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seventy-one

 

Karolina Dean first sees Nico Minoru on the worst day of Nico’s life.

It’s Reaping Day, Karolina’s fourth since she made history at age fourteen: the youngest ever Hunger Games victor. Now she’s a mentor, trying each year with increasing desperation to keep one of District 4’s tributes alive long enough to claim their own victory. 

(She hasn’t succeeded yet.)

On the way to the Capitol with this year’s tributes, she watches the reaping for the other districts. When the broadcast gets to the competitors from District 3 her boy for the year, Topher, scoffs.

“Well, at least we know one district that won’t be any competition.”

But Karolina can’t look away from the girl’s face— Nico, the Capitol representative had called her. She’s small and skinny, sure, not your typical victor material, but there’s something about her expression that makes Karolina think there’s more to her than meets the eye.

(And it doesn’t hurt that with her dark hair and smooth skin and sharp jawline, she’s maybe the most beautiful girl Karolina has ever seen.)

During the Games, even as Karolina is focused on her own tributes, she keeps an eye on Nico, and can’t help but breathe a sigh of relief every night that she’s still alive. At the end of the competition it’s down to Nico and Topher, and Karolina would be lying if she claimed there wasn’t at least part of her hoping for Nico to come out on top. Topher is bloodthirsty and cruel — in other words, the perfect career tribute — and she doesn’t know Nico, but there’s something about her that Karolina is drawn to in a way she’s never felt about any tribute, let alone one from another district.

(She thinks back to Nico’s interview, the night before the Games started. Most of the questions had been centered around how her approach would differ from that of her sister who had been killed in the Games several years earlier, and Nico’s answers had been clipped almost to the point of rudeness. 

Watching her, Karolina had felt a surge of admiration. She herself had never been anything but absolutely fake-delighted to be talking to Caesar Flickerman. Even then, when all twenty-four tributes had still been alive and the field had been wide open, Karolina had sort of hoped hoped Nico would win.)

She looks away from the broadcast when Nico, her face bloody and her limbs shaking, drives a spear through Topher’s chest.

She tries to look as though she’s upset by the outcome.

 

==

 

seventy-two

 

It’s nearly a year before Karolina says a word to Nico.

She sees her in person long before that— Nico passes through District 4 on her victory tour, but there are so many victors in 4 that Karolina never gets close enough in the few hours that Nico is there to interact with her. But even from a distance she can see how uncomfortable Nico is, how awkwardly she behaves under the spotlight.

She sees her again months later, in the two weeks the tributes are at the Capitol, before the Games begin. Nico is a mentor now, but she doesn’t seem to know what she’s doing just yet; at any rate, she seems preoccupied enough with District 3’s tributes that she doesn’t notice Karolina staring at her.

(They pass each other once in the hallway, the day the tributes are scored. It’s in district order, so Nico is escorting her second tribute away from the evaluation room when Karolina brings in her first — Cesar, her favorite of the two — and she’s so preoccupied with giving him a last-minute pep talk that she doesn’t notice Nico until she’s right in front of her. Nico doesn’t even spare Karolina a glance, deep in conversation with her tribute, but Karolina catches the faint scent of jasmine as she passes, and she’s struck with the insane urge to call out to Nico before she shoves it down.

“You okay?” Cesar asks, and Karolina realizes that her pep talk has trailed off.

“Yeah,” Karolina says, forcing a smile as they reach the evaluation room. “Good luck.”)

So Karolina doesn’t get a chance to talk to Nico before the Games. She doesn’t know what she’d even say.

Once the Games start, she’s too busy to think about Nico much. With every year that passes without another victory for District 4, Karolina’s mom gets more and more disapproving. And it’s not like it’s even really Karolina’s fault. She isn’t the district’s only mentor. District 4 has ten other victors, all of whom have more experience, both with coaching tributes and navigating the Capitol’s bureaucracy.

But every year she’s the one that’s blamed, just because her mother, Leslie Dean, happens to be the mayor.

So this year, she works harder than ever to secure sponsors for their tributes. Not that it even matters, since one of them dies even earlier than usual. District 4’s tributes are always strong and prepared for the arena and normally stay alive until the end of the first week at least, but this one doesn’t even make it to the end of day four.

To make matters worse, it’s Cesar. He didn’t stand much of a chance; he was too kind, trying not to kill the girl from 3 when his so-called ally from 2 shot the both of them.

That night, Karolina gets an angry call from her mom.

“Why didn’t you tell him not to hesitate?”

“Because he could really hear me, miles away in the arena,” Karolina retorts. Normally she does her best to be non-confrontational, but there’s something different about today that makes her want to push back.

“What were you doing the week before it started, then? Weren’t you supposed to train him to show no mercy?”

“Isn’t that what your school is for?” Karolina snaps, and hangs up before her mom can respond.

She’s going to pay for that later, she knows. If not in the next few days, then certainly when she gets home and has to live under her mom’s thumb until it’s time for the next Games. But god if it didn’t feel good in the moment. After she ends the call she just sits for a minute, motionless and seething in front of the video monitor, and then abruptly she turns and heads for the elevator.

Over the past few years she’s discovered that the rooftop is always open, and — even better — nearly always deserted.

She doesn’t normally go up, but whenever everything gets too overwhelming it’s the one place in the Capitol she can go to escape, to look out over the shining lights of the city and wish she were anywhere else.

Tonight when she steps out of the elevator and into the crisp night air, she’s so caught up in her own thoughts that it’s a second before she realizes she’s not alone.

There’s a small figure sitting at the end of the roof. They’re facing away and haven’t seen her yet, and Karolina briefly considers retreating back downstairs before they notice her.

She really wants to be alone, tonight.

But then the figure turns enough for Karolina to catch a glimpse of their face, and Karolina recognizes Nico Minoru. For once the air of bored antagonism she usually exudes is absent, and Karolina realizes with a pang that the girl from 3 that died today is the first tribute Nico has ever lost.

Her immediate impulse is to comfort her, but she hesitates. Quite apart from wanting to be alone, Karolina knows that it’s objectively better to keep her distance. Fraternization between districts isn’t discouraged, exactly, but it’s not common, and getting close to Nico could reflect badly on both their districts.

But Nico’s clearly been crying, tear tracks still glistening on her cheeks, and it’s only one night, after all. What harm could it do?

In a split second, Karolina makes the most important decision of her life.

She walks across the roof to sit next to Nico. Nico doesn’t greet her, but she also doesn’t move away; in fact, she doesn’t acknowledge Karolina’s presence at all. They sit side by side in silence for several long minutes, Karolina uncomfortably aware of Nico at her side.

“It never really gets easier,” Karolina finally says.

Nico turns to look at her for the first time. Even disheveled as she is, in sweatpants with red eyes and smudged makeup, she’s beautiful, and Karolina feels a twinge of something, but she shoves it to the side. Right now Nico needs someone sympathetic who can understand what she’s going through.

(Karolina remembers her own first year, fresh off her own victory and convinced it would be easy to guide one of her tributes through the same.

She’d forgotten that every other mentor also knew how to win.)

 

==

 

She goes back to the roof the next night half expecting Nico not to be there, but she turns up after a few minutes as though they had a standing appointment. And she’s there again the night after that, and every night following.

The more time they spend in each other’s company, the more Karolina starts to reconcile the aloof, untouchable victor she’s seen on television with the girl sitting next to her right now, drinking vodka to dull the pain of her second tribute’s death.

Nico is only a year younger than her, but sometimes it feels like more. Because Karolina is used to this, barely nineteen and half numb already. On top of the four years of mentoring, she’d grown up doing this, expecting to go into the arena: she’s been watching footage of old Games year round since she was six years old, and so has everyone around her.

But Nico isn’t like that. She still feels everything so sharply, and Karolina wants nothing more than to wrap her in her arms and shelter her from the world.

Except she may know Nico better now, but she still doesn’t know her that well, so she settles for a tentative hand over Nico’s, and knows she made the right call when Nico laces their fingers together.

“Tell me something about you,” Karolina says after a beat. It’s a completely transparent attempt at a tone shift but Nico gives her a watery smile anyway, the alcohol in her system making her more willing to engage.

“Um, okay. When I was little I wanted to be a witch.”

