Happy Anniversary! This fic came out exactly one year ago. I planned to finish it on this day, but I got caught up in life. Luckily Catching Fire came out and got me back into the swing of things! Speaking of which...whoa okay it was just amazing. I'm so happy with it. They're doing a great job turning these books into movies and no one can convince me otherwise. It was tough trying to hold all my feels in as I watched everything play out.
But enough about that!
It's time for our most exciting of the deaths yet! Most of you have probably guessed by now what Buck's fate is. I was waiting until the movie came out so that I could keep a special eye on him. AND GUESS WHAT HE DISAPPEARS INTO A PLOTHOLE. No, seriously. I'm gonna watch it again when it comes out on DVD to make sure, but his face does not appear where it should in the sky, not on either day. I think. I'll double check later.
Ahem…regarding all of this, his chapter will be heavier on the action and focus little on the details of his life. Please excuse any errors as I wrote most of this yesterday and didn't proofread it a million times like I normally do. Have fun!
Damn that Girl on Fire.
If she hadn't pulled out those berries, Buck wouldn't have lost the life he led. He wouldn't be standing here with a 50/50 shot at returning to another hellish Hunger Games arena.
Buck knew he didn't have much of a life to begin with, here in District 10. Over the years, the few friends he had drifted away.
His brother, Ram, the last remaining member of his family, died last week in a Peacekeeper raid. They had been cracking down on the districts more than ever after the 74th Victory Tour and Ram had always been involved in all sorts of illegal activities. Buck was always pleading him to stop, telling him that they had all of the wealth they needed, but Ram refused to listen to his little brother and paid for it with his life. Buck had a feeling that was the way he wanted it. He wanted to go out fighting.
As for Darby, an old friend from his teenage years…she was caught in a bad marriage and devoted all of her time to taking care of her children. Buck hadn't talked to her in a long time. Honestly, he had stopped keeping count of the years.
There was a trace amount of regret there. She and Buck had started dating not long after the 44th Games, but that never went anywhere. Buck had stopped opening up to people. He didn't give Darby the intimacy she desired. She would reach for him and he would drift father away. This led to countless arguments. And so, she was able to take care of one last breakup for him—their own. Things had gone sour from there.
Buck felt more attached to his Jabberjay sidekick than anyone else in the world; something he would have scoffed at when he was young. He used to hate animals. But having a Jabberjay perched on his shoulder was something he had grown accustomed to. Without that familiar weight, he grew uneasy.
Sadly, his first Jabberjay, Little B, had passed away a while ago. Since the Capitol adored the image of Buck and his bird, they gave him another one. Uncreative in the art of naming, he dubbed this jay "Little B Junior," or just Junior for short.
Junior was a lot less skittish than Little B, though not nearly as talented with mimicking others due to his ADD tendencies. But that didn't matter. Years of physical and mental training kept Buck in good shape, though he did experience the occasional relapse.
During the 75th Reaping, Buck was fully alert. Junior was perched on his shoulder, plucking at a stray feather, completely ignoring the escort as she drew the first name of who would be entering the arena.
A hiss of disapproval arose from the huddle of potential female tributes on stage. A young woman with a full head of bouncy red curls stood glaring at the escort. Her neatly trimmed eyebrows were drawn together in an expression of disgust. She looked as though someone had stolen the title of prom queen from her, rather than having been told she was being sent off to die.
I pity the sap that has to share her company… Buck thought, glancing at the other male victor, and it sure as hell better be Colton. Please let it be Colton, dammit…
Buck visibly flinched when his name was called. His expression twisted with pain and he shot a pleading glance towards Colton, who avoided his gaze. Buck couldn't blame him for it. He would have done the same. And considering Colton was married, he had something more to live for.
So Buck gritted his teeth and stepped forward. Catria extended her hand to him. Despite the urge to smack it away, Buck took it and shook it once. Of all the tributes he had trained, he probably wouldn't have minded if Catria didn't come back from her Hunger Games. But then, he always had the worst luck.
As soon as they were on the train, Catria brought a hand up to her nose and whined, "Do you have to take that pile of feathers everywhere you go? I can smell it from here." Her voice had the familiar District 10 twang to it, but it was reedy and grated on Buck's ears.
He looked her straight in the eye and growled, "Look here, Carrot-top. You can say what you want about me, but I'll be damned if I'm gonna sit here while you insult my bird."
Catria just crossed her legs and grinned, looking satisfied that she had gotten a reaction out of Buck. "If yer still gonna call me Carrot-top, I'm still gonna call you Old Man."
Buck looked away, grumbling. "I think I look purdy good fer my age…"
"Okay, okay," Catria yielded, throwing up her hands in defense, "I won't deny you've aged well. Maybe you could pass fer a man in his thirties, but it doesn't matter because pretty soon, that nice face of yours is going to be disfigured in the arena. So what should we do in order to avoid disfigurement?"
Buck just clenched his fists, taking deep breaths to cool the rage bubbling in his chest. He couldn't take the way Catria treated the Games, as if they were truly just a simple game. Ever since she came back from the arena, she acted as though she were entitled to her victory. The Capitol had blown her head full of praise, causing her to forget all about the children that died in exchange for her life. Even after that, she barely ever showed concern for the reaped tributes, leading Buck and the other mentors to take the reigns in her place.
Now, here they were, about to enter the arena a second time and she was still treating it like it was nothing. Buck wanted to shake her and scream, "Wake up!" but maybe it was best to let her continue on in bliss. She could die with that dimwitted smile on her pasty face.
