Prologue Part I: Like Otters
Sometimes I hike illegally in the mountains beyond the borders of District 2. Two people go with me. Sometimes it's all three of us, sometimes we go in pairs. Today, two of us packed bags with water and a day's worth of food. It's hot as always in summer in our district, hot and dry but we know better than to wear shorts hiking. There's no telling what you run into. So both of us are dressed in light pants with deep pockets, boots, and shirts that won't hold heat to our bodies. We'd arranged to meet at dawn and we're both on time. The sky is still pink and the sun hasn't quite broken the horizon.
We're good at finding secret places, the three of us, and it was years ago that we decided this place was secret enough to dig under the electric fence. I'm still careful not to touch it. Once we're through, it's a sprint of maybe a quarter mile to get us to the cover of trees. We make it there in under fifty seconds.
Now it's peaceful. We can talk out here. We can run and swim and be loud without fear. His brother is more careful, but we live our lives carefully, carefully training, carefully not talking about the real things on our minds, carefully not aggravating our trainers, carefully preparing. This is our place to be free, or as close to it as possible.
We're silent for a while, still waking up and also knowing what discussion is coming today. He and his brother are eighteen, which in other districts makes no difference because no one expects you to volunteer, but for us tomorrow is the day that will be expected of them, of him and his brother. He's promising and if he's chosen or volunteers, he's sure to be sent to the Capitol. I have another year of training before I have to worry. Some seventeen-year-olds volunteer but they're rarely chosen."Breakfast on that rock?" He interrupts my thought but I agree. We scale the giant boulder, me first, showing him where to put his feet as usual. I'm always the path finder. We sit and eat dry cereal, pieces of fruit, bread, and drink some water.
The goal is to hike the mountain nearest our exit point of our district. It's a trip that'll take most of the day. The summit is nearly three miles above sea level. We know it well enough to be able to make the return journey by torchlight. Shortly before lunchtime, we stop at one of the small tributaries running off the mountain to rinse our faces and refill our water. Both of us have brought iodine. None of the water is clean enough to drink since the catastrophe that put us in the mess of Panem.
I'm crouched over a deeper part of the tributary, dipping my hands in to cool them. I see small fish swimming around. I don't know how he manages it because I'm in a pretty firm position, but he off-balances me and I feel both annoyed and refreshed as I crash into the water. I turn and kick myself back to the surface making sure to exhale and keep my lips tight shut. "I should've guessed." I'm smiling at him. It's early summer so the water's still relatively cold but not unbearable for a few minutes, especially not when I've spent a good portion of my life thus far in ice baths to sooth sore muscles. "Join me?" He sheds his pack, boots and shirt and jumps in. I didn't think of that until just now. My boots are soaked. I splash him when I realize this, then duck down to pull off my boots and socks. I swim to the bank, lay them out and then we swim around for a while.
"We should get going again," I tell him after half an hour. If we want to make it up the mountain, we can't waste all this time.
"Your stuff's not dry," he reminds me.
"It's ok. We came out here to climb the mountain. I want to hike. They'll dry as we go." I hoist myself out, walk around in the grass to dry my feet, brush the dirt off them, then put on my socks and boots.
"How long do your parents think you'll be out?" he asks. I'd never leave a note, but I told my mother yesterday where I was going and with whom.
"Mid morning tomorrow at the latest."
"Hike up, rest, eat, sleep an hour or so and go back down?" I nod.
We don't stop again for lunch but eat as we go. It's late afternoon when we reach the peak of the mountain. We're tired and sweaty but happy. The two of us are almost always happy together. We ate several hours ago so he strikes a fire with some matches and we bring out some of the food that needs reheating. It's colder on the top of the mountain than it is at home but we're comfortable by the fire. The smoke also keeps many of the bugs away.
We're sitting with our feet over the ledge, looking out at the land we've just traversed and watching the sun turn the sky colors again. We'll take torches back down. It's dangerous to hike in the dark but we'll manage. None of us has ever been hurt badly up here. Bumps and bruises, maybe some moderate dehydration when we were younger and stupider but we're less young and smarter now. We're sitting in silence, listening to the musical bugs and the crackling of the wood in the fire. We're far enough away from home that they won't see the smoke.
