Chapter 14

I do not own the Hunger Games. The characters and Panem belongs to Suzanne Collins. I am just enjoying playing in her sandpit for a while.

{*.*.*.*.*.*.*.*}

If I'm going to be honest, I'm not sure what I was expecting.

Did I expect Katniss to run up and confess her love for me?

No.

Did I expect Snow to miraculously call off the Games in favour of our love?

No.

But when the cameras flicker to Katniss's face my stomach lurches painfully. She looks surprised, shocked, as if she didn't expect it. Of course she didn't. The whole of District 12 knew my feelings for Katniss, except her. I bet her bloody cat Buttercup knew it as well. But something about the way she strains to wipe her face of emotion, the way she stares intently at the floor, makes me realise that she never knew. I mean, I always knew she didn't, but a part of me was always in denial, thinking that maybe, just maybe, she knew how I felt. But sitting here, seeing the look on her face is like a blow to the gut. The crowd can't see it, but I can. All she cares about is getting back to Prim, and probably Gale too. And that's what I want, isn't it?

Yes. It is. That's why I'm doing this whole thing in the first place; for her to go home. I'm not sure when I started hoping that she would love me too, hoping that she would run up onto the stage and confess her love for me. Of course, that's ridiculous.

But I can't help the disappointment that I feel.

"Oh, that is a piece of bad luck," says Caesar, and it's genuine. The crowd seems to agree, murmuring with anguish. The cameras are on me again, and I can see why the crowd are upset. My face is pale, sweaty and upset.

And I didn't even notice.

"It's not good," I say, swiping my brow with my jacket sleeve. I can just see Portia cringing.

"Well, I don't think any of us can blame you. It'd be hard not to fall for that young lady," says Caesar. There is a murmur of agreement from the crowd, mostly male voices. I grip the edge of my seat harder. "She didn't know?"

I almost laugh at the absurdity of his question. I shake my head sadly. "Not until now."

"Wouldn't you just love to pull her back out here and get a response?" Caesar asks the audience. The crowd goes fanatical, screaming assent. I try and hide my panic, the sudden sick feeling in my stomach make my hands sweat. The panic is there in Katniss's eyes as well. I'm surprised nobody else picks up on it. Please no. It's hard enough to announce your love on television, and I doubt I could take getting rejected in the same matter of minutes.

"Sadly, rules are rules, and Katniss Everdeen's time has been spent." Caesar says. I bite my lips to stop myself sighing with relief. "Well, best of luck to you, Peeta Mellark, and I think I speak for all of Panem when I say our hearts go with yours."

The roar of the crowd is deafening, proving Caesars words to be true. But I can't help but think 'All of Panem, except one; Snow.'

I choke out a "Thank you" and return to my seat, rising once again for the anthem.

I feel numb with relief, the interviews are over. But as soon as the wave of relief hits me, another dilemma hits. Tomorrow is the Games, where I am going to die.

As we file back to the lobby, we are sent to the elevators. I see Katniss veer into another car, leaving room for me in one packed with tributes. I step in, and regret it immediately.

Career tributes.

Everywhere.

The girl from One, Glimmer I think her name was, smirks at me, nudging her fellow Careers. One by one they notice me, until finally, the boy from Two, Cato, notices me. I cringe. He seems to be the 'leader' this year. It's like every year; there is always one that stands out. They leer at me, but I refuse to be afraid. If I am, they'll think I'm weak.

"Well, well, well, if it isn't Loverboy." Cato sneers at me. The two girls snicker, whispering to each other. I refrain from laughing myself. The nickname is pathetic.

"You going to follow her around like a love sick puppy, aren't you Loverboy?" Glimmer asks, smirking.

The car stops, and the boy and girl from One step of, waving lightly to the others.

"See you in there," says the boy, Marvel, audaciously.

The tributes from Nine and Ten stand awkwardly at the back, trying to get as much distance from myself and Two as possibly.

"You've made quite the impression." The girl, Clove, says snidely, as if she were talking to vermin. I shrug.

"So, let me guess; you and her; the perfect team in the Arena." He says. I shrug again. I can see Cato tense with impatience.

