I out? How long was I stumbling around in a daze, wearing the shoes of a madman? How long has it been since Smoke spoke to me, and did Smoke really speak to me at all? Was it all just my imagination, playing tricks on me?

Are Tyler and Rosalina really dead?

I'd like to think that it was all just a dream. That I'm going to wake up in an instant, just to realise that I was never reaped, and that Haymitch Abernathy is nothing but the boy I'll love forever, and that I have never murdered and never will murder. I'd like to think that all this poison is a trick- that these are nothing but phosphorescent plants, really. I'd like to think that I can escape all danger by opening my eyes, where I'll find Myra hugging me and Fauna kissing my cheek and Father scooping me up and swinging me around like he did when I was little.

I'd like to think that Lane never existed, that trains are just vehicles that transport goods instead of people, that Augusta's hair colour actually was lavender. I'd like to think that Alder Blind was a kind man whose experiences didn't negatively impact him, that the Capitol wasn't real but instead represented all of the evil in my mind, that Rosea didn't truly take up a career in the fashion industry. I'd like to think that there's more to District Twelve than coal miners in baggy getup, that there's nothing more to Careers than weapons and ruthlessness, that Sorphigan Pronx gave a training score of twelve to anyone who displayed something unique. I'd like to think that Caesar Flickerman didn't try to make us tributes shine, that the cameras aren't trained on us at all times, that messages don't have to be hidden in plain sight.

I'd like to think that no one was killed in the bloodbath- that there wasn't a bloodbath at all- that the eighteen dead are alive and well. I'd like to think that Gracen Blaze wasn't [isn't] deceptive- that Pine never drank the acid water- that I didn't have to experience such an event first-hand. I'd like to think that the Careers never captured Anahita, that Intella Gently's death didn't spur that of her lover's, that Hestia never cut off my hair. I'd like to think that Willie's handprint still rests on my heart, or that he and Devon never came across my camp in the first place. I'd like to think that Rosalina hated it when someone braided her hair, and never wished to see her brother again. I'd like to think that Tyler couldn't find us, and that the volcano wasn't actually a volcano, and that Hestia never took refuge on the mountain at all. I'd like to think that Tyler was perfectly sane- that he wasn't a demon from Hell- that he didn't plague my dreams within a dream. I'd like to think that Rosalina didn't die in a bed of poisonous flowers, that her father never had lung issues in the first place, that my promises will always be fulfilled.

I'd like to think that I never loved Haymitch enough to take my life for him (although I haven't yet). I'd like to think that Haymitch and I could both make it out of here alive. I'd like to think that Haymitch Abernathy never existed at all to make my life so complicated! And oh, wouldn't that be a miracle.

I'd like to think that I'm not insane. I'd like to think that the Games don't exist. I'd like to think that Panem has been created by myself, and that when I wake I'll be in a new world- a better world- an Earth, like they taught us about in school. But not a destructive Earth; not the Earth that was explained in our textbooks. A perfect Earth. A utopia.

But I cannot think this at all. These past few weeks could have been a dream, but it is more likely that this dreadful life of mine is a reality- a crushing reality that will leave me hanging to sanity by a thread and clutching love tightly in my hands so it doesn't slip away. And why should I waste my time thinking of what could have been when reality continues around me? Why should I lose my concentration on here and now when someone could easily sneak up behind me and slit my throat?

Even if this is a dream, I'd rather not die.

The sun is high above my head now, and I think my skin is burning from its intensity, even through the trees. I feel utterly alone, despite spying the occasional rabbit, hopping through the trees. I'm so sick of it all. I'm so sick of it all, and I've been here- what? A little over a week, maybe? At this rate, how long can I last here?

I cannot stop walking. In circles, maybe, but I still walk. Every time I try to take a rest, the picture of Maysilee Brave pops up in my head- her face has been burned into my memory since the day my mother pointed her out to me in a scrapbook- and I pass by the tempting log, luscious patch of moss, or whatever appealing sitting place I've had the pleasure of spotting. Simply put, I've become paranoid. Maybe I'm acting sane now (or else more sane than after Rosalina and Tyler's deaths), but I am constantly glancing over the back of my shoulder, and when so much as a leaf rustles I'm halfway up a tree before I know what hit me.

Oh well. Better safe than sorry.

Dropkicking fruits has become my favourite pastime. There's something entertaining about touching death and then causing it to sail through the trees. I once read a book about a girl whose lover often dangled a cigarette from his mouth without lighting it. (A cigarette is a form of drug, addictive like morphine, that has been banned since the Capitol took reign. Apparently cigarettes destroy one's lungs when lit, causing cancer, which not one person has been diagnosed with ever since the Capitol treated our ancestors for the disease. Wouldn't want another outbreak, what with the smoking of cigarettes). The book explained how keeping a cigarette in one's mouth without lighting it could symbolize touching death without actually succumbing to it. It was a metaphor. Dropkicking fruits is a metaphor, as well.

I suppose you could compare the boy and I. We think alike.

Then again, the boy died in the end. But I'll probably die, too, so there's not much difference.

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Eventually, when I feel as if my legs can't hold me up a minute longer, I am struck with an idea that I wish I'd gotten earlier. Why not climb a tree? I'm completely paranoid that another tribute is going to come across me, but I'd have the advantage if I were directly above them. And after all, the basis of my paranoia is Maysilee Brave's story… and she couldn't climb a tree whatsoever. She was never taught how.

I'm glad I took a shot at the climbing station back in training. Although I haven't chanced sleeping up in the trees, I can still take refuge there during the daytime. However, I wish I could be a natural tree climber- I wish I could have had more practice before I was reaped for the Games. Sure, the tree outside the apothecary was a nice climb. Sure, there are trees in the forest outside of our district. But Fauna's tree was short, and I never chanced climbing the forest trees, because if I fell and injured myself there would be no one to rescue me.

Oh, the joys of being from District Twelve.

