Author's note: I apologize for the long delay – but sometimes real life gets in the way of fiction…
Chapter 09 – RUN
Blind for the huge inner city square where the launching tubes had spit the tributes out, she turned and ran for the next building. Down a narrow alley, under a bypass, around a corner, and on, on, until she was out of breath. Nobody followed her, at least she did not see anybody.
Another alley, leading to a smaller square.
She tucked into a narrow crevice in a crumbling wall and tried to catch her breath. Nobody was following her, she was certain. Probably to busy to go at each other's throat and win a weapon of their choice.
What would Haymitch go for? A knife, most certainly…
Haymitch stepped off the platform and braced himself for the inevitable attack. And it came. The woman from District 3 - hell, Beetee had told him her name, hadn't he? - jumped him and took him in a stranglehold intended to break his neck. He tried to shake her off, all the while checking for other attackers. She would not let go, hissing like a mad cat.
Most of the other tributes had made a beeline for the pile of weapons in the middle of the square. Knifes, lances, bows, arrows. Haymitch's field of vision narrowed briefly when the woman hooked an arm over his face and tried to force his head back. He rammed an elbow into her sternum and shook her off. The woman fell and did not move, unconscious from the sudden impact. Haymitch did not care. He had no time for this. He needed to find Rose. Which could prove difficult if she - for once - did as told. Inwardly groaning he remembered how he'd impressed the importance of distance into her. Stay away from me. Run, run, run. Now she'd run and how was he to find her?
Well, first things first. Weapons, water, shelter. He saw Chaff next to the amoury stand, fighting off Gloss to get to a nicely shaped mace.
'No need to kill,' Haymitch reminded himself. 'We must only stay alive until the time is up.' But Gloss was not in on the game. He'd go for the kill, try to eliminate as many contenders in the first few minutes as possible. What a waste.
He sighed. There was someone inside him, that other Haymitch, the blade, the killer, who relished the idea of a bloody fight. Might as well use him.
Help Chaff. Remind Finnick they were in this together. Find Rose and persuade her - again - that she could trust him. One step after the other.
He dived into the fray…
Rose stood in the alley and considered where to go next, where to hide.
There were walls, brick, marble, rough wood - a tumble of styles and materials. No trees. No hills or mountains, or if there were any, she could not see them for the buildings that surrounded her.
Dimly she remembered the Games some ten years ago, when the arena resembled a city in ruins. Well, this was a variation of the urban theme - no ruins, but buildings that looked as if they'd been vacated only minutes ago.
Right in front of her a huge door loomed, set in columns of finely crafted marble. She joggled the bar but it stayed firmly locked. A flash of metal grabbed her attention. High above her, twelve, fifteen meters above ground, hung a big brass key, winking at her.
She looked around - nobody was in sight. Could she climb up and get the key? Probably. Sudden panic nearly overwhelmed her. She knew she'd be a perfect target for every tribute coming down the alley - a knife in her back, hell, even a well aimed stone, and she'd fall like a shot bird. Then again, the key must be important. The Gamemakers usually did not waste time and resources on empty jokes. Cruel traps, yes. But mostly there was a reward for every challenge. Not for the sake of the tributes involved but to give the audience a feeling of completion. The columns provided steps but only for climbers who knew how to find them. Rose emptied her mind like her father had taught her so many years ago and focused only on the next step, the next grip, a safe route up. The key was the goal and nothing else counted.
Ten minutes later she inserted the key into the lock and cautiously turned it. The door was heavy but opened at a slight push on well oiled hinges. Beyond the wall a wide inner courtyard opened.
Rose closed the door behind her - no need to invite trouble - and studied her surroundings. Marble columns and statues in all sizes and stages of completion filled the yard. It looked like an evacuated workshop.
And there, right in the middle, dramatically positioned on a huge marble hand, sat a rucksack. Was this the reward for opening the door - or the piece of cheese in the mousetrap?
She decided to go for the rucksack. She could easily grab it and run, if anything happened. But nothing moved or attacked when she lifted the bag from the offering marble hand. She slung it over her shoulder and ventured deeper into the yard. Some of the artwork she recognized - Panem's great seal, one of the eagles that crowned the Justice Building in every district. But there were many smaller pieces as well. Steps and columns, arches and memorial slabs, all of them broken or damaged. This seemed to be the junkyard of District Two's famous masonry industries.
A light breeze arose, a welcome cooling whisper at first, but rapidly turning into a flock of small tornados. The wind whipped up the white marble dust and whirled between the statues and pillars like a blizzard. Rose wiped at her eyes. The dust burned and blinded her. It coated her tongue, her nostrils. She coughed and fought for air.
