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The Soldier

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There is no way to tell the time without looking at the clock on my bedside table. It keeps track of the time far better than I ever could, but I refuse to look at it. Doing so would mean that I have to acknowledge what day it is and really that's the last thing I want to do, but I know I'm going to have to eventually. I'm not more eager than anyone else to be reminded that I was in the Hunger Games, but unfortunately the Capitol won't allow that. They'll never let me forget. Not this year, not next year. Never again. I'll always be reminded of the horrors I experienced in the arena. I'll also be reminded of all the romantic moments between Katniss and I that I thought were real. But they weren't. To her they were just a strategy. To me they were so much more.

Ever since I was very young, I've been in love with Katniss. Which still baffles me seeing as I didn't really know her until we were thrown into the arena together. I vowed to protect her from the beginning. The moment my name was called during the reaping, I promised I would not let her die, that I would do everything in my power to make sure she was the one that would go home. I knew it would cost me my life, but I didn't care. I would do anything to keep her alive. Even now that I know she never truly loved me, I would still try to keep her alive even if I had to die to do so, but I know I won't have to. For the rest of our lives, we don't have to worry about dying. We only have to worry about the tributes we'll be mentoring.

All of this runs through my head as I lay in bed, staring at the ceiling, willing the sun not to rise, but it does and when I glance towards the window, I can see it making the snow covered ground sparkle. I wonder if whatever Portia's planning to dress me in is going to sparkle too. I doubt it. She and Cinna tend not to put us in sparkling outfits. The ones we wore for the opening ceremonies at the Hunger Games were on fire. It didn't hurt us, of course, Portia and Cinna wouldn't allow that to happen. Instead, it actually looked lovely. Particularly on Katniss, but she looks beautiful in anything. She could wear a paper bag and I'd still think she was gorgeous.

Despite the fact that I could look at the clock on my nightstand to check the time, I judge by the sun's placement in the sky it's no later than eight or nine in the morning. If I still lived at the bakery in the merchant's section of District 12, I would have been up two hours ago, preparing the place for the day's customers. I'd be putting bread in the oven, decorating cakes to put up in the window, or kneading some dough to prepare it for the oven. My arms from my hands to my elbows would be covered in flour. Using that much flour is necessary to make bread right. Otherwise it sticks to the table and you can get dough and yeast all over. If I'd ever done that my mother would have been furious. She'd have beaten me without a second thought.

In all actuality, I don't have to bake or decorate anything anymore, but I do anyway. I took some of my things from the bakery, which my mother didn't like, and brought them back to my house in Victor's Village. It's a lot bigger than where I grew up. I have a lot more room to do stuff, which is why I've dedicated a whole room to my baking. Some generous people from the Capitol installed extra ovens and the like in another room that wasn't the kitchen. They even tiled the floor. I was surprised that this happened when I told Portia that I wanted to continue doing what I had been before the Games began. I also acquired a new skill, one that I'd never really known I had, which is the ability to paint pictures and actually make them look realistic.

Every victor is supposed to have a talent that they acquire after the Games. I didn't know what to do, but when Portia suggested I try painting, since I did such a good job of camouflaging myself in the arena. She even sent me a box full of every color imaginable and then some. I was also given several canvases to start on. When I finished those as well as the paints, I found out that there was, in fact a place in District 12 where I could buy such things, which I obviously did. I bought about twenty more canvases and as many paints as I could carry. I returned the next day with a basket to fill up with even more paints. I'm not entirely sure, but I think the shop owner doesn't have many customers. He knows me by name because I was in the Games, but he also enjoys making conversation with me. He's elderly and often repeats things, but I don't mind. He's a pleasant person and I enjoy visiting him. The more I've been painting, the more I visit him. Sometimes I just go for fun and buy paints that I don't really need. I have so much money now that I don't have to worry about wasting it.

However, like with everything wonderful, there is a catch. No matter how hard I've tried not to, the only thing I've been able to paint are what happened in the Games. At first, I didn't understand why, but then as I began to paint the things that I saw in my nightmares night after night, I knew that's what I'd been drawing my inspiration from all along. I tried painting other things. I tried painting Katniss hunting in the woods, but what came out was her lying in a pool of blood after she came back from the feast with the medicine that saved my life. I'd asked her not to go because I was afraid she wouldn't return and when I saw her lying there, I was scared half to death. Simply seeing that moment come to live on the canvas was almost enough to make me tremble and pray that she was still alive. Of course, I knew she was, I was just afraid that someday I was going to wake up in that cave and find she had died.

I have managed to paint a few beautiful things: Katniss in the dress she wore during her interview, Katniss in the outfit we wore for the opening ceremonies, Katniss in another interview dress. The catch there is that they are still all related to the Games and as hard as I try I cannot draw or paint anything else.

Tired of thinking about the Games and how my life has been so severely altered by them, I push myself up, rub the sleep from my eyes and get dressed in the clothes I only wear when I bake. After that I head to the second kitchen and spend the next two hours baking a loaf of bread for Haymitch that I will give to him when I go over to his house to remind him that he can't spend this day drunk. Frankly, I'd like to spend a day drunk too. I've never been drink before, but if it helps Haymitch to stop thinking about the Games as well as keep him sane and sober enough to be as smart as he is, maybe it would help me keep my nightmares at bay too. However, I really doubt this. Whenever I wake him up, he's holding a knife and it takes him a moment to realize that he's out of the arena and there isn't really anything that can her him now. Except himself.

When I finish kneading the dough, getting it into the shape I want it before I stick it in the already heated oven. Normally, I'm good about watching the time, so I know when to take the bread out of the oven, but recently there's been so much on my mind that I find it had to focus on anything else. Everything else feels so meaningless now. All that I can think about is the Games. What happened before, during, and after, and how everything was changed forever because of them. To prevent the bread from being burned, I set a timer and the moment I sit down in the chair I've placed in front of the table where I work on decorating cakes, cookies, and other such pastries and sweets, I'm looking out the window, lost in my thoughts.

I can see that there are small flakes of snow falling from the sky, carpeting the ground in a fresh later of shining white. I wonder that if there were a lake or even a pond somewhere within the confines of District 12, we'd be allowed to go ice-skating. I only know about this sport because my teacher told me about it one year in school. I don't think we were supposed to know about it because the next day when I asked another question about the subject, my teacher acted as though she didn't know what I was talking about. I don't know what reasons the authorities could possibly have for not wanting us to know about ancient winter sports, but my assumption was that it would have encouraged people to try to find a frozen body of water. Even though the Peacekeepers in District 12 aren't very particular about enforcing the laws, there are some they can't ignore and the possibility of half the district going to look or a lake in the woods is something I know they won't allow.

The thought of ice-skating is still on my mind when a figure catches my eye. For a moment, I can't tell who it is, but when she reaches the door of Haymitch's house and lets herself in, I know it must be Katniss. Obviously, she had the same idea I did: to go over to Haymitch's house and rouse him before the camera crews arrive to film the beginning of our victory tour. Even though the bread is done, I take my time taking it out of the oven and wrapping it in a piece of cloth. I want to postpone going over to his house for as long as I can. I know I won't be able to go over before Katniss leaves. The bread won't be warm anymore by then, but I'm going to take my time.

Ever since I found out that every romantic moment between Katniss and I was as fake to her as it was real to me, I have spoken with her as little as possible. I avoid being around her as much as I possibly can, but that's going to be hard to do during the victory tour where we will again have to assume the romance we played out in the arena. In all actuality, I would like to be able to speak with her again, but I don't know if I could handle that currently, knowing what I do. I still love her. Of this I have no doubt, but knowing that she does not and never has loved me, crushes me every time I see her or hear her voice. I keep wondering how she feels about our separation. Maybe she's glad we're no longer speaking. I doubt she feels the same way I do.

The bread that was burning my fingers when I pulled I out of the oven is beginning to cool and I know I can't procrastinate my trip to Haymitch's any longer. I let out a sigh that is mix of exasperation and sadness. I'm mostly frustrated with myself for being so foolish as to believe that someone as wonderful as Katniss could ever love someone as damaged as me. As for the sadness, that's directed at this entire situation. At this point, I don't think it's something I can avoid feeling because it's an emotion that's truly undeniable.

Holding the bread against my chest in an attempt to try to keep it warm on the short trek to Haymitch's house, I hurry out into the cold, closing the door behind me and dashing to his door. Like Katniss, I let myself into the house and grit my teeth as the horrid odor that permeates this house finds its way into my nostrils. As I head towards the kitchen, I hear voices. The one that sticks out, the only words I hear are the ones that come out of Katniss's lips.

"…you should have asked Peeta."

"Asked me what?" I say, stepping into the kitchen and setting the loaf of bread on the table that's covered in water. I keep my eyes away from Katniss and firmly locked on Haymitch. I know I'll have to look at her eventually, I'm not that rude, but I'm rude enough that I want to avoid that moment for as long as I possibly can.

Once the bread is on the table, I hold out my hand for Haymitch's knife. I'm surprised he still has it, but then I realize that Katniss must have forgotten to take it away from him, since that's what he sleeps with. As he passes the blade over, he responds with, "Asked you to wake me up without giving pneumonia."

