a/n: Holy crap. I know it's been months since I updated this story. My attention has been focused on other stories; for those who've been waiting for an update, I'm so sorry for making you wait. This chapter is very long, at least, so I hope it'll be enough to tide the few remaining followers of this story over until I can write the next chapter. I unfortunately don't know when that will be, but I haven't abandoned this story, I promise.

Thank you for being so patient, I really appreciate it!

xi. All I ever learned from love was how to shoot somebody who outdrew you

Katniss stood perfectly still as Cinna put the finishing touches on her costume for the tributes parade in the Opening Ceremony. He ordered her to close her eyes, and when she did, he used the pad of his ring finger to smudge some of her dark eye makeup. Then he stepped back, and her eyes fluttered open. She wasn't used to makeup; all the mascara and eye shadows and liner made her eyelids feel heavy. Cinna smiled at her.

"Perfect," he said, and despite herself, she flashed him a small, tight smile in return. She wanted to continue being her surly, standoffish self, but Cinna was impossible to hate; she had gotten to know him when he dressed her for Snow's dinner on the Victory Tour. She had initially been shocked when she first met him. After having met the trio who made up her prep team, she had expected someone more flashy, more over-the-top, more...vulgar. But Cinna was the most understated person she had seen in the Capitol yet.

He was also the nicest. His presence put her at ease, and she found herself opening up to him more than she would have expected. He was the only one here she had opened up to, and that included Peeta.

She felt a flash of guilt when she thought of Peeta, but a surge of anger and resentment soon followed. She knew she was being irrational—she was the one who had volunteered, after all—but she couldn't help it. Why did he have to make her care about him? Why did he have to get under her skin? She should have known better. This was why she had sworn off love. Prim was the only person she wanted to care about, to take care of, but Katniss had abandoned her; she had left her behind in District 12. What kind of sister was she?

This was Peeta's fault. He couldn't just leave her alone. She could have gone the rest of her life, feigning a romance with him when the cameras called for it but never really feeling anything for him, but he had to worm his way into her heart, making her stupid and reckless. He'd made her forget who the most important person in her life was. She couldn't forgive him for that.

Angry with him, and with herself, she had shut him out that first day on the train; as the train carried her farther and farther from Prim, she had panicked and pushed Peeta away, disappearing into her room to cry until Effie forced her to eat with everyone. Peeta had tried to talk to her, but she gave him the cold shoulder. Everyone had been miserable at that table, even Effie, though she had tried her hardest to initiate conversation among the four of them. Eventually, when she realized how fruitless it was, she had given up and sulked into her blueberry cobbler. After dinner, Katniss had retreated to her room once again for the rest of the night. Peeta had knocked on her door in the middle of the night, quietly begging her to let him in, but she simply ignored him, burying her head under her pillow until he finally gave up. The next day, he hadn't tried to approach her; he'd just watched her miserably every time she'd brush past him. He'd spent most of his time in the communal train car, watching old videos of past games that featured the victors who were selected for the quell. She knew she should study up on her competition, as well, try to prepare herself for the games, but she was being stubborn. She wanted to lock herself in her room and avoid everyone, as if she could stage her own personal protest of the games, of what Snow had done.

But she couldn't avoid everyone forever. And now she was going to be forced to meet all the chosen victors, all the people who wanted to kill her. She tried to keep her face emotionless as Cinna led her to the coliseum where the chariots waited to parade each pair of district tributes before the Capitol audience. Stepping off the elevator, her stomach clenched in dread as she glimpsed the other 23 tributes. They mingled with each other, laughing and carrying on as if they were friends. And she guessed they were. They all knew each other. She was the outsider. What was she doing here? She wasn't a victor. How did she get herself tangled up in this mess? She wanted to dart back into the elevator, but then Cinna was leading her to the District 12 chariot, where Peeta already waited, engaged in a serious conversation with Portia.

When he glanced at her, pain and sorrow flashed through his eyes, and she tried not to react, focusing her stare on Portia instead. Cinna and Portia whispered furtively to each other.

"You two wait here," Portia commanded, and the two of them slinked off, leaving her and Peeta to stand in an uncomfortable silence. Katniss kept her face a mask of indifference, looking anywhere but at him, until her gaze landed on Finnick Odair. The District 4 victor was essentially naked, wearing only a strategically placed fishing net—and he was walking straight toward her. Stiffening, she turned toward Peeta, suddenly desperate to strike up a conversation if it meant Finnick would leave her alone, but when she looked at Peeta, her mouth went dry; she was at a complete loss for words. How do you talk to someone you've been actively avoiding speaking to for days?

His eyes shifted over her shoulder, his eyebrows lifting slightly as Finnick approached. She cringed when she felt his presence behind her, but she didn't turn around.

"It's good to see you again, Peeta," he said over her shoulder, and Peeta nodded, the muscles in his face relaxing some.

"And you, Finnick. A little chilly in here, isn't it?" he asked, his eyebrow quirking humorously, and Katniss flushed at the allusion to the District 4 victor's costume—and what lay beneath.

Finnick laughed dismissively, stepping around Katniss so she was forced to acknowledge his presence. "Oh, Peeta," he said dramatically, clapping a hand down on his shoulder. "The fun you and I could've had together here in the Capitol. It's too bad I didn't see you around sooner."

The corners of Peeta's eyes tightened, and he glanced quickly at her before returning his attention back to Finnick. "I suppose President Snow had other plans for me," he said, smiling darkly. Katniss was confused by their exchange.

Finnick smirked. "I suppose he had other plans for us all in the end." He finally looked at her, his smirk widening. "And Katniss just couldn't stand to miss out, could she?" She glowered at him, but he seemed unfazed, his smile never faltering. "The girl who volunteered. You're kind of freaking me out in that getup. You didn't look this scary the last time you were in the Capitol."

Before she could retort, Peeta spoke up, a wary smile on his face, "You have good reason to be scared, Finnick. You might not want to turn your back on her in the arena."

She narrowed her eyes at him, not sure if he was complimenting her or insulting her. His smile was unnerving, but his eyes were soft.

Finnick feigned an expression of concern. "Well, then. Can't wait to see what all the fuss is about in training." With that, he sauntered away.

Katniss huffed, fixing Peeta with an annoyed glare. "Why did you tell him that?"

He shrugged, his smile dropping. "They should know who they're dealing with. Maybe if you get under their skin now, you can rattle them in the arena."

"Well, I'd rather not have Finnick Odair paying any sort of attention to me in the Training Center," she snapped, crossing her arms over her chest.

Peeta raised an eyebrow. "He's not so bad," he murmured. "I think we might have liked him...in another lifetime."

She shot him a curious glance, but before she could ask him to elaborate, Cinna and Portia returned. Along with Haymitch. She scowled almost instantly; Haymitch had been fairly hostile toward her since the reaping, and she wasn't exactly pleased with him either. Maybe if he had done something to help Peeta, she would not have been forced to volunteer.

"Listen up, you two," Haymitch said, his voice hard. "When you're out there, don't look at anyone. Don't wave. Don't smile. This is serious. You're pissed off about being reaped? Good. Make sure they know it."

