"Is everyone in the Capitol as self-absorbed as you?" Someone asks behind me.
I turn and cock an eyebrow, amused. Apparently they've sent someone to check on me. A girl, about my age. She lingers halfway behind the door, as if she's scared of me.
Good, I think, my smile widening just a bit.
"You might look in the mirror too, if you were pretty," I say back, batting my eyelashes. The comment hurts her, I can tell. Probably because it's true. The girl is unbelievably plain, and, well... ordinary. She would never fit in at the Capitol.
At least, she wouldn't have before, I think bitterly. Ever since the Districts rebelled and killed President Snow, the Capitol, once a lively and beautiful place, had been over run by common folk and was now being used as a headquarters for our new government.
They are the reason I am here.
I turn away so the girl can't read the sadness on my face, applying an extra coat of black lipstick. She thinks looking in the mirror is self-absorbed? Ha. Maybe it is. I don't care. There is no way I'm not going to relish how absolutely stunning I look right now.
I've heard it said that black is the most intimidating color, and I can't help but to agree. At this moment, I look dangerous. I'm wearing a slick, black one-piece fighting suit. It clings to my skin tightly, allowing me to move quickly and freely without being uncomfortable. I'm glad that I packed my favorite black combat boots- they seemed like practical footwear for going into the arena- because they match perfectly with the suit. My purple hair is pulled up into a tight ponytail, and I've also adorned some fingerless black gloves with decorative spikes on the cuffs. I give myself one last glance and smile, satisfied. I turn back, half expecting the girl to be gone, but she waits patiently.
"What?" I ask, irritated.
"I'm supposed to escort you down to the loading room, where all the other candidates are. Someone's there to talk to all of you before you compete."
Compete. Right. As if this was some sort of silly child's contest, where the winner gets some useless prize and everyone else can just go home to their families.
I am positive that I'll never be seeing my family again, at least.
"Lead the way," I say, pulling the door open. She walks a good distance in front of me, putting as much space between us as possible.
As we walk down the hall, I can't help but notice the dank smell it carries. It smells like a combination of blood and mold. I wrinkle my nose and hold my breath, breathing through my mouth. The last thing I want to do before fighting is become nauseous. When we reach the loading room, I see the girl's shoulders droop with relief. In this bright and open space, with guards posted at the doors, I can't hurt her.
What a shame.
"Welcome to the loading room," she says brightly, waving her hand around as if she's showing me some famous attraction. I look around, unimpressed. There's nothing too unusual about it. There are some couches in the corner and a large screen on one of the walls. Some of the tributes linger in groups, talking nervously. My glance flickers away. The last thing I want is to recognize any of them.
"As you can see over there," she points to some pod shaped devices on the opposite side of the room, "tributes used to be transported to the arena from this very room. However, they have been... malfunctioning lately, so we will use buses to transport you instead. If you could-"
"Maud?" An incredulous voice interrupts behind me. My thoughts slow to a stop, because I know that voice, and I must be imagining it, because there is no way he could be here-
I turn around, my eyes wide. That's when I see him. All six-foot two, lanky and uncoordinated bit of him. "Bo," I say, my voice disbelieving. Bo. My Bo.
His eyes look terrified as well. He runs a hand through his fiery orange hair, something he always does when he is upset. "What are you doing here?" he asks, as if I would have another reason for being in this very room. I am here the same reason he is, and he knows it.
"My name got pulled," I say, numbly. "I thought my mom would have told you."
"No," he says forcefully, shaking his head. His eyes look at me, pleading. "There has to be a way to get you out of here. Surely someone will be willing to replace you.." he trails off, thinking.
I laugh once. It sounds off. "My own personal Katniss Everdeen, huh? She's the reason we're here, you know." My voice breaks on the end of the sentence, something it rarely does. "Bo, why are you here? How can you be here?"
He doesn't answer me, reaching to grab me by the arms. I have already leaned into him when his lips touch mine, something that is familiar and automatic to both of us now.
"TRIBUTES!" A voice booms, making both of us jump. We turn in surprise. Bo's hand tightens around mine and I squeeze it, trying to make him feel better. The other people in the room crowd around a small platform on the far end of the room and we gravitate towards them, curious to know what's happening.
"Welcome to the 76th Hunger Games!" the voice says again, and through the heads in front of me I see a tall, sweaty man with thick black hair. He looks nervous; wringing the microphone with both hands. I can't fathom why he should be nervous- he's not the one being forced into an area with 23 of his neighbors with orders to kill them.