"Okay, fine. You sit there in shock while I brainstorm us a plan for our alliance." Catria said firmly.
Buck shook his head. "Hell no! I ain't joinin' any alliance of yours. I can get by on my own."
"What? But we're both District 10! I'm all you've got!"
"Don't change the fact that there's only one victor."
Catria opened her mouth to argue, unable to take no for an answer. An instant later, she snapped it shut and allowed her gaze to wander out the window. Buck knew she was mulling it over in her head, thinking of a way to convince him. He tried to cling firmly to his resolve.
He told himself that allies would only drag him down. They were needless bonds that would one day have to be cut. After all, only one victor would come out of this Hunger Games. Even though District 12 had broken that rule in the previous Games, Buck knew the Capitol would make sure it wouldn't happen again.
"I can't believe they're makin' us wear this. We look ridiculous!" Catria shrilled, checking herself out from every angle.
Buck watched her carry on with a small amount of satisfaction. "Aw, this ain't so bad. You should have seen my chariot outfit fer my Games."
"You remember it, then?" Catria said lightly, continuing to pluck at her flaming belt.
"Course. I might have lost my memory, but the Capitol did a good job of shoving every detail back down my throat. I had to wear raw meat."
Catria's nose wrinkled with distaste. "Okay, I guess this isn't so bad."
Buck nodded. They certainly looked ridiculous in their cow-inspired outfits. The stylists had attempted to make them look tasteful, but the flaming belt ruined it. The inspiration for this hideous accessory was clear, but he didn't mind so much. He was more upset that his stylist had cut his hair, saying he looked too much like the drunken Haymitch Abernathy. Buck put up a fight, saying that he had this hairstyle long before Haymitch did, but his stylist took a pair of scissors to it before he could stop her.
He felt highly uncomfortable without Junior on his shoulder and a curtain of shaggy brown hair hanging in his face. He felt exposed. Despite this, Buck held his head up high when they rolled out in front of the screaming Capitolites.
Sadly, no one had eyes for them. There were many other popular victors the Capitol was rooting for and the cheers for them were lacking. Buck tried not to let this bother him. It was better this way. He didn't want to be in the spotlight.
He could tell it was bothering Catria. She bit her lip in disdain and her eyes glazed over as her mind began working over the details once more. Whatever she was thinking, he knew she would let him know sooner or later. She couldn't stand to be alone yet had been about as successful as him when it came to making friends with other victors. It wasn't because she was antisocial…her company was just all-around undesirable.
The next day in training, Catria finally clued him in on what she was thinking.
"Buck, we need an alliance," Catria told him, eyes narrowed as though she dared him to argue.
"I already told you no," Buck growled, trying to focus on his work at the spear station. But he spoke with less conviction this time. He had just spent the last ten minutes watching the Careers train. They were more lethal then he remembered. Buck's hands shook as handled the different weapons and tried not to picture being stabbed with one.
"Look here," Catria said, drawing herself up to full height. "You may be physically fit and better prepared for these Games than I am, but you still forgot yours and—"
"I may have forgotten mine!" Buck snapped, rounding on his district partner, "But I haven't forgotten the ones that followed. None of 'em. I can name every tribute I let slip through my fingers…can you say the same, Catria?"
For the first time in a long time, Catria shrunk away from him. The confidence slumped out of her shoulders and she was unable to look him in the eye. "Um…I'm sorry…" She said faintly, twisting her curly hair in her hands. "I was just…"
"You weren't thinkin'." Buck finished for her. "You shouldn't underestimate me."
Catria lifted her chin, her eyes glimmering with desperation. "I'm not!" She said in a steady voice, "I'm sorry. Like you said, I wasn't thinking. I was just looking for a way to convince you to form an alliance with me."
Buck let out a long sigh. "Well…look no further."
Silence followed his words. "You're…in?" Catria asked, blinking back her shock.
Buck closed his eyes. Despite all his misgivings, he couldn't face this arena by himself. "I may look young, but that ain't the case. My bones have grown old. My joints've been achin' since I got here." He flexed his spear arm in demonstration. "I'm no fool. Most of these victors are younger than I am…their odds are much better than mine. But that doesn't mean I won't go down without a fight."
Cartia smiled and straightened up. "This is why I like you, Old Man!" She laughed, "Is there anyone else we can wrangle into this alliance?"
Buck let his eyes rove over the training center. Most of the other tributes were currently gathered together, watching Katniss display her prowess with a bow. Buck felt a twinge of rage upon seeing her. Everyone else was gazing at her with admiration, but there were still a few others loitering elsewhere, completely uninterested. "I'll think about it," Buck decided, "In the meantime, try and get back into the swing of things, won't you?"
"Sure." Catria said, giving an exaggerated yawn and looking around with a bored expression. How quickly she had returned to her ways. "I haven't touched a whip in months. Well…not one that's used for fighting anyways." She screwed up her nose in disgust. "Capitolites are sick, sick people."
It took Buck a second to realize what she meant. When he did, he had to keep himself from gagging. Nearby, District 5 regurgitated the remains of his breakfast onto the training room floor. His heaving didn't make Buck's stomach feel any better.
And so he went elsewhere to search for allies.
Amber and Barley were the tributes sent from District 9. Both were not much younger than Buck, and kinder than anyone he had spoken with so far. At least, Amber was. Barley was quiet and constantly fidgeting, his dark eyes darting all around as if he expected to be killed at any moment. He emanated waves of animosity and when he spoke, he didn't strike Buck as the most intelligent tribute in the lot. He vaguely remembered that strength had aided Barley during his Games rather than wit.
