Author's Note: Thanks for all the readership, everyone! If you have feedback, suggestions, commentary, or ideas, I'm always welcoming of reviews!
My eyes flutter in the darkness, my heart pounding with rushing blood. Blackness – inky black all around me; am I safe? Am I in the arena?
Relax, Skye. You're getting ahead of yourself.
I'm too twitchy; too nervous. The Games aren't for another week – I haven't even been gone from District 9 for a day! – and already I'm cautious. Nothing's going to kill me on the train.
The train shudders, jerks. We must have stopped or something, as the train's pulling out of a station slowly. Fuel, maybe – or whatever these things run on. I pull myself off the ground, reaching a hand out to the wall to stabilize myself as I peer out my cabin's window.
It's pitch black outside. With a new moon, only the starry dots of the night sky and the faint, fluid ribbon of the Milky Way illuminate the black fields we're racing past. I can hardly make out anything except for hills in the far distance – rising, rolling, criss-crossing the terrain like herds of giant beasts at rest.
Already I regret falling asleep so early. It's the middle of the night now and I won't be able to fall back asleep; no doubt everyone else on the train has long since gone to bed. Tomorrow will be bad enough as it is, but heading into the Capitol on little rest – that'll make it worse.
I stumble around in the darkness for a light switch, finally finding one and nearly blinding myself with bright white illumination. The bedroom cabin is soft and restrained compared to the rest of the train: A plush crimson bed awaits one who'll never sleep it in, while a sturdy velvet chair invites me to sit down upon its cushion and let out my exhaustion. I don't want to do either, however; I don't want to sit in this animal pen, awaiting my shipment to the place where I'll likely die. I need to be free.
Slipping off the casual clothes I changed into before dinner, I rummage around in a wide, expansive closet until I find a suitable violet night gown of my liking. It's soft and caressing on my skin, comforting me when I need it most. At least the Capitol knows how to make good clothes.
The train car's hallway is just as dark as outside when I step out of my cabin. It's as quiet as a tomb in here – fitting, considering Ames and I's chances in this thing.
I wander down the hall, stubbing my bare feet on an exposed piece of carpeting at one point and grimacing in pain. I can hear Selene mumbling in her sleep as I slip from one car to the next – probably curses and swears about the Capitol, knowing her. I'm hoping our interaction during the training sessions ahead will be minimal, but knowing my terrible luck, she'll probably be assigned to watch over me or something. At least our relationship can't get any worse…probably.
After passing through four straight sleeping cars – all of them quiet, dark, and forbidding – I finally reach the door to the last car. I don't know what's hear, but I figure I might as well explore. I'll never get another chance to do this again.
I push open the glass door to the carriage, slipping out of the sleeper car and into something else entirely.
It feels as if I've left the train. Glass surrounds me on all sides, curling up and around like a giant, elongated bubble. Lounge couches and chairs scatter a muted brown floor, giving observers a chance to lay down and watch the scenery flash by. It's a far more breathtaking sight than merely watching out of a window could give me: In here, it feels like I'm the one moving at high speeds. I am the one running past those beast-like hills in the far darkness, sprinting across these foreign plains.
And I'm not alone.
A dark, gaunt figure lies stretched across a couch, face-up towards the dark, starry night above. He's still as a statue, flinching just a fraction of an inch as I open the door to the observation car. Clearly he's not asleep – while the figure doesn't move, his chest doesn't rise and fall in the tell-tale sign of someone lost in their dreams. He's awake – awake and embracing his loneliness.
"I'm sorry," I mutter, moving to leave. No reason to bother him.
"Don't," a placid, airy voice greets me. "Join me. Please."
I wander forward tentatively, careful to keep my distance from the prone figure on the dark couch. He knows I'm there but he never looks up – not once. I sit on an adjacent chair, curling my knees to my chest and facing towards the rear of the train as it picks up speed.
"It's I who should apologize," the man on the couch says, his words measured and deliberate. "I left to be alone for supper and last night. I'm sure the adjustment period has been hard on you."
