Brace Yourself

Chapter Ten: The Arena, Part V

Disclaimer: I do not own the Hunger Games.

Warnings: Cursing, graphic content, minor character death, suicide, majour character death.

Notes: The directions of the landforms in this arena are simple, if you map it out. The volcano is to the northwest, the Cornucopia towards the south, the meadow stretching toward the north. The woods are to the east, and the hedge is located on the northeast edge of the arena. The river stretches into the far south.Maysilee requests a diamond shovel because it's impossible to liquefy diamonds (based on their crystal structure and atomic composition).Alba Jennings is the morphling that saved Peeta during the Seventy-Fifth Games. "Alba" means "sunrise" in Italian.

Chapter Ten: The Arena, Part V

Staring at the bottom of your glass
Hoping one day you'll make a dream last
But dreams come slow and they go so fast

You see her when you close your eyes
Maybe one day you'll understand why
Everything you touch surely dies

But you only need the light when it's burning low
Only miss the sun when it starts to snow
Only know you love her when you let her go

-Let Her Go, Passenger

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"What- the- hell- sweetheart?"

He sprints into the clearing moments later, gasping for breath, his eyes wild and his hand clutching at his camouflage blanket. Our mutually panicked eyes seek refuge in one another, and when they meet, his narrow in response. Suddenly, he's storming towards me and pulling me up into a standing position. "What the hell?" Haymitch repeats. "Why were you fucking screaming in the fucking Hunger Games if you weren't fucking dying?"

He drags me into the trees at such a pace that it's impossible for me not to trip over my feet. Haymitch goes on. "I get up to go to the bathroom and there you are, staring into space. I figure, 'oh, for Snow's sake, I gotta take a piss, she won't notice anyway' and I'm gone for two minutes tops when you scream my name at the top of your lungs! I thought you were dying," he hisses. "I thought you were dying and that Platina had gotten to you and- and-" his voice cracks.

"Well, I'm sorry," I snap. "Maybe if you had told me where you were going, I wouldn't have conducted a search of the clearing and found you nowhere in sight! This is all your fault."

"Oh it is, is it?"

"Damn right it is!"

He's quit dragging me and now stands there, glaring at me, feet shoulder width apart and arms crossed across his chest. I glare back, hands on my hips. There is a pause in which I wait for Haymitch to say something, and when he finally does, it's an excuse. Always has to get the last word in, doesn't he? "Well, if it weren't for-"

"Oh, shut up, will you?" I huff. "This is absolutely pointless. I thought you were dead, you thought I was dead, we're not dead, this conversation is over." I tug on his wrist, choose a direction at random, and tow Haymitch along behind me, taking deep breaths. "The thing is, Haymitch, we have to end all... complications between the two of us." I pause for emphasis. "One of us is going to die eventually. It's inevitable, and we both have to stop fooling our subconscious into thinking that if one of us becomes Victor, we'll be able to solve our complications. So to speak."

"So... what? Refrain from sprinting in your direction if I think you're dying?" He asks.

"If I agree to refrain from screaming," I say dejectedly. "And, of course, I do."

Haymitch considers it, and then wrenches his wrist from my grip. "It was already hard enough. Why does this situation worsen every day we spend in these Games? Why are we even in here? Why us?"

"Fate. Punishment. Chance. But who said life was easy? Who ever said these Games were supposed to be easy?" I shake my head and stare at the mockingjay pin on my lapel. I think of Rosalina and Tyler; Intella and the boy with the metal-covered teeth; Willie and Devon. "They aren't easy for anyone else. We shouldn't get a break, Haymitch. We aren't special- we never were. But maybe some day, one of us will be special. Maybe you'll be special. Maybe I'll be special. Or maybe we'll never be special. I'm not one to determine the future."

His gray eyes flick up to mine. "Exceptionality is specific. One will be remembered, the other forgotten."

"Well, we can't let that happen, can we?"

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It rains again, around midday. I construct a system for catching water, positioning leaves to create a natural funnel into our large collection of bottles. We mentally time how long it takes per one bottle to fill to the brim, and use this technique to switch out bottles every fifteen minutes or so. Meanwhile, I stand in the midst of the downpour and revel in my drenched state, as Haymitch sits against the trunk of an aspen.

"I've always loved rain," I tell him. "Even when I was little, I'd beg to go outside during thunderstorms. Father wouldn't let me. He said that my mother didn't, either, when she was alive. Back then, I thought he was depriving me from having the time of my life- but now, I realise he was imitating my mother. Trying to live up to the expectations of both father and mother. Sad, isn't it?"

He nods, but disagrees with my claims. "I can't stand rain," he admits. "I can't stand rain because afterwards, I feel as if I've bathed, and I've never been able to stand the thought of bathing. It's unnatural for those from the Seam to bathe often, and so it's always been foreign to me. The Capitol, of course, is unforgiving, no matter the extent I protested when they scrubbed the coal dust from under my nails. Bastards," he grimaces. "And there are also memories residing in my head of buying my father cookies, rain or shine. He loved cookies, even more so than alcohol. He'd send me to the bakery when sheets of rain were falling, and I'd comply, because he hated a back-talker. But I shouldn't be complaining; that was how I met you, sweetheart."

"What? When?"

"When we were... but of course, you don't remember," he grumbles under his breath, while getting up to check on the bottles, switching out one and replacing it with an empty water skin. Haymitch lifts the full bottle to his mouth and takes a generous sip, before pausing a moment and then decisively chugging the entire thing.

"Haymitch!" I exclaim reproachfully.

"What? It's not like the rain'll let up anytime soon." (Which, of course, is the Gamemaker's cue to end the downpour and leave the woods in a calm, drenched state.) I purse my lips and glare at the heavens before collecting the full bottles and screwing the tops on. Then, I toss Haymitch half of the bottles and keep the other half for myself, plus another extra bottle, because I think I deserve it after he's unrightfully drained one of his. He doesn't look too pleased with this, but doesn't put up protest, either.