When he takes off his shirt, revealing an undershirt that is just as disgusting as the outer one, I avert my eyes. It's not because I want to give him privacy. He hardly needs that, but because I saw him without a shirt once and it's not a thing I'd like to see again. Still, as I dip the knife in his liquor to clean it before wiping it on my shirt, drying the blade, I can't stop myself from smiling before I begin to slice the bread. Even though I've been damaged by Katniss, I allow Haymitch to make me smile. Nothing else has the ability to do that anymore and, despite everything, I don't want those muscles to stop working from not being used, so I smile whenever he says something even slightly complimentary or funny.

It's only after I give Haymitch the first piece that I remember Katniss is also in the room. I take a deep breath and close my eyes to steady myself before I look up at her, sitting on the window sill. Even though I try not to let it be when I ask her the first question I have in weeks, I can't stop the tone of pleading from filling my voice: "Would you like a piece?"

"No, I ate the hob," she says. "But thank you."

The formality in her voice shakes me and saddens me, reminding me that she can't care about what as happened as much as I do. Why else would she sound so formal where I sound so desperate? There really is no explanation except this one. I like to think there is one, but I know there's not. The way we've been treating each other for the past several months proves this beyond a doubt, which is why my voice is so stiff when I reply with, "You're welcome."

As per usual, Haymitch uses his gift of sarcasm to say, "Brr. You two have a lot of warming up to do before showtime."

He throws his shirt into the mess that is his house without further explanation, but we don't really need one because we know he's right. The audience is going to wonder what happened if we look like we've fallen out of love with one another. Still, I don't look at Katniss as she says, "Take a bath, Haymitch," before jumping out of the window and heading back towards her home.

"You know, you really shouldn't be so upset with her for what she did," Haymitch says.

I jump, but I don't respond because I know he's right, even though he doesn't want me to be. Besides, I'm still staring at the window Katniss disappeared out of. I don't know why I'm so fixated on this spot. I don't want her to come back. That'll only make the pain in my chest that much more severe and I'm not sure I can endure much more of that. I know I'm going to have to learn to pretty soon because if I don't then the victory tour will be confusing to all of Panem. They're expecting us to be just happy together now as we were then and I'm just praying I can pull this off. If I don't, I don't know what's going to happen. I know I shouldn't be too concerned, but it's hard for me not to be when I see the black car parked in front of Katniss's house.

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The car is not from District 12, that much I can tell. There is nothing in this district, even the houses Katniss and I now live in, that is that pristine. It's hard to say the same for Haymitch's house. There's so much filth in here that anyone who enters literally has to wade through it all. Unlike mine and Katniss's houses, it's hard to compare it to the shiny black car parked in front of her home. The windows are tinted, the whole of it shines, and the tires look as though they've never once been used until today. It's clear that this car is from the Capitol, but the more I think about it, the more I begin to realize that this is probably purposeful. I'm sure that President Snow wants to be noticed when driving through the streets of his Capitol.

The moment his name pops into my head, I freeze and the knife that was so carefully easing through the bread, suddenly stops. I clutch the knife handle as tightly as I possibly can, my knuckles turning white as I realize that's who it must be in Katniss's house. I wonder why. Why would the president be visiting Katniss? At first I was startled, then shocked and now fearful, but the longer I look at the car, the more I realize that fear isn't really founded. She hasn't done anything that would upset the Capitol, except for use the berries in an attempt to save us both in the arena. But we convinced everyone that this was an act of love rather than anything else, so that's nothing to be worried about. Most likely he's here to congratulate her and tell her how much the Capitol loves her. The only logical explanation that I can come up with for him not to come and speak with me is because the audience clearly loved her more than me. But I'm not offended He makes me nervous, despite how kind he seemed to be to the both of us when we were crowned the victors of the 74th Hunger Games. I know he isn't really a good person. If he was, the Hunger Games wouldn't exist, but they do and he enjoys watching children die, so he isn't kind. He's cruel, but not to us. We're victors.

"You need to get over the fact that she never really loved you and just try to be her friend," Haymitch says, snapping me back into the present. I blink and finish slicing the bread before I set down the knife and wipe my hands on a cloth that probably will only make them dirtier than they already are. As I do so, I make sure that I don't look at Haymitch because I don't want to talk to him about Katniss. Not now. I know I'm going to have to eventually, but just as I put off coming over to his house when I saw she was there, I'm going to avoid that conversation for as long as I can.

But Haymitch won't let that happen. We start our tour today and when the camera crews arrive, they're going to wonder what happened if I'm cool towards Katniss. Of course, I won't be. I know what the audience expects and I'll give it to them. I won't condemn myself and Katniss simply because I am bitter over what happened when we were heading back to District 12 after the Games. I'll put that aside for now only because I have to. I'll do the same when we go to the Capitol every year to mentor other tributes. But every moment we are not being watched, I'm going to avoid her. It hurts too much to do otherwise.

"Boy, you may not want to think about this, but you're going to have to," Haymitch adds. He's moved closer towards me as though he knows I'm avoiding looking at him. Trying to keep my gaze averted, I take his empty liquor bottle and head towards the overflowing garbage can in the corner of the kitchen.

As I'm throwing it in, I say, "This hasn't ever happened to you, Haymitch. You don't know how it feels to have your heart full of joy before being torn apart when you learn that everything you thought was real is actually a lie.

The silence that precedes this sentence proves instantly that I'm wrong. I feel guilty immediately, but I still don't take back my words or apologize for them. He needs to understand what's happened instead of acting like it's nothing. If this really has happened to him before, he'll fully appreciate the situation and try not to rush me into mending my heart when I can't yet find the proper needle and thread. Frankly, I don't know if I'll ever find it. I've loved Katniss for too long to be able to handle something as heartbreaking as this. I want to blame her, but I blame myself for truly believing that she could love me.

It's that thought that continually runs through my mind as I walk over to Haymitch's sink and begin to attempt to wash his dishes. It's futile, I know because no matter where I put them, they'll be dirty again within the hour. There isn't a single space in this house that isn't filthy. Still, I take all of the dishes out of the sink before I fill it with water. I put them all back in to let them soak before I walk back over to the table to find Haymitch has opened another bottle of liquor. I sigh and fold my arms on the table. Really I shouldn't be surprised, but I wish he'd stop.

It's something that's not going to happen. As we all know, the liquor helps him forget during the day, just as baking helps me forget and hunting helps Katniss forget. In a way, we each have our designated jobs. I bake cakes, bread, cookies and decorate them, giving them to anyone who asks without charge. Katniss hunts in the woods, giving all she gets to Gale's family. Haymitch drinks. He doesn't care if he kills himself. He just wants to escape this world.

As do we all.

Not wanting to speak to Haymitch about anything that he wants to, I push myself up and walk back to the sink. The water has turned to a dull brown. I grimace at the color. It's disgusting and the bits of food that have floated to the surface are even more so. Still, I plunge my hands into the water and pull out the first dish I encounter. I grab a washrag that isn't much cleaner than the plate I'm holding, but as I turn on the water once again, I try my best to scrub the plate down before placing on the counter nearby to dry. Every so often I glance over at Haymitch. In fact, I look everywhere, but out the window I'm standing in front of.

This window shows the exact spot where Katniss crawls under the fence to go hunting. For a long time this was a place I would look at smile. Sometimes, I would watch her run out to the woods, wondering what she'd come back with today. I never did see what she had, but just watching her run off, knowing that she was healthy and alive was enough to make me happy if only temporarily, but a few weeks after we returned that changed.

I'd always known she and Gale were close, but I never thought that they were any more than friends. However, that belief changed when I saw the both of them kiss just outside the fence. Once he pulled away, Katniss stayed there for a while, just sitting, absentmindedly touching her lips every now and then. My heart hurt terribly and I never looked at that place again. The memory of seeing her with someone else, even when she wasn't mine to begin with, was agony. I never told anyone about what I'd seen and I didn't plan to. I couldn't. I don't even know how I'd bring that up in conversation. It's not something Haymitch would talk to me about. He only talks about what he feels like. And other than him, I don't really have anyone to talk to. Eventually, I just ended up painting it. I tore up the painting, throwing it in the fire as soon as it was finished, but doing so made me feel better. Still, seeing that place in the fence is still painful. I'm sure it always will be.

It isn't until I reach into the water and can't find anything else within it that I realize I'm finished doing Haymitch's dishes. I pull out the stopper in the drain and watch the disgusting water be sucked away. I glance towards the dishes that I know will be dirty again within the next few days after we return from our victory tour.

With a final glance towards Haymitch, I decide it's time for me to leave. When I leave his house, taking deep breaths of the fresh outside air, I notice that the black care that was in front of Katniss's house is gone.

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It's getting closer and closer to noon the longer I stand outside, foolishly thinking that if I stay here, I won't have to face the cameras or my prep team. I know that's impossible. I'm going to have to go back to my house soon whether I want to or not. I have to take a shower before I allow Quinlan, Ambrose, and Lamia to see me. After that it's only going to get worse. I'm going to have to great Katniss and I'm going to have to show the world how much I love her, even when I know she doesn't and never will love me as much as I have loved her. I know it's selfish of me to want to stay cold towards her even on this tour when I can't do that at all, but I feel as though I have a right to be that way after all that has happened.

Letting out a breath, I stick my hands in my pockets and hurry across the small expanse of land between my house and Haymitch's. I open the door and slam it shut, leaning against the wood before I sink down and put my head in my hands. This is slightly more difficult than it would have been only a few months before since I now have a fake leg. I lost part of my calf in the arena, but that was because Katniss was trying to save my life. I'd like to think that she has a small amount of love for me because of that, but, again, that's a foolish thought.