'Trap!' she thought frantically while she tried to locate the exit. The yard WAS a trap, and she was the mouse, helplessly caught in a snowstorm without snow. She stumbled and crashed into a statue she could not see. Warm blood trickled down her forehead. Virtually blind, she made her way through the masonry, one hand stretched out to locate other obstacles.
The door. If the big thing she'd just hit her head on, was the Open Hand, then the door should be right in front of her. She just could not breath. The dust turned into a clayish mass when it came in contact with anything humid - tears, saliva. Sweat.
Again she banged into something, felt a flat surface studded with buckled nailheads. The door.
Why wouldn't it open?
She rammed her shoulder against it, again and again. She had to get out, she could not breathe.
Already dizzy and disoriented, she remembered that the door had opened into the yard. No wonder it did not budge. She fumbled for the handle, grabbed it and pulled. As before, it opened almost soundlessly. She stumbled outside, fell to her knees, wretched desperately to free her cloaked throat. Water. She needed water!
Still blind, she searched the rucksack and almost cried with relief, when her hands touched the familiar form of a water bottle.
It took almost the whole container to wash her eyes and mouth. The clay on her skin had dried. In some places it formed a thin brittle mask. When she rubbed her knuckles against it, large scales crumbled down. But the skin was unbroken. Her eyes burned, but she could see. Inside the yard, the wind still blew in a howling perpetual spin. Outside the yard, the air did not move.
Rose took a careful mouth of water, this time to drink, not to gargle. It tasted fine and was very welcome. Panting, she sat in the shadow of the high wall and tried to calm down. So her theory had been right on the spot - whatever she found in the arena would be a trap of some kind. She could only hope they'd always make the bait worth the danger.
She emptied the rucksack. A couple of small protein bars, hardly a bite each. Two more bottles of water. She'd have to save this for drinking, and hope to find another source to wash off the dust that still coated her skin. Carefully she set the bottles aside, together with the third, now empty container.
What else? A rope, about hundred feet of it, if she estimated right. A grappling hook.
For the first time since the starter gun went off, she smiled. This she could do with. The hook was worth more than any weapon.
"Phw," sighed Peeta. "That was close."
"Look at all those buildings!" Katniss paced the room. "Not at all like last year. And where is Haymitch? They did not show him since the Cornucopia."
"He's alive," Peeta said with deliberate calmness he did not feel. "He's too clever to get himself killed in the bloodbath."
Katniss dropped onto the couch and hugged her knees. "You are right. He won because he was smarter than everybody else."
Peeta said nothing and kept his eyes on the air-screen where the cameras showed Enobaria stabbing a silently crying woman, a fierce grin baring her filed teeth. What had Haymitch said when he accompanied him to the hovercraft platform before the Game? Maybe this time there's be no winner at all. Not even a smart one.
"We can't sit here and watch," he decided. "Let's go and make friendly faces with the sponsors. I wonder what a bottle of water costs?"
Rose left the door locked, hid the key in the crook at the foot of a column. Not that she felt a desire to return to the suffocating whirlwind of marble dust - but who knew? The coil of rope slung over her shoulder, the water bottles stored safely in the backpack, she went on.
Another narrow alley took her to a warren of small rickety buildings, made of wood and rope. In their destitution they reminded her of the Seam, but they were built lighter and many of them stood on stilts. The air suddenly smelled of salt and ... fish. She heard water lapping onto stones.
She ventured into one of the few buildings with a second floor and climbed the stairs, through a hatch onto the roof, and took a good look around. to the flat roof. All the houses seemed empty from what she could see from here. Windows stood open. A small boat was tied to a porch but sat on dry ground. The salt water smell came from a small lagoon, it's waters lapping against an artificial shore. Beyond the rickety houses by the waterfront were more buildings. Roofs and towers and high structures, all the way to the horizon - or rather the outer wall of the arena.
Many of the buildings she saw appeared strangely familiar, as if she'd seen them all before. And really, she had, she realized. Pictures in her Geography textbook. A fishing village of 4, a marble hall of 2, a tin silo like they stood all over District 8. Across the lake a high dam retained the waters that cascaded down the outer wall - could this be District 5, with its power station? Were these representations of Panem's various districts? If so, there would be a sawmill or a forest for District 7, an orchard or glasshouses for 11, and livestock - or a slaughterhouse - for District 10.
A bitter laugh escaped her. Wasn't the entire arena a killing floor?
All she could do was use it to her advantage and seek home ground. She needed a hiding place, where she could avoid the careers and be safe from unpleasant surprises. So she'd seek out "District 12", and hope the Gamemakers had stayed close to reality. If so, there'd be the tower with its many platforms, maybe the Hob or the tar mills. Dangerous ground for everyone who was not familiar with it, but Rose had spent most of her life in close neighbourhood to a mine.
She climbed off the roof of her lookout.