Amber was surprisingly sweet; her voice was soft and feminine. Her mousy brown hair was just as short as his. Faint wrinkles etched in her face betrayed that she had already crossed the threshold into middle age.
"I already talked to District 11 about an alliance, but they weren't interested." Buck confessed over lunch, glowering into his cup of bitter coffee. "Everyone's skulkin' round like they got issues."
"I'm sure they're just not looking forward to dying." Barley mumbled, glaring towards the table District 12 was seated at. "None of us would be here if not for…for…"
Amber placed a hand on his. "There's nothing we can do about it." She told him softly.
Barley ignored her and continued to stare at Katniss and Peeta.
If looks could kill, Buck snorted inwardly.
Buck turned to see Catria standing over him, scrutinizing the allies he had secured. The corners of her lips pulled down in disapproval.
"What is this, the Old People Alliance? Don't forget to nab Mags from District 4 and Woof from District 8."
Buck narrowed his eyes in contempt. "You told me to pick'em so I did. At least they've got their wits about 'em."
With an exaggerated sigh, Catria plopped down next to them. "I guess so. But you do realize no one's going to sponsor us, right?"
"What makes you say that?" Amber wondered, her eyes going wide with hurt.
Catria motioned to the tributes around them and said, "Look at our competition. We're up against the picture-perfect Careers, the star-crossed lovers of District 12, and the Capitol's favorite playboy. We don't stand a chance."
"You don't have to say it like that." Barley mumbled under his breath.
Buck glowered at Catria as she helped herself to what was on his plate. You tell me to form an alliance and don't even approve of whom I pick…well, what other choices are there? He turned to look at the other tributes. They ranged from utterly useless addicts to lethal yet unapproachable. District 9 was the best they could manage. No one else would have them.
One day until the Games.
The Capitol's disinterest in Buck's interview did nothing for his nerves. He could tell they were waiting with bated breath for Katniss and Peeta to make their appearance. Damn them, Buck thought, digging his nails into his palms at the thought of the couple. He recalled what Barley had said about them yesterday. I had a life in District 10. And they took that away.
You idiot, Another voice in his head responded, President Snow took that away, not them. And yer life kinda sucked to begin with.
Caesar Flickerman's voice jarred him out of his thoughts.
"Is everything all right?"
"Everything's fine!" Buck said quickly, grimacing. "Don't worry about me."
Caesar tried to make light of the situation and offered him a knowing smile. He opened his mouth to speak, but Buck cut him off.
"Oh, I forgot. You ain't worried about me. If you cared a whit about any of us, you wouldn't be sendin' the lot of us back into the arena," Buck said heatedly, turning his fierce gaze upon the audience. "I'm not fit for another fight to the death. Most of us aren't. Can't you see that?"
His words were met with a mixed response. Buck just looked at his feet, a prominent glare on his features. The victors had been challenging the Capitol's agenda all night, questioning President Snow and even slinging insults at him. Buck wanted to hug Victor Johanna for her actions during her interview. Now was not the time to be charming. Now was the time for truth. He wouldn't damage his dignity by pretending to suck up to these freakish Capitolites, as he once had done.
Of course, Caesar knew how to handle each one of them. He easily changed the subject before things could get out of hand. "Yes, speaking of going into the arena, I've been wondering…will your Jabberjay be accompanying you? I've noticed he hasn't been perched on your shoulder as of late."
Shoot. Buck realized with a sinking feeling that he hadn't given much thought to Junior over the past few days. Too many distractions. After a moment of consideration, Buck answered, "I doubt the Gamemakers would allow that. Junior could be useful to me. He's no ordinary token."
"True," Caesar agreed. "Then what will happen to him?"
Buck felt an unexpected surge of emotion sweep over him. He had no family or friends that would take in Junior. But there was no way he could take him into the arena and subject him to a possibly painful death. "I guess…that's up to the Capitol." Buck admitted, letting out a regretful sigh.
"I'm sure he'll wind up in a good home." Caesar said, clapping Buck on the shoulder. "Every Capitolite in the city will be scrambling for a piece of Hunger Games memorabilia. I can't imagine the price tag that will produce!"
"Don't talk about him like—" Buck began, but the buzzer cut him off. His interview was over.
Instead of taking a seat in the audience or going backstage like normally, the victors had to go stand on the stage while the rest of the interview commenced. Buck took his place next to Catria, feeling awkward in his outfit.
It was more becoming than the whole cow-on-fire get-up, but it could have been more comfortable. The suit was made of shiny brown material, with shoulder pads that curved upwards like a pair of horns. Fitting.
The rest of the interviews flew by. Of course, District 12 stole the show. The next thing Buck knew, the District 11 woman on his left was grasping his hand. Then Catria intertwined her fingers with his as well. He looked around in confusion, only to realize that all of the victors were joining hands and lifting them towards the sky.
Buck sighed and did the same. The higher he raised his hands, the further his heart sank. He didn't dare to hope that this act of unity meant he would live past tomorrow.
He knew blood would spill as soon as that gong rang.
Buck didn't eat breakfast that morning. He knew it was stupid (Catria had been railing on him enough for it), but his stomach felt like a large rock weighing him down. He barely said a word to anyone as he was led into the hovercraft and carted towards the arena like unwanted livestock.
