I don't know how it happens, but Aken manages to avoid getting suspended. Probably because the history teacher is notoriously kind and lenient. Aken does send a few swear words and insults Shane's way before returning to his seat in class, but more students are there before Aken can land any hits on my best friend. Which is good, because I might have ripped his throat out for it.

Unfortunately, our history teacher at District 12's academy has always been ridiculously optimistic and good-natured. I seriously believe there's something wrong with her mind. It's like she thinks everything that breathes is an angel who would never dare to do anything intentionally wrong. At some level, I'm grateful. She doesn't penalize me for running out of class.

But thanks to her, Aken's in the clear.

Not even detention.

Then again, maybe the indent of Shane's knuckles in his face will teach him a lesson. The mark is already turning bright red, although it's hard to see it through the flush of rage that climbs Aken's cheeks.

Aken keeps his eyes locked on me for the remainder of history class. I try to ignore it, but the lesson on the Hunger Games isn't helping me keep my cool. My palms are sweating like crazy. I wipe them off on my jeans and try to pay attention to the steady pattern of the clock.

Tick, tick, tick.

I've lost track of whatever the teacher is saying now, but I'm not sure if that's a good or bad thing. I'll probably figure out whatever I missed tomorrow. I have the rest of the week's Hunger Games lessons to catch up, anyway. That's just great.

Minutes tick slowly by. I do my best to pretend I don't notice Aken staring me down, but I'm all the more acutely aware as time wears on and the brutal history lesson drags forward.

The murders start to blur together into a hideous mosaic, indistinct in its complexity. Just scattered mental flashes of crimson blood, intestines spilling into the dirt, raw flesh caught on camera, unimaginable wounds, infected cuts, inflamed gashes, third degree burns, dried blood caked over mangled limbs, tracker jacker stings oozing green slime, emaciated teenagers, smiling pawns with swords drawn, victims screaming as death relentlessly closes in, some wounded, others crouched in hiding, others lying in wait, still others fleeing like wild animals before a predator – children killing, children killed.

And all the while, the Capitol. Rich delicacies, exquisite architecture, delicate artwork, vibrant colors, ridiculously elaborate fashion, buildings nearly scratching the surface of the peaceful, starblown night sky.

And the people. All their eyes on the television, their hands clutching the limitless dollars that they intend to bet, hearts pounding with exhilaration at the action playing out on the screen: love and death, alliance and betrayal, healing and heartbreak, survival and morality, slaughter and escape, hiding and fighting, fighting, always fighting.

Because this is the Hunger Games. And only one comes out.

The Capitol citizens watch with eagerness and anticipation to see who it will be, all the while living in perfect luxury. Seated on their plush couches, platters of expensive food before them, their silver screens bearing witness to the action.

Safety. The Capitol citizens don't even know how to appreciate it. All attention is on the tributes killing or dying at the Gamemakers' whim.

Children. Only children, some of them. Yes, most are teenagers; the oldest are barely legal adults. Twenty-three will die. Twenty-three lives will be cut short like thread. Twenty-three innocents will lie in their own blood until a hovercraft descends to retrieve the corpses. But not all will die. One will live.

One.

No more, no less.

One victor. One child that is a child no longer, and never again will be. One child that will be haunted by memories and nightmares for weeks, months, years, a lifetime – even after they leave the mindless brutality of the Arena behind.

But hey, it's only a show, right? It's only television, isn't it? Just an onscreen death, not real, not significant, just a piece in the game. Only another cannon shot that splits the air, rattles the earth, and then collapses into silence. Only another fallen tribute.

Name.

Profile picture.

District number.

Capitol anthem.

Darkness.

I swallow, choke back a surge of fresh vomit. I stare at my desk, but I can still feel Aken's glare biting into my back. The promise of hell blazes in his eyes.

The hatred brimming in Aken's black glower, combined with the miserable depravity of our history lesson, creates a sick churning in the pit of my stomach. I wonder what he'll do to me. Wouldn't surprise me if he gave me a few good blows for what Shane's done to his face, just for revenge.

Hey, it's not like I punched him. But it always comes back to that Everdeen girl, doesn't it? Silly girl. She should know better by now. She always takes the blame. She's the one whose parents fought through the darkest flares of hell. And now she has to pay the price. To suffer for all the children her mother and father killed. To watch their blood pour and hear the grisly accounts and know, I was part of this – because my parents were, and I have that legacy to bear.

The Hunger Games.

My legacy.

I was part of this. I condoned this. I ended this (because they ended this,) but what does that mean? It doesn't fix my parents. It doesn't bring the innocents back from where their families buried them, solemn and silent. A price must be paid. A blood ransom.

And I'm paying it.

I'm the first one out of class, dismissed early to make up for what Aken pulled. Shane is on his feet almost immediately, requesting permission to leave with me. Crap. I don't want to talk to him now, of all times. My head feels like there's a tornado inside of it.

I slide my orange backpack over my shoulder, grab my jacket over one arm, and take off as quickly as I can. The door slams behind me, louder than I'd intended.