A quick search of the rooms on the ground floor produced nothing usable - no food, no weapons, no drinkable water. The water of the lagoon smelled fishy. Mags or Finnick might be able to catch a fish here - but who know what really hid in the greenish water?
"M8 and F8 are hiding in reach of one of the tracker jacker nests, Sir," one of the Gamemaker's reported. "Shall we let it drop?"
Plutarch's face remained calm and indifferent. "Let's save that for later. We have to hook the audience, so we better focus on their favourites. The wonder twins, Enobaria, Brutus."
"What about Odair? And the drunken guy from District 12, Abernathy? Shouldn't we show them?"
A quick tapping of keys, and small lit dots showed them the position of all tributes. Plutarch didn't spare a glance. Haymitch might be the better strategist and could think ahead for three or four moves - but he, Plutarch, had a keen sense of the present. He knew where everyone was, where all the pieces were placed on the board.
He placed a hand on the assistant's shoulder, turning the man - and his focus - slightly to the left.
"Odair we save for later, when we need a quick pick up. And Abernathy is a bit past his time, don't you think? The audience will want to see the careers giving the weaker tributes short shrift. If Abernathy survives the next two days, maybe he'll be worth showing. But for now, let's follow the Toothfairy and Brutus, as they hunt."
Rose climbed the highest platform of the mine tower and felt at the same time invisible and exposed. Up here the arena looked like a toy playground, a miniature model. She lay flat on the wooden boards and for the first time since the launch relaxed.
Her heart beat in a steady rhythm, the feeling of nausea and panic had disappeared. As had the numbness she'd felt for the last ... weeks, she recognized in shock. Not just since the Reaping, not even since the tribunal. Since the day Haymitch had brushed her off so cruelly. Even if she now understood his motives, his deep fear, she was still angry. And more. She was fuming. And so alive!
She would not think about the end of the game, not even about the next day. Make it through the night. The tower was thirty feet high. The safest place in the arena. It would do. She used the rucksack as a pillow and slept.
The second day started with a shock. No gentle dawn, no rising sun. Rose awoke suddenly, her heart racing from the sudden brightness. She reminded herself that this was not the real world but an arena, where everything, from the weather to the length of night obeyed the Gamemakers' whims.
From her vantage point high on the mine tower she could see that certain areas lay still in darkness. The "sunlight" wandered from east to west assumedly, but with much greater speed than natural. The "sky" was deep blue, with a few clouds in he west – clouds that could become a thunderstorm within minutes, Rose thought with a tingle of worry.
Her back hurt from the hard floorboards of the tower platform, but otherwise she felt fine. Dehydration would become a problem pretty soon if the weather got hot and she could not find a source of clean water or another water bottle.
She banned any thought of the futility of such plans into the deeper recesses of her brain and let the core of her being, the spark that refused to die, deal with survival. One step at a time. What had Haymitch said? Shelter, water, food.
She settled in a more comfortable position and chewed half of a protein bar. The forest to the south shone like a dark emerald. As it got hotter by the minute, Rose looked at the trees with greater longing. Shade. Cool shade, and soft ground covered with pine needles. Maybe a spring somewhere.
She knew she could not hunt down a deer or whatever animal the Gamemakers had deemed appropriate for that Game square. But maybe there would be mushrooms or fruit to harvest?
Or maybe not. She remembered scenes from gone-by Games, of tributes dying from poisoned fruit, foaming from the mouth, gasping for air, writhing with pain.
Her own skin was still covered with the white dust. It felt strained, but did not burn or flake, so she could delay to do something about it. She must look like a ghost. The world - or the circle her world had shrunk into - seemed at peace. But then she saw the column of smoke in the east. Something, buildings or trees, burned. But as long as the fire stayed away from the mine-tower where she'd spent the night, there was no reason to move away from this save hideout.
She rolled on her stomach and settled in. The square. The run-down warehouse. Both so familiar. The Gamemakers had even applied a generous helping of coal grime. It smelled like home, smoky and bitter. Briefly she thought of the people in her district. Did they watch her, this very minute?
Something moved, almost outside her field of vision. Something rustled high in the rafters of the old tower. But when she turned her head, she saw nothing.
Just then the square below demanded her full attention. A figure cowered behind a stack of wooden railway sleepers. Slender, fair-haired. Not so tall, from what she could see from her elevated position. Could be the female tribute from District 5, or Lucas the Morphling from 6.
She still considered whether to make herself known, when she saw a flash of sunlight, reflected off a piece of metall. Too high up to hear the whirring of the arrow she could only make sense of the flash when the person behind the sleepers toppled over, an arrow through - her? his? - neck.
Rose pressed a hand to her mouth to stifle her shocked gasp.
