This came out a lot longer and heavier than I had intended. I really don't expect that many people to even read this, really. Haha.

Thank you all so much for being so patient and understanding! It means a lot to me.

The Hunger Games belongs to Suzanne Collins.

"I did you a favor. Remember how I said I wanted to protect you? Only you?"

Two Fires as seen from Marvel's eyes.

The paper was aged and thin between my fingertips, so devastatingly fragile that even the slightest tremble seemed to be able to crumble it into a dust, wafting through the air as almost intangible flakes before finally littering the ground below my feet. Even so, the narrow scrawl covering its yellowed surface was able to cramp my muscles and send my vision into a haze, as if a thin sheet of film was placed over the surface of my eyes.

The ink, once freshly smudged over the paper's crisp surface, had faded over the years and was now barely readable. If it wasn't for the fact that I had long since memorized its text, I wouldn't have been able to discern it at all.

One day I will return.

If it wasn't for the thought of you, my love, I wouldn't be able to go on.

When I find myself doing terrible things, I take comfort in you.


My shoulders twitched in surprise as my sister's trilling voice pierced my eardrums, making my lips purse together in exasperation as I tentatively craned my neck to peer at her.

She was hovering in the doorway, her tresses of opaque hair spilling over her shoulders and eclipsing most of her face. It was always unsettling how she seemed to be made up of only shades of black and white, no color apparent in her strikingly fair skin or inky hair. If it weren't for her surroundings, I would have sworn that I had gone colorblind.

"I told you to stop calling me that, Luna," I muttered, folding the feeble paper tenderly in my palm before slipping it into my pocket.

I watched as my sister's black eyes raked downward before I could shield the paper entirely, making her eyebrows crinkle together with a mixture of disgust and mortification. "Don't tell me you're still carrying around that note Mom gave you before she left," she griped, narrowing her already searing gaze at me, "She was a monster. Why do you still care about her?"

"Don't you need to get ready for the reapings?" I asked accusingly, squinting my eyes into slits. My sister responded with a look of shock, her eyes widening until her irises were surrounded by white. She fretfully cuffed a palm to her temple before brushing away some of her sable locks, only to have more fall in front of her pallid features as a thick, straggled curtain.

I felt a smirk tug at the corners of my mouth. "It's your first year being entered, isn't it? Aw, my little Luna is finally one of the big kids," I crooned mockingly, "You should volunteer. Just like mother dearest."

"Shut your mouth," Luna breathed, and I noticed with only slight surprise that her reedy knees had buckled and that she had to grip at the doorframe to keep from keeling over. "Don't you dare say that I'm anything like—like her."

"Why?" I chuckled, satisfied with how thoroughly I was striking her nerves. "I thought you always wanted to follow in Mom's footsteps. Volunteer for the games, become a murderer, have two children before you're eighteen. She was quite a woman."

Luna let her eyes tear upward until they locked on mine, the glossiness of her tears shining through her shroud of sooty hair. "I hope you get reaped," she choked, "I hope to God you get reaped, Marvel!"

I forced my smirk to grow, making my cheeks quiver with pain. "Don't be silly. You'd be even more alone than you are now."

My sister shrunk away from the doorframe, using her hair to cover the tears that were trickling out the corners of her eyes and down her ivory cheeks. Her willowy fingers went to cover her mouth, their trembling centers doing little to stifle the whimpers escaping from her lips.

"Face it," I mumbled, gradually losing the strength to uphold my smile, "You need me."

And with that, she was gone. Luna had raced down the hallway, her bare feet slapping against the wooden flooring and her strained snivels ringing in her wake.

I felt a lump wedge itself into my throat as I listened to the sound of her retreating into the nearest room and slamming the door behind her, hoping that its dense wooden surface would be enough to mute her sobs.

With an almost strange sort of fondness, I exhaled slowly and plucked my mother's note from my pocket, letting its words wash over me again and immediately feeling the weight my sister had left diminish from my shoulders.

One day I will return.

Even if my mother was a monster, she had been the only person who ever truly cared about me.

Maybe it was only because of how I seemed like an exact copy of her, from the azure eyes and transparently pale skin to the arrogant attitude.

After all, whenever I let my irises land on someone, they always seem as if they're seconds away from plunging to the ground and gasping for breath after drowning in their depths. My veins spider through my wrist and can almost visibly pulse. If I feel myself getting too close to somebody, I can make them hate me in an instant.

Just like my mother.

If it wasn't for the thought of you, my love, I wouldn't be able to go on.

I remember watching her on the television screen all those years ago after she was dropped into the arena, slashing at other humans without even a speck of hesitation and cackling as their blood sprayed across her frontside. I remember how the other tributes feared her, and how they eventually became allies to get rid of her. I remember how she had fallen into their trap, and how they had made sure to kill her in the slowest and most agonizing of ways. I remember each of her screams, each of her pleading gasps, how her fighting spirit was diluted into that of a blubbering child's as she struggled through her last moments of life.

And I remember staring wide-eyed and paralyzed in front of my television screen, my limbs securely locked in place with horror long after it was finally over.

When I find myself doing terrible things, I take comfort in you.

"Hello, District 1, and welcome to the 74th annual Hunger Games reapings!"

My eyebrows perked as a voice suddenly rang throughout the square, too soft and soothing to compete against the buzz and crackles of the speakers and yet too demanding to be ignored with ease. I struggled to peer above the many heads in front of me, and I could only just make out the shine of the gems embroidering the stage and the countless cameras swiveling above us.

The mentors all seemed to be clad in nothing but white, the fabric spotless and crisp against their skin as they waved politely out to the audience. Even the microphone was so tidy and scintillate that it could have been mistaken for a chunk of obsidian.

"By the end of today, two very fortunate people will be on their way to the arena! How exciting!" the voice thundered with forced enthusiasm. Out of all the District 1 escorts in the past, this one seemed the most dull with her fair bob of chestnut hair and her relatively cosmetic-free features. By the time she was done explaining the rules for volunteering, my eyelids were already heavy with boredom.

After raking a hand through my hair in an effort to smooth it out across my scalp, I noticed the soft murmur of anxious whispers beside me. Narrowing my gaze, I strained my ears to listen after deciding that the escort had nothing more to say that would interest me.

"Who do you think is going to be the female tribute?" one voice asked, high-pitched and bubbly. I reflexively cringed as it reached my eardrums.

"I don't know. Why? Are you thinking of volunteering?" the other voice answered, equally as shrill.

"Maybe. My parents would be happy. Probably not, though."

"I know, right? Volunteering is so last year. They don't even give you showers when you're in the arena."

I could almost feel the two girls simultaneously shudder before they continued.

"Well, I can tell you who it's definitely not going to be."



"Glimmer Allene! Congratulations, you have been picked as a tribute for the 74th Hunger Games!"

Without thinking, I turned my head in the girl's direction, only to see that her glossed lips were parted quizzically and her slender fingers were held mid-fan beside her tinted cheek. The swarm of girls around her seemed equally shocked as they let their already widened eyes open into almost completely circular disks.

"Come on up, Glimmer!" the escort called out, throwing her free hand up into the air. "Are you ready to bring glory to your district?"

I watched as Glimmer almost fretfully darted her emerald eyes from side-to-side as if she expected someone to volunteer, only to be met by silence. The way her features twisted once she finally decided to start moving toward the stage made me think that she was about to dive to the ground like a child in the middle of a tantrum, and the way her friends immediately dove into eager whispers the moment she turned her back on them made my stomach twist with disgust.

As she mounted the stage, her heeled shoes click-clacking against its surface and her golden ringlets swishing in front of her shoulder blades, multiple people had the nerve to let out low wolf whistles. She responded with a prolonged groan, her arms limp with skepticism as they brushed against the lace of her pale blue gown.

"Ladies and gentleman, your female tribute!" the escort boomed before placing a light hand on Glimmer's shoulder, only to have it slapped away the moment it made contact.

This female tribute seemed high-strung, as if she was just a shove away from having her brittle frame shatter in front of the hollow lenses of the cameras zooming in on her cosmetic-coated features, so much so that she had to mask herself with an air of defiance. I arched one of my eyebrows as I studied the faint handful of freckles sprinkled over the brim of her cheeks and the sharpness of her green eyes, knowing that the life animating the shine in those irises would diminish the moment her dainty feet toed the grass of the arena.

I let my back arch lazily as I waited for the next name to be called, willing my eyes to stray away from the pinched features of the girl standing crookedly on the stage—her lean arms crossed tightly in front of her chest and her thinned eyebrows furrowed—but I couldn't seem to shake off the feeling that she was being unjustly thrown into the Games, like a fish being expected to walk on land. The thought left the muscles in my stomach twisting painfully together, leaving me completely unprepared for when the escort moved toward the crystal bowl containing all the males' names.

Severely bothered, I tautened my jaw and directed my attention to the ground, noticing how it was so sleek and white that it looked like it was made out of melted down pearls. The moment I was about to rub the sole of my shoe against it in an effort to leave a smudge, the escort's voice rang throughout the square, the words nonsensical as they made their way to my ears. I was left concerned only for a moment before I let out a quiet, dismissive yawn.

Before I could even close my mouth entirely, the cameras had suddenly directed their lenses at me. Every head in the crowd turned in my direction, as if I had developed some sort of magnetic pull.

Crinkling the bridge of my nose with confusion, I spotted Luna gaping wide-eyed at me from across the square, her black eyes horrified and her limbs stiff with disbelief. As I slowly registered her terrorized expression, the realization began to fill my brain like ice water being poured into my skull.

My ears buzzed as the escort's voice cracked through the speakers again.

"Marvel Laban? Why are you just standing there? You've been picked as a tribute for the 74th Hunger Games!"

"Look happy, dammit."

The more time I spent with Glimmer Allene, the more I wanted to retract every ounce of the pity I had felt for her when she was reaped.

I would've been perfectly content with greeting the cameras at the train station with a frown, but she insisted on acting as delighted as physically possible, as if straining the muscles in our cheeks would have any effect on our performance in the arena.

I dully shifted my gaze over to her, not bothering to move my head from where it was lazily resting on my palm as we gradually made our way to the station in a sleek Capitol car. It wasn't what I was expecting, not nearly as exquisite as they made it out to be whenever they broadcasted it on the television, but it had a sizable window that I would've been enjoying if Glimmer's shrill voice hadn't kept interfering.

"We're Careers, and we just got picked to go to the arena. We need to be fuckin' ecstatic, okay?" Glimmer ordered, the makeup around her eyes already smudged.

With a weary sigh, I begrudgingly craned my neck to peer at her, satisfied when I saw her eyebrows rise and her shoulders tense in response to the blueness of my irises. It took her a couple moments to recover, and I seized the opportunity to pinch my features into an icy scowl. "We just got picked to fight for our lives in a remote place filled with a bunch o' maniacs," I muttered, the growl of the car's engine somehow making the sarcasm dripping in my tone more apparent, "Yippee."

The corners of Glimmer's mouth curled downward, making the slight indentation in the center of her bottom lip more discernible. "Listen, dumbass. You think I'm excited about this?" she snapped, the slight note of mockery in her voice making me widen my eyes in surprise, "No. But it's all about appearances. Who would you be more likely to sponsor, an overjoyed tribute skipping to the train,"

I tightened my lips in an effort to keep from glaring, her high-pitched voice like the rough, grating sound of static as it cleaved my eardrums. "Actually, I would be very happy to sponsor myself, thank you," I said, directing my attention back toward the window as the road leading away from District 1 blurred past us, "I'm worth every penny."

With great difficulty, Glimmer wiped her dark glower from her features and replaced it with a beaming grin, her laugh-lines trembling as she forced it to widen. "Just do as I say or I will punch you so hard in the mouth that your grandchildren will feel it," she hissed, the wickedness in her tone seemingly misplaced compared to the look of complete innocence and ignorance she was sporting.

Almost on cue, the car screeched to a stop and the doors on either side of us swept open, revealing us to the many cameras posed outside the train station. Their lenses acted as callous, black eyes as they zoomed in on my startled features, blinding me with their glaring flashes and making me bring a reflexive hand up to my brow. I shrunk even more into the backseat. The leather underneath me creaked under my weight, and it wasn't until Glimmer appeared outside my door with an artificial grin plastered to the lower half of her face and her eyes extremely contorted with impatience that I finally decided to step out and completely reveal myself to their awaiting film.

As Glimmer grasped the sleeve of my blazer, the tips of her nails digging into the fabric and jabbing my forearm, I couldn't help but be impressed by how well she was fabricating herself. She tossed her ringlets over her shoulders and casted her grassy eyes to her feet, letting giggles escape her plump lips. She even made herself pigeon-toed as to play off the role of an angelic, pristine girl walking meekly toward her train.

A few moments passed of the cameras dutifully gorging themselves on our images and Glimmer continuously tightening her already painful grip on my arm before I finally decided to humor her. I stepped backward, the sound of the soles of my shoes scratching against the gravel-covered cement as I arched my back into a half-bow, extending my palm toward Glimmer as if I was formally asking her to dance.