Peeta just nodded, but Katniss looked away, muttering, "Works for me."

Haymitch shot her a look. "Yeah, unfriendly and antagonistic. I figured it'd be right up your alley, sweetheart." He wasn't wrong, but his words still made her bristle.

Peeta sighed, clearly frustrated with their quickly disintegrating exchanges. "Is it time to start?" he asked Portia, pointedly changing the conversation, and she nodded, directing him to board the chariot. Katniss followed him, taking a step up behind him, but she was surprised when Peeta turned to help her up. Hesitantly, she accepted his outstretched hand, and she took her place next to him. When he released her hand, she realized how much she missed his steady touch—but the realization only fueled her anger.

"Oh, one more thing," Haymitch said, leaning into the chariot. "I want you two to hold hands. For the entire parade. And try to remember that you like each other."

Her cheeks burned with embarrassment as their mentor stalked away—probably to find some alcohol. Cinna instructed them to turn on their suits, and both she and Peeta pressed the buttons on the inside of their wrists. Instantly, their suits began to glow, yellows and oranges fading into each other like the burning embers of coal. Atop their heads heavy metal crowns smoldered a fiery red. They were stunning. Katniss looked at Peeta, her breath catching in her throat, and she wondered if she looked just as dazzling as he did. The colors of her suit flickered in the blue depths of his eyes as he stared at her, and when he held his hand out to her again, she took it without hesitating. The corners of his mouth twitched slightly, then the two of them faced forward as the horses pulled their chariot through the coliseum doors.

The loop around the coliseum went by like a dream; Katniss was glad she didn't have to pretend to care about these people, play to the crowd. It was easy to remain stoic and aloof, avoiding eye contact, simmering with rage. Her blood rushed in her ears, muffling the screams of the crowd as their chariot circled the stadium. When they rolled past President Snow's section, she could feel his menacing stare. Reflexively, her hand tightened around Peeta's, and he squeezed back.

After the parade, they found themselves squeezed into an elevator with the victors from Three, Five, Seven and Eleven. She didn't know any of them, and she wasn't good with small talk, so she stared at the elevator doors, hoping no one would try to engage her in conversation.

She wasn't that lucky. The female from Seven—Johanna, she thought she recalled—ripped off her tree headdress with a huff as the elevator began its ascent, ruffling her short, spiky hair. "Our stylists are morons," she said of her and her partner, directing the statement toward Katniss and Peeta. "You can't make a tree look good, but they insist on it every fucking year." She eyed their costumes enviously. "I wish we had your stylists."

Luckily, Peeta responded, saving Katniss from having to think on her feet. "We did get pretty lucky. Portia and Cinna are very talented."

"Tell me about it," Johanna said, but then she looked pointedly at Katniss. "That dress Cinna made for you at Snow's mansion? To die for."

Katniss stiffened under Johanna's stare, uncomfortable with the attention. "Uh, yes. He really...knows his fabrics," she said lamely, stepping aside so the District 3 tributes could get off on their floor.

When the doors closed again, Johanna shifted, unzipping her jumpsuit and sliding it down her torso. Katniss' eyes widened as the girl's bare breasts bounced free of the costume, and she quickly averted her eyes when Johanna pushed the clingy jumpsuit down her legs, kicking the offending material into the corner of the elevator. "There, that's better," Johanna declared. Then she just stood there, bare to the world, surrounded by all these other victors, who seemed more or less oblivious to the District 7 woman's state of undress. Only Katniss seemed horrified. Was everyone in the Capitol this flippant? And why was Peeta carrying on a conversation with her like she wasn't just standing there, completely nude? Her mouth thinned into a tight line, her cheeks flushing an angry red, but she kept her eyes narrowed at the doors, trying to tune out their discussion of Peeta's paintings and Johanna's high praises.

Finally, the District 7 tributes exited onto their floor, and when Eleven had cleared the elevator, too, Katniss and Peeta stood in silence. She waited for him to speak first, but he didn't, and as the doors slid open to deposit them on the top floor, jealousy loosened her tongue. "Well, I hope you enjoyed the show," she bit out angrily, breezing past him into their suite.

"What do you mean?" he asked innocently, but the way he said it, she knew he understood what she was asking. She spun around to glare at him, folding her arms over her chest.

"That was a really intense conversation you were having—with Johanna's breasts," she snapped, and the twitch of his mouth and his eyebrow made her temper flare. "Did you like what you saw?"

He sighed. "Honestly? Yes." Her nostrils flared, but he held out his hands defensively. "But I'd rather see yours. I like your breasts much better." This time, her cheeks burned with something other than anger, and she dipped her head. "Katniss—" he started, but his words were cut off by the second elevator dinging open to reveal Haymitch, Effie and all their stylists.

They poured out of the elevator, and Katniss stiffened under Haymitch's stare. She was automatically on the defensive, wondering what she had done wrong this time. "What?" she snapped, and he rolled his eyes.

"I'd ask if you're always this damn prickly, but I know that's a yes," he said drily, but before she could retort, he continued, "Relax, sweetheart. I was going to commend you two on your professionalism this time. I could almost buy that the animosity seeping from you was directed at the Capitol, not your district partner."

She flushed in shame, trying not to look at Peeta. With a sigh, Peeta yanked his crown off, ruffling his hair, and Effie shooed them into the suite. "Let's get ready for dinner! Peeta, dear, let the Avox handle that for you; that's what they're here for, after all," she admonished, motioning to his crown. As he and Katniss turned to head into the suite, Katniss caught a glimpse of the redheaded Avox who had snuck up behind them silently, and she jolted to a stop.

She knew that woman, she was sure of it; but how? And then it hit her: She had seen her in the woods not that long ago, running alongside a boy before they were captured by a Capitol hovercraft, the boy speared on the ground. She'd had no idea what had happened to the girl—until now. Confusion and guilt surged inside her as she gawked at the redhead.

"Oh, my God, it's you," she breathed before she could think, and she saw the faintest flicker of recognition in the Avox's eyes before the woman set her face in a mask of passivity. She remembered her, too, then. Of course, how could she forget? Katniss had been the last person she'd seen as she screamed for help—and she had done nothing to help.

"Do you know her?" Peeta asked quizzically, and she jumped in surprise at the sound of his voice. She realized everyone was looking at her oddly.

"Don't be silly, Katniss—there's no way you could possibly know her," Effie said dismissively, breezing past them. "Avoxes are criminals. She can't talk anyway; she's had her tongue removed."