Karolina laughs. “Like, pointy hat, fly on a broomstick, do magic?”

“Hey, I thought they were cool,” Nico defends. “Who wouldn’t want to be able to do magic?”

“Fair point,” Karolina concedes, still grinning.

“Besides, I didn’t want to wear a pointy hat,” Nico says. “I wanted to be the kind of witch that, like, wore amulets to ward off evil and made healing potions out of forest herbs. I almost poisoned myself when I was six, but my sister found me right before I ate hemlock.”

Her voice wavers as she mentions Amy and Karolina listens patiently, overly aware of Nico’s warm hand in hers.

“Anyway, what about you?” Nico asks. “What did you want to be, before all this?”

“I never really had a ‘before all this,’” Karolina says slowly. “Like, from the second I was old enough to understand what the Hunger Games were I knew I was going to be in them. It never made sense to plan past that, you know?”

Nico exhales heavily, her fingers tightening around Karolina’s.

“That’s fucked up.”

“Yeah,” Karolina says, but she’d made her peace with the idea a long time ago so she doesn’t elaborate.

“Okay, but you’re through the Games,” Nico says, “so what do you want now?”

And Karolina has to bite back the You, I think that rises suddenly to the tip of her tongue because where did that even come from? Instead she shrugs and says “I guess I’m still figuring it out,” and Nico smiles softly at her and even though the air around them is rapidly cooling Karolina is suddenly warm.

 

==

 

After that night, something shifts between them.

It comes in bits and pieces, but Nico starts to open up to her more. Before, they’d done a lot of sitting in companionable silence, but now they start to actually talk. And it’s surprising just how easy Nico is to talk to, how well they get along.

Karolina knows it’s dangerous to get close; any new person she lets into her life is just another chance to be manipulated by the Capitol.

But she’s been lonely for years, and Nico’s face has started to light up when she sees Karolina every night, mirroring the way Karolina herself feels, and Karolina can’t bring herself to give Nico up.

 

==

 

She gets so close, this year.

One of her tributes makes it to the final two, but the Hunger Games doesn’t give you points for coming in second. And it hits Karolina hard, the one-two punch of knowing how disappointed her mom will be layered on top of the fact that a girl she’s spent years training is dead.

The final night of the Games, Karolina escapes from District 4’s suites right after dinner. They’re not leaving until tomorrow, but the actual competition is over and so there’s nothing for 4’s victors to do now except stuff themselves with the Capitol’s best food and bemoan how the game is rigged. She knows it’s way too early for Nico to be there but she can’t stand another minute in the stifling atmosphere of another failure, so she leaves the rest of the victors still at the dinner table and heads up to the roof.

Nico shows up as the sun is beginning to set with a half-empty bottle of wine in each hand. She offers one to Karolina, taking a swig from the other as she sits down next to her.

“Thanks,” Karolina murmurs, not bothering to wipe away the tear she can feel running down her cheek.

“I’m really sorry it ended like that,” Nico says. They can both feel how the words ring hollow, but the hand that Nico offers Karolina is warm and solid and Karolina threads their fingers together and holds on tight.

The more Karolina drinks, the less she thinks about her failures as a mentor and the more she thinks about just how close Nico is, how easy it would be to lean into her.

But that might be crossing some sort of line, so she keeps still. The only movement she allows herself is the careful stroke of her thumb across Nico’s knuckles, back and forth.

The distant sound of a raucous end-of-Games party echoes up to them from the city below, but it’s drowned out by their quiet conversation until Nico starts to feel like the only other real person in the world.

By the time the wine is gone it’s late, the night starting to bleed into early morning, and as much as Karolina wants to stay up here with Nico forever she knows that it’s time to go. She lets go of Nico’s hand to clamber to her feet.

Nico rises a second behind her and she stumbles, and Karolina catches her instinctively.

“Thanks,” Nico grins.

“Anytime,” Karolina breathes.

She’s not going to kiss Nico, but god does she want to.

She lets go quickly, before she can even consider acting on the impulse, and is halfway to the elevator before Nico even realizes she’s moved.

As she elevator slows to a stop on Karolina’s floor, she wraps Nico up in a hug.

“I’m really glad I met you.”

“Me too,” Nico says, hugging her back tightly.

Karolina lets herself sink into it, trying to commit this warm feeling she has around Nico to memory; something to get her through the next eleven months until they see each other again. “See you next year, I guess,” she says as she pulls away.

The doors open, and Karolina should leave but there’s something that keeps her anchored to the spot, her hands still on Nico’s shoulders.

(She wants to kiss her.)

But the doors start to move and she snaps out of it and slides through, turning for a last glimpse of Nico’s face before the doors close between them.

 

==

 

seventy-three

 

The thing is, Karolina has known she’s gay for a while. 

She came to the realization when she was maybe fifteen; somewhere around the fifth boy her mom tried to set her up with. 

Or was it the sixth? It doesn’t matter. She never went on more than one or two dates with any of them.

There had been a girl, when she was sixteen.

Her name was Liv, and she was in some of the training classes Karolina helped run, at Leslie Dean’s feeder school for the Hunger Games. They hung out after class for a few weeks, and one evening Liv kissed her behind one of the warehouses down by the dock.

But someone must have seen, because the next day Liv wasn’t in class, and Karolina checked the roster afterwards to find she’d been removed from the program entirely.

It took Karolina more than a week to track her down, and when she did all Liv would say to her is “we can’t talk anymore.” But Karolina had kept pressing, and eventually Liv mumbled something along the lines of “your mom found out,” avoiding Karolina’s eyes.

Because the other thing is: Karolina still agrees to the dates her mom sets up, avoids any sort of real relationship, because her mom is the only thing standing between her and the whims of the Capitol.

She’d found out after Liv, when she had gone to confront Mayor Dean about meddling in her life and her mom had snapped.

“There’s been a line of Capitol citizens waiting to snap you up since the second you made it out of that arena!” she’d hissed, face inches from Karolina’s. “They still respect me, for now. They still agree when I tell them my daughter is off limits, but that could change at any moment, and I won’t be able to do a goddamn thing about it.”

 Karolina had surpassed her mom in height when she was 13, but that day she’d felt like a kid again, small and cowering under her mom’s furious glare.

“You can date girls, if you’d prefer,” her mom had continued, “but they still need to be suitable. I hope I’ve made the consequences clear if you try and go behind my back on this.”

“Okay,” Karolina had whispered then, afraid of her mom and more afraid of the Capitol.

But now? Knowing Nico makes her wonder if there could be more. It makes her want to risk it.

 Except she could be putting Nico in danger. And she’s only spent a couple of weeks with her, but Karolina already knows that’s the last thing she’d ever want to do.

So she goes on first dates with girls whose names she barely remembers and who she never sees again, because her mom might respect Karolina’s sexuality but she sure as hell doesn’t respect her autonomy, and spends the entirety of every one wishing Nico were across from her instead.

The year passes in a blur: training the tributes-to-be, and doing her best to keep her mom happy, and (in quiet moments, when she lets herself) thinking about Nico, and how long it’ll be until Karolina can see her.

(Except she always feels selfish when she does, because seeing Nico means it’s the Hunger Games again.

And it’s stupid to be thinking about her this much, anyway.)

 

==

 

And then it’s Reaping Day, and the kids whose names are drawn from the bowl are replaced with tall, strong, top-of-their-class-and-excited Career tributes, and Karolina is on a train speeding towards the Capitol.

(Towards Nico.)

As always, the pre-Games week flies by in a whirlwind of sponsorships and alliances and last-minute preparations with barely a moment to breathe. Wherever she goes, Karolina automatically scans the room for Nico; she usually comes up empty, but she catches a glimpse of her a few times. Every time she has to remind herself to not react, even though it’s hard when every muscle in her body wants to run to her. On interview night they actually make eye contact and Karolina can’t stop herself from smiling at her. Over the last year she’d convinced herself that she’d built Nico up in her head because there’s no way anyone could possibly be that pretty, but Nico looks exactly how Karolina remembered. 

The day the Games start, Karolina barely waits to make sure both of District 4’s tributes have survived and settled in for the night before going up to the roof. Nico’s not there yet, but that’s okay— she’s pretty early, after all.

