When Aaron’s name is called, Andrew doesn’t hesitate to volunteer.
The crowd is dead silent. The last time there was a volunteer from District 5 was...outside of Andrew’s lifetime, surely, but he had never been one to care for precedent. For him, it is simple: he and Aaron have a deal, and he values his own life very little.
Aaron watches his twin walk up to the front of the crowd with a small frown, the panic in his eyes noticeable only to Andrew. Nicky, from his place with the other ‘adults,’ begins crying immediately. Andrew keeps his face carefully, completely blank.
The girl on stage is trying her best to wait to cry after the cameras cut off, he can tell, but her lip is wobbling dangerously. Andrew discards her as a potential ally almost immediately.
“Well, isn’t this exciting!” the twit from the Capitol shrills, grinning at Andrew as though he should find the situation anything but horrible. His eyes betray nothing.
Statistically, he will be dead within two weeks.
It’s been a long time coming.
He watches the other Reapings with clipped disinterest. Besides the Career tributes, who are always volunteers, he’s the only one to have chosen his fate. Nobody particularly stands out to him at a first pass. The Careers look boring and hungry. The thirteen-year-old girl from District 6 cries immediately. The twelve-year-old boy from District 8 passes out on stage. The boy from District 12 remains carefully neutral: his facial expression is unchanged from the minute the camera sweeps to him until the last frame of his District.
The train is nicer than Andrew’s used to, but he’s never been particularly materialistic. The girl from his district is chatty, keeping up a nervous ramble throughout dinner that their mentors are happy to play along with, but Andrew says nothing.
These people are irrelevant. His mentors will do what they want to with the funds they get. Andrew knows he’s not particularly likable, so he’s not expecting to get any parachutes in the arena.
He lies awake that night, staring at an unfamiliar ceiling and wondering what he’s supposed to be thinking about.
He wonders if he should regret volunteering and playing into the Capitol’s hands. He wonders if he should even try when he reaches the arena, if he should plan any kind of strategy or just stand in front of the Careers and get it over with. He knows he’s skilled with a knife, but will that be enough? Does he care if it’s enough?
Then again, the scars on his arms are proof enough: his body’s ability to survive and keep fighting are not always on the same page as his mind’s desires.
When it comes down to it, he will surely go as long as he can.
He wonders if Aaron will cry when he dies. He wonders if Aaron cried after he left that awful, formal room, if Nicky’s sobbing will have gotten to his brother.
He wonders if he’s still capable of crying.
He rolls over and closes his eyes.
The pillow stays dry.
The Capitol is imposing and grand and sleek, channeling the power his district works so hard to create. The lives of those in the Capitol are, of course, completely disconnected from the lives of those who power them. If he cared more, Andrew would probably be disgusted by the sheer injustice of it all.
The first night, one of his mentors comes to his room after dinner.
“You seem to be handling it well,” Wymack comments gruffly. Andrew notices that he has trouble making eye contact with Andrew, but that doesn’t stop him from rolling his eyes.
“I don’t have much of a choice.” Wymack nods.
“Do you have any skills I should know about?” he asks. At least that’s a useful question.
“I’m good with a knife.” Wymack raises an eyebrow. “Do you want me to prove it or something? You’ll know when my score comes.”
“I believe you,” the older man says. “Just an unusual skill.”
Andrew stays silent. He’s shared as much as he thinks he needs to with the man. Wymack sighs.
“Well, if you need anything, you can always come to me or Abby. We’re here to help you.”
Andrew watches Wymack leave his room and wonders if the Victor even cares about the kids anymore, or if the deaths he’s watched year after year has left him numb. He doesn’t know which is worse.
Andrew is surprised to actually like his stylist, Bee, who seems to understand how done he is with it all. He gets an understated costume for the Opening Ceremony, something that’s not uncomfortable or overly flashy, and finds himself not feeling homicidal when he and his ‘partner’ Janie reach the staging area.
The other tributes are dressed as he would expect, with some truly awful outfits for Districts 8 and 9. Andrew flicks an assessing gaze over his competition, coming to rest on the boy from District 12.
He’s standing apart from everybody else, looking steadfastly at the horse in front of him and ignoring everything else. His outfit is tight and dark, no doubt meant to highlight the coal of his district, but it somehow makes him look fierce. Andrew can see the blue of his eyes from across the room even before the boy looks up and holds steady eye contact.
Andrew holds his gaze. The other boy looks away first. Andrew bites back a smirk.