He didn't even flinch when the tracker was injected into his arm. He tried to remember what he was feeling back when he was being shipped off to compete in the 44th Games. But he could recall no emotions. He only saw videos of himself conquering the deadly arena—escaping muttations, fires, and bloodthirsty tributes. It was like peering into another world.
Buck shook his head to clear these thoughts and held up his hand. Junior, who had been resting on his shoulder, obediently hopped onto it and made himself comfortable. Buck busied himself with stroking the Jabberjay's plumage, admiring the shiny blue sheen that seemed to radiate off the dark feathers.
"Aren't you gonna say anything?"
Buck lifted his eyes to Catria's. She was seated across from him, her hands folded neatly in her lap. However, her nails had been chewed down dramatically. Fear danced somewhere in her eyes. Perhaps she wasn't as foolish as Buck had thought previously. The walls she had built over the years were finally crumbling.
"There ain't nothin' more fer me to say," Buck said softly. "I lived my life. What's done is done."
Catria let out a frustrated breath. "It's not done yet," she muttered.
A wry smile barely pushed at the corners of Buck's lips. Obstinate to the end, his district partner. Despite his distaste for her, he secretly wished Catria the best. She was still fairly young; younger than him, anyways. As much as he hated to admit it, the young ones still deserved a chance at life. He had bypassed his own chance a long time ago.
The tributes spent the rest of the ride in silence. Buck could feel Catria's eyes on him when they went separate ways, looking to her mentor for some sort of comfort, but he could offer her none. Depression made his chest feel hollow. He wanted to get this over with.
In the launching room, Buck said goodbye to the last living thing he truly cared for.
"I've got to go now. Be good, all right?" He said, running his fingers through Junior's soft feathers. The bird closed his eyes in contentment, unaware of what was coming. Slowly, Buck handed the bird over to his stylist. "Make sure he gets a good home, all right?"
"I'm not sure I'll have a say in it." His stylist said, nervously eyeing the muttation in her hands.
Junior looked calmly at Buck, his dark eyes full of intelligence. Buck told himself that the Jabberjay knew exactly what was going on. If he could mimic human speech perfectly, perhaps he had the wit to understand it as well.
"So long, partner." Buck said, reaching forwardly and lightly touching the Jabberjay's crest.
"So long." Junior echoed, pausing to nibble Buck's finger.
Hesitantly, the victor pulled it away. He could feel his eyes growing hot and his chin trembling. With a grunt, he turned away and stepped into the capsule that would lift him to the arena. His stylist offered no words of encouragement. Perhaps he shared in Buck's pessimism.
Buck closed his eyes and began taking deep breaths. He tried not to think about the terrible odds he had been given. He tried not to think about the fact that he was older and slower than most of the tributes out there. He tried to force himself to think of better times…but there were no 'better times.'
The platform began to rise. Buck's insides jolted with alarm, but he squeezed his eyes tighter and continued to breathe deeply.
Do you believe in heaven, Buck?
Someone had asked him that, a long time ago. What had he said?
"Hard to believe in heaven when you've been through hell."
He wanted to believe in heaven. He did. But in a world wrought with so much pain and destruction, there was no way something like heaven existed. It was just an idea that gave people hope.
Buck had already lost what hope was left.
The countdown began.
Buck opened his eyes and found himself standing on a pedestal surrounded by raging, sloshing water. Thin strips of land ran towards the Cornucopia, a good swim from each platform that held a tribute. Good thing he knew how to swim.
Glancing behind him, Buck beheld a beach and a thick jungle that surrounded them on all sides. This faintly reminded him of the 44th arena, only with a lot less swimming. He supposed that was a good thing, but he was in no mood to feel grateful. The countdown was nearing its end.
The gong sounded. Buck took a deep breath and plunged into the ocean. Saltwater filled his senses and burned his eyes, but he forced himself to swim towards the nearest bit of land. His wetsuit seemed to help propel him forward, keeping him afloat as he struggled through the water. His lungs felt like they were on fire. He had only gone a few yards and already his muscles were burning with fatigue.
He could have sung out in joy when his hands scraped rocks. Buck forced himself to get a firm hold before pulling himself up, bones cracking at the exertion. His brain pounded against his head like drums. The sun was brighter than ever. He shielded his eyes and glanced around while he scrambled to his feet.
The Careers had already cleared half of the distance between the pedestals and the Cornucopia. Every part of Buck urged him to run in the opposite direction and disappear into the jungle, but he and his alliance had agreed to run into the Cornucopia. They needed sustenance—and weapons. Otherwise, they wouldn't stand a chance.
So Buck forced himself into action, sprinting over the rocky strip of land. Tributes on all sides were closing in. He pushed himself as fast as he could go, struggling to find a backpack of some sort to take with him.
Once he was close enough, he realized that there were only weapons. By then, it was too late to turn back. His eyes settled on a pointed spear, resting on a pile of weapons deep in the Cornucopia. He was leaving with that spear no matter the cost.
Buck was one of the last tributes to reach the Cornucopia. Fighting had already broken out in every corner. Keeping his head down, he made a beeline for the spear, hoping that everyone was too preoccupied to notice him. He was nearly there when a high-pitched scream reached his ears, soaring over the sounds of tributes fighting.
He looked up to see Catria bounding towards him, a small knife clutched in her hands. Her eyes were wild with fear, her bright hair plastered to her pale cheeks. Someone was right behind her.
It was Enobaria, lips pulled back in a fearsome snarl. Buck could see light glinting off her sharpened teeth. She was nearly upon Catria.