Shane follows me in earnest, almost dropping his book bag in his haste to catch up. Normally, I'd laugh, but right now my throat feels dry as sawdust.

"Rose!" Shane calls. "Wait!"

I don't wait. Well, I slow down just enough to let him catch up to me without looking like I'm intending that. "You know, you're starting to seem a bit stalker-ish," I retort.

Shane laughs dryly. "Having a tough time?" he asks.

I bite my lip and start walking faster again. "You think, Shane?" I say. "You think?"

He sighs. "Rose–"

"Don't talk to me. Just don't." My throat closes with unshed tears. "I can't take any more people telling me this is just history, that this is no big deal. Just stop telling me I'm fine!"

"Okay, then," says Shane. "I get it. You're not fine."

"I never said that!" I shriek at him, running now.

"But it's true," he tells me.

I sigh. "Okay. It is." I slide to a dead stop and turn to face him, jaw set. I will not cry again. I've made up my mind. "Why does it matter if I'm fine?"

Shane's voice is level, unshaken. Honest. "Because I'm your friend."

"Which is exactly why you shouldn't have to deal with this," I say.

"What if I do care that you're not fine?" Shane's eyes are fixed on mine, intense as always. But something warm is stirring there, something that makes my stomach jump – but not with nausea. It's an unfamiliar sensation, a flutter. A lightness. "What if I want to deal with this?"

I feel my hands clench into defensive fists at my sides. "Nobody cares about me, Shane."

"I do," he says. "I care about you."

He cares about me.

I already knew that, but hearing him say it feels... different. The pounding in my head intensifies. What used to be nausea is becoming a kind of jump. My heart flutters against my ribs.

"Look." I take a slow, deliberate breath. "I'm glad you had my back today with Aken. I don't know what I would have done otherwise. But I just – can't – handle this anymore."

"You're taking the Games hard," Shane says. It's not a question. He already knows the answer.

I shrug. "What did you expect?"

"I don't know," he says. "I just... I hate seeing you like this. It's not like you."

Abruptly, I feel something twist inside me. Sudden anger boils in my chest. "I'm a mess, I know," I snap at him. "Thanks for pointing that out."

"No, that's not it at all," Shane says quickly. "It's... I... it hurts to see you so upset. I can't stand seeing you tear yourself apart over something that was out of your control."

I open my mouth to answer him, but the words don't come. I stare at my sneakers, trying to hide my blush.

It upsets him to see me upset. Again, hearing it out loud feels like a someone throwing a splash of ice water in my face.

I have no friends. Fin's still too young to get this. I can't talk about this with my parents without triggering a break from reality. But Shane is upset to see me like this. Beyond caring. He's upset.

I'm a terrible friend for doing this to him.

He's a fantastic friend for letting me do this to him.

I feel my next breath tremble, vibrate in the back of my throat. I blink, trying to semi-organize my thoughts because all I hear in my mind is hurts to see you so upset, hurts to see you upset, hurts to see you upset.

"Shane... I'm glad you care. This is going to sound pretty awful, but I'm glad this upsets you. But... no one else worries about me. I don't need you to start making this worse by – by trying to fix it."

Shane swallows. He pauses, at a loss for words. "Rose, I'm serious. I can't stand this. There's got to be something I can do, I mean, just something to make this easier –"

I manage a small smile. "You punched Aken in the face."

"That doesn't change anything. Damn it, I probably made everything worse!" Shane bursts out. "I hate him for what he does to you, but he's not the problem. It's the whole awful thing. The whole damned Games!"

He sighs, pain swimming in his eyes. Then he looks right at me, putting one hand on my shoulder, but the funny thing is how although I'd never have put up with that on any other day from any other boy, I don't tell him to let go.

"There's got to be something else I can do," Shane says, his voice low and even.
I shake my head. I try to take a step away from him, but he moves with me, and I can't make myself move his hand. Why? Why don't I want to? Who wouldn't I? My thoughts are muddled. This makes no sense.

"There's absolutely nothing you can do, Shane," I tell him, struggling to keep my voice steady. "Nothing but just watch my back, and... keep being a good friend."

Shane leans in, just enough, ever so slightly closer to me, those warm eyes fixed on my own, and that strong hand placed on my shoulder as though to ward off the pain I've been enduring for days. And I don't move. I can't. I'm frozen and sweating and cold, and I'm shaking a little, and blushing fiercely, and I don't know why. I don't know why.

"A friend," he echoes. But it's the way he says it. Like we're something more than friends, even though that's what we've been since fifth grade.

His hand slides gently up to rest against the back of my neck, soft against my skin. His breath is warm. His other hand settles on my other shoulder, and I realize how close his broad shoulders are to mine, how near I am to the muscles of his chest. But the closeness is safe and comforting in a way it shouldn't be. Like it's always been this way. No, like it was always meant to become this way...

"A friend," I repeat. I sound uncertain, even to myself.

"Always," he says.

And then Shane leans in to kiss me.