A/N: As promised, it is the end of January (literally, the very end of January) and here is the nest chapter of the Hunger Games Niff. If you're on Tumblr and you feel so inclined as to blog about it, kindly tag it with "#hunger games niff" so that I'll be able to see what you're saying (hopefully nice things). Much love for my betas, Holly and Axis, who edit things at ridiculous hours of the night and do not ridicule me when I make really bad grammatical errors (seriously). Leave reviews if you like; let me know what you think!
Nick stared out the window of the train, unwilling to make eye contact with anyone. He could hardly believe that this was happening—to him, of all people. Honestly, the odds of being reaped in District Nine were astronomical—but having his own name called out right before his best friend's? Whatever there was out there that cosmically controlled everyone's lives—well, if there was—really had it out for him.
It had been bad enough for his family when his father died and Nick, essentially, had had to take over duties in his home. He'd only been twelve—just of age to have his name put in to be reaped—and he'd had to quit school in order to go work in the fields. That was, actually, when he and Jeff had grown to be close friends.
Traditionally, in his district, boys left school at fifteen, if they weren't reaped for the Games before that point, to go work out in the fields—manual labor and the like. Girls left school the previous year, at fourteen, to begin work in the factories. If the boys and men out in the fields developed some kind of debilitating disease or had any kind of injury, they were eventually given a place in the factories, too.
Nick's father had just been moved to a new job in the factory when he suddenly became seriously sick—it had barely been a week since he'd been out of the fields because of an accident that had left him with a broken wrist. Nick had had to stay home from school to help his mother take care of his father—his younger sister was just too young to help—but things had gone from bad to worse within a week and, before he knew it, Nick was waiting in the doorway of his classroom, trying to explain to his teacher why he wouldn't be showing up anymore. He'd been a really bright student—unlike most of the children in his year, he loved learning—but he needed to help his mother provide for the family.
It was less than a week after that when one of his friends from school—a blonde boy who was tall for his age—showed up at his home. Nick had just gotten home from a long day outside when saw the boy standing outside his front door, carrying an armful of books. Jeff, the blonde, had told him that this teacher had instructed him to bring some books and their lesson plan to Nick, so that he would be able to carry on with his schoolwork, albeit at home. The two had spent the rest of the evening sitting at the kitchen table of Nick's home, with the brunette poring over the books while the blonde tried, unsuccessfully, to explain what was going on in class.
It was the time spent together over the next weeks that cemented their friendship—"friends forever," they had said.
Forever, evidently, would be ending a lot sooner than either of them had anticipated.
They'd hardly spoken to one another since after the reaping ceremony—to be honest, they'd hardly had time. First, they were being ushered from the stage by Peacekeepers into rooms where they could say goodbyes to their families, and then hurried onto the train and into their separate rooms until they were told that it was time for dinner.
And, so, Nick found himself passing his time staring out the window, thinking.
He heard a knock at his door and he looked up in time to see Mahlia, one of the girl tributes from his district, closing the door behind her. Hesitantly, she forced a smile, but it was quickly gone, replaced with a more believable look of concern.
"Hey," she mumbled.
Apparently, now was not the time to beat around the bush with words. Perhaps people finally stopped the bullshitting when you had just a little while longer, presumably, to live.
Sometimes, it got so bad inside his head that he felt as though he were swimming in the lake back at home, only he couldn't quite make it back to the surface—he could just barely see the light through the water. Somehow, he knew that if he could only make sense of what was happening and swim to the top, he wouldn't drown. It felt like the water was pressing in on him from every side—not so much that it hurt, but just enough pressure for him to be uncomfortably aware of it.
Jeff continued to force every possible thought out of his mind—it had been racing ever since that awful moment that his name had been called and he'd stumbled forward to walk up onstage—staring out at the trees rushing past the sole window in his room on the train. He pulled his knees up to his chest, leaning his head against the glass—it was cold, almost painfully so, in just that one spot where his skin touched the glass, and it gave his mind something to focus on.
This wasn't supposed to be happening.
How could this be happening? He should have had his whole life in front of him—a life spent working in the fields and then, most likely, in a factory, but, regardless, why couldn't he still be allowed to have that?
Jeff hadn't noticed until it was too late—it was a nervous habit of his that he'd picked up when he was younger, really. Whenever he was nervous, he would scratch at his knuckles, picking at the skin, until they were bloody and there was blood caked under his nails. The physical pain took his mind off of what was making him nervous, distracting him from the matter at hand.
This was normal for him—to space out for a few minutes and come back to reality to find his hands covered in blood—but it wasn't normal for Nessa, their escort, who barely knew any of them yet.