Katniss blanched, her eyes darting between Effie's retreating back and the Avox. But the Avox ignored her, taking Peeta's crown from him. Embarrassed, Katniss clamped her hand down over her own crown and fled into the suite, barely registering Effie's reminder about dinner as she darted down the hallway to her room. When the door shut behind her, she jerked the crown off her head and threw it across the room, where it thumped against the wall. Then she peeled her jumpsuit off until she was standing naked in her room. Feeling the despair creeping in, she climbed into the shower and clumsily pushed at a few buttons until she found a setting she liked. Under the hot spray of water, she crumbled to the floor, pulling her knees to her chest. She sat there until the water turned cold, then, shivering, she crawled out onto the floor and draped a towel around her body. Once she was dried off, she snuggled into a robe, but she didn't move from the bathroom floor until Effie came to retrieve her for dinner. She would have ignored her, but the insistent rapping on her door grated on her nerves. Reluctantly, Katniss pulled on a pair of lounge pants and a loose T-shirt, braiding her wet hair. She knew her escort would chastise her for her attire, but she didn't care.

Dinner was uncomfortable, and, sure enough, Effie clucked her tongue in disapproval when she saw Katniss' clothing choice. But Katniss ignored her and all attempts at conversation as she pushed the food around her plate. She was too aware of the Avox's presence the entire meal to have much of an appetite. She tried to catch her eye many times, but she didn't know what to say. Or if the Avox even wanted to hear anything she had to say, any excuse she had for not helping her in the woods that day. What was she doing here? Was it just a coincidence that she was chosen as the attendant for the District 12 tributes? Katniss didn't known; she didn't understand a lot of things at that moment.

After dinner was finished, she couldn't retreat to her room fast enough. But she lay in her bed, tossing and turning restlessly. She couldn't shake the memory from that day, the gnawing discomfort prickling at the base of her skull, sinking heavily in her stomach. She needed to talk to someone about it.

Soundlessly, she slipped out of her room and down the hall to Peeta's room. She hesitated at his door, pressing her ear against it; she didn't hear any movement from inside. Was he already asleep? She probably had no right to seek comfort from him, not when she'd been denying him the same the past couple of days. Sighing inwardly, she knocked lightly at first, then a little louder just in case he was asleep. She was just about to retreat when the door slid open, revealing a very disheveled Peeta. His sleep-creased face squinted in confusion. "Katniss?"

She fidgeted under his stare. "Um, sorry. Did I wake you?" she asked nervously, and he rubbed at his eyes.

"I had just fallen asleep, I think."

"Sorry, I'll let you—"

"Are you okay?" he interrupted, the fog of slumber lifting from his eyes as he looked her over, a frown curving his lips down. She tugged on the hem of the ridiculously silky shift dress they'd given her as pajamas.

"I guess so," she murmured. "I just...wanted to talk."

He looked surprised. "You do? Okay...do you want to come in?" he asked, stepping back, and she nodded, following him inside his room. They stood awkwardly in the middle of the room, and she finally sighed.

"I'm sorry. I know I've been—difficult. I just...I don't know how to be here," she said vaguely, not sure she knew how to explain it to herself, let alone him.

"I understand," he murmured, and she didn't know how; she probably didn't deserve his understanding. She'd been nothing short of hostile toward him their entire time in the Capitol, including the train ride.

"And I couldn't sleep, so..." she trailed off, feeling guilty that she had woken him up. She knew how very little he slept as it was. But she already felt better in his presence.

"Do you want to try to...sleep here with me?" he offered, somewhat shyly, and she toyed with her braid before finally nodding. He led her to his bed, climbing in first. She perched on the edge as he lay down, stiffly following suit, and Peeta pulled the covers over them. They lay side by side, not touching, until Peeta cleared his throat. "Do you want me to—?"

"Yes," she answered before she even knew his question, and she was glad the darkness cloaked her mild blush. He scooted closer to her, wrapping an arm around her waist, and, instinctively, she rolled onto her side away from him. He tucked her closer so her back was flush against his chest, and she stifled her sigh of relief. Why had she been avoiding him, avoiding this? She already felt immensely more relaxed, better than she'd felt since getting on the train.

His warm breath tickled the nape of her neck. "Was there something else you wanted to talk about?" he asked quietly. "I appreciate the apology, but you've seemed pretty tense all night—I mean, more so than usual..."

She wasn't sure if that was a joke or not. Chewing on her lip, she burrowed further under the covers. "I just...it's weird, but..." Could she tell Peeta about the Avox here? Was the suite bugged? Probably. But what did it matter now if Snow overheard her story? It didn't. He got them where he wanted them now. What else was there to hide? She sighed. "It was just that Avox..."

"You know her?"

She nodded. "I saw her in the woods one day. When Gale and I were hunting," she explained softly. "She was with a boy. I think—I mean, I know they were running. They weren't from 12, though. They looked like they were from the Capitol. But a hovercraft appeared and—the boy was killed. But they captured her, and then they were gone." She paused for a moment, listening to his breathing. "She saw me, though. She looked right at me and Gale and screamed for us to help her. But I...I know she remembers me. I saw it in her eyes. We didn't help her; we didn't even try to do anything. We just...watched. We were helpless. And scared."

He rubbed her arm comfortingly. "Wow. That's...I'm sorry you had to witness that."

She shrugged. "I just...I feel guilty, I guess..." His hand continued to move up and down her arm, and she closed her eyes at the feel of his palm against her skin.

"Where do you think they were running to?" he asked after a moment, and she blinked her eyes open, realizing how drowsy she suddenly felt.

"I don't know, honestly. I can't imagine they were running to Twelve..." she replied. "But...what's beyond 12?" As far as she knew, it was just woods and Capitol land and then, farther out, the ruins of District 13. But there was nothing there anymore, right? The Capitol insisted that area was still uninhabitable. Wasn't it? She didn't know what to think anymore.

Peeta hummed thoughtfully. "Weird," he mused finally, and she could hear the sleep in his voice. He squeezed her upper arm, then he stilled his hand. "Think you can sleep?" She nodded, her eyes drifting closed again. Unthinkingly, she pulled his arm around her waist, tucking his hand against her stomach, and he just hugged her closer. She was already halfway asleep when he whispered goodnight.

Waking up was difficult. Katniss felt warm and deliciously comfortable, but her eyes fluttered open anyway. Immediately, she became aware of the hard body pressed against her back, and she remembered that she was in Peeta's bed. She realized her shift had ridden up during the night—or maybe he had pushed it up—because it was bunched up around her waist, and his hand was under the material, splayed over her stomach. His palm felt hot against her skin. Snuggling further against him, she froze when she felt his erection press into her backside, and her already warm cheeks heated up some more.

She should be used to it by now, but she still felt like she was way out of her realm of experience when it came to him and sex. Still, the thought of sex with him gave her a little thrill. She shifted her hips experimentally, pressing her back against his groin, and she felt his hand twitch on her stomach. Slowly, she ground her ass into his erection, which grew harder still, and she felt a persistent tug in her center; his breath quickened on her neck, and she knew he was awake. He thrust his hips against her, and she heard him whine almost inaudibly in the back of his throat. His hand trailed up her stomach, his hips moving lazily against her bottom, and when he cupped her bare breast in his large hand, she gasped in delight.

An abrupt knock on his door sent them to opposite sides of the bed, terror stilling both their movements.

"It's time to wake up, Peeta! We've got training today!" Effie called through the door, and when it didn't seem like she was going to burst into his room, they relaxed. Peeta chuckled quietly, and she looked at him. His face was flushed, as was hers, and the sheets were tented around his crotch. He cleared his throat.