As the minutes tick by, though, she starts to get worried. Maybe their nights together last year didn’t mean to Nico what they did to Karolina. Maybe Nico has started to embrace her role as a mentor, and is spending the night working on strategy — what they’re actually in the Capitol for — instead.

Maybe she’s dating that other victor from 3 — Alex, Karolina thinks — and she’s not coming because she’s with him.

Fifteen minutes pass, and then half an hour, and Nico still isn’t there.

Close to the hour mark, when Karolina is starting to get cold and she’s almost convinced herself Nico isn’t coming at all, the elevator doors open. Karolina is up in a flash, and Nico’s barely made it out of the elevator before Karolina wraps her up in a tight hug.

“I missed you.”

“I missed you too,” Nico says. She holds Karolina tighter, and Karolina presses her face into Nico’s hair and inhales the scent of the Capitol’s expensive jasmine shampoo.

They stay on the roof talking until the sun comes up.

 

==

 

Karolina is walking a dangerous line.

At face value, what she has with Nico is nothing more than friendship. And that’s true, up to a point. Except it’s starting to feel more like a lie with every passing day; over the past two weeks, they’ve been edging towards more.

Five days in, one of Nico’s tributes kills both of Karolina’s and she’s barely even upset about it. (And how fucked up is that?) Because that night Nico offers her words of comfort, and takes her hand, and puts her head on Karolina’s shoulder.

Karolina squeezes Nico's hand, and rests her head on top of Nico’s, and wonders if she’s allowed to be happy.

Another five days after that, Nico’s wonder tribute is dead too.

Nico cries that night. She didn’t cry when the first one died (and Karolina mourns for how numb she’s becoming) but she does now, because it’s the first time one of her tributes actually had sponsors— the first time one of them seemed like they might actually stand a chance.

“Stupid, right,” Nico says, swiping at her eyes and laughing humorlessly.

Karolina shakes her head. She pulls Nico against her and holds her close as she sobs, and tucks Nico’s hair behind her ear and presses a kiss to her temple. Nico is smaller than her, all narrow shoulders and bony elbows where Karolina is muscular. It’s a wonder she won at all, really, but it means that now it’s not hard for Karolina to wrap herself around Nico in a way that feels protective.

When Nico cries herself out she shifts so her head is in Karolina’s lap, and Karolina combs her fingers through Nico’s hair. Gradually Nico’s breathing gets slow and deep, and Karolina stays as still as she can to let her sleep.

This can’t happen this can’t happen this can’t happen.

But maybe it already is; this is the closest, the most intimate Karolina has been with another person ever.

Forcibly she reminds herself why she can’t let this go any further. Her mom may be able to protect her from sale to the highest bidder — and even that gets harder the older she gets — but Karolina’s been warned by other victors about the dangers of getting involved with someone. The second the Capitol finds out, they become a bargaining chip, and Karolina knows that whatever influence Mayor Dean has wouldn’t extend to Nico even if she wanted it to.

And for that matter, there’s no way her mom would approve of Nico. She might very well revoke Karolina’s protection as well, just to teach her a lesson.

So that’s it, then.

She lets herself watch Nico sleep for another minute, memorizing her, then shifts until Nico blinks awake. And she tells herself, as they ride the elevator down together, that she won’t go to the roof anymore.

 

==

 

Her resolve doesn’t even last a day.

(She should have known she couldn’t stay away from Nico for long. Not now that she knows what it’s like to be near her.)

Because the next night it’s only ten minutes past the time they usually meet when Karolina imagines Nico alone on the roof, waiting for her, and without even consciously making a decision she finds herself back in the elevator.

She makes up some excuse about getting tied up in district business when she gets to the roof, and Nico accepts the lie easily, and she takes Karolina’s hand when Karolina sits down next to her, and Karolina is a goner.

It’s selfish, but she can’t help it, really. So she’s going to let herself have Nico like this.

Like this, and nothing more.

 

==

 

The last day of the Games is anticlimactic. Both of 4’s tributes died near the beginning, so all the district’s victors have been pretty checked out since then. No one notices when Karolina steals wine and strawberries from the dinner table, all too wrapped up in their own petty problems.

Nico’s already there when Karolina gets to the roof, a dark outline against the brilliant sunset. Karolina pauses behind her to just look without Nico noticing, and wishes she could freeze time like this.

But Nico chooses that moment to turn, and her face lights up when she sees Karolina, and time goes on. 

Karolina offers Nico the bowl of strawberries as she sits beside her, “Panem’s finest.”

“Thanks, underpaid district laborers,” Nico says around a mouthful of strawberry. “Hey, watch this.”

She chucks the remaining half of her strawberry off the roof.

“Nico,” Karolina admonishes. And it feels nice, like they’re just two delinquents maybe falling for each other, instead of two Capitol pawns with next to no control over their own lives.

The top boomerangs back and hits Nico in the face.

Karolina laughs and then, still caught up in the feeling, says, “Here, you’ve got some,” and before she can think about what she’s doing she reaches up to wipe the juice off Nico’s cheek. Her thumb lingers against Nico’s cheekbone, and her eyes dart from Nico’s lips to her eyes and get caught there a minute before Nico looks away.

“See?” Nico says. “Can’t have any valuable tributes offing themselves before they make it into the arena.”

Just like that, reality comes rushing back in, and Karolina remembers who they are, and what they’re doing. She agrees to Nico’s strawberry-top-throwing contest in a desperate attempt to hold on to some of that earlier warmth, even as the moment shatters.

They each drink half a bottle of wine and press closer into each other as their throws get more and more erratic.

When the bowl and the bottle are both empty Karolina laces her fingers through Nico’s and rests her head on Nico’s shoulder with a sigh. Nico shifts so their bodies settle against each other, and Karolina lets her eyes drift shut.

It’s just starting to get light when Nico wakes her. As Karolina lifts her head from Nico’s shoulder she can feel the pattern of Nico’s sweater where it’s left indents in her cheek and she yawns, rolling her head to work out the kinks in her neck.

“C’mon, sleepyhead,” Nico says, standing and tugging on their still-joined hands to tug Karolina up with her.

Except she doesn’t take a step back when Karolina stumbles upright and into her space and suddenly they’re inches apart. 

Karolina can feel Nico’s breath stutter against her chin, and she knows with utter certainty that if she leaned down right now, Nico would kiss her back.

This can’t happen this can’t happen this can’t happen.

Instead she takes a step back and turns toward the waiting elevator, and pretends not to notice Nico’s soft exhale of disappointment.

 

==

 

seventy-four

 

The year starts out the same as always, with the usual swaggering, confident volunteers stepping forward at Reaping Day, but that’s where the normalcy ends. Because it turns out that District 12 has a volunteer, too; there are never volunteers from the poorer districts, and District 12 is the most downtrodden of them all.

Watching Gert Yorkes step forward when her sister’s name is called, Karolina feels something shift.

The sense of difference around this year only intensifies when they get to the Capitol, because they haven’t been there two hours before Karolina sees Nico again. She’s sitting at a table with some of the other victors, half-paying attention as they talk about strategy, when Nico walks in. Karolina’s breath catches, because Nico is so beautiful and Karolina has missed her so much and she knows that Nico’s “I hit the wrong button on the elevator” excuse is bullshit, knows that Nico just came up here to see her.

And Karolina wishes she were as brave as Nico because she hasn’t stopped thinking about the night they almost kissed since then, and she thinks that if she had a chance to do it again she wouldn’t turn away.

When Chase Stein announces on live broadcast that he’s in love with Gert Yorkes, the blazing desperation on his face resonates somewhere deep inside Karolina, because that’s how she feels when she looks at Nico.

(She runs into Nico afterwards, in the hallway backstage. Technically she’s on a schedule, on her way to debrief with her tributes, but Karolina’s head is still full of Chase’s interview and seeing Nico brings her to a halt.

“Hey.”

“Hi,” Nico replies.

It’s all they can say, for now, because they’re surrounded by a million cameras and someone could walk into the deserted hallway at any moment, but Karolina can’t stop herself from reaching out and trailing her fingertips along Nico’s wrist as they pass each other.

Once she’s out of the hall, she brings her hand up to press her fingers to her mouth and wishes that could be enough.)