Still wanting to postpone getting in the shower, even though I only have about an hour before my prep team arrives, I head upstairs to my second kitchen and decorate some cookies. My hands are covered in frosting my the time I'm finished and I smile sardonically as I realize I've been doing a lot of procrastinating today. It's unlike me. Then again much of what I've been doing lately is unlike me.

My shower is short. I only take enough time to wash the frosting off my arms, scrub my hair with some shampoo, and give my body a thorough wash before I shut off the water and towel myself off. I know it's pointless to get dressed now. In only a few moments, my prep team will be here and they'll be telling me to take off my clothes again so they can prepare me for the next few weeks.

As I stand in the bathroom, I observe myself in the mirror, trying to find any differences between the Peeta that went into the arena and the Peeta that came out. When I was first taken out of the arena, it was easy to spot these differences. My face was gaunt and hollow. I looked ill. I was too thin. For weeks after the Games finished, I looked as though I were on the edge of death, but as time went on, the color returned to my cheeks, I regained the weight I had lost, and I began to look like my old self again, even though I didn't feel as though I could ever be the same boy that went into the arena.

Every time this thought crosses my mind, I remember how I promised myself that I would not allow the Capitol's twisted Games to change me, but they did. I didn't turn into a monster as I'd feared. I didn't become a person that would enjoy watching children kill one another. In fact, in the arena, I killed no one, at least no on purpose. I did inadvertently kill a girl that Katniss and I called Foxface, but I kept my promise to myself and I didn't kill anyone, knowing that they were going to die by my hand. Still, I was changed. I know now it was inevitable. No one can go through the arena without being changed. The arena is a nightmare come to life and no one can't not be changed by something as horrifying as that.

I don't hear my front door burst open, so I don't know my prep team has arrived, until they shove their way into my room and great me with a series of hugs and kisses on the cheek. I find it unusual that they would have grown so attached to me as to feel as though they had to greet me so warmly after we haven't seen one another in months, but I suppose that the only reason they're so glad to have me around is because I've made them famous in the Capitol, if only slightly. Fame in the Capitol is hard to attain and seeing as I won the 74th Hunger Games along with Katniss, I've given them that. It only occurs to me now that the other prep teams might have gotten just as attached to their tributes, even though they were only with them for a few hours whereas, I've been with Quinlan, Ambrose, and Lamia for far longer than that.

They instantly go to work, making me look far more attractive than I actually am. I don't protest, I just let them do as Portia has instructed them to. I trust her far more than I trust them. In fact, I like her more than them too. She's not as ridiculous as they are. She has aqua hair and a bit of unusual eyeliner as well as lipstick, but she doesn't look as strange as these three do. Ambrose still has his cottoncandy hair and bubblegum lips. His eyelashes still match his lips and he's just as hairless now as he was back in the Capitol before the Games. The only thing that has changed is his skin is no longer green, but a sky blue. He looks like some sort of sea creature this way. Lamia is unchanged as is Quinlan. Apparently Ambrose is the only one who felt the need to look differently now than he did the last time I saw him.

As they work on me, they talk about the Victory Tour and how the Capitol is all in a tizzy – they actually do use that word – that Katniss and I are going to be returning there at the end of the tour. Once that topic has been worn down to the bone, they move on to this year's Games. This is the seventy-fifth year of the Hunger Games and as such they're being celebrated by a Quarter Quell, a glorified version of the Games. They're said to be twice as horrible as the other Games. I don't know how, but from what I've heard this is true. During the last Quell, the year that Haymitch won, twice as many tributes had to be sent into the arena. Instead of having a one in twenty-four chance of winning, you only had a one in forty-seven chance. I'm glad that isn't what's going to be happening this year. Apparently each Quell has a different kind of horror. I'm going to have to mentor the boy tribute that's placed in the arena this year and I know that whatever is going to happen could be twice as bad as what Haymitch had to endure. Speaking of which, he's probably going to get a lot of attention this year because of that. Good thing Katniss and I will be mentoring. He's going to be dead drunk every day no matter what we tell him to do.

There isn't much for them to talk about after the topic of the Quarter Quell has been exhausted as well. After that I'm put in a white button up shirt, a pair of black pants, and sent downstairs. There I find Portia and my face breaks into a smile. Even though the Games ended months ago, I haven't lost contact with her. This is due to the fact that all victors of the Games are supposed to have a skill or talent that they take up after the Games. We discussed about what mine could be for a long time, but it didn't take too long for us to settle on painting and when I found that I enjoyed doing that as much as baking and decorating cakes, I immediately began working on it as much as I would need to before the camera crews arrived before the Victory Tour. The only problem was the fact that all of my paintings were of the Games. There are a few that couldn't be distinguished that way and those are the ones that are now dispersed about the living room for when the reports arrive.

"Hello Peeta," Portia says as I start towards her. She's smiling just as widely as I am, which is saying something, considering how often she shows emotion, meaning almost never.

"Hello Portia," I say in response.

My hands are behind my back as I roam the living room, examining the pieces she's chosen to show the reporters. They're not my best works, but they don't give any hint that I'm haunted by what happened to me in the Games. There's one of the stream where I buried myself in mud, there's the one of Katniss in her fiery interview dress, another depicts her hunting through the forest we were in during the Games. Of course, this could be any forest and no doubt the entire country knows she hunts illegally anyway, but they're not going to say anything against her now that she's a victor. Frankly now she can do whatever she wants and so can I.

"I think you chose the right ones to show," I tell her as I examine one I painted of the flowers I gave Katniss before she told me she hadn't ever truly loved me. I'll never understand why I decided to paint this, but I suppose it's easier for me to draw it and relive it this way than think about it too much.

"I couldn't use any of the other ones," she responds, coming up behind me to stare at the picture as well. She knows where the inspiration for this painting came from, but she doesn't say anything. She knows it will only break my heart all over again.

We don't have time to say much else because only moments later, the camera crew is fighting it's way into my house. I stagger back a little, surprised by their intrusion. Portia grabs my arm to keep me from falling into one of my paintings and knocking it over. After I've regained my composure, I spend the next thirty minutes, reading from notecards about my paintings, while they film them; showing off the paintings, trying to describe where I got the inspiration for each one without giving it away completely. The last thing I want is for Panem to know that all of these paintings are a result of the Games. The Games aren't supposed to affect anyone this deeply, even though they always do. To the Capitol, we should be honored to be victors and be happy for the rest of our lives that we were lucky enough to compete in their horrid Games. No one ever is, I'm sure, but I give them what they want. What else can I do?

Unfortunately, my family showed up for the affair and my mother, father, and brothers are being interviewed, while I stand off to the side, arms crossed, waiting for the cue from Portia that I am allowed to leave the house and begin my Tour, starting with the act that I am still in love with Katniss, which I am, it's just that now I know she isn't in love with me.

It's odd to watch my mother smile this much and for this long. As a rule, my mother doesn't smile. She's not even nice or pleasant half the time, so seeing her in this setting is odd. In fact, it's odd to see everyone in my family smiling. Typically, we don't smile. My father is smiling, my older brothers are smiling. I don't have to ask myself what's going on to understand the reason behind their smiles. They're all fake, just as mine are, and they're all for the cameras.

All too soon, the crew is leaving, heading outside to film my reunion with Katniss. I want to, but I don't protest when Portia helps me into a white tweed jacket. She gives me a pair of warm blue gloves. I step into a pair of matching boots before I step outside my door. It's snowing and within seconds my hair is coated in a fine layer of the stuff. I glance to my left and see Katniss on her front porch. For a second we stare at one another, then she starts towards me, walking at first, before breaking into a run. When she leaps into my arms, I catch her and try to spin her, but my artificial leg won't allow me too and before I know it we're lying in the snow, kissing one another desperately. It hurts my heart, but I have to do it and I don't stop until she pulls away and helps me to my feet. She tucks her hand into the crook of my arm and I place my hand over hers before leading her in the direction of the train station.

I hardly do anything the rest of the day. We get on the train, say goodbye to everyone we'll be leaving behind in District 12 for the next few weeks, then head to the dining room to have a lavish dinner before being sent off to bed.

The minute I enter my compartment, I take off my clothes and fold them on the dresser. I pull out a pair of pajama pants, but nothing else. I don't feel like wearing a shirt today and why should I have to? It's not as though anyone is going to see me. I'm far too content and at peace in my compartment to do so. Even if someone knocked on the door right now, telling me that the world was ending, I'm not sure I'd answer it. I'd rather not deal with another disaster when so many have only barely been avoided recently.

Chapter Text

Even though I technically I don't have to get up until around noon whereas Katniss has to get up earlier to be prepped for our arrival in District 11, I'm still awake when I hear Effie knocking at her door. I roll over in bed, trying to get comfortable enough to fall asleep again, but no matter what I do, I'm unable to. Though I don't remember my dreams, I know they were about the Games, what I had to endure during them, and other nightmares that thankfully weren't real. Losing Katniss is a popular one. Every night I lose her in a different horrifying way: being torn to pieces by mutts, finding her dead when I awake after she left to get medicine for me at the feast, going insane from the tracker jacker venom and being unable to recognize me when I find her again. These are only the ones that show up most often, but there are a multitude of others that find their way into my subconscious each night.

Unable to lie in bed any longer, I throw the blankets back and head for the bathroom to take a shower. That's become something I do when I don't know what else to do. It's ridiculous, of course, and pointless, but I'm able to lose myself in the warm water for the first couple minutes of it before the thoughts begin to take over, reminding me of things I'd rather forget as well as bringing up other subjects I told myself I wouldn't think about. Mainly they have to do with Katniss, but today, unlike most other days, it isn't trying to figure out how I'm going to show my affection for her in the districts, while staying cool towards her the rest of the time.