I heard her let out a stifled, girlish gasp, and I couldn't help but feel my mouth tighten into a grin as she delicately let the pads of her fingers brush against the center of my hand, as if the slight contact made her flustered.

Maybe Glimmer wasn't as bad as I thought she was. No one who was almost as manipulative as me could be that unpleasant.

Slowly, as if I was cherishing the moment, I rose my head to lock my eyes on hers, and I knew that part of the reason why the muscles in her arm tensed was because of how she was genuinely stunned by my azure irises. I cocked an eyebrow mischievously before completely clasping Glimmer's fingers in my fist, careful to make my grip tight enough to hurt.

I felt a twinge of surprise mixed with utter annoyance pulse through her hand, but she had no choice but to give me an abashed grin as we continued to pose in front of the hollow lenses of the cameras.

"Shall we?" I asked, flashing her a gallant smile.

Glimmer lowered her head, her golden locks cascading over her shoulders as she attempted to soften her voice into a tender murmur, only to let some traces of her irritation drip into her tone. "The sooner the better."

And with that, she set one heeled foot in front of the other, her strides too wide and rough to belong to the harmless, chasté girl she had first played herself off to be. Even though she kept her lips tightened and her giggles constant, I couldn't help but see with slight smugness that her charade was slowly fading.

"Slow down, Glim. This is a fantastic moment in our lives, right?" I smirked, having no trouble keeping up with her lengthened pace as we hurried toward the train, the clusters of cameras following closely behind. "We should make it last."

Glimmer's head whipped toward me with such ferocity that it wouldn't have been a surprise if it had broken her neck. "Shut up, you fu—"

I clicked my tongue and theatrically shook my head before she could finish her sentence, mockingly bringing a finger up to point at the many cameras at her side, their lenses so zoomed that it looked like they were about to brush against her flushed cheek.

With abruptly overflowing wrath, Glimmer threw her hands into the air and let out a vexed screech, her heeled feet stumbling in protest as she darted toward the entrance of the train, leaving me to coolly keep a steady pace behind her and let my once masked features gradually twist into an amused sneer.

It was disappointing when Glimmer refused to react to my teasing once we had finished our dinner and gathered in front of a television to watch the recaps of the reapings across Panem, her features stubbornly wiped free of emotion and her fists clenched fiercely in her lap doubtlessly as an outlet for her temper. The way our escort approvingly nodded in her direction made me think that they had already started making agreements without my knowledge, making a sudden wave of boredom wash over me. My one source of entertainment was slowly slipping away.

With a strained sigh, I watched the television screen with little interest, only bothering to study the faces of the other Careers—the shadowy, determined features of the tributes from 2 and the ignorant, eager expressions underneath the kinked hair of the tributes from 4—before completely zoning out, wondering if Luna had been affected in the slightest when I had been shipped away for the games. She hadn't even come to speak me after I had been reaped, leaving me to lazily slouch into the cushions of the couches surrounding the visiting room I had been in, passing the time by counting every slight imperfection and fissure in its white walls.

"Which ones do you want?" Glimmer suddenly muttered from my side, snapping me out of my reverie. I shifted my gaze toward the television again, only to see that they were already broadcasting the reapings from District 10.

I sloppily rubbed the exhaustion from my eyes before letting them fall onto Glimmer, only to see that she looked gravely interested in memorizing each feature of all the tributes, her emerald eyes unblinking as she stared at the television.

"What do you mean?" I yawned, registering the slight twinge of aggravation that pulsed through Glimmer's brow in response.

"I mean, which of those pipsqueaks do you want to claim?" she stressed, struggling to keep her voice calm as she raked her fingers through her crown of golden hair, "It's one of the few things the Careers bond over—letting each other reserve tributes to kill. Jeez, do you know anything?"

I raised my eyebrows in genuine surprise before directing my gaze back to the television, only to see that a twelve-year-old had been reaped from District 11 this year. It was almost disarming to see her big, glossy eyes sway over the audience in hopes that someone would have the courage to take her place, only to be met by smothering silence. "Why would we want to do that? Do you all really get some kind of sick pleasure in killing?"

"Yes," Glimmer answered simply, no shame in her tone, "The Careers get pleasure in killing the tributes that deserve it. To clear the path for the real victors." She fiddled with the hem of her powder blue gown, still thick with the scent of District 1. "It's either them or us, Marvel. Our morals were gone the moment our names were picked out of that bowl."

"Sounds like you have a weird kink going on, Glim," I muttered, and her jaw tightened in obvious anger. Still, I pursed my lips firmly together and focused on the television. I saw the District 11 tributes' already grim expressions darken after they were forced to watch the crowd around their stage applaud for their deaths. The twelve-year-old's eyes already looked moist and reddened with tears, and her male counterpart, surprisingly muscular and broad, stood stiffly beside her.

Not them. The thought of causing the life to leave their already hopeless irises made my chest heave with nausea. Seeing Glimmer out of the blurred part of my vision scrunch her thin eyebrows together made me hope that she still had some traces of humanity left in her, only to see that it was followed by the slight quirking of the corner of her mouth, as if the misery of others was fuel for her willowy frame.

The moment the dank, foliage-covered District 11 reapings were replaced with the barren, desolate District 12 reapings, I felt a twinge of hope surge up my spine, making my posture suddenly improve as I fixated my gaze on the television with renewed interest. If there was anyone that absolutely had to die by my hand, I would rather it be the rats from 12. The scum that I was raised to deem worthless and insignificant.

As I watched both the tributes fervently volunteer and race to the stage, even being so bold as to embrace once they were close enough to each other, I felt a fury build up inside of me. They were just as repulsive as my mother, who had enthusiastically swiped her blade at every human that crossed her path, not giving the death she caused a second thought as she strolled through the arena with gluey lines of blood trickling down her pale skin.

The 12's were eager, thrilled even, and the fact that their crowd erupted with indiscernible shrieks that had to be cut off seconds after it began on the television just proved that they were all nothing but animals.

"Them," I muttered, my tone definite and harrowing as I crinkled the bridge of my nose with revulsion and slitted my eyes into a dreadful glare, "They're mine."

Katniss Everdeen.

A District 12 tribute. A rat. One of the unnamed volunteers that I had decided to direct all my wrath upon.

And she was on fire.

Glimmer wouldn't stop elbowing me in the ribs and hissing to keep my head forward, but I couldn't tear my eyes away from the District 12 tribute. The way thin strands of her dark hair flowed away from her braid and twirled in the light breeze, the way her eyes squinted ever so slightly whenever she smiled, the way her ashen irises threw off bits of light whenever she blinked...All of it at once was overwhelming, like my head had suddenly been submerged in a bucket of icy, shadowy water once my gaze had fixed itself on her, leaving my lungs to burn and my throat to sting as I gradually drowned in the depths of her radiance.

Here the District 1 tributes were, dressed in our obligatory gems and riding in our signature white carriage with two identically snowy horses, and there the District 12 tributes were, sparks bursting from their capes and trails of fire burning just centimeters away from their bare flesh.

No matter how much I decided that I hated Katniss Everdeen the day I saw her volunteer—as if she wanted to be involved in the games' bloodshed—I couldn't help but feel my heart swell in my ribcage as I watched her almost shyly wave at the Capitolites surrounding her carriage. I couldn't help but feel my throat contract as I watched her full lips tighten every time she coerced herself to brighten her features. And I couldn't help but feel my cheeks burn up the second I thought I saw her silver eyes sway in my direction.

I thought a girl from District 12 was beautiful.

And I was disgusted with myself for it.

The mace felt strange in my hand with its cold hilt clasped in my palm and its spiked head brushing lightly against my shins, the thick fabric of my training clothes the only thing keeping its sharp prongs from skidding over my skin. It was made entirely out of metal, and it was so heavy that I had to grasp it with both hands in order to swing it efficiently at a dummy. Even then, it still left my shoulders aching, as if they were mere moments away from being yanked out of their sockets.

"Cato, give me one of those swords," I drawled exasperatedly, dropping the mace to the sleek floors of the Training Center, "This thing's not working out for me."

I watched as Cato's squinted eyes shifted toward me, the dark murky blues of his irises putting me on edge as he let his mouth slowly contort into a smirk, making his already shaded features cloud over. "Want to follow in your momma's footsteps, huh?" he sneered, grabbing a sword by its blade and tossing it toward me, making it briskly spiral as it soared through the air. It narrowly avoided impaling my thigh.

My body reacted on its own, making me hastily side-step out of the sword's direction and watch as it stuck itself into one of the pulpous blue mats beside me, quivering in its spot from the sudden force. I set my jaw before crinkling my eyebrows into a frigid glower and gripping the weapon by its handle, careful to make my movements swift and precise as I swiped it away from the mat and across a dummy's neck, making its canvas-coated head fall to the ground with an ominous thump.

"You realize that the District 2 tributes were in the first group of people my mother killed when she was in the arena, right?" I asked, sneaking a glance at Cato from above my shoulder before letting the corner of my mouth quirk amusedly at his suddenly sobered expression.

Cato tilted his head to the side, the muscles at the side of his scarred neck flexing. "Don't push your luck, 1," he muttered thickly, "I'm not like the others. I won't spoil you just 'cause you come from a district of whiney li'l lapdogs." He slipped his sword back into its sheath, its blade glinting in the bright lights of the Training Center.

I let out a sharp laugh, my voice light and cheery as I stretched my lips into a mocking smile. My grip was tight around the sword as I unhurriedly walked it back over to Cato and politely slipped it back into its rack, my gaze on his rugged, contorted face unbroken as it twisted in response to my azure irises. "Oh, believe me, I wouldn't dare betray you," I chuckled, sarcasm soaking my tone, "Unless, you know, I want to follow in my mom's footsteps."

A few strained moments passed, the distant squeaking of training machinery and the occasional thunk of metal being dropped to the floor the only things breaking the dense silence. Finally, I flashed Cato one last ridiculing grin before turning on my heel to leave, only to be halted when his rough, calloused palm slapped itself over my already sore shoulder and swiveled me around to face him again.

"You think you're hot shit, huh?" Cato asked, his speculative tone and curious expression seeming misplaced paired with his iron grip. He ran the bloated fingers of his free hand through his tufts of yellow hair, revealing how his already uneven fingernails had been chewed down to raw stubs. "Think you're too good for everyone here?"

I arched one of my eyebrows wearily. "Are you really trying to diagnose my personality?"

Slowly, Cato stretched his chapped lips into a bright smile, revealing a slight chip in his front tooth before he let out a booming laugh, startling me so much that I almost keeled over. "Heh. I like you, 1," he announced, taking his palm away from my shoulder only to give it a swift, hardy slap. "Go pick up that mace again. I can definitely picture you messing somebody up with that thing."

"Will you stop staring at that District 12 girl already?"

Clove suddenly stepped into my vision, the soles of her shoes squeaking against the sleek floors of the Training Center and her slender hands poising themselves against her hips. Her mahogany wave of hair was knotted into a messy bun, and her training clothes appeared to be too tight to possibly be comfortable, leaving me to wonder how she was able to hit constant bull's-eyes with her throwing knives.

I felt shame pulse through my torso, making my arms stiffen at my sides and my grip around the metal mace in my hand tighten until my knuckles were white. "Wh—"

"Seriously," she groaned, her sienna eyes rolling to the back of her head, "Somebody would think that you were in love with her or something. Gross."

I tapered my eyes, noticing that their blueness had no effect on Clove as she stood idly in front of me, her nose pinched into an almost bored expression across her fair, sleek features. Almost disappointedly, I swung my mace into the coarse material of a dummy and let it hold itself there by its elongated spikes. "Don't be ridiculous," I mumbled, exhaling sharply, "I was just seeing what stations they were going to. Studying their strengths, inferring their weaknesses, blah, blah, blah."

"Oh really? Because it looks like the only thing you're studying is that rat girl's ass," Clove muttered, her tone acidic and her fingers tightening around her hipbones.

My eyebrows rose skeptically. "Any reason why that bothers you so much?"

I watched as Clove's cheeks almost instantly grew into an impressive shade of scarlet beneath her makeup, making her shoulders tense and the bridge of her nose crinkle. "Bothers me?" she muttered, eyebrows ferociously creasing together. "Because we're allies, moron!"

"And?" I asked, bringing a bored hand up to my shoulder in an attempt to rub the soreness out of it.

Clove shifted her eyes to lock on mine before arching one of her thin eyebrows, the severe color in her cheeks gradually beginning to fade. "And because those District 12 rodents are lovers," she murmured, her voice softened into a buzzing undertone, "Didn't you know?"

Unprepared, I flinched as if Clove's words were scalding hot water being splashed against my torso. "Well, obviously," I choked, struggling to regain my composure, "It's all they talk about during the recaps. Capitolites pounce on that sort of thing."