I take the time to choose a tall maple surrounded by a plethora of other tall maples, hoisting myself up thick branches until I'm hidden in the tangle of boughs, sitting comfortably in their midst. I sigh to myself and dangle my legs in thin air, staring at the ground some seven metres below. For once, I let myself relax, and begin to hum "Brace Yourself" under my breath, letting my thoughts wander.

Suddenly, I am compelled to speak aloud. "I have to find him," I mutter. "I have to find him."

Why?

"Because I have to protect him."

He can protect himself.

"Can he?"

Well, he very well doesn't need you to protect him. After all, you'd never do any good. You're just a girl that finds it necessary to talk to herself.

I laugh out loud. I'm sure anyone in Panem watching this will be speculating over my insanity, but frankly, I don't give a damn. Let their minds wander. Let them decide that I'm mad. Because I am. Because we're all mad here. We're all mad everywhere.

There is a small squeak to my left, and suddenly, I whip my head around. My blowgun makes its way to my lips out of habit, and I stare down the wooden shaft as my gaze finds a fluffy, golden squirrel. It cocks its head at me with a sly grin. I narrow my eyes and, in effort to avoid wasting any more darts (for I only have two left), I lunge in its direction, startling it. But before it can regain its wits, I'm passing by the creature and descending the tree quickly, letting go of the last branch when I'm about three metres from the ground.

The squirrel gives out a squeak of protest, and before I know it, the trees around me are littered with the furry rodents. I don't give them more than a seconds' glance, and choose my pathway without hesitation, sprinting away from the pack. I hear their high-pitched squeals from behind me as they attack, flying through the air, and I have to blindly bat away those that manage to cling to my back. Thankfully, not many are capable of managing this feat. It's hard to take aim when your target is moving, of course.

I know now that I shouldn't have even considered a break.

I run, knocking the squirrels away, until their screeches are far behind me. I run a good five minutes more, the wounds from their sharp teeth bleeding out freely. When I'm quite sure they're gone, I sit down and apply antiseptic before wrapping the punctures- which are located on my shoulders, mostly, and my back- in bandages. And then I'm off again, moving through the trees, intending not to stop for minutes or months, days or years.

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It approaches dusk quickly. They say time flies when you're having fun, but that so-called theory doesn't seem to apply to me. From what I've observed, time only flies when I am occupied with something. It may be something as tedious as jogging in no particular direction, but time still flits away, seen only when I pause in my tracks.

I am so desperate to rest, but I cannot stop moving. Even when it grows too dark to avoid never-ending tree roots, I continue to blindly navigate my way through the woods. I'll sit down a moment just to stir at the slightest sound and spring to my feet once again. I'm paranoid. I'm overly paranoid. I need someone here to protect me, to grant me hope and a sense of security, but there's no one. I need to protect someone else, too, but as far as I can tell, he's gone forever. I don't know where he is. I haven't known where he's been for- for- days, weeks, months, years, decades, eternity? It's been too long without him.

A thought strikes me. What if he's dead? What if he's been dead all this time and I've been walking in circles trying to find him after I'd slept through his cannon and his face in the sky? I let out a squeak of terror, like something that would emit from a minuscule field mouse, and wrap my arms around my head, squeezing until I have a headache.

My eyes burn. I can't concentrate, because I'm too focused on one thing: don't cry. Don't cry don't cry don't cry...

It's midnight, or maybe it's not midnight. There's two things I want right now. Haymitch, and even more so, a watch. At least then I'd know something. At least then I'd know what time it is.

"Alder, I want a watch." I stare up at the sky pathetically. I know he won't answer me. I know he'll make sure that his side of the deal is secure. Hell, my surly mentor is probably sleeping off a hangover while drinking up another one in his sleep. He drinks that much. He is that disgusting.

I let my imagination amuse me with the image of Alder drinking himself silly. Making a fool of himself. I laugh and laugh, stumbling on another tree root. But then the image of Alder transforms into something else- transforms into him. His curly hair matted, his piercing gray eyes dull, his hands barely clinging to a flask as he stares blankly into thin air. No. No. No. You can't be an alcoholic. I won't permit it. Biting my lip, I will the image away, but it stays with me, as all images of Haymitch Abernathy do.

Lane Diblre and he standing side by side in the spring rain. Meeting him. Gazing at him. Arguing with him. Graduation. The reaping. The train. The opening ceremonies. Training. The hospital. Kissing him. The roof. Private sessions. Training scores. Waking up in bed with him. Acting. Interviews. Saying goodbye. "Stay alive," he told me.

Brace yourself. Brace yourself. Brace yourself.

I scream it out to Panem. I scream it for all ears to see. "BRACE YOURSELF!" It's a testimony of my insanity. To think that that song has developed into the entire meaning behind my life. To think that I can't even remember why I love it so. But sometimes, remembering can take the magic out of the memories. Remembering can destroy you. Remembering can be impossible.

Remembering can be lovely, but when you compare your past to your present and future, you may shatter into pieces that can never be put back together. Bracing yourself for impact can make it all the better. I just have to figure out how.

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I collapse. It's all too much. I'm fatigued, more in mind than body, which is saying much for the state of my brain. It's on overdrive. I keep thinking of the worst scenarios possible, and then realising I shouldn't torture myself, and then berating myself for this, and then wondering if I'm trying to convince myself that something that is true isn't true. I manage to panic all over again, and then I'll scare myself over the prospect that I'm having another panic attack. At this rate, I'm going to be diagnosed with maniaphobia and agnosiophobia, as well as hypnophobia, mnemophobia, monophobia… and, oh, there are too many more to list.

I'll tell you right now that Fauna, if not asleep, is listing these phobias off in that perceptive brain of hers. "Poor Mays," she'll think, even though I never was and never will be "poor."