The archer stepped out of the shadow. It was Cashmere, as beautiful and immaculate as ever. Rose had watched her training in the weights room, and the woman had not even broken into a sweat. Her skin gleamed healthily, her hair was caught in shiny blond braids, and she looked like any other lovely young girl out on a summer morning. But when she reached the dead tribute and turned - him? her? - over with her foot, she called out to her brother in triumph, and suddenly her face reminded Rose of a wolf, without mercy, bent to kill.
She shuddered and tried to make herself invisible, which seemed to work, as neither Cashmere nor Gloss ever looked up over her head.
Arrogant. Big mistake, Rose thought, almost miffed. If it were Haymitch or Johanna up here, the siblings would be dead by now.
A cannon boomed. Gloss and Cashmere immediately hid in the shadow of the warehouse. A hovercraft descended onto the square, extending two cargo hooks, and lifting the lifeless body up into the air. It passed Rose's outlook so close she got a good look at the dead tribute's face. Not Lucas, but the woman from District 9. Maybe tonight when they projected the list of the fallen tributes onto the night sky, she'd learn the dead tribute's name. It suddenly seemed crucial to Rose.
"Sir," Troilus asked Haymitch. "M11 and M12 are getting very close to one of the service pods. shouldn't we do something to scare them away?"
Plutarch shrugged nonchalantly and waved the young assistant's remark away. "It's primetime. Our audience expects more than two men running for reasons they can't see or anticipate. The shield around the pods is intact, I assume?"
The young man nodded.
"Then let's give Panem some real drama."
With a flick of his wrist he zoomed in on what was supposed to resemble District 12 in all its bleakness and grime. And a good job the set designers had done, he had to admit.
"F12 is still on the tower?"
"And M1 and F1 on the ground below her. Although M1 is leaving now, so it's just Cashmere and ... what's her name? Rose?"
"Girl on girl. The audience will love it." Plutarch considered his options. "What have we got to scare her out of her crow's nest? Any tracker jackers around? Or a well aimed lightning bolt?"
"Even better!" The assistant beamed and pointed his control wand at the tower. "May I, Sir? I watched the gen-techs develop them. I'd be thrilled to see them in action."
The Head Gamemaker nodded graciously. "Go ahead."
Troilus zoomed further in until they got a good look at Rose, still flat on her stomach on the topmost platform of the mine-tower. "She's still covered in white dust. Do you think it will affect the performance of the mutts?"
"Couldn't say." Plutarch shrugged. "Let's find out."
Cashmere and Gloss had disappeared. Rose had no way to find out if they'd really left or were just hiding until another victim crossed the square. She was no match for those two, and they would not let her go, even if she meant no danger. They'd kill her anyway, just for the fun of it and for another notch on their bow of mace or whatever weapons they used. She'd better stay up here, she decided, until thirst forced her to descend.
Something rustled in the rafters above her head. First she thought of dry leaves, but there was no wind. The rustling continued, accompanied by a scratching noise. Sharp claws searching for purchase.
Rose looked up. Three meters above her heads, in the rafters, dark shapes moved. Bats, she thought. She knew bats. They'd been everywhere when she grew up - in the old warehouse, in the roof of the school, hanging upside down, huddled together to keep warm, only venturing out at night. They ate insects and navigated by ultrasound - that was about all she knew. Something hit her head. She brushed it away and felt it caught in her hair. Frantically trying to remove it, she rose from her crouched position. More small bodies swooped down.
Their leathery wings brushed Rose's shoulders, her neck, her cheeks. Tiny claws scraped over the back of her hand. That was where she lost it. Hastily donning the rucksack she started to climb down. She needed both hands to hold on but the instinct to fight the attacking bats off was overwhelming. The last meters she could not stand it any longer and dropped, more scared of the bats than the consequences of an uncontrolled fall. Her ankle protested when she hit the ground, but now she had both hands free to swipe at the little beasts. They hung in her hair, tried to get inside her sleeves, slid over her face. All the time expecting the bite of tiny teeth, she rolled on the floor, trying to get rid of them.
Suddenly something hit her back. The pain pressed all the air out of her lungs. She saw a boot next to her face - and cursed herself and the bats. There were other dangers out there, worse than the bats. Gloss? Cashmere? One of them had waited patiently in the shadows. Stupid, stupid! The boot on her back held her pinned to the ground.
"Now look what we got here, all covered in ..." Cashmere's voice changed from taunting to panicky. "What is this? Get it off me!"
The weight on Rose's back disappeared abruptly and she scrambled as far away as she could. Back against the wall, she ventured a glance at Cashmere, always expecting a vicious blow across the face or an arrow through the neck. Instead the golden girl rolled on the floor, futilely trying to keep the bats away from her face, her bare arms, her neck. All of them had abandoned Rose and now hung in clumps off Cashmere. Finally the woman stopped struggling. Horrified, Rose watched the bats getting bigger and bigger, like water balloons. They'd anchored their teeth in their victim's veins and seemed unable to stop drawing blood. Eventually they popped one by one, splattering blood everywhere.
