The 76th Hunger Games

Ashby is the daughter of Katniss Everdeen. She has been told barely anything about the Hunger Games purely because of her mother's fear. This puts Ashby in a dangerous position. She and her family are being followed and it's up to Ashby to find out who they are and what they want. But what if ... they want her?

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5. Test Scores

Author's notes: Okay guys, or whoever is actually reading this :P I'm really sorry about the late update (and by late, I mean like several months of not writing anything). I had some serious writers block with this story but I am on a roll with it right now! It's an extra long chapter this time, so I hope you enjoy :)

 

Chapter Five

Test Scores

Five days past and still nothing happened. Guards gave us food three times a day and some water too. But every time I started thinking, I ended up missing my family, especially Fir so much. It seemed everything reminded me of them. I wondered how they were.

I really hoped Fir’s eye had been cleared up too. It was a bit too gruesome looking for my taste. I also hoped mum was doing okay. I imagined she would be going down in hysterics at some point. Maybe this would add into her nightmares? I sincerely hoped not. But I knew dad would be able to hold it together. He’d miss me, yeah, but he’d stay strong for Fir and mum. I was sure of it. That’s sort of what helped me sleep at night.

One day, when it looked like it was going to rain at last, I heard a sharp tap on the door. I opened it to find a guard, not the same as the others, waiting to escort me.

“One second.” I told him. I pulled on a pair of jeans from the closet provided and also found a black top and leather jacket! I raked a brush through my hair and went back to the door.

The guard escorted me into one of the strange carriages. When we arrived to our destination, I saw all the others standing there, all in silly outfits. I wondered if their stylists had broken into their rooms and stole all the nice clothes. Compared to everyone else, I looked incredibly simple. If it was a fancy event, surely they would have told me.

Siena spotted me and came over. She filled me in on her dance with Leonis and how badly Rae had been glaring. We both almost got into hysterics when Rae scowled heavily at us. Unfortunately, this made us laugh more. 

Poor Siena had got dressed into a black skirt with a strange amount of frills, a sparkly sapphire blue top and matching shoes. She must have been freezing so I lent her my jacket.

“Thanks, Ash. My stylists decided to go very impractical.” She told me. Her stylists had dressed her? “You’re stylists did a much better job. I mean, you look really nice in those clothes.” Siena was looking at hers in such a despairing way. I frowned. My stylists hadn’t come this morning.

“Well, actually, my stylists didn’t help me get changed. In fact, I haven’t seen them at all since that ball thing.” I replied, puzzled. Siena frowned and I could tell she was trying to think up any explanation. She smiled and shrugged it off.

“Maybe they forgot or are on holiday?” Siena suggested. I decided I’d believe her and stop worrying about things. She handed me back my jacket, saying she was much warmer now and I caught a glimpse of her staring at Leonis.

“Siena, he is totally not worth the trouble.”  I told her. She gave me a sideways look, grinning. Oh dear, I thought. How many girls here were falling for Leonis? I desperately wanted to scream “hello, he and his daddy KIDNAPPED you all”! Actually, when I looked around, a lot of eyes were on Leonis, including Rae’s. The poor girl was obsessed.

Mr Coin stepped out the building in front of us and herded us inside. He gave me a particularly fowl look as I passed by, examining what I was wearing with a scowl.

Once everyone was inside, he climbed up onto a platform in the strange room. I was alarmed to notice that this room was filled with hundreds of different weapons. He cleared his throat, catching everyone’s attention.

“Morning all, I trust you slept well?” There were a couple of people murmuring their answers. Mr Coin looked at all the sleepy faces below. He did not look impressed.

“I have brought you here today to make an announcement.” Uh-oh, my brain thought. This was the announcement Leonis warned me about. He told me I wouldn’t like it. “You are all participants for the 76th Hunger Games.” My eyes widened. He was joking, right? The Hunger Games? Was he a complete and utter imbecile? Leonis caught my eye from the other side of the hallway. He’d known about this the whole time? Why didn’t he say anything? I couldn’t take much more of this.

“I will leave you now.” Mr Coin said but it was washed away by the urgent mutters and small sobs. Siena came over to me.

“Oh, Ash. This is awful!” She cried in despair, her cheeks covered in tear streaks. I couldn’t blame her. I felt like crying myself. I’d been entered into the 76th Hunger Games? I didn’t even know there was a 76th. I thought it just went up to 75. I gave Siena a reassuring hug.

That night we were all taken to see our stylists again. I couldn’t be happier because it meant that I got to see Frank, Hostella, Glora and Mansy. I walked through the door buzzing with excitement. Frank was probably my favourite person there.

“Hello?” I called. “Frank?” No answer. There was no one here. Where had they all got to? Suddenly the door flew open and revealed a man with pink hair and a blue all in one suit.

“Ah, you must be Ashby Mellark. I’m afraid just for today, I’m replacing Frank. Mr Coin has a special dress for you to wear.” Oh, brilliant, I thought. He was going to put me in a black bin bag.

The oddly dressed man trotted over to the closet and flung it open in one dramatic move. In fact, there was no black bin bag inside. Just a gorgeous light blue dress that matched my eye colour perfectly.

“Wow.” I breathed. He turned around and smiled kindly (or was it sympathetically?) at me. I inspected the dress more carefully. It was a beautiful dress with two skirts, one see-through one on top, the other the same colour as the dress. The top of it would cover my whole chest and stopped just under my neck. Carefully stitched onto the see-through skirt were what looked like rain drops. This dress was totally perfect.