With a scream, Catria whipped around and attempted to stab her. Enobaria easily dodged her attack, hissing like a snake. For a moment, Buck forgot himself, and stood frozen on the rocks, just watching the battle play out. Another scream from Catria brought him back to the waking world.
Summoning all his strength, he threw the spear right at Enobaria's chest. She saw it coming at the last second and dropped to the ground, neatly rolling out of the way. Instead of taking the opportunity to escape, Catria threw herself at Enobaria and continued her fruitless efforts to wound her.
Buck charged past the both of them, mind set on reclaiming his spear. It had shot past Enobaria and landed right at the edge of the water. Now it was teetering on a rock, threatening to disappear into the waves. Buck grabbed it before it could.
Just as his fingers met with the weapon, a prolonged shriek pierced the air. Buck, crouched at the water's edge, looked over his shoulder to see Catria sinking to the ground. Her hands were pressed to her stomach, which did little to stop the torrent of blood. Enobaria stood over her, her sword gleaming crimson. Again, she plunged the blade into Catria's chest to finish the job. Catria didn't cry out this time. Silently, she sunk to the ground in a heap.
Buck shot to his feet and began to stumble away. His legs felt unbearably shaky. Any moment, he expected Enobaria's blade to pierce him from behind. But she must have chosen to pursue other tributes, ones that actually posed a threat. He could easily be dealt with later.
He had nearly forgotten the rest of his alliance. Buck paused, halfway between the Cornucopia and the jungle, and scanned the area for one of his allies.
Amber was nowhere to be seen. Barley, he located almost instantly. He had swum from his pedestal to his neighbor's. And that just so happened to be the boy from District 12, Peeta. He was trying to exact his revenge on the star-crossed lovers.
It was a foolish move. Here came Peeta's alliance, rushing to his rescue. Finnick with his trident, Katniss with her bow and arrows. There was no getting out of this one. Buck turned and ran the rest of the way to the jungle, leaving Barley to his fate.
He didn't stop until his view of the beach had vanished among the greenery. A string of curses died in his throat. Half of his alliance was done for. If Amber had escaped, he wasn't sure if they would ever meet up in this maze. It was too dangerous to go looking for her on the beach. The Careers would be on the hunt.
Now that his adrenaline rush had faded, Buck was dead tired. He could have just lied down where he was and slept through the rest of the Games. Instead, he forced himself to climb a nearby tree and didn't stop until he was safely nestled among the branches, out of sight from anyone on the ground.
The Gamemakers were probably rolling their eyes at him and already discussing what kind of muttation to send after him. But his body was too defeated to be of any entertainment to the Capitol. He would leave that up to the young ones.
Trying to ignore his parched throat and throbbing limbs, Buck closed his eyes and leaned his head against the tree. Before he could stop himself, he had already fallen asleep.
"You really are an old man, aren't you?"
"Quit yer yappin' and show some respect fer…"
Buck opened his eyes groggily, awakening to the sound of his own voice. He had been mumbling in his sleep. He could have sworn Catria was sitting with him in this tree, patronizing him like she always did. But as soon as he was fully conscious the memory came back to him.
He supposed he felt a little bit of regret. He would allow himself to feel no more than a little. Catria wasn't worth the effort and he didn't want to entertain unwanted emotions during his last day alive.
Buck firmly grabbed ahold of his spear and rose to his feet. When he did, he heard the swish of leaves and noticed branches moving wildly in the corner of his eye. His blood nearly froze in his veins. Someone's there.
He took a moment to balance himself on the branch. Then he inched towards the tree next to his, keeping his eyes fixed on where the movement had been. Slowly, he raised the spear.
"If yer a tribute," Buck said, just loud enough for them to hear, "You better reveal yerself now. Or else I'll stick you like a pig!"
No response. The branches remained still, barely shivering in a light, humid breeze. Buck could feel sweat running down his face, but he didn't move.
"Suit yerself!" He decided, preparing to throw the spear.
"Wait!" A pretty face suddenly appeared among the leaves. "The Careers have been tracking me for the past hour. Please let me hide here."
Buck lowered his spear ever so slightly. "What's yer name?"
"Daya. District 5."
From the looks of it, Daya was possibly in her late 20's. She had long dark hair and wide brown eyes. When she adjusted her position among the branches, Buck noted that her body was lean and fit. She shouldn't be taken lightly.
"Buck, District 10." Buck said, narrowing his eyes. "And for the record, Daya, I may be old, but I'm not an idiot. You probably chose to hide in the tree next to mine so the Careers would find me instead of you. Then you could make yer escape while they were guttin' me. Hell of a way to show some respect for yer elders."
By that way her face flushed, Buck guessed he hit the nail on the head. "I'm sorry," She said quietly. "I was desperate and you were snoring so loudly…"
It was Buck's turn to turn red. "Enough chat!" He snapped, "I'm gettin' outta here. Yer welcome to join me." He began climbing down the tree, keeping a firm grip on his spear as he went.
Daya began to descend from hers as well. "I am?" She asked softly, beating him to the ground. There she stood beneath him, looking up at him curiously.
Buck hesitated where he was, glaring down at Daya suspiciously. She seemed to be empty-handed. She must have run away from the Bloodbath. He dropped to the ground next to her as soon as he was sure it was safe. "Yeah. I lost my alliance at the start of the Games. With all of the alliances that have formed, it's dangerous to be on yer own."
