Ikr, 's been too long. I'm a mess that forgot how to write and I'm sorry. Here goes another pointless little step forward. Thank y'all for sticking with me.

Opening quote by Sun Tzu.

Love, Thorns, and Fire


The Preparation

The opportunity to secure ourselves against defeat lies in our own hands, but the opportunity of defeating the enemy is provided by the enemy himself.

The night is long and anything but peaceful. We keep subconsciously pawing at each other as if to make sure we are still together, and waking each other with the sudden movements. However in tune we are when awake, we aren't used to actually sleeping together yet… but keep snuggling closer even at the risk of our tangled limbs falling asleep before we do.

My consciousness does fully ebb at some point though, and my sleeping mind somehow mashes yesterday's tribute parade with the grisliest memories from past games.

But it's not our supposed opponents reenacting the scenes. It's always us, Gale and I. An endless stream of our lookalikes, all in sets of awkward district-specific costumes, fighting to the death.

Dying by our own hand or each other's - eyes frozen gray pools of horror and bodies moving in a dance of death, as fluidly and inevitably as if we were making love. We are unable to resist, unable to stop all the past death reaching into our future.

Until we appear naked and covered in coaldust, empty fingers extended like claws and locking around each other's throats. A spark is born somewhere in the friction, spreading along our limbs and engulfing both our bodies in blinding fire.

Gasping, I open my eyes, but the glare doesn't go away, burning more than ever.

It takes a moment to realize the first sunrays have finally broken through the night, reaching me even behind closed eyelids.

I'm not on fire.

I guess.

I'm just surrounded in heat, in a tangle of sheets and skin and half-discarded sweaty clothes. I turn around frantically, my palms patting along Gale's body, my breath gradually calming as I make sure he's unhurt and unburned.

It takes him just few seconds to stir, and capture my hands against his chest without as much as opening his eyes.

"Hey, Catnip, slow down," he mutters, sleepy face spreading into a smile.

I try to answer, but only a choked sound escapes my tight throat. Probably an alarming one, because Gale finally jolts fully awake and his eyes immediately focus to fix me with a concerned stare. "You okay?"

"Yeah," I mutter, "just a nightmare."

"Worse." I slide my hands to his shoulders and sink against him, my face turned to the window. The morning sun is burning the dream-images away already, and I don't want Gale to ask and make me recall them.

He doesn't, just wraps his arms around me, one hand sliding down my messy braid to the small of my back. "Wanna chase it away?"

His body is pressed so tightly against mine I don't need to guess how. I muffle a snort in his shoulder. It's almost ridiculous how our minds changed track from stealing means of survival to stealing last few moments of living. But considering how screwed we already are - and have always been, I guess we've just kept too busy to acknowledge it – is there anything better is to do?

I wiggle lightly against him, enjoying how his heartbeat immediately picks up pace. "Sure. But not here." I feel too uncomfortably exposed in the light, and we've made enough mess in the bed already. Whoever is to deal with our dirty sheets, they are not someone to exact petty revenge on.

Gale mutters in protest, his hands all over my body almost coaxing me to change my mind, but he eventually lets me push away from him. I readjust my clothes and rise, waiting for Gale to join me before yanking the sheet that caught most of our nightly fun off the bed.

I ignore Gale's questioning look and carry the sheet to the bathroom with me, throwing it down the trash chute. I do my best not to look into the mirror.

"There we go," Gale remarks with a wry grin.

I just bite my lip and step closer, leaning my forehead against his chest. "I guess we should stick to the shower from now on," I mutter noncommittally.

"Fine by me." There's a hint of laughter in his voice, but I can tell he senses how upset I am, and tries to comfort me without making me acknowledge it aloud. His hands slide down my back to my hips, carefully pressing me closer to gauge if I'm still in the mood. I push his open shirt from his shoulders in response. I'm irrationally keen to get us into the water, just to make completely sure we won't burst into flames if we keep touching.

Gale cooperates eagerly, so we get there in a matter of moments. I throw my head back and let the tepid drops wash my face and trickle down my parched throat. Then I tense slightly as I feel Gale's hands reaching for me from behind. One wraps around my waist, and the other slides along my jaw and down my neck, adding a bit of playful pressure there. If it weren't for the dream, I'd find it only exciting, but for a crazy split of a second, I find myself half expecting his strong fingers to dig into my flesh with lethal force.

But his touch is warm and safe and familiar. Trustworthy.

Almost embarrassed for the nag of doubt, I melt against him and forget it, seeking joy in the last tangible certainty I have left. I find it easily, somewhere in the zero space between our wet bodies and in the silent rhythm of our hips, and then in his heartbeat hammering against my cheekbone as we catch breath in each other's arms.

I feel tiny in Gale's embrace - with my head just reaching the top of his shoulder, and his large hands cradling my body like a doll - but comfortable in my own strength. However good it feels to be attached, we are a perfect team when detached too, balancing each other out to create something more powerful than the sum of the parts.