Unable to drag myself up, I curl into a fetal position, burying my hands in my short hair and tugging on the ends. If someone found me here, I'd do nothing to stop them from killing me. It would be a welcome release from physical existence. I'd simply bleed out in the darkness without ever seeing my own wounds, pretending pain didn't exist. A nice way to go. Doesn't everybody dream of dying of old age in their sleep? I, personally, think that's much too dull. Pain is the escape to Heaven or Hell, depending on where you belong. Pain determines who you are and what you're worth. Pain is the way to die.

I want to die in pain. And I want to die laughing at whatever causes me that pain, because they say laughter is the best medicine. I'll be brave- like Maysilee Brave, for once. Myra told me she was laughing when she died.

Laughing when the brute from Ten stabbed her.

Somehow, there are no nightmares in dreamland; just empty, comfortable space, swallowing me whole. Covering me in blankets of warmth that I still proceed to shiver under, dousing me in velvet that weighs barely anything more than the air around me. Maysilee Brave tucks me in to bed, singing "Brace Yourself" into my ear, and a pack of toothless squirrels perform a duet in perfect harmony. It's a dream, but then again it's not a dream. Because it is reality.

Beauty is reality, and beauty knows no boundaries. Neither, of course, does reality.

My eyes open to the world again, and I am sane.

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I'm on my last bottle of water. I do hope it rains soon. I'd rather not dehydrate myself again.

Slowly and meticulously taking a sip from the bottle before screwing on the lid, I stand up and run my fingers through my greasy hair. The skinny braids Rosea used to style it with have long ago become undone, some time after Hestia cut away my hair and half of the original braids. As I haven't been able to wash it (or brush it, for that matter), it's probably a horrible mess. Attempting to straighten it out with my fingers doesn't do much use. My hair is, simply put, a lost cause.

Sighing to myself, I look over my supplies, taking inventory. They're dwindling low, even combined with Rosalina's and Tyler's packs. I stuffed myself with the last of the bread just now, because if I saved any for later, it would have been too stale to bite into. There's only a packet and a half of dried beef left after Tyler's splurging, and two packages of dried fruit. My supply of bandages is halfway used up after the multiple squirrel attacks, and the tube of itch cream is mostly full (the rash I received on Day One having vanished with miraculous results). I really don't know why the Gamemakers thought to supply so much of the cream. It's not like we have other use for it.

Unless it treats poisonous mosquito bites. I, in all honesty, wouldn't be surprised.

As for weapons, I have but two darts left to be used in my blowgun and a few knives (one that was originally mine, and another that was at the bottom of Tyler's pack). The knife he used to stab Rosalina was, fortunately, taken into the hovercraft with him. I don't think I could deal with the prospect of carrying something that lead to my friend and ally's ultimate death.

There's plenty of rope, too. Some of it has been used up to create the branch-plank, which I left behind (as bushes provide even more coverage than Rosalina's makeshift shelter), but there's plenty left. If I was skilled in knot-tying, I could probably construct twenty odd nooses with the abundant supply. However, I am not skilled in the art of knot-tying, much to my disappointment. I should have given that a go back in training, rather than learn how to build a snare to catch rabbits with. I'm not going attempt catching a rabbit, for fear they are poisonous. I've officially decided I shouldn't risk it.

Besides, skinning an animal is a feat I've not yet tried and never do intend to carry out. The trainer from Ten might have demonstrated on a rubber rabbit, but that's far from the skin, bones, blood, and muscle of an actual rabbit. Just thinking about it makes me crinkle my nose in disgust.

This arena appears to be far too good at fulfilling my desires. Then again, maybe I want to attempt skinning a rabbit (in the dreams of my forever-lost defiance). But before I can take it upon myself to perform such an act, I hear someone scream in the distance.

I am instantly reminded of the other screams: of the poor souls of the bloodbath, of tortured Anahita from Five, of Intella's district partner when he discovered her corpse. Of Willie and his war cry, of Devon and the long, drawn-out note he sang proudly as he ran into his own ally's butcher knife. Of Smoke not too long ago, and of Rosalina's shrieks in my nightmare as her own brother stabbed her in the stomach. Of my own screams, especially: those I blamed on Myra and the rest I put upon the shoulders of insanity. The rest that will not linger in my soul. Now, they're gone. Somehow, they managed to escape through the cracks of my soul.

These aren't like the other screams. Those were screams of fear and defiance and utter grief. These are screams of rage, and rage only: screams holding a distinguishable meaning, for there are words being shouted. "Fuck you! Fuck you! That was my BROTHER you coal dust-covered son of a bitch-" and the cursing goes on. But I don't care to listen; don't care to interpret the voice, even. I can only mull over the words before my heart drops into the depths of my stomach.

Coal dust-covered son of a bitch = Haymitch Abernathy.

Boom.

Suddenly, I'm running so fast my legs nearly give out from underneath me, sprinting so quickly through the trees that they blur into a green-and-brown swirl of colours. Miraculously, I don't trip over a root or an outcropping of bushes. I'll wonder about that later, though. My mind is solely focused on the continuous bellowing and the low-pitched cry of the cannon. I don't know who it was for. Maybe it was Haymitch. It could have been Haymitch.

Boom.

I'm getting closer, because I hear the noises of a relentless fight to the death: grunts and yells and curses. It doesn't really matter what they're saying; it's just that they're saying something that will lead me to my ultimate relief or dread. I have no time to brace myself. I cannot and will not make time for that through this haze of utter panic.

A clearing is up ahead, I think. The gaps in the trees grow further apart to let sunlight stream in, illuminating chlorophyll-pigmented leaves until they give off a near fluorescent hue. They combine with each other until I feel as if I am sprinting through leafy green draperies, pushing away the fabric with my hands, holding my blowgun out in front of me as my only means of protection.

I stop just as the trees end, and I'm met with a sudden, deafening silence. I watch as one opponent draws his knife up to the other's slim neck. I don't even stop to react. The blowgun touches my lips and I aim for the skin of the predator's fleshy neck, exhaling forcefully. The dart lands with precision, and its victim falls backwards as he reaches around and pulls the dart right back out again. However, the poison has already gone into effect. He's coughing and choking and writhing, the blood spewing out of his mouth in deep red waves until there's no more left to extract. I cover my eyes. I can't watch.