Today I'm trying to figure out how we can regain some semblance of…something. Nothing romantic, of course, but perhaps friendship. I feel as though that would be alright. If she can forgive me for my recent behavior that is. I will be unsurprised if she can't, but I have to try. I've come to realize that it's far more painful to not be speaking with her than it would be if we were just friends talking with one another. It's still not what I want, not by a long shot, but I have to stop being so hurt by what happened. Frankly, I never once should have thought that anything in the Games was other than an act. She was doing what she had to in order to keep us alive and that meant pretending to be in love with me. In all actuality, I should be thankful for what she did instead of hurt and angry.

I've literally just stepped out of the shower when my prep team bursts into my compartment much as they did the day before at my house. I don't even have a towel wrapped around my waist, but I suppose that's not necessary. It isn't as though they haven't seen me naked before. Still, I feel the need to grab a towel before they begin their work on me, but I don't have time. I'm whisked away before I can even reach for one.

Apparently, I wasn't supposed to wash myself. They were, but since that ship has sailed, they're going to skip that step and do the rest, which includes making my hair look exactly as it did during my interviews and the day of the reaping last year. Instead of having my blonde hair flopping into my eyes as it normally is, they slick it to the side with some hair gel that I've had under the sink in my family's house for as long as I can remember. Once they've done that, they touch up my skin, making me look wide awake instead of tired. They remove all blemishes, though really there are none and strip my body of all my hair on my torso. Once they're done with that, Portia comes in and hands me the outfit that was sitting on my dresser.

"This is what I'm going to be wearing in the district?" I ask, feeling like this isn't up to pare with what she and Cinna usually have planned.

"No," she responds. "This is what you're going to wear until we get closer to District 11. For now, you might as well be comfortable."

It's a fair assessment. I nod once and dress before heading down to the dining area. I find Effie, Cinna, and Haymitch are already there. I sit down and begin serving myself. I haven't even finished putting everything on my plate when Portia comes in and sits down across from me. Everyone around me is talking about the food, so I join in the conversation, though the only ones in that conversation are Effie, Cinna, and now Portia. Normally, I keep to myself, but today I don't feel like being antisocial. I want to talk with everyone. The topic moves on to how well we all sleep on the train when Katniss comes into the room.

Normally, Katniss looks like her smiles and behavior is forced, but today she's not even smiling. I don't know what's put her in such a bad mood and as I try to catch her eye, I can tell she's purposefully avoiding my gaze. Several times, Cinna tries to include her in the discussion, but she doesn't let him. I'm just thinking of speaking to her myself when the train stops. An announcement over some unseen loudspeaker tells us that this isn't a fuel stop, but that one of the parts has malfunctioned and we'll be here for about an hour. Of course, Effie immediately begins to fret over how this is going to affect everything that's going on for the next few weeks. Right before she yells, I look at Katniss and know that she's just about had it with everyone. I'm about to open my mouth to comfort her, tell her that it's not worth it, but that's when she stands up and shouts, "No one cares, Effie!"

The entire car goes silent as well all turn our gaze to her. She glances around and when I tear my eyes from her for only a second, I see that Haymitch is looking at her as well. This is surprising, since he and Effie never really get along, which I guess is why Katniss adds before turning on her heel and heading out of the dining car, "Well, no one does!"

I watch her go, unable to do anything other than stare at the place where she used to be for several moments. It's Haymitch's voice that brings me back into reality with a start as he tells me that I should go speak with her, try to make her feel better. I'm opening my mouth to tell him that now probably isn't a good time, but then an alarm goes off somewhere and I know she's left the train. With the way she's currently feeling, there's a good chance she might just sit at the edge of the tracks and watch it go by before following the rails back to District 12. As much as I think that's the best thing for her personally, I know that it really isn't. Besides, now would be the perfect time to talk to her, tell her what I was thinking about in the shower this morning.

It isn't hard to find the door that Katniss exited the train from. It's the only one open down the long hallway towards our personal compartments. Unlike she probably did, I slowly lower myself to the ground. I'm not entirely sure what would happen if I just jumped out. I have an artificial leg now and something bad could happen. I don't want to think about what that could be, so I look left and right trying to find where she vanished off to. I see her a little ways down the tracks and I head in that direction.

When I'm about ten feet away from her, she says, "I'm not in the mood for a lecture."

I allow a small smile to cross my lips. She probably thought I was Haymitch, which isn't surprising, since he probably would come to chew her out about what just happened. In fact, as the thought crosses my mind, I don't know why he hasn't. Probably because he's hung over. It's not hard to tell when he is.

"I'll try to keep it brief," I respond, sitting gingerly down next to her.

"I thought you were Haymitch," she says.

This time I hide my smile as I adjust my artificial leg and tell her, "No, he's still working on that muffin." Once I feel comfortable enough, I stare at the tracks, still unable to make eye contact with her, as I say, "Bad day, huh?"

"It's nothing," she says.

I know now is the time to tell her what I've been thinking about for the past several hours. In preparation for the speech I've mentally prepared, I take a deep breath and turn to her. "Look, Katniss, I've been wanting to talk to you about the way I acted on the train. I mean, the last train. The one that brought us home. I knew you had something with Gale. I was jealous of him before I even officially met you. And it wasn't fair to hold you to anything that happened in the Games. I'm sorry."

It's clear I've surprised her with my apology and I suppose it's easy to see why. Only a day ago, I was avoiding her gaze, speaking to her coolly, and refusing to fully acknowledge her existence. Frankly, I feel that this is a long time coming and I have no excuse for my behavior up until this point. Even if she doesn't accept my apology, at least I'll have tried to make amends and, for now, that can be enough.

"I'm sorry, too," she replies, though I don't know why. Maybe she really is sorry that all of her actions were false and she feels bad for having hurt me the way she did. She's not a cruel person, this I know, so this is a strong possibility.

"There's nothing for you to be sorry about," I reassure her. "You were just keeping us alive. But I don't want us to go on like this, ignoring each other in real life and falling into the snow every time there's a camera around. So I thought if I stopped being so, you know, wounded, we could take a shot at just being friends."

She hesitates before she says, "Okay," and at first I think this is because she really doesn't want to be friends with me, but when I look into her eyes, even though she averts them, I can tell that isn't the reason at all. There's something else going on, something I'm not aware of and perhaps something she won't let me be aware of. I have no right to press her on the matter, but I still want to help her feel better, even if it's only slightly.

"So, what's wrong?" I ask.

She doesn't say anything and I know now is not the time.

"Let's start with something more basic," I say, knowing my last words were too forward. "Isn't it strange that I know you'd risk your life to save mine…but I don't know what your favorite color is?"

When she smiles, I know I've asked the right question.

"Green," she responds. "What's yours?"

"Orange," I say without hesitation.

"Orange?" she asks. "Like Effie's hair."

"A bit more muted," I clarify. "More like…sunset."

It's strange how then I think of every sunset I've ever seen with Katniss. There aren't that many, I suppose, but it's more than I've seen with anyone else. The only sunset that truly stands out in my mind is when we were lying on top of the Cornucopia during the end of the Games, trying to sleep despite the awful noises being made beneath us. I was dying, bleeding to death, but I still managed to comfort Katniss. She kept me alive, really, by putting a tourniquet on my leg as well as keeping me conscious during that night. I can never repay her for all that she's done for me and realizing this, I feel awful for how I've treated her recently.

"You know, everyone's always raving about your paintings. I feel bad I haven't seen them," she tells me.

"Well, I've got a whole train car full," I respond, pushing myself up. I hold out my hand, adding, "Come on."

I can't stop myself from smiling when my fingers entwine with hers. It's a wonderful feeling, even if it is only one of friendship. I lead her back to the train, help her inside. I'm about to head in the direction of the car Portia told me was full of my paintings – I still don't know why we were supposed to bring along our talents – but she says, pulling away, "I've got to apologize to Effie first."

"Don't be afraid to lay it on thick," I say, only half joking.

While I'm waiting, I lean against the wall, my hands behind my back, and stare out the window at the grass waving in the wind. She's gone for only slightly longer than I thought she would be. I'm sure she spent ten minutes apologizing and the other fifteen were Effie accepting her apology as well as reprimanding her for saying what she did. The thought of Effie telling Katniss to mind her manners, makes me smile. We all know that isn't one of her strong suits and telling her to do something he's practically incapable of achieving is amusing to me. I'm sure that whoever else is in the dining car with them is thinking the same thing.

The minute she comes back, I take her hand and lead her down a few cars. When we finally come to the one containing my paintings, I'm beginning to think it might have been a bad idea to show her these, considering that Portia not only loaded the ones that I showed the cameras, but the others as well, the ones that were clearly from the Games.

There is undeniable shock and fear on Katniss' face when we enter the car. I watch as she goes through the paintings, observing some of the ones I think I did the best on as well as the ones I wish she wouldn't see. I notice she lingers nearest the ones that don't depict her or anything that's obviously from the Games. The one she stays nearest the longest is the one that shows the water dripping into our cave from outside. I don't know what intrigues her so much about this one, but I can see awe in her eyes. She's surprised at how well I can paint and, frankly, the more I think about it, so am I.

"What do you think?" I ask.