"Well Loverboy, if you love her as much as you say, you'd know her well enough to know what she's up to in the Arena, wouldn't you?" Cato says, looking at me strangely. My thoughts swarm. Wait, this is my chance. Wasn't I the one who said I should 'work' with the Careers? Now is my chance to show them I'm worth it.

"Uh... yeah." It's not at all convincing, but Cato seems to buy it.

"Well, I have a little proposition for you," he sneers, leering closer. "You come with us. You show us were she would go, and we won't kill you in the first five minutes, like we originally planned." Clove laugh snidely.

Did he just...?

Well that was easy.

It would look suspicious if I consent straight away after confessing my love to her, so I flick my eyes to the ground, avoiding eye contact. The car stops again, Cato and Clove exiting.

"Think about it," Cato spits just as the doors close.

The rest of the trip goes quickly, the other tributes filing out as their floor arrives. My thoughts consumed me, confusion clouding my vision. I needed a place to think soon, before my head explodes.

The roof.

I think about the quickest way to get there as the doors to the penthouse open. I step through, and the next thing I know, I'm on the ground, my hands burning with pain. I gasp, bringing my hands to find them covered in blood, deep cuts and shards of glass. I must have landed on the vase. One look behind me at the fake plant on the ground confirms my suspicions.

My hands kill.

I look up to see Katniss looming over me, rage filled eyes practically burning into me.

"What was that for?" I say, anger bubbling inside of me as well.

"You had no right! No right to go saying those things about me!" She shouts at me. Is she kidding? If only she knew that I just saved her life! I made her look desirable and the Careers just fell into my plan.

The elevators open again, and Effie, Haymitch, Cinna and Portia emerge.

"What's going on?" asks Effie. "Did you fall?"

I refrain from laughing cruelly.

"After she shoved me," I spit out, as Effie and Cinna help me up.

"Shoved him?" Haymitch asks angrily.

"This was your idea, wasn't it? Turning me into some kind of fool in front of the entire country?" Katniss shrieks. I don't know what makes me do it, maybe it's the thought of Katniss keeping a stable relationship with her only access to help in the arena, but immediately I take the blame.

"It was my idea," I say, lying through my teeth. I wince as I pull out a shard of pottery from my hands. "Haymitch just helped me with it." My vision starts to fade as the pain hits me again, and I slump against the wall a bit.

"But we're not star-crossed lovers!" Katniss shrieks. Star-crossed lovers? Where did that come from? Haymitch grabs Katniss and pins her to the wall, growling in her face something about 'miracle' and 'sponsors'. It's only then do I realise that I must have blacked out. I straighten up as Cinna puts him arm around Katniss.

"He's right, Katniss." Cinna says.

"I should have been told, so I didn't look so stupid." Says Katniss.

"No, your reaction was perfect. If you'd known, it wouldn't have read as real," says Portia. I scoff. Perfect Katniss.

I don't remember feeling this angry since Arthum dropped one of the cakes I had spent hours working on, determined to get every detail right.

"She's just worried about her boyfriend," I say gruffly, tossing aside a shard of urn. Bloody Gale. I wonder what he thinks of all this. I promised him I would protect her. Surely he knows my plan. He must have figured it out by now.

"I don't have a boyfriend," Katniss says, her cheeks burning.

"Whatever," I say. "But I bet he's smart enough to know a bluff when he sees it. Besides, you didn't say you loved me. So what does it matter?" Acid drips off of my voice, and I know I have been harsh. But I can't shake the feeling that if I don't sit and clear my head soon, I may not make it to the Arena.

Katniss worries about her reaction, stressing that she didn't look believable enough. Funny; she probably thinks I'm just a great actor, and that what I said wasn't true. Now the whole country knows I love Katniss, I even announced on television, yet she still doesn't know.

What else is a guy to do?

"I'm sorry I shoved you," Katniss says to me, her acknowledgment of me forced.

"Doesn't matter," I say shrugging, my anger slowly slipping. "Although it's technically illegal."

"Are your hands alright?" She asks, her voice still icy.

"They'll be alright," I say, effectively finishing the conversation. An awkward silence settles over the room.