The poor woman with the blue-tinged skin and silver hair screamed when she walked in and saw his hands covered in blood, possibly worried that he'd tried to kill himself or was in the process of trying to do so.
He should be so lucky.
Her horror was ironic to him, he found himself thinking as he stared over at her with only the slightest smile visible in his eyes, that she would scream over what she believes is his attempt at death, despite the fact that she cheerfully exclaims name after name from his district every year, chosen to be put to death in a televised arena for the sake of the Capitol's entertainment.
An attendant was in the doorway within seconds, and, even just seconds later, Jeff was hurried into a bathroom and someone was bandaging his hands. He just didn't care anymore.
A glass of water was shoved into his hands, and a pill, too. He didn't think, really; he just took it. Within minutes, he felt different. He didn't know how to describe the way he felt, except that his mind was no longer racing.
The attendant ushered him into a much larger room than either of the rooms he'd been in previously. A wooden table sat in the center, surrounded by chairs, with just one left open next to a brunette boy—Nick, Jeff thought distantly.
Nick quickly gave his friend as best a smile as he could muster, but it fell off his face just as quickly when Jeff wouldn't meet his eyes—they were fixed on the table in front of him.
"Are you okay?" he whispered, just as Nessa's voice resounded around the room.
"Well, now, after such an exciting day, who's ready for some dinner?" she asked loudly, a smile plastered on her face. The distress was evident in her voice—did something happen before with Jeff?—but she was clearly trying to cover it, and no one called her out on it. In fact, with the exception of Ell, their mentor, everyone else at the table seemed completely passive; the girls sitting opposite Nick and Jeff flinched a little bit at the sudden sound, but Jeff didn't even bat an eye.
Ell's voice boomed just as loud around the room. "That sounds like fine idea!" he said with a laugh. "I was just beginning to miss all this Capitol food! There's nothing quite like it!" He winked in Jeff's direction, completely missing the fact that the boy seemed enamored with the cutlery. "The lamb stew is to die for!" Nick cringed at his unfortunate choice of words. "I swear it's gotten better every year!"
"I've just been trying to decide how best to kill him," Ariella told, presumably, her ally with a toothy smile, bearing a striking resemblance to a jungle cat.
"I told you he was mine," Hanne replied, kicking Jeff in the head. Had there been more force behind it, her kick would have actually hurt him. Still, it was jarring, and he felt his head spinning.
"How about we share?"
Jeff squeezed his eyes shut, waiting for the pain to come, but his eyes fluttered open when Hanne giggled. She was leaning in closer—Jeff could see it in her eyes that she was excited for the kill—and she dragged the tip of her knife lightly down his cheek—not hard enough to draw blood, but enough to make the hairs on the back of his neck stand on edge.
"Don't worry, blondie," she whispered. "You're not my first, and you won't be my last."
It was their first day having lunch at the training center, and both Nick and Jeff felt as though they could just curl up in a ball and sleep and, possibly, never wake again. The lunch they'd had forced into their hands didn't look anywhere near as appetizing as what they'd eaten last night after the opening ceremonies, but it was more than either of them would have gotten had they been back in District 9—in fact, it almost looked like food from back home. Maybe if one were to squint a little bit…
The two girls from their district joined them, more because none of them had branched out beyond their district to make any alliances yet than because they actually wanted to sit with them.
Her laugh reached their ears before she physically could, but she sat down at a table a few feet away from them by herself. When she caught Jeff staring, awestruck by the fact that she could even be smiling in this place, she flicked her auburn hair across her forehead and shot him a grin. Was she crazy—or was this just some tactic to psych everyone out? Jeff could really only speak for himself, but he thought it was working.
He nudged Nick with his shoulder, discreetly gesturing to the girl. "Do you remember her from the ceremonies?" he whispered.
Nick shrugged. "I think she's District Five?"
"Wait!" Nick replied. "Yes! I remember her from the videos of the reapings. I think her name is… Luna… Yeah, I think that's Luna, from Five."
Once more, Jeff closed his eyes tightly, waiting for the pain to happen—waiting to die. Distantly, he was aware of the fact that the cameras would be all over this, and that his face was being broadcast to every television set in Panem. He could only hope that his little brother and sister wouldn't cry too hard over seeing him die.
There were two small whirring sounds, like something flying through the air—almost like the sound of Hanne's knives being thrown, but, somehow, smaller—and then the sound of someone choking.
Carefully, he peeked his eyes open, looking around , finding Ariella and Hanne's bodies slumped to the ground, their hands clasped around their throats as though they'd been suffocated—but there wasn't even another person in sight.
"Hello?" he called out pushing Ariella off of him and scrambling to his feet. It took some effort to tear his eyes away from the sight in front of him, scanning the woods.