He turned away and began forcing his way through the undergrowth, slapping at leaves and vines with his spear when they got in his way. Daya followed him, her footsteps barely making a sound on the forest floor.
"That's true. There are at least three alliances of four. I was allied with my district partner, but he was killed at the Bloodbath…he was the very first one to die."
"Sorry." Buck grunted, though he could sum up very little sympathy for the nameless tribute.
Daya shrugged. "He was a useless drunk, anyways."
Buck nearly laughed out loud. "Most victors are."
"Yeah, but they're not." Daya said, pushing past Buck without warning and beginning to run. "Let's get out of here!"
Something whistled past Buck's head. A throwing knife.
Gloss and Cashmere came bursting through the undergrowth a second later. Buck was already off and sprinting through the jungle. Daya was extremely agile, outdistancing him within seconds.
"Split up!" He thought he heard her gasp over her shoulder. She veered right. Buck obeyed and veered left. He could hear the Careers right behind him.
"You take 10, I'll take 5!" Cashmere shouted, her voice tinged with excitement. She went shooting after Daya, armed to the teeth with knives.
Gloss came after Buck, trampling plants in his wake. He was limping heavily due to a calf injury sustained during the Bloodbath. Girl on Fire was good for something after all.
Another knife came whistling through the air. Buck ducked his head and it sailed past him harmlessly, striking a tree in his path. Adrenaline helped him push on, but he was having a tough time carving a path through the jungle. Gloss only needed to follow in his footsteps. He was gaining on him—fast.
Buck rounded a rather large tree, grabbing a thick branch and dragging it with him. As soon as Gloss came around the corner, he released it and watched it snap back into place, hitting the Career squarely in the chest. He grunted as he was bowled off his feet.
The spear weighed heavy in Buck's hands. He supposed now was the time to strike, but Gloss was just too quick and too strong for him. He took the opportunity to get away.
He circled the tree and doubled back over the trail. As soon as Gloss was out of sight, he scrambled up the nearest tree. He had only a few seconds to climb as high as he could before the sound of heavy footsteps reached his ears. Buck froze where he was, holding his breath despite his lungs screaming for air.
Gloss came stumbling back down the path, face twisted with pain. His injured leg was hindering him greatly. He set his pace at a steady jog and continued back down the trail.
Buck didn't let out a sigh of relief until a few minutes later. Another close scrape…but once again, he was alone.
He spent the next hour licking moisture from leaves, desperate for a drink. All the while, Buck listened intently for the sound of a cannon. No cannons sounded for the rest of that day and the Careers didn't show their faces again.
When nighttime fell, The Fallen were broadcasted in the sky for all to see while the Capitol anthem blared. Buck's chest grew tight when all three of his allies appeared one after the other. He should have known they wouldn't make it.
I never should have agreed to an alliance. He sighed inwardly. Not that it would have made much of a difference.
Buck nearly jumped out of his skin in fright. He looked down to see Daya climbing up the tree towards him, looking healthy and whole.
"Damn it! You nearly gave me a heart attack." Buck hissed as Daya made herself comfortable on a nearby branch. "How'd you find me anyway?"
"I looked and I listened," Daya responded simply. "Besides, trees don't normally let out forlorn sighs."
Buck gritted his teeth and said nothing.
Daya tossed something small to Buck. He caught it in the palm of his hand and eyed it suspiciously. It looked like a bullet in the dark.
"I found some nuts," Daya explained, fishing a few more out of her pockets. "It's not much, but it's better than nothing."
Buck leaned forward and arched an eyebrow at his newfound ally. "And how do I know yer not tryin' to poison me, Cupcake?"
Daya didn't answer. Instead, she popped a few nuts into her mouth, chewed noisily, and swallowed. Then she offered Buck a few more. Buck accepted them with a good-natured smirk.
For a little while longer, they spoke to one another in soft voices. Daya was the victor of the 64th Hunger Games. She had remained in hiding for most of the Games, but used little tricks to trap tributes or lead them into danger. She didn't outright kill anyone until it came down to her and one other person.
"I was never a Capitol favorite," Daya confessed, "I was never the main character in my Games. I'm not the main character in this one, either. I assume everyone's focusing on the star-crossed lovers and their unborn child."
"You never know," Buck said. "We're all the main characters of our own story. I'm sure there are some that have taken a shine to you."
Daya changed the subject. "You haven't told me about your Games. Which one did you win?"
Buck's mouth tightened into a thin line. He almost didn't want to speak of it. "Forty-fourth," He mumbled.
"You're that old?" Daya exclaimed in a whisper, her eyes going wide. "That was before I was even born."
"Yeah, I'm that old," Buck said wearily. "But don't start callin' me 'Old Man.' I'm still young at heart." He forced a chuckle.
Daya remained stoic. "So how did you win?"
Buck's amusement faded away. He didn't want to go into a lot of detail. "Luck, I guess. Didn't even have to kill anyone."
"That's admirable," Daya said quietly.
Buck let out a huge, fake yawn. "Yup! Well, I'm gonna hit the hay. G'night!"
"I guess I'll keep watch, then..."
Finding sleep was difficult that night. Buck switched shifts with Daya periodically, but many factors interrupted their slumber.
Halfway through the night, a strange gonglike sound rang twelve times in a row. Considering only seven tributes were dead at this point, these were not cannons. Buck and Daya could only exchange a wondering glance.