"You will shortly be escorted onto buses and led to the arena. Once you reach the arena, we will show you to your personal platform. Please do not step off the platform until the countdown ends. When it does, the Games will begin. I'm sure you have grown up watching these Games, so the rules should be familiar to you," he adds. The note of anger in his voice is obvious. "It is your turn to see how inhumane this type of entertainment can be when you must actually experience it."
I clench my teeth together and take a step forward. How dare this man accuse us of being inhumane when he was willingly sending us off to the same fate.
"Maud," Bo pleads under his breath, knowing he can't stop me. I ignore him.
"Excuse me," I say loudly, causing everyone to turn towards me. I see so many familiar faces, so many people I've grown up with. Relief washes over me as I realize that no one too close to me is here, followed by guilt. These people don't deserve to be here; they can't help who their parents are.
No one seems very surprised by my outburst except the man on stage. "I was just wondering why it's suddenly less inhumane to put a bunch of us in an arena and force us to kill each other. Is it okay to do it now, because you're the one in charge instead of the one being oppressed?"
The man opens his mouth but I cut him off. "Sorry, I'm not done. I'm really sorry about what happened in the past, but that's not exactly my fault, is it? Wasn't the whole point of the rebellion to move past this? Apparently not. It seems we've replaced one evil with another."
The man's face is turning purple with anger at this point, but I can't stop. The words are rushing out of me like they've been waiting to spill out for ages. Maybe they have.
"I don't think you-" the man begins, but I talk over him.
"Also, this is so much worse than before, because we all know each other. I'm not saying the past games were okay, but at least you didn't know the other tributes because they grew up in different districts than you. We've grown up together. These people are my friends, and you expect me to kill them."
Well, that's not exactly true. I don't have friends, and I never have. But that doesn't mean I'll be fine with killing any of these people, especially the boy holding my hand.
The man seems to realize that I'm not going to continue. He clears his throat, twice. "What is your name?" he asks.
"Maudelene Drascott," I say. His expression changes quickly, horrified. Now he is genuinely afraid.
Whatever he was about to say has clearly left his mind. He clears his throat three more times before managing, "If you will please follow me."
I try not to notice everyone staring at me as they shuffle behind him, their eyes uneasy. No one counted on a girl from the Capitol who actually knows how to fight. They're scared of me.
Some things never change.
"Why do you have to say things like that?" Bo asks as we exit. "You know they're already mad at us. What if you push them too hard and they deliberately execute you when we get to the arena?"
One of my boot's laces has come undone. I reach down and start to tie it, bringing us to a halt. "Good," I say firmly. "Then I won't have to kill anyone I care about."
I straighten and avoid his gaze. "Maud," he says softly, touching my arm.
I yank it away, crossing my arms stubbornly. "I don't want to be a killer, Bo. I'm not that heartless."
"I never said you were heartless," he says, obviously surprised.
Everyone else seems to think so. "Whatever. This conversation is over." We've reached the buses by now, and the steps are a bit uneven. Bo reaches up behind me to steady me and I turn back to him, glaring. "I don't need your help."
He drops his hands to his sides. "Trust me, I know."
I feel a pinch of guilt squeeze in my chest and push it away, irritated. As much as I love Bo, he will never have the backbone to stand up for what's right, especially if it means actually speaking his mind.
I plop in one of the seats and look out the window. Bo lingers near me, hesitant, but eventually sits beside me, resting his hand on my knee. "I'm sorry. I'm not angry at you, I'm upset that you're here," I say to the window.
"I know," he tells me.
We sit in silence for the rest of the ride, which takes about twenty minutes. I can tell we've reached the arena; it isn't a building like I expected, but more of a transparent dome. The only giveaway that it's even there is the way the air shimmers.
"Welcome to the Hunger Games arena," the girl who escorted me earlier says as she hops off the bus. "Thanks to our many scientific experts, it has been remodeled and repaired from... previous damage."
I raise an eyebrow at this. So the arena can be broken. Interesting.
"As you can see," the girl says, swinging her arm in a wide arc, "there are several platforms evenly spaced in a circle around the weaponry. Each of you will have your own platform, which we will assign to you shortly. Once everyone has mounted their platform, the countdown will begin. If you step off of your platform before the countdown reaches zero, a land mine will go off under your feet and you will be instantly killed. Stay on your platforms until the countdown finishes. After that, the games will begin. You may take anything from the weaponry pile, but also note that whatever you take will be your best defense and offense for the rest of the game." She looks at all of us expectantly. "Any questions?"
