Brace Yourself

Chapter Eight: The Arena, Part III

Disclaimer: I do not own the Hunger Games.

Warnings: Possibly inaccurate descriptions of Heaven and Hell, graphic content, semi-majour character death, insanity overload, doubtful cursing.

Note: The fushia lollipop reference goes to the one-shot "Fushia Lollipops," one of the most depressingly beautiful Mrs. Undersee fics I've ever read. It's on my community, "The Original Mockingjay," if you would like to read it.

Chapter Eight: The Arena, Part III

And they say
She's in the class A team
Stuck in her daydream
Been this way since eighteen
But lately her face seems
Slowly sinking, wasting
Crumbling like pastries
And they scream
The worst things in life come free to us

And we're all under the upper hand
Go mad for a couple grams
And we don't want to go outside
Tonight
And in a pipe we fly to the Motherland
Or sell love to another man
It's too cold outside
For angels to fly... angels to fly
For angels to fly, to fly, to fly

Or angels to die

-A Team, Ed Sheeran

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When I wake up the next morning around nine o'clock, I am at peace. Something soft is draped over my body and when my eyes slowly flutter open, I am met with the sight of the emerald leaves on the trees. Sunlight streams through gaps in the foliage. Mockingjays and other songbirds call to each other in the distance. A vague thought enters my mind- this is the arena, you are in the Hunger Games- but it doesn't seem to matter any more. The danger doesn't seem to matter any more. The worst is over.

Not that the worst is over. My mind is playing tricks on me. There is much more to come; there are twelve of us left. But, for the present, nothing will effect me. Nobody will kill me. I can live in peace.

Sitting up, I feel as if someone is staring at me. Turning around, I realise that someone is staring at me- but it is friend, not foe. Tyler, who has been on watch for these past four hours, gives me a small smile from his spot leaning up against a tree. He took last shift, while Rosalina took first and I took second. Extra precaution, you know... don't want to get stabbed while we sleep, or anything.

"Morning," I say, stretching my arms above my head and yawning, kicking away the camouflage blanket I was sleeping underneath.

"Morning," Tyler replies, stowing something away in his jacket pocket. When I stare suspiciously at the pocket, he says, "It's a knife. Just in case someone caught me by surprise."

"Oh," I say, my wariness depleting rapidly as I pick up my camouflage blanket, intent on folding it.

"Say," Tyler says, nodding to my blowgun (which I hold in my right hand), "Why do you sleep with your walking stick? Not that I'm accusing you of anything, but it's a little... weird."

Surprised at his comment, I look down at my blowgun, remembering the untruths I fed the thirteen-year-old boy from the Seam. "I... I don't rightly know," I lie, tossing the "walking stick" from hand to hand, trying to act nonchalant. "I suppose I could fend off an attacker by hitting him in the head with it. Since I dislike knives and don't have another weapon, this does me well."

Tyler doesn't seem to believe me, but nods anyway, standing up. "Should we wake Rosalina?" He asks, walking over to her and nudging her arm with the toe of his boot.

"Sure," I say, and that marks the conclusion of our brief conversation. As Tyler goes on to wake his sister, I take off my pack (we all slept in them, agreeing that on the occasion that a crisis [such as a forest fire] should occur and we'd have to take off in a hurry, it would be more efficient to be ready to sprint away from the scene at the first sign of danger). Rummaging through it, I find my pack of dried beef and take a few strips for myself. I put the package back in my backpack after this, because since we split the food up evenly yesterday, it doesn't make much sense for us to share.

Taking a bite of the beef, I chew it methodically as I fish for an apple at the bottom of my pack. Snatching one and lifting it for inspection, I find that it is going bad- the surface area is seemingly all one bruise- but the fruit will still be good eating. Smiling, I close my pack and walk over to our makeshift fire pit, where Rosalina is sitting on the trunk of a dead tree (we hauled it over to the edge of the pit yesterday to use as a chair) and Tyler is attempting to build a fire with matches from his pack.

Seeing as we are in need of a fire, I must mention the weather. As we approach the end of these Games, the Gamemakers seem set on changing the weather drastically. At midday, it becomes quite hot- although not as hot as it would be if we weren't shielded by the trees. At night, it is near freezing. Not that we're complaining- I have my camouflage blanket, Rosalina has a blanket of her own, and Tyler was lucky enough to get a sleeping bag that reflects his body heat. However, this leaves the mornings quite cool, which is why a fire is necessary, even if we aren't going to use it to cook anything.

Tyler was going to attempt to kill a rabbit with his knife yesterday- he's become a pretty good shot, able to throw the projectile and hit a designated target from five feet or so away- but I advised him not to. Who knows if the rabbits are poisonous, having eaten so many toxic plants? It's best that we don't risk it. Besides, we have plenty of food now, and soon enough most of it won't be edible. My apples, for example, will rot. The bread will go so stale that we cannot bite into it without chipping a tooth. So we've decided to keep the rabbits as a last resort, for now.

"Good morning, Rosalina," I exclaim, collapsing onto the log next to her and taking a bite of my apple. It isn't the most pleasant taste, but not so terrible that I spit the fruit out.

"Isn't it?" She says, while taking off her pack and pulling out a loaf of bread. Apparently she is feeling as tranquil as I. "For some reason, I'm getting the notion that nothing bad will happen today. No injuries, no death. A much-needed break in the midst of turmoil."

"Well," I reply, shaking my head when she offers me a half of the loaf, "The Games aren't known for being boring, but we all know that there are off days. Let's enjoy it while we can. Eventually, shit's going to go down; it's unavoidable."