Boom. Quarren's dead, and I didn't even know his surname. I didn't know Willie's or Devon's either, for that matter. I'm sorry, I'm sorry, I'm sorry.

When I look up again, the only survivor slowly stands, looking confused as he stares at the corpses of three supposedly invincible young men. I take a look at them myself. Intron with a knife lodged in the centre of his throat. Exon with his hands futilely covering the puncture wound in his stomach. Quarren, laying in a pool of crimson, my dart dangling from the space between his middle and index fingers.

I look up at the survivor and step out of the woods to announce my presence. At the same time, his gaze drifts to meet mine and piercing gray catches hold of dull blue.

Words can't say how much I've wanted- needed- to see him again. "We'd live longer with the two of us," I decide upon, extending my hand out in some sort of cordial gesture.

He doesn't take it, and instead rubs the back of his neck, his lips drawn into a permanent frown. "Guess you just proved that," he says. "Allies?"

I'm tempted to respond with a sarcastic "no," but that's definitely not an appropriate response, so I nod once.

We gather their supplies without a word more. We are granted with interesting finds. A large stash of sweets lie at the bottom of Intron's pack, while a bottle of shampoo and an abundance of full water bottles live in his brother's. The sight of these hit me with a pang of grief, for even if I didn't kill them, they were people too. Intron loved sweets, Exon loved hygiene. Or maybe I'm deluding myself into assuming humane qualities about them. Anyhow, take away their weapons, the twins' packs barely resemble your typical Careers'.

Quarren is another story. His pack holds nothing but a variety of weapons and not one trace of food (I suppose he ate it all). A collection of daggers, kama, spearheads (the shaft of the spear isn't present- or maybe he never had a spear shaft in the first place. I sure didn't), short swords, boomerangs, and even a blowtorch make up the pack's contents. Although I'm fairly sure Quarren was as humane as the rest of us, his pack does nothing to spur my sympathy.

We leave most of his weapons on him. They'll be taken up into the hovercraft, never for my eyes to see again, never for another tribute to use to their advantage. We do take the blowtorch with us, though. It may be useful for something.

Using the remainder of his bandages and most of mine, we patch up the cuts scratches he attained from Intron's and Quarren's knives, as well as Exon's short sword. I'm not exactly sure what to do about his nose. The bruises blossoming over it make it hard to tell whether or not it's broken. Haymitch says that it was Intron's doing, after he killed Exon. I comment that Intron can really pack a punch. "I mean-" I correct myself, "-could really pack a punch."

It's not until we exit the clearing that I reach over and lace my fingers through his, sighing softly as I look away from his gaze and stare into our impending future.

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"You aren't going insane," I tell him eventually.

"Who said I was, sweetheart?" Haymitch asks, smirking.

"Don't act," I chastise him. "Don't act as if you're above homicide. You are less of a murderer than I am, and so I know more about the repercussions. Given, I am moderately weak- but no one is invincible to the emotions following... manslaughter." He freezes in place at this, and I am forced to stop with him, but I continue. "There's no way to brace yourself for the guilt. Just know that you aren't going insane."

Haymitch lowers his narrowed eyes. "They deserved it," he says bitterly.

"And telling yourself that doesn't improve anything, does it?"

"Maybe it does," he replies defensively. "Who did you kill, Mays?"

I close my eyes, ignoring the nickname. "Willie-" I take a deep breath, seeing him writhing on the ground "-Devon-" I picture him running towards me, screaming "-Tyler-" I watch Tyler as he scuttles forward, using his tentacle-arms to plunge a knife into Rosalina's stomach "-and Quarren, you know."

"Did they deserve it?" His eyes are haunted; plagued by shock.

"Tyler did," I say shortly. "And I near lost it. But I never went insane, and neither will you, because we are already insane. Because we're all mad here- we're all mad everywhere." At this point, I'm rambling, unable to keep from speaking my mind. "Haymitch… I've been so alone. All this time, ever since Rosalina's death, I can't put an end to the paranoia. I'd been thinking- what if you were dead? What if I didn't hear the cannon? Which is silly, I know… but lately, I've been sleeping for days on end, and I feel as if I'm an entirely new person. I saw my reflection in an acid pool the other day and I thought I was somebody else!"

I sink to my knees, and he places a hand on my shoulder. A hand that will always radiate heat. "Haymitch," I whisper, "what day is it?"

"Eight."

"But I thought-" a stunned giggle escapes my lips, "-I thought it had been so much longer than that. You're lying, aren't you? You're trying to make me feel better, Haymitch. It's been weeks, hasn't it? That's why I'm so-"

"Maysilee Donner." His voice is commanding as he shakes my shoulders once. "I am not lying. It is day eight. Forty-one of us are dead, and you haven't missed a single cannon, because you know there are seven of us left. Me and you. Platina. Venom-"

"DON'T!" I shout. "Don't tell me! That's what Tyler used to do!" Taking a gasping breath, I begin to whisper once again. "I thought I was okay. I thought I was sane again. I thought finding you would help me. I'm not, I'm not, it hasn't."

I can't cry. I cannot cry anymore. It's as if my tears have shriveled up to nothing, or are suffering from an extreme case of paralysis. But my words- my words are broken. I'm sure Haymitch knows this, and I'm sure Haymitch doesn't have the slightest idea what he's supposed to do to help me. But I cannot look at him and I cannot tell him what he is supposed to do- which is nothing, of course- so I curl up in fetal position and refuse to move.

The day passes away, the sun shining far above me, but I do nothing, and neither does my ally.

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"I'm sorry," I mutter as a new dawn arises, uncurling and staring at a half-asleep Haymitch.

"It's fine," he says, a twinge of bitterness marring his tone. "We'll have to make up for lost time, though. I have to find a way through the hedge."

