the odds are never in our favor
“They’re going to make us kill each other,” she sobbed.
“I won’t let them,” he returned evenly.
A cannon burst out from somewhere within the arena and Tatiana flinched in the bush that she hid in. Her hand suddenly curled up into a fist as her heart dropped, and her hazel eyes scanned the area, the shadows almost violet in the twilight. Someone else was dead. She only hoped that it wasn’t –
She jumped out of her spot in the bush before turning and glaring reproachfully at the boy who’d walked behind her, his grin curving up his lips like the Cheshire Cat. Tatiana shoved him back roughly and he laughed, raising his hands defensively.
“Don’t do that,” she muttered roughly.
He gave a nonchalant shrug. “I thought it’d be fun. We haven’t done anything fun in ages,” Will answered.
“I’ve been too busy trying to avoid being killed for the last six days,” the brunette replied crisply, still not having completely forgiven him for the scare as she crossed her arms in front of her chest.
He sighed. “Don’t be like that. Besides, I brought food.” Will rummaged through his pocket and proudly pulled out a handful of berries, only slightly mashed from the journey.
Tatiana gaped at them, her eyes wide and then knocked them out of his hand. “You dumb ass! Those are nightlock berries and they’re poisonous! Did you eat any?”
She pinned him with a stare and he shook his head quickly, alarmed. “I was waiting until I got back to,” he added, shifting uncomfortable as he looked at the ground and the spilled berries. “Guess we’ve got no food then.”
Tatiana sighed and shook her head, returning to her position in the bush. There were a few planted in a tight circle with a hollow in the center where it was difficult to be seen from unless one knew what they were looking for. Will crawled in behind her after a moment, settling himself against a branch.
For a moment, they studied each other through the dim light. And then – “I heard the cannon and thought something happened to you,” she confided after a moment.
Will shook his head, a sad smile edging up his lips. “Benj,” he said after a moment. “His body was in the river when I passed by it.”
Her eyes grew wide and round. “What happened to him?”
“Arrow to the eye.” Will’s expression was grim. “I think Seren and Lee got to him while he was getting water.”
Tatiana heaved a dry sigh, but this was no longer a surprise. Deaths occurred every day; the first had been particularly bloody, but there had still been murders following since then. Benj had been kind at the facility where they’d been training. Had they not been sent into this arena to kill each other, Tatiana would have considered him a friend.
“They’re getting dangerous, aren’t they? Seren and Lee, I mean. They’ve broken away from everyone else but they’re even more deadly.”
Will frowned and stayed silent for a moment before asking, “What have we got for weapons left?”
“Well, Chastity took that one dagger yesterday, but we’ve still got another, and this sort of slingshot thing.” Tatiana pulled them from her pockets before motioning to just outside the small cage that the bush formed. “And if your deadly berries count, that makes three. Although, honestly, I don’t think anyone is stupid enough to not recognize nightlock.”
Will narrowed his dark eyes at her.
“So, who’s left?” she asked, pressing her back against the edge of the bush.
He began to count off on his fingers. “The two of us. Chastity’s still somewhere hiding. Lee and Seren, obviously. Er, either Nate or Ariel too because that cannon went off a few hours ago and I still don’t know who it was for.”
“So that makes six,” Tatiana realized with a nod, drawing in her legs. She rested her chin on them, wrapping her arms.
“Will, I was thinking…”
“You didn’t even let me finish!”
“I already know what you’re going to say.”
She shot him a look of pure irritation. “Would you let me speak?”
Will held her gaze for a few seconds, each daring the other to look away first before finally he sighed and scooted closer under the bush, wrapping his arm around her shoulders as she pressed herself into his side.
“We need to split,” she announced, her head against his shoulder. “I don’t want it to come down to the two of us in the end. I just… I don’t know what I’d do.”
Will snickered into her chocolate locks. “It’s not going to come down to that. I’ll be long gone by then.”
She abruptly sat back straight up, nearly knocking into his chin with the top of her head. “Don’t say that,” Tatiana replied harshly. “You’ll be the one to get out of here.”
“You’re faster,” he pointed out.
“And you’re stronger,” she argued, “So it could be either of us. And that’s why I don’t want it to come down to the two of us.”
Will was silent. “Where would I go?”
“I dunno.” Her voice was hollow, already dreading him leaving even if she’d been the one to suggest it. He was warm against her side and she gently moved her head back onto his shoulder. “Somewhere far away from me. With any luck, we won’t see each other again.”