We'll need that more than ever.


Soon after we reluctantly pull our rumpled shirts and underwear back on (hey, they aren't that bad yet!) and drag ourselves from the bathroom, there's a series of vigorous knocks on the door.

"Up, up, up! It's going to be a big, big day!" Effie throws the door open with a flourish and stops short, looking from my flushed face to Gale sprawled back on my bed just in a shirt and boxers. I guess she went to wake me first and hadn't noticed his absence in his own room yet. And we've been considerately quiet this time too.

Well, that's what she gets for not waiting to be called in.

"Oh. I see you are already up."

"Back down too, don't worry," Gale informs her. Our shower activity obviously put him in a very good mood.

I bite back a laugh and a comment about big, big things.

"Your training uniforms will be brought to your rooms shortly. I suggest you pay a visit to your own, young man." Effie pointedly glares somewhere above Gale's head a purses her lips. "Pants on," she adds when he stands up from the bed, trousers carelessly clutched in his hand. "Please."

It sounds desperate enough to make Gale comply in silence. He even puts his shoes on.

"Breakfast starts in twenty minutes, your mentor promised he'll be waiting for you," continues Effie, in a tone she's obviously struggling to keep neutral. She makes it sound like a huge accomplishment of hers, but knowing Haymitch, it might as well be. "So at least have the decency not to be late. Again."

"We won't," I mutter, suddenly feeling almost ungrateful.

She nods, unreadable eyes shielded with long plastic lashes, turns on her heel and stalks off.

Gale shoots me a grin and takes off a moment after her.


Before I can wish against it happening, the red-haired Avox girl slips into the room with an armful of my standard-issue training uniform.

She sets it on the bedside table and moves to tidy the jumble of sheets that's left of the bed.

I spring to action and tug a sheet out of her hand. "No, please, leave it. I… I'll… " I stutter. "I'll manage."

She shakes her head lightly and tilts it towards the bathroom, and then firmly gestures towards the training uniform.

"Uh… okay… thank you… I'm sorry," I say lamely. I've kept my tongue so far, but embarrassment seems to have taken my speech almost as completely as Capitol scalpels.

I snatch the garments and take them to the bathroom, catching a glimpse of my flushed face in the mirror. The message in the steam is long-since wiped away, but it's etched into my mind.

I'm here to manage more important things than stained sheets.


True to Effie's word, Haymitch is already waiting with her at the breakfast table, ignoring her and morosely spiking his juice with clear liquid form a tiny flask. Gale must have arrived moments before me and is already busy loading his plate. I quickly follow suit and we join the table, sitting on either side of our mentor and across from each other. We can communicate a lot just by exchanging looks, and that will be necessary if we are to discuss any strategy.

Haymitch doesn't seem all that eager yet, just acknowledges our presence with an unenthusiastic tilt of the head. Between the three of us, calling the morning good would just make it worse, so we just return the nod and busy ourselves with our plates. Keeping our mouths too full to indulge Effie's attempts at conversation and hoping she'll leave us alone for a while before deciding it's time to usher us to the training. Eventually, she does give up on us "taciturn Seam kids" – Haymitch included –, and clops away with a dainty cup of coffee.

"So what do we do?" says Gale at once, nearly unintelligibly. He swallows a big mouthful of food. "Apart from staying alive and being fucking polite about it." Effie has tried to give us plenty of advice on that matter, but minding our manners won't help with Gamemakers and tributes trying to kill us.

Haymitch sets his glass down and stifles a burp into the back of his hand. "Well, now. You have two and a half days – no miracles are gonna happen in that time, but it's plenty to shape up. You get into fights much?" he asks with a smirk.

I shake my head. We both have a few scars from run-ins with wild dogs, but come to think of it, I've never exchanged blows with a person. Whatever some townsfolk have to say about our behavior, conflicts in the Seam aren't that common –if nothing else, we are too united by common misery to waste energy by turning on each other. Besides, I have always been careful and evasive, and somehow tacitly respected.

And lately, always in Gale's safe company. He shrugs with a deep frown. "Not that much. And never with a knife." He didn't care about the townies' wrestling team and got by just fine on his natural strength and agility if a schoolboy or Hob argument came to blows. Sometimes, I kissed his bruises after, with enough pressure to make him wince slightly in pain, to remind him not to get into trouble. Even though his quick temper sometimes got the best of him, he checked it enough not to risk attention from a wrong Peacekeeper.

Now it all just makes us seem awfully inexperienced. Especially compared to kids who've been training to fight their entire lives. We exchange a dark, uneasy glance.

"Never too late to learn, I guess," Gale snarls in Haymitch's direction

Would we have somehow prepared had we known beforehand that we are meant to wind up here? Was there any way to do it without arousing suspicion? We were busy enough with illegal activities as it was. And busy taking care of our families.