"Why did you have to say that?" I mutter under my breath.

"I told you I disliked rain, sweetheart. Has it ever occurred to you that my actions were intentional?" And Panem forbid that he isn't using sarcasm, or I'll dump my water bottles over the head of the insufferable git. (I tell him just that. He laughs and briefly clasps my hand, shaking his head before letting it go.)

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We're walking at a moderately fast pace in a direction vaguely northeast when Haymitch crows with delight, like a schoolboy at the end of term. Funny, three weeks ago I saw no one squealing as they left the school building, not even those graduating Year One. The reaping was, as always, a dampener on excitement. I remember the day clearly, myself. Walking home from school with Fauna and Myra. Selecting my sister the cream dress with the crimson border. Sneaking off to the outskirts of the Meadow, basking in peace, just to be startled by a certain Haymitch Abernathy.

Although I'd like to think fate is a ridiculous concept, my life is seemingly controlled by it. Was that day controlled by fate, as well? It's hard to convince myself that it wasn't. It's hard to believe that in three weeks, I've come so far- my relationship with Haymitch developing from "Well, someone's being a bit naughty tonight," to "Why are we even here? Why us?"- and that, at the end of these Games, our relationship will be all for naught. I thought I braced myself for this, but the emotions overtake me anyway in a merciless wave of both fulfillment and regret, helplessness, and utter melancholy.

Enjoy it while it lasts, I suppose.

Meanwhile, Haymitch sprints over to an unmistakable, vividly purple hedge. He gestures to it with an expression of satisfaction. "This is what you've been looking for?" I call, jogging over to the hedge and inspecting it. Reaching out a finger, I brush it against the leaves of the hedge, just to recoil as a thorn pricks it hard enough to draw blood. "Ow," I say pathetically. "They want us to keep away from it, I suppose."

"No shit, sweetheart," he agrees, watching amusedly as I take off my pack and slam it up against the hedge. It leaves no indentation on the hedge, which stands firm, but when my backpack bounces off from impact, it's dotted with holes from where the canvas hit the thorns. Annoyed, I pick off the stray thorns that have buried themselves in the pack and let them drop to the ground, swinging the straps of the pack onto my shoulders once more.

"Not necessarily tough, but pretty damn prickly," I observe. "Sorry, Haymitch, but I think our search was fruitless. It will be impossible to find away through this obscenity of a plant unless we can find an opening somewhere. And despite the fact that you've never found an opening before, I think we'd better look." And so, exchanging rueful gazes, we take off alongside the hedge, following it in search of a gap we'll be able to fit through. I'm suddenly hit with déjà vu as I imagine the day we were let out of school and my venture through a gap in the electric fence, in search of my Meadow sanctuary. Unfortunately, it is no help to the situation- just a memory easily used in an analogy.

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If there are gaps in the hedge, we find none, and are forced to quit our search at dusk. We set up "camp" only a few feet from the hedge and tonight, I eat and drink as much as I can hold. There's no definite reason for why I stuff myself with three quarters of a pack of beef and down two water bottles- I just do. Maybe it's because there are only seven of us left, and since it's been a few days since anyone died, I know the Gamemakers will start picking us off and driving us into each other soon enough. Maybe it's because I have this sense of foreboding hanging over my shoulders, telling me something is going to happen soon. Call it the sixth sense, or whatever. But the reasons are unimportant. The important factor is that Haymitch and I eat like kings tonight- or rather, we eat more than we've eaten in quite a while. (Kings don't eat beef strips and dried fruit. They indulge on roast pig and pomegranate sorbet. Not that it matters- but I tend to take my figures of speech quite literally.)

Haymitch even pulls out Intron's stash of sweets, and we split them between ourselves- he chooses the ones he prefers, and leaves me with the rest. My first bite of delicious dark chocolate leaves me gagging. I'm not used to such a sweet taste, even from the bitter candy. But eventually, we become accustomed to the tastes of peppermint and orange and caramel and chocolate, and my nose begins to burn with a wave of fresh tears at the thought of Father's sweet shop back home. I gulp the lump in my throat away and lift a truffle high into the air. "To District Twelve," I say, substituting the truffle for a glass of wine, in an effort to make a toast.

Haymitch lifts his. "To my mother."

We set about alternating toasts, and I begin to giggle, riding a sugar high. "To Myra," I say. "To Father. To Fauna. To family. To friends. To victory. To laughter. To love."

By the time the candies are gone and I'm lying on my back, looking up at the unusually spaced stars through the gaps in the trees, I feel happy. I feel happy in the most haunting place imaginable; having survived ten days, ending up with Haymitch by my side. Maybe, I realise, maybe the arena isn't impacting me so much after all. Maybe it's all in my head. Maybe I can be happy here.

And that concludes the last moment of happiness in my life.

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I'm on watch when, not for the first time, the screaming begins. Haymitch, unfortunately, gets the privilege of waking up to it. They're insane screams, not tortured screams, and they belong to Smoke, who has finally broken. I crawl on my hands and knees towards my ally, who sits in an upright position, eyes alert, and take his hand as the screams continue. "He's truly mad," I whisper. "I stumbled across him on accident, or strictly speaking, he stumbled across me. 'I only kill those who are currently killing,' he said. Which means-"

"He's going to commit suicide," Haymitch finishes for me, wincing noticeably.

The screams continue for an hour, at least, until the songbirds chirp and the sun touches the horizon. Mockingjays sing over the shouts, which are accompanied by the occasional string of nonsensical words. When I've reached the point in which I can't stand any more of the noise, a repeated phrase is exclaimed so loudly I marvel over Smoke's lung strength while covering my ears- "I'm not him! I'm not him! I'm not him!" - the screams cease abruptly. I squeeze Haymitch's hand anxiously, hearing the echo of District Three's voice in the deafening silence.