Andrew goes into the training hoping to talk to exactly nobody else. His ‘partner’ has given up talking to him, but her eyes still come to rest on him more often than he’d like. He hopes she’s not holding out hope for an alliance, because he’s seen her cry enough times to rule that firmly impossible.
He’s learning how to camouflage himself when the boy from District 12 walks up beside him. The two learn and then practice in silence. Andrew almost enjoys it.
They somehow make the circuit in a weird companionship, never saying anything but drinking in the instructions they receive attentively. When it’s life or death, even Andrew is willing to listen for a few minutes.
Andrew finds himself good at starting fires. The boy from 12 is skilled at identifying plants. Andrew steers away from the knives. The boy from 12 skips the bow and arrow.
At lunch, they sit by each other.
“I’m Neil,” the other boy says, halfway through the meal. Andrew flicks him an assessing gaze. Although he hasn’t been looking at him head-on, Andrew has picked up a few things. The boy is cagey, light on his feet like he’s ready to run at any moment. He watches others with a practiced, disinterested look that reveals nothing.
He could be a good ally.
“I’m not looking for any allies,” Andrew says. Neil rolls his eyes.
“Nor am I,” the other boy replies. “But it seems like if we stick together now, the others won’t try to talk to us, especially if you keep glaring at them.”
To Andrew, that seems like as good a reason as any to form a temporary truce.
“How can we make you even remotely likable?” Wymack grumbles, sitting across from Andrew on the couch and frowning at him. Bee hits him lightly on the arm.
“Right now, you’re an unknown,” Bee says thoughtfully. She stares at Andrew. He stares right back. “You volunteered for your brother, so maybe you’re loyal. You looked intimidating at the Opening Ceremony, so maybe you’re stoic. You’re from District 5, so maybe you’re smart.”
“But really, you’re just a grumpy, silent bastard,” Wymack mutters. He takes a drink. Andrew almost asks for a sip.
“I think we should play up how dangerous you are,” Bee suggests, leaning back. “You got a 9, which is a really respectable score, especially from District 5.” Andrew appreciates the lack of bullshit. “Your loyalty isn’t a weakness. You’ll do anything to get back to your family.”
Wymack tilts his head, considering. Andrew remains impassive.
“That might just work,” he concedes.
Andrew accepts their assessment. Dangerous is definitely something he can be.
Andrew’s interview goes as well as it could have, considering his personality.
“It was quite brave, to volunteer for your brother,” Caesar notes, leaning back in his chair with an easy smile. Andrew shrugs. Puts on his best dangerous smile.
“I think I have better survival skills than him,” he says. He tries to picture Aaron sitting in his seat and fails. “It seemed only logical. Maybe he and I can test it when I get home.”
Caesar laughs, delighted at his cockiness.
“So you’re already planning what to do when you get home, are you?” Caesar asks. Andrew crosses his legs, deliberately casual.
“I figure I have a higher IQ than most of the competition.” He smiles again, all teeth. “Not to mention my killer instinct.”
His mother is, after all, just a distant memory.
“So, Neil, how do you find the Capitol?” Caesar asks. Andrew watches Neil with guarded interest. Something about the other boy makes it impossible for him to look away.
“It’s alright,” Neil shrugs. “I guess I’ll get used to it if I have to come back as a mentor.”
Caesar crows the same delighted laugh he used on Andrew.
“Somebody’s feeling good about their chances,” he comments, nudging Neil. Neil smiles. It looks as dangerous as Andrew hoped to. “And with an 11, who wouldn’t?”
“Let’s just say I was betting on Kevin last year while everyone else was watching Riko,” the boy says. The crowd quiets. Caesar’s eyebrows rise in genuine surprise. Neil grins again. “Never rule the underdog out.”
Looking at the harsh smile on Neil’s face, Andrew finds it hard to consider him an underdog.
One moment, Bee is watching Andrew with a sad smile. The next, he’s blinking in a sunlit field, a golden Cornucopia glittering on the edge of a lake.
The countdown overhead allows him to take in the wheat, the forest, the lake. He assesses his options. Turns towards the Cornucopia. Prepares to run as fast as he ever has.
He makes it to the supplies in the blink of an eye, picking up a backpack and pocketing several knives before the others have had time to react. He takes out two tributes in his way as he steers towards the forest. He stumbles into the trees and only then does he begin panting, does his body and mind reconcile the fact that he’s just killed and survived.