"Uh, sorry. Not sure if I was—doing that in my sleep or what..." he said, embarrassed, and she caught her bottom lip between her teeth.

"No—no, it was me," she whispered. His eyes darkened as he looked at her, and she felt herself throb in desire.

"Oh. Well. In that case, I'm not sorry," he drawled, arching an eyebrow, and she looked away, biting back a smile.

"I should probably...get back to my room," she said, sliding out of his bed. When she looked at him, her gaze fell on his still prominent hard-on. "Thanks for letting me stay last night. And...I'm sorry for—that." She waved at his lap, and he shrugged nonchalantly, rubbing the sleep from his eyes.

"It's fine. The sooner you get out of here, though, the sooner I can take care of it."

That made her blush, and she ducked his amused stare. "Right. Well. Have fun." His laughter followed her out of his room.

At breakfast, while Effie prattled on about the schedule for the day, Katniss kept sneaking glances at Peeta across the table. He seemed to be in a better mood than he had been, no doubt because she'd stopped ignoring him. He met her gaze periodically throughout the meal, flashing her small smiles, and she returned them weakly. He must think her crazy, though, the way she kept pushing him away just to pull him back. Sometimes, she wasn't really sure what she wanted, but she knew, above all else, she wanted to get back home to Prim. And that conflicted directly with her longing to be in Peeta's presence, to protect him in the games. How could she protect him and make sure she won? She just couldn't think about it.

Before they left for training, Haymitch demanded their attention. "Listen up, you two: The most important part of the next few days will be to make friends while you're in training." Friends? Katniss was horrified; Peeta shot their mentor a look of confusion. "You trained like a Career, Peeta, so you need to act like one. Make some allies with the other tributes. Chaff and Seeder from Eleven are good people, so are Finnick and Mags from Four. But feel everyone out for yourself, see who you get along with."

"Haymitch..." Peeta started uneasily. "Are you sure that's a good idea? Making allies?" Katniss sure as hell didn't think so. She thought it was a horrible idea. How can you make friends with people you were expected to kill?

"It brought you home the last time, kid," Haymitch said pointedly, and he took a swig from his flask. Katniss guessed his experiment with sobriety was over. "This year is different. You two are at a distinct disadvantage. This people have known each other for years. They're all friends, for the most part. When it comes down to it in the games, who do you think they're gonna choose to help in the games? You, or someone they've mentored alongside for years?"

"Then how can we even compete with that? A couple of days in training with us isn't going to override their friendships with these people. So how do we do that?" Katniss asked, frustrated. Haymitch arched an eyebrow at her.

"Make them like you, sweetheart," he said drily, and her mouth tightened. He looked amused. "But you should probably let Peeta do all the talking if you have any hopes of accomplishing that."

She scowled, but Peeta spoke up for her, "Katniss can be pretty endearing when she wants to be." He smiled boyishly at her, and she dropped her gaze, trying not to flush in embarrassment. Haymitch snorted.

"I'm not talking about what you two do in between the sheets. Not sure you can use that to your advantage in the arena," he said, and, red-faced and sputtering, Katniss threw a breakfast roll at him, which he ducked. Effie screeched at both of them for their lack of decorum, and Portia and Cinna hid their laughter behind their mugs of coffee.

Peeta sighed, but his cheeks were also tinged pink. "If you're quite done ribbing us, Haymitch," he said, standing up. "We should get going."

Haymitch wouldn't let Effie escort them downstairs like she wanted to, so Katniss and Peeta headed down to the training center alone. Her face was still heated, and she had a hard time looking at him as they rode the elevator down.

"He's just teasing you, Katniss," Peeta said quietly. "I know he's abrasive, but it's his way of showing he cares."

She huffed, staring at the doors. "I think I'd rather he didn't care, then," she muttered, then she shot him a look from the corner of her eye. "You didn't—you haven't told him anything about us, have you?"

His eyes widened. "No. I wouldn't—you honestly think I would brag to Haymitch about that kind of stuff or something?" he asked incredulously, and she shifted her weight from one foot to the other.

"I just—I know you two are close, so I didn't know..." she mumbled, playing with her braid.

He sighed, folding his arms over his chest as he leaned against the wall. "I haven't told anyone about us," he replied, his tone dejected, and she chewed on her lip anxiously.

"Look, Peeta...it's not that I'm...ashamed or anything like that," she said haltingly, angling her body to look at him. "I just...like to keep some things private, I guess. I'm not good at talking to people about this kind of stuff."

"I know," he said softly, and she felt bad for her accusation.

"Thank you, though, for sticking up to me to Haymitch," she said, the corner of her mouth curling up slightly. "I know I'm not a very likable person. You don't have to pretend."

He pursed his lips in amusement, shrugging one of his shoulders. "I think you are. But I don't think you need me to stick up for you. I know you can handle yourself." He pushed off the wall when the elevator stopped, the doors sliding open. "Time to make some friends, I guess."

She was glad she didn't have to do this alone; Peeta had a natural ease with people, and he conversed effortlessly with the other tributes as they bounced from station to station, while she struggled to make small talk. She decided to just focus on the tasks at hand, practicing skills she was rusty on, like knot tying. Finnick pestered her at that station, showing off his excellent capabilities with knots, and she wanted to stalk away from him, but Peeta squeezed her hand and asked Finnick for pointers. Katniss didn't understand why Peeta seemed to like the District 4 tribute so much; she found him cocky and mostly revolting, given what she knew of his sexual escapades around the Capitol. But she supposed, if they had to make allies, a Career tribute was good to have around. At least, his district partner Mags was pleasant enough, even if she was hard to understand.

The District 3 tributes, Beetee and Wiress, were also nice and unassuming; she liked that. As they worked on a snare together, the pair informed her and Peeta about their district's industry, technology. She was amazed at some of the inventions the two had created; she was in awe of their intellect, and she felt insignificant in comparison. Her only real skill was nailing a squirrel through the eye with an arrow. But she got a chance to demonstrate her prowess with a bow at the weapons station, shooting down a cluster of fake birds the instructor tossed into the air. The other tributes had stared at her in amazement and stunned disbelief when she turned around, and Peeta grinned proudly at her.

"Well, now I see what you meant at the parade, Peet," Finnick said with an awed whistle.

A few tributes even bartered for a lesson in archery from her with lessons in their own weapon of choice; Johanna demonstrated how to throw an ax, Finnick showed them how to use a trident, and Mags even taught them some of her more challenging knots. The only tributes who didn't seem impressed by Katniss' superior bow and arrows skills were those from districts 1 and 2; she was fine with avoiding them as much as possible, though.

At lunch, she was surprised when they all pushed the tables together to eat with each other. She still felt wholly out of place among this group of victors, and she was used to eating in relative solitude; she kind of wanted to slink off and eat in a corner by herself. But when she saw Johanna sit down beside Peeta, she clenched her jaw and plopped down on his other side. He smiled at her, but she couldn't help but wonder if he was thinking about the District 7 girl's breasts.

