Their Rival Tribute

I always imagined the Hunger Games to be scary, bloody, painful even. From all my years spent as a viewer I was also aware that the arena could be scorching hot, or freezing cold, dry or flooded, but I was confident at my Reaping that somehow I would be able to handle all types of scenarios conjured by the Gamemakers. What I never predicted, however, was the fact that the Hunger Games could be so horribly and hauntingly lonely.

Keeping to myself has been my strategy from the start. Fly solo, don’t make friends, contacts or allies. Survive and let the rest do the killing. My main aim has always been to go back home to District 5, to my family and to my friends. I wonder if they are following me, whether they still recognise me in the aloof, sly and crafty persona I have created for myself in the interview with Caesar Flickerman. In all honesty, I think all of my loved ones back home must be rather puzzled at what I seem to have become in the few weeks that I have been away from them. I am smart, have always been, but I’m also lively, funny and affectionate, diametrically opposed to what the District 5 Female Tribute has shown herself to be so far.

During our Training Days, I once heard Female 12, who I now know is called Katniss, murmuring “out of the way Foxface” when I had unintentionally stepped in her knife throwing trajectory. It was then that I realised that maybe I wasn’t doing such a bad job in keeping everyone at arm’s length. Foxface suits me fine as a name – no one wants to mix with a fox. Which works fine for me. I am definitely not at the Capitol to make friends.

Of course, the fact that all of us Tributes have been overshadowed by District 12’s love-show certainly didn’t make any of us very keen to be chummy with the two Tributes or even with each other. More than ever, this year’s Hunger Games have been turned into a battle of backstabbing, and it does not take much to see that even the Career’s alliance, forged during the first day of training is just about as strong as a frayed thread. What is perhaps different this year is that the 1s, 2s and the 4s are more than ever fixated on one main goal, Female 12, obviously fuelled by her unexpected display at the Presentation

Ceremony, where with her flames she relegated us all to a pathetic show of fancy dress costumes.

Male 12 Peeta, I correct myself with a half smile that I do not hide, as I trudge along the muddy forest path, exhausted and hungry, had not caused such a negative reaction during training, but then again, how could he? He was the only Tribute who whispered good morning to everyone, and seemed actually hurt by the glares he received in return, as if he was really wondering why everyone was being so nasty to each other without reason. Compared to his sullen companion, he always seemed completely harmless, one of the first to probably end up slain at the Cornucopia, a mere accessory to his fellow Tribute. His declaration of love during the interview the night before the opening of the Games might have surprised the audience, and Female 12 herself, but it was no real shock to me. From what I suspect, it was no shock to the more perceptive of the other Tributes either. In fact, his declaration was just the final proof that the Careers had needed to categorise him as easy meat, a non-entity that had no chance to win.

Yet, Peeta Mellark is now in the final four, together with me, Cato and Katniss. I am glad he made it this far, but I hope that he is killed soon. I don’t want to be the one to kill him.

I am so lonely though, so tired, hungry and desperately, excruciatingly lonely. I lost count of how many days I have spent in the arena, foraging and stealing food, keeping up my strategy of being a spectator in the shadows, and scavenging what the other tributes leave behind following their death. Ironically, the only time I actively sought to attack a Tribute was on the first day, just after escaping the bloodbath at the Cornucopia. It had been a stupid move, and it would have definitely cost me my life in the most humiliating of ways had the Tribute I attacked not been Peeta.

That is a scene that I have constantly replayed over and over my mind in the past days. It gives me comfort in the eerie silence that has become part of my existence since my last conversation with Peeta. It is so quiet in the arena that all the voices of the people I have loved throughout my life are vanishing from my memory. I can’t remember whether it is my friend Stella whose voice is squeaky and high, or whether that voice is that of my cousin Cassopeia. I think my brother’s voice had started to break just before my Reaping, but I am not really sure anymore. I’m not certain or aware of anything anymore, other than my solitude, exhaustion and hunger, but all I know is that the one voice that I can clearly hear in my mind is that of Peeta Mellark and I can’t let go of how gentle it sounded when he decided to spare my life and let me go.

It all happens on the first day, not more than an hour after I had fled from the Cornucopia, and even before the cannons starting announcing the fallen. I am running around in circles within a kilometre from the scene of the bloodbath, knowing from past Hunger Games that with the lull that follows the end of the first session of random killings, there comes also a steady supply of food that might keep me alive for as long as it takes for the rest of the Tributes to slay each other. My plan is to be the vulture of the group, circling the spoils until I can swoop on them. What I have not envisaged however, is that my fellow Tribute, Orion, would be caught in a vicious hand to hand fight with one of the Careers, the boy from District 4, in a clearing a few hundred metres away from the Cornucopia. I slouch, hidden in the bushes, rooted to my hiding place as I see him swinging his knife frantically at the Career. I am not sure exactly how it happens, but I know that after a few minutes, Orion staggers to the ground, his neck bent backwards at a horrifying angle, and Male 4 falls to his knees, with a knife stuck in his abdomen. At that same moment Peeta (or Male 12, as I knew him at the time) comes stumbling into the clearing and stops in mid stride, taking in the scene in horror.