"I hate them," she says without hesitation. Really, it's the reaction I should have expected, but it still sends a pang through my chest. I've worked hard on every single one of these works and she hates them. However, her next words clarify her previous statement and the hurt lessens. "All I do is go around trying to forget the arena and you've brought it back to life. How do you remember these things so exactly?"

"I see them every night," I say, avoiding her eyes.

She knows what I mean. I'm sure of it. Nightmares. I'd be surprised if she doesn't have them too. Every night I'm back in the arena, trying to protect her and almost always I fail. There are other times when I'm taken back to the awful hallucinations I experienced after the attack from the tracker jackers. But it doesn't really matter what the nightmare is. It's always awful and I always wake up, paralyzed with fear, covered in cold sweat, afraid to move. Eventually I do, of course, but it takes a while.

"Me, too," she responds. "Does it help? To paint them out?"

"I don't know," I say, honestly. "I think I'm a little less afraid of going to sleep at night, or I tell myself I am. But they haven't gone anywhere."

"Maybe they won't," she says. "Haymitch's haven't."

"No. But for me, it's better to wake up with a paintbrush than a knife in my hand," I tell her. We've always known why Haymitch sleeps with a knife and it wasn't until we were in the Games ourselves that we understood why he drinks so much. I'm only thankful that I haven't turned to that. I have paints and canvases and images in my head that I can bring to life. I suppose it is easier to bring it to life than bury it. I know it'll only come back later.

"So you really hate them?" I ask, not feeling as wounded as I did before.

"Yes. But they're extraordinary. Really," she says. I know what she means. She means they're well painted. She just doesn't like the content. I wish I could paint something other than this, but I've yet to figure out how to do that.

"Want to see my talent? Cinna did a great job on it," she says.

I laugh. Though she claimed otherwise, everyone knows that Katniss has a talent. She can sing more beautifully than anyone any of us know. However, when Effie was suggesting talents for us and she said that, Katniss vehemently refused, so after she sent her a whole list of things she could take up – none of which she was particularly good at – she ended up speaking with Cinna, who decided to make a talent for her. I heard very little about it after that, but what I did know was that he created a bunch of dresses for her to show off to the cameras when they came before the Tour.

"Later," I assure her as the train lurches forward, propelling us closer to District 11. "Come on. We're almost to District 11. Let's go take a look at it."

The last seats on the train have a retractable roof that allows us to feel as though we're riding outside instead of inside when used. There are comfortable couches and chairs to sit on as well and we sit next to one another as we watch the world fly by. Unlike District 12, this part of the world is full of fields. There are animals dotted throughout the landscape, grazing on the grass, looking up in confusion as we pass. I'm just becoming comfortable with the land around us when things begin changing. First the train slows and I think we're stopping for fuel, but then I see a fence that goes thirty-five feet in the air. At the top are barbed wire coils, and as I think back to the fence in District 12, I know it's nothing like this one. It's not as vicious and deadly. At the base of the fence are metal plates that prevent any kind of escape if the guards in the towers spaced evenly throughout the district, surrounded by wildflowers, didn't see them first.

"That's something different," I say for lack of better words.

The only people I ever knew of from District 11 were Thresh and Rue and I thought that their lives were exactly like ours. District 12 is the poorest district in Panem and I'd always gotten the feeling that every other district was better off than us. Seeing what I am now, I know I was wrong. We're a paradise compared to this, which is little more than a living hell.

Now there are crops going by us. Intermixed are people, men, women and children, picking them, getting everything they can for the harvest. I'd never thought that any district was this big and I wonder how many children there actually are in this district. Not all of them can possibly fit into the square on reaping day. After we get through the crops, we're passing by the houses that are little more than shacks. I think about the houses I've seen in the Seam and they seem a lot more lavish.

"How many people do you think live here?" I ask, turning to Katniss, but she only shakes her head. No one except those who live here can possibly know the exact population.

I'm only beginning to try to take in all of the sights around me, but that's the moment when Effie whisks us off to get dressed. My prep team does my hair and makeup, but Portia is the one that puts me in my outfit. Almost as though she knows what Katniss and I were talking about early, she puts me in a white button up shirt, with a soft orange jacket and a matching pair of pants. My shoes are black and they seem out of place with the rest of my outfit.

Once Katniss and I are together, I can see that, as usual, our outfits match. Effie is going over the events for the day with us, but I'm not really listening. All I can focus on is how beautiful Katniss looks in her dress. Besides, Effie has gone over this so much that I could recite it in my sleep.

As we pull up into the station I can see that, though there are a multitude of people in this district, the place is rundown. My thoughts that this place wouldn't be a nice one to live in are only confirmed when we're ushered into the back of an armored van by a group of Peacekeepers the minute we exit the train. Of course Effie is appalled, but I don't say anything. After seeing everything I did on the train ride here, I don't know what else I could have expected.

From the van we are ushered into the Justice Building from the back. It smells like it's been sitting out in the rain for far too long. However, we're not given much time to look around before we're being pushed out onto the front steps of the building, which Effie refers to as the verandah, the anthem echoing in our ears as well as the mayor's words. The minute we're out in the sunlight, I glance to my left and right, seeing the families of Rue and Thresh. Where Rue has several brothers as sisters as well as two parents, Thresh only has a tall muscular girl, whom I can only assume is his sister and a hunchbacked old woman I assume is his grandmother.

After the mayor's finished talking, we are given a bouquet of exquisite flowers by two nicely dressed little girls. That's when I go up and speak the words that Effie wrote down on a notecard for me to say. Katniss finishes the speech and before I forget, I take a deep breath and begin the speech I prepared especially for Rue and Thresh.

"I never knew Rue and Thresh very well, but I do know that they made it down to the final eight and they both protected Katniss as much as they possibly could. Rue helped her after she was attacked by tracker jackers. She got her back on her feet and kept her alive. And Thresh…I can never thank him enough for sparing her life at the feast because she took such good care of Rue. If neither of them had kept Katniss alive, I would not be alive now, so I owe them my lives as much as she does." There's one last thing I want to say. I've been thinking about it ever since the beginning of the tour, but I never thought that I would actually say it. Still, I hesitate before I finally speak the words. "It can in no way replace your losses, but as a token of our thanks we'd like for each of the tributes' families from District 11 to receive one month of our winnings every year for the duration of our lives."

The shock of the crowd is clear. I know what this will do for them. This place is very poor and it is clear that these families are poor as well, but this will help them. This will perhaps help them go on, despite the loss of their children. When Katniss looks at me, I give her a sad smile, one that comes from the pain of knowing that there is nothing I can actually do to help these families, these people that are living in a world that can only destroy them. Still, when Katniss kisses me, I'm happy because I know she is happy, glad for what I am doing for the two people that she cared for the most in the arena.

The mayor comes up to us and gives us plaques so large that we have to set down our bouquets. The ceremony is ending, I'm turning to go back into the Justice Building, when Katniss shouts, "Wait! Wait, please." I turn to her, startled by her outburst, until she starts speaking. "I want to give my thanks to the tributes of District Eleven. I only ever spoke to Thresh one time. Just long enough for him to spare my life. I didn't know him, but I always respected him. For his power. For his refusal to play the Games on anyone's terms but his own. The Careers wanted him to team up with them from the beginning, but he wouldn't do it. I respected him for that."

She pauses and in that moment, I turn to Thresh's family. His grandmother is smiling. The crowd is silent. She turns to Rue's family then.

"But I feel as if I did know Rue, and she'll always be with me. Everything beautiful brings her to mind. I see her in the yellow flowers that grow in the Meadow by my house. I see her in the mockingjays that sing in the trees. But most of all, I see her in my sister Prim." Her voice is soft now, barely audible even with the assistance of the microphone attached to the front of her dress. "Thank you for your children. And thank you all for the bread."

The entire square is silent for several moments before in the back an old man whistles. I only ever heard the whistle once, but I know it's origin because Katniss told me our last day in the arena when we were sitting near the Cornucopia, waiting for the nightmare to end.

It's Rue's four-note tune.

Then, almost as if it were rehearsed, every person in the square presses their three middle fingers of their left hand to their lips, before raising them in Katniss' direction. How they know of this tradition that is something we use in District 12, I do not know, but I have to hold back my tears. They are as thankful for her as I am.

Our microphones cut off then and we're heading back inside. However, something in her expression tells me that she's uncomfortable and, with a concerned look on my face, I ask softly, "Are you alright?"

"Just dizzy," she responds, though I don't believe it at all. "The sun was so bright." She glances towards my bouquet and then adds, "I forgot my flowers."

"I'll get them," I offer.

"I can," she responds.

If she hadn't forgotten them, we would be inside by now and we would see nothing of what happens next. We would be safe from the horror that truly is District 11. But we aren't inside. We're still on the verandah and because of this we see it all. The old man being dragged to the stage, forced to his knees, and shot in the head.

Chapter Text

The shock I feel at having seen something so horrible fills me instantly. I'd thought that District 11 was not the happiest of places, but I had not thought that such things would happen. Of course, I was unused to it. District 12 rarely has any public killings. In fact, I can't think of one time I'd seen anyone murdered back home. It was foolish of me to think that this place was even slightly like our district. These thoughts are cut off almost instantly because I only get a glimpse of the man slamming into the concrete when a wall of Peacekeepers begins pushing us back into the building, their weapons pointing at our chests.