"Hedge?"

Haymitch runs a hand through his unruly curls and stares at the sun, which is slowly inching upwards in the sky. "Yes- hedge." He refrains from telling me more, and instead says, "In response to the other day… you aren't going insane, either, sweetheart."

"I know. I am insane."

"No." He shakes his head. "No, you aren't. Fear, panic, grief, and guilt will cause anyone's emotions to go completely haywire. Everything you've seen has overstimulated your brain. I think you have to come to terms with your homicide, fully convince yourself that it was inevitable, and know that the dead tributes are in a better place (unless you count those who deserved it, like Tyler as you so firmly believe should have been punished). I wouldn't know insanity, even with my occasional panic attacks, so I am convinced that you wouldn't know it either."

"How are you not so affected?"

"I have killed before," he says bluntly. "Animals. For food. I've learnt how to vanquish guilt. …And besides, maybe you're just weak."

"I'm going to pretend that you never mentioned my psychological strength, no matter how fragile it has proved to be." I turn away and unzip my pack, digging through its contents and ignoring his hurtful comment. I don't even care if he was being sarcastic. That was uncalled for. "After all, you wouldn't understand. You never witnessed Tyler killing his own sister."

For once, I've rendered him speechless.

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I've carefully evaluated the symptoms and have come to the conclusion that Haymitch Abernathy is seven point four times more paranoid than I.

Not only does he insist that we keep walking- which I don't really mind, but don't consider necessary anymore, now that I have an ally to watch my back- but he has us walking with our backs tilted a half a metre away from the side of the volcano. No more, no less. I'd prefer to have my back fully facing the volcano, but Haymitch strictly enforces this rule by turning around every fifteen seconds to assess our exact location in comparison to the looming landform. "Why?" I ask him, but his answers are less than adequate.

"The hedge," he'll mutter, "I have to find it." Or else he won't answer my questions at all. I believe him to be distancing himself from me, which is all very formidable, but not the least bit comforting. Is it too much to ask for a friendly Haymitch days before I die?

Not only does he insist that we climb a tree when in need for a break- which isn't such a big deal, considering the circumstances- but he has to scout out the area around the set tree, the diameter of the circle no less than twenty metres of length, test out every branch to make sure they won't break under stress, navigate all escape routes and map them out in that obsessive head of his, and assure me that it's worth all of the trouble (which takes a considerable length of time on its own, I must say). "Why?" I ask him, but he just shakes his head before we finally take a rest in the tree's branches.

We're off again fifteen minutes later, and I can't help but think all of this enforcement is unnecessary.

Not only does he insist that I use the bathroom a distance away from the path we've been taking- which only slightly makes sense, as what sort of Career is trained in tracking people via urine? (I'm sure there are a few)- but he has to accompany me there, covering our tracks the entire way, stand a few metres from me at all times, and turn his head as I pee into the bushes. Seriously. It's like Haymitch thinks I'm vulnerable when I'm going to the bathroom- as if I can't defend myself with my blowgun. Well, it's true that I have but one dart left, but it's not like I'm going to miss my target.

"Why?" I'll ask him. "Aren't you aware that it makes me uncomfortable?" And yeah, it's sweet, and I'm pretty sure I love him, but Haymitch isn't acting like Haymitch these days.

However, my continuous inquiries do nothing to get on his nerves- and I've asked the question "why" so many times I'm fed up with it, depleting my original intentions. Haymitch's face remains impassive, his lips pursed to form a thin line, his silvery eyes downcast. His nose, which I now assume to be broken, has adapted until it portrays all the colours of the rainbow under the white bandage (well- look on the bright side, it's stopped bleeding). No matter what I say, he will only stare at me stonily. And so, with one final "why" (with no positive results), I stop walking.

He's walked fifteen metres or so before he realises that I've remained stationary. I stare at him expectantly as he turns and walks back over to me. "Why?" I ask again, although the term is overused. "Why do you insist we remain so precautioned, why do you insist we go everywhere together, why do you insist we keep walking, and why do you insist we go in this certain direction?"

"Come on," he grasps at my arm, his blank face the epitome of a sociopath's.

"I'm not moving until you tell me," I frown, planting my feet firmly on the ground. "We're allies- friends-" (lovers, but I don't dare say it) "-and I think I deserve to know the intentions behind your ridiculous actions."

"Because it has to end somewhere, right?" Haymitch sighs, staring me down. "The arena can't go on forever."

And yet you refuse to rest for one instant? "What do you expect to find?"

"I don't know. But maybe there's something we can use," he says. "Nobody's ever made it to the outside of an arena before. And I think I may have found the way in. Before I came across Intron, Exon, and Quarren, I had found a dense, prickly hedge that measured about three metres high. There was absolutely no way to get through it, and so I followed the hedge, looking for an opening. The Gamemakers, of course, adjusted it to lead me towards the centre of this goddamn woods once again."

"Oh," I reply, thinking it over. "Makes sense, I suppose, although can you really be sure there's something behind that hedge? Can you really be sure there's an opening at all?"

"No. But it's a risk I'd like to take, Maysilee, and as you preferred to form an alliance with me instead of us each going our separate ways, you'll have to deal with it." He takes a step forward, glancing back at me to make sure I'll follow.

I won't. Shaking my head, I say, "Haymitch Abernathy, you stop this instant. So we're going off in search of a hedge- and I suppose it's worth taking the risk, because after all, there's nothing else to do but sit around- but as we have mutual ownership of this alliance, I propose I put some input into it as well." I pause to take a deep breath.

"There are three conditions you must follow. Firstly, I want privacy. Not unconditional privacy- I mean, I don't care if we share my camouflage blanket or whatever (even though you probably have a blanket or sleeping bag of your own)- but I do request you refrain from escorting me to the 'bathroom'. It's embarrassing. Secondly, I want you to stop correcting every little change in direction we make. Do you think it really matters? Do you think the Gamemakers will leave the hedge in the same exact spot that led you to the clearing in which you fought the Careers?" He opens his mouth to speak, but I clap a hand over his lips. "No. Let me continue. This is important unless we want everything to fall apart.