“I like it too. One of my better pieces of work.” He grinned down at her. “Well, try it on then!” I didn’t hesitate. I took the dress of the hanger and went into a dressing room. The dress was incredibly comfy, much to my surprise. I walked out of the dressing room and showed the pink haired man the dress. He clapped in delight.

“Oh yes. That dress is perfect on you. Take a look!” I peered into the same mirror I had nights ago and found I looked even better in this blue handmade dress than the white beach one I had worn.

He curled my hair in the same way but did a much greater job that I had and put the tiniest amount of blue eye shadow on. I didn’t mind because it was barely visible. 

“Good luck, Ashby.” That’s all he said when I left. I thanked him and met the guards outside who put me in the carriage. There were so many buildings around here! And they were so spread out. They stopped outside what looked like the smallest building I’d seen so far and was pushed inside. There was a single room that led into another where all of us were shoved in together. There was barely any room at all. I was stood in the corner when two more were pushed in. The boy in front moved back and managed to step on my toe. I yelped. He turned around to see what was happening. Leonis. He had a habit for hurting me. When he saw the dress he grinned.

“Well, don’t you look nice in your dress?” He teased. I frowned. I loved this dress but the fact it had been chosen by Mr Coin and that it was a dress didn’t make it as appealing as it should have been. Two more kids were piled into the room, squishing me and Leonis together. I swear he was laughing.

“You have your dad to thank for that.” I replied moodily. Leonis smiled and for a second, I could have sworn his fingers brushed my hand. When I looked down, I realised he couldn’t have. His hands were in his pockets.

“I suppose I do.” He replied, frowning at me. I noticed Rae behind him, listening in to our conversation. Quickly, I kicked Leonis in the shin and he gave out a small “ouch”.

“What the hell was that for?” He asked, completely bewildered. I pointed to Rae when she wasn’t looking. He turned, gave her a smile then gave me an apologetic look.

“See you in the arena.” He said coldly and turned back to Rae.

People got called out in the same order as the day before and by the end I was left standing there uncomfortably, on my own. At last my name was called and I opened the door to find a pitch black stage with a single spot light, a chair and a camera. Stood behind the chair was Mr Coin, my favourite person in the world. Not.

“Finally, for our interviews, we have Ashby Mellark.” His comment was followed with silence. I could make out people in the audience but clearly they weren’t allowed to speak. He gestured for me to sit in the chair and, with great reluctance, I did.

“So, this is the famous Ashby Mellark.” He taunted. Ignoring the comment, I fiddled with the skirts of my dress. He’s not worth your breath, I told myself sternly. I knew he was going to try and make me lose it in front of a whole crowd and then go on and on about how unstable I was. If only Leonis could see me now, my brain muttered in humiliation. Or even worse, if Rae saw it. She’d never let it go. Ever.

“I prepared a little dress for you, my own personal little joke.” He told me, holding out his hand. I stared at it like it was a bomb. He really expected me to touch him? Mr Coin’s expectant glare forced me to angrily take his hand and let him pull me out of the chair I had only just sat down in.

“Just give us a twirl and I’ll explain.” He replied, sounding very smug. Why were men like him so weird?

Although, I thought it was crazy I spun round as gracefully as I could muster. I almost cried out in shock. As I spun the material seemed to move as if it were a stream coursing at high speed. The next thing that happened was even more glorious. The tiny encrusted raindrops lifted off the dress and twisted themselves around. There was a chorus of “oohs” and “ahs”. I stopped spinning and looked down in amazement at the blue material flowing just above my knee.

“But ... I ... umm ... I don’t understand.” I stammered. Mr Coin’s face stretched into a grotesque smile which chilled me to the bone. Obviously, this stunning dress had some reasoning behind it. Leonis’s dad was giving it to me just to be nice. There would be an insult hidden deep in the costume. I should have known.

“Of course you don’t.” He chuckled, causing the audience to erupt. “I had this dress designed for a reason, as you must have already figured out. Do you remember your mum’s dress for her interview?” Who didn’t? My mum’s dress was absolutely fabulous. The skirts exploded into flames when she spun around. So why had Mr Coin designed me a dress that had water droplets on it?

“It’s just a little joke of mine. Your dress is made like water, hers is made like fire.” I could barely follow this.

“What are you talking about?” I managed to splutter out. The audience laughed. How was I going to extinguish my own mum? This man was officially insane.

“You’ll find out. In time.” Mr Coin told me. I frowned. I’d had enough of these stupid riddles. I wanted out. But how are you supposed to get out of a mess as big as this? My guess was ... you couldn’t.

“I hope your mother’s watching this. She’ll get to see her little daughter for the last time until you’re thrown into the same world she had to endure.” He seized a handful of my hair and tugged on it, dragging me closer. He took hold of my face and shoved me towards the camera.

“So, Katniss, what do you think of your pretty little daughter?” I squirmed in his grip. Who did he think he was? And why was he asking the camera what my mum thought? Of course. What made the Hunger Games so popular? It was broadcasted on live T.V. I could feel the anger swelling up inside of me. He was doing this to me to get at my mum. How dare he?!

“Now Ashby, why don’t you run along and get ready for a whole new world of pain.” That had to have been the strangest comment I’d ever received. I decided to “run along and get ready for a whole new world of pain” and walked out of the room. I wanted my mum. I wanted my dad. I wanted Fir to burst into the room and ask me to sing for him. I wanted to hug him. But I couldn’t. I was about to be sent into “a world full of pain” as Mr Coin so elegantly put it.

As soon as my head hit the pillow, I was asleep. I’d been hoping for a nice simple dream about ponies and unicorns but I got one just as bad as my other nightmare.