"Come on, let's eat," says Haymitch. I'm about to throw the 'I'm not feeling well' excuse to head to the roof, but my stomach makes a sudden lurch. I am hungry, and any food I have now before the Games is vital.

As soon as I plonk down into my chair, my hands start to bleed profusely, soaking a small patch of red on my suit. I look guiltily at Portia for ruining her work, but she just shrugs and takes me to the lift. We make our way down to the lobby that has a separate office for medical treatment. After my hands are heavily wrapped in bandages, we make our way back to the table, finally, to eat.

After dinner, the need to get away suddenly pounds in my head, pushing all other thought aside. But, unfortunately, I am shuffled into the sitting room to watch the replay. I don't look at the screen, because my vision blurs, and my face starts to burn up. I need fresh air.

When the anthem finishes and the screen goes dark, a hush falls on the room.

Tomorrow's the day.

Even though the Games start at ten, Katniss and I have to wake early, no doubt because of all the travelling we will have to do to get to the arena. Haymitch and Effie won't be going with us; they'll be at the Games Headquarters, hopefully signing us sponsors. Portia and Cinna will come with us though, to the very spot which we will be launched into the arena. I shudder.

The feel of someone grasping my hand makes me look up, but it's Effie. She wishes us well, quipping about how she may finally be promoted to a better district. Typical Effie.

As she leaves, Haymitch crosses his arms and looks us both over. I shake my head to get rid of the haze that has settled over me, willing myself to take in any further information Haymitch has to offer.

"Any final words of advice?" I ask, knowing that what he says will be all for Katniss. These tips will be for Katniss, as I'll probably have to do the exact opposite.

"When the gong sounds, get the hell out of there. You're neither of you up to the bloodbath at the Cornucopia. Just clear out, put as much distance as you can between yourself and the others, and find a source of water," he says. "Got it?"

"And after that?" Katniss asks.

"Stay alive," says Haymitch. We nod. What else can we say? My head spins again, and I can barely register Katniss heading off to her room. I stagger up to Portia, who smirks slightly.

"Sorry about..." I trail off, gesturing wordlessly at the blood stained suit.

"It doesn't matter Peeta," she says, smiling kindly. She frowns slightly, putting a hand to my forehead. "Are you feeling alright? You look like hell."

"I'm fine," I lie, gently brushing her hand away. "Just need a decent night's sleep, I guess."

"Right. Big day tomorrow, huh?" she smirks.

I put an innocent expression on, feigning a 'butter wouldn't melt in my mouth' look. "Really? I had no idea," I say.

We laugh. Her face suddenly becomes sombre.

"Goodnight Peeta." She says, her gaze pitying.

"Night," I say, trudging past her and too my room. Barely functioning properly, I force my limbs to cooperate by standing under the shower for a while. I scrub all of the gel and makeup off of me, and try to let the water wash away the stress and confusion. It doesn't work. Pulling on some slacks and a black shirt, I slowly and quietly make my way up to the roof.

Once there, I plonk to the ground, sticking my head between my knees. I breath in and out slowly, trying to regain control of my breathing.

Breathe Peeta. Come on. You're fine.

As the cool of the tiles seeps into my pants, I lay down, marvelling at the feel of the coolness against my skin. Finally, I allow my mind to soar.

My name is Peeta Mellark.

I was reaped for the 74th Annual Hunger Games.

My District partner is Katniss Everdeen, the girl I love.

I announced my love for her nationally, and yet somehow, she still doesn't know. She thinks it's a ploy, just a plan.

All I want is for Katniss to return home.

My plan was to get the careers attention, for them to believe I know where Katniss would be in the Arena.

It worked.

Tomorrow marks the beginning of my inevitable death.

I sigh. Finally, the pounding in my head lessens.

I sit for hours, pondering on things such as the arena or possible faults in my plan. What if the Careers are playing a trick; that they are going to lead Katniss to me somehow? What if, as soon as I approach them, they kill me? How am I even going to tell them that I want to team up with them? What is the Arena going to be? A desolate wasteland? A dessert?

A sort of muffled cheering breaks my line of thought. I sit up, pausing to try and place the sound. I get up, moving to peer over the edge of the railing. What I see surprises me.