Immediately following the ominous occurrence, a storm moved in. Lightning began to strike northeast of their current location. It struck the same tree repeatedly, for a long time. Sleep was impossible during this time. Despite the heat, Buck found himself shivering. He had a bad feeling about these new events.
When the storm ended, it was Buck's turn to keep guard. He was wide awake when he heard the first cannon. About an hour later, another cannon sounded. Then another. Tributes seemed to be dying every hour.
Could it be the Careers, hunting at such an ungodly hour? Or was something else out there?
The sun rose, coloring the sky blue and yellow. Buck found his eyelids beginning to droop. He bit back a curse so as to not wake up Daya. He didn't realize how dependent he had become on sleep in middle age.
Eventually, he had fallen asleep as well.
"Buck, wake up! WAKE UP!"
Daya's desperate scream worked its way into his unconscious mind. Buck's eyes flew open. He went to sit up, but found himself unable to move. Immediately, his heart began to pound in his chest. He twisted his neck around to see that thick, green vines had wrapped themselves around him while he slept. And they were still moving, lethargically trying to drag him off his perch.
Buck found himself unable to fight them. With a yell, he rolled off the branch he was on and went crashing to the ground. The air was knocked out of him when he hit the ground, but the vines wrapped around his body barely loosened. Instead, they began to drag him across the ground at an even faster rate.
He could hear Daya's panicked voice. "I'm sorry! I only went to look for food, I never meant for this to happen!"
Then do something, dammit! Buck nearly roared.
But then he caught sight of Daya. Vines had wrapped themselves around her as well, working their way up her thin body. Only one of her arms was free, but it was slowly being overtaken. She strained to pry the plants off with her free hand, but it was no use.
"Where are they coming from?" She gasped, her struggles beginning to grow weaker.
Buck looked around to the best of his ability. The vines didn't seem to belong to anything in particular. They just melted out of the undergrowth and grabbed the tributes like they had minds of their own.
Suddenly, Buck spotted something in the corner of his eye.
"The spear!" He shouted. It had fallen from the tree with him! But it had landed closer to Daya. "Grab the spear—" Before he could finish his sentence, a thin vine curled around his throat. It squeezed enough to silence him, but not fully cut off his air supply.
But Daya had already heard him. Before the vine could fully constrict her body, she reached out with her free arm, straining to reach the spear. Her fingertips barely grazed it.
Come on…! Buck thought desperately.
Just when he thought she had it, the vines dragged him through a clump of bushes, out of sight.
He couldn't find the strength to shout her name. All of the fight drained out of his body as the vines dragged him away like a prisoner. He listened for the sound of Daya breaking free from her bonds and rushing to his rescue, but he could only hear the sound of his body dragging across the ground.
Then a strange scent flooded his nose. It smelled sickeningly sweet, not unlike a few of the desserts Buck had encountered in the Capitol. Sadly, he knew he wasn't about to find a buffet of sweets in the middle of the jungle. He wrenched his head backwards to take a look at what the smell was coming from.
It was a cluster of tall, strangely shaped plants. They were nearly half as tall as the trees, green in color with red veins. The vines were growing out of the plants, dragging Buck towards the top of the plant, which was inflated like a balloon. His eyes widened when he saw a mouthlike opening at the bottom of the plant's "head."
Buck was going to be devoured by a plant. He couldn't imagine a worse way to go.
Once again, he tried to strain against his bounds, but they were too tight. The opening loomed closer and closer. He had nearly given up all hope when he heard Daya call his name.
"Buck!" She came crashing into the clear, wielding his spear, free from her bonds.
"Daya!" He yelled, alerting her to where he was.
She charged forward, threw herself down on top of him and began to cut at the vines. She freed his arms, but the monstrous plant continued to drag him by the legs, up into the mouth and out of Daya's reach. Meanwhile, more vines slithered forward and began to wrap themselves around her ankles.
"Just go!" Buck roared, "Get out of here!"
"Take the spear!" Daya said frantically, shoving the weapon into his hands. She leaped backwards, shaking off the vines before they could get a tight grip. More came in to take their place. But she was already running away.
Hands shaking, Buck stabbed at the vines attached to his legs, barely hindering them as they dragged him up inside the plant. The inside of the plant was slippery and smelly. The vines were about to drag him down the throat of the monster, but with a final scream, Buck managed to slice through the last of them, freeing himself before he could take the plunge.
The vines did not reappear. Buck turned to exit through the carnivorous plant's mouth, but it was gone, having closed up once he entered the chamber. He was stuck…and the only place to go was down the tube the vines had disappeared. He didn't have to guess what was waiting for him down there.
"Let me outta here!" Buck demanded, stabbing at his surroundings with the spear. They did not give way and his spear became glued to their sticky surface. Buck pried it off with some difficulty and sat there hunched, unable to stand. Even if he could, he would probably slip and tumble straight down the shoot. Not too keen on the idea of being digested, he continued to poke around with his spear, looking for an opening.
The stench of the plant was causing his vision to swim. The red veins on the green surface of the plant made it look as if there were a number of openings leading to freedom. But whenever Buck went to touch one, his hand stuck, and he had to spend more energy trying to unstick it.
Breathing was becoming difficult. This little chamber would run out of oxygen eventually. What would be less painless—suffocation or digestion? The world seemed to tilt around him. It was trying to tip him down the plant's slippery throat. He would never be able to claw his way out of there.
Pure rage washed over Buck without warning. "I don't want to die, dammit! Not like this!" He stabbed downwards with his spear.