More concerned for Katniss' safety than my own, anger immediately fills me when one begins to press in on her. "We're going!" I shout, roughly pushing the Peacekeeper away. "We get it, alright? Come on, Katniss." I wrap my arm around her, pulling her back inside the Justice Building. The Peacekeepers follow us until we're in the door, then they slam it shut behind us.

I'm still staring at the door behind us when Effie runs over and asks, "What happened? We lost the feed just after Katniss' beautiful speech, and then Haymitch said he thought he heard a fun fire, and I said it was ridiculous, but who knows? There are lunatics everywhere!"

"Nothing happened, Effie," I lie, turning back to her, the image of the bullet going through the old man's skull replaying in my head over and over again. "An old truck backfired."

The minute these words pass my lips, they're completely discredited when we hear two more shots. I don't want to think about who those bullets were meant for. If Rue's or Thresh's families were hurt…I don't allow myself to complete the thought. I can't imagine something that awful happening, but here, just as Effie said, anything is possible. There are lunatics everywhere.

"Both of you. With me," Haymitch says, breaking off my train of thought. I want to ask why, but something tells me I'll find out soon enough, so I follow him and Katniss up a marble staircase, down a long hall, to a large lavish room. I know immediately this is where we will be having our dinner this evening. I'm so distracted by the exquisite designs around me, that I hardly notice Haymitch tearing the microphones off of both my chest and Katniss' before stuffing them under a couch cushion and continuing through the building.

We go up staircases, through doors, some that Haymitch has to force open from such a long period of being unused. I'm beginning to think there is no end to the place when finally we reach the dome of the Justice Building. It's dusty and filled with old weapons, furniture, and books. When Haymitch closes the door, we're immersed in a cloud of the stuff for a moment. When it settles, he turns to me and asks, "What happened?"

Quickly, I tell him all that occurred in the square. I don't omit anything. The whistle, the salute, Katniss forgetting her flowers, and the murder of the old man. For a moment, I think that half of this information is unnecessary, seeing as he probably saw it on the television in the Justice Building, but then I remember what Effie said about the feed cutting off and realize I said everything that needed to be. However, I have my own questions. I know that Haymitch – and Katniss – know something I don't. I hope I'm wrong, but still I ask, trying not to sound too suspicious, "What's going on Haymitch?"

Not to my complete surprise, he turns to Katniss and says, his eyes boring deep into hers, "It will be better coming from you."

The look in her eyes as she turns from Haymitch to me shows that she disagrees, but still she doesn't hesitate to relate everything she knows. She tells me about how President Snow came to her house, warning her about the uprisings in the districts. She tells me about the kiss she and Gale shared. Hearing her speak of it, pulls at my already fragile heartstrings. It's as if I'm reliving seeing what I did all over again. She finishes with how the berry trick was what started this all. "I was supposed to fix things on this tour," she explains. "Make everyone who had doubted believe I acted out of love. Calm things down. But obviously, all I've done today is get three people killed, and now everyone in the square will be punished." She collapses onto a nearby couch with the springs pushing up through the cushions.

"Then I made things worse, too. By giving the money," I whisper. Suddenly, anger fills me and I strike out at a lamp sitting on a crate, watching it sail across the room, shattering on the floor. Why have they not been telling me anything? What have I done wrong? As far as I know, nothing. "This has to stop. Right now," I tell them, my voice rising. "This – this – game you two play, where you tell each other secrets but keep them from me like I'm too inconsequential or stupid or weak to handle them."

"It's not like that, Peeta – " Katniss begins, but I know differently.

"It's exactly like that!" I yell at her. "I have people I care about, too, Katniss! Family and friends back in District 12 who will be just as dead as yours if we don't pull this thing off." That isn't entirely true, but still I pause for a moment, looking at my feet. My face because a mask of pain, my voice full of the agony as I turn back to her and say softly, "So, after all we went through in the arena, don't I even rate the truth from you?"

"You're always so reliably good, Peeta," Haymitch tells me. "So smart about how you present yourself before the cameras. I didn't want to disrupt that."

"Well, you overestimated me," I say, my voice still sad. "Because I really screwed up today. What do you think is going to happen to Rue's and Thresh's families? Do you think they'll get their share of our winnings? Do you think I gave them a bright future? Because I think they'll be lucky if they survive the day!" Again the anger is overpowering and I fling a statue towards the wall. I can't remember being this angry ever before.

"He's right, Haymitch," Katniss responds. "We were wrong not to tell him. Even back in the Capitol." I want to believe her, but I have a feeling that she's only saying this in an attempt to make up to me and currently I don't want to accept any apologies.

"Even in the arena, you two had some sort of system worked out, didn't you?" I ask. My voice is quieter now, the pain flowing through it again. "Something I wasn't part of." Really I don't have to ask about this one. I know the answer. I learned it when I found out that Katniss never really loved me. It was all an act.

"No," Katniss says. "Not officially. I just could tell what Haymitch wanted me to do by what he sent, or didn't send."

"Well, I never had the opportunity. Because he never sent me anything until you showed up," I say bitterly.

I'm not actually that angry with Haymitch for sending Katniss things, while sending me nothing. The only reason I feel this way now is because I understand what happened. Perhaps if Haymitch had done the same for me, I would have known Katniss was acting and our months of separation would never have happened. It would have been painful knowing that she never loved me and never would, but at least I wouldn't have felt cheated and lied to.

However, Haymitch doesn't know what's going on inside my head because he starts to say, "Look, boy – " But I cut him off.

"Don't bother, Haymitch," I say, my voice still full of its bitterness. "I know you had to choose one of us. And I'd have wanted it to be her. But this is something different. People are dead out there. More will follow unless we're very good. We all know I'm better than Katniss in front of cameras. But I have to know what I'm walking into."

"From now on, you'll be fully informed," Haymitch says, but I don't really believe him, which is the reason for my next words:

"I better be."

I leave the room, keeping my eyes off of Katniss. I slam the door behind me and somehow manage to find my way back down the twisting hallways and staircases to where Portia, Cinna, and Effie are still sitting in the room with the television. Portia raises a questioning eyebrow, but I pretend not to see it. When Effie asks what Haymitch told me, I tell her that he was simply trying to comfort us after what happened in the square. Of course, I realize I shouldn't have said this immediately after I do because she thought that what happened was nothing serious. She launches into a series of questions that I answer with lies. She buys all of them of course, and finally I am released to go with Portia to get into my clothing for the evening dinner in the nice room we walked through earlier.

Sometime before I'm whisked off to be made up for the evening this, Haymitch comes downstairs, locks me in a room, just the two of us and tells me I shouldn't have yelled at Katniss. I disagree. She deserves to know how I feel about the situation, but I don't argue. I only nod and let him think I'm listening, but I'm not really. All I can see is how angry I was in the dome. It scares me, but I refuse to let myself think about it in any more detail at the moment. I'll have to later, I know that, but for now, I'm going to keep my thoughts on the dinner, not what I've done.

Ambrose, Quinlan, and Lamia spent the day lounging in the train, until Portia called them to the Justice Building only an hour ago. They complain about how they were treated as well and I try to join in their conversation to get my mind off of what happened in the attic of the building. I tell them it was wrong of them to do what they did and they hastily agree before moving on to topics that I can't participate in without sounding like an idiot such as Capitol parties and clothing. Still, they try to describe everything to me and I'm thankful for it. My prep team may be a bunch of blithering idiots, but they're good company and it isn't until I'm left alone, waiting for Portia to come in with my costume that I remember what happened.

Today, my costume consists of a pale blue jacket, matching pants, and black boots as always. My hair is slicked back, my face made to look far better than it does. All of the usual things. As always, Portia is emotionless. Her aqua hair is still up in a mess bun, a few strands brushing the back of her neck. Not for the first time, I wonder how long her hair actually is.

"I know something else happened today," she says, adjusting my hair from the front, her eyes on it instead of mine. I open my mouth to tell her that she's wrong, but she adds, "I know you're not going to tell me." And that's the end of our conversation.

Only moments later, we leave the room and head downstairs. Haymitch, Effie, Cinna, and Katniss are already there. Effie's all upset, but I don't know what about. She clearly doesn't know what happened in the square and from what Portia said as well as the look on Cinna's face, I'm guessing that they do know. I don't ask why Effie never knows what's going on because I know she might say something without meaning to.

After going through the evening's schedule with us for the umpteenth time, she tosses it aside, saying, "And then, thank goodness, we can all get on that train and get out of here."

"Is something wrong, Effie?" Cinna asks. His voice is way too innocent to sound as though he truly knows nothing of the current situation.

"I don't like the way we've been treated. Being stuffed into trucks and barred from the platform. And then, about an hour ago, I decided to look around the Justice Building. I'm something of an expert in architectural design, you know."

I don't believe it, but Portia says, "Oh, yes, I've heard that."

"So, I was having a peek around because district ruins are going to be all the rage this year, when two Peacemakers showed up and ordered me back to our quarters," Effie exclaims, the shock evident in her voice. "One of them actually poked me with her gun!"

After I get over the initial shock of learning that the Capitol citizens are enjoying our state of disrepair, I realize that the reason Effie was treated the way she was head to do with Katniss, Haymitch, and I disappearing earlier in the day. A sigh of relief escapes my lips as I figure out that the dome was not being monitored until after we left. Or rather after Katniss and Haymitch left. I was too angry with them and too startled by my violent behavior to stay. Never once have I thought I am like my mother until then and it frightened me. Not for the first time, I'm afraid that if I have children, they will end up being battered by my bitterness and lack of self-control. It appears that if I'm angry enough that's what happens.