I was standing in the middle of a large dark stage with a burning light blinding me from seeing what was beyond the stage. I squinted a tiny bit but nothing could be seen. I heard a small laugh that sounded more menacing than I had hoped.

“Ashby, Ashby, Ashby. You think you’re something special don’t you?” I heard a harsh voice spit. I turned around to come face to face with Rae. My mouth felt like it had been glued together. I tried to snap back a clever comment but nothing would come out.

“You should realise by now, nobody wants you. Leonis doesn’t want you, his dad doesn’t want you, your parents and brother don’t want you and I certainly don’t want anything to do with you.” She had a gleam in her eyes that told me she was enjoying this too much.

 Just as I felt my mouth loosen up, Leonis sauntered out from the grip of the shadows. Rae’s face lit up with pleasure. WAKE UP, my head screamed at me. But I couldn’t. I watched in horror as Leonis took a nauseating amount of interest in Rae. I thought I might be sick.

Mr Coin suddenly thought it appropriate to enter my nightmare too and started pushing me towards a camera which had suddenly appeared which was trying to eat me. Weird, I know. Three figures in the crowd stood up with unimpressed looks fixed to their faces. My family. They all hated me. Was Rae right? No, she couldn’t be. My family loved me ... didn’t they? And Leonis ... he liked me when he wasn’t pretending to hate me ... right? Or was it all an act? My mind was so jammed.

When I woke up, my forehead was covered in sweat. It was all a dream. That’s what I repeated for half an hour before dropping off again. Luckily, the rest of my night was dreamless and I slept like a log.

The rest of the week went by rather quickly. It was all like everything had been sped up. People popped in and out at various times and after around 5 minutes, left again. A lonely feeling had resided in my stomach, leaving me vulnerable and hurt. It had to be the worst feeling. Anything could have agitated me; everything could have left a mental scar. This had never happened before. I’d never in my life felt so horrid about myself.

As the days slid by, I felt each passing day cut deeper into me. It was as if the realisation was slowing sinking in that I would never see my family again. I’d never see little Fir’s grin or his angelic face. I’d never see my mum’s beautiful eyes glow with pride or my dad smile approvingly down on Fir and I. All of that was gone. This changed everything.

I’d lost track of the days but on one specific day, I heard a sharp knock on the door and got up to open it. A strong, stern looking guard stared down with an unforgiving glare. I raised an eyebrow.

“What?” I had given up on being civilized awhile ago. I swear the guard was suppressing an evil kind of grin. He handed me an odd looking outfit and slammed the door in my face. Rude, I thought angrily to myself. I should have expected it thought really.

Taking a proper look at the outfit, I saw it was very delicately designed. Instead of the red outfit I remembered my mum having, mine was blue. It had intricate wave designs that reminded me of a beach on a rainy day. On my right shoulder, the number 12 had been sowed on. The trousers were plain black and a little baggy. The T-shirt was black with a collar and somehow, exactly my size.

I stared back at my reflection. I looked stupid! The outfit made me look like I was in training camp. It even made me look soft and easy to get to. Mr Coin had obviously really thought this through. I was about to prove him so wrong. He had so better watch his back, my brain whispered furiously.

I let the guard escort me to the strange carriage which, coincidently, was blue. Hatred seethed from inside me as I stepped inside. Mr Coin was trying to intimidate me. He wanted a reaction. I just had to try not to give it to him.

We stopped rather abruptly at the biggest of the buildings. It was jet black, lacking many windows and not entirely very attractive. I stared at it disgusted. What had made them build something like this? I also wondered what the purpose of this building was. They all seemed to have one.

I didn’t have time to think as the guard pulled me out of the carriage rather viciously. I had no intention of entering the building but I seemed to have no choice. The guard accompanying me kept giving me little shoves in the back as I was constantly hesitant to enter this spooky place.

I started to wonder where we were going as I made my way through a labyrinth of doors and passages. I knew the building was big but it seemed like a tardis:  Small on the outside and ridiculously large on the inside.

Finally, we reach a doorway with a huge plate nailed to the door:

Training facilities

Uh-oh, my brain decided quickly. Training facilities. What was I training to do? Whatever it was, it couldn’t be good.

I entered to find several people glaring at me.

“You’re late.” Mr Coin sneered. Who cares, I wanted to snap back at him but I didn’t give him the satisfaction of knowing I was furious. I smiled sweetly.

“Sorry, must have lost track of the time.” I said in the most angelic voice I could muster. His glare deepened. You wear your heart on your sleeve, old guy, I laughed to myself. Leonis caught my eye from across the hall and gave me a questioning glance. I decided not to explain. I was supposed to hate him. He was supposed to hate me. Everything was simpler that way.

Mr Coin paced uncomfortable, obviously waiting for someone. I was sure all the tributes were here. So who was he expecting? My question was answered when the door burst dramatically open and a slim, beautiful woman walked out: All the guys drooled. She looked sickeningly fake and I could tell she’d had multiple surgeries on her face and butt. Not that I cared, of course. This place was full of losers.

“Ah, Pleione Allardyce. A pleasure as always.” Mr Coin purred. Pleione smiled but only I seemed to have noticed it was completely forced. A couple of boys next to me drooled. I wanted to vomit.

“I see you’re still the charmer, Talon.” Pleione gave out a girlish giggle and I thought the poor boy standing next to me might faint from excitement. It was like only I could see through this fake little scumbag. “Talon” grinned broadly as if to agree with her statement and decided to address the rest of us.

“This is Pleione Allardyce, your trainer.” Our trainer? She didn’t look as if she wanted to be our trainer but I seriously doubted she’d be any good. She looked like a soft little kitten. Unfortunately, I had the feeling she’d bite.