Rose stared at her own arm, still white with the claylike coating of sweat and marble dust. Not one single bite. Cashmere on the other hand was a pale bloodless corpse.
The last bat popped with a wet sound, and shredded furry skin landed on Rose's boot.
The canon boomed.
"Well," said Plutarch when his assistant logged the final image. "At least now we know they don't like marble dust."
"Pity," murmured Troilus. "Still, it looked totally awesome when they popped, didn't it, Sir?"
The Head Gamemaker's face stayed blank when he agreed. "Totally."
Rose froze when a hand touched her shoulder. She knew fear, remembered the bone deep chill of being all alone in the collapsed mineshaft, with her companions dead, the air getting staler by the minute, and dripping water the only sound. But this was another fear, sharper somehow and adrenalin laced. Being all alone had been awful, but NOT being alone turned out to be even more frightening.
"Up with you!"
Her first thought was that Gloss had returned, and finding her next to his bled-out sister would not enhance her chances of survival. Then she recognized the voice and almost fell flat on her face when her knees gave way in relief. Johanna. Another jolt of fear. Why should Johanna be less dangerous than Gloss? Because they'd been friendly in the training centre? If she grabbed her ankles and ...
"Forget it." The woman from District 7 held out a hand to help her up. "You have no chance if you jump me. I'd have to finish you off, and Haymitch will never forgive me for that. So don't."
Still trembling, Rose stood. Johanna looked cool and composed, as if she'd never done anything else than navigate life-threatening traps that looked like a madman's version of Panem. Which was probably what she did back home for sport.
"I am not going to ..."
Johanna rolled her eyes. "I know. You wont't fight. Yadda yadda."
She threw a meaningful glance at Cashmere's dead body. "What DID you do? Bore her to death?"
"Bats." Inwardly shuddering she pointed at the mine tower. "Mutt-bats. They sucked her dry."
Johanna cowered down to inspect what remained of the exploded bats. "Impressive what the gen-techs can do."
Rose hugged herself and rubbed her arms, suddenly exhausted and cold. "I don't think Cashmere cared much for the bats."
"Obviously." Johanna prodded a piece of wing with her finger. "So why didn't they bite you?"
Pointing at her white skin, Rose said: "They don't like my make-up. Or maybe they prefer blondes."
"Good to know." Johanna gave Cashmere's body a vicious kick before abandoning it, drawing Rose into the shadow of the tower, as the hovercraft appeared to pick up the body. "Anyway, why aren't you with Haymitch? He'd have slit Cashmere's throat if she so much as looked in your direction."
Rose stared at her, not sure if she was joking. "And at some point in the game he'd have to slit MY throat."
Wrinkling her nose in disdain, Johanna admitted: "Right. So you'd rather have someone else do it?" She reached for the bag she carried slung over her shoulder.
"I'd rather nobody do it." Rose backed off. She was ready to run, in case the other woman drew a knife out of her bag - or the axe she carried at her belt.
But Johanna held out an apple. "It's good," she assured Rose. "Not poisoned. I ate several and am still alive. I'd barter it for some water if you have any?"
When she saw Rose hesitate, she added a protein bar and an oblong object Rose recognised as a syringe.
"What is that?" She picked it up and tried to read the inscription.
"Morphling, I guess." Johanna still held out the food. "I sliced my way through a garden of flesh-eating vines to reach it. Or better, I thought the box in the middle held something vital. Turns out, it's not a weapon, not even water, but the damned syringe. Still, I guess it comes in handy when you are in pain."
"Or if you are an addict." Rose thought of Lucas, who'd do everything to get his fix. And Haymitch - what would be the bait the Gamemakers used to lure him into a trap? A bottle, probably.
She poured half the content of her water bottle into the empty one and offered it to Johanna. "This is all I can spare."
"I could kill you and take both bottles."
"True. But where's the fun in that?"
The air seemed to sizzle with tension. Then Johanna's face, more striking than beautiful, broke into a huge grin. The woman lobbed the apple at Rose and carefully placed the syringe on her rucksack. "You keep this."
When Rose picked it up to give it back, Johanna held up both hands. "Keep the damned thing! Needles give me the creeps." She took a sip of water, keeping it in her mouth, than swallowing with a sigh of relief. "Ah, water! You never know how good it tastes until you run out." A frown. "What's with the white paste? How did you know it was a bug-repellent?""
"Pure luck."" Rose rubbed her forearm. "I was lured into a courtyard full of marble dust. Price was the rucksack.""