Clove, realizing that she hit a soft spot, gave me a smirk as sharp and cutting as her knives, making me feel strange being on the receiving end of it. "Oh really? Did you know that the only reason the boy volunteered was because he didn't want the girl to go into the arena without him?"

With terrible suddenness, I felt my bones lock in place, my inexplicable resentment paralyzing me and making Clove continue without a single trace of her previous shame apparent in her voice. She slipped a stray strand of her chestnut hair behind her ear and elongated her already posh stance. "It was so heroic of him. Doesn't hurt that he's amazingly hot, t—"

"Why," I interrupted, my voice suddenly slicked with intensity, "did Katniss volunteer, then?"

"Katniss? What kind of name is tha—"

"A beautiful one," I blurted out without thinking, my breaths coming out in heavy fits and my blood searing through my veins like lines of fire, making my skin heat up inside of my training clothes, "A goddamn wonderful, grand, splendid, magnificent one."

Clove, taken aback by my abrupt change of tone, was left staring wide-eyed at me with her hand frozen mid-twirl in her hair. "You okay, Marv?" she mumbled, her voice suddenly small.

I barely registered her presence. My mind was suddenly gorged to its limit with images of Katniss—the day she was reaped, her face stern with the intent of holding back tears. Her chariot costume, how she was bursting with flames and succeeded in looking almost chagrined about it, as if she didn't know how stunning and utterly gorgeous she was. How she glided sluggishly around the Training Center, her silky face etched with lines of boredom and dreariness, and how I wanted nothing but to be able to entertain her...


She was everything I was supposed to hate: an inferior District 12 pest and a dimwit with enough ignorance to think the games were something worth volunteering for, and yet she seemed to have an almost magnetic pull on me.

Even now, as she's sitting cross-legged at the fire-starting station with a piece of flint held limply between her slender fingers and her eyebrows crinkled together, as if she was concentrating on every singular move she made, I felt compelled to race over and sit beside her, taking her hands into mine and guiding her through the entire process of making a fire as many times as she wanted.

But instead, I was stuck in the crowd of Careers, working until the muscles in my arms felt like mush and destroying every dummy the Training Center had to offer until they were all reduced to piles of shredded fabric.

Just the thought of Katniss was enough to make me drop everything and become as rigid as stone, as if she was something that I was already completely and devastatingly addicted to.

"...Marvel, you're staring at her again."

Glimmer crossed her slender arms over her chest, the hem of her flesh-colored dress snaking around her upper thighs and wrinkling at her hips as she shifted her weight onto one of her ivory stilettos. Her makeup was especially thick in preparation for the interviews, her eyelashes lengthened to the point where they brushed at her eyebrows and her lips made unnaturally plump. She narrowed her eyes into a distrusting glower. "I know you have your eyes on that District 12 rat."

"She's not a rat," I countered almost reflexively, making Glimmer's eyebrows twitch upward with slight incredulity. Her stare became blank, as if she expected me to correct myself, only to see that I had instead lazily turned away to face a nearby mirror, its smooth surface dusted with a light shimmer of cosmetics. I peered into it and disapprovingly studied the powder our stylists had stroked across my features, almost absently putting a palm to my cheek in an effort to wipe it away. "Don't be jealous, Glim. I'm sure there are tons of perverts out there who are plenty interested in you."

Glimmer's cheeks flushed with fury before she snatched my chin fiercely between her wispy fingers and whipped my head toward her, making my eyebrows rise and my torso stiffen with surprise.

"That's not what this is about," she snapped, her voice like the gravelly scraping of machinery, "She's from District 12! What the hell are you doing, loving a rat from District 12?! Especially one that volunteered! You hate volunteers!"

I pulled away from her grip, relieved when her manicured, elongated nails slipped away from my throat. "Who says that I love her? What if I just think she's hot?" I suggested, satisfied once I saw Glimmer's jaw set with contempt and her cheeks grow into an even deeper shade of red, making the heavy layers of makeup she sported appear even more synthetic. Without my permission, the inner varmint inside of me winked jeeringly at her before I added, "I'm a hormonal boy, after all."

"Don't you dare try to play those games with me, Marvel," Glimmer spat, the powder around her eyebrows clumping as her features continued to screw together into an outraged grimace, "Do you realize what this means? What if somebody found out?"

"Honestly, Glim, we're about to be sent into an arena where we need to fight for our lives. I think you should be worrying about other things," I muttered, turning my gaze toward the mirror again.

"That's exactly it, you prick," Glimmer mumbled, rubbing her temples exasperatedly, "Do you really think you'll get any sponsors if people find out about your little crush? Do you think you'll even be a part of the Careers anymore?"

Furrowing my eyebrows together, I let my eyes dart in Glimmer's direction with a new sense of alertness, only to see that she was peering up at me with what seemed to be an expression filled with genuine distress.

"You think that's bad?" she continued, her penciled eyebrows disappearing into the waves of golden hair covering her forehead. "Imagine what the Capitol would do to District 12 if they found out about them having any ties at all with District 1. Imagine what they would do to her. Her family, even." Abruptly, Glimmer slid her palm onto my shoulder, and I felt her thin sheen of sweat dampen the material of my dress shirt. I parted my lips to protest, but could only let out a weak breath once I saw the crumpled look of worry buried in her emerald irises. "Face it, Marv. You're both from two different worlds. You would ruin her."

The words were like a punch to the stomach, and I had to suck in a breath and clench my fists to keep myself from crumpling over before turning my head harshly away from Glimmer, my neck stiff and sore. I was relieved when she didn't protest as I decrepitly stepped away, my legs suddenly exhausted and flimsy under my weight. The cool air hit my shoulder with startling suddenness after her hand slipped off of it, leaving a shiver to creep its way through my bones as I wandered away from the cosmetic room, knowing that our stylists would have a fit but not caring in the slightest.

Why did the thought of causing a District 12 tribute misfortune make my stomach twist until I felt entirely nauseated? If anything, it should do nothing but excite me. It wouldn't be the first time a Career charmed a District 12 tribute, causing them an overwhelming amount of anguish and misery before finally slashing away at their throat.

I'm from District 1, a Career. It's traditional that I crush District 12 tributes like the mere rodents they are.

And yet, when I pictured Katniss, I saw nothing but a beautiful girl about to be sent to the arena. My limbs twitched with the need to protect her, and I had to remind myself constantly what our places in these games were.

Hers, to die. Mine, to kill.

I just needed to figure out why my heart writhed in my ribcage whenever I gave that thought even the slightest bit of attention.

If I hadn't been sitting upright in my wooden chair at the back of the stage, my breathing heavy and my muscles corded tightly over my bones, I would have thought that my heart had stopped the moment I saw Katniss into the spotlight.

It was almost as if she was taunting me, the way she did absolutely everything in a way that instantly strung her to my heart, making my chest cramp and throb as I watched her tentatively seat herself in the armchair next to Caesar, flashing him a forced smile that made me push my lips into a thin, bloodless line.

All the screens around the City Circle were adorned with an image of Katniss across their colossal expanses, making me feel smothered as I let each individual detail of her breathtaking features wash over me—her silken skin, her silver eyes, the warm glow of her cheeks, the sleek braid spilling over her shoulder, her full lips continually twisting themselves into obligatory grins...

All at once, I felt a stab of longing rush through me, wrapping itself around my bones and seeping into my core, making my limbs stiff as I desperately tried to restrain myself. My fingers clamped themselves on the armrests of my chair, straining my palms and whitening my knuckles until they were a shade lighter than my already pale skin. My jaw locked shut, wrenching and tightening until my teeth ached.

Her gem-covered dress flared against her olive skin, bright enough to distract from even the stage lights as she fidgeted in the armchair, obviously uncomfortable with being the center of attention. It continued to sizzle against her torso as Caesar threw questions at her, snaking across the distance of her hips and making its flashes and flickers dance in her silver eyes.

It was too much. It was all just too much.

"Wow," Glimmer murmured under her breath from beside me, leaning to her side and letting her ringlets brush against my forearm, "You look like you're in pain. Charming."

"It's because I am," I hissed in response, "Do you see her? Do you hear her?"

"You mean the rat?" Glimmer muttered, straightening herself up and tossing strands of her yellow hair behind her shoulders, making the tresses glint in the blinding lights aimed at the stage, "Yeah, all she's talking about is that Gale guy. Are you even listening?"

My eyebrows jerked upward with surprise, granting me a moment of clarity. My eardrums seemed to be immediately filled with the ordinary sounds of the interviews—the restless crowd and Caesar's enthusiastic voice, risen to an almost earsplitting timbre—only to slip away again once Katniss parted her lips and allowed her honeyed voice to slink through her throat, blanketing my eardrums and making a droning, buzzing sound fill my skull as I was flooded with dazzlement.

I found myself studying each miniscule detail of her voice—the highs and the lows, the slight squeaks signifying her shock and the throatiness signifying her displeasure—until I felt completely slack and pliant in my chair, liquefied into a dazed mush as I soaked everything in.

"I knew Gale would be there to pull that cape off of me if it started to do any damage," Katniss murmured, her voice small as if she was holding back an exasperated sigh, "and I would do the same for him." It was as if I could physically feel my reverie rupture down the middle as I registered the meaning of her words paired up with the genuine brightness that flashed across her face at the mention of her district partner, splitting and shattering until I was left disoriented and staring from the back of the stage. "It helped us both go through with it."

"See?" Glimmer whispered harshly, startling me so much that I had to choke back a gasp, "It's like she's obsessed."

With a new sense of disbelief, I whipped my head around to peer at the District 12 male sitting at the opposite side of the arch of chairs positioned at the back of the stage, his gray eyes fixed on Katniss and his features so soft and tender that I had to hold back the urge to leap out of my chair and tackle him.

"And, to be honest, he is pretty hot...for a rat, I mean," Glimmer added, her voice roughly cutting into my thoughts like jagged shards of glass, "I thought Clove was just exaggerating when she was telling me about him, but apparently not." She let out a low wolf whistle, pursing her glossy lips so that they shone with a sort of oily gleam. "Didn't know they made them that way in District 12. Ooh la la."

I let a quiet, elongated groan tear through my throat, feeling irritation trickle through my bones as Glimmer's ramblings continued to pierce my eardrums. Knowing that we were all being obediently recorded by the sea of cameras spaced out in the audience, I took a sharp breath in through my nose and glued my gaze to the screen, hoping to block out everything else around me.

Katniss' emotions remained dutifully masked, her enchanting features wiped cleanly of emotion and her small chin set firmly, all until one question made her guard completely diminish. Her eyes suddenly appeared so miserable, the way they immediately darkened in color and widened to the point where her irises were entirely surrounded by white. The corners of her mouth unconsciously sunk downward, and her shoulders rose with discomfort until they almost brushed against the bottoms of her ears, making me feel an abrupt pang of worry surge through my veins.

"She's only twelve," Katniss choked out, the immeasurable sorrow in her tone sending me into a sea of puzzlement. "Her name is Prim, and she's the most precious, genuine, and radiant person I have ever known. And that's why I couldn't let her be reaped."

As if I was resurfacing after being submerged into an abundance of black, arctic water, I was suddenly freed of any traces of my previous daze, making it almost painful to meet the normal sounds and sights of the world again as everything was suddenly amplified tenfold.

That's why she volunteered.

My ears rang, everything becoming tremulous and high-pitched, making me feel as if each individual sound was a fist being pounded into my stomach.

She has a sister.

My eyes burned and my chest heaved, making me have to lean forward and bite my tongue in an attempt to control the sudden aching pulsating through my limbs.

She sacrificed herself for her sister.

"Do you have any idea why Gale volunteered right after you did?" Caesar suddenly asked while I was still recovering, rattling my brain inside my skull and sending waves of stabbing pain thudding down my spine.

"Because he didn't want me to go through this alone," Katniss almost instinctively answered, her voice rising an octave as if pure emotion was seeping into her words. I hesitantly raised my head so I could peer at the screen through slitted, strained eyes, only to see that her features were glowing with an unbelievable amount of warmth and affection. "Ever since our fathers died in the same mining accident, we have helped each other through everything, whether it be our aiming skills or our starving families." Feeling my chest constrict in protest, I shifted my gaze toward the District 12 male again, only to see that he was ogling at Katniss with a look of pure adoration painting his features, his ashen eyes doughy and his smile heartfelt as he let her closing words wash over him. "Because we simply need each other."

The buzzer acted just as my body did—abrupt and blasting for a moment, then dying down into a crippled echo rippling through the air. As I watched Katniss slowly register the sound of her uproarious applause, her eyebrows tweaking upward and her lips tautening into a slight grin, I couldn't help but feel a numbness spread to the very marrow of my bones, causing my grip on my armrests to become limp and my once stern features to relax.

She got up from the armchair, careful to politely acknowledge Caesar's goodbyes before she confoundedly headed back to her seat at the back of the stage, smoothing her gem-covered dress out over her thighs as she went and somehow making its blaze more jaw-dropping than it already was.