Rosalina laughs and takes a bite of her loaf, wincing as her teeth struggle to rip the piece off. She swallows before she agrees with me, and then comments on the bread's staleness. "Do you think that if I dipped it in water for thirty seconds it would soften?" She inquires, staring pointedly at the loaf.

"Eww, no," I say, pulling a face. "Then it'd be all soggy. Just take your time to eat it… the bread's not going to run away from you."

Tyler, from his spot next to the pile of sticks he's attempting to light, looks up. "Don't listen to Maysilee, Rosalina," he says, using a joking tone. "She could be wrong. Are we really going to trust the Gamemakers not to put a pair of legs on the thing and let it go sprinting in the other direction?" And then, as Rosalina lets out a snort, he strikes the next match on the side of the paper box and throws it into the centre of the cone-shaped pile. The fire is blazing in under a minute, and I hold my hands over the flames, grateful for the warmth, and wondering how long that warmth I am feeling will last.

Days, I hope, but we know that off days always end.

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After a few hours, a thought strikes me, and I cannot shake it off. It is the memory of Maysilee Brave, my aunt, and her Games. The story begins to haunt me: the story of how she stayed in the same camp for days until the boy from Ten finally found her. It is quite frightening, and I imagine Platina and whatever Careers are with her running across our camp, torturing and killing us one by one. Of course, I don't think it will happen today- this is an off day- but could it occur tonight? Tomorrow? I can't be sure. I can't be sure we're safe.

And so I suggest to Rosalina and Tyler that we move on. Rosalina's been camped out here since just after the bloodbath (from what I have determined), and I got here a day ago. If Tyler found the camp so easily yesterday, then somebody else is bound to discover the small clearing eventually. Tyler agrees with me in under a minute of persuasion, but Rosalina is not so easily swayed. She likes it here- she's become attached to the area. She doesn't want to find somewhere else to temporarily make camp.

"The thing that's different between you and me, among other things," she says, "is that you're nomadic. You have to move around or else you don't feel safe. I, on the other hand, rather like to turn a certain spot into my permanent residence. I'm not moving. I'm not. Go on without me."

But of course I can't go on without Rosalina, and I tell her this, before relating Maysilee Brave's tragic death to my two listeners. It opens up Rosalina's mind, so to speak, and suddenly she's all for my plan. "Let's move, then- but how can you be sure we won't run into anyone?"

"I'm not sure," I say.

"Which makes it all the more fun," Tyler concludes, before drizzling a bit of water over our fire and stomping on it until it's nothing but a pile of charred sticks and burnt ground and white ash. Which reminds me of the volcano explosion yesterday, and the fine layer of ash that covers the ground. Running my fingers through my short hair, I can feel the fine, gritty particles, and I grimace. The cause of Hestia's death is in my hair.

The hair that she cut off.

In search of something to distract myself from Hestia, I walk over to a pile of dead leaves underneath a maple tree. Scooping them up, I walk over to the once-fire and carefully place the leaves over the blackened spot, furthermore moving the leaves around with my boot-covered feet until it looks presentable. Then, Tyler and I lift separate ends of the log and haul it into a dense patch of woods, depositing it there. Leave no trace, I think. Don't want tributes putting two and two together and then finding the path we took to exit the camp. We have to be as secretive as possible.

At least we have time to be secretive. As I said, it's an off day.

We gather up the things that we didn't have on us, picking the blankets up off the ground and shaking them to clear away the dirt and leaves before folding them and placing them inside our packs. Rosalina takes the branch-plank from its place propped up against an apple tree and carries it by her side. And then we make our exit, making sure we have everything, walking to the edge of the clearing and looking back once more. Rosalina blows a kiss, which makes Tyler laugh. I shake my head and turn around, stepping into unknown territory, beginning the walk to nowhere.

Let the exertion commence!

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At midday, we rest. Walking for hours isn't pleasant when the sun is beginning to beat through the trees, turning the entire forest into a large sauna (something I've only ever seen when visiting George Undersee's house at a young age- they have an old, wooden sauna in their backyard). Because of the heat, I pity everyone and everything here except for the banana trees- it's no wonder they're thriving. There's also no wondering about the large range of tree varieties here in the arena. What with the strange weather, everything from banana trees to elms and oaks to pines are acceptable. And I'm not an idiot- I know these sort of trees don't belong together. It's not natural.

Then again, nothing in this arena is natural.

We sit on the ground to rest, for there aren't any fallen logs around, and there's no point in wasting time by searching. We don't concern ourselves with sharing water bottles, since we've divided the fluids up evenly as well. I down half a bottle before I even know what I'm doing, and then take a couple sips before hesitantly putting it away. Rosalina is more conservative, but I can tell she's as thirsty as the rest of us. Tyler simply drinks the entirety of one of his water skins. There goes that. At the rate he's going, he'll run out before next rain.

If there is a next rain.

For some reason, the thought of rain makes me think of Haymitch. I haven't thought about Haymitch for days. I've been too caught up in the moment to think of things other than what is immediately happening around me, focusing too much on the outcome of these Games than those I miss and those I love. I miss Myra, I love Myra, and yet her memory has had nothing but negative affect on me. I miss Father, I love father, but I see him nowhere in my future- just in my past. I miss Fauna, I love Fauna, and Fauna hasn't appeared in my contemplations because she doesn't matter here and now. In fact, Fauna never had much impact on my life, other than teaching me all I know about herbs and plants. Fauna was just a girl that made me happy. I can survive without her, and she can survive without me. She can be happy without me.

I miss Haymitch, I love Haymitch, and I probably should wonder about Haymitch because I doubt I'll ever see him again and chances are he'll die. I don't want him to die, but death is inevitable here- even for the winner. Everything is inevitable. Everything, everything, everything.