"Well, there was water in it. And in the end the dust that was meant to kill me saved my life." Rose stowed the bottle in the rucksack. "Where is ... what is his name? Blight?"
"Not sure." Johanna shrugged.
"Aren't you allies?"
"Allies?" The other woman's voice rose in surprise. "No! I mean, I would not outright kill him if I met him - but if it's me or him ... As far as I know he's still alive. I didn't see his face on the sky last night." She looked up at the sky, gauging the sun. "I better go. Time to find provisions and a place to spend the night."
Rose nodded. She'd do the same. Under no circumstances she'd return to the platform on the mine-tower.
Johanna narrowed her eyes thoughtfully, her hand caressing her axe - a gesture that unnerved Rose more than she cared to admit. "If I see Haymitch, do you want me to point him in your direction?"
The temptation was great. To see him just once more..
Rose declined with a sigh. "No. It's better this way, for him and for me."
Chaff laid a hand on Haymitch's arm. "It's getting late, my friend. She'll be hiding. She's strong and resourceful, you said. She'll survive another night without you. And tomorrow we'll find her."
Haymitch gritted his teeth. He wanted - needed - a drink. He wanted - needed - to find Rose and tell her he wasn't her enemy. They'd get out alive, all they had to do was survive until the moment Plutarch gave the sign. But it would get harder every day, with the careers culling the herd one weak contender after another. If it came to the point where they'd start actively hunting down the remaining few, he wanted Rose beside him where he could watch over her and protect her.
He wanted to – needed to …
Be the blade. Kill whoever got in his way. Grab, stab, slice.
Hell, he so needed a drink.
His throat was so dry it hurt to swallow. He balled his fists and slowly released them in an effort to calm down.
"How are you holding up?" he asked.
"Ah, shiny." Chaff shrugged. In the initial fight at the cornucopia Gloss had sliced his thigh, but it was a shallow wound that did not bleed anymore.
"No withdrawal symptoms?"
Another shrug. "I can go without drink for a week, maybe even two, before it gets really bad. Then it's itching, hallucinations, cold sweats. You?"
"Not so long. Two, three days at most. Cold, shakes, things that aren't there crawling on the walls. That kind of stuff."
"And a frayed temper?"
Haymitch gave him an arched stare. "I am a model of serenity, am I not?"
Chaff chuckled. "Hell yeah! I bet that fella from District 10 disagrees, though."
The tribute from 10 - Clyde? Clive? - had armed himself with a bullwhip of all things and gone for Haymitch and Chaff when he encountered them in the area Chaff liked to call "District Bullshit". They had not seen any cattle, and Haymitch wasn't too keen on them. Maybe they could be killed and eaten, but he knew Plutarch's sense of humour, and the odds of the cows being carnivores themselves, were pretty high. Anyway, the ground stank of manure, and all those fences and corrals made the area hard to navigate. The tribute had gotten one vicious slash in, Haymitch had to give it to him. Two inches higher and the man would have ripped his eye out.
In an unbidden flashback he remembered the girl at the cliff edge. He hadn't known her name until long after the 2nd QuarterQuell. And he'd preferred his nightmare remained nameless. But he accepted this as part of his punishment. The names, the faces, the nightmares. Her name was Silk, she was 18. And her eye-socket a black hollow.
Like the tribute's from 10, one QuarterQuell on. Haymitch had gladly let the knifeman inside him do the killing. The knifeman, the blade itself, did not hesitate. Did not think further than the next fight. Relished in the blood, the power of the knife.
Soon he'd take over.
Frustrated, Katniss threw the pillow she'd hugged at the screen in their suite in the training centre, while Haymitch did away with the tribute from 10, .
"Two or three days, he says," she stated bleakly when Peeta went to pick up the pillow and reset the transmission cube. "I tell you water is not the problem here. I've seen him last winter when not even Ripper could get her hands at any liquor. He was beyond himself."
"I know. It was I who tied him to the chair in his kitchen, and it was I who almost got disembowelled when he reached that breadknife." Peeta's face showed the traces of a sleepless night. The program went on 24 hours a day, but at night only the hard-core fans watched. So the Gamemakers tried to raise viewing rates by setting trees on fire, flooding buildings and generally shooing the tributes from their hiding places for the amusement of those who still watched and wanted entertainment.
"Can we get some spirit in, you think?" Katniss took up pacing, like a wild animal in a cage. They were not allowed to leave their quarters unless they went to the viewing center to meet sponsors. Peeta was not sure if this was standard procedure.
"No, no, no! The rules allow no drugs, no alcohol!" Effie protested after blowing her nose. She cried a lot lately.