Hundreds of people seem to have gathered in the streets, dancing, screaming, laughing, all dressed in vibrant colours. It takes me a moment to realize that some of them are dressed as the tributes. The unmistakable glow of fire is seen as someone attempts to replicate Katniss and my opening ceremony costume. I cringe.

"You should be getting some sleep."

I jump, but I don't turn around. I know the voice. I have since I was five. And she's right. In a few hours, I will be fighting for my life.

Well, Katniss's really.

I shake my head slightly, the tiredness I didn't know I was feeling suddenly sweeping forward on me.

"I didn't want to miss the party. It's for us, after all." I say. Katniss joins me at the railing, the bare skin on her arm brushes mine, giving me goose bumps. I shiver.

"Are they is costumes?" she asks, and I smirk.

"Who could tell?" I answer, laughing quietly. "With all the crazy clothes they wear here. Couldn't sleep, either?"

"Couldn't turn my mind off," she says. I know the feeling.

"Thinking about your family?" I ask, but immediately my mind flickers to Gale.

"No," she says. "All I can do is wonder about tomorrow. Which is pointless, of course." I nod, fiddling with the bandages on my hands.

"I really am sorry about your hands," she says, looking at them sadly. The sincerity in her voice makes my heart skip a beat.

"It doesn't matter Katniss," I say, dismissing it. "I've never really been a contender in these Games anyway," I sigh.

"That's no way to be thinking," she says, looking at me oddly.

"Why not? It's true. My best hope is to not disgrace myself and..." I break off. That was close. I come so close to saying "...and protect you."

I doubt she would have taken that kindly.

"And what?" she asks. I sigh again in frustration. Not at Katniss, but at myself.

"I don't know how to say it exactly. Only... I want to die as myself. Does that make any sense?" I ask. She shakes her head. "I don't want them to change me in there. Turn me into some kind of monster I'm not."

She bits her lip. This would be so much easier if I could say 'I don't want the Games to change me. I want to still be me. That's why I am teaming up with the Careers. A sort of final act that is still like me, not what the Capitol want.'

But of course, Katniss can't know that, which makes this increasingly harder.

"Do you mean you won't kill anyone?" she asks.

Will I kill anyone? I'm not sure if I could. Of course, if there is a threat, I will defend myself, but killing someone in cold blood?

Well, I won't go down without a fight.

"No, when the time comes, I'm sure I'll kill just like everybody else. I can't go down without a fight," I say, echoing my thoughts. "Only I keep wishing I could think of a way to... to show that Capitol they don't own me."

Except I have.

"That I'm more than just a piece in their Games." I say. I can't help but feel that the conversation has become a lot more meaningful after my words.

"But you're not," she says. "None of us are. That's how the Games work."

"Ok, but within that framework, there's still you, and there's still me," I insist. "Don't you see?"

"A little. Only... no offence, but who cares, Peeta?" she says.

Ouch.

"I do. I mean, what else am I allowed to care about at this point?" I ask angrily. I search her beautiful gray eyes for an answer, hoping to God that she says 'me.'

But she doesn't.

She takes a step back, warily. "Care about what Haymitch said. About staying alive." She says. I smile mockingly at her, annoyed.

"Ok. Thanks for the tip, sweetheart." I say. I know I'm being harsh, but I'm too angry to care. Besides, if she doesn't like me, it'll make what I have to do easier.

"Look, if you want to spend the last hours of your life planning some noble death in the arena, that's your choice. I want to spend mine in District Twelve." She says.

That's the plan, Katniss.

"Wouldn't surprise me if you do," I say sarcastically. "Give my mother my best when you make it back, will you?"

"Count on it," she says. I can hear her soft foot falls as she leaves. I sigh.

I was harsh; harsh and rude. I'll apologise when I see her in the morning. I look back out at the still raging streets with disgust. It's all because of them. Because they just want a show.

Yawning, I trudge back to my room, flopping down on the bed in a heap.

I'm asleep before my head hits the pillow.

I don't even see Katniss when I wake up, so I can't apologise to her. Portia comes before dawn and gives me some simple pants and light tee to wear. They take me back to the roof, as I panic at what I'm wearing. It's not much protection, and it doesn't give too much away about the arena.