 

==

 

Even by Karolina’s standards, the first day of the Games is bad. She’s been so focused on the differences this year that she’d almost forgotten that, to the Capitol, it’s business as usual, and it’s less than twelve hours before one of her tributes is killed.

And everyone she’s ever mentored has died but this one really gets to her, for some reason. 

By the time she gets to the roof she’s a mess, but Nico is already there and even through the fog of self-pity there’s a wave of relief that washes over Karolina at finally getting to be alone with her again. Nico looks exhausted but she reaches out for Karolina anyway, and when Karolina sinks into her arms and clings to her for dear life Nico holds her tightly and presses a kiss to the top of her head and it’s the first time all day that Karolina hasn’t felt off-balance.

“It never gets easier, does it,” Nico murmurs.

Karolina shakes her head, whispers, “I’m just— I’m tired.”

“I know,” Nico says, and her voice is soft and her eyes are softer and before Karolina can stop herself everything she’s kept bottled up since she had to take human lives at fourteen comes spilling out. 

“I’m starting to get it. Why so many old victors are addicts, or alcoholics, or just don’t even bother showing up anymore. They tell you if you can win it’ll be over and you’ll be set for life, but it’s a lie, isn’t it?” 

Her hands are shaking, but she tightens them on Nico’s waist and lets Nico ground her. “If what you did to survive when twenty-three others didn’t doesn’t fuck you up enough, then you have to watch new kids you care about go through exact the same thing, and remember how scared you were and how scared they must be, and then they die. But it’s still not over, because it’ll just happen every year, over and over until all you can think about is everyone you couldn’t save.”

Nico stays quiet through the end of her tirade and Karolina isn’t even sure what she wants her to say. But instead of saying anything Nico just pulls her closer and rests their foreheads together and she’s so fucking perfect, the one good thing Karolina has.

Every cell in Karolina’s body is screaming at her to just say screw it, to lean down and kiss her. And Karolina may be selfish but she’s also terrified of what’ll happen if she screws this up so she just clings tighter, and takes what comfort she can from the warmth of Nico’s body against hers and Nico’s breath on her cheek and Nico’s hand stroking gentle and steady through her hair.

 

==

 

The death rate of this Hunger Games is unusually high; after a week there are only seven tributes left, including Gert Yorkes, Chase Stein, and the remaining tribute from District 4.

The night it gets down to seven Karolina is playing with Nico’s fingers when she breaks their companionable silence.

“I want Gert to win,” she says. “That’s kinda fucked up, right?”

Nico puts her free hand over Karolina’s, stilling her restless movement.

“Yeah. I do too, though.”

She laces her fingers through Karolina’s and brings their joined hands to her mouth to kiss Karolina’s knuckles, and Karolina feels the certainty of her love for Nico settle into her belly and permeate through her limbs like it’s here to stay.

 

==

 

Before she goes to meet with Nico one last time, Karolina finds herself sitting with Victor Mancha, one of the other victors from 4.

(Naming your kid Victor is a little taboo these days, but Victor likes to joke it’s why he won.)

Tonight, he’s uncharacteristically quiet. They’re both still reeling from the events of the day — the Capitol’s rescission of the two-victors offer, Gert and Chase’s last stand, the Games’ abrupt ending.

“What are you thinking?” Karolina finally asks. It’s a loaded question, one she wouldn’t dare ask most of her peers, but Victor is different. Karolina trusts him. He’s the closest to her in age, and doesn’t wear the rose-colored glasses common among victors.

Victor takes a second to respond, looking pensive. “Something bad is going to happen,” he says finally. “Mark my words. They’re going to want revenge for this.”

Later that night, when Nico is sitting curled into Karolina’s side and Karolina is tracing lines across Nico’s palm, Nico asks her about the future, about where the Capitol can possibly go from here.

Karolina thinks about Victor, and his certainty that they’ll want revenge. But she’s so comfortable, here with Nico in this illusory bubble of safety they’ve built for themselves, and so she lies.

“I dunno,” she says. “I guess they’ll just act like that’s how they meant it to go from the beginning.”

After that, Nico gets quiet. As the silence stretches on, the illusion of safety that Karolina was so secure in only a moment ago starts to fade, like even though she’d lied Nico can see right through her. And something about this moment feels like it could be their last chance.

All of Karolina’s self-preservation flies out the window, and she lets herself want.

Nico starts to say something, but Karolina cuts her off because if she waits another second she’s going to lose her nerve, and she cups Nico’s cheek with a confidence she doesn’t feel.

She leans in slowly, and Nico’s eyes get wide, and when Karolina is a hair’s breadth away she pauses. She might have decided she’s willing to risk it but she’s not going to force Nico into the same conclusion.

(Except isn’t it sort of too late, to think they could risk anything more than they already have?)

She needn’t have worried. Nico meets her in the middle, and it’s even better than Karolina could have imagined. Nico’s lips are impossibly soft, and her hand tightens around Karolina’s, and something clicks into place in Karolina’s chest.

Karolina pulls away after a few seconds. “Sorry,” she blurts, because she even though she knows Nico is on the same page she’s suddenly insecure, “I’ve just wanted to do that for a really long time, and after today I— I didn’t know if I’d get the chance.”

The way Nico’s looking at her, she’s not sure Nico heard a word she just said.

“I love you,” Nico says.

Any of Karolina’s lingering nervousness vanishes in an instant, and her smile stretches wide enough to split her face in two. She lets Nico wrap an arm around her to pull her closer, says “I love you too” before their lips meet again.

And Nico kisses her until Karolina forgets the bleakness of their situation, forgets the persistent feeling that something bad is going to happen, forgets everything but the feel of Nico’s hands on her hips and Nico’s mouth on her neck and the way Nico breathes I love you into her skin every time they part for air and Nico, Nico, Nico.

(Karolina gets back to her room only a few hours before her train leaves for District 4 but she doesn’t get any sleep anyway. She lies awake in bed replaying every kiss, every touch; she commits every detail to memory, and knows she’s going to remember this night for the rest of her life.)

 

==

 

seventy-five

 

Karolina learns about the Quarter Quell even before President Jonah’s announcement, because of course it was bullshit that “the founders of the Games came up with this seventy-five years ago” or whatever the Capitol line their representatives are parroting is. It’s obvious that the Quells are strategically placed to squash any sort of rebellion and show that those in power can do whatever they want when one comes up.

Right now, the rebellion is about Gert Yorkes, and what better way to get rid of her easily and conveniently than to send her back into the arena?

It turns out that Victor was Karolina’s favorite for a reason. It’s from him that she learns about the continued existence of District 13 and the rebellion and everything that comes with it. He concludes turning Karolina’s world upside down by telling her that even if he doesn’t get picked he’s going to volunteer, to keep Gert safe, and he understands if she can’t but hopes she’ll do the same.

But it doesn’t even matter— even though she only had a 20 percent chance of being picked, her name comes out of the bowl for the second time in her life, and she’s going back to the arena.

And everything may be fucked up, but Karolina’s heart beats steadily faster the whole way to the Capitol, because every bump of the train on the tracks is one closer to Nico— Nico, who’s a tribute again, too.

She hasn’t stopped thinking about her since they saw each other last. Really, she’s only gotten through the past year on the thought of seeing Nico again. She’d returned home to an oppressive aura of disappointment, because the tributes last year did the worst they have in a while. Between that, and the prospect of having to go back into the arena, and the comment her mom had made when she got chosen, “Maybe you’ll have the right incentive to bring home another victory, now that it’s your neck on the line,” it all threatened to crush her, sometimes. And when it did, Karolina thought of Nico.

More than once over the past few weeks Karolina has regretted not just running, the second she found out about the Quarter Quell. Maybe she could have gotten a message to Nico and escaped, and maybe they could have met up outside the district fences and fled to District 13, and maybe that would be enough to finally let them just be together.

(Even though that wouldn’t have worked at all, because the only refugees that ever make it to 13 are those from outer districts, where the fences are weak and the Peacekeepers are underequipped and there’s less distance to travel. They wouldn’t have made it ten miles before getting picked up, but Karolina thinks it might have been worth it for even a chance at a life with Nico.)