I felt deflated, like all the life had been beaten out of me by just a few words.

Because we simply need each other.

The fact that it bothered me to the point where I had to struggle to maintain my composure just proved that I was going insane. What kind of Career lets a District 12 tribute mess with their emotions? Why did Katniss have an almost agonizing amount of power over me when I knew that she was nothing but a rodent that I needed to exterminate?

"Didn't see that one coming," Glimmer mumbled, her voice low and gravelly, "She volunteered for her sister. Huh." A twinge of pain rocked through my torso, and it was made worse when I registered that the District 12 male had made his way to the front of the stage, the audience stupidly swooning over him as his face appeared on the many screens surrounding the area.

"But I guess it makes sense. The Capitol usually cuts out a lot of footage from the reapings, and even rats aren't dumb enough to willingly go towards their slaughter," Glimmer continued with no regard of how her words were slowly mangling me. She craned her neck to glance in my direction, her green eyes nonchalant and uncaring even though she noticed that I was crumpled over, my elbows digging into my knees and my face buried in my palms.

"Shut up, Glimmer," I wearily mumbled, my breathing shallow as I kept my eyes locked on the wooden paneling of the stage below my feet. My faint voice was nearly drowned out by the blasting sound of the audience laughing, doubtlessly because of something asinine the District 12 male said. I clenched my jaw with muted fury.

"What's the matter?" Glimmer asked with artificial innocence. "You still hate volunteers, don't you, Marv?"

I exhaled sharply, knowing that she was just trying to bother me while I was still in a weak state, and feeling somewhat defeated once I realized that she was succeeding. "Please," I muttered, feeling humiliatingly small and feeble as I slid my tensed fingers into my mop of black hair, "Please, Glimmer. Just stop."

She let out a slight chuckle, so swift and quavering that it sounded like the sharp tweet of a bird. "So I guess it's not a good time to start talking about how hot Gale looks up there," she lilted, making me clench my hands and clutch tufts of my hair between my fingers, "It's a shame he's from District 12, because...Whoa. Oh my God. Marvel, look!"

Glimmer's voice had suddenly risen into a shrill, surprised octave as she abruptly slapped a palm to my wrist, wrapping her reedy fingers around it until I was forced to shift my eyes to glare at her. "What the h—"

"Just look, dumbass!" she demanded, making me lift my head up, only to see that the District 12 male had gotten up from the armchair and made his way to the back of the stage, his feet planted in front of where Katniss was sitting and his back arched so he was at eye-level with her. His palm was enveloping her cheek and his eyes were half-lidded and distant, making me crinkle my eyebrows together as I struggled to process his actions.

With crushing suddenness, I watched as he slipped his eyes closed and inched himself forward, making his lips connect with Katniss'. His other palm rose to blanket her other cheek, elevating her head so that it reached his more conveniently, and she responded by twirling her slender arms around his neck and tangling her yearning fingers into his hair, her cheeks flushed with desire as she hungrily pulled him closer.

Before I even knew what I was doing, I had gotten up from where I was seated, my features contorted with rage and my fists knotted solidly at my sides. I took a vicious step forward, only to have Glimmer's grip on my arm restrain me. She jerked her hand backward, sending me tumbling back into my chair with a violent thump.

"Relax, Marv!" she spat under her breath, leaning over to grasp my other wrist in her surprisingly strong hand, making her golden tresses gush over her shoulders and brush against my knees. "You're damn lucky that the rats are only thing the cameras are recording right now."

I knew in the back of my mind that this was no way to act on stage, but I couldn't stop myself from thrashing in my chair, its legs clanging against the wooden surface of the stage and making a tumultuous melody against the crowd's rowdiness. I flailed in an effort to break out of Glimmer's hold, causing her to propel herself forward until she was practically sitting on my lap.

Cato and Clove icily glowered at me from their seats, their features etched with disapproval, but I barely even noticed. All I saw was that District 12 pest, his slimy, undeserving hands all over what was rightfully mine.

"He's dead," I seethed through my clenched teeth, my wrists sore as Glimmer's nails dug into them, "I swear, he's going to die the moment I hear the gong!"

"Go out hunting. Don't you dare come back until you've ripped up at least five of those other pathetic tributes."

"You see District 4 dying on the dirt over there? Think of him as an example of what will happen to all of you if you don't obey me and Clove."

"I wouldn't want to have to slice all your pretty little throats out."

The thought of Cato's shadowy, almost soulless eyes sent a shiver down my spine, like ghostly fingers grazing my bare skin. I couldn't remember exactly when he had started to dwindle into insanity, but when I thought back to how cheerful and friendly he had been in the Training Center the first time I had handled a mace, it made my chest ice over with dread.

As I stroked the smooth, chilled handle of the mace jammed into my belt, feeling its spiked head rub against my black arena pants and noticing how my pale hand almost completely contrasted with its dark metal, I couldn't help but be bombarded with images of the bloodbath—how Clove had writhed in the dirt, her fingers bound around the shaft of the arrow impaling the fleshy part of her shoulder and her fingers bending in almost deformed ways as thick, gluey blood pooled around her, and how Cato had continued to chase after the District 12 tributes even after they had darted into the safety of the trees, fingers tightly clasped around a spear and inky eyes drenched with lunacy.

Blinking felt like a deadly, daring task as I wandered through the trees in the blackness of the night, only having a thin strand of luminosity ahead of me from my flashlight as a guide. I grew gradually more disturbed as I snaked through the trees, noticing how their angular branches looked like mangled limbs and how the rustling of their leaves sounded like pursuing footsteps in the dark.

"Hey, Marvel," Glimmer grumbled under her breath from behind, startling me so much that I had to choke back a gasp. Her flashlight was aimed at her side, sending a rabbit fretfully darting out of the foliage of a bush as the light sliced through the once calm gloom.

"What?" I asked boredly, bringing a hand up to knead my temple in an effort to soothe my throbbing skull.

"If we find the District 12's...You, uh, still want to kill them?" she whispered, her voice unusually soft before she aimed her flashlight directly at my face, making the blinding brightness of its light flood my eyes. I winced away from it, blinking away the strain, only to find that it had stained my vision with blotches of various blue shades. She mumbled out a faint apology after I had let out a gravelly groan, rubbing my eyelids with rough, calloused fingers.

"Yes, I want to," I answered exasperatedly, resting my forehead against the coarse, jagged bark of a tree trunk before my voice diluted into a muffled murmur. "...Only one of them, though."

There was a long, heavy pause where only the light breeze's whistle graced my eardrums before Glimmer clicked her tongue almost disappointedly. "All right, then. I'll kill the other one."

Almost reflexively, I stiffened into stone, my heart leaping into my throat and making me croakily hack into my rigid hand. "Absolutely not," I stressed between coughs, making my eyes water from the severe constricting of my throat, "No. I won't let you lay a finger on her."

As if she knew that I'd respond that way, Glimmer laid a light hand on my shoulder and squeezed, obviously wanting to make it look like a comforting gesture even though it only succeeded in making my already aching joint pulse with pain. "The arena must be getting to you, Marv. I mean, they're only rats," she lilted, her voice swift, as if she was merely reciting words from a book, "I'd be nicer than Cato and Clove. District 12 tributes aren't even worth the trouble it takes to kill slowly, don't you think?"

"I said no," I demanded, my voice coming out more grim and vile than I had planned as I whirled myself around and cast a sharp glare in Glimmer's direction, hoping that it would slash through the darkness to reach her. "You'd have to go through me."

In the dim light radiating off the side of her flashlight's stream of luster, I saw Glimmer's fair features pinch into a stinging look of hurt, her emerald eyes darting downward and locking on the mace dangling ominously from my belt. I expected her to immediately protest, her eyelids squinting with amusement at the thought of me hurting her, but her features instead veiled over solemnly as her mouth tightened with distrust.

Without warning, Glimmer's hand roughly bounded up toward my collar, her willowy fingers tangling themselves in the material of my arena shirt before she heaved me downward, causing me to awkwardly hunch over until I was at her eye-level. She brought her lips to my ear and lowered her voice, making it a barely audible undertone. "What the hell are you doing? Appearances, Marvel. Cameras."

"There's no one over here!" A shrill voice abruptly punctured the otherwise still air, followed by clamorous footsteps wrenching through the foliage beside us.

Glimmer lowered her head, making her blonde tendrils of hair pour in front of her newly pained features before she released the fabric of my shirt and stepped backward, putting space between us.

I blinked my widened eyes in confusion, taking a moment to compose myself before straightening my spine and directing my attention toward the footsteps, recognizing the frizzed, kinked chestnut hair of the female tribute from District 4 the moment she stepped into the brightness of Glimmer's flashlight.

Bringing an exasperated hand up to rake a few tufts of hair out of my eyes, I attempted to narrow my perplexed gaze into a blistering scowl. "Maybe that's because you scared them all away with that booming voice of yours, fish," I muttered dryly, my tone not as cutting as I had hoped it would be.

Glimmer sharply turned away, the thick soles of her boots making a harsh scratching noise against the dry dirt. "Stop calling her that," she groused darkly before taking hefty strides away from me, her flashlight bolting in all directions and sending flocks of startled birds scattering into the night air.

The District 4 female shot me a childish frown, making it seem like she was seconds away from sticking her tongue out, before she followed closely behind Glimmer. With a sigh, I begrudgingly walked behind them.

I shivered, jabbing my numbed fingers into the loose fabric of my jacket and pulling it closer to my torso, making the smooth surface of its heat-reflective interior graze my skin. The cold only succeeded in making me appear even weaker than I already felt, leaving me to squint through the wisps of hair obscuring my vision at the forest's shadowy, unlit crevices and hope that the cameras' hollow lenses weren't zooming in on my withered posture.

This early in the games, the narrators and sponsors were busy establishing the personality of each tribute, branding them with a label and deciding if they were worthy of being kept alive. They were probably still awestruck after seeing me defend a District 12 tribute, stammering and nervously chuckling as they replayed the scene and highlighted how Katniss was supposed to be somebody who I'd regard as nothing but a rat scuttling through the sludgy fissures of a heap of trash.

Maybe the viewers were finally catching on to how thoroughly I had entangled myself in Katniss' trap, how deeply she had ended up sinking her claws into me, all without even uttering a word in my direction. It made me seem so spineless and timid, a mound of clay just waiting to have her slender fingers sink into it, molding it into anything she wished for.

The memory of Clove wrangling Katniss to the ground during the bloodbath and pricking the delicate skin of her throat with a throwing knife was still fresh in my mind; it sent shocks of uneasiness through me, making me want to crumple over and retch onto the dirt. I still remember how I was seconds away from racing over and cleaving Clove in the back with my mace.

I would have done it without question. I would have killed one of my own allies without even a speck of hesitation if it meant saving a District 12 rodent.

And that terrified me.

"Marvel, let's slow down." Glimmer's voice skewered through my thoughts, leaving me to bring my head up and stare after her, my eyes slicked with desperation. She had stopped at a clearing, the lean curve of her back propped up against the thick trunk of a tree and her pale fingers almost lovingly stroking the handle of a knife as it brushed against her protruding hipbone. "It's not like we're going to find anyone soon."

Disoriented, I continued to let my unblinking eyes lock on her, my lips slightly parted as I steadily made my way over to where she was. As I got closer, I noticed the slight edge to her otherwise soft features, the glare buried in the satiny depths of her eyes. Appearances, Marvel. Cameras.

With only a moment of hesitation, I stifled an irked groan and planted my booted feet in the middle of the clearing, careful to make my stance tall and smug—the ideal demeanor of a Career. "The longer I get to stay away from the District 2 crazies, the better," I griped, proud of the amount of sarcasm I was able to string through my tone despite how every nerve in my body was squealing with exhaustion.

Glimmer peered at me from where she was standing, her eyes glued to my features even though her flashlight was dutifully pointing at the treetops, as if she was expecting me to crash to the dirt at any moment. She paused, her plump lips tightening with anxiety and her fingers stiffly folding in on themselves at her sides, before she sharply shook her ringlets out of her face and jabbed her nose into the air, changing her once mild air instantly and replacing it with a posh one. "I knew they would be those kind of tributes," she started, her timbre so soft and suggestive that it almost sounded like she was mewling, "right from the start."

I arched my eyebrows skeptically at Glimmer, my limbs locking in place and my words lodging themselves into the back of my throat as I slowly registered the character she had taken, the promptness and seamlessness of her transformation leaving me speechless.

"You know what?" the girl from District 4 asked, the sound of her grating voice as it escaped her trout-like lips making me have to choke back the urge to wince, "I don't even think Cato and Clove are even up for the job of killing those two rats."

"I think you're right," Glimmer agreed, the freckles sprinkled across the bridge of her nose warping as her features sternly screwed together, "They don't look so hot right now, especially with those wounds bloodying up everything at the Cornucopia."