"Why are you singing?" Tyler's voice breaks through my musings. "This is not the time and place for singing."

"I was singing?" I ask him, surprised.

"Yes," says Rosalina. "You were singing 'Brace Yourself'."

Suddenly, I want to cry. But I don't cry, because I can't show that my mind is fragile. I don't cry, because I have to act unafraid. It all comes down to acting, doesn't it? I have to be brave, even if I'm not. I have to put on a show, even if I don't want to. "The time and place for singing 'Brace Yourself' can be anytime and anywhere," I tell Tyler. "It fits in every situation I am involved in in these Games because it reflects me- reflects what I am feeling."

"You are feeling as if you want to commit suicide?"

I laugh, shaking my head. "I don't expect you to get it, Tyler. It reflects me because I'm always bracing myself for… for something. But I can't ever brace myself for what is to come." I shake my head, sighing, and run my fingers through my hair. "I can't put it into words. I think I'm going insane. No- I know I'm going insane. I thought I could kill, and then I killed those two boys, and… it just about destroyed me."

There is a moment of silence in which Tyler simply looks perplexed, and then Rosalina speaks. "I think I get it," she murmurs. "You're bracing yourself for things you simply cannot brace yourself for. As you said, you tell yourself you can kill, but when you do kill, it all falls apart. You tell yourself you can die- will die- but when death comes, you won't be ready. And you're slowly killing yourself over it. No pun intended."

Shocked at her accurate evaluation, I nod, but Tyler doesn't seem to get it. "Why kill yourself over a song? Don't you want to live, Maysilee? Isn't that the entire point of these Games: to live- to survive? Why would you tell yourself that you can die if you are doing everything you can to live?"

Before I can tell him to forget it, Rosalina leans over to whisper in his ear. A smirk lights up his features when he pulls away. "Aha. I get it now. I get it all now. Your interviews and those meaningful looks and all that drama in which he totally molested you in the hallway? Dude. Why didn't I get that sooner? Why didn't somebody tell me sooner? I can keep a secret, Maysilee."

I just roll my eyes, exasperated, and stand up, gesturing that we should get moving. Rosalina nods and Tyler jumps to his feet, smiling plainly for the first time in the arena (that I've seen, anyway). Soon enough we are taking off, myself walking while Rosalina apparently drifts around (like she's on a cloud) and Tyler travels in leaps and bounds, occasionally throwing me smirking glances. Each time, I reach over and poke him on the forehead, shaking my head.

I think I can guess what she told him.

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Around two o'clock, we hear screaming. The distinctively male shouts come from behind us, and I instantly jump to conclusions: It'sHaymitchit'sHaymitchit'sHaymitch. But it's not Haymitch- it's no one I know- and the long, drawn-out yells cease almost as quickly as they began. Confused, we stop in our tracks, sharing glances, waiting for the boom of a cannon. No cannon is heard, however, even in the next five minutes of silence. It's an off day; there will be no death; but we still wonder about the screams.

"Who do you think that was?" Asks Rosalina, looking terrified.

Tyler, always one to jump into calculations, instantly begins to check off people out loud, counting on his fingers as he mentions each name. "It's not Haymitch, for sure, and there'd be no reason for any of the Careers to scream like that, ruling out the DNA twins-" (our nickname for Intron and Exon) "-and Quarren. It's not us three, or Platina, Venom, Gracen, or Tess, which equals eleven… so it's obviously-"

"Smoke," we all say in tandem, staring at each other, wide-eyed.

"But why would Smoke scream like that?" I wonder.

"Well," says Tyler, considering it, "He could have been chased. Or he could have had a nightmare and woke up. Or he stuck his hand into acid and it burned off. Or maybe the Careers stuck him with a pointy object and he got away. Or maybe he's eaten a fruit that kills you slowly, and the pain climaxed suddenly, and now he's unconscious. Or possibly-"

"Okay, okay," I laugh, reaching over to ruffle his hair. "I think we get it. It could have been anything. To summarise: something happened, but Smoke's not dead."

"Is that a good thing, or a bad thing?" Asks Rosalina.

We don't answer her, because to us, it is a bad thing- we must wish others to die to live ourselves- but then again, it is a good thing, because by human nature, we do not wish others to die. If one dies in these Games, we mourn them, but at the same time we feel a sense of relief, because it's one step closer to home. There's no good answer to the question that will leave us without guilt. And so we walk away, into the woods, and come to our own conclusions about Rosalina's inquiry.

I do not know what Rosalina thinks. I do not know what Tyler thinks. But, after a string of lengthy moments in which I mull over the thoughts in my mind, I realise that to me, it's a good thing. Smoke's nonexistent cannon is a good thing. I don't want Smoke to die. I don't want Platina to die, or Venom, or Intron or Exon or Quarren or Gracen or Tess or Rosalina or Tyler or Haymitch and, frankly, I don't want to die myself. I don't want anyone to die.

I. Don't. Want. Anyone. To. Die.

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We give up on our walking as dusk approaches and the weather begins to cool. Crickets and other varieties of insect commence with their peaceful chirping and owls awake, hooting into the night. The only sounds our trio creates are our deep breaths and the soft pitter-pattering of our footfalls as we search for a place to make camp. We are in a dense part of the woods, so it takes us much time to find a clearing big enough to fit the three of us- and even when we do, it is ringed in flowers, and not a hundred metres away from a spring.

Poisonous flowers. An acid spring.

"What beautiful flowers!" Rosalina exclaims as she sees them. "Maysilee, aren't they pretty?"