"I'm going to volunteer tomorrow," he says out of nowhere. This was not the conversation I was hoping to have. If we were going to talk about the reaping, I wanted it to be the usual speculation as who would win. I guess that was naive. We've known since we were young that we would go in sooner or later. We were always the best in our years, the strongest, the fastest, the deadliest. We were the only two who intentionally and easily made friends at training. Everyone knows what we're there for and before us, they made no effort to be friendly, always remembering that they might very well have to either watch one of their friends die or kill them themselves. The mentors have told us that was how they first knew were were victor material. We could form alliances and then disregard them when the time came.
Even our mental capacities don't touch our physical capabilities now. No one challenges him at training. There will be no other tribute like him. Even Brutus, our most accomplished mentor, can't fight Cato and win. Cato's fearless and brutal when he needs to be to win a fight. I'm faster, lighter on my feet, more strategic, have better eyes and aim but I can't move heavy objects with brute strength the way Cato can. I need my technique and my strategy.
I've known he'd go first and I'd follow the year after but now that it's the night before his reaping, it's too soon. I don't want to see him go. "Don't," I tell him. I'm so stunned that it's all I can think to say. I'm just staring at him. I spend so much time making sure I look indifferent and sometimes even deluding myself into truly being so that I'm not sure if this is the natural reaction to watching one's best friend enter the Capitol's arena. Sadness. Fear. Anxiety. It must be. Right? I tell myself that anyway.
"I don't have a choice." I know what that means. Trainers and coaches tell the potential tributes when to volunteer. Others do as well, but the one the trainers and coaches want are the ones that win at the reaping. If he's been told it's his year, there's very little he can do, save not volunteering and hoping he doesn't get reaped. If he doesn't volunteer though, he'll be in for it here.
Districts 1, 2, and 4 have come up with a system, a system they've managed to keep off the Capitol's radar for nearly two decades. Two districts will send Careers who aren't victor material. Those tributes' coaches will know they're not going to come out but the Districts play up their tributes with confidence, as if they're all on the same playing field. If he's supposed to be going this year, then 2 is the District that's sending the winner. He'll come home. And if he doesn't go, he'll throw off the system. The problem is that the Capitol can always step in, can always choose the victor ahead of time and fix the arena so that tribute wins. And they have. He might not come home.
"Sure you do. Think about somebody other than your District, why don't you?" He glares at me. That was rude. I know who he's thinking of.
"My family's in the same situation as yours. Inhaling dust every day. They come home with so much rock on their hands and dust under their fingernails that they end up with it in their food. I'd only be doing it for them." Why else would we have even started training? If we win, our families won't have to live like than anymore.
"Do they know?" He drops the glare, looks down at the ground, and shakes his head. "You come out here with me on your last night instead of spending it with them? What's wrong with you?" Sometimes my mouth is faster than my thoughts. I forget what people should and shouldn't say to their friends.
"I wanted you to know. Don't volunteer and don't do anything stupid when I do." It's the hardest thing I've ever had to accept and I don't want to. I feel my throat tighten and I swallow.
"Please don't." My voice is quieter now. "I don't want to watch knowing you're in the arena." Usually something like that would make him laugh. We're not particularly sentimental people and quiet heartfelt statements aren't in our systems.
"You act like I wouldn't be coming home."
"What if you don't?" The words hang there for a moment or two, ringing in our ears before he answers.
"Then I'm glad we came up here tonight."
I grit my teeth, holding back whatever noise of sadness or protest that wants to come out of my mouth. When I look at him though I can't help it. I fling my arms around his neck and hold onto him. Sometimes I hug him or his brother but never like this. It's always in a good sportsmanship or a 'see you tomorrow' way. This is me, terrified and sad, clinging to him, begging him not to go. "Don't volunteer tomorrow, ok? Just don't. Stay here and let somebody else go." He lets me talk myself out, just holds onto me but that only makes it worse when I think that this might be the last time we're together. I stop talking and just bury my face between my arm and his neck.
