Chapter 1

Confusion. Pain. Horror. Regret. These are the most powerful emotions racking through me as I painfully make my way to the river. My leg is bleeding profusely, my mind is confused from the tracker jacker venom, and I know I don't have much time until I bleed to death or lose my head completely. I need shelter and security, and fast. As I stumble upon some rocks, I leave a stain of blood across a boulder. I hastily wipe it with my hand, but it only seems useless. I might as well let myself be discovered so one of my opponents can finish me off. The pain would stop, then.

I stumble and fall once, twice, again and again until I can't get up anymore. I'm on the soft muddy bank of the river, near some huge rocks. I just can't go further. This is the place where I will die. Not a bad one altogether. But I won't make it so easy. While I still have some sanity, I hastily scramble around me, gathering mud and weeds and covering my legs. Then I paint my face and arms, camouflaging myself as best I can. Lastly I cover my torso, hair and neck, and I'm done. All that's left for me now are my pain and my colorful nightmares.

When I wake up from a long psychedelic nightmare, during which every single person I love has been tortured to death a dozen times, above all Katniss slowly mangled and stabbed by Cato, I'm only conscious of one thing. Pain. So intense and vivid I want to scream. Maybe Haymitch, seeing my precarious situation, will send me something to cure the wound. Maybe not. We made a pact, after all. I urged him to protect Katniss at all costs, even at my own expense. And now that I saved her for now, I could die in peace, sort of. I know the mud I covered myself with will act as a thick bandage, prolonging my agony. But surely some infection will settle, and I'll be done for very soon. Right. Doesn't matter anymore. I wasn't meant to survive those horrid Games.

The thoughts swirl in my exhausted mind. Memories flashing in front of my closed eyelids. I strain to keep conscious, as my energy fades away. I try to remember the path I took until this moment. When did it start? And suddenly I know when all of it started. When I took the worst decision in my short life. I remember it so clearly now.

It was the night after the private session with the jury, when I got an eight and Katniss an eleven, the best score given for a tribute this year. While our team congratulated Katniss for her outstanding score, I stayed impassive, thinking hard. Now she had just become the primary target for all the tributes, and above all the Careers. I could see Haymitch knew it too. We exchanged a glance, and I saw his question. I nodded. He would go find the Careers' mentors and ask them for me to join them. To protect Katniss as best I could. Worst decision ever.

We had discussed this strategy beforehand. I had found the idea of joining the Careers despicable, revolting, but Haymitch had swept away my reluctance by assuring me that if I joined them, I could undermine their attempts at finding and/or killing the girl I loved. And I'd given in. I had to protect her, I just had to. She means so much to me, my life isn't worth living if she disappears. I know she doesn't share my feelings, but maybe she'll remember me sometimes, when she comes back to District 12. I know she can win, and she will. So I wouldn't die in vain.

As the night slowly settles in, I remember my time with the Careers. The moment I joined them near the Cornucopia after the bloodbath, Cato welcoming me reluctantly, Clove's sneer. I knew they would turn on me at first occasion, but I also knew they needed me. They knew I was in love with Katniss, so they thought I would find her for them. Idiots. Like I was giving away the best thing that happened in my life. Tough luck.

It wasn't an easy cooperation. I had a place among the Careers, but not really with them. I sat and slept at a careful distance from them, especially Cato, who was brutal and feral. A real madman. He was so cruel. I hated myself when I finished off the girl from 8, but at least I did it fast, painlessly. And then we were hounding Katniss. To my intense dismay, she was badly wounded. Burned, by the looks of it. I could only do so much to protect her as night fell. I just wanted some time to come up with a plan to save her. But she was up a tree, wounded and weaponless, and there were five ferocious Careers around me eager to take her down not so nicely.

I stayed awake all night, faking sleep, building up schemes, stealing glances above me to see if she was okay, burning inside at my uselessness. And then, just before dawn, the tracker jacker nest exploded at our feet. I knew it was Katniss, only she was up a tree above us. Even wounded, she had found this means to save herself, the ultimate survivor. I ran for my life, not caring about the Careers behind me, until I could submerge into the lake. Cato, Marvel and the boy from district 3 did the same, and the tracker jackers drowned trying to pursue us. I got hit four times, I think, but I was still in control. I waited until I couldn't hold my breath anymore, and I carefully broke the surface. No tracker jackers alive left.