“Shit, shit, shit!” he cries repeatedly as he lays the Career to the ground, looking at his wound helplessly. In response I see the boy cough up blood and stare at him blankly before letting go. It is with this final death that the cannons start their sombre announcement. I lose count after eight. There are too many, and I am too focused on the apologetic look on Peeta’s face as he slowly pulls out the knife from the boy’s body to actually count them all. Damn it, that knife could have come in handy. Just then, a loud noise caused crashing branches announces the arrival of the remaining five Careers, who stop abruptly as they take in the scene with the two dead boys, and stare at Peeta who is still holding the knife in his hand.

I see District 2 Male gaping at him in disbelief. “Was this you 12?” he demands.

Peeta frowns for a split second before standing up straight and gripping the knife. I hold my breath and burrow myself deeper into the bushes. I am not too keen to be seen at this very moment. “What do you think Cato? Of course it was me,” he replies airily. I am surprised that Peeta remembers Male 2’s name.

Cato actually looks impressed. “Well who would have thought?” he sneered, “there is more to you than being in love with that dark tramp from your district!”

Peeta bristles. “Don’t speak about her like that,” he retorts, looking nothing like the decent lad I had sometimes found myself looking at during the training.

“Lover Boy, I don’t think you’re in much of a position to tell me what to do or not do,” Cato retorts looking amused. “We are five against one, do you really think you stand a chance?”

“I am sure I don’t, but I do hope to take a couple of you with me. You wouldn’t be my first kill, as you can clearly see.” I notice that Peeta is trembling ever so slightly, but it is amazing how much steady and fearless his voice seems to be.

Cato moves towards him, walking round the bodies of the slain boys and whistling softly. “Yes, I can see that,” he replies, “and I’m impressed. You seem to be both capable with a sword and with your bare hands.” Peeta stays silent, looking at him suspiciously. “Where is your lady?” continues Cato, “did she run away to save herself?”

“Our strategy is no concern of yours,” Peeta growls, “only one of us will come out from here, and we are both aware of it.”

“Aha! So you decided to save yourself? You’re not as stupid as you made yourself sound then, well done,” pipes in the District 1 Male, whose presence, as well as that of the the girls from 1, 2 and 4, I had completely forgotten about. Only then I realise in what dire situation I have managed to find myself in. I try to limit my breathing as much as possible.

“Listen 12,” says Cato, motioning to 1 to say quiet. “Lead me to your girlfriend, and I will not kill you today. After I kill her, we’ll fight it out, you and me, fair and square, what do you say?”

Peeta stares at him incredulously. “You’re willing to let me go, just so that you may find Katniss? What is this obsession of yours with her?” he asks.

Cato towers over him, but the latter does not seem to be very concerned. “No need to be jealous Lover Boy,” he replies, “I just want to be the one to kill her. I want to be the one who kills the Tribute that scored an eleven. Do you know where she is? Can you lead me to her? I won’t be making this offer another time.”

Peeta does not hesitate. “I don’t know where she is, but I know how she thinks, and I know what kind of game she will be playing. I will lead you to her,” he replies extending his hand. “Then it will be me and you, fighting till the end, fair and square.”

If I weren’t so shocked at this turn of events, I would have felt quite honoured at being the only Tribute in the Hunger Games to have ever witnessed an alliance between the Career Districts and a Tribute from District 12. However, all I could feel at the time was disappointment at how Peeta Mellark had managed to dupe us all.

Not surprisingly however, it did not take me too long to discover that my initial impression of his true nature had not been too far off the mark. Later that same day, as the sun starting setting and my random hiking in the forest brought nothing to my stomach except for some wild berries, I found myself once again in close vicinity to the same group. Cato and the other Careers were setting up camp and distributing food that was obviously coming from the Cornucopia, and I was glad I had followed the instinct that told me not to go back there until at least a few days had passed. I was surprised to see that Peeta was not with them, until I walked away to the stream just a handful of metres away and saw him there, hidden by the bushes, sitting by the water in silence, skinning a rabbit.