"Finally, I want to take breaks. I want to take a break for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. I want to take thirty-minute breaks instead of fifteen. And I want six hours to sleep. It's past dusk now, Haymitch Abernathy-" (and it is, the sun has sunk so quickly I can barely make out his features now), "-and as we've been walking all day, why can't we find an adequate spot to make camp (I'm sure this will do) and crash? I nominate twelve hours. You take watch first, I'll take watch second."

He thinks it over, running a hand through his curly hair. I can tell he doesn't like my propositions, but he can distinguish the firmness behind my clipped words, and he knows he has no other choice. "Very well."

A smile plays at my lips as I shrug my pack off my shoulders, unzipping it and feeling around for the packet of dried fruit. Opening it, I scoop up a handful and eat them slowly, savouring every last bite. After this, I take a few sips from my last water bottle (the contents are beginning to dwindle pretty low- they'll be gone by afternoon tomorrow) and begrudgingly screw the top on again. My last act is to pull out my blanket from its depths. Haymitch, unsurprisingly, has a camouflage blanket as well.

"I'm considering it's a good thing that we don't have to sleep in the trees or bushes now," I say, my tone joking.

"You have something against sleeping in them?"

"No, no. It's just… I'm quite a deep sleeper. If I were to sleep on a tree bough, there would be an eighty percent chance that I'd fall out. On the other hand, I've been sleeping in bushes since day one. The effort to find the ideal bush would be, at the moment, fruitless." Shrugging, I sit on the ground and drape the blanket over my body, placing my pack under my head to use as a pillow. Haymitch's pack remains hanging from his shoulders as he sits on the ground, adjusting his own camouflage blanket until all I see is his head, floating in the air.

My eyelids are heavy as I laugh. "Any attackers would be completely disoriented, should they choose this time to assault us."

He offers me the ghost of a smile as the sky lights up, the Capitol's seal shining through a gap in the trees and the Capitol's anthem blaring from invisible speakers. There are no dead. The sky darkens once more, and I finally lift the blanket so it falls over my head, obscuring my vision but not restricting my oxygen intake, for the fabric is extremely breathable. "Good night, Haymitch."

My ally lets out a grunt of acknowledgment.

I'm much too fatigued from walking to feel hurt by this, and so my eyes slowly drift shut as I listen to his rhythmic breathing, imagining the breathing originating from right beside me. And then suddenly, it is. My eyes fly open as he breathes into my ear, the fabric of my camouflage blanket the only shield. "I'm sorry," he whispers, his words melancholy. "It's necessary that I distance myself from you, love."

And it is. It is completely, utterly necessary that we create distance between the two of us. It's not worth getting attached if we can help it. Moreover, I cannot help it, because I am much too attached for my own good. I'll let Haymitch control the extent of our relationship for now- until our ultimate separation.

I sigh ruefully as upper lash touches lower. When did life become so complicated?

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Day Ten begins with a certain Haymitch Abernathy tapping me continuously on the shoulder. I groan, rolling over onto my side and pressing one palm over my eyes while using the other to brush his hand away, but it's no use. I'm already awake. Sitting up, I rub at my bleary eyes and stare into the night.

"Your turn to take watch," Haymitch says haughtily, plopping himself down on ground and wrapping his blanket around his shoulders. In turn, I shrug mine off, grumbling to myself about unfair watch times (despite having planned the shifts out myself just six hours prior). I'm hit with a sudden burst of cold air- it's freezing- but I don't dare wrap my blanket around me, for fear of drifting off again and leaving the both of us completely vulnerable. Leaning against the tree, I cease my grumbling, and the world descends into sudden silence.

Haymitch falls asleep quickly enough, and although it's hard to make out his unconscious form through the camouflage blanket, I can hear his shallow breathing from my position leaning against a tree trunk. I let my mind wander, imagining his face as he sleeps. I can almost touch the breath that flies from his lips (which are slightly parted in relaxation), and those long eyelashes are splayed against his under eyes, dark with lack of sleep. I smile softly as I envision his curly hair falling into his face- myself brushing the locks away- he, in succession, instinctively reaching up to catch my hands with his. I feel his ever-present warmth and whisper, "I am alive."

Jerking myself out of my daydream, I shake my head, attempting to clear it. Staring at the space in front of me, I puzzle over what allowed me to visualise my desires so vividly. After all, I can barely make him out from underneath the blanket. It's almost as if he's gone. Disappeared. As if we've parted ways, or... he's dead.

I clutch my blowgun tighter, my fingernails digging into the beige wood. Haymitch Abernathy won't die under my watch. That is a given.

Furthermore, as the hours congregate into one meaningless blur, passing by (I can't fathom whether or not they go swiftly or slowly), the grip on my blowgun loosens. I plummet into more daydreams, configuring different scenarios in my mind's eye. It's a pastime I have taken up since I was very young. I used to stare out the window of our candy shop, licking away at one of my fushia lollipops, and dream of an action-filled life in which I was the heroine protagonist who could appear anywhere and save the day with her superhuman powers. Wishful thinking, that. But then again, productive thinking; for had I not sat at my stool every single day, staring at the same sign advertising "Cartwright's Shoes" while imagining how to take down a tri-headed, reptilian mutt... alas! The right side of my brain would not have received the exercise that it needed to form intelligent thought, and I would have grown to become your typical droll, uncreative merchant girl.

Not that those five words aren't adequate enough to describe the essence of my being. But had intelligent thought been absent from my personality, I would never have made it this far in the Games. Therefore, you can conclude that daydreaming is the reason for my prolonged survival.