I was immediately assaulted with images from the bloodbath again—Clove's contorted face as she screeched out each foul word she knew, her voice cracking as it wildly jumped between octaves, and Cato's raged, demented, black eyes as he rushed past her crippled, feral form on the dirt without even a note of worry for her health—and I had to sharply turn away, my arm binding itself across my stomach as I felt a wave of nausea surge through me.

The girl from District 4's voice rang through the air, her words completely garbled and incoherent as they slurred through my brain, and I had to play off my newly crumpled frame as a determined one as I stiffly pointed my flashlight in random directions, hoping that I looked like I was searching for unlucky tributes instead of swallowing down my disgust for District 2.

I could almost feel Glimmer's gaze bore into the back of my head as I struggled to straighten myself up, making a consuming chill trickle down my spine as I forced elongated, shaky breaths into my lungs. "Don't underestimate them," I mumbled wearily, picturing Clove's crazed eyes as she slashed at her own ally's throat and Cato's bitter smile as he sunk his blade into the flesh of tributes who were too slow to escape.

Without warning, the clamorous noise of countless clusters of leaves rustling together sounded from my side, and I reflexively twisted the upper half of my body to peer at it, my flashlight swaying across the clearing to follow my gaze.

It seemed as if everything had suddenly gone in slow motion, leaving me to helplessly gape as my eyes locked upon the shaking foliage of a nearby willow, its long tresses of leaves veiling two figures huddled on one of its thick branches, their stiffened limbs tangled together and their frames paralyzed with horror and alarm. It only took a moment for me to recognize the grayness of their eyes as they widened in the brightness of my flashlight, the olive-tones of their skin, the darkness of their hair...the pure beauty of her features as she stared unblinkingly at me, her teeth gritted and her eyebrows furrowed with—fear.

I didn't even have to think. Only a second must have gone by before I promptly turned myself around, bringing the strand of luminosity from my flashlight away from the willow and leaving the two tributes hidden in its leaves to conceal themselves in the darkness.

My heart was battering recklessly against my ribcage as I unconsciously brought a hand to the hilt of my mace, letting its cool metal chill the skin of my palm. I registered with pure relief that my two allies were looking at me with no trace of murderous intent in their eyes, signifying that they didn't sense District 12's presence.

I knew that what I was doing was mindless and absolutely idiotic, but I only seemed to have one word repeating itself persistently in my mind: Katniss, Katniss, Katniss.

"We should probably get going," I muttered, glad that my almost monotone voice didn't reveal the panic pulsing through my veins as I took an uneasy step in the opposite direction of the willow, "Cato wouldn't be pleased if we came back to the Cornucopia with no blood on our hands."

Katniss, Katniss, Katniss.

"Bu—" Glimmer started, her voice barely audible as I passed by her tensed figure and gestured for her to follow. She clamped her lips shut once her eyes connected with mine, knotting her small hands into fists and biting her lower lip before following me without further question.

I couldn't help but notice that she craned her neck in the direction of the District 12 tributes before matching my pace submissively.

Clove—her once glowing, healthy skin gradually dulling into a leather-like covering for her bones and her once glossy curtain of chestnut hair now straggled knots spilling down her back—seemed to be unable of doing anything but helplessly lean against our pile of supplies in the Cornucopia. Her lips curled into a disgusted scowl as she brushed a gentle finger over the blood and pus of the infection encrusting itself over her shoulder.

The sight of her crumpled frame sent burning bile into my throat, making me have to choke it back whenever she provocatively called out, "Maaarvy!" from across the area, flashing me a sickly grin and making her chapped lips crack until beads of blood collected in her flakes of skin. I would usually politely wave in response, only to have the memory of what had earned Clove her contaminated wound skewer my mind—how she pinned Katniss to the ground with the intent of slicing her throat—and I always found myself with the uncontrollable urge to rush into the trees and bring the District 12 female into the protection of my arms.

When Cato wasn't dementedly darting through the forest in search of tributes to sink his sword into, he was continuously trying to tend to Clove's wound, his usual glower softened into what looked like a pitiful, troubled stare as he clumsily fumbled with countless rolls of bandages. His dingy hair would fall into his face in greased strands, and Clove would reach up with the arm that wasn't connected to her crippled shoulder to brush them back, her expression slicked with the message: I can take care of myself, idiot.

I would occasionally catch Glimmer sitting cross-legged in the powdery dirt with her elbows propped on her knees and her chin resting in her palms, her golden tendrils of hair flowing in the breeze and her eyebrows creased sternly together as she gazed wordlessly at the District 2 tributes. On one occasion, I had plucked a box of unlabeled crackers from our mound of supplies and seated myself next to her, only to be halfheartedly accused of "babying her" and lightly slapped on my forearm once I had placed the food gingerly onto her lap.

The District 4 girl, who always seemed to glare at me with her bulging, trout-like eyes whenever I stepped into her sight, would spend her free time sauntering around the numerous splotches of maroon covering the Cornucopia from the bloodbath, the dried gore doubtlessly reminding her of her district partner. I knew her name was Elle, but I had always preferred to give her jeering fish nicknames ever since I noticed the way her lips would part and close repeatedly and how her feet were consistently close together when she walked, making her seem like a flounder stuck on the waterless shore of a beach, flapping its fins desperately.

Elle seemed so dense, so annoyingly spineless and faint-hearted, that it was a jolting surprise when I heard her jarring voice streak through the air in high-pitched wails after we had emerged from the forest with the task of hunting tributes, our weapons clean of blood for the second time. Her kinked mahogany hair flying wildly in all directions and her cheeks flushed with rage, she let her wrath burst out of her like an erupting fire once she saw Cato taking his usual place beside Clove with iodine and bandages clasped tightly between his meaty fingers.

"You killed him!" she squealed, her infuriated timbre muffled with hysterical tears and whimpers, "During the bloodbath! Your own ally! You didn't even give him a day!"

Cato had already let his fingers curl themselves around the hilt of his sword, his features free of any possible trace of emotion as he stood himself up and shifted his neck to flip his hair out of his face. "Oh yeah? And what have you done since we've been in this arena, besides mope around and gorge that little fishy face of yours?" he lilted, letting the corner of his mouth quirk into a grim smile as he casually ambled to Elle's side and mockingly placed a finger below her chin, lifting her head so that she could see each detail of his menacing, sinister features.

"I did everything you asked me to do," she seethed through her gritted teeth, her eyelids slitting into a harrowing glare, "I went into the forest with Glimmer and Marvel while you sat here on your lazy a—"

Without warning, Cato's strong hand had shifted itself from its almost gentle position below Elle's chin to a vicious, barbaric grip around her throat, the calloused pads of his fingers sinking into the slightly tanned flesh of her neck and squeezing until her skin whitened from the pressure. She slapped her palms to Cato's wrist, frantically trying to pull herself away from his ferocious hold as she hacked and wheezed in an attempt to breathe, her already bulbous eyes swelling as her face gradually reddened.

Cato let out a roaring fit of laughter. "Went out in the forest? And did what? You haven't killed a single tribute," he rasped, wrenching his sword free from its sheath. "If you're so upset about your pathetic district partner being killed, then why don't you join him?"

Elle's eyes enlarged, her irises shining as her tears formed a gleaming layer of wetness in front of them. It made Cato let out a sharp chuckle as he tightened his already steel grip on her throat and lifted until the lower half of her body lurched and swayed in the air. Her toes brushed lightly against the dirt.

"After all," Cato started, peering at Elle with a wicked air of delight as her face darkened with blotches of rust-red and pale purple, "I wouldn't want my cute little Careers to be unhappy."

I whirled myself around in search of Glimmer, only to see that she was gaping at the scene in front of her with stunned, disbelieving eyes. It looked like she was paralyzed mid-step, her limbs locked in place and her arms rigid and strained at her sides.

The sound of Clove letting out a shrill, harsh breath of shrieking laughter from across the Cornucopia, a piercing harmony to Cato's booming cackles, was enough to make my pulse accelerate against my ribcage until I felt lightheaded and unsteady on my feet. Shakily, I set one booted foot in front of the other until I was able to burst into a sprint to Glimmer's side, roughly taking her by the wrist and hauling her forward until she confusedly directed her widened, aghast stare in my direction.

Exasperated, I jerked my arm in the direction of the trees, towing Glimmer forward until she was able to control her shaken knees and carry herself. I whipped my head around in time to see Elle plunge toward the ground, landing on her back with a thunderous thump before slapping her hands to her unbound, bruised throat and sucking in a deep, raspy breath, only to have to turn her head toward the dirt and cough the new air out of her constricted airways.

Before Elle had time to fully recover, Cato slammed his foot against her chest, sending a terrified tremor through her limbs as she weakly squirmed beneath him. Faint whimpers and snivels slipped through her lips. Salty trails of moisture streaked down the sides of her face and into her sienna curls as her unblinking, swollen eyes locked on Cato's unforgiving figure. He gave her a ghastly smile, his lips thinning out around his teeth. "So long."

And with that, Cato swung his blade above his head, making it glint in the sunlight before crashing it downward and slashing it across the delicate skin of Elle's throat.

I whirled my head sharply away from the scene before it was permanently seared into my brain, feeling my chest heave with disgust as I forced myself to move into the forest, only to have my feet seem ten times heavier as they pounded and cleaved the dirt like cement blocks. Glimmer was frozen a few steps ahead of me, eyebrows raised and full lips parted with a mixture of horror and alarm.

"Oh, no you don't!" Cato howled, his voice shaken with laughter as he caught sight of Glimmer and I attempting to escape into the forest, "I'll kill you too! I'll kill everyone in this goddamn arena!" He started toward us, a horrible smile plastered to the lower half of his face as he sliced his sword in front of him, making it whistle through the air.

I gritted my teeth sternly together, making my jaw ache as I rushed to Glimmer's side and gave her a harsh shove in the opposite direction, making her stumble backward before she caught herself and shot me a fierce scowl from behind her wisps of yellow hair. "Go!" I yelled, not completely aware of what I was doing as I wrapped my fingers around the hilt of my mace and wrenched it away from where it was hooked on my belt, "I'll hold him off! Just go!"

Before I was prepared, I heard the sharp shing of a metal blade rippling through the air, making me reflexively duck and swiftly pivot so that I was facing the other direction, only to see the gleam of Cato's sword lashing toward me. My hands acted on their own as I held the shaft of my mace protectively above my head, leaving Cato to strike his weapon against it before he speedily recoiled and raised his blade again, his smile never leaving his shadowed features.

"You gonna hurt me with that thing, Marv?" he guffawed, his eyes squinted and his laugh lines fully apparent in his dirt-tinted skin. I felt my features twist into a glower as I briskly straightened myself up, gripping the handle of my mace with both hands before swinging its heavy, spike-covered head at Cato's torso, only to have him sidestep out of the way. The momentum left me reeling to a stop, the dense weapon making me hunch over with my arms stretched downward from its supreme weight.

Cato let out a maniacal cackle, twirling his sword frenziedly in the air above him before stepping into my vision and giving my shoulder a hefty slap, making me think back to when he was encouraging me in the Training Center. My throat constricted as I listened to the unmistakable sound of his sword sweeping through the air just inches away from my body.

"I thought we were friends, Marvel! I'm hurt!" Cato declared, his voice booming in my eardrums. He pounded a solid fist into my stomach, making all the air in my lungs sear through my throat before he rammed his forearm into my neck, making me stagger backward until I was pinned against the coarse bark of a tree. I struggled to suck more air into my lungs, but I was left choking and wheezing as dark blotches formed in my vision, making it difficult to discern Cato's eager expression. He jammed the blade of his sword into the dirt and proceeded to lean on it, like a crutch. "We should remember all the good times we had before we're done here. How 'bout it, Marv?"

I screwed my features together, swallowing hard and feeling my Adam's apple rub against the skin of Cato's forearm. He kept me firmly restrained to the tree. My breaths were shallow and hoarse as I parted my lips to respond, surprised when I felt the corners of my mouth curl into a grin almost as wide and crazed as his. "Please," I croaked, swallowing again to make my voice more audible and the sarcasm dripping into it more apparent, "Kill me if you're planning to reminisce. I'd really rather die than listen to you ramble for hours about how handsome you thought I was when you first laid eyes on m—"

Cato had roughly leaned forward before I could finish, putting more weight into the forearm he was compressing my neck with and making it difficult for air to slither through my throat. I coughed heavily, furrowing my eyebrows together and making my vision blur as my eyes watered from the strain. "C'mon, Cato," I wheezed raspily, careful to maintain my ridiculing grin, "No need to be ashamed. I charm practically everyone I come in contact with."

The corner of Cato's mouth became limp, making his smile crooked and irked. "Are you smartassin' me, blue-eyes?" he asked, tilting his head to the side and making his gaze more speculative as it flitted across my features. "That won't do."