A couple of guys whopped. Naturally, Pleione acknowledged this with a flirtatious laugh. I was sure Mr Coin had only asked Pleione to do the job because she was pretty until I saw her skills.

First she showed us how to use the trident, which proved harder than I’d expected. I also hated to admit Pleione had some skill ... some. It was an incredibly heavy kind of weapon that required immense strength which I did not seem to own. Danyell seemed very relaxed on this weapon and hit the bull’s eye stuck to a moving target nearly every time. I could barely throw it three feet and was glad when we moved on.

Next we came to the bow and arrow. I smiled to myself. Easy. Pleione was outdone by me in this certain trail. I hit the middle of each and every target each time. Mr Coin swaggered over.

“Of course.” He spat. “I should have guessed you would be just as brilliant with the bow as your mother.” He seemed angry. I simply smiled as if he’d given me a huge compliment – which he had – and walked away. Siena was struggling putting the arrow in her bow.

“Here, let me help.” I told her, slipping the weapon out of her hands. She smiled and watched as I put the arrow into the bow with ease and handed back to her.

“Thanks, Ash.” She replied and took a shot. It missed the target completely. She shrugged. “Not my thing.” I laughed and carried on.

We then came to spear throwing. I was average at it, but not really exceptional. I would hit the target every so often but most of the time I was just off. Pleione was annoyingly good at this too.

We went through sword fighting, axe throwing and setting up traps. I was excited when we came to knife throwing. I didn’t have much experience but couldn’t wait to learn properly, even if Pleione was teaching me. She picked it up, explained how to use it and then flung it at a target. It only just hit the rim of the bull’s eye. I attempted very hard not to laugh. Not one of her strongest weapons then, I thought cheekily to myself. We all picked up five knives and waited until it was our go to hit the moving targets. I noticed as each person went, it got a little faster.

Leonis completed it with ease, hitting each target in the middle as they moved fairly fast from side to side.

Everybody else either struggled to hit the target or got just inside the bull’s eye. Once it was my turn, the targets were moving incredibly fast and I could barely keep up. My mouth hung open. How was I supposed to hit these?

“Hurry up.” Pleione snapped. “We’re all waiting.” I turned around, glaring at her. Everyone stared at us, waiting to see what would happen.

“Do I look like I care?” I hissed before I could stop myself. Me and my big mouth, I thought angrily to myself. Why did I always get myself into trouble? Mr Coin snarled and Pleione looked slightly taken back. Good, I thought, she’s an idiot anyway.

“Get on with.” She told me, before turning away. I looked back at the targets, doubting that I could even hit any of them at the speed they were going at. I raised my first knife, ready to throw. I could feel everyone’s eyes boring into my back and Pleione waiting for me to fail. I wouldn’t. I couldn’t.

I flung it at the first target. Bull’s eye. I heard some cheers behind me. Concentrate, my brain urged me. I hurled the next one and suddenly it was stuck firmly in the middle of the red circle. Yes!

I looked over my shoulder at Pleione, her face concealed. I instantly knew she was furious though. The last three of my knives all just hit the bull’s eye. That would teach this lot to mess with me. Mr Coin coughed awkwardly.

“Well, next weapon then.” He snapped after awhile. I grinned up at him triumphantly. I wished I could fling my knife at him. I wasn’t sure why I hadn’t already.

We moved through many weapons and different survival skills. Of course, I much preferred the weapons but was quite good at identifying the right berries you could eat. I was fairly okay at making traps and tying knots to but that was about it.

I was crouched down, trying to finish off the last – and hardest – trap I had to make, when I saw a shadow fall over me. I stood up, turning around, to come face to face – or face to chest – with Leonis. What did he want this time?

“Nice job out there.” He told me. I frowned. So this was him being nice again? He needed to sort himself out because even I was confused about who he really was.

“Umm... thanks?” I replied as I started to turn back round. I was taken totally by surprise when he caught my arm, firmly but gently, and turned me back to face him. “What?” I asked, irritated. Leonis grinned widely as if I’d said something really funny. Was he trying to make Rae jealous?

For some reason, I noticed he was wearing a different training outfit to mine. It was all black with white stripes on the edges of the t-shirt. Unfortunately, I even thought it made him look nice.

I noticed Rae looking at us, a snarl plastered on her face, so I attempted to walk away again. Why did he always have to stop me?

“Are you still mad at me?” he asked playfully. I rolled my eyes at him and took his hand from my arm. It’s not that I didn’t like how I could feel his warmth seeping into every part of my body; it’s just that anybody could be watching us right now.

“No ... of course not. I ... just ... you know, want you to make sure you aren’t making any mistakes by talking to me ...” I nodded my head slightly in Rae’s direction. Leonis was careful not to look for awhile until she was not focusing her beady eyes on us. The next thing I knew, he was leaning in. I caught my breath. Luckily, he went to whisper in my ear.

“You were never the mistake.” He told me. I could feel his breath hot and steady on my neck, causing me to tingle all over. I managed a weak smile as he walked away before moving on to the next station. What was going on with me? What was going on with him? Everything was way too confusing.

I noticed Mr Coin keep his sharp eyes practically attached to me for the next three hours of the training session. It’s not like I’d gone up to Leonis! He started talking to me!

When I got back to my room, I basically threw myself on my bed. I couldn’t believe how tiring my first training session had been. I’d expected it to be slightly easier. Not that it was too hard for me to handle...