In what must be another attempt to calm her down, Katniss surprises us by giving Effie a hug and saying, "That's awful, Effie. Maybe we shouldn't go to the dinner at all. At least until they've apologized." We all know that won't happen. Effie's too punctual to do anything different than what is on her schedule. However, we also know that Katniss' suggestion wasn't a serious one. She only said what she did in an attempt to make our escort feel better, which is saying something, considering how rarely they get along.

As expected, Effie declines, "No, I'll manage. It's part of my job to weather the ups and downs. And we can't let you two miss your dinner. But thank you for the offer Katniss."

After that we're put in formation. The prep teams are first, then Effie, then the stylists. Haymitch is the last to enter before Katniss and I do. As the music begins to play, I lace my fingers through Katniss'.

"Haymitch says I was wrong to yell at you," I tell her, my voice soft. "You were only operating under his instructions. And it isn't as if I haven't kept things from you before."

I'm referring to when I announced to the world that I loved her. She didn't know and for a long time she thought it was just an act. When she found out it was the truth, she was shocked. I was shocked that she didn't love me back, but I've gotten over that now. It still hurts my heart every time I think back to that moment, but it's in the past and I'm trying to forget that.

"I think I broke a few things myself after that interview," she says, confirming she understood what I was talking about.

"Just an urn," I respond.

"And your hands," she adds. "There's no point to it anymore, though, is there? Not being straight with each other?"

"No point," I say, but my mind is elsewhere. In the past. I can't stop myself from saying, "Was that really the only time you kissed Gale?" I'm not looking at her. I'm watching Haymitch's footsteps. Effie told us to follow him after he had a fifteen step lead.

She doesn't answer immediately, but I'm not surprised. This isn't any of my business. She has every right to keep her mouth shut or tell me that she wants to keep that private. I would respect that, though it would pull at my heartstrings even more. Of course, I wouldn't tell her this. That would be cruel. However I must have startled her because she says, "Yes."

"That's fifteen. Let's do it," I say, not commenting on the last word.

When the light hits us, Katniss puts on a one-hundred percent fake smile that lights up every bit of her face save for her eyes. Then we descend the steps and are pulled into ceremonies and dinners that are all the same. We are dressed in a hundred different outfits. Made to look nothing like ourselves. All the while, we appear far more innocent than we actually are. At least during the dinners and ceremonies. Then we put on the biggest show of love we ever had. We kiss every time we aren't speaking. We dance whenever we're given the chance. Several times we're caught trying to sneak off together. Of course, those were orchestrated and we made as much noise as possible. In the end, we wondered how long it would take for people to find us. We began betting on it. Katniss tended to win.

Things are different on the train. We're solemn, afraid, wondering if we're doing what we need to. However, when we go to districts 4, 8, and 3, we can see that, though we have every Capitol citizen convinced we were acting out of love with those berries, the districts don't care one way or another. They've been waiting for an opportunity like this for a long time and finally we've given it to them. Even though we stick to our written speeches, don't make it sound like we're trying to initiate anything, we convince no one. As I'm sure Katniss knows, we're too late. There isn't anything we can do to stop the unrest.

My worry for her comes to an all-time high as she begins losing weight from lack of eating, looking so tired it takes hours for her prep team to fix her up. I know the reason she's so concerned: she may lose everyone she's ever loved if she doesn't pull this off. It's filling her with an anxiety she can't control. This is displayed even more clearly when I hear her screaming in her room during the night. I walk around the train in an attempt to sleep myself, but all I can think about is her and how I'm not doing my job in protecting her. However, I'm given the chance to do that again when I go into her room when she awakes from a nightmare. I wake her up and comfort her. I climb into her bed, holding her until she falls asleep. I rarely sleep during these times. I simply watch her, waiting for any signs that she may be trapped within her mind again, but most of the time she doesn't scream a second time. Our sleeping arrangement isn't a secret and everyone is soon asking us what we're doing in the dark of the night alone. I never give details, hoping that one of the Capitol citizens might report this to President Snow, helping our cause to convince him Katniss is in madly in love with me and can't survive without me.

When we're on our final train ride to the Capitol before we get to go home, Katniss suggests that I propose to her in public. I knew this was coming, but still I return to my room and don't leave until we've reached the Capitol. I keep wishing that what was happening was real, but it's not. I'm going to marry a girl who doesn't love me to keep her safe. I must love her lot – maybe too much – to do this.

So I do as I am told during our interview with Caesar Flickerman. The entire audience has gone completely insane and on the screens all over the square I can see every district is happy for us. I wonder if they really are or if they're only reacting out of what they feel they must do. This confuses me. If they want an uprising, why aren't they glaring at their screens? Perhaps they actually are happy. I'm still contemplating this when President Snow arrives. He holds my hand between both of his own before giving me a gentle slap on the shoulder. Then he moves on to Katniss. I have to restrain myself from pushing him away from her when he wraps his arms around her in a hug. When he pulls away, he's staring into her eyes.

I don't have to guess what is happening.

I know.

In her own way, Katniss is asking him if she did what she promised to do. She's asking if she gets to live, if her family gets to live. I won't know the answer until later, probably much later, but I content myself with staring out into the crowd, beaming, trying to calm my rapidly beating heart.

Chapter Text

When Snow finally moves away from Katniss, I can see that her posture has improved. She is standing taller, she looks far more determined than she has the past several weeks. I would like to assume this means that she did as the president asked and everything is alright. We are going to be fine. Life will continue on. It will all go back to normal. We no longer need to worry. However, after spending so much time with Katniss, I know that her determination, her confidence, the smile that turns up the corners of her mouth could also mean she has learned she did not accomplish what she was told to. The minute this thought crosses my mind, I notice that the look on her face is more insane than happy.

President Snow silences the audience effortlessly. Once the last of the babble has simmered down, he says, "What do you think about us throwing them a wedding right here in the Capitol?" While Katniss jumps around, seeming excited beyond words, the audience cheers so loudly I barely hear Caesar Flickerman ask if the president has a date in mind and when he responds the audience quiets once more.

"Oh, before we set a date, we better clear it with Katniss's mother." The audience laughs and the president puts his arm around her. I freeze, clenching my hands into fists. It takes all my willpower not to push him away from her. I don't want those bloodstained fingers anywhere near someone I care for as much as Katniss. "Maybe if the whole country puts its mind to it, we can get you married before you're thirty," he adds.

"You'll probably have to pass a new law. "Katniss giggles. It's so unlike her, I'm hardly able to hold back the wince.

"If that's what it takes," he responds, his voice equally jovial.

The party at the president's mansion is the most glorious I've been to thus far. The ceiling is forty feet high, but it looks like the night sky. People playing a variety of instruments each float on their own individual cloud. It's impossible to see what's holding them up. Regular dining tables have been removed and replaced by the most comfortable of sofas and chairs, each near a fireplace, indoor garden, or pond filled with exotic fish. In the center of the room is the dance floor, but it is used for far more than that. Some people stand on the edges and talk. Several times, a group of performers takes over the area, entertaining everyone in the room.

However, the main attraction is the food. Countless tables lining the room are covered with the stuff. There is not a single dish I have ever tasted or seen that is not being exhibited tonight. In fact, the majority of the food, I have never seen before. The food is placed in such a way that it would seem as though it were more of a decoration than something edible. The cheeses are stacked on top of one another to form elaborate pyramids. There are animals still roasting on spits, and all of the beverages are made into some sort of fountain.

"I want to taste everything in the room," Katniss tells me.

For a moment, I'm confused. She seems so determined and eager. The thought that we could have failed in our mission to keep seems ridiculous when I see the look in her eyes now. How could we have not done as the president asked? Wouldn't she be struggling to keep herself from falling apart if she hadn't?

No, I tell myself. She's stronger than that. She knows she can't do that here now.

This thought reminds me I can't appear to be confused in any way when we're in front of this many cameras. However, when I respond, I'm not smiling. I don't know how I look right now, but it isn't the appearance of a groom, excited about his wedding. I'm only hoping it can be passed off as concern for his bride instead. "Then you'd better pace yourself."

"Okay, no more than one bite of each dish," she says, but she doesn't keep this promise. At the first table, she encounters a soup that she says she could eat all night. However, she doesn't do this either. The minute we stumble upon a soup of green broth, she eats that, and then another bit of a pink soup with raspberries floating through it.

Everyone at the party is vying for our attention, so we don't try to seek out company. We eat and talk. Each name goes in one ear and out the other. Before too long, we're both full to bursting, which is when Katniss' prep team finds us.

A plump woman with green skin asks, "Why aren't you eating?"

"I have been," she responds. "But I can't hold another bite." The trio laughs.

"No one lets that stop them," the man of the three says. We follow them over to a table covered in small wineglasses filled with clear liquid. He holds one up. "Drink this!"

No harm in doing so, I suppose. I pick one up, but just as I'm bringing it to my lips, the group begins laughing again. I glance at Katniss, puzzled, but my attention is taken away from her a moment later by the plump woman. "Not here!"

"You have to do it in there," the other woman responds, point towards the bathrooms. "Or you'll get it all over the floor!"

Glancing at the glass, I understand. "You mean with will make me puke?"

The group continues laughing. "Of course, so you can keep eating," the plump woman tells me. "I've been in there twice already. Everyone does it, or else how would you have any fun at a feast?"