Boom.

One down, five to go, and one to be crowned Victor. Can I survive this? Or, more importantly, can I survive this with my mind still intact? Can I survive this without regret? Can I survive this… without Haymitch?

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The hedge is impenetrable. I suggest that Haymitch hack at it with his knife, but despite his protest that the blade does nothing to perforate the endless plant, I have to try it for myself. I pull out my own knife from the bottom of my pack and take a few swings at the hedge, but the thorns are seemingly metal and the miniature leaves burnished, the knife blade hitting them uselessly and creating a tinny, clinking sound. I'm at it for a few minutes until suddenly, a maroon tendril shoots out of the midst of the hedge and catches the knife's handle, dragging it from my grasp.

"It's alive!" I shriek, jumping back.

Haymitch snorts, looking cynically amused. "Controlled by the Gamemakers, you mean. The fucking assholes are willing to take anything from us. Our weapons, our food, our happiness, our sanity, our lives-"

I see the tendril before he does. "Haymitch-" I warn, but it's too late. The hedge's growth has reached enough length to wrap itself around his neck, squeezing tightly. My ally's eyes go wide with fear as he claws at the metallic vine, trying to breathe. For a moment, I stare in shock, and then I snap to action, whipping off my pack and digging though it. There must be something. There must be something. If blades don't work, then there must be- a blowtorch. A blowtorch!

I leap to my feet, blowtorch in hand, and fiddle with the buttons and valves until a large flame is shooting out the nozzle. Haymitch's face has begun to turn blue from strangulation, his fingernails leaving claw marks on his neck from futile attempts at loosening the tendril. Quickly, I position the blowtorch a few feet from Haymitch, the nozzle directed at the taut vine, and let the flames engulf the metal until part of the vine is melted, breaking the two sections in half. Instantly, the tendril around Haymitch's neck slackens and falls to the ground, and the remaining part of the "living" tendril delves back into the hedge. I turn off the blowtorch and automatically rush to my counterpart's side.

He's lying on the ground, taking large gulps of oxygen. Where the vine wrapped itself around his neck, there are now deep welts, and I'm sure in an hour's time his entire neck will be bruised impressively to match the bruising around his nose. There are scratches from where his fingernails ripped his skin, and they are bleeding somewhat, but not enough to require bandages. Despite all this, a small smirk adorns his lips. "Thank you, Maysilee Donner," he says, his voice raspy, "for finding the way through the impenetrable hedge."

"What?" I ask, my eyebrows knitting in confusion. I haven't found any way through the hedge- I just saved his life. And it's nothing, really... "Oh." I turn to the blowtorch, resting on the ground a few feet from us, and then look back at Haymitch. "I think you should thank the Gamemakers for that, instead. After all, they were the ones who instigated my surge of adrenaline, which in turn brought about the blowtorch scenario."

"And," Haymitch adds as I help him to his feet. "they also brought about the bruises on my neck and damaged my sense of pride."

I laugh humourlessly. "That too. Now come on," I tug him in no particular direction, "we're going to the Capitol. I have to get treatment for my sudden heart attack." I turn to face him, begging my expression to remain serious as I speak with emphasis, imitating the voice I'd use if talking to a baby. "Did you know that heart attacks can kill you, Mitchie?"

"Go to the Capitol yourself, Donner." he scowls, tugging his arm from my grip. "Or better yet- go screw yourself." And there's a hint of a smile on my lips because although his statements are malicious, Haymitch's eyes are laughing.

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Even with the blowtorch, the hedge is slow going. The metallic leaves and thorns, when packed so tightly together, aren't easily burnt though. And when the metal pools underneath the imprint we've made at the base of the hedge, it cools and solidifies into purple blobs that will only complicate our safe passage. We eventually work out a system in which Haymitch controls the blowtorch (it doesn't require as much movement as my task- and I know without question his injuries must be painful), and I use a stick as some sort of squeegee (which is remarkably frustrating, seeing as the stick gets coated in the stuff and then (hallelujah!) the stick chars and falls apart).

My squeegeeing attempts set aside, Haymitch has a hard time of it too, seeing as the Gamemakers are intent on us not getting through the hedge. Their tactics are poorly carried out, however, so our fight will be won eventually. Simply put, their offense is sending vines through the hedge to rip the blowtorch out of Haymitch's hands, but he melts them before they make it far enough. It's like a video game (which is a form of entertainment system that younger Capitolites play with. Myra's mentioned them once, for no particular reason, while she and I were playing checkers. I asked what was wrong with checkers. She just shrugged).

In this game, the tendrils are our enemies, and Haymitch zaps them with the torch one by one. I take in the sight of him, brow furrowed in concentration and gray eyes glinting with triumph, and fight the urge to say, "Power-up to Abernathy!" It's not too hard to resist when I imagine the look he'd give me. Shrugging to myself, I return to my tasks, one of which is telling myself I didn't get the short stick out of this deal.

However, while the Gamemaker's futile attempts finally begin to wean, leaving Haymitch to melt away at the hedge, I've had to switch out my squeegees six times and the clearing around us is a battleground splattered with purple blood. "Alder," I mutter, "rethink your refusals and send me a diamond shovel already." Haymitch snorts and I whack him with my seventh, unused (and therefore intact) squeegee-stick. Soon enough it'll be too short to work with. Contrary to my wishes, I have gotten the short stick (how ironic), for my occupation is proving to be much more taxing than Haymitch's.