I needed to stop trusting people so easily. It was making me weak. But I was afraid I would turn into my mother. She couldn’t trust anybody at all anymore thanks to the Hunger Games. And that’s exactly what Mr Coin wanted. He wanted me to feel alone. He wanted me to be alone.

I started to think deeply on this kind of subject. The Hunger Games, I mean. How could I have let myself make so many friends? We were going to be thrown at each other in the arena and then we could no longer be friends. We would have to kill each other.

I hated myself so deeply right then. How could I have done this? I’d set myself up for heartbreak. I’d done the exact opposite of my mother. She had kept well away from people, even Dad, in the hope that she would not feel too attached to their deaths. I, however, had attached myself to so many different people that I knew I’d never forget any of them. I would be beside myself with sadness and anger. In the arena, that is never a good thing to mix together. Or is it?

I knew I could no longer think straight when I came up with ridiculous and ludicrous ideas about escaping. I knew it was impossible. So I slammed my head down on the pillow and tried to sleep. But it didn’t come easily to me.

I must have tossed and turned for hours, trying to force myself into sleep. But the more desperate I became for it, the longer it evaded me for. In the end, I simply closed my eyes and waited to drop off.

I knew it must be a dream for them moment I woke up. This was because I was in the middle of a forest. I stared around in bewilderment. What was going on?

Cautiously, I took tiny silent steps forward, trying to get a good look all around me. I had a nagging feeling. The one where you know something’s up but you don’t know how to find out what it is or how to stop it.

A cold wind brushed past me, causing me to shiver. What was the point of this dream? I continued to tip-toe through the forest, which seemed never ending, until I came to a small clearing. A shadow cast over it in a way that made me feel even worse.

“This is the Hunger Games, Ashby.” A voice cackled behind me. “Never let your guard down.” I span around quickly, just in time to watch Mr Coin slit my mother’s throat.

As soon as I woke up, I was screaming. A guard burst down the door and looked around wildly. When he saw me sitting up in bed, sweating, he rolled his eyes. Just as he was about to shut the door, I heard the guard talking with someone else.

I flopped back down onto the pillow, too scared and tired to listen. The door shut and I realised someone else was in the room with me. I sat up again and felt someone sit down next to me.

“Hey, it’s okay.” Leonis. Of course. Who else would it be? I felt alarmed when he ran his hands down my arms and squeezed my hands. What was he doing here? What if one of the guards snitched on him to his father?

“Leonis, you shouldn’t be here.” I replied stiffly, trying to take my hands away from his. I could hear my heart beating a thousand times the normal rate. How could he not hear it too?

“Shh... just tell me about your dream, okay?” He whispered and only then did I realise how close he was to my face. Our foreheads were pressed together, noses bumping into one another every so often. I felt myself clutching onto his hands as I recalled the dream.

I told him about it, how I’d walked through the forest and saw his dad kill my mother. It felt silly, telling him all of it. But he sat there patiently and listened. Then, when I was done, he slid his hands out of mine and seized me in a hug. I breathed out heavily, holding back tears.

“It’s okay. You’re mum is fine, Ash.” As soon as he said it, I believed him. I wanted him to say my name again though. I loved the way it slid off of his tongue so effortlessly, as if he was always supposed to say it to me. I clung onto him tightly, never wanting to let go.

“Thank you.” I muttered, but the sound was muffled as my face was buried in his shoulder. After awhile, we let go I lay back down, feeling a little better. He stroked some hair from my face almost affectionately. I was unbelievably shocked. It was always me caring for Fir and the feeling of someone caring for me was strange, almost unreal.

Before I knew what he was doing, he leant down and softly placed his lips on my cheek.

“Sleep well, Ashby.” He didn’t wait for me to say anything else; he simply walked out as if it were the most casual thing in the world. I was gobsmacked and every time I thought of him leaning in and kissing my cheek, I blushed awfully.

I wiped away the sweat line layering my forehead with the edge of my sleeve, wearily. I took a quick glance at the clock: 5:45. Sleep tugged at me, telling me to doze again but I didn’t want to. I didn’t want to be yanked back into that dream again.

But I knew what I was trying to tell myself instantly. Mr Coin had even said it. Never let your guard down. But I had. And now I had to raise it again. I had to protect myself to protect everyone else. And I had to be quicker and stronger about it.

Leonis definitely had to be the first to go. I knew I couldn’t trust him. My heart was saying different, yelling for me to believe in his better nature. But its mind over matter this time, I thought stiffly. He had to be out of my life. That was all that was standing between me and ever getting home again.

The only person I didn’t really want to say goodbye to was Siena. I felt like I could actually talk to her. We had made friends straight away. I didn’t want to push her away. But I knew I had to. It might be our only chance.

And I had to get her over Leonis. In the arena, his only mission was to kill her. And if she stood their goggling at him, she’d be dead in seconds. I thought about forming an alliance with her, but shook my head sternly. Neither of us would survive in each other’s company. I had to do this solo. As much as I wanted to have someone around, that was the way it had to be.

And now I’d thought about it, I was sure this Hunger Games was fixed. Leonis’s dad would never enter him into a certain death wish competition if he wasn’t sure Leonis would be the victor. Great, I thought miserably. I’m definitely going to die. Well, that was obvious anyway. The crowd hated me, the contestants hated me... hell, even I hated me!

I just wanted out. I wanted to go home. Why were they doing this to me? It wasn’t me who had killed President Coin. It was my mother. Although, I would never have wished it on her. I’d gladly take her place, just as she took Aunt Prim’s.

Finally, I dozed off into a dreamless and peaceful sleep where nobody haunted me, my family stayed clear and I felt like I was in bliss. I had finally gotten the sleep I needed. But I wished I could have more as soon as I woke up.