I hauled myself up the bank of the lake, next to Cato. He was furious, smoldering with rage. Even stung, he wanted nothing but Katniss' head. I couldn't let that happen. So I took off, not caring for the others behind me, and ran flat out to the nest. I outdistanced the Careers, and a good thing it was. Because Katniss was still there next to Glimmer's horrifying body, trying to ready the bow with an arrow she couldn't throw. I urged her on her feet, had her fleeing before I could turn on Cato.

He showed no mercy. I tried to delay him, give Katniss enough time to run away, but I was worried. She had been stung too, and she was obviously in a daze. But I did my best, silently thanking my sparring partner at the swordplay station. Thanks to him, I was able to fight for a good five minutes with Cato. And then he jabbed at my thigh and wounded me. He could've finished me then, but I think he saw it a good reward seeing me left to die a slow and painful death.

As I shiver in my mud cocoon, the sun setting in my left, I hear the anthem played above me. I dimly wonder how many days I spent in my hellish dreamland, and suddenly I'm afraid. Is Katniss alive? Is she okay? Did Cato killed her after all? No, I can't stand it. I have to believe she made it and is okay. Otherwise I can't die in peace, and dying is all that's left for me.

The seal is up in the sky, and then the pictures. The boy from District 3. Cato killed him, I'd bet anything. The boy from District 10. And the seal again. I exhale loudly. She didn't die today. Hoping that I didn't miss her death in my confusion days, I close my eyes and settle myself for a long painful night.

When I wake up, I feel awful. The sun is shining brightly like it's midday. Under my mud blanket I'm shivering, and I'm thirsty. My throat is parched dry. I can feel the fever burning me. With difficulty I scoop a few handfuls of rain water in a hole in the nearest boulder, but it can't staunch my thirst. I arrange my camouflage so I'm totally invisible now, or so I think, and I wait for something to happen. For the fever to burn me, for the bleeding to drain me, for some tribute to find and kill me. But most of all, I'm waiting for Katniss. To just see her one more time. To tell her all these things I never had the nerve to tell her before, when we were back in District 12 with our lives before us. How I regret now not having had the nerve to simply talk to her when I still had the chance!

I doze off most of the afternoon, only to be awaken by the anthem playing loudly. And then I can't believe my eyes: Marvel, the boy from District 1, one of the Careers, is dead! And the small girl from 11, Rue. Seeing her childish face makes me depressed. She didn't deserve such a fate. These Hunger Games are plain horrible. What did the districts do seventy-four years ago to earn such a punishment every single year? Surely the debt has long been paid since then?

I don't remember falling asleep. I don't remember waking the next morning. All is blurring around me, and I'm shivering worse than ever. I can feel the heat consuming me, and I'm ready to bet the fever will win the race of which means will kill me first. I reach around for my small puddle of rain water, but it only contains two handfuls of water. Maybe I'll die of dehydration after all, even if my mud blanket shelters me from the shining sun.

I doze off again, only to be awaken by some loud trumpets. A serious announcement is coming. "Congratulations for the six tributes who are still alive! You've done very well so far!" Claudius Templesmith says joyfully.

But it's for the still fit tributes, obviously, not me. I'm preparing to sink into sleep when the voice says something completely unexpected. "It's my pleasure to announce that this year, there's been a rule change in the Games. Under this brand new rule, both tributes from the same district will be declared winners if they are the last two alive! I repeat, under this new rule,both tributes from the same district will be declared winners if they are the last two alive!"

The booming voice echoes one more time off the rocks, then fades into the setting sun. The news aren't so great for me. If Katniss is alive, and I'm sure she is, she won't have anybody to be declared winner with soon. I'm not getting out of this arena alive. And Haymitch knows it quite well, since he hasn't sent me anything to help me, not even water. So better write myself off sooner than later.