My mouth waters as I see the plump legs of the rabbit, and I hope that the grumbling of my stomach does not alert him as I stare at him, silently willing myself to find the will to attack him. I pick up a rock and move towards him, trying to be as stealthy as possible as I raise it above my head, swallowing hard before I aim it to the back of his head. I hardly manage to draw a breath before he turns around and pins me to the ground, his large, surprisingly warm hand covering my mouth.

“Don’t scream!” he whispers frantically, “don’t scream, they’ll hear you. Stop moving, I am not going to hurt you,” he adds reassuringly.

I raise my eyes in disbelief, but stop squirming under him and keep silent.

“Will you be quiet?” he asks. I nod and he removes his hand. “Foolish girl, did you really think you could kill anyone of us with that method?” he asks.

I glare at him defiantly.

“You should thank your lucky stars that it was me, and not Cato, who was here when you decided to pull this stunt,” he continues wryly. “Speaking of stars, it’s Andromeda isn’t it? Andromeda Finch?”

I gape at him. “How – how do you remember?” I ask softly.

“Of course I remember, we trained together for three days,” he scoffs, and then smiles a bit sadly when he sees me duck my face in embarrassment. “I guess it’s not that obvious then,” he continues, “the name’s Peeta Mellark. Now go.”

“You’re really not going to kill me then, Peeta?” I ask. What game is this boy playing?

He shakes his head in reply. “You won’t be dying at my own hand Miss Finch,” he replies gently, “now run before the others notice you!”

I turn and start running away before I stop abruptly and turn again to him. “This alliance, it’s all an act isn’t it? You really love her don’t you?” I need to hear it. I need to hear that one can still love in the Hunger Games.

He stares at me seriously, as if mulling whether to answer the question or not. “Yes,” he replies, “to both questions.” We smile at each other and I run away. I don’t realise at this point that Peeta is the last person whom I will ever speak to.

Following the destruction of the food pyramid at the Cornucopia (how could have anyone missed that the area was mined? It was obvious!), I survive by scavenging some vital items from behind the dead tributes. A sleeping bag, an extra pair of socks, a water flask, some dried fruit…This strategy keeps me alive, but barely, and the pangs of hunger start taking over all of my thoughts. Sometimes I chew on pebbles pretending that they are sweets and in my hunger induced delirium, I relive scenes of District 5, back in my family’s tiny house sharing dinner with my parents and siblings. My father is a Power Plant engineer, and he makes enough money to ensure that we are just about fed, although not rich by any possible stretch of imagination. We are also one of the few families in the district that are allowed to keep a piano, an instrument which my family inherited from generations back, and at night, huddled in my sleeping bag as I shiver in the cold, I pretend to play noiselessly strumming my fingers on the synthetic fibres of the sleeping bag, drawing comfort from the music that only I can hear in my mind. For some strange reason there is always Peeta Mellark sitting next to me, smiling at me, and congratulating me on my playing. He knows my name. I remember the way he says Andromeda, with a slight pronunciation of the “e” that makes it sound even better. Every night I steel myself against seeing his name among the fallen tributes and I let out my breath only when I see that he is not among the dead. Before falling asleep I snuggle in my sleeping bag and try to warm myself with thoughts of the blonde Tribute with the gentle smile.

By the time the Gamemakers announce the feast at the Cornucopia I am in a hunger induced haze. The wild fruit and mushrooms that I am surviving upon are making me sick, and the more I eat of them the more I throw up. I drag myself to the horn at night, playing to my advantage the fact that there are just so few of us left, and I hide inside, willing myself to survive the night until I receive the package. In fact, that package keeps me going for another couple of days; it is full of much needed carbohydrates and protein which give me a boost of energy and a real dose of hope. Of course once my hunger is satiated, I find myself having to deal with the rain, which is something I am totally unprepared for. The rain pours down for days, and once again I find myself with an empty stomach and a desperate need for food.

Thresh is killed during the storms, and it comes down to me Peeta, Cato and Katniss. I finally get a glimpse of him on the morning after the rain stops. He’s traipsing around the forest, with a small smile on his lips, looking thinner, but in a much better shape than I am, and I wonder if he managed to survive by himself, seeing that his alliance with the Careers obviously ended. I also wonder whether he had managed to find Katniss, especially in view of the rule change, a move that is so obviously set up to make them win. He’s gathering some dark berries, which I don’t seem to have seen around. They glisten in the sun, full of juice, and I wonder whether they might make me sick, like the other fruit that I had lived on in the past week. Then I see Peeta drop some more on his jacket, together with some cheese and bread, and I know that I can trust him.

As soon as he is out of sight I scramble to where he has laid out the food, nibble at some cheese, and grab a fistful of berries. Peeta has once again saved my life.

I bite into the berries, relishing their blissful taste, before I hear the cannon. My last thought before oblivion is betrayal.

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