Times have changed since then. I don't daydream of performing heroic deeds. I don't wish to fly through the air, shouting commands to thousand-person troops. Instead, I tend to visualise life without the Hunger Games- or rather, life unreaped (so to speak). It's another one of the mind games that have kept me occupied this past week and a half, and it's the mind game I play now.

I begin the "daydreaming game" with rolling out of bed, my duvet trailing behind me as I stumble blearily into the bathroom. Sticking my hands under the faucet (for we do have enough money to spend on running water for our sinks, but not enough to afford running water for our baths), I splash water over my face, rubbing my eyes wearily. Looking up into the cracked mirror that Myra punched when we were thirteen ("my reflection had acne!" was her excuse), I quickly inspect my appearance, bunching my long, unruly straw hair into a high ponytail. I brush my teeth. I apply the faintest hint of concealer to the skin under my eyes, which is dark because I chose to stay up late last night- not because I've been a participant in the Hunger Games these past one and a half weeks, oh no.

Walking out of my bathroom, I open the door of Myra's and my wardrobe, pleased that I get first pick of clothes today (since Myra is sleeping soundly in her own bed). Entering, I choose a crimson gown created with a mix of polyester, silk, and cashmere, as well as a sienna scarf and brown, steel-toed boots. I don't feel pretty today. I feel… rebellious.

Myra wakes up just after I don the outfit. "Morning," she yawns, her own blonde hair a tangled mess. I once heard a Seam girl say we merchants all rolled out of bed looking our best. I've begun to think this applies to less than one percent of Panem's population. That less than one percent including none other than Haymitch Abernathy.

"Morning. What're you up to today?"

"Suppose I'll go sort herbs with Fauna. Nothing better to do... care to join us?" She raises her pale arms above her head, letting out a yawn the size of District Four (for it is the largest district- even more so than the Capitol).

"Sorry. Can't." The words come tumbling out of my mouth. "I've got a date with Haymitch Abernathy."

Myra gives a little squeal mid-yawn, and jumps from her bed, throwing her arms around me. "I knew you'd do it. I knew you were in love with him! I'm so proud." She unwraps herself from the hug as quickly as she flew at my unsuspecting form, but holds me at arm's length more still. "...If only Daddy got over his impending grudge. Just because Mum caught the plague from that little Seam boy doesn't mean they're all diseased nowadays." Her tone of voice switches from light-hearted joy to bitter melancholy.

Suddenly, I'm angry. Yes, Father does have an impending grudge that renders him unable to approve whom I love and whom loves me- Haymitch, of course- but does it really matter? If worst comes to worst our father will kick me out of the house, but I'll be able to make it anyway. Fauna's parents would be sure to take me in, or the Cartwrights, or the Undersees… Not that my relationship with Haymitch is pushing things to such an extent. "Do you think I care what our father thinks?" I ask Myra resentfully, turning away from her and fleeing out the door of our bedroom.

The length of the hallway is shortened by the fact that I'm near sprinting. I take the stairs two at a time and head towards the side door of the building, because this time, Myra isn't hindering me from following the rules. Breaking free of the building, I run towards the front of our sweetshop, leaping over patches of dying dandelions and trampling expanses of prickly grass. The cobblestone street is a welcome sight, as well as the scene that meets me there. A scene doused in sunlight rather than rain. A scene contrasting with the one that met my eyes the first time I saw them.

The anger forgotten, I stare as Lane reaches out and smacks Haymitch Abernathy across the cheek. Haymitch waits a split second before lashing out himself, his palm hitting its chosen target. Her head snaps to the side so that she's facing me, her eyes narrowed as she catches sight of my satisfied grin. And then Lane takes one more glance at Haymitch, hand flying to her cheek, and she says, "You owe me. Have fun with your slut."

"I owe you nothing. Have fun being a slut."

She turns around and storms off, feet hitting the cobblestones with unnecessary force. I hold back a laugh and stare at her pin-straight hair, fingering mine (which I didn't even bother to brush). Not that Haymitch cares. Maybe he even likes that I don't put excessive effort into my appearance. I know, for one, that Lane does, and he hates her. I'm relieved that when Lane's parents attempted to sue Haymitch's mother, the court ruled out such blasphemous results of what is sure to become a family feud.

Approaching him, I say, "Do you mind if the slut says hello?" It's all for laughs- my words aren't the least bit begrudging. Why should I be envious of Lane Diblre, now that she's taken care of?

"Shut up," he hisses, lacing his fingers through mine and planting a firm kiss on my unsuspecting lips. We manage to make it last a while, the moment all our own, and the world has just enough time to fade away before it appears once again. "You'll always be so much better than she is; prettier than she is; awing than she is. You, Maysilee Donner, are so much more worth it than Lane Diblre will ever be."

And so we walk down the cobblestone street, with no particular destination in mind, enjoying the lovely afternoon sunlight as it hits our faces, alighting our skin in a healthy grow. For the moment, I'm completely content; without fear, without worry, without care. Somehow, in the hotel of life, I've taken a risk and pushed an anonymous button on the elevator's wall panel. The elevator, satisfied, has taken me up to the same floor as freedom. This is the reason for the grin that takes up the lower half of my face. This is the reason why I'm near crying at how beautiful the world is.

He has to ruin it. He just has to ruin it. "You're bleeding," he says, eyebrows knitted in concern.

"I'm what?"

"You're bleeding."

I look down, trying to inspect every inch of my body to locate the source of blood. But there isn't any blood, and the stinging pain that comes with a cut or scrape is entirely absent. "I'm not bleeding," I say, raking my fingers lightly over the perfectly intact skin of my forearm. But when I step back, I spot a small pool of blood where I had been standing just moments before, coming from seemingly nowhere.

A strong sense of foreboding surrounds my mentality, and I look down to my feet, where droplets of blood drip from the hemline of my crimson dress. Out of reflex, I jump back, but this obviously does nothing to stem the now steady flow of blood. The colour of the dress itself is fading as it empties itself out. "Well- yes, I suppose I am bleeding," I continue, "but my dress is the source of the problem, is it not?"