I fall into a stupor. Above me the moon rises and fades and the sun rises again. The world around me is blurry, misty, not quite real anymore. I don't care. Maybe this means I'll die soon. I can't wait. This long agony is plain torture. I wish...

And then I hear a faint whisper. My name. "Peeta. Peeta." Katniss' voice. I couldn't be mistaken. She's looking for me. She's looking for me! I don't dare take my hopes up, but maybe I'll be able to tell her how much I love her. I so want to see her!

As I hear a quiet splashing sound, I muster my last strength. "You here to finish me off, sweetheart?" I want to tell her that it's me, not another tribute, speaking, and with this I know she'll think of Haymitch.

A pause, then her voice rises again, a little louder this time. "Peeta? Where are you? Peeta?"

She can't see me, then. The huntress, fooled by the baking boy frosting cakes. If I wasn't dying, the thought would make me laugh out loud. I can hear her now very close, feel her light tread next to my head. I don't want her to put her dirty boot upon my face. "Well, don't step on me."

She takes a step back, and I finally open my eyes. Her gasp, the look of utter astonishment on her weary face and the pleasure I feel about seeing her are enough to make me laugh.

She gulps, and then takes a deep breath, regaining composure. "Close your eyes again," she says. I oblige. I know she's probably admiring my work. Not bad for an almost dead baker, then.

"I guess all those hours decorating cakes paid off." Her voice is nearer now, but I'm so happy my eyes can't open. The relief at having her at my side is so intense I want to cry, so I fight the tears down. She can't see me weep, nor Panem. Never. I must face death like a strong man. But I smile. "Yes, frosting. The final defence of the dying."

"You're not going to die", she says firmly. I want to laugh again. How silly. Of course I'm going to die.

"Says who?" I exhale. I have to make her understand. I'm not going to survive, period. She can't do anything for me except spend some time with me before I die, which is really all I can ask of her.

"Says me. We're on the same team now, you know."

I finally open my eyes. She's looking at me fiercely, as if ordering me to stay alive by sheer willpower. I don't want my hopes up, but I can take things lightly for her sake, so I try some teasing. "So I heard. Nice of you to find what's left of me."

She dugs in her duffel bag and offers me a water bottle. The cool liquid tastes wonderfully in my dry throat, and I take long gulps.

"Did Cato cut you?" she asks me seriously.

"Left leg. Up high." I sigh.

"Let's get you in the stream, wash you off so I can see what kind of wounds you've got."

Uh-oh. Bad idea. That doesn't sound great right now. All I want is stay in my mud case and wait patiently for my death, preferably with Katniss at my side, holding my hand. But I kind of know the stubborn expression she's wearing right now. Nothing will be able to deter her now. And I really can die in the process, I realize.

I have to make her understand that I really love her, and also keep the romantic pretence for the cameras. So I say "Lean down a minute first. Need to tell you something." She complies, and I murmur in her ear "Remember, we're madly in love, so it's all right to kiss me any time you feel like it."

She's surprised, I think, but she laughs all the same. "Thanks, I'll keep it in mind."

And then the true torture begins. She tugs at me, tries to free me from my muddy gauge, but it's so painful I can't help the tears sliding down my cheeks. I grit my teeth hard, but I can't help moans of pain escaping now and then either. Suddenly she frees me, and all I want is to pass out so I can escape the horrible pain.

She looks apologetic. "Look, Peeta, I'm going to roll you into the stream. It's very shallow here, OK?"

"Excellent", I grunt, half ironic. I know I'm much too heavy for her to carry, but the exertion of this will possibly kill me, not mentioning the fact that I can't swim and am rather terrified of running water where I can drown.

"On three", she says. I brace myself as best I could, ignoring the terror gripping my guts. "One, two, three!"

She has me rolling only once, but it's enough for enormous jolts of pain from my aching thigh to shot throughout all my body, and this time I can't help the cry escaping my lips. It's plain excruciating, and I can't take anymore. One look at Katniss tells me she's decided to stop the torture, and that's a small relief.