Cinna and the prep-teams remained suspiciously absent, so Effie was their only visitor. Peeta was not sure if he could survive another viewing session with the escort. He had to give it to her - the woman really felt with her tributes. Too much so. Her tears drove Katniss to snarling and spitting.
"I think the rules have changed, Effie," said Peeta before Katniss could utter another scorching remark. "Remember, the Gamemakers placed a syringe full of Morphling in the arena! So maybe drugs aren't generally banned in a QuarterQuell. so why not liquor?"
"Will be expensive." Katniss chewed on a hangnail. "We are kind rich, though, aren't we? And maybe Twelve will contribute, like District 11 did last year." They'd sent her bread after Rue's death and it had cost them dearly, as they now knew. But it was worth a try.
Peeta nodded. "Let's try call Major Undersee."
Exhausted and weary, Rose searched for a place to spend her second night. There was no way she could return to the mine tower, not even if all the mutt-bats were gone. She'd always see Cashmere's dead limp body in her mind, and was certain that Gloss was out there still, hunting for his sister's killer.
A slight grumbling in her stomach reminded her that she had not eaten since noon, and only half a protein bar at that. She rubbed her temples wearily. Her head hurt from the heat. She'd decide tomorrow, after - hopefully - a few hours of sleep. Studying the trees she tried to decide witch one was safest for her purposes. Sturdy, with wide branches not too low above ground. And not easily inflammable resin pines... She'd watched the greater part of the forest in "District 7" go up in flames like a match, and did not care to wake up in the middle of another inferno.
She looked up doubtfully. An oak. It would do.
When she stepped back, she lost her footing and slipped, flailing her arms to keep her balance. The soft ground crumbled, and only an ungraceful belly-flop saved her from falling into a hole. She dug her fingers into the earth and pulled herself up and away from the ... Trap! Another trap. Not as sophisticated as those she'd encountered so far, though. On closer inspection it was a clumsy contraption - a hole in the ground, maybe four foot deep, camouflaged with a thin cover of twigs and leaves. If she had not been so intent on finding a perfect tree, she never stepped on this suspicious surface.
She was about to stand up when a shrill shriek made her blood curdle. A figure jumped out of the underbrush. It was Lucas, the Morphling from District 6, brandishing a makeshift spear ... and blue war paint.
"Woad," thought Rose numbly. "He must have chewed the leaves to get the colour. His tongue and lips are blue, too."
The combination of blue face, huge fair eyes and reddish hair was rather comical than scary. The spear, tipped with a vicious glass-shard, was not. Obviously part of a lens, a broken eye glass. Rose mentally going through the list of tributes - who wore glasses? Beetee. The female from 5 and the male from 9.
"Who did you kill to get that glass?" she asked softly, her voice even.
He halted in mid strike. "Kill?" His eyes bulged. "I did not kill. Found it. Never killed no-one. No, Sir, not me, Sir."
His hand flew to his face, scratching absently. He was bleeding, Rose noticed. Self-induced shallow scratch wounds.
"Then you won't kill me, either, ok?" She stood up slowly, keeping her hands open and her face friendly. "Friends?"
Lucas frowned in confusion. "Kill you? Why no. I just..." He frowned. "Just ... Can't remember." He studied his hand and started to giggle. "Look, it's blue!"
Rose gently relived him of the spear. What now? The sudden withdrawal of Morphling had obviously left him deluded. If any of the careers met this confused but harmless guy, they'd hack him to pieces.
He scratched his skin again and watched in fascination how a thin string of blood-drops appeared. "Look, now it's red!"
"Come on," she gave his arm a gentle dug. "We spend the night in that tree. They won't find us there."
"Because we are birds!" He flapped imaginary wings with a huge smile. "We'll just fly away."
Oh boy. This promised be become an interesting night... With quick knots she fashioned a makeshift rope harness for him. If he really thought he was a bird, she'd better tether him to a branch.
He held up his arms for her to slip the harness on, trusting like a child. "We'll fly home!"
Rose turned away so he would not see the sudden tears that pricked her eyes. The only way they'd go home was in a coffin.
It took Haymitch and Chaff half a day to comb the lower "Districts" close to the cornucopia. Twice they barely avoided the careers, and several times they heard the canon boom. A column of smoke in what was assumedly "District 7" warned them that there were not only human dangers.
They found no trace of Rose, and Haymitch became more and more anxious. They had lost track of Beetee as well, and Finnick and Mags had simply disappeared after the initial fight at the cornucopia.
When they stumbled out of a swampy woodland to the shallow beach of a lake, Chaff pointed at a cluster of shacks in the distance.
"Kinda like a harbour, sorts of," he mumbled. "If I was a fish, I'd go there."
"Fish" was the derogative name for the seafaring people of District 4, just as Twelvers were called "Soot" and Eleveners "Turnip".