"Kitty Kat, I've gotta say," Johanna said, swallowing the food in her mouth. "You don't look like much, but you've really surprised me. Never would've guessed you'd be so lethal behind that doe-eyed, little girl façade."

That was rich, coming from the tribute who'd won her games by pretending to be a weepy, sniveling weakling who cut down her opponents with an ax. "What can I say? I came to win," she challenged forcefully, but Johanna just grinned, glancing between her and Peeta.

"That so?" She slid closer to Peeta, bumping her hip against his. "Well, I'm so sad to hear you won't be making it back home, Peet. Maybe you and I can get some alone time before you eat it in the games, since your girlfriend will be otherwise preoccupied."

His ears turned pink, and he rolled his eyes. Katniss gawked at the older girl's brazenness, and Johanna guffawed at the look on her face. "Relax, Kitty Kat. I have no interest in Lover Boy. Wouldn't want to come between the star-crossed lovers or anything like that," she said, a little too sweetly, and Katniss' face relaxed into a mild scowl. She wondered if this was what it was like to have an older sister; somehow, she couldn't ever imagine taunting Prim in such a manner.

Johanna turned to talk to her district partner Blight, and Peeta rubbed Katniss' thigh under the table. Glaring at her plate, she shoveled some of the mashed potatoes into her mouth. "Johanna was just teasing you," he said lightly.

"Yeah, I'm getting a little sick of everyone 'just teasing' me today," she grumbled after she'd swallowed her mouthful. He shrugged, sopping up some of his gravy with a biscuit.

"If you don't react, they'll stop messing with you," he said, and she shot him an exasperated look. "Just trying to help. You don't grow up with two older brothers without learning a trick or two."

"Well, it's easy for you. You fit in with these people. You're a victor. I'm not even supposed to be here," she said, her voice catching in her throat. He looked at her sadly, swallowing.

"I know...but you've already shown that you fit in; you're as much of a contender as anybody," he said, leaning closer to her to keep his voice low. "After what you did on the bow, I'm pretty sure most of the tributes will be clamoring to be our allies just because of how dangerous you've proven yourself to be."

Maybe that was supposed to be comforting, but she didn't want to think about how dangerous she was—she didn't want to be a danger, to have to kill anyone. Tentatively, she reached under the table and covered his hand with her own. She was trying hard not to think about the fact that, in order for her to win, Peeta would have to die.

Katniss loosened up some the next day in training, talking and interacting with the others a little more readily, but truth be told, she found getting to know the tributes made this harder. How could you be friends with someone and expect to be pitted against them in the games? It was tough enough just worrying about Peeta; suddenly, she wasn't so sure this plan was a good one.

She voiced her concerns to Peeta that night in his room, when he let her into his bed to sleep. He just sighed and hugged her closer. "I know. I know. But...I trust Haymitch. He's never led me wrong before. I have to trust that this is the best plan for us," he said tiredly. She wished she had the same blind faith in their mentor that he seemed to have.

For her private session with the gamemakers, Katniss wasn't entirely too sure what to show them that they hadn't already seen in training. Peeta had gone before her, and as the allotted time ran over, she wondered what he had done in his session; he hadn't told her beforehand, and the gamemakers looked agitated and unsettled by the time she was ushered inside the room. She decided to show off her archery and tree climbing skills, scaling the ropes and structures around the room and shooting arrows at items from up high, on the ground and in mid-run.

She told Haymitch as much when he inquired about their private sessions later over dinner. He seemed pleased with that. Peeta looked a little chagrined when it was his turn to explain what he'd done.

"I, uh...well, I painted a picture of Rue when she was killed in the arena," he said quietly, and Effie gasped in astonishment. The table went silent as everyone stared at him wordlessly until Haymitch groaned.

"Why did you do that?"

Peeta shrugged, shifting in his seat uncomfortably, and he poked at his food with his fork. "I wanted to hold them accountable for her death. They should be reminded of that moment every day, like I am. If I'd had time, I would have painted everyone's deaths."

"Jesus, kid," Haymitch sighed. "I'd say I'm surprised, but I'm not. Sometimes, I'm not sure if you're too smart for your own good or just really fucking stupid."

"Maybe it's both?" he offered in an attempt to lighten the somber mood that had settled over the table. Katniss smiled softly at him. Maybe he was stupid, but she admired his bravado.

They watched the scores afterward. She was baffled when they both received a 12.

"They wanted to paint huge, red targets on your backs," Haymitch explained drolly, swigging his alcoholic beverage as he slumped down on the couch.

"But why me?" Katniss asked, confused. He shrugged.

"Maybe you were just that good. Or maybe Snow thinks that it's both of you that's the problem, not just Peeta."

The blood drained from her face at his words, and Peeta dropped his head into his hands. "Does that mean..." She didn't know what to ask. Did that mean the gamemakers was going to target her in the arena, like he would Peeta? Did that mean she had no chance of coming home from the games alive?

"Don't worry about what it means right now. Get some sleep, and we'll focus on your strategy for the interviews tomorrow."

Katniss stared at herself in the full-length mirror as Cinna adjusted the hairpiece on the side of her head. The skirt of her dress fell to the floor, covered in wispy charcoal black feathers, which rose up the bodice to interlace with white feathers and pearls. The neck of the dress ensconced her neck with more feathers. Her back and her arms were left bare, and her hair was swept into an elegant updo with soft waves and braids; a large black feather headpiece clipped into her hair finished the outfit off.

She wasn't entirely sure how the dress reflected coal, though she thought the smoky colors appeared to make her smolder. "I guess this is a very liberal take on District 12's industry," she joked, and Cinna smirked.

"Yes, you could say that. Something Peeta said a while ago planted a seed of an idea in my head, and this is the result," he said cryptically, but before she could inquire further, he motioned for her to spin. "Turn slowly for me."

She did, and he nodded his approval. "Good. You nervous for your interview?"

The nerves in her stomach raged at the reminder, and, out of reflex, she reached up to play with her braid before she remembered her hair was pulled back. "Yes. I hate talking to people, and I'm upset and angry that I'm here. I really don't know how I'm going to convince anyone they should even consider sponsoring me."

"I think you've already done a lot to convince them," he said. "Peeta did a good job of talking you up in his last games, and ever since then, too. The country loves the two of you together, and it's made even more tragic by the fact that you're both in the games. On top of that, you volunteered to join him; people are obsessed with the idea of the star-crossed lovers doing everything they can to protect the other."

Of course, the country really had no idea how the reaping went down, specifically the fact that Peeta nearly had his head blown off. The footage had been edited after the fact, so all they saw was that he refused to choose his partner, and she stepped up to volunteer. To them, it looked like the ultimate gesture of love—that she was so scared for him, so distraught over being parted from him, she volunteered herself so she could protect him in the games.

It was more romantic and selfless than she knew her real motivations to be. She had been scared for his life, yes, but only because of the gun Thread held to his head; that had been the immediate threat she couldn't ignore, not the games.