He crashes through the underbrush for a minute until he decides to rest briefly and regroup. He leans against a random tree, trying to blend into the shadows, and withdraws the knives he stole. He apathetically cleans the blood off the one he used and is pleased with his haul: he has four of varying sizes. The backpack isn’t too heavy, but he’s hopeful about its contents.
As he stands there, catching his breath, the cannons begin to sound. Eight booms echo through the forest.
Only fifteen others stand between him and survival.
A sound to his right diverts his attention, and he peers into the underbrush, tucking two of his knives back away. He’s never been one for flight.
He’s surprised to see Neil walk out, and they both freeze when they make eye contact. Neil has a bow and his own backpack. There’s a small cut on his arm, but he looks otherwise intact.
Andrew stares at the other boy. Fifteen others. Fourteen others and Neil.
He drops his arms to his side, his knives turned away from the other boy. With a nod, Neil continues through the forest.
A few minutes later, Andrew heads in the opposite direction.
When it comes down to it, he knows he can do it. Before then...why bother?
Four cannons go off and one night passes before Andrew is forced to meet another Tribute. He’s been surviving off the water bottle and food from his pack, but needs to find some water soon, as he’s almost out. Dehydration is not something he wants to flirt with.
He’s hiking towards the sound of a stream when he hears the bushes ahead of him rustle. He freezes.
With a scream, a girl runs out of the bushes, knife in hand and a manic glint to her eyes. Her clothes are bloody but no wounds are visible.
Andrew throws one of the knives in his hand dispassionately. It hits her chest with a dull thunk and she falls to the ground immediately. He strolls to her fallen body and watches her convulse for a minute before withdrawing the knife. Bored of the display, he stabs her again and a cannon immediately sounds. He wipes the blade off on her shirt before he becomes aware of another sound in the bushes.
He straightens, eyes flicking around cautiously. The bushes still. A moment of tense silence later, Neil emerges. His bow is drawn taut and aimed at Andrew.
“There’re eleven of us left,” Neil says. He eyes are fixed on Andrew. Andrew nods. He’s prepared for Neil to fire. He won’t throw a knife. If it was anybody else, he’d be happy to take them down with him. But Neil...if he doesn’t make it, he hopes Neil does. He seems like he’d understand what to do with the weight of victory, the bitter taste of survival.
The bow is slowly lowered. Neil tilts his head. “That means we can hold this off for a while.”
Andrew swallows. Watches the other boy. Finds it within himself to be foolish and daring.
“That’s enough to justify forming an alliance,” Andrew says. The other boy blinks. Stares at Andrew.
“Why would I want that?”
“Because you’re not willing to use that,” Andrew nods to his bow, “on other people, but I’m willing to use these.” He flicks his knives around and back into the makeshift armbands in one smooth movement.
“And what will you get out of it?” Neil asks.
“You know how to survive out here,” Andrew asserts confidently. He remembers the ease with which Neil picked out the poisonous from the safe back in training, can read the way he holds his bow. “I don’t. Once I run out of provisions in my bag, my odds of survival decrease significantly.”
Neil continues to stare at him, considering. Andrew tries to remain apathetic. Almost succeeds.
“It’s not that complicated,” he says after a minute. “I protect you. You feed me. We don’t die quite so quickly. Yes or no?”
Neil cocks his head. Sighs.
They have a system that works. Neil sets traps. Andrew stands guard. Neil picks some bushes, considers the berries he finds. Andrew stands guard. They trek towards the stream they hear in the distance, Andrew with his hands on his blades. They climb the trees and shelter for the night.
They make it two days unmolested, two days where they stockpile a fair amount of food and water. They both have tablets that make the water safe, water bottles they trust to store it. They feel as safe as you can when nine people in a small arena are out to get you.
They don’t talk much at first, but by the first night, they’re too on-edge to sit in silence.
“You volunteered for your brother, right?” Neil asks once they’re strapped in up high. He asks quietly, loud enough for Andrew to hear but hopefully not loud enough for a camera to pick up, unless it’s in the tree next to them.
“I can’t imagine choosing to be here,” Neil mutters. “This is hell.”
“Not as terrible as watching my brother die on television,” Andrew replies. He tries to imagine Aaron in the tree in his place and fails. “I have a better chance than him, so I volunteered. We had agreed on it.”
“It’s one thing to say that and another to do it.”
“I take my word very seriously.”
A cannon goes off. Neither flinches. Neither comments.
Eight others and Neil.
Another goes off.
Seven others and Neil.
“Where have you used the bow before?” Andrew asks, as quietly as he can.