 

==

 

They aren’t able to meet the first night. It’s the opening ceremony and they’re watched so closely that Karolina avoids even looking at Nico, and they get back so late that there’s no time to go to the roof.

(But Karolina dared to glance in Nico’s direction a few times during the ceremony, long enough to see Nico wearing something long and silver that accentuated her natural beauty enough that Karolina’s chest hurt to look at her.)

The second day, they pass each other once during training. They make eye contact and Karolina wants to run into Nico’s arms, but she channels her want into focus and instead throws a spear dead through the heart of the practice dummy in front of her.

That night, finally, they have time. 

Nico’s already on the roof by the time Karolina gets there, and they all but sprint towards each other. Nico crashes into Karolina hard enough that all the breath leaves Karolina’s lungs (though that might just be the result of finally having Nico in her arms again), and Karolina hugs Nico tight enough that she lifts her off the ground.

She feels Nico’s legs wrap around her waist, so that she’s supporting all of Nico’s weight and Nico has to lean down to kiss her. It’s a new angle but it’s a good one, and as Nico cradles Karolina’s face between her hands and kisses her again and again Karolina’s legs start to give out. She sinks to the ground with Nico in her lap, and now that she’s no longer holding Nico up her hands are free to roam up Nico’s back and through her hair and down her sides before they settle, one curled on Nico’s hip and the other between her shoulder blades.

They still haven’t said a word to each other, too wrapped up in getting as close as they possibly can, but gradually the desperate urgency fades enough that they can pull away to breathe. Nico rests her forehead against Karolina’s and Karolina tips her face up so that she can feel Nico’s whispered “I missed you” against her lips.

“I missed you too,” Karolina says. “I never stopped thinking about you. I love you.”

“Me too,” Nico says.

“Which part?”

“All of it.”

Karolina grins, craning her face up so she can press her mouth to Nico’s again. It starts out chaste, the two of them smiling too much to kiss properly, but then Nico moans when Karolina’s teeth catch on her lip and her fingers press into Karolina’s jaw, changing the angle to deepen the kiss, and Nico licks firmly into her mouth and Karolina doesn’t know how she could possibly have gone a year without this.

 

==

 

The sense of urgency from their first night never goes away; as Karolina goes through the motions of training or sits with Victor trying to figure out how to keep Gert alive when they can’t be seen coordinating with anyone from other districts, a corner of her mind is always thinking about Nico, and how long until she can see her again.

They’re starting to get reckless, going up to the roof earlier than they used to, but it sort of doesn’t matter anyway. One way or another, this is the last time they’ll ever be in the Capitol like this, and Karolina wants to know Nico, the feel of her mouth and the sounds she makes when Karolina kisses down her neck, sure, but also who she is, everything about her past and her family and what she used to want in life before all this happened to them.

She wants to cram the entire life they should have had together into a week.

 

==

 

But as much as Karolina wants to lose herself in the joy of finally, finally being with Nico again, she’s been a tribute too long to put the Capitol out of her mind completely. Because if the Capitol didn’t know about them before then surely they must now, and even though it’s easy to forget her paranoia when Nico’s body is wrapped around her own, she needs to tell her. No matter if it ruins everything they have.

So she does, pulls away from Nico’s greeting kiss one night halfway through the week and says, “Wait.”

Nico pauses, her hand still on Karolina’s hip.

Karolina fights against the urge to lean back into Nico and takes a step back, so that Nico’s hand falls to her side. “Maybe we shouldn’t do this anymore,” she says, and immediately feels awful at the upset confusion on Nico’s face.

“What?” Nico manages.

“I think they know,” Karolina says, and she doesn’t have to clarify but if she doesn’t keep talking her throat is going to close up and she won’t be able to breathe. “The Capitol, I mean. They know, and they’re going to use it against us.”

“That’s it?” Nico asks, and now the disbelief in her voice is tinged with anger. “That’s why you want to stop?”

“Isn’t that enough?” Karolina says. “We’re about to go into a murder arena that they control. Any bit of leverage they have over us matters.”

“What if I don’t care,” Nico says, and even though her sentiment matches Karolina’s own feelings the words send a shock through her. Her whole life has been defined by the idea that everything she does, every move she makes, should revolve around the Hunger Games, and yet here Nico is, brazenly defying that very idea.

Nico steps back into Karolina’s space, tugs her closer with hands on her waist, and Karolina lets her.

“I don’t care,” she repeats fiercely. “I love you, and we’ll probably both be dead in a week no matter what we do. Shouldn’t we make the most of our time now?”

“I love you, too,” Karolina whispers, and she can’t think of another argument for why they should stop and doesn’t particularly want to try. So she doesn’t, and instead rests her palm against Nico’s cheek and leans their foreheads together.

When Nico tilts up to kiss her Karolina sinks into it, and it’s not enough but it’s what they have.

 

==

 

Before Karolina knows it their stolen week is up, and it’s the night before the Games.

Interview night. 

Karolina doesn’t care for it but it’s the reason she won the first time around. Her fourteen-year-old self charmed every rich potential donor that laid eyes on her and they showered her with help, so that even though she wasn’t the strongest or the fastest she was the one everyone wanted to see win, and so she did.

Tonight she waits in the wings for her turn, watches as Nico walks across the stage towards Caesar.

Nico’s dress is dark, lace curving up her throat even as it leaves her shoulders bare, and Karolina wants to kiss the black lipstick off her mouth.

The beginning of the interview goes as expected, but halfway in Caesar asks a question that Karolina would be lying if she said she didn’t see coming but that clearly takes Nico off guard.

“Trusted sources tell me you’re dating Karolina Dean. How do you think your relationship will affect your approach to the Games this year, given that you’ll be competing against each other?”

Nico, bless her heart, does her best, but it’s hard when Caesar plays a supercut of their stolen moments for all of Panem to see, splashed across the giant screen behind them. Even Karolina, completely hidden from view in the wings, shifts uncomfortably. She can only imagine how Nico feels under the bright lights on stage, watching the two of them kiss in high definition.

(The frames where they aren’t kissing are almost worse, even, because it’s so obvious how in love they are, written plainly across their faces when they think no one is watching, and Karolina feels so stupid for pretending that no one was.)

And thank god Nico’s interview ends before Caesar can ask any more questions. Karolina knows it’s only a brief reprieve because he’s saving them all for her, but at least she has the duration of Alex Wilder’s interview to compose herself, willing the flush out of her cheeks, and she thinks she’s just about managed it when her name is called.

She settles in front of Caesar with a warm smile and this, at least, she knows, this kowtowing to the Capitol’s every whim in an attempt to make them love her. And she knows that a lot of them already do so she plays that up, fielding Caesar’s generic questions with ease.

He pauses and she knows what’s coming, forces herself to relax the hands that want to curl into fists and keep the bland smile plastered onto her face when he asks her about the love the Capitol has invaded. She makes it through the first couple okay, at least refraining from punching Caesar in the face when he says Nico’s name.

He asks his final question and she knows that Nico is watching so for once Karolina drops her guard, allows herself to respond from the heart.

“Will your feelings change anything about the way you compete?”

Karolina swallows hard, her palms sweaty in her lap. She imagines she’s speaking only to Nico when she answers, “I’m going to do my best to make sure Nico is the one to make it out alive.”

 

==

 

That night when Karolina gets back from her interview she changes quickly, and starts to put a coat on over her flannel in preparation for meeting Nico one last time when she hesitates, one arm through the sleeve. Because it’s their last time, and everyone knows now so they don’t really need to sneak around anymore, and Nico looked so fucking beautiful tonight and Karolina wants her so fucking badly.

She hangs her coat back up, and when she passes the lounge closest to the elevators she sees Victor alone, lost in thought, and something makes her pause.

He looks up when she enters, continuing to peel the orange he’s holding.

“Going to see Nico?”

Karolina nods.

“Try not to get back too late. Tomorrow’s an important day.”

“I know.”

There’s a pause, during which Victor splits his newly-peeled orange in half.

“You really love her,” he says.

“Yeah,” Karolina says simply.

“I don’t need to tell you how dangerous that is.”

“All my life, I’ve been the perfect tribute,” Karolina says. “Mayor’s daughter, top of my class. Youngest victor ever.” She smiles bitterly. “She’s the first person who’s ever made me feel like more than that.”