I don't know how long we sit there like that but he doesn't say or do anything until I let go of him. He sits there and holds me, lets me have my mental breakdown, better tonight than tomorrow afternoon. He never says he won't volunteer. I run through a hundred different ways to make him stay, avoiding the one thought I know would work until I'm absolutely certain it's the only option.
I will volunteer.
He'll never want to be in the arena with me. Maybe he'll hate me for it, but only the same way I hate him in this moment. There's still the risk that he'll be reaped, but then we'd at least be in the arena together, not sitting idly before a television screen unable to help. We've always worked best together. There is of course always the concern that I won't be chosen, which would be a problem as well but then maybe he'll have panicked, maybe he'll realize what's in my head right now. Maybe that alone will convince him not to go. I doubt it. A momentary shock isn't enough to make him give up at his last chance of avoiding eating talc with every meal until he develops cancer or some other disease.
As planned, we lay down for a few hours before making the return journey. I feel like a traitor for making that plan without telling him but I'm still scared for him so I sleep close to him. I don't lay down close enough that we're cuddling but we reach our hands out and hold on for a few minutes. Usually we touch when we sleep up here. It's dangerous and we want to know the other's there. Normally we just hold hands though, simply, not with our fingers laced, just to make sure we'll be there to help if the other needs it.
Maybe he sees that I'm still worried or maybe I've made him feel guilty or scared. He pulls himself and his sleeping bag over and reaches out to put his hand on my shoulder. If this is going to be the last night we spend curled up out here, I want to be closer to him. I'm also trying everything to prevent him from volunteering. Maybe he'll figure out from such a clear break in my usual character that I can't watch him go. Best friends can snuggle each other when one is facing the Hunger Games, right? I slide over until my forehead is touching his chest. He wraps the arm that was around my shoulders tighter around me and straightens the other arm, fitting it under my head.
I wake up exactly as I fell asleep. When I look up, he's watching me. "Did you sleep?" I ask.
"A bit, but I didn't want to wake up late and not be able to get back in time." Smart plan. Even if we weren't going to volunteer, we can't miss the reaping. I realize that I'm still laying on his arm. It must be completely numb by now.
"Sorry," I say, sitting up. As I do, I feel his other arm which had apparently been around me the whole time. "Let's eat something and get back." He says nothing, but sits up and joins me beside the remains of our fire. As we eat, I look up. You never see the stars like you do from this height. There's no light out here to dim them either. I think back on all the times we've come up here and carved out patterns in the sky, made up stories for characters we created.
"I've always loved coming up here," I hear him say. I drop my eyes from the sky. When I look at him, he blinks, looks down at the ground, then glues his eyes to the stars.
"You don't have to go," I tell him again.
He sighs. "Yes, I do. It'll be ok. It's the same sky over the arena as here." He's playing the 'we'll still be under the same sky even if I'm in the arena and you're not' card. That isn't good enough. He looks at me to see if he's made an impression.
"Come on." I shove my gear back into my bag, stand up and start back down the mountain.
The return journey is much quicker because we're descending. We check to make sure no one's around before we make the four-hundred yard dash back to the hole under the fence. We reenter the district and make a point of breathing through our noses for a minute or two so no one will realize we're out of breath. We're in shape, obviously, or we wouldn't be in the running for the Games, but still, in the heat and at this altitude, more than a mile above sea level, oxygen is hard to come by. We're nearing the corner where we split up when he speaks.
"Hey," he says, catching hold of my wrist as we make to separate. I stop immediately and turn to face him. He looks around then pulls me between two buildings. "Listen," he tells me, his voice urgent and quiet. "I'm sorry, ok? I'm really sorry it's come to this, but I'm begging you to stay in the crowd. Stay here with my brother and our families." I should have known he'd know my plan. We're far too close for him not to. Why then, did he not know not to tell me? Maybe he didn't want me to throw a fit when he volunteers. I swallow and grit my teeth, but give him no nod of confirmation. I won't lie to him. We don't do that. Infamous as we are as Careers, we do have morals. "Stay in the crowd," he says again, hugging me. It's a hug, but again, not a normal one. This time he's the one clinging to me. "I promise I'll come back. I will. Just you stay here and wait for me."