"Don't touch them," I warn her hastily as she leans down to examine one. "They're toxic. They'll kill you in an instant, like everything else here in this arena."

Rosalina's extended hand shrinks back, and she visibly sighs, walking back to us. "I know. I know. I just want to see something pretty again. Everything in here's pretty, but it's too pretty- and at the core, it's all dangerous. Why did they have to do this to us? Why?" A tear glistens as it falls down her cheek. "Why do they have to pretend it's pretty when it's not?"

"Tactics," says Tyler bluntly, and without compassion. "It's one of the Gamemakers' tactics. They can kill people faster with deception. After all, it's a Quarter Quell- they had to be cruel when it came to setting construction."

Nothing is said more on the matter. Twilight falls, along with a blanket of cold, and we're all shivering as we lay out our blankets and sleeping bags. Tyler lights another fire- he's become remarkably good at it- and we sit around it, warming our hands. Yes, I am aware that in the darkness, the fire is a beacon of light for any near tributes seeking to kill us, but we are prepared to defend ourselves, and our eyes and ears are open. We won't go down without a fight, anyhow.

I drink the other half of my water bottle and finish off the rest of my beef strips, savouring each bite until the dried meat has completely disappeared into my mouth. Then, I eat the rest of my apples, because they won't be good eating by tomorrow; what with their constant practice of banging into things inside my pack while I journey from place to place. When Rosalina finally admits her fatigue and Tyler agrees that we must get some sleep soon, I'm more full then I've been in this arena in days. Soon, however, I'll have to ration my food. There's just stale bread, dried fruit, and one more package of beef (picked up during my Cornucopia raid) left. Not to mention two full water bottles, an empty skin, and a bowl.

It's my turn for first watch (since we've developed a system… Rosalina was first last night, so she will be last tonight, and I will be first tonight, since I took middle shift yesterday). Therefore, I pull my camouflage blanket over my legs to keep out the cold and lean against a tree next to the fire, my intentions to tend to it. Meanwhile, Tyler climbs into his sleeping bag and Rosalina wraps herself in her blanket. There's rustling as they shift into comfortable positions, and then the anthem chooses this time to light up the sky. There are no deaths today, so faces are absent- only the annoyingly loud tune of the Captiol's anthem greets us.

"Why do they play it twice?" Tyler asks out of the blue, directing his question towards the skies.

"To make sure we have it memorised," I reply sarcastically. "I think they assume we should begin to sing their anthem when we become Victor- in a, 'I've just killed someone, let me show my Capitol pride!' gesture. They repeat it so the tune will stick soundly in our heads, as to assure themselves we won't stray off pitch during our performance."

Tyler laughs, sitting up. "Too bad I'm a terrible vocalist."

"Are you implying, Tyler, that you shall be entitled Victor?"

"Soon enough," he smirks.

Before I can figure out what to make of this, he has fallen asleep, his snoring accentuating the crickets' chirping and Rosalina's even breaths as she, too, lies unconscious. I am left wondering at his words as I take up a stick and stir around the burnt branches of the fire, reveling in the layer of quiet peace that surrounds me.

And then descends a sense of foreboding. There is no reason for it- I am probably just paranoid. I think of Smoke's screams earlier, wondering if they were a warning. I think of Tyler and his knife this morning, and how his explanation for it being out was exactly what I wanted to hear. I think of Maysilee Brave, and staying in one place. I think of the clearing we stay in- ringed in poison, next to acid, close to toxin, in the midst of a venomous arena.

We're not safe anywhere, but this place seems to be more treacherous than the rest. I simply hope that we can depart quickly in the morning, leaving this place and finding another that bodes well with my paranoia.

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A couple hours later- four, I hope, because that's the approximate amount of time we must each keep watch for- I go to wake Tyler, too fatigued to keep my eyes open. I stumble over to the place where he sleeps and shake his shoulder, mumbling something along the lines of "Your turn" (although I'm sure my words are too incoherent to be able to discern). Tyler wakes easily and nods at me, whispering that I should get to sleep, to which I smile and collapse a few feet from him, pulling my blanket over myself and drifting off instantly.

My dream is lovely. I am lying in a meadow, but it isn't the poisonous meadow of the arena (which is probably covered in igneous rock after the volcano's eruption, now that I think about it). The grass is wilted, taking on a drab shade of green-gold-brown and drooping towards the hardened earth in a gloomy fashion. Patches of it are trampled from feet of the past, giving the meadow a weathered look. Pathetic dandelions, in their final stage of life, litter the ground. Looking to my left, there is no volcano. Looking to my right, there is no woods. The meadow stretches on forever, and above it, the sky is a dreary shade of gray, covered in a fine layer of rain clouds.

I look up at it joyously, for I haven't had the pleasure to stay in such a beautiful place for what seems like weeks.

I lie on the ground in the position you would take on to form a snow angel: my arms extended away from my sides slightly, palms facing up; my legs open, my feet turned outwards. The grass crunches slightly as I lean my head back into it, but the sound isn't unpleasant, for it makes me giggle. This is wonderful- so wonderful. I feel free, I feel safe, I feel as if I have been relieved from a contamination. The arena was my contamination, but now it is in the past; in my future, maybe, but not in the present.

Lifting my hand, I feel for the hem of the clothing I am wearing, stroking the soft material. The long-sleeved dress flows around me, its white cotton fabric providing the comfort of a favourite nightgown. It's like something an angel would wear. In fact, I do feel angelic, with my hair so silky smooth- and long again! Long again!- and my lips stretched out in a wide grin. I'm laughing, even. Laughing. Why am I laughing?