I clamped my eyes shut and gritted my teeth, preparing for Cato's finishing blow. I listened to the sound of his sword swiping through the fine grains of dirt and swishing above our heads. It cut through the air beside me, making my heart do a hopeless somersault in my chest as I expected a sharp pain in my throat, only to hear what sounded like Glimmer letting out a pained, stifled grunt from the ground.

My eyelids reflexively twitched open, only to see Cato taking a sudden step backward and darting his eyes to the side, a look of genuine surprise coating his rugged features as he registered the wet glaze of blood dribbling down his metal blade and the disheveled curtain of golden hair fidgeting at his feet. My hands instantly went to my unbound neck, my fingers quizzically brushing themselves against the smooth, unharmed surface of my skin as I slowly let what had happened sink in.

"Should've ran while you still could, beautiful," Cato groused, his expression perking and his grip tightening around his rubber hilt as he watched Glimmer's crumpled form writhe in the dirt. Her face contorted with a mixture of pain and revulsion as she struggled to sit up, her trembling fingers slicking themselves with layers of wet blood as they grazed the sliced skin of her thigh and the newly torn fabric of her black leggings. The material became damp as trails of red trickled down her porcelain skin.

She cast her emerald eyes in my direction, her irises hardening with rage before Cato brought his booted foot forward and pounded it against her forehead, making it connect to her skull with a sickly crushing sound. The force sent her trundling through the dirt, the gravel scraping her face until patches of blood etched the faint spatter of freckles over the brim of her cheeks.

"Glimmer!" I called out, her name slipping through my lips without my permission before I swiftly dived over her body, landing on my knees and sliding my free arm under the small of her back. A hushed moan of pain escaped her lips before she blindly reached out her shaking hands, skimming her chilled fingers over my face as if she couldn't believe that I was really there. A lump forming in my throat, I studied the scuffed skin of her cheeks and the bloody gash extending over her hairline before absently using a light finger to brush a clump of flaxen hair away from her eyes, noticing with dismay that it was already caked with red.

Caught off guard by a sudden blow to my back from Cato's unyielding foot, I was left hissing out a string of muted curses before hoisting Glimmer against my chest and scooping her up, making her wrap her slender arms around my neck to keep from falling as I swiveled on my foot and unthinkingly swung my mace in front of me, putting distance between us and Cato before I darted deeper into the trees.

My legs screamed in protest as I pushed them to go faster, my breaths coming out in heavy fits and my muscles straining themselves as they corded tightly around my femurs.

"What the hell are you running for?!" Cato yelled out, his gruff voice ringing through the treetops, "Face me like a man, Marv!"

I could hear him getting closer, his blaring footsteps snaking through the trees and his relentless laughter twisting through the air like thousands of ghostly fingers about to claw at my heels. I let out a stifled grunt, forcing myself to make sharp turns and pivots through the foliage in hopes that Cato would eventually lose our trail.

Blood from Glimmer's wound seeped into my arena shirt, making it wet against my abdomen. Her hold around my neck was weak, and her eyes were slitted into a pained grimace as blood from her head wound slowly trickled downward in a steady, thin stream. A pang of worry surged through me.

"You were always a coward!" Cato bellowed from behind, the sound of his footsteps coming to a sudden halt. "Always running away! You're not even worth the chase! Your mom would be disgusted!"

His words reverberated off the leaves around me, making them echo in my skull like hammers relentlessly cleaving my ears. I sucked in a fierce, burning breath once an image of my mother appeared in my mind—hair as black as ebony and eyes as blue and cold as ice—and I found myself having to hunch over as the muscles in my stomach snarled painfully together with nausea.

I was only slightly aware of Glimmer slipping out of my grip once I had fallen to my knees. The only thing my mind seemed to be registering was the agonizing feeling of hollowness in my chest, and how it seemed to ice over and cramp once I pictured my mother—her white skin sprayed with blood and her thin lips pulled into a sadistic, unfeeling smirk—and my once determined, bold air seemed to immediately dilute into that of a frightened child's.

"Marvy! Come here, mommy has something to give you!"

"What? It's just a piece of paper..."

"No, honey. It's a note. I need you to keep that until you're all grown and matured."

"Why? I don—"

"Mommy is going far, far away, and won't be coming back for a long time."


"I love you, Marvy. Stay strong. Take care of your sister."

My breaths came out in hoarse, hard pants, and I felt icy droplets of sweat collect at my collarbone as I wearily buried my face in my distraught, trembling hands. It was shocking to hear that barely audible sobs were slicing through my throat, and even though I ashamedly tried to muffle them by clamping my lips shut, they continued to force their way out into the open. "Mo...m," I rasped under my breath, startled when I suddenly felt the gentle, comforting touch of a tender hand as it almost hesitantly began to graze my jawline, "Don't—leave..."

"It's all right, Marv," Glimmer abruptly murmured, her voice a soft undertone. My shoulders twitched upward with surprise before my eyes darted over to her, only to see that she had crawled to my side, the blood pulsing from her thigh wound beginning to congeal against her milky skin. Her green eyes were soft and warm as her slender fingers gingerly stroked themselves up the curve of my neck and into my hair. "I'm not leaving you. Ever. Calm down, idiot."

The gentle sound of water sloshing against the riverbank soothed my wrenching nerves, making the pain in my neck and the stinging in my eyes muted. The air was brisk and moving, wriggling through the treetops and sending the leaves into frantic fits of rustles and chilling the already damp, cool dirt. It raised itself into the gray expanse of the sky as frigid strips of wind, sending the clouds streaking across the faint brightness of the moon before crashing back to the earth and blowing itself across my skin, wafting my hair to the side and benumbing my cheeks.

Clenching my jaw against the cold, I pulled my heat-reflective jacket closer to my chest, furrowing my eyebrows together once I realized that Glimmer's blood had dried into the fabric and made it stiff against my torso. I let out an exasperated breath, and after feeling a feeble pulse of pain, I tentatively raised my hand to brush my fingers against the bruised surface of my throat, only to have a stabbing throb surge through my windpipe the second I touched the sore, discolored skin. Wearily, I forced out a weak cough in an effort to clear my contracted gullet, and my injured airways squealed with protest until I defeatedly slouched forward and rested my aching skull in my palms.

"Marv, does this look clean enough?"

Glimmer's voice—tremulous from the consuming shivers rushing through her body—rang through the evening breeze and sent my head turning in the direction of it almost reflexively. She was peering at me from across the clearing, her pale skin coated with layers of goosebumps and her color-drained lips squeezed together to keep her teeth from chattering. Her bare leg was dangling in the icy waters of the stream we were next to, half of her leggings tossed behind her and diluted lines of blood streaking down her pasty flesh, making it apparent that she had been attempting to rinse the deep slice down her thigh.

I unthinkingly flinched at the sight of the wound, making Glimmer narrow her gaze suspiciously. "That bad?" she muttered, jolting her foot upward and kicking up a massive amount of water, "Dammit, the last thing I need is for this to get infected."

With a hushed sigh, I raked my icy fingers through my hair before making my way over to Glimmer and seating myself down next to her, feeling the moist dirt sink under my weight. "What would you ever do without me?" I murmured groggily, wrapping my fingers around her shin before lifting her leg out of the stream and onto my lap, immediately feeling the chill of wintry water as it seeped through my arena pants. As I ripped a piece of cloth from the already tattered hem of my shirt, I became gradually more aware of Glimmer's unclothed leg and growing blush, and I had to hold back a burst of ridiculing laughter as I swiftly dunked the clump of fabric into the stream and swished it in the water's arctic depths to soak its material.

"Well, for a start, I wouldn't have to deal with cleaning cuts in the first place," Glimmer griped, obviously trying to make her weak tone more aggressive as she brought a frigid hand to her tinted cheek, the pads of her waterlogged fingers wrinkled and sodden.

"That should teach you to never protect me again," I started, wringing the fabric out and bringing it gently down onto her wound, "Just let me do this so nothing happens to that pretty leg of yours."

The color Glimmer's face flushed into after that was almost impressive, considering how cold and hypothermic her body must have been. I quietly chuckled to myself before directing my attention back to patting the moistened wad of cloth against the gash on her thigh, my initial amusement steadily turning into a painful pang of anxiety as I let my eyes study the creased, discolored skin around the wound and what looked like inflamed veins spidering through the sliced flesh.

A memory of Luna citing the first signs of blood infection pierced my mind, and I found myself struggling to steady my hands as they began to tremble.

"The only thing we can do at this point is find the District 12 rats."

"They'd never refuse us! We're Careers. And even if they do, we could always just kill them."

"Don't tell me you still have that goddamn crush!"

"She'd kill you if she had the chance, Marvel. Just don't let any of your stupid emotions show, and let me get to her before she has the chance to get to you."

I still remember the first time I had laid eyes on Glimmer Allene.

I had just walked out of my house in District 1, viewing everything and everyone as insignificant and unbecoming as I ambled through the streets and listened to the distant sound of Luna grumbling dismal complaints behind me. The sun beat down on the pearly grounds in thick, luminescent sheets, making the whiteness of the architecture almost blindingly radiant. It was mildly warm, the breeze offering just the slightest bit of chill and the clouds streaking the pale blue expanse of the sky with their soft, muted surfaces.

"I'd take good care of her. All you'd have to do is act like a good little Career and turn around, then she'll be gone. Quick and painless."

"I'll even let you kill that Gale guy. Happy?"

My eyes had swayed over to her frame; it had almost been a twitch, a movement that occurred unthinkingly, as if the gold laced into her ringlets of hair and the green weaved into her deep irises had a sort of magnetic effect. I wouldn't have even acknowledged that moment if it weren't for the amount of times I had spent with her after that, how I was eventually able to diagnose each one of her movements, down to every twinge her slender body made and every crease that scrunched her features.

The most intriguing was her ability to fabricate her personality, to become an entirely new person within a second and have absolutely no traces of her true self apparent. It made studying her emotions frustrating, since her default expression was one of skeptical anger, signifying that she kept absolutely everyone in her life at arms-length distance.

"We need to survive, you prick! How dare you refuse to ally with District 12, all because of that stupid bitch you want to protect!"

"She's never even said a word to you! What did she do to make you so helplessly in love with her?!"

"Who has been by your side this entire time? Who, Marvel? Who dove in front of you when Cato was about to slice your fucking throat?! And you're choosing her over me?!"

It was almost impressive that I had managed to get as close to Glimmer as I did.

Every tint her cheeks changed into as blood flowed behind her milky skin and every nervous flutter her heart made had still managed to surprise me, and I could only stare back at her incredulously whenever I noticed.

Maybe we could have been friends, laughing to each other and sharing our darkest, most concealed secrets as the wall she had built between herself and the rest of the world was slowly dismantled. Maybe we could have been lovers, the warmth her cheeks developed in my presence somehow spreading to me over time.

Of course, that could have only happened if Katniss Everdeen didn't exist.

"She's nothing! Just a filthy rat from the slums! And you? You're a Career!"

"Why can't you see how stupid you're being right now? She doesn't love you! She never will! Not like I do!"

Every one of my instincts had been screaming at me to stop before it was too late, bawling and yelping that I had become an exact copy of the grotesque mongrels I had detested before stepping into the arena.

An exact copy of my mother.

But I had seemed to lose control over my body once my eyes had swept over Katniss' sweet, flawless features for the first time in what felt like years, all my buried emotions from the Training Center bursting out of me like a blooming rosebud, as if I had been put into a sort of sick trance.

All the feelings of friendship and fondness I had developed for Glimmer seemed trivial in comparison, and my mind had made the decision without me being entirely conscious of it.

I remembered Katniss' training score, and how it had out-shined even the Careers'. I remembered how Glimmer was clumsy with almost all the weapons the Capitol had to offer, her dainty fingers fumbling with them as if it was simply out of her nature for her to properly hold something larger than her palm.

And I knew that she had no chance of surviving if she was put against the Girl on Fire.

"I bet Katniss hasn't killed a single thing in her life. Taking care of her would be a cinch."

"Just watch, Marv. By the end of today, we'll either have two fairly strong allies or two cold corpses under our feet that we can use to get back on Cato's good side. What can go wrong?"

When I had agreed to let Glimmer assault Katniss if District 12 declined our alliance, I knew that I was permitting her to commit suicide.

And I didn't care in the slightest.

"I'm so glad I knocked some sense into you. Let's never let a rat come between us again."

"I love you, Marvel."

Remembering the way Glimmer looked the day of the reaping was almost painful—bright emerald eyes and dazzling, animated features—compared to the way she looked now: dulled, wan, and dead.

Her once glistening, shimmery yellow strands of hair were now flat and dingy as they fell in knotted waves around her crown, and her once creamy skin was graying, the faint freckles that had once been flecked across the bridge of her nose now splatters of ashen shades.

Katniss did it. She shot an arrow into my district partner's heart.

...And I still loved her. My heart still ached for the District 12 girl, and I felt myself being compelled to trek back to where she was, as if I was under a cruel enchantment.