He stiffened. “Is that what you want? Not to see me again?”
“Yes,” she affirmed. There was a pause, and Tatiana breathed a sigh. “Well, no. I don’t want you to leave. But you have to.”
“I’m not going to.”
“Will,” she murmured, somewhat exasperated, before suddenly the theme of the Capitol began playing. Catching the opening riff of the anthem, they separated, and gently pushed their way out of the bushes and turned up to the sky of the arena. Benjamin and Ariel’s faces flashed against the sky and then the song was over and it was quite in the arena once more.
“So it was Ariel after all,” Tatiana murmured, staring at the black sky for a moment longer before retreating back into the bush. Will followed once more, and she curled up by his side again, trying to ignore her growling stomach and the stinging from the cut she’d received from Seren’s arrow a few days ago that had yet to heal.
“Is there any point in telling you to leave again?” she asked, her voice slightly muffled by his shoulder.
“None at all,” he declared.
Her heart dropped slightly but she couldn’t help but feel relieved at the same time. Tatiana stretched sideways, her lips brushing his briefly before she settled back down onto his shoulder again for yet another fitful and restless night of nightmares.
Nate was dead. The cannon sounded again in the morning and startled them out of their sleep. Tatiana blinked and glanced around, pushing out of the bush and checking if there was anyone nearby, but the clearing remained empty.
“How do you think they got him?” she asked Will as he stepped out behind her from the bushes.
He sighed and shrugged. “Seren’s a great shot with that arrow, but Lee’s the strategic one. They’ve probably planned attacks on all of us by now. They’re a good team.” He was quite for a moment before adding sullenly, “They haven’t split.”
She shot him a backward glance before pausing to count. “There are five of us left now.” Her gaze scanned the clearing. “Where do you think Chastity is?”
“Probably watching us from somewhere,” Will decided after a moment, and the brunette shivered and wrapped her arms around herself.
“Let’s get going,” she decided.
They spent the rest of the day looking for food (it had been more than a day and a half since they’d had anything to eat). Finally, they stumbled upon a small grove of berries that didn’t look poisonous and ate until they’d exhausted everything there. Tatiana leaned back against a tree but started as another cannon went off.
The two exchanged a look. “Who do you think that was?” Tatiana asked hesitantly.
Will frowned. “Probably Chastity.”
“Let’s get back to the bushes,” Tatiana suggested and he agreed.
They tracked their way back down to their makeshift camp almost, only to find the redhead’s mangled body being flown away by a Capitol aircraft.
“That’s what nightlock does to you,” Tatiana said after a moment.
Will shuddered. “Let’s not eat any.”
“There are only four of us left, and it’s just us and Lee and Seren.” Tatiana bit her lip. “They’re working as a team, and so are we.”
“When you’re not trying to kick me out.”
“Let it go, Will. Either way, we’re probably at opposite ends of the arena. My guess is they’ll try to draw us together and give them a show back home.” Tatiana’s face fell as she remembered home again. “I miss Wales. And Daniel, and my parents, and – sod it, I even miss my bookshelf.”
“You’ll get back to your copy of Robin Hood soon enough,” Will added.
“Stop saying that.” She glowered at him.
Tatiana wasn’t wrong. A swarm of wasps had them urgently leaving the bushes where they’d been hiding, and they could hear a storm somewhere at the other end of the arena clearly meant to draw out Lee and Seren.
The wasps subsided after a while and the pair collapsed against a tree, breathing heavily. Her forehead was sticky in the heat – this year, the arena was set on sort of a mountain, with slopes and cliffs and shrubbery, but it was still hotter than it should be. Not for the first time, Tatiana cursed the gamemakers and the circumstances – not just the arena, but having been selected for the Hunger Games in the first place.
“Where do you think they are?” Tatiana panted, but suddenly Will pressed his hand to her mouth to stop talking and they heard a twig snap behind them.
Voices followed soon after. “I could have sworn I saw Will leave yesterday. I was going to follow him, too, except for that ridiculous storm. I don’t know where we are now,” Seren had been saying as she noisily tromped through the area, past the low, slim trees. Tatiana flattened herself against it, trying not to be seen.
Lee was more strategic. “I think they’ve been returning to a sort of camp every day, but since it’s just the four of us left, I doubt that the gamemakers let them continue. They’re probably trying to find a way to draw us together and end this.”
Seren laughed and then there was a sound as if she’d plucked at her bow. “They won’t stand a chance.”