Haymitch nodded. Mags and Finnick would seek out familiar ground. He scooped a handful of water from the lake, only to spit it out immediately.
"Brine," he pronounced. Finding drinkable was becoming a real problem. They'd won some by emptying and shovelling through a whole silo of grain, but it had cost them one of the six bottles they gained to wash off the bluish mould that grew wherever they'd got in contact with the grain. Unhindered the mould would eat through fabric and skin at an alarming rate. They'd watch a hovercraft remove what remained of the body of another tribute who had not been fast enough to wash the stuff off.
Now, after half a day in the swamp, they were down to one bottle each.
"Let's go talk," Haymitch led the way. "We only have to convince Odair that we mean no harm and want to be his allies. Shouldn't be too hard."
"Yeah," Chaff snorted good-humouredly. "Easy-peasy."
Which it wasn't, of course. Finnick Odair and Mags Cohen had not won their Games – and survived the years after by being gullible.
As soon as they entered the first boat-shack, a net dropped and rendered both Haymitch and Chaff immobile. Haymitch closed his eyes when he felt the sharp edge of a trident pressed against his jugular.
This was not the enemy.
"Killing us would be a mistake, Odair."
The trident edge did not move.
"Put that thing away and let me explain."
Haymitch felt Chaff struggle next to him, and heard a muffled "THUMP". The other man did not move anymore.
"You know they watch us," Haymitch hissed, his right hand inching toward the knife hidden in his pant-leg. "At least pretend we are allies."
"Are we now?"
"You are still alive." Haymitch let the tip of the knife dig into Finnick's rips, just deep enough to make his point.
They stared into each other's eyes, then let go at the same time.
Haymitch shook his head. "Not now. They are watching."
"Camera is up there in the rafters, so as long as you keep your head down… Anyway, they'll be preoccupied right now." Finnick got up from his crouched position and grabbed Haymitch's hair to force his head to the right. Through a small window he saw the salt-water lagoon or rather what looked like a small tsunami. Huge splashes, a glint of metal, the flat sound of big fins hitting the water. If this was a fish, it had been created in one of Panem's labs. "All eyes are on Mags."
"You let her..."
"She volunteered," Finnick was quick to explain. "And if that woman volunteers you better not stand in her way. The beastie in the lake is in for a surprise with our Mags, I think. And the Gamemakers will have a field day. Ratings will go up, up, up." He absentmindedly helped Haymitch out of the net. "And if that thing is edible, we will go to bed with our stomachs full."
Haymitch rubbed the back of his head and cast a worried glance at Chaff.
"Was that necessary?"
Finnick shrugged. "I'm not much for risks right now. I prefer to even the odds where I can."
"The odds are in our favour for once. But only if we work as a team." Haymitch repeated what Plutarch had told him minutes before the launch.
"So the revolution has really begun," Finnick whispered, his eyes a bright sea-green.
"Nah, not yet," Haymitch warned the younger man. "We have to get Katniss to District 13, and hope she really is the spark that will set Panem on fire. If the plan works, it will be a terrible and bloody fight. If not..."
"We are all dead anyway."
Chaff had woken and gingerly touched his head. "Man, Odair, you hit hard."
Finnick helped him stand up, but did not apologize. Nobody expected him to.
"So we find Rose, Johanna and Beetee and Caspar Frye, and wait for Plutarch's signal."
"That's the easy part," explained Haymitch. "Then we cause a distraction."
"Like Mags with the beastie."
"Gotta find a bigger beastie though," grumbled Chaff. "Now that you'd raised the stakes."
Finnick laughed mirthlessly. "I guess that won't be a problem."
He turned to Haymitch. "Get together. Cause distraction. And then? We are fish in a barrel. There is no way out."
"Yes there is." Haymitch would not say more, but the calm certainty in his voice made Finnick relax visibly.
"What's your bargain with Plutarch?" asked Chaff while they watched Mags slaughter the monster fish that was twice a long as she.
Finnick gave him a hard look. "You don't know?"
"Ah, of course." Chaff nodded in sudden comprehension. "Sweet Annie Cresta! Don't you worry. They'll get her out with the other mentors who are on our side."
"They better. So why did you join?"
Chaff's smile was bitter. "Me, I just want to die a free man."
Finnick looked at Haymitch. "And what's in it for you?"
Before they got an answer, a sharp call from the shore made Finnick run to help Mags drag the dead mutt-fish from the water, and Chaff followed him.
Haymitch remained silent, rubbing his left forearm. Nine scars. And now another two whose blood was on his hands, Lill from 2 and Clive from 10. He pressed the razor-sharp edge of his knife against the skin until blood welled up from a deep cut.
What was in it for him? Rose, and the promise - or at least the possibility - of love. And for the killer?
To be continued…