A hovercraft appears and a ladder drops down, and as soon as I step on, I'm frozen in place. I panic; I can't move anything, which I'm sort of glad for as they lift me up to the hovercraft. When we are inside, a man in a white coat appears at my side, carrying a syringe. I cringe. I hate needles.

"It's just your Tracker," the man says gruffly. He pulls the sleeve back on my shirt and inserts the needle, and I wince at the sharp stab of pain.

Once Portia is collected off of the roof, we are lead by an avox into a room where breakfast has been laid out. I scoff as much food as I can, without making myself sick. Portia sips a rose petal soup slowly, watching me. I shrug my shoulders at her.

Any food is vital. About half an hour later, we land, and we are led back to the ladder.

We're near the arena. My hands start to shake with nerves. I know what I have to do in the arena, I have for a while. But knowing you are going to die in the next few days is still a bit nerve racking.

Maybe even in the next few hours. I shudder as we are lead into an individual catacomb that lies beneath the arena. We arrive at my preparation room, or the Launch Room as the Capitol like to call it. I shower, washing myself thoroughly. I doubt they will have showers in the Arena.

Damn. I was kind of getting used to them.

After I clean my teeth, Portia helps me with what are actually our Arena clothes. Portia hears my sigh of relief.

"What? You'd think I'd let you go into an Arena on live television looking like that?" she says winking at me, gesturing to the clothes that I had put back on. Even though Portia had no say in my outfit, it still calms me that what I was put in before is not my Arena outfit.

Portia helps me assemble the outfit; simply trousers, green shirt, a sturdy belt, and a thin hooded black jacket.

"The jacket's designed to reflect body heat. Pretty neat huh?" Portia says, zipping up the jacket.

"Yeah. I guess it's going to be cold then." I say shrewdly.

I lace up the boots, which I hate. They are soft and flexible, not strong and sturdy like my boots at home. Portia steps back and gives me the once over. She smiles.

"All set. Are you comfortable?" she asks. I move around a bit, shaking out my limbs.

I realise with a start that I'm shaking.

"It's fine." I say. An awkward silence falls again, both of us unwilling to talk. I suck in a breath.

"Portia...I...thank you...for everything..." I rasp out. She nods, and embraces me. I hug her back, resting my forehead on her shoulder. I never really had someone like this, who was open to hugs or comfort. So that's where we stand, waiting for my inevitable death I suppose.

My nerves seep into terror as an annoyingly pleasant voice announces the expected.

"You ready?" Portia asks.

"As I'll ever be, I guess." I say. I walk over to the circular metal plate, and firmly place my feet shoulder width a part, facing Portia. I smile reassuringly at her.

Well, I hope it's reassuring.

A glass cylinder slowly lowers down, and Portia seems to panic, contemplating whether or not to say something.

She does.

"I know what your plan is Peeta!" she says, watching the cylinder. I look at her in shock. How does she know?

"And I think you are so-..." But the rest of her words are cut off as the cylinder closes around me. She thinks I'm what? Smart? An idiot? Portia puts a hand up to the glass, and mouths one word at me.

'Brave.'

I place my hand against the glass, and smile at her. I mouth a word back to her.

'Goodbye.'

It seems, with a glass tube separating us, we can come up with a lot more to say than before.

The plate beneath me starts to push me up, and my heart starts to sputter with fear. The pounding in my head is so loud, I'm surprised Portia couldn't hear it from the other side of the glass. Suddenly, I feel open air around me, and my eyes are blinded momentarily by the bright sunlight. There is a strong gust of wind, and the familiar smell of forest hits me. It reminds me so much of District Twelve that it hurts.

Forest. Good. Forest is good. Katniss will be fine.

Claudius Templesmith's legendary announcement booms all around me, making my stomach hurl up to my throat.

"Ladies and gentlemen, let the Seventy-fourth Hunger Games begin!"

Wow. So close! This is by far the longest chapter I have ever written! Thanks to EVERYONE who reviewed;

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PS. IT'S THE GAMES NEXT CHAPTER! I THINK YOU GUYS ARE GONNA LIKE WHAT I'VE GOT IN MIND!

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TMG