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At midday, the six hours of work seem to be paying off. We've got a decently-sized cavity in the hedge, and when Haymitch holds the blowtorch up to the back of the depression, his forearm is obscured by the metal mass of vines, thorns, and leaves. He has to be careful, though, because one touch of his forearm to the thorns will draw blood, and there's barely enough bandages left to wrap twice around his wrist, let alone his entire arm. He also has to make sure none of the molten metal drips onto his skin, because we have no medicine that will help burns, and a tube full of Itch Cream isn't bound to do the trick.

I suggest we take a break when the sun is at its highest point, and it takes a few minutes of persuasion to deviate Haymitch from his consistent torching. Eventually, I coax him over to the few logs I've extracted from the woods, and we sit on them to eat. I chew on the last quarter of my beef strips, eating until there are only a few left. There are only six tributes remaining, and I have a feeling the Games shouldn't last much longer. Why not eat the contents of my pack while I still can? Haymitch, however, fixes the dwindling contents of my pack with a disapproving stare, indulging himself with a meager portion of his meat. I can tell he doesn't approve.

"Merchant flaw, I presume?" He comments offhandedly.

I frown and toss our remaining bandage (once it was a roll of bandages, now it's too short for a lengthy entitlement) at his face. "I'm quite capable of preserving food when I want to. I've preserved it long enough. How much longer do you think the Games will last?" He catches it easily and throws it back. I'm not as skilled; the bandage drops to the ground at my feet.

Haymitch's expression turns dark. "Plenty long. Haven't you seen Alba's Games?"

The conversation drops off suddenly, our thoughts plagued with an eighteen-year-old Alba Jennings from Six painting herself in flowers and hiding away for thirty-four days straight. Nobody expected those Games to last as long as they did. Needless to say, when her emaciated, colourful frame was hoisted up into a hovercraft, and the press went in to take pictures of her mentor, he looked a wreck. I'm sure the mentors all do after the Games. Even Alder- but Alder is a given, since he always looks a wreck.

"But considering who's left, and Sorphigan Pronx's desires to keep his occupation," (they all say the previous Head retired after the Forty-Sixth Games, but the majourity of Panem knows better), "our Games won't be a repeat of Alba's. Unless it somehow comes down to you and I, or possibly Tess and I. But, considering, Platina and Venom and Gracen aren't going down without a fight, so nobody's dropping their weapons and surrendering anytime soon. Confrontations will lead to death." I shrug, as does Haymitch. It's as if we're conversing of the weather over a cup of tea. It's as if we're not surrounded by death, and there haven't already been forty-two deaths and five more deaths to come… as if I haven't killed Willie and Devon and Quarren and Tyler...

No! No. I refuse to let myself delve back into insanity. I've crossed that bridge and set up a blockade at the end of it, so I can never cross over it again. I refuse to climb the wall and land in the midst of the bridge, refuse to let that bridge corrupt me until I'm standing on the railing and leaping off into nothingness. I refuse to be Smoke, who died and left Haymitch and I with four other contenders. Platina and Venom and Gracen and Tess. Four girls.

"… It's a guaranteed girl's win this year," I say suddenly, struck with the fact that Haymitch is, indeed, male. "I mean, what're the odds of you winning against five female tributes?"

I might as well have ran into my mental blockade. He clobbers me.

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Boom.

It's mid-afternoon when I just about smack my (seventeenth? eighteenth? fifty-first?) squeegee-stick against the side of Haymitch's head in surprise at the cannon. I am able to regain myself quickly, jerking the stick away from his dark locks of hair, but I'm a fraction of a second too late. There's a faint sizzling sound as the molten metal comes in contact with a few strands of hair, which burn instantaneously. "I'm sorry, I'm sorry," I apologise profusely, when the metal drips onto another strand. Haymitch doesn't answer, just picks up his (remarkably clean) knife from the purple-blooded battleground and cuts off the few locks of hair with the precision of a barber.

"Who do you think it was?" Haymitch asks stoically as he blasts away at the hedge. Sweat drips down his forehead from the heat of the blowtorch, but I don't think he minds. The hard labour will eventually be worth the effort when we make it through this hedge. If we make it through this hedge.

I consider his question, reminded of the game I used to play in the first few days, during which I guessed the identity of the tributes as their cannons boomed. "It damn well isn't Platina," I point out, "And somehow I don't think it's Venom or Gracen, either. Which leaves Tess." My voice is cold and dismissive, and somehow that's even worse than crying. Shouldn't these deaths have a drastic effect on my well-being? Why am I spending my days indifferent to the now forty-three passed, whom are soon to be lying in the ground with six feet of earth separating them from the rest of Panem?

I think of Tess, and her interview. I think of the boy she mentioned. Swathe. He won't be indifferent. He will care when her funeral arrives; he'll probably recite a eulogy describing a girl who could not be described in life, and cannot be described in death, either. Why can't I be more like Swathe? And sure, I could make the excuse to myself that Swathe conversed with her and knew her and understood her, but the argument is futile. She is fourteen. Was fourteen. I should care, and yet, I don't.

We work in silence. We've reached nearly halfway through, and it's a longer process when the indention stretches further into the metallic plant. Haymitch has to wait for the ground to cool enough so the molten metal won't stick to his clothes and burn through them entirely, so we wait about ten minutes between every effort. Then Haymitch has to crawl in on his stomach to hold the blowtorch close enough to the thorns and vines, which is an awkward position at best. Next, when the metal is hot enough to reach melting point, the stuff will pool towards him and if he doesn't back out fast enough, he will be burned dreadfully. If he backs out too fast, he'll get stuck on the thorns and they'll tear gashes in his skin. After this, I use a fresh squeegee-stick (my sixtieth? seventy-fifth?) to drag the molten metal out of the hole so it doesn't build up and leave us more work to do. Finally, the cooling process begins.

I doubt it's necessary to admit that I've told Haymitch to be careful at least a hundred times. On the contrary, if he complained about my repetitiveness, he'd be a hypocrite.