"A bit," I reply modestly. "You're…Omaha, right?"
"That is my name, Skye."
Something about him touches me. Perhaps it's the politeness in which he speaks; selecting each syllable with a slow and meandering pacing. It's not at all similar to the bombastic chest-beating of Cicero or the snide aggression of Selene; my male mentor is…soft, almost. It's not what I'd expect out of a Victor.
Plus, the fact that he remembered my name sure helps. Selene couldn't do the same.
"So…" I question hesitantly. "Are you…gonna be training Ames, then?"
"No. I always train the girl," Omaha muses, keeping his shadow-covered face staring up at the star-studded canopy. "My mentor trained the boys. Selene took over when he retired, and it's been that way ever since. I believe she prefers it."
At least something's going right. I'm far more relaxed around Omaha – even after just meeting him. Training with Selene would likely end in her dismembering me for being quiet, too passive, or something else on her hit list.
"Why?" I ask.
"Selene enjoys the fight," he murmurs quietly. "She was that way when I first met her. It helped her win the Games; it helped her cope with their aftermath. It's who she is."
I have to ask: "What's that stuff she keeps chewing on?"
Omaha chuckles softly, crossing his arms across his chest: "Painkiller. It's the high-tech kind the Capitol makes; she wouldn't tell you herself that she prefers a Capitol product, no matter how mundane. I believe her…distaste…for them keeps her focused."
"You don't…dislike them?" I question. "The Capitol?"
"One too many questions," he interjects, firmly but without any sort of emotion. "Let me ask you a simple one. Are you feeling alright?"
I look at him with a furrowed brow. He's my mentor – why does he want to know how I feel? Aren't they supposed to train us on how to fight and survive – not on what we're feeling?
"Yeah," I lie. "Why?"
"You're not," he sees right through my fib without as much as a turn of his head. "I know you're confused right now. You've no doubt seen the other children you'll have to compete against – maybe kill. Understand this, Skye…for the rest of your life, whether that's a week or eighty years, you can't just shove those thoughts aside now that you're in the Hunger Games. What you're feeling is tremendously important to my being able to mentor you. That's why I want to know."
"It doesn't matter," I feel angry. Omaha's a Victor; why's he getting all sentimental and stuff? I need answers on how to live; how to find food, how to keep myself away from dangers. I don't need to know how to sort out my head. "It's the Hunger Games. I need to know how to…how to have a chance. I don't care if I don't feel good."
"Really?" he lets the question hang in the air. "Interesting. Go on."
What? "I…don't have any more to go on with."
"Why do you think volunteers from District 1, 2, and 4 ever lose, Skye?"
"Well…" I stumble. What's he getting at? "They…get…trapped, or killed by mutts, or the Gamesmakers, or each other. That's what's happened the last few Games."
"I admit; they're on a good streak," Omaha replies grudgingly. "Is that really why they're killed? Because Gamesmakers try to kill them with mutts? They try to kill their best physical competitors – the ones the audience swoons over? That's a terrible way to entertain a fickle fan base, Skye."
"I don't know!" I answer, frustrated.
"Forgive me. I don't mean to upset you," he sits up, his shadowy black form looking all the more dangerous as he loops an arm over the back of his couch. "Volunteer tributes are exceptionally good at performing with their bodies and their instincts – their training. They lose because they don't know how to use their minds. The brutes you see in past Games, raging in anger only to misstep and be killed? They're letting their anger and their minds influence their actions. In turn, it kills them. They never understood how to use that anger to help them, rather than hinder them. So tell me, so I can help you – how are you feeling?"
I'm hesitant. I rarely open up to people I don't know well – particularly one like Ohama, who I'll have to entrust with my survival ability in the arena. Does he really need to know every last bit of fear and anxiety churning like a boat through my stomach?
"I don't think I really have a chance," I reply meekly. "And I don't think the others like me very much."