"OK, change of plans. I'm not going to put you all the way in."

"No more rolling?" I ask, just to be sure.

"That's all done", she confirms with a half-smile etched on her mesmerizing face. "Let's get you cleaned up. Keep an eye on the woods for me, OK?"

I want to laugh at her silly request. I can barely keep my eyes open, much less survey our surroundings. And she would certainly be alerted by sound long before any sign I could see if we were to be attacked. But I do my best, knowing that I would do all I can to have her back and protect her.

She starts pouring water bottle after water bottle on my body to clear away the mud on me. It takes quite a while, and while I'm grateful the cold water doesn't make me shiver, I know it's the fever running high in me that keeps my body from falling into hypothermia.

At long last she sighs, her eyebrows knitting, concentating on removing my upper clothes, propping me up against a rock and washing the filth away from my hair and face. Feeling her fingers on me is like heaven, and I'm so exhausted the bliss could just send me over the edge of sleep. But then she removes the tracker jacker stings, and that's no fun. But I immediately feel better as she applies chewed leaves on the sting marks, though at first I found the process quite gross.

Then she washes my clothes in the stream. I never realized what an intimate gesture it was. Of course, my mother wouldn't sink so low as washing our things herself, always hiring some Seam woman to do it, so I wouldn't know. But seeing Katniss wash my filthy clothes, the very things that I wore, ran in, fought in, killed in, sweated in, cried in, felt despair and pain in, seems like she's staring at my whole life, my whole being, all of my feelings. Which in a way she does as she's doing her best to help me, even if I can see she's not exactly comfortable with the whole thing.

Then she puts some thick paste on the burn on my chest I sustained while trying to break a fight between Clove and Glimmer over a boiling pan of water. The relief is instantaneous, like the chewed leaves, and I can tell this cream from the Capitol will just work wonders. A gift from Haymitch, maybe. It surely wasn't inside the backpack she grabbed at the Cornucopia so many days ago.

Her face is suddenly much more serious, and I can tell from the way her hand feels my skin that she knows about the fever burning me. She dives into her duffel bag again and hands me small pills. "Swallow these", she orders. I do as I'm told.

"You must be hungry", she says. Weird enough, I didn't realize before I hadn't eaten in who knew how much days. I shake my head, answering honestly. "Not really. It's funny, I haven't been hungry for days."

I watch as she takes out some kind of meat, but just the smell makes my stomach churn unpleasantly, so I turn away in disgust. I hear her beautiful, musical voice next to me again. "Peeta, we need to get some food in you."

"It'll just come right back up", I say, my eyes drooping. I'm so tired, and so in pain I want to pass out. Finally, after rummaging in her backpack yet again, she brings out some slices of dried apple. I don't want to, but she coaxes me into eating them, and I have to admit I can use some food into my drained system.

"Thanks", I say, exhaustion engulfing me at alarming pace. "I'm much better, really. Can I sleep now, Katniss?"

She eyes me warily, looking almost scared for a fraction of a second before regaining her reassuring expression. "Soon. I need to look at your leg first."

Oh my. I don't think it a so great idea, and apparently Katniss isn't all okay with it either. But she and I know she's my only hope, if there is any at all. So she takes a deep breath, gently removes my boots, socks and pants, and then we can assess the damage. A swelled, foul-smelling, evil-looking mess of a gash in my thigh. Raising my gaze, I can see her recoil a little, panic fleeting in her eyes, before she plants herself firmly on her knees at my side, resolution on her face.

"Pretty awful, huh?" I say as matter-of-factly as I can. She gulps, then shrugs, trying to assume a casual stance that is all pretence and zero percent genuine.

"So-so. You should see some of the people they bring my mother from the mines. First thing is to clean it well."

And so she does, pouring more water on my leg, treating the burns and the tracker jacker sting. But the wound worries and unsettles her, it's quite obvious. "Why don't we give it some air and then..." She trails off, utterly destabilized. I pity her. She's a huntress, not a healer.

"And then you'll patch it up?" I ask, coming to her rescue.