Looking to my left, I am met with the source of my laughter. Rosalina is next to me, lying on the ground in the same position as I, smiling gently. She's wearing an identical dress and her glossy, raven hair is pulled back in an intricate style of woven braids. Her cheeks are flushed, her lips plump, her entire being relaxed and carefree. She looks stunning. Absolutely stunning.

"That was the most ridiculous joke," I tell her, even though I cannot remember what the joke was.

"I've told it so many times I don't even find it funny any more," she admits. "But it makes others laugh. That's why I tell it."

We look up at the sky for a while longer, and we are quiet, basking in tranquility. It's windy, so the grass rustles in the breeze, and my hair is occasionally caught up with it. A smile plays at my lips as I roll over on my side, facing Rosalina, and she does the same. "Isn't it pretty?" Rosalina asks me. "I haven't seen something so pretty in ages. I sure wish Tyler were here."

Before I can reply, a drop of water hits my cheek, and I look up at the sky, startled. Another drop hits my forehead, and then my leg, and finally it's raining. Gleeful, we stand, frolicking in the warm summer shower, giggling as the raindrops touch our cheeks and we become soaked to the bone (for there is no shelter to retreat to). Eventually, after chasing each other around like toddlers playing in a sprinkler, we collapse to the ground once again, our dresses sticking to our skin. They've become translucent, as they are of white fabric, but neither of us cares.

The sun peeks out from behind a break in the clouds, and looking up, a rainbow overtakes the sky. The colours are vibrant and beautiful, but not artificially so. It's all natural in this small world. Its flaws are perfect- the dying grass is marvelous- my smile is ceaseless. "It feels as if we're in heaven," I tell Rosalina, sitting cross-legged and plucking a blade of grass from the ground, rubbing it between my fingers.

"We are in Heaven, Maysilee," she tells me, looking confused.

"We are?" I ask, startled, dropping the blade of grass and looking up at the rainbow again. Is that why this meadow is so lovely? Am I dead? Is Rosalina dead? "Are we dead? Who killed us? And where is Tyler- is he alive? What about Haymitch?"

Rosalina lets out a short laugh of amazement. "Don't you remember your death? I remember mine. It is vivid in my memory, as are all of the memories of the arena." She frowns. "And no, silly, Tyler isn't alive. Tyler went to Hell. Tyler's burning at the stake far below us and it's all your fault." Rosalina shakes her head and smiles again. "But we're in Heaven. Isn't it nice here? Aren't you relieved that you were let off the hook? Well, I suppose the jury let you free since you killed my demonic 'brother,' but-"

"Wait. Wait. Wait!" I shout, before she can continue. "What happened? Why don't I remember? Why do you say I killed Tyler? Why is Tyler demonic?"

"Because you did kill Tyler, silly," Rosalina laughs lightly, but her eyebrows are knit in puzzlement. "You killed Tyler because he was plotting to murder me all along. What is the reason for your sudden amnesia?"

"How should I know?" I ask impatiently. We have both stood up and are facing one another, now, arms crossed. Rosalina's hair whips in the wind, as does mine, forming a mass of black and blonde tendrils that surround our heads. "It's not like I remember anything…"

My sentence trails off suddenly as I turn my gaze from her face and glance over her shoulder. The sight makes me scream. Tyler is wielding a knife, walking slowly toward us- but he is not Tyler, exactly. It is Tyler's face, but his arms are long and fleshy and boneless, like the tentacles of an octopus but without the suction cups, and the end of one curls around the knife like a monkey's tail curls around a branch, therefore squeezing it tightly. His legs are gone, replaced by five metal rods, bent just so to look as if they belong to a mechanical spider- he scuttles forward on them without making a sound. He is without clothes, and instead his wild, curly hair has grown long; so long that it wraps around his torso, hiding what could be skin but may not be skin, preserving his dignity (if he has dignity left) in a dark cloak.

During this assessment, I continue to scream, frightened at what a monster he has become and wondering what he is doing here and unable to form one coherent thought as Tyler scuttles forward- slowly, slowly. Rosalina turns around and screams too, and our shrill cries mix to become one single, ever-lasting note of terror. We try to back away, but we are paralysed in fear, unable to escape from Tyler- no, it's not Tyler, but it's a monster. It's a monster. Or maybe the monster is Tyler, and it has been Tyler all along.

His face is dirty, his eyes wild, his lips cracked as he opens his mouth and speaks in a rough, grating tone: "Sister, at last." His eyes catch hold of Rosalina's as I watch him quicken his pace- my mouth is open and I'm still screaming- and so is Rosalina. Then, the tentacle-arm with the knife begins to grow, extending quickly until it reaches Rosalina's heart, plunging the knife into it. Her screaming ends, but I am still screaming, still gaping, still crying. I tear my eyes away from the sight and look up at the rainbow; look up at the pretty colours.

And I think, if this is Heaven, I would rather be alive.

Suddenly, Tyler is gone, and so is Rosalina's corpse. But I'm still in the beautiful meadow, there's still a rainbow in the sky, and I'm still screaming. As I sink to my knees in despair, I press my hands to my eyes, effectively shutting out the world- shutting out Heaven. Everything grows dark, and there are still screams piercing the air, but I'm not screaming any more. It's someone else. Someone else is screaming.

It's Rosalina.

It's Rosalina.

My eyes fly open, but it is still dark here in the arena, so I cannot see a thing. For a moment, I am completely disoriented, because I know that it's Rosalina screaming- but that was in the dream, wasn't it? Why would she be screaming now? The questions flood my mind and it's so dark, so dark that I feel like I am drowning in a sea of coal, unable to escape, with no way to get out. There's no way out because the only light is in Tyler's pack. And I can't get to Tyler's pack because I can't move, and I can't move because something's happening to Rosalina less than five feet from me, and I can't go to Rosalina because whatever is hurting her is going to hurt me, too. And so I lay paralysed and open my ears to something other than the screaming- to someone other than the screaming.