"I can't help you with Ames," he answers bluntly. "But Selene requires patience. Listen, rather than pushing her away. She's an outstanding resource; opinionated, strong-willed…and, when you breach her shell, supportive. As for Cicero…he went blind a long time ago."
"Not in eyesight. In beliefs…the Capitol's word is his law. He doesn't think for himself, but quotes talking points of the politicians. Take his instructions with skepticism. But as you…is there a reason you don't believe you can win?"
"I'm just a…a fifteen year-old normal girl who's supposed to kill a bunch of other kids," I bemoan, waving my hands in front of my face. "I don't know how to do that. I don't know how to…to win."
Omaha looks out the window patiently, watching the dark fields run past for a minute. Lights rush past in the opposite direction far in the distance – probably another train, maybe on a cargo run to a far-off district. Everything seems so small here, surrounded by the empty, dark land on all sides. I feel…cold, like the flat plains are sucking the energy from me.
"Let me tell you a story," Omaha finally speaks up. He turns towards me, his face still shrouded in the shadows of the night – but from the tilt of his head and his clasped hands, I can tell he's deadly serious. "A story about the Hunger Games. Very early on in my affiliation with the Games, I knew a young girl tribute…your age, in fact, maybe a few inches shorter than you, no thicker than a stick. She was from her district's orphanage; never had a family, never had anyone. She felt helpless being entered in the Games. Few judged to her have any chance, and I still remember the hopelessness in her malachite eyes. She knew – she knew no one thought she'd survive the first night."
"She scored a four in training; not unexpected. She wasn't versed in a single combat skill like you've seen in the Games – none of the knives, spears, swords, anything like that," he continues, his left hand occasionally waving for emphasis. "She did have one skill, however…she was very, very intelligent. The orphanage hadn't drained that out of her. When she was released into the arena – a particularly nasty one, to be frank – she had already won over one ally, a boy, joining into a paired alliance. The two were a natural team, working together like clockwork."
"She was the one who really carried them, however," he went on, shifting his inflections to capture highs and lows of the story. "Where he was capable enough in fighting and strategy, her brainpower allowed them to kill several tributes. They even took down a pair from District 4 who had volunteered through crafty planning and patience. It wasn't the pair's raw skill in hunting, or tracking, or combat that let them win – it was their ability to think. So it was that one scrawny, skinny girl who shouldn't have had a chance came to be one of the biggest influences on how I mentor. When she learned what the other tributes were like – and how the Capitol prided weapons skill and power, rather than true strategy – she learned that utilizing her own skills, rather than trying to adopt another's without understanding them, would better her chances. You could say…it swung the odds in her favor. She began the Games without a chance…and ended them with every chance in the world."
"Did she win?" I ask.
"Heh," Omaha laughs softly. "Another time, perhaps – maybe in a happier time we'll talk about what happened in those Games. But the point stands – maybe you, Skye, aren't a weapons master. Maybe you won't shoot arrows with pinpoint accuracy from a hundred meters, or effortlessly stab a man's skull with a trident or spear. It doesn't matter. Those are ways that can help to win the Games, but they are not how to win the Games. There is no guidebook, no official manual. You're victorious on what you know how to do – and how well you understand your own set of skills."
"I don't really have skills," I mutter. "Not…ones that'll matter."
"We'll see," he counters. "It's late. You have a whole day of dealing with chattering stylists tomorrow, and I'm keeping you awake with old stories. You should sleep."
I don't argue – something about the way Omaha said "We'll see" tells me he wants to be alone. I step up from the couch, gathering the loose ends of my night gown around me and silently slipping away to the door. The glass panel hisses as I open it, sliding through into the dark compartment hallway in front of me before closing the door.
Something bothers my eye and I stop to rub it, taking a look back through the door as I do so. I can just make out Omaha's shape in the darkness, bent over his knees and staring out the rear of the train. He's no longer sitting stoically, but cupping his face in his hands, not aware that I'm watching. His body rocks softly - I'm stunned when I figure it out.