There was only the slight rustling of the wind in the tree leaves, but—wait, what was that?
Jeff frowned. "Hello?"
He heard it once more—a distinctive laugh, somewhere over his head.
Nick had just barely made it into the woods when he felt a hand on his shoulder, his vision sharpened by the adrenaline coursing through his veins; it had rocked through his body right at the very second the gong had sounded and the Games had officially begun. He'd seen his best friend disappear from the clearing—without him, or, at the very least, some acknowledgment that he was disregarding their assumed alliance—and his first instinct had been to get to the woods as quickly as possible. He'd be able to defend himself there.
Quickly, he spun around, putting his hands up defensively—although he knew that, if it was one of the Careers behind him, he really honestly stood no chance. Those kids were big.
"Wait!" the voice cried. It was a girl's voice—the girl from 12.
The rush of adrenaline faded from his bloodstream and, finally, Nick's head cleared enough to recognize two of the tributes, a boy and a girl, from District 12, standing in front of him. They'd approached him in the training center, and, in the midst of awkward small talk about their districts, the boy, Camden, had proposed an alliance—the three of them. Nick had declined—he'd thought he had Jeff—but, now, he didn't, and he'd been stupid to think otherwise.
"Where's your friend?" the girl asked—Iris, that was her name.
"He's… I don't know," Nick said with a frown. "He just ran off."
"We'll stick together, yeah?" she suggested.
Nick nodded. "Yeah."
"Luna? Luna, is that you?" Jeff called, beginning to feel rather foolish.
Again, he heard the laugh. "You're quite clever, you know," came a voice from up in the trees.
"You're much smarter than you give yourself credit for, although not realizing that those two had been tracking for the past mile, now that was rather foolish of you."
Jeff's head whipped around wildly, but he couldn't make out anything among the branches. Where was she?
"And what about you?" he asked.
"Me?" Luna replied with a laugh and, finally, he saw her; she all but slithered down the trunk of a tree some fifteen feet ahead of him, landing with hardly a sound. "I was tracking those two, you see."
He frowned, as she crouched down, turning over Hanne's lifeless body. "But why?"
"The blonde one had my knives, silly," she told him, rolling her eyes before coming up with a belt of throwing knives. "Aha! See? Knives."
Like that clearly settled things.
"But… How are they dead?"
Luna laughed. "You sure ask a lot of questions," she replied, running her hands over the pockets of her jacket, before pulling out some sort of long, black stick-looking thing. "Blowgun."
Taking a closer look, Jeff could now see, sticking out of the back of both of the two dead tribute's necks, a light colored dart, just a few inches to the left of their right ears. It was in exactly the same spot on both girls.
Terrifying skill—or possibly just sheer coincidence, but he wasn't exactly ready to quarrel with someone so equipped for killing at long distances.
Before he could ask anything else, Luna jumped to her feet, grabbed his hand and pulled him after her. "Come on! We have to go."
"Hovercrafts, for the bodies!"
It wasn't until the auburn-haired girl deemed them to be a safe distance away that she slowed to a jog and, finally, to a stop.
"What do you want with me?" Jeff asked, feeling a little bit breathless, though not particularly winded. He was certainly suspicious; quite frankly, he'd never even spoken to her before just now, when she'd saved him for no obvious reason—he would have been an easy kill, stuck underneath the other girl.
"Isn't it obvious?" she asked.
"I don't—I'm not—" Jeff stammered.
"Alliance. Stick with me, Blondie."
"My name's Jeff, actually."
"Fine. Stick with me, Jeff."
He frowned. "I just want to find my friend."
"The other boy from your district?" she asked. "The brunette?"
"Then we'll stick together until we find your friend. How's that sound?" Luna offered, absentmindedly pushing her hair off her face with a hand.
Jeff heard the cannon fire, and jumped to his feet. He counted twenty-seven cannon shots. When he looked up into the sky, scanning the dead tributes' pictures projected there, he didn't see Nick's, and he was certain he hadn't missed it.
When Luna returned, he all but pounced on her in excitement. "Did you see the tributes?" he asked her as she shoved a small, sad-looking pile of roots and berries in his hands.
She nodded, breezing past him. "Sorry, that was all I could find. I couldn't see much of anything in the dark, but I'll look again tomorrow morning."
"Did you see his picture?"
Jeff sighed, finally feeling the tension he hadn't even realized was there leave his chest.
"You know what this means?"
"What?" He spun around, meeting her eyes.
"We'll find him, Jeff. Don't worry."
Final note: this all takes place on the first, save for the flashbacks. I'm experimenting with the format, but I liked the flashbacks—thought it was exciting and made it different from how the actual series reads. Leave a review and let me know how you feel!