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We keep up the routine until dusk, and then settle down to watch the anthem. It's one of the most constant things in our hectic lives. The faces are never the same- in fact, there haven't been faces in quite a while- but it's almost comforting to know that the Capitol's anthem will play every time it grows dark. Almost comforting. It's the Capitol's anthem, after all.

I lean my head against my pack, fiddling with the blowgun at my side and looking up at the stars projected in the sky. Back when we were younger, and Myra adored George Undersee (they've grown apart since, although I realise he's still enamored with her), we used to lay out on the Undersee's balcony and stare up at the stars. I knew most of the constellations then- Cassiopeia, Ursa Majour, Andromeda, Orion, Leo- and I pointed them out to Myra and George, whom listened intently. However, although the Gamemaker-controlled sky is covered in a blanket of stars, the constellations are different, forming swords and spears and mutts galore. I point this out to Haymitch. He doesn't reply, although I know he's silently laughing at the predictability of the Gamemakers.

The reason I can see the stars is because as you get closer to the hedge, the trees thin out, forming a strip of land that's clear of foliage. The ground is dirt, because had they grown grass here, the rest of my Itch Cream would have been put to good use. It's as great a spot as any to sleep. We couldn't very well find a good tree to climb that's in sight of the hedge, and Haymitch obsesses over sleeping as close as possible to the metallic plant, just in case the Gamemakers decide to move the thing while we slumber.

Eventually, the sky lights up and the anthem booms out of hidden speakers. The Capitol seal is displayed against the false stars, which fade into the background in the light of the colourful seal. I sit up in anticipation for the first face, the camouflage blanket pooling around my feet.

I expect to see Smoke, since Tess was District Eight, but the face in the sky isn't Smoke. Instead, it's Venom Flare- Venom Flare!- with her lips turned up in a smirk and her coal-black eyes glaring at the cameras. I'm not sure where the picture was taken, but what does it matter? It's Venom Flare, the eighteen-year-old volunteer from District Two, a skilled knife-thrower and a worthy opponent, if there ever was one. And do you know what this means? Do you know what this means? Tess is still alive.

A gasp of relief escapes from my lips. The boy she talked of- Swathe- won't be attending a funeral, won't be reciting a eulogy, won't be crying his eyes out. And I won't either. Yet.

"That was…" I say, my sentence trailing off as I think of my next words.

"Unexpected," Haymitch finishes for me as Venom's picture dissolves into a photograph of Smoke. Smoke, in turn, stares sombrely down at me. This is the mad boy from District Three whom was beyond saving. This is the mad boy from District Three who let my life slip through his fingers upon discovery of my equal insanity. Speaking of- where has my madness gone? It's as though he's taken my insanity with him to the grave. Or maybe that's Haymitch's doing. I can't be sure.

We turn in for the evening. I take first watch, and spend my lonely moments gazing up at the stars, naming the constellations that reside there. The sword belonged to Quarren, the spear belonged to Hestia. The butcher knives, crossed over each other in the shape of an X, represent Willie and Devon. The butterfly rendered Frond unconscious, the axe is Platina's, the grove of star-flowers granted Rosalina a quick death. And in the centre of it all is a gigantic eye; the eye of Sorphigan Pronx, reminding us all that the Gamemakers are always watching.

When it's finally time to tap Haymitch awake and delve under my own blanket, I dream of the stars exploding in the sky, raining down upon me. At the last moment, the star remnants morph into liquid metal, burning my skin on contact and forming violet puddles around my feet. However, the invisible arms that wrap around my waist, drawing me into the downpour, don't belong to an enemy but instead act as a means of comfort and support. Somehow, they remind me that dreams aren't nightmares so much as figments of my imagination.

They help me cope.

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Morning dawns to the last of my beef strips and dried fruit. My pack is considerably light, with only a spare knife, Itch Cream, and my last full water bottle weighing it down. Once again, Haymitch looks on disapprovingly, but I don't give a damn what he thinks about my choices. We're nearly to the final four. It's already been twelve days, and if it reaches fourteen I'll be astonished, especially considering Platina and Gracen are included in the mix.

We get right back to burning the hedge. Haymitch thinks we'll have burned through the thing by lunchtime. I'm slightly more optimistic, but not by much. Maybe that's because I get hold of the blowtorch this time around. I figure he shouldn't play with fire anymore lest he injure himself further, and when I ask him about his broken nose and the cuts from the thorns yesterday, he says he feels as good as new. Which can be translated to a moderate pain level.

And so Operation Hole-in-the-Hedge begins once more. The process is, as usual, boring as hell. The seconds take an eternity to fly by. But we're driven on by curiosity. Whatever it is behind this hedge must be something marvelous. Why else would the Gamemakers have found it so important to protect? Maybe we'll find the edge of the arena. Nobody's ever discovered the edge of the arena before. Or maybe we'll make it out of the arena! Needless to say, Haymitch and I are going to make history.

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Finally, after a lengthy morning, we manage to break through- and before lunchtime, nonetheless! From there on it's infinitely easier. We no longer have to squeegee out the melted metal with what Haymitch predicts to be our one hundred and twenty-fifth stick, because on the other side of the hedge, there is a short drop-off that channels the liquid in the other direction. All I have to do is simply kneel in the center of our little passageway, hunched over the blowtorch, sweat dripping from my forehead, while the vines and leaves and thorns all melt into oblivion. When I've widened the opening on the other side enough to crawl through safely, I chuck the blowtorch through and let out a triumphant laugh before worming my way out onto Haymitch's side.

When I've stood up fully, I push my sweaty hair to the side, tucking the shortened locks behind my ears. Haymitch looks at me expectantly, eyeing my empty hands. "Well," I say, my voice neutral as I pick up my blowgun from the battlefield of purple blood, "we've done it."