Victor offers Karolina a slice of orange, and eats it himself when she shakes her head.

“I watched you,” he says, “after you won. Youngest victor ever, like you said— surrounded by adults who all won at eighteen, can’t have been easy. And those first few years, you seemed so lost. I honestly wasn’t sure how long you were going to last, before something happened. But then you started to come into yourself, like you finally cared. I thought it was just that you were growing up, and the kids you weren’t mentoring weren’t older than you anymore. But thinking back, the change started the year after she won. I guess it makes sense, that you would throw everything away for her.”

“She’s worth it,” Karolina says softly. “Bye, Victor. See you tomorrow.”

Somehow, talking to Victor has made her more sure of her next course of action, and when she gets to the elevator she hits the down arrow.

Her heart is pounding when she steps out at Nico’s floor, and she realizes she doesn’t know where Nico’s room is. She’s never even been to this floor before. Just as she’s about to start knocking on random doors one of them opens and Alex Wilder walks out, stopping abruptly when he sees Karolina standing there.

“Um,” Karolina says.

“Second door on the left,” Alex replies with a sort of sad smile, like he knows why she’s here (of course he knows why she’s here, all of Panem knows after that video).

“Thanks,” Karolina says, and she waits awkwardly until Alex has gone back into his room before she continues to the correct door and knocks.

Nico opens it and she’s wearing her usual sweater, clearly planning to meet on the roof, and Karolina is suddenly unsure.

(Is this at all appropriate, and she’s never done this before and what if she’s bad at it, and maybe this was a bad idea and she can just leave and pretend this never happened and meet Nico up on the roof in ten minutes.)

“Hey,” Nico whispers.

Her expression shifts quickly from surprise to something darker, and Karolina’s throat is closing up but she manages to choke out, “Nico.”

Nico reaches out for Karolina, pulling her through the doorway and guiding their lips together even before the door shuts. Once it does she pins Karolina up against it, and Karolina’s hand finds the soft bare skin of Nico’s hip under her sweater. She bites at Nico’s lip and Nico moans, and insistent fingers in Karolina’s hair angle her chin upward to expose her neck, and Karolina’s head falls back against the door as Nico kisses down her throat. She can feel marks forming where Nico’s lips were but Nico is already continuing down, and her mouth and then her hands find the first button of Karolina’s shirt.

Karolina presses her to keep going when Nico pauses, putting her own hands over Nico’s to guide her through the buttons, and she’s burning up with the heat of Nico against her. But there’s no relief even when Nico finally gets her shirt open because Nico is looking at her like she wants to devour her, and Karolina’s hands fell off Nico’s sides when Nico was undressing her so while Nico presses kisses to the newly exposed skin of her chest Karolina slips her shirt the rest of the way off and then reaches out to pull off Nico’s sweater.

Nico is only wearing a bra underneath and so when Karolina drops the garment on the floor she’s free to put her hands on the warm skin over Nico’s ribs and grip her tight enough to press her back towards her bed and then across it. Nico crawls backwards until she presses up against the pillows and then Karolina is above her, her mouth on Nico’s jaw and her thigh between Nico’s legs.

And this time she’s the one that pauses, her hands at the waistband of Nico’s leggings, and it’s Nico who puts a hand over her trembling one and urges her lower.

And Nico gasps against Karolina’s neck and arches up into her, and Karolina loves her.

 

==

 

Later, when Karolina hasn’t yet been able to make herself leave the warm comfort of Nico’s bed and she’s on her back with an arm around Nico’s shoulders and Nico curled into her side, she says, “I’m sorry.”

Nico looks quizzically at her and she clarifies. “I should have made us stop a long time ago, so you didn’t have to go through that interview.”

Nico’s face softens, her fingers absently tracing the line of hickeys she’d left along Karolina’s collarbone. She says, “It’s okay. I knew what we were getting into, what could happen. And it wouldn’t have stopped those questions tonight.”

“But maybe there wouldn’t have been that video,” Karolina counters.

“You tried to make us stop, remember?” Nico says. “I didn’t let you, I didn’t want to. Besides, getting outed the way we did wasn’t all bad. I get the feeling we wouldn’t have— tonight wouldn’t have ended the way it did, otherwise.”

Karolina blushes, hiding her smile in Nico’s hair before she presses a kiss to her forehead.

For a while after that they’re quiet, savoring the feeling of getting to hold each other one last time.

And then Nico says, “I don’t want to die.”

Karolina’s heart aches at her words. She knows the plan is really just about Gert, and District 13 is half expecting the rest of them to die in the process of getting her to safety, but dammit she doesn’t want Nico to die either so she says, “I won’t let you,” as if she’s ever had any say in the matter.

But Nico follows it up with “I don’t want you to die either,” and Karolina almost breaks. She can’t promise that, because there’s just something that makes her feel like she’s not going to get out of this alive.

So she avoids the issue by kissing Nico, hard and drawn out and more than a little desperate. She tries to memorize her, the way she tastes and smells and the soft noise she makes in the back of her throat when Karolina’s nails dig into her neck, and Nico kisses her back like she understands what Karolina is trying to say.

And when Nico falls asleep Karolina slips out from under her, pulls her clothes back on, and pauses in the doorway for one last look at the love of her life before she leaves Nico behind forever.

 

==

 

The next morning passes in a haze of last-minute preparations and stylists and frantic whispers from Victor as they’re herded onto the transport ship. It feels like they’ve only just left when it lands, and he and Karolina are ushered off the ship and onto their respective platforms.

They rise into the arena, and it finally hits Karolina that this is she’s going back, that this is real, and she suddenly wants to throw up. But she’s been trained her whole life for this so she keeps her head held high and emerges in the middle of a lake. The cornucopia behind her is full of weapons, and even from across the water Karolina can tell there are no survival supplies; they need to get Gert out fast. She’s just started to get her bearings when she sees Nico across from her, and their eyes meet as the countdown begins and Karolina has never hated the Capitol more than she does in this moment.

Three

Two

One

The buzzer goes off and Karolina dives into the water, swimming towards shore as though her life depends on it.

Which, really, it does.

She’s barely dragged herself onto the sand when a woman is on her with a scimitar.

The woman slashes down and Karolina rolls away, so the blade slices open her shirt and grazes her shoulder instead of going into her chest. Karolina jumps to her feet before the woman can swing again, backpedaling towards the pile of weapons behind her. She trips over a long knife, snatching it up in time to parry the next blow.

This woman is fast but she’s in her thirties and it’s been years since she won. Karolina, meanwhile, has been doing the exercises with the kids she’s been training since her own victory, and it’s less than a minute of circling each other before Karolina finds her opening. She darts around the woman’s outstretched arm as she swings again, and her knife finds the center of the woman’s chest.

Karolina winces when the blade tears through skin and muscle and hits bone but she’s already turning to find the next threat by the time the cannon sounds the woman’s death. She doesn’t find anything immediately pressing, but she also doesn’t see anyone she’s supposed to be keeping track of, no Gert or Chase.

(No Nico.)

A quick glance across the bodies strewn across the ground through the last vestiges of fighting around the cornucopia tells her they haven’t died, at least.

She doesn’t know what she would have done if Nico had been among them, if she were dead already. Because she might have made her peace with their inevitable tragic ending when she left Nico’s bed last night, but seeing her at the start of the Games just now reignited an ember in her chest, a tiny flicker of hope that lets her want.

So she runs into the forest by herself, her only goal for the moment to stay alive long enough to see Nico again. 

The cannon goes off twice more that afternoon, but both are early enough that Karolina can convince herself it’s the people still on the beach, and Nico and Gert and the others are okay. 

She camps for the night in a tree, hidden in the foliage twenty feet up and secured as best she can against the trunk, and manages to get a few hours of sleep thinking about last night with Nico instead of this one without her.

She leaves early the next morning. The general plan, in case they all got, separated was to meet back at the cornucopia at noon on the second day. It’s still far too early for that but Karolina doesn’t think she can take sitting in the tree without knowing what happened to Nico and the others for much longer, so she might as well start moving.

After an hour or two of walking with no particular destination she hears movement in the bush. Karolina tenses, but if she squints the outline she can make out through the foliage looks like Victor and so she stays where she is, gripping the handle of the knife hanging from her belt.