And when I hear Tyler's voice, I panic, because the monster is still in my mind and I know that he is a demon.

The words drift towards me. "Pathetic. It's just your stomach. Absolutely pathetic." The screams drown out his next words, and I don't understand how Rosalina could have gone on this long without breath. He's done something to her. I know he's done something to her. I know he's done something and I don't know what to do! I don't! She's dying and we're in the Hunger Games and she's my friend and maybe she's not dying but something's happening. Maybe Tyler's poisoned her in her sleep… or stepped on her stomach… or stabbed it... but whatever it is I have to do something quick, and how can I when I'm paralysed, lying on the ground?

Another thought strikes me: if he's just injured Rosalina, what will he do to me?

There shuffling, and it's coming closer, and Rosalina's screams are starting to die away, but that doesn't matter. Adrenaline is pumping through my veins and I'm hysterical and I think Tyler's walking in my direction, but I'm not sure. It's so dark. It's so dark. For some reason, this makes me want to laugh, because Tyler Dark has acted upon his insane paranoia at night. But I can't laugh, because he still thinks I'm asleep. He thinks I'm asleep and defenseless. Isn't that right? Isn't that right?

Well, buddy, you don't know that I'm awake and I have a blowgun at my side.

He's coming over to kill me, right? Or am I paranoid? Is it the dream that has affected me? Or maybe it's not Tyler at all. …But of course it's Tyler, because that was his voice, wasn't it? Or am I hallucinating? Or am I dreaming? Is this a dream, and Heaven real, and am I dead, or am I alive? I can't tell because I'm surrounded by darkness. I'm dying in the mines because I forgot to send a canary down before me.

I used to have a canary. Her name was Flora. I gave her to Fauna, who is my best friend. Rather, was my best friend, because she doesn't mar here. I'm going to die now. Or not. Or maybe I'll kill Tyler with my blowgun which he thinks is a walking stick. Tyler the demon. Tyler the monster with tentacle arms and metal spider legs and long curly hair. Tyler who has killed Rosalina. Maybe. Or maybe not. She isn't dead yet- there are still gasps to my right. I am so confused. I am so confused.

A shadow falls over me, which strikes me odd, because it is so dark that only something darker could overtake it. Who could it be but Tyler Dark? The shadow kneels next to me and then something is being raised above my chest. "I have to. I have to," he mutters, and then the thing above me- his arm, his regular arm, equipped with a knife, pulls back and then comes toward my chest. Quickly, so quickly, I grab at the shadow and catch his wrist before the knife can impale my heart, and then raise my blowgun to just below my lips, pointing it at the direction in which his neck should be.

"You move, I kill you," I tell him, my voice harsh and cold.

"I am fighting," he says, his tone as unforgiving as mine. "I am strong, I can fight, I will win. It's all a game, Maysilee. You told me yourself that I had a choice. I've chosen."

I stare at the shadow boy above me, and I want to cry. "You have chosen wrong," I say sadly. "You have chosen to become a monster. To become a demon. You will burn in Hell, Tyler- I have seen it. And no one as corrupt as you deserves to live."

"But I am fighting to live." I can almost see him smile in the darkness. "I'm going to live, I'm going to be Victor, and you cannot stop me. It will all turn out okay."

"What did you do to your sister?" I ask him.

"I have killed her. I have stabbed her in her stomach. She will bleed out soon," he laughs.

"What do you think I will do to you?" I ask him.

"It is not what you will do to me, Maysilee. Vice versa. You are unarmed. You cannot kill me, but I can quickly dispose of you- furthermore going on to become Victor. I'm a crowd favourite, aren't I? I got that ten in training. I got that ten in training because I killed my sister; because I told them I would kill my sister. And I'll kill you, Maysilee- and it won't be a quick death."

Gaping at the sudden abundance of knowledge, my hands tighten on his wrist and the blowgun, respectively. "You are immoral. You are wicked. You are insane, Tyler Dark, and you are wrong for thinking that you are invincible." I shift the blowgun upwards slightly and let out a short exhale, watching as the tiny dart, black against black, travels through space and sticks in his neck. It's faster that way, because his neck is exposed. In no time, Tyler is coughing into his hands- it's the same poison I murdered Willie with- and kneeling over next to me, dead. A cannon booms.

The last word I said to him was "invincible." Irony seems to play as much part in these Games as death does; I see that now. I understand why people laugh after committing homicide, because the irony is affecting them. For example, many of us from the outer districts despise the Careers for murdering, and tell ourselves we will never be like them, but if we survive the end of the Games, then we are hypocrites. You have to kill to win the Games. It's a known fact. And, in turn, all of the Victors have had vivid experience with irony.

I suppose they'd all be very good literature teachers.

I do not feel remorse for my kill, nor do I take the time to feel at all. Instead, I am standing and running over to Rosalina- my eyes have adjusted to the night, somewhat- and sitting next to her. Her breathing is shallow and her hands are pressed to her stomach, most likely to hold in her insides. She won't make it, for Tyler has been cruel. But she'll last a while longer.

"Rosalina," I say. "Rosalina, you can hear me, can't you?"

"Yes," she replies, her voice raspy from screaming. "He didn't… cut off my ears... as far as I can tell."

"Rosalina…" I choke back a sob, because I can't cry here. I can't show weakness. "I'm sorry. If I had known- I'm so sorry. I'm so, so sorry."