Suddenly, the plant's mouth popped open and he fell through with a shout of surprise. Buck winced as he hit the ground painfully, but forced his old bones to spring into action. He hopped to his feet, spear at the ready to slash through more vines.
But it was as if all of the plants had gone into hibernation. Their vines lay lifelessly in heaps. It was hard to believe they had been swarming with life a minute ago. Buck let out a sigh of relief. Yet another close call. And once again, he had lost Daya. Maybe he wasn't meant to have an alliance after all.
Still, she had come back for him. He might as well look for her.
Just as he took a step in the direction he had seen her disappear, a drawn-out scream pierced the arena.
"Daya!" Buck gasped, breaking into a run.
The sound of roaring water followed the scream. Buck looked up, eyes widening with fear at the sight of a huge wave straight ahead. It crashed over trees like they weren't even there. Buck slowed to a halt, expecting it to overtake him, but it remained confined to a small space despite its gargantuan size.
He watched helplessly as it curved and made its impact at the beach, washing over the Cornucopia. Before it had completely fizzled out, a cannon announced the departure of yet another tribute.
The hovercraft materialized and carried away another beloved victor. Buck could see her long, dark hair and lithe body through the canopy above him. Then she was gone.
Yes. He wasn't meant to have an alliance after all.
Three more cannons, all in a row.
Buck never expected he would make it to the top ten, yet here he was.
He doubted his luck (well, what little luck he had) could last much longer. The Capitol most likely wanted him out. Interviews of the loved ones would be coming up soon and he had no one at home to speak for him. They wouldn't want a spot in the Top 8 wasted on him.
Fine by me. Buck thought with a wry smile. Let's just make it a good death. I don't wanna give any stinkin' Career the satisfaction of killin' me and I definitely don't wanna be eaten by a plant.
Buck had headed in the opposite direction of the wave after it struck. He passed by the carnivorous plants as quickly as he could and didn't stop until he was a good distance away. He stopped by the edge of the jungle to gauge his location and found himself south of the Cornucopia. One of the larger alliances was camping not far up the beach. He would stop here.
He retreated deeper into the jungle, knowing that everyone else would be hovering on its edges.
Constant headaches and stomachaches wracked Buck's body. He was desperate for food and water, but no one had bothered to sponsor him yet.
With what little strength he had left, Buck climbed a tree. Just look at all these bigass trees…I'm so sick of them… He thought, hauling himself up, going as high as he could. He missed the open fields of District 10. He even missed the stench of rotting meat from the Tenderloin. His mouth watered at the thought of meat.
As he rose above the canopy, his eyes fell upon the beautiful sunset that was taking place. The sky was alight with pastel colors—orange, pink, purple. It was breathtaking.
Buck found himself feeling more appreciative of nature's beauty more than ever. He rarely saw sunsets like these in his district. But there was somewhere else…somewhere else that boasted the same beauty…
He closed his eyes and saw the same sunset in the 44th arena. Was it a memory of his own? He liked to think so. For years, he held strictly to the belief that tributes deserved to be remembered, no matter their placement. That's why he had tried to preserve the memories of every tribute he met. Even so, I should have done more…I should have done so much more…
Ah well. Too late fer that now.
While the sky grew darker, Buck retreated back down to the forest floor. It was even darker beneath the canopy. Buck took a moment to stretch his sore muscles, wishing he were thirty years younger. He just wanted to collapse. Before he could, he desperately needed to find some water.
Just as Buck took a step, a soft growl penetrated the darkness. Buck's breath caught in his throat. He could feel his heart pounding all the way to his fingertips. Slowly, he turned towards the sound.
Three pairs of large red eyes were glaring at from the shadows. Together, they converged forward, towering higher and higher over Buck. He didn't move as the beast stepped closer, into the half-light of the jungle.
As soon as it came into view, Buck was seized by a number of flashbacks. Fire danced at the edges of his vision and the smell of gasoline was rank in his nose. His chest tightened as all sorts of emotions flooded over him. A hysterical laugh—or was it a sob?—bubbled in his chest. He swallowed it back with a toothy grin.
"Howdy. It's been a while."
Lips peeled back to reveal three sets of dagger-sharp teeth. Another snarl tore from Cerberus's throat, as if he was returning Buck's casual greeting.
Despite his pounding heart, Buck tried to appear nonchalant. He twirled his spear in his hands, avoiding Cerberus's eyes. "I gotta say, I couldn't have thought of a better exit myself." He said, addressing both the Capitol and the enormous, three-headed dog in front of him.
Cerberus's main head let out an impatient bark. Saliva splashed out of his jaws and dripped down his chin. Buck could smell his rank breath from here. The Gamemakers were holding him at bay, waiting to see what Buck would do. If he tried to run, he knew they would release the hound instantly. There was no clever way to get out of this.
Buck's smile wavered ever so slightly. "I guess this is the end, huh?"
Cerberus didn't make a sound. His ears perked up slightly, waiting for the silent command that would unleash him so he could exact his revenge.
Buck smiled and closed his eyes, letting his life play out for him in the seconds he had left. An image of the victors joining hands appeared in his mind. A rebellion was still possible. Maybe, just maybe…this would be the final Hunger Games their country would face.
Buck opened his eyes. "Nah, this ain't the end!" He laughed, tilting his head towards the sky. "It's only the beginning."
The laughter in his eyes died and was replaced by a look of determination. Buck dropped into a crouch and pointed his spear directly at Cerberus. The beast roared in response, hindquarters bunching in preparation for a leap. Buck just smiled.