Sure enough, the trees part and Victor emerges, with Tristan, District 10’s tribute, a step behind him. 

“Thank god,” Victor says, resheathing the long knife at his side, and Karolina relaxes her grip on her own.

She keeps walking, now with them, and it’s quiet until it’s not.

A gong sounds four times, different than the tribute death cannon, and suddenly there’s growling behind them. At least eight mutts, the giant mutant dogs genetically engineered by the Capitol to be as bloodthirsty as possible, burst out of the trees, and Karolina’s fight-or-flight response settles quickly on flight. She takes off in a dead sprint and can only hope that the crashing through the bushes behind her is Tristan and Victor, because she’s focused only on getting as far away as fast as possible.

They’ve almost made it to the beach, the trees growing thinner (and Karolina’s lungs feel like they’re going to burst out of her chest from running, and she’s not sure what’s going to happen once they get there anyway, how they can possibly survive this one), when there’s a yell to her left, and she turns to see Tristan go down with a dog on top of him.

Taking her eyes off the ground was a mistake. She trips, and barely manages to get her knife up to stab the one coming at her in its muzzle before it can sink its teeth into her. It backs away with a howl, long enough for her to scramble to her feet, and she and Victor to rush to Tristan’s side.

Victor slashes at the one tearing into Tristan’s chest until its lifeless body rolls onto the ground but it’s too late, and Tristan’s torso is a bloody mess.

The part of Karolina’s brain that isn’t still trying to process the horrifying scene in front of her is wondering why they aren’t all dead by now, given how many mutts there were, but she looks up and they’re retreating back into the forest, gone as suddenly as they appeared.

“C’mon,” Victor chokes out, and Karolina helps him hoist to Tristan over their shoulders and stagger towards the strip of water visible through the trees.

They burst out onto the sand and immediately Karolina panics because there are people here, but her panic subsides into relief when the figures come into focus and it’s Chase and Gert and Alex and Nico.

(And everything is going to shit, but a bit of the tightness in Karolina’s chest still eases at the sight of her.)

Now that they’re with allies, she and Victor feel safe enough to put Tristan down gently on the sand. When they were walking Karolina had thought that they could maybe clean his wounds and get him stable somehow, but now that they’re no longer in the dappled shade of the forest it’s immediately clear how bad the bites really are. She can’t do anything but kneel helplessly beside him, and hope that he doesn’t suffer too much, and it’s not long before his breath ebbs to nothing and the cannon sounds.

After that there’s not much to do but wade into the lake with Victor to rinse the blood out of their clothes as best they can. Victor stops once his knees are submerged, leaning down to splash water across his body, but Karolina keeps going until it’s past her waist. 

She falls back and lets the water close over her head. The ambient sounds of the forest and the lapping of ripples against the shore disappear, and it’s just Karolina alone with her thoughts. Her eyes are closed against the water but she can see Tristan’s body projected on the back of her eyelids. 

And then the image of Tristan disappears, and he’s replaced with the girl from District 8 who had been a tribute in Karolina’s first games. She’d been kind and shared her protein bars and let Karolina tag along with her, and then she was killed by Karolina’s own fellow tribute from 4. He’d stood over the body of Karolina’s friend and told her that it wasn’t worth it to kill the mayor’s daughter, that he was sure someone else would take care of her soon anyway. Karolina had run as fast as she could then, wanting nothing more than to get away, and for a brief moment she considers it now. She could just swim away— the lake’s not very big, she could make it to the opposite shore and disappear into the trees and hope the others can pull off the plan without her.

Except, no. What would be the point of all of this, if she ran away? And she would be leaving Nico behind, and now that she’s found her again Karolina never wants to leave her side.

With a gasp she emerges from the water, wading back to shore and following the others back into the jungle so Tristan’s body can be airlifted away.

As the adrenaline finally starts to wear off all Karolina can think about is how thankful she is that Nico is here with her. She falls into step beside her as they walk, and Nico threads her fingers through Karolina’s and squeezes, and Karolina is so glad that Nico is alive.

After an hour or so they stop for a water break. Nico leads Karolina over to a tree a bit away from the others, leans her head against the bark and runs her thumb across the inside of Karolina’s wrist.

“I was worried you’d left me forever, Karrie,” she says, grinning a bit so it seems like she’s joking, but Karolina can hear the hint of genuine anxiety under her light tone.

“I could never,” Karolina smiles, and ignores the way the words taste like a lie.

 

==

 

That night Karolina takes first watch with Nico. They sit with their shoulders pressed together, and if Karolina tries hard enough she can almost pretend that they’re safe and back on the roof, except instead of the flat concrete she’s sitting on bumpy tree roots, and the hum of the city has been replaced with the eerie quiet you get in a forest at night, where every bit of rustling sounds like a wild animal coming to get you.

None of that really matters, though, because Nico is here, beside her, and her hand is a comforting weight on Karolina’s knee, and Karolina feels so so guilty but she’s sort of glad that Nico got chosen too, that if Karolina had to go back to hell at least she has company.

And she hadn’t been lying to Caesar, when she said she thought she owed the Games, because no matter how much she hates the system with every fiber of her being, deep down it’s hard to hate the odds that brought her Nico.

When their watch is over and they lie down to get a few hours of sleep, Nico kisses her firm and steady before she tucks her head under Karolina’s chin, her head pillowed on Karolina’s shoulder.

Karolina tightens her arms around her. “I love you.”

Nico presses a kiss to the bit of Karolina’s collarbone by her mouth and says, “I love you too,” and Karolina never wants morning to come, she wants to stay here holding Nico forever.

 

==

 

Morning comes, because no matter how all-consuming Karolina’s love might be it’s still not enough to stop the passage of time, and besides she’d learned a long time ago that being a tribute means nothing ever truly goes your way. Once the six of them work out the knots in their backs from sleeping on the hard forest floor they head back down to the beach to draw up a plan.

They’ve figured out how the arena works, sort of, and are trying to come up with their next course of action when screams emanate from the forest.

“Molly,” Gert says, and she’s off like a shot, kicking up sand behind her as she sprints towards the trees.

Nico is the first to react and the first after her, Karolina stumbling over the sand behind her. As she tries to follow Nico into the trees she hits an invisible barrier, falling backwards into Chase.

“What’s going on?” Chase says frantically, reaching around her to press his palm to what seems to be a wall of solid air keeping them out of the forest.

“It’s the clock,” Alex breathes, and Chase whips around to look at him in bewilderment but Karolina understands; the horror of the hour is in this section and nothing can get in or out until time is up.

Except Gert and Nico are in there, and she feels like her throat is going to close up because whatever’s in there could kill them and she just got Nico back.

Speak of the devil because there Gert and Nico are, running back towards them surrounded by jabberjays. Karolina knows that sound probably can’t get through the barrier any better than she can — she can’t hear either their crashing progress or the birds behind them — but she can she screams, “Nico!” anyway.

And she watches helplessly as Nico crashes into the barrier a second behind Gert and the two of them grope along it for an opening Karolina already knows isn’t there.

As they’re looking for a way out more and more jabberjays arrive, and Karolina doesn’t know what sort of sounds they’re making, who or what they’re mimicking, but they’re clearly driving Nico and Gert insane. The two of them kill as many as they can but they’re eventually, inevitably overwhelmed by the sheer volume of birds around them and Karolina can only watch as Nico sinks down with her back pressed to the barrier, hunched over with her head between her knees.

Karolina forgets about everything that could attack them, still vulnerable on the beach, forgets that they’re supposed to be coming up with a plan right now, and she can only hope that Victor and Alex are keeping a lookout because Chase is focused on Gert and all Karolina cares about is that the girl she loves is in pain. She knows it’s hopeless but she slams her fists against the invisible wall anyway, until her knuckles crack and bleed and her voice is hoarse with shouting and Victor drags her away from the edge.

He lets go of her when she stops struggling and falls to her knees, her hand pressed against air. And it’s torture because it’s so thin, and her hand isn’t even an inch away from Nico’s back, but no matter how hard she presses it won’t let her through.

Finally, finally, the hour is up and the barrier disappears. It’s sudden, like a switch is flipped and they can finally hear the sounds from the forest again, the air filled with the fluttering of jabberjay wings as the hordes of birds go quiet at once and fly off.