Instead, I forced myself to tear my hand away from the icy surface of Glimmer's cheek, to numbly pick myself off the ground and trudge in the opposite direction. I abandoned her in the dirt, leaving her to be scooped up by the metallic claws of a hovercraft before she was tossed in the confines of a plain wooden coffin and shipped back to our district, a plank of splintery wood nailed to the top of the opening, forever encasing her in its smothering, cramped space.

Glimmer's cannon seemed to rattle through me, the blaring sound painful as it reverberated off my bones and jounced in my eardrums.

I had been startled to feel moisture collecting in front of my eyes the moment I saw her limp corpse, and now I was even more alarmed by the feeling of salty wetness brimming over my eyelids and dripping down my cheeks.

I made the right choice. Katniss was still living.

I made the right choice. I made the right choice. I made the right choice.

"It's all right, Marv. I'm not leaving you. Ever. Calm down, idiot."

I made the right choice.

"No," Katniss blurted out, her trembling palms rising in front of her torso, as if she felt the need to put a barrier between herself and my tensed frame. "No, I can't."

She peered at me through widened gray eyes, strands of silky hair slipping away from where they were swept behind her ears before spilling down the crook of her neck and softly grazing the satiny surface of her cheeks. Her eyelids were slightly swollen and the whites of her eyes were tinted with a pale shade of red, signifying her severe lack of sleep. The frontside of her throat shifted as she forced herself to violently swallow down her uneasiness. She casted her searing gaze away from me and took a slight step backward, causing the once gentle, light ache that had been prodding my heart to erupt into a pain so intense that I had to strain my abdominal muscles to keep from keeling over.

Up until this point, it had felt like my chest was bloated whenever Katniss was within seeing distance from me, as if my overwhelming affection had been the only thing filling it. As I gazed numbly at her furrowed eyebrows and dismissive, hardened irises, my entire body felt entirely hollow, as if its contents had been drained the moment my multiple confessions had slid their way through my lips.

Why did I feel so broken? I had expected this—the moment I had discarded all the social norms that had restrained me from pouring my heart out to this District 12 girl, when I was finally able to reach out and lightly stroke the details of her soft features with the pads of my fingers, to feel the warmth of her cheeks as blood rushed behind them...and, of course, the imminent rejection that would crush me afterward, something so fervently agonizing that I would rather have every bone in my body crushed than have to endure it.

I forced a mouthful of air into my lungs, the breath burning as it worked its way through my constricted throat. "I should have known from the start that I would end up loving you," I murmured, feeling my palm slink back to my side as if Katniss' skin was acid against my fingertips, "and that you would never be able to love me back."

Her eyebrows crinkled together before her lips pursed into a stern, pallid line, her eyes crystallizing into glass before they frantically flitted to the side. "I need to go," she griped airily, sharply turning away and making her braid whip harshly behind her.

My stomach instantly knotted up, all the hellish, torturous feelings of absolute solitude and abandonment that had flooded my core after Glimmer's death stabbing my chest like a dozen needles, causing me to roughly snap my eyes shut in an attempt to avoid the bombardment of images of my district partner's limp, ashen corpse and empty eyes. "Wait," I choked.

It felt like everything around me had paused, as if time had suddenly stopped ticking by for a crippling moment. I slowly processed the image of Katniss halting in response to my voice. Her torso quaked with regret before she sharply craned her neck to peer in my direction, nose crinkled and eyes steely.

A wave of relief washed over me, and a breath I hadn't realized I had been holding slithered through my throat, escaping through my lips and leaving a puff of hot, sultry air to sweep against my skin. I savored the moment, feeling my pulse accelerate as I studied how the corners of her full lips sunk and how her deep, gray irises gleamed and tautened, as if she was fighting to ignore the blueness of mine.

The fact that Katniss had chosen to listen to what I had to say after I had revealed the darkest depths of my feelings to her almost succeeded in making me smile, the sweetness of it touching my features only for a second before I was instantly sobered by her stony, grim expression. It was almost like her mouth was forming her cutting response to my confession again, the one syllable word ringing in my eardrums and making my skull ache.

The sound of Katniss' booted foot scraping through the gravelly dirt caught my attention, and I widened my eyes at the sight of her crossing her arms protectively in front of her torso and scrunching her eyebrows together with indecisiveness, as if she was readying herself to make a swift escape into the trees.

Quickly, I tried to rid my features of all traces of pain, to uphold the Career-like attitude she had become accustomed to seeing in me—uncaring, composed, and callous. "So, you wouldn't give someone like me a chance, right?" I lilted, attempting to stretch my mouth into a grin, only to have my cheeks quiver in protest, "After all, I'm just a lapdog."

Her limbs visibly tensed with hesitation, her small hands binding into stern fists across her chest before she darted her gaze away and slowly shook her head, the movement a hardly noticeable twitch in her neck, but still possessing enough potency to make me feel as if she had just lunged forward and jabbed a blade through my heart.

I felt my lips part, silent pleads of desperation tearing their way through my throat as stinging breaths. I watched her hurriedly dash into the brush, doubtlessly in search of her district partner.

It only took one gesture, a singular, reluctant movement for my entire world to crumble. As I watched the branches and leaves rustle after they were pushed apart by Katniss, her retreating form tense and definite, I could almost feel everything collapse into ruins at my feet—the severe self-loathing that seared through my veins the moment I realized that a District 12 tribute meant more to me than my own allies, the hostile judgement I received from the other Careers as they noticed my love-struck stares, the harrowing, gnawing feeling of desolation after I was pushed to the point of sacrificing my last companion just for the safety of someone I had barely known—all lay in disarray on the dirt, stomped into tattered, unrecognizable scraps.

You wouldn't give someone like me a chance, right?

A chance, right?

A chance? A chance? A chance?

"M-Marvel..." The trilling, melodious voice of the twelve-year-old from District 11 flowed through the air, like a dismal tune swaying in the breeze and interlacing with the birds' faint tweets, lashing through my thoughts and leaving my mind blank as I was promptly brought back to reality. I lowered my head, casting my gaze to the dirt before I forced myself to twist my neck and look back at her injured form—the tufted, wooly strands of inky hair that fell in thick waves across her shoulder blades, the deep gash sliced across her petite cheek, the swollen ankle that I had tightly bandaged just moments before my world had shattered...

"Please," she murmured, her voice lowered to a soft, almost indistinguishable chirp, "don't be sad. I like it better when you're smiling." She let her dark, slanted eyes fall to the ground, her mouth nervously distorting as she formed her words. "...even if it's fake."

Hesitantly, I turned myself around and unhurriedly took a step forward, seating myself down on the grass-lined dirt in front of where Rue was sitting. I forced a trembling, painful grin to widen across my already strained face, the movement making my jaw ache. "Happy?"

The ebony skin covering the brim of her cheeks reddened in color, and I felt my tensed features tighten with incredulity before I unconsciously began to study it, casting my vision from the soft curves of her cheeks to the crinkled surface of the bridge of her nose. She fretfully turned away in response, her mess of raven hair disheveled across her crown like a small sparrow's ruffled feathers.

I had to hold back an exasperated groan as I propped my elbow on my knee and rested my chin in my palm, feeling the light breeze gently sweep tufts of my hair across my forehead. "Thank you, Rue. I feel better now," I lied, intrigued when I saw how the simple statement succeeded in almost instantly brightening her features. She directed her sable eyes to me again, the deep depths of them soaked with glee, as if she was glad that she had helped me in even the most trivial of ways.

She was so naïve, so youthful and pure, that I couldn't help but smile back at her. Genuinely.

I had spent my entire life thinking that my little sister was nothing but an inconvenience casted upon me by my mother after she had been shipped off to the games, a pest that I needed to feed and clothe while living in the aging, decrepit home we were abandoned in as children.

As I examined Rue's round, rosy cheeks and rumpled mane of black hair, I realized how much I had truly cared about Luna as I nonchalantly raised her throughout the years, how habitual it had become to tease her about her reediness and colorlessness, and how seeing her tears in response had acted as a self-inflicted punishment for my countless amount of past mistakes.

I swallowed hard, feeling my throat constrict as I casted my suddenly pained eyes to the dirt and furrowed my eyebrows. "You remind me of someone very special, Rue," I murmured, my voice small, "I honestly hope that you get out of this hellhole alive."

"You're lying," she droned matter-of-factly, "What about Katniss?"

I was caught off-guard as I watched Rue's once cheerful expression subdue with somberness, the color that had once vividly painted her cheeks dulling as her lips tightened into a bloodless line. I let myself examine it for a moment before darting my gaze to the dirt, my throat tightening as Katniss' image appeared almost mockingly in my mind, every detail of her sweet features like individual blades tearing through my ribcage. "...There are a lot of people I wish didn't have to die," I croaked weakly.

"Like Glimmer?" Rue chimed almost automatically, the name making me wince as Katniss' image was replaced by my district partner's, her once radiant face muted as the life left her crumpled frame. A sorrowful lump lodged itself in my throat. I pleadingly casted my eyes upward again, only to see that Rue's distrustful gaze had diluted into a insightful one.

She shifted her shoulders uncomfortably. "She liked you a whole lot, you know. I could tell."

I furrowed my eyebrows together, feeling a pressure build up behind my eyes as I forced a deep, acidic breath through my lungs. "Yeah," I rasped, closing my eyes in an attempt to choke down the overwhelming and inexplicable guilt building up in the pit of my stomach, "but at least her...death—" I had to pause to cough, my throat raw as my airways painfully contracted. "...At least it was quick and painless. If Katniss didn't kill her—"

"The blood infection would have spread," Rue interrupted, probably noticing how it was difficult for me to continue, "and that would be an awful way for her to go."

A chill trickled down my spine as my eyes widened and my torso wavered with disbelief. "How did you know?"

The corner of Rue's mouth twitched with hesitance, her glossy eyes big and round as they studied the hurt that was doubtlessly strewn across my expression. "I knew right when I saw her," she sighed, "I have a special talent with wounds and medicinal plants. We get injured a lot while working on the plantations in 11."

I numbly nodded, thinking back to when I saw the dank greenness of District 11 during the replays of the reapings in the Training Center, Glimmer watching attentively at my side with her fair eyebrows arched and her full lips pursed.

My worries back then only consisted of keeping myself alive, struggling through the gruesome, monstrous mess of the games with only my well-being plaguing my thoughts. Katniss was still a rat to me, the reason she volunteered unknown, and Glimmer was just a mere toy for my entertainment before we were both dropped into the arena. My heart had been as unfeeling and cold as stone, and I had been determined to keep it that way.

I would have never expected that the temperamental, irritating girl that had been chosen as my district partner would ever lunge in front of a blade for me, or that she would ever end up dying in my arms, the wetness of my tears leaving trails of salt on her icy skin. I would have never expected that a District 12 volunteer would ever succeed in wrapping me so thoroughly around her finger, to the point where I became almost obsessive, feeling a desperate need to be in her presence writhe in the pit of my stomach as her name gnawed at the darkest depths of my mind, or that she would eventually gain the power to drain every last trace of vigor from me with just the utterance of a single word.

Realizing how deeply the games had altered every aspect of my being was almost painful, and I found myself looking back at all the things I had done in the past with crippling regret.

I let out a heavy breath, feeling it slither through my airways as a ghostly rasp. My hair, having grown to the point where the ends of it brushed against the hollows of my cheeks and the nape of my neck, flitted in the breeze and into my eyes, making me bring up a hand to impatiently rake it away, only to find with crushing chagrin that my fingers were trembling.

The wavering seemed to string its way up my arm until I was shaking uncontrollably, even though I wasn't cold in the slightest. My eyebrows creased together before I shot a pleading look at Rue, feeling the corners of my mouth sink downward as haunting images of the games rushed through my mind. She peered back at me worriedly, her lips parted and her already large eyes widened to the point where they looked strange compared to the rest of her small face.

"Be honest," I blurted out suddenly, knotting my tremulous hands into fists, "Am I a monster? I know I could have saved Glimmer if I really tried. I'm sure we have at least one sponsor rich enough to send us something for blood infection, but I..." I swallowed hard, darting my gaze away ashamedly. "I took the easy way out."

Rue leaned forward, letting the tips of her petite fingers hover reluctantly over the surface of my cheek, as if she couldn't bring herself to actually touch me. "Mar—"

"Even though the only reason she got that wound in the first place was because she saved me," I choked, viciously pulling away from Rue's hand, "Even though I know that she was counting on me. Even though I know that she would have done everything she could to heal me if the roles were switched."

Rue stared blankly at me for a moment, her hand hanging limply in the air before she gently brought it back to her lap, her hands tangled sternly together. "Marvel, stop," she ordered, her usually gentle, soft tone hardened into a harsh one, "Sometimes you need to do terrible things in order to save the people you love."

My pulse had been thundering against my ribcage, but as I peered at the certainty streaked across Rue's expression, I felt it gradually steady itself into a relaxed thrum. I slid my hand into my hair, feeling the black locks glide between my fingers before I clenched my fist and gripped the strands sternly, my breaths shallow and my muscles strained.