Something flickers in Haymitch's eyes, which intensify as they stare at me. If the Gamemaker's stars last night were the tributes and their weapons, then the Gamemaker's moon was Haymitch's eyes, gleaming bright against his olive skin and dark hair. Wordlessly, he shoves my backpack into my hands, swinging his own onto his back, and then all but pushes me into the small crawlspace.

The utterance of surprise and pain that emits from my mouth as my arms are pricked by thorns is swallowed up by a kiss. The world falls away. I feel as if my entire body is alive with electricity, because his lips are pressed to my lips and his hands are entangled in my hair and he is here because he is mine. Not the Gamemaker's tribute, not District Twelve's example of a poor Seam boy; mine.

"Haymitch," I whisper, trying my best to draw away in such a confined space.

"Maysilee," he replies.

"Can't they see us?" Kissing, I don't say.

"If they could," he tucks a strand of hair behind my ear, "they'd collapse the fucking hedge."

I can't bring myself to laugh. I can't bring myself to laugh when we have to resort to shielding the world from what I expect to be our final exchange of- whatever this is. Love, I suppose. If it isn't love, then what is it? Infatuation would be an understatement.

Whatever I expected the other side of the hedge to be, it isn't. I could lie and say this discovery isn't remotely as thrilling as burning through a hedge (for, as of five minutes, that was the least riveting experience of my life. Now, I'm plagued with disappointment). My first step into this new territory makes me wince as my foot lands on an expanse of dead shrubbery, the crunching of the sticks reminding me too much of the crunch of bones. After twelve days in the vibrant forests of our poisonous arena, I feel as if trapped in a sepia photograph, colourblind to the extent of seeing grayish-brown everywhere I look.

On this side of the hedge, the sky is brown. The dead shrubbery is brown. The rocky terrain is brown. A squirrel, seemingly of the normal variety and lonely in its expeditions, scurries up a remote, leafless tree (also brown). Haymitch emerges from the hedge behind me, and when I turn to gauge his expression, it's completely closed off. I'm not sure what he thinks of this place, but I'm pretty damn certain about what I think.

We form a silent agreement that dictates we walk until we find something interesting. To find it, we have to journey but a hundred and fifty metres. That's where we find the cliff, which is lined with rocks and boulders, ranging from the size of my thumb nail to nearly twice my height. When we're close enough to look over the side, it's confirmed that the landform is a canyon, as once explained in the geography textbooks that are currently hidden in the dark crevices of District Twelve's long-lost library. I liked to go there when I was younger, before they went out of business.

I still remember the sheer disappointment when I ventured there one day in search of a fascinating read, just to find a locked door and boarded-up windows. I'm just as disappointed to realise all our hard work on the hedge has gone to waste. The canyon won't be of any use to us, unless we want to commit suicide; for the bottom of the canyon, which I assume to be a dried riverbed, is covered in sharp rocks. I'm suddenly struck with the vision of Haymitch's body, lying broken amongst the boulders. I try to shake it off, but sometimes, my imagination can be emotionally scarring. Especially now that I realise my emotions will go haywire once more without him.

It's time. I can't pass up the opportunity any longer. "That's all there is, Haymitch," I hear myself say. "Let's go back."

I can still feel his lips on mine. "No, I'm staying here." Breathe in, breathe out. This purposely inflicted self-torture will be the death of my sanity.

"All right." Breathe in, breathe out. I clench my fist around my blowgun, gazing out into the hazel-coloured skies. For a moment, the only sound I can hear is the lonely squirrel scampering across a tree branch, far away. "There's only five of us left. May as well say good-bye now, anyway." My voice cracks. I can't look at him, and I know for a fact that he can't, either. "I don't want it to come down to you and me."

That's it. That's the extent of my little speech. I choke back a hysterical laugh as I imagine my return to the woods. The sepia sky is despicable, now that I've grown used to the arena; my poisonous little world, one hundred and fifty metres away. If I manage to return to District Twelve, I won't know what home is anymore. My home is now golden squirrels and acid waters and dropkicked fruits. My home is now seclusion. My home is now misery.

"Okay," Haymitch says stonily, drawing me out of my thoughts. My gaze drifts to him of its own accord, but his eyes are only for the stones at his feet. The kiss is far away now, shoved under false memories of cold hatred. It's as if he's creating pictures in my mind to distract me from the truth. But he can't be doing this. Maybe they're figments of my own imagination as I try to cope with the notion of leaving. The action of leaving.

I attempt to memorise his face before I turn, but it's no use. When I finally do turn, spinning on my heel, the picture is instantly erased from my thoughts. Maybe, I wonder, that's why people tend to look back- because they fool themselves into believing that if they stare for one more second, the face will be burned into their memories. I don't look back. I refuse to look back, because my detachment is finality, and if I look back, it won't be a clean break.

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"Okay."

The word rings in my ears as I walk away. Okay, I'm leaving. Okay, we're done. Okay, good-bye. I know very well that he said his good-byes in former actions, not words. I know very well that if we had conversed a second longer, I might've never found the courage to leave. I completely understand Haymitch's reply to my curt farewell; understand that this single word was necessary to confirm our separation, and what's done is done.

Maybe okay would be okay if he didn't matter so much to me. And despite my knowledge and understanding, it doesn't hurt any less. It's not okay.

Walk, Maysilee. It's not that hard.

But telling myself to walk is easy. Functioning well enough to continue at a steady pace seems so impossible. Every step away from Haymitch delivers a blow to my heart. Yet I proceed to distance myself from him. Across the short expanse of rocky terrain, full of sparse, dead bushes. Through the hole we torched in the prickly, purple-metaled hedge that is so small I have to crawl on my hands and knees. Into the mouth of the vibrant, poisonous forest that I dislike with such ardor, but have grown to love, despite my reluctance. Passing underneath the brightly-coloured canopy, dangerous fruits dangling over my head, dangerous bushes scattered at ground level, dangerous animals lurking in the trees. Danger, danger, everywhere.