Nico barely moves from her position on the ground except to fall backwards where she was leaning against the barrier, and Karolina catches her and holds her so tight.

And once Karolina’s arms are around her Nico seems to come back into herself a little, and she turns so her face is pressed into Karolina’s neck and she can wrap her arms around Karolina’s waist, and Karolina kisses her forehead, her temple, her jaw, her mouth.

Nico is talking, sort of, her voice trembling so much that she can barely get the words out. “The birds— screaming— Amy, and you—”

Karolina’s heart breaks at how fragile Nico sounds and she holds her tighter, and she whispers “I’m okay, I’ve got you,” into Nico’s mouth and strokes her hair until Nico stops shaking.

(She keeps a close eye on Nico for the rest of the day, even once they’ve left the beach. Nico insists whenever Karolina asks that she’s okay, but she’s a little too quick to flinch at sudden noises and so Karolina is careful with her, taking her hand more than she needs to and staying a step closer than she would otherwise. Nico never says anything about it, but Karolina can tell she’s grateful by the way she leans into their contact.)

 

==

 

That night Alex offers to take first watch and Karolina shoots him a grateful smile. Nico is still jittery, and Karolina isn’t ready to stop being overprotective yet.

Nico tugs Karolina down with her as she lays down and Karolina curves her body around Nico’s, wrapping her arm snugly around Nico’s waist and pressing a kiss to the back of her neck. Nico lets out a long sigh, and Karolina can feel some of the tension finally drain out of her body.

Before long Nico’s breathing evens out and she goes slack in Karolina’s arms, but Karolina can’t sleep. She can’t get the image of Nico’s anguished face out of her head. And sure, Nico is safe with her now, but the hour she spent watching helplessly as Nico was tortured is sticking with her more than she’d care to admit.

After a while spent taking comfort in the steady rise and fall of Nico’s chest without getting any closer to sleep herself, Karolina gets up, carefully extricating herself from around Nico and walking over to where Alex is sitting on watch.

He looks up when she sits down next to him.

“Hey.”

“Hey,” Karolina says.

The forest is quiet around them, and Karolina feels distinctly awkward. She doesn’t think she’s ever been alone with Alex, much less had a conversation with him. But just as the silence starts to ease towards comfortable he breaks it.

“You two are good together.”

“Thanks,” Karolina says. Her smile doesn’t reach her eyes.

“I mean it,” Alex says. “You’re really good for her. I kept an eye on her family after, you know,” (and he doesn’t finish the sentence but Karolina remembers the first Games after she won, Alex coming out on top while the girl he went in with died on day 3) “and the last few years are the happiest I’ve ever seen her.”

Karolina doesn’t know what to say but Alex doesn’t seem to be expecting a response, caught up in his own thoughts.

“I asked her out, you know,” he continues. “A year after she won, after she mentored for the first time. She said she couldn’t because of Amy, and I’m sure that was part of it, but… Now I’m wondering if it wasn’t because she had already met you.”

Karolina sighs, looks over to where Nico is sleeping and traces her dim outline with her eyes.

“I hate this.”

“I know,” Alex says quietly. “Me too.”

“Thanks for looking out for her,” Karolina says.

“Of course.”

“If—” Karolina starts. Alex seems like the most practical among them, the least likely to offer her platitudes instead of actually fulfilling her request. “If anything happens to me—”

“Nothing is going to happen to you,” Alex says.

“Just if,” Karolina says. “Will you tell Nico— make sure she knows it’s not her fault.”

“Karolina—”

“Alex, please.

Alex’s expression is pained.

“Okay,” he says. “I promise.”

By the time Alex’s watch is up Karolina’s eyelids are finally starting to feel heavy, and when Alex goes to wake Victor she makes her way back to where Nico is sleeping. She tries not to disturb her, folding herself carefully around Nico, but she doesn’t quite manage it because Nico shifts in her arms, turning so they’re facing each other.

“Is it time to get up?” she mumbles sleepily, and even like this she’s beautiful and Karolina is so in love.

“Not yet,” Karolina whispers. “Go back to sleep, love.”

The term of endearment almost gets caught in her throat but it ends up rolling easily off her tongue, and Nico makes a noise of assent and buries her face in Karolina’s chest.

And for the first time Karolina lets herself hope that they might actually make it out of this okay.

 

==

 

She’s so so stupid because of course they don’t, of course it all blows up in her face the next day.

She and Nico run a cable from the lightning tree to the lake, and as they’re walking back Karolina is hit with a sudden, unshakeable certainty that something bad is about to happen. Nico is a half step ahead of her but suddenly even that much distance is too far, because if something is coming then first Karolina needs Nico to know how much she feels.

She gets Nico’s attention with a soft, “Hey.”

Nico turns, and Karolina quickens her pace so they’re side by side.

“I meant what I said, you know,” she says. “During that interview. The Hunger Games are horrifying, but meeting you— I think meeting you is the best thing that’s ever happened to me.”

Nico says, “Me, too,” and catches Karolina’s hand in hers. And Karolina knows she understands, can feel their connection deep in her bones the same way Karolina can, like it’s been there before they met and will keep them tied together no matter what happens to them.

But their moment is shattered as Karolina’s thigh suddenly erupts in pain.

She looks down to see a spear buried in her leg and her knee buckles. Her hand slips out of Nico’s as she collapses to the ground, and she’s barely aware of Nico making short work of both the spear-thrower and her partner, too preoccupied by the copious amounts of blood now pouring from the wound and soaking through her pants.

Her vision goes fuzzy around the edges but it’s still mostly clear as Nico crouches down next to her, hoisting her back to her feet and pulling Karolina’s arm over her shoulders for support.

“Come on,” Nico says, and Karolina already knows it’s useless because there’s still a spear jutting out of her leg and she sees stars as she stands too quickly. But Nico’s voice is desperate and pleading and scared as she says, “Back to the tree, we can make it,” so she tries even though her leg screams at her with every step and they only make it a few yards before it gives out again beneath her.

(There’s a tiny selfish part of her that wishes their roles were reversed, because she could probably carry Nico back to their allies but there’s no way Nico is getting her there. But thank god she’s going to be the one who doesn’t make it, not Nico, never Nico, and Karolina won’t have to find a way to go on without her.)

“Nico, I can’t do it.”

She so badly wants to, wants to try again and clear the horrible devastated look off of Nico’s face, but they don’t have time before the lightning strikes and if Nico doesn’t go on without her they’re both going to die here.

“I’m not leaving you,” Nico says, and she’s crying and Karolina knows that she understands she has to and just wants to put it off for as long as possible. And god so does Karolina, but every second Nico stays here with her decreases her chances of getting back in time.

“Nico, go. You have to go.”

Nico nods, but instead of leaving, she kisses Karolina. And it feels like the end, like these are the last moments they’ll ever have together.

And maybe the last moments they’ll have, period.

Nico helps Karolina over to the nearest tree so she can lean up against it, retrieving the knife from where she buried it in the body of the woman who threw the spear and handing it to her, and Karolina grips it tightly as though it’ll make any difference at all.

“I love you,” Nico says, and her voice is thick with tears.

Karolina threads her hand through Nico’s hair and pulls her down for one final kiss, so soft it makes Karolina’s bones ache, and she drinks Nico in, commits her to memory so she can have something to hold onto as she dies.

“I love you, too,” Karolina says when they break apart for the last time. “It’s gonna be okay. Now, go.”

A tear drips off Nico’s chin and onto Karolina’s unhurt leg and she nods and turns, running back towards their allies. 

Karolina watches her back until she’s gone, and it’s only when she can no longer hear the sounds of Nico crashing through the jungle that she finally lets herself cry.

Twenty minutes later, there’s a thunderous boom in the direction Nico went and the sky lights up as electricity ripples through it, tearing a hole in the dome above them.

An airship descends through the newly created gap, and Karolina can barely make out four figures hoisted into the air in slings. She’s too far away to see details but one is slight with a long black ponytail, and Karolina sags in relief because Nico made it out, and she slumps against the tree and lets the knife slip from her fingers.

Her last thought is of Nico as she finally succumbs to darkness.