No one says anything. She smiles. "I thought so. Platform assignments will begin in a moment. I wish you all the best of luck, may the odds be in your favor!" With that, she turns and exits the arena. The door that all of us came through suddenly shuts, leaving us alone.
"Thurina Ample," a voice suddenly booms, making all of us jump. One of the platforms illuminates. Thurina, a girl with bright orange hair that I've known since I was four years old, walks forward, her eyes downcast.
Bo clenches his jaw. I look to him, not surprised. He's always been one of the friendliest of our age group; he's probably friends with everyone here. I squeeze his hand and he squeezes it back, releasing a deep shuddering breath. Maybe the reality of what's about to happen is finally sinking in.
The voice calls more people to their platforms. It seems the names are being called in alphabetical order, so I'm already expecting it when my name is called.
"Maudelene Drascott," the automated voice announces. One of the platforms suddenly illuminates. I turn to Bo and throw my arms around his neck. He hugs me back, his hands shaking.
"Come for me when you find your weapons, and don't get hurt," I say.
I know there is no one here who will dare hurt him this early in the game. They know what I will do to them if they do.
Holding my head high, I walk towards the platform and mount it, staring straight ahead at the mountain of weaponry. I don't see any weapons that will give me a significant advantage. I think I can see a bow and arrow, but no one in the Capitol knows how to use them, and neither do I. There are a wide variety of nets, knives, and what look like landmines.
"Bodec Kyvenly," the announcer says, and my head snaps in its direction. A platform on the opposite side of me lights up.
Of course. How many more ways must I be punished today?
I watch as Bo walks towards the platform, hands clenched at his sides. I have no doubt he is trying to be strong for me. I try not to think of my gentle, compassionate Bo being forced to harm someone else.
I won't let it happen, I decide. I'll do everything I can to keep the dirt off his hands, even if it means killing everyone else.
More tributes walk to their platforms. I distract myself by watching their faces. Most of them look desolate, like they've already given up. I wonder if some of them will step off the platform before the countdown finishes, just to get it over with.
I've barely noticed that everyone is on their platforms when the countdown starts.
I jump slightly at the sound as it resonates across the arena.
Bo looks up and meets my eyes. I think he mouths "I love you", but I hope not. He's never said it before, and there should be no reason for him to say it now. He's going to live.
An explosion sounds, then another. Two bodies lay crumpled on the ground. I look at them in horror, moving my hand to cover my mouth. My movements feel sluggish, like I'm moving through water.
I'm on the ground faster than anyone can blink, sprinting towards the weapons and far away from the bodies. I reach the weapons first and look around frantically for anything I can use. My hands grab a backpack and a set of throwing knives, as well as a few landmines. Someone comes up behind me and I elbow them in the nose, hard, sending them crashing to the ground. I unzip the backpack and start tossing things inside it, whatever I touch.
"Maud!" Bo yells behind me and I spin in relief, trying not to imagine his body crumpled on the ground. I grab his hand and we run for the trees, leaving everyone else to fight for the remaining weapons.
I've only climbed a tree once in my life, but Bo seems to know what he's doing. He climbs up one of the trees with little effort and reaches for me, pulling me up with a grunt. We sit on one of the thicker branches together, breathing heavily.
"What did you get?" I finally ask him, my hand clenching his tightly.
He holds up a roll of bandages and some sort of device that I've never seen before. "Water purifier," he says as an explanation.
I nod. I'm thinking about how we'll fight, he's thinking about how we will survive. We will need both to stay alive. Maybe that's why we are so good together.
I tense as someone runs past us, but they don't look up. Maybe I could've killed them. I don't know. I don't want to know. Bo presses his face in my hair, moving his arm across my waist.
"I don't want you to die trying to save me," he whispers. "We both know I'm no good at this, but you have a chance, more than anyone else in this arena. Promise me you'll do what it takes to survive."
I'm already shaking my head. "We're a team," I say. "We stick together, got it?"
"Promise me, Maud," he says again.
I will protect you. I will keep you alive. I promise.
"I promise," I say, not to him.
He sighs in relief and moves me closer to him. I close my eyes and lay my head on his shoulder, pretending to sleep.
There are less than 20 of us left, I'm sure of it. Occasionally we hear a scream in the distance, making that number even smaller. That means there are still plenty of people here who want to hurt Bo. The odds are not in my favor, but then again, they never have been.
I will show Katniss Everdeen what I am made of. It's time for the Mockingjay to become a bird of prey.