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I am sick of it all. The poison, the treachery, the danger, and the melancholy blanket that surrounds me wherever I look. With Haymitch, I was distracted from how terrible it all is; but now that I am all alone in my sanity (insanity, perhaps?), I notice.

"With Haymitch," I mutter to myself. "I sound like a dependent, misled school girl. One minute without his presence and I'm already a lost cause."

I can't help but think that that single sentence will be cut from the cameras. No one in Panem wants to know about the doomed relationship between the two formerly allied tributes from District Twelve. Therefore, no one in Panem will know of our doomed relationship, with an exception of the Gamemakers, the editing crews, and a handful of other officials. They'll think it pointless to show to the rest of Panem, as we didn't announce it early on into the Game, and Capitolites don't like when secrets are kept from them. Why spur their anger by refraining from cutting out every remotely friendly scene between the two of us? And so they will. They will cut out the meaningful scenes, without a thought otherwise.

But Alder Blind, our surly mentor, has watched it all. He has not sent us gifts. He has not formed any contact with us tributes whilst we have spent our devastating days in the arena. He has not provided comfort in the least. However, I'm positive he felt he owed it to us by at least watching our struggle to survive. I'm positive he's distinguished some aspect of our relationship, and I'm positive it has affected him somehow.

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I take another step forward. It seems like the seconds are hours, ticking away slower and slower. Maybe soon, the seconds that seem like hours will stop, completely and utterly.

Haymitch courses through my mind at least once per every couple seconds passed. His face- foggy, because I couldn't memorise it- flashes before my very eyes, begging my connotational side for a few moments' time to reside there, just to be shoved away again by my merciless common sense. Despite this, I get plenty of glimpses of hazy eyebrows and out-of-focus raven hair and silvery eyes that my imagination failed to memorise the exact shade of. It is frustrating. I want to see him again. I want to see Haymitch Abernathy.

Why are you doing this to yourself, Maysilee? Wishing away your life when you might have just seconds left to live? I haven't the slightest idea. But if I have seconds left to live, I can only hope that they are quick and painless.

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Boom. A cannon fires. For a second, my mind flies to the assumption that it is Haymitch, lying pallid and bloody on the rocky terrain of the cliffside- or maybe at the bottom of the cliff itself. But that can't be correct. My instinct says otherwise. It is not Haymitch, it is not Platina. Is it insane Gracen Blaze, the girl from Seven? I don't think so. There leaves only one: Tess, the quiet girl from Nine that everyone assumed would die painfully in the bloodbath. She hid, and hid well. But I'm sure she is gone now, leaving Swathe to recite a tearful eulogy, leaving me a twenty-five percent chance to win these Games.

Yes. Maysilee Donner has reached the final four. I am guaranteed an ultimate win or an ultimate death. Events to be enjoyed or despised, depending solely on the viewer of this atrocious occurrence they call the "Games." And whoever the viewer is, whether it is my sister, my best friend, my father, Haymitch's girl, my mentor, my escort, my stylist, an overenthusiastic reporter from the Capitol, a lonely Avox, the Head Gamemaker, or even the President himself… they better brace themselves. Whether for my life, or for my death.

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It's a bird. It's nothing but a bird. And yet it is so much more than that.

It stares at me with its beady black eyes, cocking its head to the side as if contemplating who it has just landed in front of. The bird is about the height of my waist, with bright orange talons attached to thin, wobbly legs. Its wingspan is large, and the wings themselves are coated in an abundance of bubblegum-pink feathers that I expect to be extremely soft to the touch. Its neck is lengthy and curving somewhat, like a flamingo's. Its beak is long and the colour of sunset orange, the tip formed into a deadly sharp point that makes me think it is meant to skewer fruits, or berries… or humans.

But the beak is not the worst part. The most daunting feature of this animal is its eyes. Coal-black, tiny, and gleaming with a malice that seems to bore into my soul. It is as if this creature can extract the secrets of Panem from within the depths of my being. The eyes, I conclude, are what I despise most about this muttation, and it is the eyes that inform me of what the audience of this Game needs to brace themselves for.

It's a bird. It's nothing but a bird. And yet it is so much more than that. Because this bird, this simple bird, is the death of me.

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"Birds, birds, birds. Stay away from the birds, Maysilee Donner."

"The birds talk to me sometimes."

"The birds tell me secrets. They tell me that you love him."

"The birds don't believe in love, or friendship. They're just a figment of imagination come to life, come to destroy us."

"I think you're an idiot. I know you understand. But, if you insist... they're the birds that kill you, Maysilee Donner."

Rosalina was right, all along. She knew my future from the start. If she was born able to predict what lies ahead, I shall never know, because the Rosalina I came to be friends with never knew of her waking condition herself, and she is now dead by her brother's hand and the result of poisonous flowers. She's dead, having predicted the fate that would befall her, having predicted my fate but only receiving confusion and dismissal when she shared this information with me.

Was it the real Rosalina sharing fate with me, or did she simply have another malevolent personality with a certain, special gift? I won't ever know that either. I have always hated unanswered questions, and to my complete disappointment there are still so many questions that will be left unasked and unanswered. Why do the Hunger Games continue, when the Districts have been punished enough? When will the Hunger Games end? When will peace be restored? What is death like? Why does life have to be so short? Why do I love Haymitch Abernathy? Why does Haymitch Abernathy love me?