"That's right", she acknowledges, looking a little relieved. "In the meantime, you eat these."

She hands me some dried pears, and though they taste like cardboard in my still parched mouth, I obediently swallow them as she washes the rest of my clothes, then dig in her first-aid kit. She comes up empty and looking distressed, but she quickly knits her eyebrows, thinking hard.

"We're going to have to experiment some", she says. I nod in approval. Nothing she'll come up with would make me worse, since I'm already slowly dying.

She chews some leaves again and apply them into the gash. I quickly stop looking at the revolting pus oozing from the wound, and concentrate instead on Katniss. She's pale, her olive skin even almost green, and she looks on the verge of fainting. But she stays at my side nonetheless, of which I'm immensely grateful. She could leave me here after all, since there's no hope for me, and go win the Games alone. But she's here, against her primary instincts, for me. At this moment, I think I've never been so much in love with her in my whole life.

I muster my courage again. "Katniss?" I call her out then mouth, half-kidding, half-serious. "How about that kiss?"

She bursts out laughing, a slight note of hysteria in her laughter, and I think she realizes I know about her wanting to bolt away in terror. So I keep a light tone, I want to make things easier for her. "Something wrong?"

She sighs deeply, a scowl forming on her eyebrows. "I… I'm not good at this", she finally admits. "I'm not my mother. I've no idea what I'm doing and I hate pus."

She groans then, and I shoot a look at the wound. Not a pretty sign at all, but the pain is decreasing a little, and it looks a little bit better already. She changes the leaves, and for an instant I'm afraid she's really going to faint. So I ask playfully again. "How do you hunt?"

She shoots me a dirty look, the green receding on her face. "Trust me. Killing things is much easier than this. Although for all I know, I'm killing you."

She's so wrong, but she still looks ill-at-ease. I don't want her to doubt her kind gesture. "Can you speed it up a little?"

A shadow of a smile flickers on her lips, but she stays focused, looking better now. "No. Shut up and eat your pears."

Again, I do as I'm told while she does her thing with the leaves. The wound is very deep, right to the bone, and I know I won't be going anywhere. I'm a liability to her, but I'm so happy she's here with me! So I let her tend to me, not wanting to spoil my last moments with her.

At last she exhales softly, and I see the pus has stopped oozing. "What next, Dr Everdeen?" I ask lightly, fighting the growing urge to sleep.

"Maybe I'll put some of the burn ointment on it", she answers, frowning in concentation. "I think it helps with infection anyway. And wrap it up?"

I cringe as she applies the cream, pain flaring up again, but soon my thigh is tightly bandaged. I can see her eyeing my underwear with disgust, I know they're quite filthy too. She takes out a small backpack from her duffel bag and hands it to me. "Here, cover yourself with this and I'll wash your shorts."

Oh, that's too tempting! I don't want to miss what fun's left for me. I grin widely at her wary expression. "Oh, I don't care if you see me."

She pouts, looking so ill-at-ease I have to fight back a fit of giggles. "You're just like the rest of my family. I care, all right?"

She turns her back on me, and painfully I wiggle out of my shorts, covering myself and throwing the thing in the stream next to her. That's what I love with Katniss. Even in an arena where she can die in an instant, she remains herself, pure and straight-minded. I wish I had her courage, her certainty. Above all, I wish she will be here until the end.

I feel so good with her at my side. I don't want to spoil things, and I want to keep her talking to me, so I go on teasing her. "You know, you're kind of squeamish for such a lethal person. I wish I'd let you give Haymitch a shower after all."

She finishes the laundry and makes a disgusted face. "What's he sent you so far?" she asks.

"Not a thing", I answer easily. Then I see her guilty expression, and I realize I was right. He chose her. I ask nevertheless, already knowing the answer. "Why, did you get something?"

"Burn medicine", she admits, looking guiltier still. "Oh, and some bread."

I feel a little bit bitter, but mostly I'm relieved. Haymitch is keeping his word. He's doing all he can for Katniss, and that's fine by me. "I always knew you were his favourite."