Haymitch waves the accusation aside. "Sure you're right, kid. Do spend some quality time at the hand-to-hand combat station. Both of you. And pick some weapons too – no time to make sword masters out of ya, but get a hang of what you can handle. You never know what you'll manage to grab later on." Gale is still glaring at him, so he adds, "C'mon, you know skill with weapons isn't everything. Shit happens."

True enough. As we've seen in the past years, sometimes even prodigious Careers succumbed to betrayal and ingenuity, or the frantic, instinctive strength of untrained tributes. I blink to dispel a few quick memories of hands, bloodied and shaking, crushing skulls and ribcages with makeshift weapons. Rock, bricks, clubs. Clawing with bare hands and chipped nails. I know I'll do my very best to avoid ending up like that, but the realization that I might find myself fighting for my life just as desperately in a few days makes the memories disgustingly real.

I shouldn't, though. If anyone is indeed supposed to look up to us and find any hope, losing humanity to ensure survival is out of question. I'll have to make sure it doesn't come to that. I feel Gale stretch his leg under the table, lightly nudging mine. We'll have to.

"Besides." Haymitch pulls his chair closer, deliberately scraping the floor as loudly as possible. We take the hint and follow suit, creating some noise to cover his next words. "The other kids aren't the real enemies there."

We nod in unison. We've gathered that much already. Hard to tell to what extent it applies to those who have volunteered to go there for other reasons than I did and would probably kill us without batting an eye just to get to the victor's crown, though. And what to do with the rest, since Haymitch has already told us we can't really save them.

If he wanted us to unite everyone, or at least everyone but the Careers, and persuade them not to fight, or to join effort and fight our way out of the arena, Gale and I definitely wouldn't be the best people for the job. There would be better choices in our district, perhaps Madge, pretty and kind and composed, or Peeta, eloquent and always with a smile to spare. The thought of either of them going to the arena appalls me, though, not as much as in Prim's case but still. It wouldn't be their environment, and since it's us who've been chosen, not their kind of fight.

"Be careful about making both friends and enemies," Haymitch continues. "At first just watch and wait and figure out what and how could work. You already know you're gonna be prime targets, right?"

Another nod. After our display at the tribute parade, definitely. Gale looks from Haymitch to me, grim but reassuring. I do my best to reciprocate the reassuring part before returning my attention to our mentor.

"The most important things you gotta do are, outsmart and outsurvive. You should be good at that."

For that, the last five years of our lives have prepared us pretty well – we can get far and fast on little nourishment and in pretty much any weather our region can throw at us, hunt and cooperate as a perfect team, and make the most of what nature has to offer. But that still would be of little help if we ended up in a tundra or a desert or an abandoned town … or if I couldn't get my hands on a bow. We'd scrape by better than many, but in our element, we'd excel and show the Capitol we can survive even without their sponsor gifts.

Gale shrugs. "We do what we have to." I can tell Haymitch's vagueness is grating on him. He's playing with a butter knife, his fingers clenching and unclenching around the handle.

"For too long," I add, stretching my hand across the table. Gale immediately lets the knife clatter onto his empty plate and entwines his fingers with mine.

Haymitch sneers at the gesture, at least I think that's the cause, and downs the rest of his spiked juice. "Unfortunately, you do. But at least you've been prepared a bit, huh? " His voice drops so low we have to lean in to catch the rest. "Before certain someones kinda... blew their cover."

"What?!" I almost yell.

For a moment, my only answer is silence, punctuated by rhythmic clops from the corridor. We have few seconds.

Gale tightens his grip on my hand, probably painfully so, but I hardly feel it. He must be thinking exactly what I do, that Haymitch is talking about our fathers.

He offers us a grimace that could pass for apologetic."What I mean is," ha says, louder, leaning back, "build up on what you already know. And make sure to brush up on those survival skills."

"And make sure to be on time!" Effie chimes in. "C'mon, c'mon, training awaits!"

I stand up, dazed, my mind working in overdrive. Gale jumps to my side, touching the small of my back, but still glaring over his shoulder at Haymitch.

Our mentor lifts his empty glass to us in a slightly mocking gesture. "Just one more thing: no showing off your best skills yet. Save your legacy for the Gamemakers. And for the real show."

I'm at loss for words, and suspect Gale gives him the finger behind my back.

"We sure as hell gotta get out of here," he whispers into my ear as we follow Effie, "and beat him up and make him tell us everything he knows."

The idea doesn't sound half bad, but I just snort mirthlessly. "Yeah, right."

My mind is swirling with confusion and aimless anger, but somewhere in the middle is a grain of reassurance. Our fathers have prepared us indeed. Just in case? To survive without them, because they suspected their time will be short? Or for something like this? I would never know. But they must have realized they'd thrust us into a world where fighting to live will be necessary. They gave us their best, and everything life in Panem threw at us after they've been taken away has shaped and forged us into who we are now.

Perhaps not up to kill and to impress the way the Careers do, but fit to survive and ready to defy.