Someone was banging their fists on the door.

“Up, now!” They screamed. What was their problem? It was only seven o’clock in the morning. Hadn’t they heard of lie-ins here?

I dragged myself groggily out of bed and yanked on my horrid, embarrassing training gear. Slipping my hair into a ponytail, I walked over to the window to see Leonis looking up, directly at my window. You aren’t speaking to him anymore, I reminded myself angrily. If we weren’t in the horrible complicated situation we were in, I would have shouted his name and smiled, waving madly. Thank God the situation was complicated.

Instead I pulled the blinds shut and walked away. I knew he’d be confused, but he’d get over it. He had Rae. In fact, he had every girl here wrapped around his finger. But not me. This time I was going to be strong. I was going to resist whatever trick he tried to pull on me. I was ready for these stupid games.

We were back at training for our last day. The next day, we would do individual sessions to get a score or something. Apparently it was important. But, as the Games were fixed, I figured the scores were too. It didn’t matter how hard I tried. I simply wasn’t going to get a good score. Or maybe, Mr Coin was going to give me the best score-a twelve-so they’d go for me first. That’s when I decided I was going to do my best to fail the scoring test. I did not want a good score. At all.

The man was still outside, yelling at everyone to get up. He was stood outside Danyell’s room, knocking loudly on the door. How could Danyell not hear him? Was he some kind of heavy sleeper? That wouldn’t come in handy in the Games. If someone was creeping up on him whilst he was sleeping, he could be killed easily. That wasn’t my problem anymore though. I was on my own from now.

We all gathered in the training centre, wondering what we were going to be doing that day. Mr Coin had a strange gleam in his eyes that told me he had something dangerously spectacular planned.

“Everybody, listen up.” Mr Coin bellowed. Everyone turned to him quickly as his voice thundered through the room. It’s quite a terrifying feeling actually. “I have a special surprise for today.” We all nodded. I hated the way he said ‘surprise’. In fact, I hated everything he said. His words had been poured with pure hated and every one of them was spit with acid. He reminded me of a snake, actually. A weak one though. Not one like a cobra or a python. More like a grass snake. The common kind your find in your garden.

“We are going to be practicing skills with partners today.” Everybody began to make their way over to partners but Mr Coin carried on. “I will pick your training partners.” Mutual groans and sighs escaped people’s lips before they could stop them. Mr Coin glared as if he was about to explode like a volcano. That would be a funny sight.

He paired lots of people up, and I’m sure he made people pair with people they absolutely despise. As soon as I worked that out, I realised who my pair would be.

“Leonis and Ashby.” No! I hated being right sometimes. I was trying to avoid him. Not be his training partner! Leonis strolled over casually, looking perfect in his much nicer training outfit. He noticed me checking him and grinned widely, smirking. I looked away embarrassed. I was supposed to be ignoring him but it was not going so well.

Mr Coin strolled over in the same way Leonis did, but much less cooler.

“Okay, Leonis go and put the body armour on would you?” Leonis looked baffled but went and did it anyway. I knew I was going to get lectured by Mr Coin about something. Why else would he send Leonis away?

“Stay away from my son.” He hisses. “Or-”

“Save it.” I snapped. “I plan to.” Mr Coin gives me a satisfied smile; glad we’re on the same page and awaited his precious sons return. Leonis looked over at us, unsure of what had been said or thought or even done. I wouldn’t tell him. I refused to. Plus that would mean talking to him. And I’m not doing that.

Leonis came back, inspecting us suspiciously. I looked down at the floor, unable to keep eye contact without saying something. I felt then, like I had to be the biggest blabber mouth in the world. There was always something I had to say. Why couldn’t I just keep my mouth shut?

“So what are we doing?” I asked Mr Coin stiffly, only just managing to meet his horrid eyes that were so lifeless. He smiled something that I could only call an ‘evil smile’ and handed me a bow and arrow.

“You’re doing target practice.” He replied simply. It didn’t take me long to realise what he meant. My eyes widened in shock.

“On him?” I asked, outraged. Mr Coin nodded. I gulped feeling disgusted. Surely the armour would protect him though. So it would all be fine. Leonis looked over at me, his gaze silently asking how I was, even if he didn’t say it. I looked away quickly. He wasn’t about to read my thoughts from my eyes. I wouldn’t let him.

“Let’s do this.” I said in an unenthusiastic way. Mr Coin smiled politely and went to sit in his ‘director’ chair which seemed so pointless to me. I turned quickly to Leonis, wondering if I have the guts. You’ve shot him once before, I reminded myself carefully. But that had been an accident. Well, at least this time he had armour on. He couldn’t get hurt.

I pulled back on the bow, feeling it tense in my arms. Letting go of the string quickly, I stood and stared, wondering if it hit the right place. Of course, it did. It hit him right in the chest. If it weren’t for the armour, Leonis would most certainly be dead right now.

But because he had the armour on, it bounced harmlessly off his chest and landed on the floor silently. For a moment we caught each other’s eye, realising what his dad was making us do. And I thanked him for it. He was telling us that we could not be friends. We were going to have to kill each other and he wanted it done sooner rather than later.

I had almost forgotten again. How could I have been so stupid? I knew we couldn’t be friends or ‘anything more’ as Leonis had put it. Whatever that means. I hated that I hadn’t remembered. Leonis was going to have to go after me first, no matter what he thought or felt.

So I avoided his eyes, which were trying to reach my own, and waited for Mr Coin to instruct us again.