"Glimmer seemed relieved when she died, like she didn't want to have to keep fighting anymore," Rue continued, her once demanding tone diluted into a honeyed melody, "I know how she felt. Everyday, I wake up thinking, 'Will this be the day it all finally ends? Who will end up doing it? Will it be painful?'" Her shoulders quaked nervously and her tiny eyebrows crinkled together, but her expression was definite and her gaze on my uneasy, frantic eyes was unbroken. "Compared to that," she murmured, "an arrow to the heart is bliss."

I felt my lips part with bafflement. "...You really think so?"

As if she hadn't expected that I would speak, Rue's eyebrows arched with surprise, her gleaming eyes swiftly darting to the side with hesitation before she finally forced herself to nod. "At this point, I'm just waiting until I'm gone too," she mumbled, her expression distorting with abrupt anxiety, "And I'm kind of hoping that it's Katniss who ends up doing it. At least she'd make it quick."

Without my permission, a picture of Katniss letting go of her bowstring and sending an arrow soaring into Rue's torso appeared in my mind, and it seemed so strange and unnatural that I unconsciously winced. "No chance," I muttered dryly, "She would never do that."

A flicker of discomfort flashed across Rue's features before she let out a quiet, airy sigh and slouched weakly forward, resting her head in her palms. "Katniss isn't weak. She'll do whatever she needs to do to get the job done."

I half-lidded my eyes with skepticism, only to be suddenly assaulted by an image of Katniss the first time I had ever laid eyes on her through a television screen—her hair neatly braided and tossed behind her shoulders and her satiny skin covered by the light, delicate fabric of a pale blue gown. It's almost entirely unbelievable that I had overlooked how completely horrified she appeared to be as she watched District 12's original female tribute—her sister, I knew now—mount the stage.

"I volunteer! I volunteer as tribute!"

She had knowingly stepped toward the chopping block and stared death in the face, daring it to lunge its cruel, monstrous claws into her flesh as she fiercely planted her feet in front of her sister. Back then, it had been an element of her being that absolutely disgusted me, but now, it was something that only added to her endless brilliance.

Someone like her didn't belong in the arena. Someone that was endowed with that much perfection and beauty and bravery needed to be put on a pedestal, which would only be possible if she broke out of the endless darkness of the games as victor.

Numbness seemed to creep through my bones, as if my entire being had iced over, the emotions that had overtaken me just moments ago gradually slipping away and leaving my body an empty, unfeeling shell. I was only slightly aware of the muscles in my legs cording tightly over my bones as I limply stood myself up and casted my frigid gaze over Rue's tiny, pitiful twelve-year-old frame, her once slack expression warping into a severely puzzled grimace as she peered up at me with widened, muddled eyes.

Her gaze was like the gentle flutter of a butterfly's wing against the crook of my neck as I swiftly arched my back downwards and swiped a throwing knife away from the pile of supplies left in the middle of the clearing, my pale fingers ghoulish as they slithered around its handle. "I'm so sorry, Rue," I choked out, my voice slurred and my mouth thick, "So, so sorry."

It was almost as if I had gone blind the moment I had dazedly turned myself around and locked my eyes on Rue's confused features again, her thin eyebrows crinkled sternly together but her eyes still soaked with complete and utter trust.

My vision clouded with a thick black haze, and I was left mindlessly plunging away from the bright surface of reality.

All my nerves seemed to crumble into a stunned, unfeeling stupor, wiping my mind clean of thought and sensation—but I was still aware. I was still completely and painfully conscious of everything—the icy wind snaking through my hair like dozens of ghostly fingers against my scalp, the cold wetness of mud beneath my knees as I dropped to the earth and landed with a harsh thump, the tensing of my biceps as I lunged my arm forward and tore the blade through an almost agonizingly soft, fragile surface, and the warm mist of blood as it coated my hands, collecting in the furrows of my flesh and dripping down my skin in hot, thick streaks...

I was roused by a gurgling squeal, something so grating that it cleaved my eardrums but also so sweet and melodic that it almost sounded like a small bird's chirp, and my vision cleared, the initial blackness slowly washing out and making the abrupt sunlight and vivid colors that met my eyes afterward sting.

My head acted as a weight on my shoulders as I suddenly became engulfed in a wave of dizziness and nausea, my blurred view of my surroundings focusing into various shades of red—only red—pooling in the centers of my palms and dampening the dark fabric of my arena clothing.

The burning smell of gore made my nostrils flare, my stance rickety and uneven as my sickly lightheadedness became gradually more unbearable, as if the blood in my skull had reached a boiling point.


A voice so high-pitched and tremulous that it sounded like the creaks of aged floorboards whipped through the air, and I was left staggering boorishly in the direction of it, the rusty-scented wetness oozing down my wrists and tinting my white skin with red.


I choked raspily as I struggled to focus my vision. A dark blur worked its way into the haze of red fogging my eyes—it looked like a mane of disheveled locks, each wisp curling at the end like a bird ruffling its feathers against a violent breeze.

Gradually, the shape revealed itself to me, and I was met with a crushing wave of realization once I made out the image of a knife handle, its rubber surface clenched by tiny, wildly shaking fingers. My gaze swayed upward, my mind slowly breaking free of its trance as my strained eyes lurched, discerning the folds and creases of dark arena clothing covering the small, crumpled frame of someone so sweet and pristine that she almost looked like a cherub angel, small wings shredded and tipped with blood.


Her chest was rising and falling frantically with grating, heavy breaths, air wheezing through her throat and lacing together with trilling whimpers as her glossy eyes became bare with terror.

Petrified, I wrenched myself away.

"No," I choked, slapping my hands to the sides of my head in an effort to steady myself, only to have an intense wave of nausea surge through me once I felt the blood that had collected in my palms slicking itself into my hair. I was only slightly aware of my knees buckling, causing me to plunge back to the earth and land clumsily on my knees, my mind no longer capable of completely controlling my limbs as I gradually began to hurtle into the dark, burning pits of madness. I awkwardly caught myself and watched as the blood caking my skin dampened the dirt, my vision blurring and my unblinking eyes harshly stinging. "I-I...I didn't do this! I'm not a monster!"

Fits of hoarse sobs pierced the air, too low and rumbling to be Rue's, and I realized with crippling shame that they were thick with my own hushed voice. "I'm not..." My words were weak and barely understandable as they tore through my throat without my permission. "...a monster—"

"You're right."

My eyelids snapped open as Rue's dulcet, velvety voice blanketed my eardrums, the usual beauty of the sound subdued as the edge of it became throaty with pain. She struggled to lift her tiny arms, her fingers brushing past the knife handle jutting out of her ribcage before they gingerly gripped the sides of my face, the pads of her fingers coated with her own blood as they shakily brushed against the hollows of my cheeks.

Slowly, she managed to stretch her already paling lips into a—grin, her small rows of teeth stained with blood as the red liquid dribbled out the corner of her mouth and into her mane of raven hair. "Keep smiling, Marvel," she coughed, her big eyes watering from the strain and the corners of her pallid mouth still waveringly twisted upwards, "Even if it's fake."

Unthinkingly, I placed my hand over hers and pressed it closer to my cheek, urging her skin to heat up with the warmth of life again as I stared helplessly into the dulling depths of her moistened, black eyes.

With terrible suddenness, the sound of leaves bursting open blasted behind me, followed by uneven footsteps slapping against the grass-lined dirt. I whirled my head around, loosening my grip on Rue's hand and letting it fall limply back to the dirt.

Standing at the edge of the brush and wheezing for breath was a lean, radiant figure, wisps of glossy hair spilling out of her braid and beads of sweat collecting at her collarbone. Her features distorted as a spectrum of emotion flashed through them—anxiety, confusion, crushing horror, and finally, a rage so fervent and fierce that it seemed to dissolve the deep depths of her ashen eyes as they locked ferociously on me.

"Katniss..." I murmured, my voice faint and lilted. "I really didn't want you to see this."

"Marvel," she hissed, and although it was drenched with malice, my heart seemed to quake and tighten in my chest as my name slithered through her lips. "How could you? She was only twelve! She trusted you!"

I straightened my spine, feeling each individual bone in my body protest as if they hadn't been in movement for years. My muscles tautened in each of my limbs until they ached, the discomfort the only thing keeping me from slinking into a complete daze.

I was only slightly aware of Rue peering up at me with hurt coating her small, sprite-like features. My eyes were only focused on Katniss, her very presence so distracting that the rest of the world seemed to disintegrate around her tense frame.

"If you don't fight, you're just waiting to be killed," I whispered under my breath, blurting out the core of my thoughts without thinking, "I did this for you, Katniss." Why don't you understand?

"For me?!" she shrieked, her voice still managing to sound so mesmerizingly sweet even when it was harshly thundering through her throat, uneven and thick with tears. "How could this possibly be something that would benefit me?!"

My skin prickled with uneasiness, making my hands knot into stern fists at my sides as the muscles in my stomach twisted painfully together. "Were you really going to let her live?" I lilted, noticing how Katniss' features had set with menacing rage as the thin streaks of gray in the sky casted moving shadows upon her contorted skin. Numbness seemed to spread to my core, and as if my body was taking advantage of my seemingly deadened emotions, slurred sentences containing my innermost thoughts slunk out from my tautened lips and lingered ghoulishly in the air. "If it came down to her or your precious Gale Hawthorne"—I sternly squinted my eyes, the bridge of my nose crinkling upward—"Who would you choose?"

I watched as her silver eyes flitted helplessly toward Rue, her irises like bright sparks as they caught the thin lines of light breaking through the clouds. Her lips parted, and a barely audible whimper slithered through them, the sound like a mace slamming itself into my chest.

"...Exactly," I breathed, my voice like the gentle tinkling of bells as it slid through my teeth. "I did you a favor. Remember how I said I wanted to protect you?" I swallowed, taking a tentative step forward. "Only you?"

My eyes locked themselves on Katniss' withered frame, and I noticed with crushing slowness how each of my words had seemed to visibly mangle her spirit, causing her once blazing expression to dilute into a defeated one.

As I slowly registered the sound of leaves erupting open, my nerves seemed to dull until they were completely lifeless and unfeeling, like I was simply dawdling my way through a dream.

The brisk air seemed to swirl its way across my skin, like thin ribbons of ice, as I coolly locked my eyes on Gale Hawthorne, the grayness of his irises like a blotched mirror of Katniss'. He gradually let the scene in front of him sink in, the blood that stained both the earth and my white skin visibly clicking in his mind. I saw his mouth move, his lips curled back and his eyebrows furrowed into a fierce grimace, but I couldn't seem to discern what he was saying, as if my ears had been filled with water until everything was muddled and unclear.

It felt as if I was observing from a world separate from the one I was standing on as I watched Katniss fumble with her bow, her fingers trembling but her eyes ferocious as she unevenly rose her weapon until the wooden point of her arrow was aimed directly at my chest.

Moving out of the way seemed pointless as I saw her release her bowstring. She did it with an air of purpose, not a trace of regret or grief in her expression as she gritted her teeth and sent her arrow soaring, ripping through the air with a sort of beautiful elegance until it finally tore through my ribcage. It stung, almost like a fire bursting in my chest as it slid through me. It left me gulping in one last wheezing, gurgling breath, my vision dotting with blackness before I flopped backward toward the earth.

One day I will return.

I had imagined this moment since the second I had been reaped—the emotions that would surge through me when I realized that everything was over, the disgust of feeling my own blood spurting out of my body and slicking its way across my skin, the remorse I would feel for not having lived the life I had hoped for since childhood—but instead, I felt nothing but fulfillment.

As monstrous as it was, I had left the world doing something for Katniss, something that not even Hawthorne would do.

We were all going to die, anyway. I intended to deserve it.

If it wasn't for the thought of you, my love, I wouldn't be able to go on.

Maybe someday, when she looked back at this moment, Katniss would realize the purpose behind my actions and how thoroughly and unhealthily she had managed to make herself so irresistible to me, to the point where she was like a drug that I needed in order to function.

Maybe, with time, she could even bring herself to forgive me.

I felt the corner of my mouth weakly perk upward at this thought, letting the blood that had flooded my mouth to dribble down my chin and into my hair. It was darkly humorous how my last thoughts were filled with images of her. How pathetic.

"You would think that I would stop loving you after you killed me."

When I find myself doing terrible things, I take comfort in you.

Believe it or not, this was actually longer before I cut out almost a fourth of it. Wowee, haha.

I had to make up last names for Glimmer and Marvel since they weren't revealed in the books. They have meanings, though!

Laban (Marvel's last name) means white knight, and Allene (Glimmer's last name) means beautiful.

I also had to make up names for Marvel's sister and the girl from 4. Luna obviously means moon (I thought it was fitting because of her colorlessness), and Elle is a play on the word eel, since she's from 4 and all that nonsense.

Thank you so much for reading!