The day I met him, it was pouring. The harsh pounding on the metal roof of the Training Center formed a sort of background music to the first fight I ever lost. And not even a loss. I like to call it a draw, but even that makes me sound weak.
"Do you honestly think you can win the Games?" I want to slap Enobaria across the face, but since that would probably earn me a bite to the hand with those lethal teeth, I refrain. Besides, I know the only reason she's asking is because he's in the next room with Brutus, talking strategy for an Arena that we should never have been entering together.
So instead of striking her, I give her the snarkiest comment I can think of.
"You know, I'm still asking myself how you managed."
The day my uncle dropped me at the gate of the Training Center, the trainers laughed in his face. I can't say I blame them. They only saw me for the short, skinny, ten year old that I was, and not the equally small but well-trained and lethal tribute that I would become.
"So tell me, Clove. Are you prepared?" Caesar Flickerman is a very good actor, to pretend he doesn't know exactly what goes on in District Two and just how prepared we are. But the citizens of the Capitol like to keep deluding themselves that we are just harmless children, so I let it slide.
"I'm ready to go. I'm not afraid of anyone."
That is the truth; I've never been afraid of him. But, I know the audience doubts my first statement. All they see when they look at me is a pale, skinny seventeen-year-old who looks too small to be a career. As if I care. They'll see exactly who I am tomorrow.
I turned twelve the week before my first reaping. I was terrified, and put on my cold, unfeeling mask to hide it. He had already been through one Reaping the day we sat on the roof of an abandoned warehouse a block from the Training Center. Any other girl would have let him put his arm around her and comfort her, but not me. A week later, he arrived at the Reaping with the remnants of a nasty black eye.
"I thought I'd find you here," he says, like I couldn't hear him coming from a mile away. I don't look at him, continuing to stare out the window at the parties in the streets below. He sits next to me, close but not touching. That's intentional. He remembers the same night, just over five years ago. He's smart. A black eye going into the Games would be a bad omen.
I've never let anyone touch me and get away with it, so it surprises even me when he scoots closer and slings his arm around me, and I let him stay there.
The first time I killed another, I was fourteen. An older boy, about sixteen, had thought he could touch me and walk away unharmed. He was wrong. By the time he realized his mistake, however, my knife was covered in his blood, and he was taking his last breath. When I sat there in shock, the trainers just laughed and told me I would get used to it.
"We should sort out the supplies," Blondie says. She's right, but it takes a while for the other members of the alliance to start moving. I'm the first one to stand, the first one to recover from the horror that was the bloodbath. Maybe the trainers were right when they told me I would get used to it. Already, one tribute blends with another until I'm not even sure how many were my kills. I am only shocked back to reality when I think that those images will be burned into my head until the day I die, and I realize that that day might not be far off.
When I arrived at the Training Center, there were twenty-four tributes in my age group, including me. Most of them were stupid and weak, sent away by their parents to learn discipline and to bring honor. They were the first to go. No one survives the Training Center if they don't have a fighter's mindset.
"There she is!" Fire Girl is scrambling out of the pond when we find her. We all cheer and laugh because we're careers and that's what we're supposed to do, but inside, I'm exhausted already. By day four half the tributes are dead, and none of them stood a chance. Fire Girl is the first one who might actually put up a fight.
We corner her around a tree, and then she begins to taunt us. Eventually we make camp around the base of the tree to wait her out. Night falls, and Blondie curls up next to him. I think I've done a good job of pretending I don't care that he's here. Still, every one of the lizards I use for target practice that night has Blondie's face on it.
By the time I was sixteen, our original group of twenty-five had dwindled until there were only eight of us left. The official word was that it was anyone's guess which two would end up in the Games, but everyone knew I would be one of them. I had beaten every other student in my age group multiple times, and most of the older students as well. Everyone knew I would be a victor.
"You!" He roars, and within seconds District Three is dead, his neck snapped. I take in the smoking rubble what used to be our supplies. District Three's cannon sounds, and by the next afternoon, two more have sounded as well. I can barely conceal my happiness when Marvel's face appears in the sky. When the little girl from District Eleven follows, I know whoever blew up our supplies escaped.
Now that it's just the two of us left, I can no longer hide from the fact that eventually I'll have to kill him. I'm not surprised that I don't feel afraid. He has never scared me.
The first time we fought as a team, I was sixteen. The Training Center hosted what they called a tournament every year, pairing students up and having teams fight. When we were a team no one stood a chance. We demolished every pair that challenged us. After that it was difficult to fight him in training, knowing what it felt like to guard each other's backs.
"Attention, attention, tributes of the 74th Annual Hunger Games! There has been a rule change. Under the new rule two tributes may be declared victors if they are from the same district, and are the last two standing." Claudius Templesmith's voice booms through the Arena. He repeats himself, like we hadn't heard him the first time.
I find myself staring at him and notice he's doing the same, as though he's seeing me in a new light. My mind instantly goes to the tournament in the Training Center in which we obliterated all the competition, and suddenly the Arena doesn't seem so lonely anymore.
When I wake up the next morning his arm is around me, and for some reason I don't push him away.
When my name came out of the reaping ball, the entire square went silent. Our stupid escort click-clacked around in her incredibly high heels, craning her neck to find me. No one moved, and that's when I realized what was happening. I always knew the older girls were scared of me, and it seems they were also afraid of dying, because they only stood and watched as I made my way up the stairs to the stage. The entire time, I could feel his eyes on me.
"I promised Cato if he let me have you, I'd give the audience a good show." I can hear myself talking, taunting Fire Girl, but all I can think is that I finally have her and she's finally going to die. Finally, I can quench her flames forever. But it doesn't happen. Suddenly I'm dangling in the air and District Eleven is there. There's a rock in his hand and murder in his eyes, and just like that I'm more terrified than I've ever been. More terrified than I was before my first reaping, and even more terrified than I was when he was up there on the stage with me and I knew we were going into the Arena together.
I always prided myself on my intelligence, but in that moment every cell in my brain is focused on the rock in District Eleven's hand. In that moment of weakness I find myself wanting to be rescued for the first time in my life, because for once I know I can't get myself out of this. So instead of fighting, I yell. I scream for the only person I know who ever cared, who still cares enough to save me. I call out for him.