Haymitch stares at me, his mouth agape. "Sweetheart, that's not the dress," he says calmly. "That's you. That's your blood."

And then it strikes me. The pain. A thousand invisible, white-hot knives stab at every inch of my body, the pain filling my ears in wave after wave of utter torture. It's soon drowned out by my screams as the blood is suddenly pouring from the gown's hemline, the colour fading until the dress is pure white- white like my reaping dress, white like President Snow's beloved roses, white like the corpse of an unfortunate soul who happened to bleed to death.

I fall to the cobblestone road, the pain abruptly vanishing, replaced by… nothing. Nothing at all. I can't move and I can't breathe. My hand inches toward my neck, checking for a pulse, but there's none there. I manage to choke out a word- "Help"- but it does no good, for Haymitch simply watches. Watches as I fade.

"I don't mind if the slut says goodbye," he announces, turning away.

And the thoughts swirl in my mind, singing repetitive melodies that bring me no delight. It wasn't supposed to happen like this. It wasn't supposed to happen like this. It wasn't supposed to happen like this.

-------------------------------------------------------------------------------

I startle awake, shaking, and cursing myself for falling asleep. Jumping up from my seat against the tree, I scour the area immediately around Haymitch and I, checking to make sure nobody is hiding in the trees or bushes, waiting to attack. There isn't a single soul to be found. Sighing, I turn back around and seat myself against a different tree, this one closer to the spot where I last saw Haymitch pull his camouflage blanket over his body. I don't try to wake him- and why should I? What he doesn't know won't hurt him. And if he doesn't know that I fell asleep on watch, so be it.

I settle down, banishing all thoughts of the nightmare from my mind. There's no use obsessing over a pointless and utterly impossible what-if. Instead, I finger the mockingjay pin on my lapel and stare at the sky as it takes its time to awaken, the sun peeking out over the horizon. Not that I can distinguish exactly where the source of light comes from- the trees filter the sunlight, blocking out the strongest rays- but I like to watch how the forest lightens, the trees turning from dark jade to vibrant emerald, shadows once casted overtaken by radiance.

It is interesting how my brain has adapted to the smells and sights of this arena. I am still aware that I am living and breathing unnatural air, I can still recognise that everything is plagued by poison, but I've grown used to it. The green isn't stunning anymore, and the artificial sweetness of the atmosphere has been toned down as my senses have been fully exposed to them. Even the fruits that hang from the trees, the ones that I love to dropkick, have lost their glistening aura. I'm no longer tempted to eat them anymore. Is it just me, or have the Gamemakers given up any hope of fooling us?

Although I'm surprised they're not making any attempt to push us together. Normally, after two days of no death whatsoever, the Gamemakers attempt to mix things up a little. But maybe Haymitch and I provide a good show; maybe they're too distracted with moving the hedges; maybe Platina (and Venom, if they are still allies) is/are engaging in entertaining shenanigans; maybe Smoke has gone raving mad; maybe Tess has found the most ingenious hiding place; maybe Gracen Blaze is plotting an elaborate scheme to deceive us all. Or maybe the Gamemakers have planned something something for today (Day Ten) that will throw all other plans out of the water. I shall remain clueless.

Day threatens to break through dawn, and mockingjays flood the trees, singing song after beautiful song. I clutch my pin to my chest, as if it's going to fly away with the rest of them. As if gold could turn to feathers. As if I don't want to break the rules of reality.

I never liked change, anyway.

My fingers wander up to my hair on their own accord, tugging on the matted strands. I used to be able to wind my hands in my hair until I thought I could never untangle them, but when I try this now, my hands come free almost instantly. "Is it wrong to curse you, Hestia?" I whisper. "Is it wrong to curse the dead for leaving behind their impact on society? On their friends? Family? Allies?" I wrap my arms around my knees, hugging them to my chest. "Is it wrong to curse you for cutting my hair? Because if not, damn you. Damn you."

And why is it that cutting my hair had such a big impact on me? It's because I don't like change. I spent twelve years of my life with hair down to the middle of my back- occasionally a bit shorter, yes, when the hassle of brushing it daily got to me- but never so short as it is now, coming down to the top of my neck in the back and brushing my shoulders in the front. My hair was the one thing that never changed much. It was the one thing that tied me to Maysilee Donner, the merchant girl that wasn't exceptional but not particularly dull, either. It tied me to normalcy.

Now it's gone.

The sun pushes away from the horizon, ascending the ladder of the sky and coming to rest a little ways above my eye level. The woods, fully lit, portray an amiable personality- nothing ominous, as they seem to be when coated in darkness. Or is it just my dislike for darkness that creates the ominous aura, ever since I killed a thirteen-year-old boy, ever since his sister came to rest in a patch of flowers? Is it my dislike for thinking of the Dark family? Speaking of the Darks- I mentally remind myself to tell Haymitch of my promise to Rosalina, in which if one of us turns out Victor, we'll help pay for her father's lung treatment.

Wouldn't want to forget that. Promises are made to keep.

I sigh, stretching out my legs and leaning into them. My muscles protest, but I hold the pose for a few moments before readjusting myself into a kneeling position. It's high time that I wake up Haymitch, so we can go looking for that hedge of his. He'd kill me for letting him oversleep (and I can't be so sure that's not hyperbole).

I extend my hand out, reaching over to tap on the last place where I saw his shoulder. My fingers touch nothing but open air, which is no matter. I tell myself that I'll just crawl forward on my knees and wave my hands around until I accidentally bump into him. And so I proceed to do this.

My search covers a ten-by-ten foot square around the tree I was leaning up against, but it's no use. I can't find him anywhere, and suddenly I'm panicking, because oh damn it someone found him while I was asleep and took him away or maybe he left on his own accord because I'm not a good ally anymore and I've lost him and- He's. Bloody. Gone.

And so I do the only rational thing one can do in this situation.

I scream.

~finis de capitulum novem~

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