"They already love you," Cinna insisted, gently touching her chin to lift her face up to his. "Just be honest when you're on that stage. I don't think you can go wrong there."

She wasn't so sure about that.

When Peeta saw her under the stage as they readied themselves for the interviews, his face lit up. "Wow, you look—wow." But he frowned suddenly, his eyes sweeping up and down her dress.

"What?" she asked, self-consciously smoothing down her bodice. Clearing his throat, he shook his head, but he still looked trouble.

"Nothing. I mean, you look beautiful. You just look—I can't place it exactly. But..." he trailed off, and then realization dawned in his eyes. "You look like a bird. Like a mockingjay. It's the colors, I think."

Frowning, she surveyed the skirt of her dress. The colors were like the markings of a mockingjay. "Maybe. Cinna said he was inspired by something you said a while ago, but I have no idea what exactly."

Peeta sighed, rubbing his chin. "In the first games, Rue compared you to a mockingjay."

"Oh." She still didn't understand why Cinna would want to utilize that imagery for her specifically, but being tied to a symbol of the Capitol's failure—and that was what the mockingjay represented, really—made her uneasy. "Well, I guess we kind of match," she said, gesturing to his outfit. The colors of his suit coordinated with her dress, with charcoal black slacks, jacket and dress shirt, accentuated by a white tie.

He smiled ruefully, reaching out his hand to trail over the feathers on her bodice. "The feathers probably would've looked a little ridiculous on me," he mused.

She smiled, but then it was time to take the stage. Under the blinding lights and before the roaring crowd, Katniss was sure she was going to throw up. She wished she and Peeta weren't the last tributes up to interview; she'd rather just get it over with.

As she sat through all 22 interviews, however, she began to wonder if she was hallucinating. The tributes seemed to be taunting the Capitol and the president, flouncing the rules and blatantly questioning the legality and fairness of the Quarter Quell. She couldn't believe their audacity; even Peeta looked perplexed as the interviews progressed.

Maybe she didn't have to be too concerned about pissing the viewers off, after all. This thought bolstered her confidence, and when it was her turn, she approached Caesar with little concern for what she should say. As the host greeted her, she tried to smile as widely as possible, though she was sure the sentiment wasn't reflected in her eyes.

"Now, Katniss, I must say, I've been looking forward to interviewing you the most," Caesar said, settling back in his chair. "I've only met you once before, and I'm sad to say I hardly know you! What's it been like getting to know all these past victors?"

She blinked, her eyes flitting to some of the tributes who surrounded them on the stage. "Um, overwhelming, I guess. Most of the time I have no idea what I'm doing here."

He grinned, his eyes glinting. "Well, I know what you're doing here. You couldn't bear the thought of losing Peeta, so you volunteered to join him!" Right. Haymitch told her to play up the romance angle. She wondered how much Caesar knew about the reaping; had he seen the unedited version? Katniss nodded uneasily, and Caesar's face softened as he leaned closer. "Tell me, what was going through your mind in that moment?"

The truth was, she wasn't really sure. She had reacted before she could think; that had always been her problem, really. "I..." she stopped, hesitant, and her gaze flickered between his face and the audience. They were watching her anxiously. "I was scared. I was scared he was going to die. I wanted to help him." Thinking about that moment in the square, the absolute terror she felt watching Thread point his gun at Peeta's head, she felt a simmering anger rage inside her, and she gritted her teeth. "And I was angry. Angry for him, angry that he had been put in this position for a second time. It hasn't even been a year since he—since he came back home, and now he has to go back in. It's not fair, it's—"

She had to cut herself off, afraid she was saying too much. Caesar patted her hand reassuringly, his face a mask of sympathy. "It's obvious you care a great deal about him. District 12 hasn't had a volunteer in decades! People admire your guts. And you got a 12 in training! Both of you did! You two are the power couple of the games. For being so new to the games, you two might just possibly dominate."

No, that was exactly why the other tributes were going to target them. She held her tongue, however, and shrugged meekly. "We'll see."

"I've heard from a little birdie that you're a whiz with the bow. Now, you don't have to reveal too much, but can you give us a little hint as to what you're strategy is going to be in the arena?" Caesar asked eagerly.

Katniss swallowed; she had no idea. Her strategy was to stay alive. Get home to Prim. But what about Peeta? What could she say? What could she do? "I'm just...I'm going to fight as hard as I can. For the people I love. And...I'll do what I can in the arena to keep myself...and Peeta alive."

She hoped that was enough.

Caesar concluded the interview, and when she passed Peeta on her way back to her seat, his face looked troubled but determined. She remembered his interview last year, and her stomach knotted slightly in anticipation of what he might say this time. He and Caesar began their usual good-natured banter, but when the questions turned toward Katniss, Peeta's face darkened.

"This must be a tough situation for you and her," Caesar said. "There can only be one victor, after all."

Peeta nodded. "And it's going to be her. She has a family back home that needs her. She's strong, and she's smart. She's going to win, and I'll help her do it."

"Even if it kills you?" Caesar asked lightly, and Peeta nodded.

"Even if." The crowd murmured sadly, some members shrieking for their favorite victor. The tributes before had incited a growing outrage among the audience, who were reacting to the injustice of their beloved victors being forced to fight to the death again, and they seemed to be particularly upset about so-new a victor as Peeta, one who had barely had the time to enjoy his victory, being sent back in—alongside his lover, no less.

Peeta smiled darkly at the crowd, his eyes hooded. "Let's not pretend we don't know what's going to happen. I've accepted my fate; I am prepared to die so Katniss can live. And I will do it gladly. I love her. I have always loved her. I wanted—I spent most of my life envisioning a lifetime with her: We would get married in a private toasting ceremony back home, we would have children—two, maybe, who looked just like her—and we would raise them together, and they would be happy and loved. That's all I ever wanted, Caesar. But...I'm grateful for this past year with her. It was more than I could have hoped for, more than I deserved. It was enough. There is no life for me without her, and that's why I can do this with no hesitation."

The crowd was crying, their shouts a dull roar in the auditorium, but Katniss could barely hear them over the blood rushing in her ears. She stared at Peeta, her mouth parted in disbelief and her eyes round with horror, and she knew she should do a better job reigning in her expression, but she couldn't. She couldn't believe he'd said all that. Was he just playing up their romance? No, his face was too honest, too defeated, and she knew; she knew he meant every word of it. He loved her. He wanted to marry her, to start a family with her.

He wasn't going to get any of that, with her or anyone, because he was planning to die in the arena.

She didn't even realize she was crying until she tasted the saline in her mouth, and she blinked furiously, her tears slipping down her cheeks faster, pooling in the corners of her mouth. Peeta was still talking, and she strained to hear him.

"This is true of all of us, Caesar. Every one of us on this stage is expected to fight someone we care about starting tomorrow; we're expected to let them die, possibly even kill them. And every one of us has people we love, a life back home waiting for us, lives we hope to lead—but it won't happen. It can't happen for all of us. Only one of us will get that chance, the chance to continue living the life they had before the reaping—but after the games, what kind of life will that be, really?"