"Please", she huffs, rolling her eyes as she comes back and settles next to me. "He can't stand being in the same room with me."

"Because you're just alike", I murmur, exhaustion and pain finally winning against my will. I fall into sleep, an easier one as I know she's watching over me. After what feels like ten seconds, she shakes me awake. "Peeta, we've got to go now."

"Go?" I ask uncertainly, still exhausted and shivering from the fever still burning me. "Go where?"

"Away from here", she says, looking carefully around us. I can see she's not at ease being in the open. "Downstream, maybe. Somewhere we can hide you until you're stronger."

I want to snort derisively. Somewhere to snuff it out, more like. But I don't complain as she helps me getting dressed in my much cleaner clothes and then hoists me on my bare feet. I feel dizzy and sick, but I really want to pass out as I try my weight on my injured leg.

"Come on. You can do this", she says gently, supporting most of my weight. I know she's much smaller than me, but she's strong, and she half-carries me in the shallow stream. But my head swims badly, my knees buckle and after about fifty metres it's all I can do not falling headfirst in the running water. She sets me down on the bank, put my head between my knees, gently pats my shoulder, and it helps a little.

But I feel so weak. I'm about to suggest she leaves me here when she asks me if I can get up. I nod, gathering my last bits of strength, and she hauls me on my feet again. We leave the stream, and I can vaguely outline the rocks ahead of us, forming what looks like the entrance to a cave. My sight is blurring fast, I'm panting from the efforts and the pain, but we make it inside.

As I sit on a rock she hastily gathers pine needles and arranges them carpet-like on the floor, and she extracts a sleeping bag from her backpack. Then she helps me in, and I lie down with a groan. I swallow some water she makes me drink, but I'm too tired and nauseated to eat anything.

I want to sleep badly again, but I resist. In a blur, I watch Katniss make a curtain of vines at the mouth of the cave, but she seems dissatisfied with it because she tears it down as soon as she's finished. I want to tell her. I have to tell her, before it's too late. I feel like I don't have much time left.

"Katniss?" I call out. In an instant she's by my side, and she gently pushes my hair away from my eyes. She's so beautiful, and her mesmerizing grey eyes are so worried under her confident attitude. She's everything for me, always have been. And now she's everything I have left. I have to tell her. "Thanks for finding me."

"You would have found me if you could", she says softly, anxiety swirling in her gaze.

"Yes", I acknowledge. "Look, if I don't make it back-"

"Don't talk like that", she cuts me abruptly, looking severe. "I didn't drain all that pus for nothing."

"I know. But just in case I don't-"

Again she cuts me, a fierce expression on her tight features, trying to silence me with her fingers on my lips. "No, Peeta, I don't even want to discuss it."

But I have to tell her, it's too important for me! I'm fading away, I just feel it. She must know! "But I-"

Abruptly she swoops down on me, and she presses her lips on mine. At first I feel only surprise, but then joy erupts in me in a huge geyser. Even if I don't feel well at all, this first kiss tastes like heaven. Her lips are so soft and warm, I don't ever want to break away from her.

But she does, and arranges the sleeping bag around me. "You're not going to die. I forbid it. All right?"

She's bending over me, a silver mist surrounding her, and I feel my eyes shut in spite of myself. I relent before her decided expression. "All right."

I doze off, only to be awaken by another kiss. I'm so surprised my eyes snap open and I feel astonished at first, but then the joy is back. She's sharing some of my feelings, and that's just great. A huge amount of comfort in this terrible ordeal.

She's holding something in her hand, and she shows it to me. "Peeta, look what Haymitch has sent you."

It's some kind of soup. I don't want to eat it, really, even if Haymitch's gesture comforts me, but I don't feel well. I just want to lie down, by Katniss' side, preferably kissing her some more again. But this time she's not taking no for an answer. So I gulp down the broth little bit after little bit, and I even manage to get kissed some more.

As I finally empty the pot, she smiles at me and brushes the tips of her fingers on my burning cheek. For the first time in my life, I feel I'm loved a little, that I'm somebody someone cares for. And that's a wonderful feeling I'll carry to the grave with me.