Will turned to Tatiana near the tree, his eyes blazing. Hers conveyed the same fire. These two had once been their friends – not only that, but best friends. The quest for survival really did reveal people, Tatiana thought. Seren might not have been the betraying type, but there she was, planning her best friend’s murder.
Will’s hand was suddenly on her hip, and she glanced over in surprise. He placed a finger on his lips and then pulled the knife from her pocket. She gripped the slingshot but realized she had nothing to fire. Trying to keep as silent as she could, she pulled a nut down from the tree she was standing against.
Lee and Seren, who hadn’t noticed them, suddenly turned and spotted the pair. “Go!” Will pushed her to the side roughly, and she grabbed the nut in her hand gripped the slingshot in the other. Seren notched an arrow and Lee picked up a club that Tatiana hadn’t realized he’d been holding.
For a moment, they stared at each other before Seren let the arrow fly. Tatiana ducked and it landed in the wood of the tree above her. The nut that she’d grabbed was too small; it’d hardly inflict any damage. A rock was nearby, and the brunette grabbed that. In the time it took Seren to notch another arrow, she’d already set loose the rock.
The brown projectile hit Seren square in the stomach and she stumbled backward, grabbing onto Leander. He stumbled with her, and suddenly they were at the edge of the cliff, hanging over into the precipice. Tatiana launched another rock and they stumbled back, but Lee managed to grab Seren with one hand and a root in the side of the cliff with the other.
It was Will’s turn now. He stepped closer to the edge and used the sharp end of the knife to slice through the root. “Take that you backstabber.”
The screams that echoed were strangely satisfying. Will grinned down as the two disappeared, and then turned back to Tatiana, triumphant. A grin crooked up his lips at having knocked out their biggest competition, but he stopped short at the look on Tatiana’s face.
Her eyes were already beginning to well up with tears. “Will,” she sniffed and then wiped a dusty hand over eyes. “I told you to leave me.”
“And I said I wasn’t going to.”
“We’re the last two!” And here she properly began to cry. “I told you that I didn’t want it to come to this. I don’t want to kill you, and I don’t want to be killed by you either.”
The two cannon shots in rapid succession were no victory to them anymore. Tatiana slumped down to the base of a tree, wrapping her arms around her knees again, trying not to shake. Will had dropped his knife, but he was still a threat as he stepped toward her. She flinched away, pressing herself against the bark of a tree.
“Make it quick,” she whispered as his hand came closer.
Surprisingly, his fingers were not suddenly squeezing her throat; rather, they had moved upward. His thumb brushed away a tear gently, cupping her face in his hand, but that only made her cry more.
“They’re going to make us kill each other,” she sobbed.
“I won’t let them,” he returned evenly.
Tatiana nearly laughed. As it was, she scoffed at him, shaking her head as she tightened her grip around her knees. “Even you can’t stop the gamekeepers. They want a victor. Only one of us is going home today. Either I have to kill you, or you have to kill me.”
“No, I don’t,” Will returned in that voice of his that she found both endearing and smugly irritating. Right now, it was the latter. “We’ll take that choice away from them.”
“How?” the brunette asked, looking up at him finally.
He wordlessly pulled a few squished berries from his pocket, and Tatiana understood. She reached toward them quickly to push them away again, but he was faster, closing his arm and pulling his hand away.
“You’ll get to go home again.” There was sorrow in the way his lips rose up at the corners, in the crinkle beneath his onyx eyes, in the weariness of his jaw.
“What’s the point if you’re not coming with me?”
Will was still smiling. “I’ll be your Robin Hood if it means you get the chance to live.”
“Don’t—“ she pleaded, reaching out, but he’d already tipped his chin upward and shoved in the berries.
The reaction was immediate. He began to convulse, fingers twitching, body shaking, and she pushed herself even harder against the tree to distance herself from him, too in shock to cry. And then finally, he stopped, twitched one last time, and lay motionless, his arm curved toward her.
There was the shot of the cannon in the distance, and then a voice over the arena speakers. “Ladies and gentlemen, the victor of the Eighty-third annual Hunger Games is… Tatiana Penvrane!”
She could see her face reflected now in the sky of the arena, presumably being broadcasted across the world to everyone who was watching. She didn’t look like herself – her cheeks were dusty, there were twigs in her hair, and her eyes made her look as if she’d aged twenty years in a week. She’d watched her friends betray her and then kill each other – even kill themselves.
Tatiana dropped to her knees and pressed her face to her hands and sobbed even as the Capitol aircraft emerged to collect her.