The only answered question today would be why the Gamemakers chose me to unleash their mutts upon today. And the answer to that is simple. I am considered the only weak tribute left. They want to get rid of me. Maybe they are even punishing me for finding love and hope and a home in a place that was only meant to unleash horrifying emotions. Anyhow, I am the girl whom is chosen to die.

And if I am going to die, I will die with dignity.

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It has been a few moments since the bird blocked my path, but it seems to have been an eternity, and I am impatient. So I step back in attempt to see if it moves.

The bird imitates me, but in the opposite direction; its feathers ruffling in a nonexistent breeze, its beady eyes still trained disturbingly on mine. Something tells me not to break the gaze, so I step back again instead. It steps forward once more.

What is the bird's purpose? Is it to kill me, or to represent what is to come? Why is it not advancing? Is it simply waiting for its prey to make the first move? If I kill it, will the Gamemakers leave me alone? The final question is worth a try. So, not breaking eye contact, I slowly lift my blowgun and touch the weapon to my lips, staring down the long wooden pole at the bird that stands there, calmly, without motion.

I am on my last dart. This is the last kill I can make with this blowgun, which has become my friend these past few weeks. I have a knife in my pack- one the hedge didn't take from me- and I will have to use it from now on, despite my nonexistent skills with the weapon. So the killing of this bird had better be worth it.

I take a deep breath in through my nose. The bird lets loose a long, loud wail as I blow out forcefully, but does not make any move to avoid the poisoned dart that flies through its open beak, into the back of its throat. The candy-pink bird collapses to the ground, its last noise being the eerie note that seems to echo throughout the arena. There is no cannon sounding for the creature, but I know its death is as significant as any tributes'.

I do not feel pride in my kill, although I am set to think that the death of the bird is necessary for my survival.

I am set to think wrong. Because as I turn around, hysterical laughter threatens to burst from my throat as I am met with a sight I knew I'd be met with all along. In front of me was one bird. And behind me is ten.

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They advance on me. The birds are all of identical size, as if the Gamemakers created thousands of clones of a single muttation, and have sent only a fraction of those numbers to end me. Slowly, more of the birds add to the flock, creating fifteen, twenty, thirty members, all the same, all seeking to stab me with those unusually large beaks of theirs.

I back away, but soon enough my back slams into a tree. They have me cornered. I close my eyes, bracing myself. Die with dignity. Die with dignity. It's not long before I feel searing pain, looking down to see a bill pulling out of the back of my hand, slick with shiny red blood. There is a hole in my hand, and I can see through it. I can see through the bloody, bloody hole, and through it are dead pine needles and the corner of a rotting fruit. The sight makes me dizzy, as does the pain.

Why am I looking through the hole in my hand? I don't know. I can't think much now, because there's searing pain everywhere, clouding my vision. I'm biting into my tongue so hard that blood coats the inside of my mouth, like the blood coats wherever the birds stab me. I shut my eyes. Die with dignity.

Pain. Pain in my other hand. My arms, my legs, my stomach. Pain, pain, everywhere. It is no use to struggle back against these monstrous mutts that are looming down upon me. It is no use to open my eyes and see their beady black eyes and gleaming, sharpened beaks covered in blood. My blood. Pouring from the holes they have punctured in my poor, poor body. It doesn't feel like it's mine. It's screaming, but I'm not the one who's screaming. My body is.

The screaming is working. The screaming is scaring them off, but the pain is all consuming, and my body can't scream forever. Are they leaving me to bleed out all alone? I'd rather not die alone.

My body screams its last. A long, drawn-out note, just like the first bird's; the bird I killed. It's a desperate scream. And it almost accomplishes its purpose, because the birds with their shining, bloody beaks scatter everywhere and take flight into the distance, leaving me with my back pressed against the bark of a tree and small holes splayed across my body, bleeding constantly. I try to cover them with my hands, but it's no use. Eventually, I resort to pressing them against the stomach wounds.

I sink to a sitting position on the ground, staring at the figure in front of me. One bird remains. One bird that was not scared off by my final scream, that did not choose to flee. This is the bird that will finish me off. And I laugh at it. I laugh at those excessively pink feathers and those coal black eyes that examine me as if I am nothing. I laugh at the face of death. Death doesn't like laughter- he's never liked laughter- so the bird approaches; fearless, merciless. It approaches one step at a time, until it is towering over my pallid figure, staring at me spitefully.

I am still laughing as it skewers me through the neck.

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Back then, I was just one girl, in one world, with one point of view, living one life. Back then I thought I had a purpose in life. Back then I believed I could make a difference.

But now I realise that the purpose I have in life is to die. To die so others can live.

I see it now; my Haymitch, who sits beside me, holding my hand, is going to win these Games. His life is so much more important than mine has been. He is going to spark the rebellion; he is going to find the person who will create an inferno; he is going to assist the fire-bringer in every way possible; and he is going to die knowing he has made a difference. He isn't going to die wishing he could have done more, so much more.

That's all I ever was. A little girl who wished she could do more. A girl with tedious blue eyes and dull blonde hair, with a twin sister and a best friend that she envied every so often, with a canary that she took care of just to have to give it away, with a mother who died when she was young, with a father who owned a sweet shop and went through life in a wearisome manner. A girl who studied to get flawless grades, a girl who never had a boyfriend, a girl who snuck off to the meadow to have peace and quiet, a girl who was thought to marry a merchant boy one day and have children and live happily ever after. A girl who was, in reality, destined to die. A girl who was reaped for the games, a girl who loved Haymitch Abernathy, a girl who killed a thirteen-year-old boy and three others. A girl who lies on the ground now in punishment for those deaths, slowly bleeding out through a hole in her neck.

A girl who is not able to speak as she slips away, remembering her life. A girl whose lover is the last thing she sees. A girl whose last thoughts are the ones uttered softly from his lips. I love you.

I am that girl. I am Maysilee Donner.

~finis de capitulum decim~

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