By the time the interview was over, the audience was on its feet screaming as Peeta made his way back beside her, and she stood up with the rest of the tributes, reaching for his hand. He clasped her hand in his, lacing their fingers together. Her eyes were burning with her tears, blurring her vision, and she looked around wildly. Chaff stood to her right, and he smiled at her and Peeta. Instinctively, she reached for his hand, her fingers grasping at the nub of flesh where his hand used to be. Then, one by one, the tributes clasped their hands together, and there they stood on the stage, united before the Capitol.

It was pandemonium in the auditorium, and they were all rushed off stage and escorted to the elevators. Katniss never let go of Peeta's hand, but no one spoke in the elevator, too stunned by what they had witnessed and been a part of on that stage. Back in their suite on the top floor, Katniss and Peeta found Haymitch and their stylists waiting for them, grim looks on their faces.

"What's going on, Haymitch?" Peeta asked.

"They're rioting; the citizens are in the streets rioting," he said grimly, and both Peeta and Katniss blanched.

"Rioting?" Peeta repeated. "What does that mean? Are they—would they cancel the games?"

Haymitch scoffed. "No, not at this point in the games, I'm afraid. I think it's safe to say this will be the most unpopular games ever, though." Katniss looked at Peeta, the flame of hope flickering in her chest crushed by their mentor's words. "I would try to get some sleep if I were you two." They had just turned away when he called to them again. His face was somber, pinched. "When you're in the arena tomorrow..." he trailed off and shook his head, his jaw tightening as his eyes flickered between the two of them. "Just remember who the real enemy is, okay?"

She was perplexed by his statement, unsure if it was meant to be an insult or some kind of admonishment. A glance at Peeta revealed he was equally confused, but he just nodded, taking her hand. After bidding everyone goodnight, Peeta led her to his room. He paused at the door, turning to face her.

"Do you need to go to your room to get ready for bed?" he asked, but she just shook her head, too afraid to leave his side now. He pulled her inside, and when the door shut behind them, he gently untangled his hand from hers and moved to his dresser. She stood in the middle of the room, watching his back. Turning back around, he pulled up short when he saw her face. "What's wrong?"

She wanted to snort. What wasn't wrong? "Everything is wrong, Peeta. How could you—how could you say those things out there, about me, about us?" she asked, her throat closing just at the thought of what he'd told Caesar, the whole world. He dropped his gaze, clenching in his hand the shirt he'd retrieved from the dresser.

"I'm sorry. It wasn't my intention to make you uncomfortable."

She stared at him incredulously. "Uncomfortable? I'm not uncomfortable. I'm—I'm sad and horrified and angry! How am I supposed to go home, Peeta? How am I supposed to go home now?" she demanded, her voice shaking, and he looked at her in surprise, crossing the room to stand in front of her.

"I—you're gonna be fine," he insisted, touching her arm. "You're fully capable of winning, and you've got two people, essentially, fighting for you to win. And once you get back home, to your family, to Prim...you're gonna be okay."

She just shook her head in despair. He didn't understand. "No. Even if—even if I can win, I don't get to keep you. I don't get to take you home. How is that winning?" He stared at her stupidly, his arm dropping to his side. "If you die, I'll never leave this place. Not really."

He swallowed thickly. "I'm sorry..." he murmured, sweeping a hand over her cheek to catch an errant tear. "I don't know what to say. I'm trying to be realistic about what's going to happen. I just want you to survive, to be happy. Go back and make a life for yourself in whatever way you can."

She didn't know if that was possible without him. He sighed. "Let's get ready for bed, okay?" He unclipped the feather piece from her hair, smoothing down her flyaways, and held the shirt up to her. Her eyes searched his face, his eyes, then she reached behind her and unsnapped the dress from around her neck. She let it go, and the heavy bodice fell away from her body, revealing her breasts to him. Her nipples puckered from both the cold air and the heat of his gaze. Pushing the dress down her hips, she let it billow to the floor and gingerly stepped out of the material that pooled around her feet, sliding out of her heels as well. Then she took the shirt from him and stared at his face. His eyes were clouded with desire, but he loosened his tie, turning away to remove the rest of his suit. Slipping on his undershirt, she let her hair down, collecting the pins in her hand.

Peeta had tugged off his jacket and shirt, and she watched him slide his pants down until he stood before her in just his boxers. When he faced her again, they stared at each other silently before he cleared his throat and gestured to the bathroom. "Do you need to use the bathroom or...?"

Katniss nodded; she wanted to get the layers of makeup off her face, at least. Brushing past him, she shut the door and set the pins on the sink. Then she washed her face, brushed her teeth and used the bathroom. When she emerged, he was perched on the edge of the bed, and he stood up, walking past her into the bathroom. She crawled into his bed, slipping under the covers, and she curled up on her side to face the wall. After a few minutes, Peeta exited the bathroom, turned off the light and slid into bed behind her. His hand settled on her hip, and he pressed against her back.

"I'm sorry," he whispered in the darkness. "I'm not trying to make things harder for you. That's the last thing I want. But I meant what I said out there. I love you, Katniss. I love you. I thought I loved you before, but now...what I feel now, it's so much more. It's killing me that you're here...but all I can promise you is that I'm going to do everything I can to get you back home. I promise you."

She bit her lip, willing the tears away, willing his words away. Prim. She had to think of Prim. Prim was back home. And Prim needed her.

But Peeta was here. And she needed him. She twisted onto her other side so her face was aligned with his. "You're an idiot," she hissed, her voice choked. "I hate you for making me feel these things for you."

And then she was kissing him. It was a hungry, desperate, needy kiss, like the ones the night before the reaping. She opened her mouth wide, and his tongue swept inside to find hers. She gripped his shoulders tightly, and he wrapped his arms around her waist, crushing her against his chest. His warm hands slipped under her shirt, tracing her spine, and she hooked her leg over his hip; his growing erection pressed insistently between her thighs, and they both groaned. His hand trailed down her leg to her knee and back up again, where his fingers slipped under the side of her panties, tugging at them. Then, roughly, he pushed her leg off his hip and yanked her underwear down her legs. She lifted her hips to help him and kicked them off the rest of the way, and he jerked her hips back to his. She gasped when he thrust his erection against her center; even through his boxers, he felt warm. She was wet already.

When his hand slipped between her thighs, she nearly bit his lip off. His fingers stroked her clit, his tongue mimicking the movements in her mouth. She moaned around his tongue, her hips rocking in time with the ministrations of his hand, and when his fingers slipped inside her, she arched against him. Shaking her head to gather her bearings, she pressed on his shoulders to push him onto his back. He stared at her, wide-eyed, as she straddled his waist. In one swift move, she yanked her shirt off over her head and tossed it over the side of the bed. Peeta's hands settled on her thighs, squeezing tightly as he stared lustfully at her breasts. She leaned down to capture his lips with hers again, her nipples grazing his bare chest. Licking the roof of his mouth, she pulled away to press light kisses along his clavicle and his chest. She slid down his body, brushing over his hard-on, and she hooked her fingers under the waistband of his boxers. Katniss pulled his shorts off, sucking her lip into her mouth when his cock sprang free. Once she had his boxers off, she paused, considering his prosthetic. Her fingers skimmed over the metal, trailing over the area where his flesh met the artificial limb. He never took it off around her.