“I hunt for myself at home.” Neil rustles his sleeping bag enough that a camera wouldn’t be able to hear his words over the commotion. “I have to, ever since my mom died.”
The conversation dies out there, but Andrew turns the words over in his head until he falls into an uneasy sleep.
Their next run-in ends with two more bodies on Andrew’s conscience and a nasty cut on Neil’s leg. He insists he’s fine as they move upstream, sticking close to the water, but Andrew thinks the risk of infection is high. Neither have a first-aid kit in their bags.
“Now is when a sponsor would be super fabulous,” Andrew mutters with a vicious grin towards the sky. He can just picture Wymack rolling his eyes in response.
“Oh, I’m sure there are tons of viewers who love our sparkling personalities,” Neil returns. “They’re probably falling over themselves to keep the snark coming.”
As if on cue, a small parachute floats down and lands in front of them. The pair stops and stares in confusion before Andrew picks it up. Inside is a syringe.
“What do you reckon?” he asks, offering it to Neil. Neil withdraws the syringe and inspects it. The liquid inside is a deep green.
“I’ve heard of a serum in the Capitol that can knit skin back together,” the other boy says. “Worth a try.”
He sticks it directly into the wound and Andrew almost winces in pain. Miraculously, the skin smooths itself out quickly, the blood disappearing back where it’s meant to be. Both boys watch in disbelief and fascination.
“Thanks,” Neil finally says, looking around with a shocked smile in place. Andrew can’t look away. “That’s way better.”
“I thought you were fine ,” Andrew bites out, turning back to the stream and walking the direction they’d been moving. Neil doesn’t reply. Andrew wishes he could forget his smile.
Andrew wishes a lot of things, all of a sudden. He wishes that Aaron’s name hadn’t been called. He wishes that Neil was from District 5, that they’d met under better circumstances. He wishes he could eat a chocolate bar.
He wishes Neil wasn’t so goddamn interesting. He wishes he didn’t find him interesting. He wishes he would stop noticing that Neil isn’t just interesting; he’s also stupidly attractive.
They make it another day, another cannon, without meeting anybody, but then there are tracker jackers and confusion and suddenly Neil’s hallucinating and another cannon goes and Andrew is hauling the smaller boy into a cave without thinking about it.
Five total left. Three others and Neil.
Now is the time when most alliances snap.
Instead of dwelling on that, Andrew lies back in the cave beside Neil and tries to imagine what the segment on him was like. How did Aaron respond when he was forced into an interview? Did Nicky cry or was he too excited to be on TV? Who else would’ve spoken about moody, sullen Andrew Minyard?
Were his schoolmates cheering for him or wishing he was dead?
Was he cheering for himself or wishing he was dead?
If he wants either himself or Neil to win, it’s only sensible to stick to Neil as long as possible. That’s what he tells himself, at least.
Three other tributes stand in between himself, Neil, and survival.
(It’s not victory, not really, when the price of his life is so high. Who is he to value himself over those he’s killed so ruthlessly? Why did they die when he lives, when he has always cared so little for life?)
(Why did he volunteer?)
(Why does he keep fighting?)
Neil is sweating, muttering, as the tracker jacker venom creates visions and realities that Andrew can’t imagine. Andrew forces some water down Neil’s throat. He snacks on some of the berries they saved.
He wonders, he wonders. He wishes, he wishes.
He watches Neil twitch in his sleep.
When Neil comes back to himself, Andrew watches impassively as the other boy scarfs down the last scraps of a rabbit and some berries.
“You do like making my job hard,” Andrew tells him. Neil smiles humorlessly and takes a long drink from his water bottle.
“How many are left, then?” the other boy finally asks.
“Four of us. Two others.”
“Do you know who they are?” Neil frowns. Andrew shakes his head. He hasn’t paid attention to anybody besides Neil.
Neil taps his fingers against the dirt. Andrew inspects his blades, waiting for him to speak.
“Should we split up again?”
Andrew looks back up. Considers his words carefully.
“I’ll stick to my promise as long as you stick to yours,” he says finally. Neil nods. Fidgets.
“We should find some more food,” the other boys announces after another long silence. Andrew tries to bury his unexpected relief.
Two others. Neil. Survival.
They pick through the woods, and Andrew learns about Neil through almost silent exchanges and coded language. They know there’s no privacy in the arena, not really, but there’s the illusion of it if they make enough other noise to mask what they say.