She lifts one hand off her stomach and touches my face slightly. Her fingers are sticky with blood but it doesn't matter. "Don't be." I can hear the smile in her voice. "I have ears… I could hear. He's dead. Heard… the cannon. Maybe… in death… he won't be… so corrupt." She takes in a deep breath. "Don't be sad… I'm going now. Would have died sometime… anyway. Good thing… I'm going with him? Maybe."

"If you want it to be," I touch her face as well, smoothing the worried crease between her eyebrows. "Everything will be all right now. You'll go up to Heaven with Tyler, and he'll love you, and you'll love him back." I'm lying through my teeth, but it's all for her benefit. I want Rosalina to have a good death. "And Heaven will be beautiful. It's a large meadow, but it has all the flaws the meadow in the arena didn't. The grass is limp, the dandelions are wilted, and there's wind and rain, and rainbows, even. It's pretty there."

"Pretty…" she whispers. "How do you know?"

I lean down and kiss her forehead. "I saw it in a dream," I whisper back. "I saw you, dressed in a white gown, frolicking in a sun shower as the raindrops hit your nose. You were laughing and smiling and telling jokes. You were happy, Rosalina. It's time for you to be happy now."

"Happy…" her breaths are coming in short bursts now. Suddenly, she takes a hand off her wound and grabs my wrist. "I don't want to die… because of him. I want to die… on my own terms. I don't want… him to have… killed me."

I lift her hand and place it back on her wound. "How do you want to die, Rosalina?" I ask her.

"Flowers. I want to die in the flowers," she says.

She's the same height as me and weighs a bit less, despite being two years my elder, so it isn't impossible to carry her to the flowers that ring the outside of the clearing. I somehow manage it, holding my breath as I place her in the midst of the poisonous plants. It's the sort of death you get in a fairy tale. It suits Rosalina. She deserves to be in a fairy tale. She deserves to have everything she ever wanted.

"Rosalina," I tell her, in one last vow, "If I make it home, I'll pay for your father's lung treatment."

"Then make it home," are her last words, before she falls unconscious.

And then the sound of a cannon pierces the night, and all is silent. I stand alone in a clearing, accompanied by blankets, supplies, and the two dead corpses of my allies: one foe, one friend. One male, one female. One brother, one sister. One Tyler, one Rosalina. Two Darks, asleep in the darkness.

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

She's clawing my face off. Myra has taken a liking to clawing my face off, I think. She likes to draw blood- to make me cry. But I'm not crying now. I won't let myself cry. I will deal with Myra's sharp, jagged nails, rough from a habit of biting them when they grow too long, but I can't show weakness. Unless screaming counts as a weakness. I just cannot stop screaming.

My voice died long ago. The shouts are mere whispers now, emitting from my mouth in long breaths, waves of torture falling upon me for minutes and hours and maybe even days. I can't remember any more. I can't remember if the sun's gone up or down, or if the anthem has played or not played, or if the trees are changing or if I'm just running in circles. It doesn't really matter. I keep running into them, anyway. I run into the trees when I'm not watching where I'm going, but instead envisioning Rosalina's body, dead in the flowers. Not that I ever saw her clearly. I left before the light took over.

I wanted them to forever be shrouded in darkness.

Yes, I saw the hovercraft pick them up. The Gamemakers provided holes in the trees. How nice of them. I saw Rosalina's limp body, and her mane of dark hair that swung in empty air, her hands dangling by her sides. I saw Tyler's body, with his head of curly black hair and the hand still clutching the dagger he owned. He wasn't a monster when I saw him, but I know that somewhere, in the figurative place below me, he is a demon. Burning at the stake, screaming, his metal legs scrambling to get away and his tentacle arms wrapping around the necks of those who get to close. The torturer tortured for eternity.

I think that was when I started screaming- when I began to imagine this (yes, imagine… because it's real, but it's also all in my head). However, I can't remember any more. I can't even remember when Myra started screaming, or when Myra began to claw at my face. What's the point of remembering when it's all a bad dream? Even though it's not a dream- it's real. It's real. And I'm being contradictory.

Suddenly, I am struck with an idea, and I reach up and grab Myra's hands. She's not clawing my face any more- in fact, she's not there at all. Huh. Lowering my hands, I look around. I'm living in a wonderland of trees. It's the arena, isn't it? The poisonous arena. The arena where Rosalina and Tyler died. I'm screaming once more, even though I didn't know I'd stopped. The shrieks are riddled with a new vigor, because I am imagining them again. I'm imagining them again.

Out of my peripheral vision, I see something pink. I shriek continuously as I turn to it, catching a glimpse of feathers and a long beak. It's some sort of bird. Why is there a bird watching me? Confused, my eyes follow it, watching the pink feathers appear and disappear through the trees every once in a while, too far away to appear fully.

The sight makes me look down at my pin- the pin on my chest. The mockingjay pin. The mockingjay pin that, on the train, twirled around and around my fingers until it dropped to the ground and rolled away. After she warned me about the birds. Stay away from the birds, Maysilee. Stay away from the birds.

Turning, I run. Run, run, run away from the pink bird. I run into trees, but I keep going. I have to stay away. I have to stay away from my imagination, stay away from insanity, stay away from the birds. Stay away from Rosalina and Tyler's ghosts, who have come back to haunt me. Who have come back to murder me via bird. A pink bird, like the colour of candy floss back in our sweet shop.

Quite frankly, I could use a dark chocolate truffle right now. Or something else sweet- maybe one of those fushia lollipops. I was the only one that liked those, although they weren't my favourite. The truffles were. And now there'll be no one left to eat the dark chocolate truffles and the fushia lollipops. Father might stop selling them. Now, that's a disappointment.