“Again, please, Ashby.” He called out in a triumphant voice. So I shot at Leonis again. I didn’t take any pleasure in it whatsoever. But I knew I was going to have to face him for real. I might as well get some practice in.

After a while, we were told to switch roles. I went and silently put on the armour, carefully watching Leonis and his dad. They seemed to be talking-or arguing rather. Leonis pulled a strong hand through his hair, sighing as his dad hissed something into him. I desperately wanted to know what they were saying. Maybe it was something about what Leonis had to do to me. Was he going to injure me so I couldn’t compete? I hoped he did actually. Not competing would be brilliant.

I walked over to the two of them, nervously. What if my armour was faulty? Or what if I hadn’t done it up properly. I didn’t really feel like getting hurt in front of them for my own mistakes.

Leonis walked over, a large axe in his hands. Flipping hell, he wasn’t serious, was he? What if he missed? The armour only went to my neck and ankles. What if he hit my head? Don’t think about it, I said to myself. He wouldn’t miss. I hoped...

As he raised the axe to throw it, I felt my stomach churn. Oh god, oh god, oh god... I felt horrid. I desperately hoped it didn’t register on my face though. I didn’t feel like giving Mr Coin any satisfaction from this.

The axe left Leonis’s hand and came hurtling towards me. I was itching to move out of the way but I held my ground, waiting for the impact to come. It hit me square in the chest. The blow was so strong that it sent me flying backwards. I landed on the floor with a thud.

As soon as I hit the floor, Leonis was running to my side. No, don’t. I begged silently. His father was trying to separate us. And Leonis was making things worse. I shook my head at him, glaring in his father’s direction.

“I’m so sorry.” Leonis muttered, clamping his hand on mine. I took it away quickly, before Mr Coin saw. “Are you okay?” I knew he was worried. But I didn’t want him to be. I wanted him to stay away. It was better for both of us. He just didn’t seem to get the memo.

“I’ve got armour on. Remember?” I snapped rather harshly. Leonis looked taken back, which made me feel worse. I needed to keep him away. And if this was the only way to do that, then so be it. Mr Coin looked amused and muttered quietly for us to try it again.

We spent another half hour or so chucking various weapons at each other, practicing on ‘moving targets’ as Mr Coin called it. I could tell Leonis was itching to talk to me. He wanted answers. He wanted to know why I’d snapped at him. Well, he should know already, I thought stiffly. It was he himself who said we couldn’t be friends. So why was he still trying to be?

At the end of the training session, we were sent to eat. There was a large hall, a few corridors away from the training facilities that supplied food. Really good food.

I attempted to sit as far away from Leonis as possible, which wasn’t hard, considering Rae had already seen to that. I also sat away from Siena, hoping she would understand later why I had done so.

So in the end, I sat on my own. I refused to get friendly with anyone. I didn’t want to have to look upon the face of a friend and have to kill them. I’d never forgive myself.

I was done first, of course, as I had decided to start eating as little as possible so I didn’t get hungry in the arena. Those who stuffed their faces now, were going to regret it later. They would be too used to eating lots. Most of us weren’t going to know where our next meal was coming from.

Walking quickly down the corridor, I hoped to get away from the hall before anyone noticed. I thought I almost had until I heard footsteps thudding behind me.

“Ashby.” Not right now, I thought desperately. So I kept walking. I didn’t even bother to turn around and see who it was. I already knew. Leonis. And I couldn’t deal with his questions then.

A hand firmly gripped my arm, tugging me round. I came face to face with him. Why was he so god damn annoying?

“What is going on with you?” He hissed, his eyes sparking angrily. I didn’t think he really wanted that question answering. But I was going to answer anyway.

“What’s going on with me? Sorry, but have you ever noticed that you’re the one with about six different identities. And have you even noticed that we aren’t supposed to be friends. My mother killed your mother. So how about we ask what’s wrong with you.” I yelled back. Leonis looked absolutely shocked. But I didn’t care. I was already sprinting down the corridor and out of the building. I took the first car I could get into and demanded stiffly that they take me back to my room.

As I slammed the door, I wondered whether I should have said the things I said. Of course, none of what I said was why I didn’t want us to be friends. It was just the fact that we were supposed to hate each other and want each other’s blood or whatever. It had to stay that way. For both our sake’s.

But it was just the way he had looked at me that made my heart shatter into a million pieces. It was like he had expected more. As if he was disappointed in me. It was a look I hated. I wanted him to take it back. But it was too late. It was stuck in my head.

At least now we could stop pretending to be something we weren’t. Friends, I mean. It meant I could now focus. I knew what I was going to do for my scoring session tomorrow. I was simply going to throw a spear and miss everything. I would never ever get a good score that way. I went to sleep that night, content at last that I could do something without regretting any of it.

The very next morning, I was woken up early again by the screaming person. It was begging to aggravate me. Some people needed more sleep than others!

I got swiftly changed into my training gear and readied myself for utter embarrassment in front of the people running this thing, including Mr Coin. I hadn’t really thought about it before but I had to perform in front of him too.

Everybody was lined up outside and counted by men in strange uniforms that I had not yet seen before. I could see from where I was standing that Siena was shaking like a leaf. I desperately wanted to go over and give her a big hug but I knew I had to stay put.

Mr Coin strolled out from one of the cars, grinning as if he had a master plan. I rolled my eyes. He always had to make some kind of stupid entrance to make himself seem more superior. But he wasn’t. He was lower than low. I just wished I could show him that.

I felt strangely nervous. I knew exactly what I was doing. So why was I feeling so scared? I couldn’t figure it out but put it out of my mind as soon as I could.