Neil is not originally from District 12, which makes sense with his unusual coloring. He looks bright and decidedly undusty, with his auburn hair and piercing blue eyes, nothing like the muted colors the coal paints its children. He and his mother ran away from District 1, where he had trained with Riko Moriyama.
(The year before, when District 2 Tribute Kevin Day, left hand broken but fire still in his eye, had killed Riko to claim the title of Victor, Neil had celebrated, even as the rest of Panem mourned the unexpected loss of their favorite bloodthirsty teen.)
Neil is terrified of winning, because his father no doubt recognizes him despite the fake name, but he is more terrified of giving up and giving in to the Capitol.
Neil is the fastest runner Andrew has ever seen. Neil’s eyes are the color of a cloudless sky. Neil is impossible.
Neil is going to be the death of him.
Neil and Andrew are running, racing through the woods, just out of reach from the terrifying mutts on their heels. They make it to the top of the Cornucopia just in time to meet the last remaining victor, the girl from District 2.
She tackles Andrew before they’ve fully made it to the top, and for a moment he thinks she’s going to kill him, that he’s made it this far just to roll into the angry jaws below him, and then she stiffens. He pushes her off and sees Neil holding his bow, a haunted look on his face. Her eyes are sightless but open, the arrow sticking out of her back perfectly above her heart.
A cannon sounds.
“I didn’t think I could do that,” Neil murmurs, staring at the girl in shock. Andrew pushes himself into a standing position and winces at the pain in his leg, the blood still trickling down his leg. Neil looks at Andrew in something akin to surprise when he plants himself in front of him. They stare at each other for a moment. Andrew slips a knife out of one of his armbands.
“Guess it’s just you and me, Josten.”
Neil watches Andrew wearily. His bow is useless here, when he and Andrew are almost chest to chest, but they both know the knife Andrew gave him sits in his pocket.
Andrew looks down at his knife. Draws a finger along the dull side in a slow motion. Neil tracks the movement.
“Make it quick,” Neil finally says, dropping his bow and closing his eyes. Andrew looks up in surprise. Drinks in lines of his familiar face, the hair curled over his forehead. Looks back down at his knife.
“You should’ve let us both go over,” Andrew comments, looking back at the dead girl. The mutts on the ground have gone unnaturally quiet. Neil sighs and opens his eyes again.
Andrew tucks the knife back up his armband and places his hand on the back of Neil’s neck.
“Yes or no?”
There’s only a flicker of surprise in the blue depths of Neil’s eyes before he leans down, and all of Andrew’s awareness is limited to Neil’s mouth, Neil’s neck, Neil’s tongue, Neil.
(Neil’s hands remain by his side. After all, as Andrew learned about Neil, Neil learned about Andrew.)
They separate, minutes or hours or days later, and breathe into each other, foreheads still pressed against one another. Andrew wonders idly how Panem is reacting to watching two desperate boys, bleeding and broken, make out on top of a glittering Cornucopia.
“It should be you,” Neil says after a breathless eternity. “You have Aaron and Nicky. I have nobody.”
Andrew captures his lips again, grips the back of his idiot’s neck. When they come back up for air, Andrew’s mind is going a million miles a minute in a million directions. He wonders what Aaron and Nicky are thinking. He wonders if Neil can kill him. He wonders if he can survive watching Neil die. He wonders if the people in the Capitol are enjoying this.
He wonders why they call the end of this hellish game a victory. He wonders who considers this a game.
He remembers thinking that he could kill Neil when the time came, back on the first day in the arena.
“What makes you think I could kill you?” Andrew finally asks. Neil blinks in surprise.
“Oh, I don’t know,” Neil mutters, rolling his eyes. “Maybe all of the other people I’ve seen you kill?”
“Such a smart mouth you’ve got there.”
When they lean apart minutes later, panting, Andrew stuffs a hand into his pocket and emerges with the berries from earlier, responsible for the second to last canon. Neil stares down.
“All or nothing,” Andrew proposes. Neil grabs a few berries for himself with a grim smile.
“On three,” Neil agrees.
A lot happens after the berries fall: he and Neil meet in the middle of a stage, his body still adjusting to an unfamiliar limb and Wymack’s warning fresh in his ears, his vision full of hopeful blue eyes and a newly scarred face; he and Neil get a special house in District 5, where Nicky and Aaron are allowed to stay as well, something he appreciates and loathes; he and Neil wake up in the middle of the night, both trapped in the nightmares of their own memories; he meets a frightened Kevin Day in the Capitol and makes a regrettable deal–
Mostly, Andrew learns, day by day, how not to survive, but how to live.