My legs carry me everywhere. I run in one direction, and then double back, wondering where I am. Sometimes I wish I could have a map, because this forest is simply massive. Not that a map would help, because everything is the same. Everything is repetitive. Elm, apple, ash, oak, banana, pine, willow. Elm, apple, ash, oak, banana, pine, willow. Bush, bush, bush, another bush, and another bush. Hey, there's a bush! Dead fruit plus dead fruit equals two dead fruits. I dropkick them both. They sail away into the trees. So many trees.

Maybe I'm running in circles. No, that can't be right, because there's a clearing. I haven't come across such a large clearing yet! Excited, my screaming having ended a while ago, I approach it, bursting through the tree line and coming across a rocky area with a small bluish-clear area in the middle. Water. It's water. Walking over to it, I kneel next to the lone pool- I wonder why it's here- and stare into its depths. I can see a girl there. She isn't very pretty. She has eyes that match the colour of the pool and hair like straw attached to her scalp, matted and ending around her shoulders. She has a long nose that's not exactly flattering, and a long neck that looks even worse with the new and (I assume) hateful haircut. She has cracked lips that definitely don't help her features stand out. To top it all off, there's something reddish brown on her left cheek. What is it? What is it?

Blood. Dried blood.

I observe the situation curiously, leaning closer to make out the outline of the blood. The poor girl. Does she have a cut on her cheek? No, I don't think so- the blood pattern is a bit off. Where did that blood come from? It seems to have been there for a few hours, or even longer. She must not have much water to wash it off with. Definitely not enough to take a much-needed bath. Her hair is stringy and her face is dirty and she looks very thirsty. I wonder why that is. She's in the water, after all. She lives in the water.

Or maybe she doesn't live in the water at all. Maybe she's me.

To confirm this, I reach my hand up to touch my cheek. Something flakes off. I lower my hand and stare at my fingers, which are now slightly red. The girl in the water imitates me, reaching up her hand to brush off some of the dried blood and gazing at her fingers in puzzlement. She looks up at me right when I do. The shock on her features is impressive. She looks so much like me. She is me. The blood on my face is Rosalina's. Rosalina who is dead.

Screaming, I turn in the other direction, trying to erase the image of the girl from the water. But when I look back, she's still there. I try to run away and return, but even when I look into the pool again, she's still there. I'm still there. Frustrated, I reach down to wipe her face away- let me look at the pool of water in peace, damn it!- but right when my hand touches the water, I pull it back, screeching in surprise. It burns. Oh, Snow, it burns like nothing else and the tips of my fingers are charring away and I've never felt something hurt so much in my life. Stop the pain! Stop the pain!

I'm screaming loudly now- as loudly as I can with a hoarse voice, that is. I need medical attention. I need medical attention because the water is acid and this entire arena is poisonous and I'm the only one left alive! Right? Right? I'm Victor, am I not? Oh, wait- there's nine others left. Silly me. So why am I screaming if there's others that will kill me? I am such an idiot. But I can't stop. I can't stop screaming. Oh, no. Oh, for Panem's sake, why does it feel like my mouth isn't attached to my body? Am I going insane?

Yes, I'm going insane- I am insane. I am definitely insane because there's a boy here now, and he's walking towards me. Why is he walking towards me? Is he planning to kill me? But I'm hallucinating- that's right. So why do my ears deceive me? Why can I hear him muttering under his breath? "Stop it," he says. "Stop screaming. If you scream, the smoke will die. I am the smoke. If you scream, I will die. Stop it, stop it, stop it."

I look up at him. He has black hair and his pallid face is thin and his glasses only have one temple. His eyes are crazy. Very, very crazy. Just about as crazy as mine are. Immediately, I'm not shrieking any more, and instead, I examine the boy, taking in his ripped clothes and his half-melted shoes, the sword he clutches in one hand and a circular disk with a blinking light on it that he holds in the other (it must be his district token, like the mockingjay is my district token, even though it's not a preferable district token if I'm supposed to stay away from the birds).

"Mad. I'm screaming because I'm mad," I say.

"We're all mad here," Smoke replies. "We're all mad everywhere. It's a balance. Only trauma tips the scale. You've been through trauma, haven't you? It's why you are screaming. It's why you think you cannot stop screaming. But you can stop screaming. It has been done. I have done it."

"I have killed three boys," I say, defensive. "Who have you killed? No one, I am assuming." He doesn't seem the sort to murder. Although mysterious Smoke doesn't seem the sort to be predictable, either.

"The point of these Games is to kill. I haven't killed- that's right. I don't want to kill. But I will kill. I will kill him. He will die." He peers at me through his broken spectacles. "I've been traumatised because I am considering his death. Soon I'll decide. In the meantime, however, you aren't allowed to murder my victim."

"I won't. I promise. But… kill who?" I ask, because there's no other way to reply to that.

"The smoke. The smoke," he mutters, shuffling his feet. "Have a nice day- or else, as nice as it can get. I'm sorry for the siblings. I'm sorry I'm not giving you freedom. However, I don't kill killers. I only kill those who are currently killing." And then he walks away, waving his sword in a silent farewell, and I am left staring at the spot where he disappears into the woods.

Smoke is a thousand times more intelligent and wise than I will ever be. I don't even know how old he is. Younger than I. He must be younger than I. Younger than I and sent to his death in a poisonous arena. And, of course, he has been affected by the arena, as I have been. He's gone mad- I couldn't comprehend half of his words. But as he said, we're all mad here.

We're all mad everywhere.

~finis de capitulum octo~

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