Leonis was deliberately avoiding my eyes – not that I was trying to get him to look at me. I just happened to noticed that he was refusing to look. That made me sort of mad but I knew it was for the best. The more distant we became, the less hard it would become.

We were all piled into the cars as quickly as possible to get everything over with. I was glad to not have been shoved in with anybody I knew. That would have been torturous. Slow and painful... the list goes on.

I sat in a small, cramped room with Danyell, waiting for my name to be called out. He was shaking hard, his hands clamped together. I felt bad for him. He was going to try his best in there. He wanted a good result. In fact, I kind of wanted to hug him. But I didn’t. That would just be creepy.

Finally, my name was called and I stood up, feeling tingly. It was weird. I’ve never felt that nervous before... except maybe when I was with Leonis. He scared the hell out of me sometimes.

I walked out into the room where the spectators were, feeling my whole body begin to shake.

“Ashby Mellark, welcome.” A robotic sounding voice called out. I took a proper look round to realise it wasn’t what I expected. There were three weapons placed on a small rack, none of which were a spear. There was a gleaming gold bow and around a dozen arrows, three shining silver throwing knives and an ebony black axe. That was it.

Mr Coin stepped out of the spectators ‘zone’ or whatever they called it and smiled triumphantly at me. What was he up to?

“We thought we might add a little... twist to your test, Miss Mellark.” Oh boy, what had he done? I frowned, raising an eyebrow. “Leonis.” I looked over confused. Leonis strolled out from behind the shadows – a little too dramatic if you ask me – and took his place beside his father, still refusing to meet my eyes. I didn’t understand. What was going on?

“By twist, what do you mean?” I asked, feeling a hard edge show on my voice. Mr Coin smiled secretively but simply gestured to Leonis.

“I’ll give you some time to explain.” I glowered at him. Mr Coin strolled off looking way too pleased with himself. Leonis took me roughly by the arm to the side of the room. I yanked my arm out of his grip angrily. At least we were now on equal terms. We smouldered at each other for a few seconds.

“Dad changed the rules a bit.” Leonis began, looking away. “To get our scores, we have to fight each other. It’s like what we did in training really.” Trust Mr Coin to make it impossible for me to get a bad score. I bet he knew what I was planning all along.

“What if I don’t want to?” I blurted out. Leonis looked at me, suddenly confused. He couldn’t figure out that I still liked him. “Not that I don’t want to.” I added with a glare. He glared back but started to watch me more carefully.

“I don’t think you’ll have a choice.” He replied coldly. We both put on the armour, fastening it tightly and picked up our weapons. I soon realised the throwing knives were for me as well, considering the bow and arrow would not help in hand to hand combat. It was a more long distance weapon.

We both circled each other slowly, wondering who was going to strike first. It reminded me of when we were in my school, in my place behind the school building and he had shown up.

Except this time, neither of us wanted to fight each other. At least, deep down we didn’t. Leonis could glare and smirk at me all he wanted but I knew there had to be a good person in there somewhere. And I knew I wanted nothing more than to drop my weapons and run. But that wasn’t an option.

As we were fairly far away from each other, I whipped out my bow and fired at arrow at Leonis’s chest. Bull’s eye. I smiled triumphantly, not taking my eyes off him. He threw the axe at me. I ducked out of the way, but only just in time as I felt the axe practically slice off my nose hairs! Not that I have any...

The axe wedged itself into the wall behind me. I knew Leonis wanted to impress his dad so I did nothing but move out of the way so he could go and pick up his axe again.

This time, I took out a throwing knife and chucked it, aiming for his heart. My aim didn’t fail me but Leonis had seen it coming and moved out of the way.

I tried again and was successful as I watched the knife bounce off of his chest and make a satisfying thud as it dropped to the floor. But now I only had one knife left and I had to use it carefully.

Leonis began to run at me with the axe and I was suddenly terrified. Oh my god, I thought. He looked totally mad. He looked as if he actually wanted to kill me.

I leaned back just as he sliced the air above me. I felt a gust of wind as the axe swung millimetres from my face. My eyes widened. I regained balance just in time to see him swing it at me again. My knife was no match for his axe so I supposed I’d just have to keep dodging.

The only thing that completely unnerved me was the mad look in his eye. Either this was one of his acts again or he really hated me. I wouldn’t be surprised after what I said. I’d hate me too.

The fight seemed to go on forever. It was mostly Leonis in offence and me in defence. But I suppose that just shows more about who we are. Anyway, after a while, Leonis’s dad stopped us both and took away our weapons. Just to make us hate each other more than before, he forced us to shake hands.

Leonis held a hand out. I simply looked at it. I refused to shake. I mean, if he’d had the chance, he would probably have killed me out there. I’d even gained a few dozen bruises.

When I didn’t shake it, he seized it roughly and shook it, his eyes burning into mine. For one awkward moment, we held onto each other’s hand, before letting go quickly and walking in the opposite direction.

And suddenly, the strangest thing happened. I felt grateful towards Mr Coin. In a strange sense, he was completely and brutally honest about things. He was only trying to make Leonis and I see reality and not out strange little fantasies... or was it just my strange fantasies? Mr Coin only wanted us to hate each other, and really, that was how it was always meant to be.

I couldn’t even figure out if last night had been real. If Leonis had actually come into my room and comforted me. He acted as if it had never happened. As if I’d imagined it. Which I’m pretty sure I hadn’t.

Stop thinking about him, my head cried in frustration. I hated how shallow I was becoming. Boys were not my main problem right then! My problem was that I was being forced to participate in the 77th Hunger Games. Leonis had to go. If only it were that easy...

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