"Do you...can you take this off? Would that be okay?" she asked softly, lifting her questioning eyes to his face. He looked apprehensive, but after a moment, he nodded.

"Yeah, I can take it off," he said, sitting up slightly to unfasten the prosthetic. After he'd sat it down on the floor beside the bed, he glanced at her face as he lay back down. She smiled at him, a gentle smile, and she covered the callused skin with her hand, massaging the leg gingerly, and he closed his eyes with a sigh. Her gaze settled on his cock again, watching it twitch when her fingers dug into his flesh, and she ached in anticipation. Crawling back up his body, she straddled his waist again; the head of his cock brushed against her backside, and his eyelids fluttered open to look at her.

"Is this okay if we—do it like this?" she asked, gesturing vaguely to their position. His eyes darkened in response.

"Yeah, we can do whatever you want," he murmured, his voice gruff.

Shyly, she scooted back so she hovered over his pelvis; they both reached between her legs to grasp his cock in hand, Peeta helping her position him at her entrance. When she felt him pressing into her, she shifted her pelvis and sunk down onto his cock. His gravelly moan punctuated her gasp, and she settled over him, her thighs spread wide around his hips. It only pinched slightly now, and she sighed at the feeling of him stretching her, filling her. After a moment, she looked down to where they were joined.

"I...so how do I do this?" she asked, embarrassed. "What do you want me to do?"

He blinked at her. "I—I don't know. This is new for me," he said with a nervous chuckle. He wiggled his hips some, thrusting up into her. "Ah, just...do whatever feels good for you. I'll like it no matter what."

She braced her hands on his abdomen, and, hesitantly, she began to roll her hips against his. She hissed at the friction on her clit and bore down harder on him, moving faster. Peeta groaned quietly, his hands sliding up her thighs to circle her hips and guide her movements. She exhaled tiny gasps of pleasure, screwing her eyes shut as she rode him. He pushed himself up into a sitting position suddenly, his hand snaking around her neck to pull her into a heated kiss, and he twirled his tongue into her mouth. When she broke away to throw her head back and moan, he lowered his face to her breast, sucking her nipple between his lips. She fisted her hands in his hair, her hips undulating in a frenzied pace.

"Peeta, I..."Her words died in a guttural moan when he tugged on her nipple with his teeth, pleasure spiraling through her core. As she came, her hips bucked against his, and she cried out into the darkness of the room, her hands tugging on his hair. Her movements stilled on top of him after a moment, and, with one more kiss, Peeta stretched back out on the bed beneath her and gripped her ass in his hands. He lifted her up some, then pushed her back down, and he groaned, his head falling back. Dazed, Katniss followed his lead, leveraging herself on her shins to slide his cock in and out of her.

"God, yes, that's—that's...yes," he gasped incoherently, and she moved faster, dipping her head back as her moans echoed around the room. She should probably try to be quieter, but for once she really didn't care if anyone else knew what they were doing. She had bigger concerns at the moment, and her number one priority was enjoying what little time she had left with Peeta.

His hips were rising off the bed now, thrusting up into hers, and his fingers dug so hard into her ass, she was sure he was going to leave marks. "Katniss," he whined, his voice a husky whimper, his hips crashing frantically against hers, and then his eyes popped open. "Up, up—I'm gonna—fuck," he grunted, hurriedly pushing her off so he could grab his cock and angle it up toward his chest, spurting semen across his stomach. She watched in fascination as he came, his cock throbbing in his hand, and he moaned quietly, his face scrunched in ecstasy.

After his orgasm subsided, he released his softening cock and sighed, peering up at her face. "Sorry, I didn't mean to throw you off," he apologized weakly, his mouth pulling into a sheepish grin. She just shook her head, her eyes lingering on the semen that pooled on his stomach. "Uh, just let me clean up..."

She slid off him, letting him up off the bed, and she curled up under the sheets while he cleaned himself off in the bathroom. She watched him as he padded back into the room and crawled back into bed beside her, then she grabbed his arms and forced him on top of her. He blinked in surprise, his mouth parting slightly. She brought her knees up to cradle him between her thighs, and he braced his weight on his forearms. "Let's just...do this all night, okay?" she whispered; his eyes widened, illuminated by the Capitol lights leaking through the windows. "As long as we can. I just...I can't think about anything else right now. Okay?"

His breaths were heavy and hot on her face as he stared down at her. Finally, he nodded slowly. "Okay," he agreed softly, lowering his mouth to capture hers. Once he was hard again, that was where they stayed the rest of the night: wrapped in each other's arms, him moving in and out of her, both tumbling over the brink multiple times. If one of them fell asleep, the other would kiss them awake, slipping into each other again, and again, until it was physically impossible to stay awake any longer.

Her body was equal parts sated and sore the next day, but her mind felt unrested and frayed, despite the minimal sleep they managed to get. No words passed between them when they got up and showered together, helping clean each other. When the stylists came to round them up, she was reluctant to leave his side. He cupped her face in his hands. "I'll see you in there, okay? I'll find you, or you find me first, okay?" he said urgently, and she inhaled deeply before nodding her head. He held her gaze for a long moment, and then he pressed a kiss to her lips, releasing her to follow his stylists. Her own led her to Cinna, where they proceeded to prep her and dress her for the arena. The blue, skin-tight bodysuit clung to her shape and felt practically nonexistent; she was impressed Cinna was able to get it on her at all, considering how badly her limbs were shaking. From fear. From nerves. From sleep-deprivation.

They were largely silent on the hovercraft ride to the Launching Room in the arena. She tried to eat, but everything stuck in her throat, making her stomach roil dangerously. Cinna finally just gave her some water to sip in silence. All she could think about was how she could be dead in less than an hour.

No, she tried to assure herself. She was a fighter. A hunter. She had Peeta on her side. She had no idea what the arena held, but somehow, in her gut, she felt like she wouldn't be one of the firsts to die. She couldn't be. She had Prim to think about. And Peeta.

"I believe in you," Cinna said suddenly, his voice soft but resolute. She looked at him sharply, incredulous relief creasing her face.

"You do?" she asked, feeling small. He gave her a reassuring smile and nodded.

"Yes. Stylists aren't allowed to bet, but if I could, I'd bet on you."

She smiled unconvincingly at him but said nothing more, forcing herself to finish her glass of water—slowly, though, so it wouldn't immediately come back up. Soon, a disembodied voice alerted them that it was time for launch. Cinna helped her onto the circular platform that would lift her into the arena; he squeezed her hand and stepped back. She locked eyes on his face, then, mildly panicked, wondering if his face would be the last face she saw. He nodded his head at her and tapped his chin, signaling for her to lift her head up. Katniss took a deep breath and did just that, right as the cylinder enclosed around her.

And then she was being lifted into darkness.