Katniss is just as appalled as I am. The small glasses that look so innocent and delicate are filled with something I am completely against. The one I'm holding is immediately set back on the table, carefully replaced amongst the others, the rows looking just as neat as they did before I disturbed them. Pulling my hand quickly away, I say, "Come on, Katniss. Let's dance."

Neither of us know how to dance, but Effie showed us how to do something called a waltz, so that's what I do when I pull Katniss into my arms. I move us around the dance floor for a while, keeping my lips pressed tightly together. I keep glancing around, wondering how on earth these people can do this and be alright with it. For them it's fun. They're not sick. They make themselves throw up, so they can continue stuffing themselves.

Images of the emaciated children huddled together on the streets of District 12 come back to me and I say to Katniss, in a strained voice, "You go along, thinking you can deal with it, thinking maybe they're not so bad, and then you –" But I can't say anymore. I'm on the verge of breaking things again like I was the day I learned of all Katniss and Haymitch had been hiding from me. Instead of damaging the nicely carved statues, I want to overturn the table covered in those small little glasses, watch them shatter. They wouldn't be able to continue eating anymore. They would have to realize what they were doing was wrong. But I know that isn't what would happen. They'd only think of me as someone who ruined their party. Besides, it would only hurt us in the long run.

"Peeta, they bring us here to fight to the death for their entertainment," she responds. "Really, this is nothing by comparison."

"I know. I know that. It's just sometimes I can't stand it anymore. To the point where…I'm not sure what I'll do." I pause before I whisper, "Maybe we were wrong Katniss."

"About what?"

"About trying to subdue things in the districts."

She glances quickly, left and right, but I don't think anyone heard us. The camera crew is interviewing someone else and every other person surrounding us is too self-absorbed to be thinking about us right now. Still, what I said should not have been voiced. It's too dangerous. Especially if I'm wrong and Katniss' strength is not a result of our triumph.

"Sorry," I say, but I don't really mean it. I shouldn't have said this right now, but I meant every word. We should have given those in the districts more courage to stand up against this failed democracy.

"Save it for home," she says and I can tell by her tone she's upset with me.

I'm not given a chance to apologize, however. Only moments later, Portia comes over and introduces us to the new Head Gamemaker, Plutarch Heavensbee. He asks me if he can dance with her and, though every part of me is screaming, 'no', I say yes, adding that he better not become too attached to my future wife. Once they're off, spinning around the dance floor, Portia leads me away towards the cakes. I see a group of bakers such as myself sitting there whispering to one another, occasionally glancing in my direction. I give her a questioning look, but she shakes her head.

Our form of communication needs no words. I know what she means. She could see how agitated I was becoming. She knew I needed to get away, so she called together a bunch of the Capitol's finest chefs and told them I wanted to speak with them. This isn't entirely untrue, but at the moment, I'm not interested in talking to anyone from this wretched place. However, when I see the cakes I'm presented with, I'm shocked at the perfection of them. My hatred is forgotten and I immediately begin questioning them on their frosting techniques, how they get things to look a certain way or stay upright without falling or being crushed by their own weight. Soon I am absorbed in our conversation and I lose track of time. I'm just asking for some of the cakes to be sent home with me, so I can examine them in private when Katniss comes up behind me. I wave the bakers away, more than satisfied with all the information I've received and say, "Effie said we have to be on the train at one. I wonder what time it is." I look around, my eyes searching for a clock.

"Almost midnight," she tells me. She pulls one of the chocolate flowers from a cake with her friends and eats it. Effie would be appalled, but I know she couldn't care less.

"Time to say thank you and farewell!"

Speak of the devil.

Effie's punctuality is what gets us out of the mansion and to the train at exactly one in the morning. Haymitch is put in his room, beyond wasted. Cinna gets us all tea and we drink it, while Effie goes through the last of our schedule, which will be the Harvest Festival back home. She tells us we should finish our tea and go to bed. None of us argue.

Instead of going to my room and waiting for Katniss to start screaming, I sit outside her door until I'm sure she's asleep before going in and joining her in bed. I'd rather be there when she first wakes instead of after she's been shrieking for a while. I do my best to keep myself awake, but in the end, I drift off and when I open my eyes again, I'm frozen, terrified, images of my own nighttime horrors still lingering in my mind. I'm scared until feel Katniss in my arms. Then I relax and fall asleep again. The next time I open my eyes, a soft afternoon light is streaming through the windows. I've only just begun to stretch, ready to greet the new day, when I feel Katniss stirring. I turn back to her. She's moving slowly, trying not to wake me, but when she notices I'm already awake, I smile and say softly, "No nightmares."

"What?" she asks.

"You didn't have any nightmares last night."

As often as Katniss has nightmares, I have them twice the amount. I can't remember a night since the end of the Games where I didn't wake up covered in a cold sweat, terrified that I hadn't done my job, hadn't protected her, and that she'd died.

"I had a dream though," she says, waking me from my thoughts. "I was follow a mockingjay through the woods. For a long time. It was Rue, really. I mean, when it sang, it had her voice."

"Where she take you?" I ask, instinctively brushing her hair from her forehead.

"I don't know. We never arrived," she replies. "But I felt happy."

"Well, you slept like you were happy," I respond, thinking back.

"Peeta, how come I never know when you're having a nightmare?" she asks.

Of all the questions she might have asked, I didn't expect this to be one. It takes me a minute to respond, but in the end, I say, "I don't know. I don't think I cry out or thrash around or anything. I just come to, paralyzed with terror." And as I say it, I know it's true. A perfect example is what happened only a few moments ago. I just opened my eyes, frozen, scared, no words uttered, no movements made.

"You should wake me," she says, but I'm shaking my head before she finishes speaking.

"It's not necessary," I tell her. "My nightmares are usually about losing you. I'm okay once I realize you're here."

The minute I say it, I know I've said something that upset her. She hates it when I say things like this because it reminds her of how deeply she hurt me by letting me know that her love for me was only an act. I don't mean to upset her. I'm only answering her question truthfully, but because of the look on her face, I wish I hadn't added on the last bit, though, to be honest, it came out before I could do anything to stop it. I take a deep breath to say something else, but when I speak again, I say nothing better than what I did before.

"Be worse when we get home and I'm sleeping alone again."

We speak very little for the rest of the journey. We get off the train, see our families briefly on the platform. My mother actually hugs and kisses me. She's been far more amiable since I won the Hunger Games and came home. She still disagrees with my love for Katniss, but she doesn't say so in public. She only implies it when I visit the house sometimes.

Chapter Text

The light streaming in through my bedroom window is muted. It reminds me of the light that filtered through my curtains the morning of the reaping, but, unlike then, I'm already awake and I've been standing next to the window, waiting to watch Katniss leave for quite some time. I don't have to wait long. I see her walk out of her home and head towards her old house in the Seam only a half an hour after. However, unlike before, I am unable to see her crawl under the fence and head towards the woods. The Victor's Village is facing the opposite direction.

Today is Sunday and, from many days having looked out my bedroom window back at the bakery, I know that today is the day Katniss and Gale go hunting together in the woods. They kissed once and I don't think they have or will again, but that doesn't stop my jealousy. It should not surprise me that she would make sure she had a special time for just the both of them since they rarely see one another anymore, but I still wish that it was me she was meeting not him.

You already spend ample time with her, a voice reminds me. You have to spend nearly every waking moment with her so the country believes you're in love with her.

Except I am in love with her. It's actually her that has to be convincing. She has to make the country believe she's in love with me. I still don't know if she succeeded in that mission, but I don't want to worry about that right now. Right now, I want to do something that will take my mind off of Katniss, off of the Victory Tour, and off of what we had to do to keep ourselves safe from President Snow and his small group of personal assassins.

Drawing my curtains back around my windows, I throw on some warm comfortable clothes and head downstairs towards my baking kitchen. The cakes that I asked to be sent home with me are still sitting in the refrigerator and, since I have nothing better to do, I might as well examine them and try to copy the designs on them to the best of my ability. However, when I have the cakes out and am just about to make the batter, my motivation dies. Before I waste anymore ingredients, I put everything away again and head to my room for my paintings.

Today when I begin sketching out my drawing on the stretch of canvas, I find this isn't a depiction of the Games. It's Katniss in the woods. I realize quickly that it's the woods that were in the Games, but no one else would know that. It could be the woods here in District 12. When I finish the initial sketch and begin painting, I don't use the same colors that covered the trees in the arena. I conjure images of what the forest here looks like during the spring and use those instead. Before too long, the woods are not the ones I walked through in the arena. They're the ones I used to see outside my window every day when I got up in the morning back when I lived at the bakery. The image makes me smile.

By now, the sun is up and shining brightly through the window. The way it falls on my painting, makes the light streaming through trees in the picture three dimensional. For a few moments more, I stare at the image, fascinated by how it appears. Then I blink and bring myself back to reality. Today is Sunday and that also means I have to go have dinner with my family tonight. I'm not exactly eager to see them, but there are times I feel homesick. I miss my father. He was the one person who truly cared for me when no one else did and being away from him for so long, living alone in the Victor's Village, can be painful.

I leave my painting room, wash my hands, put on a jacket, some gloves, and boots, before I leave my house and head down the path towards town. I'm about halfway there when I spot Katniss. Though I'm glad to see her, I'm beginning to think more and more that her escapades to the woods aren't a good idea and this isn't only due to the fact I'm jealous of Gale. It isn't going to be long before the authority around here is changed and once it is, she'll be punished for going outside of the district's borders.

"Been hunting?" I ask as she approaches.

"Not really," she responds. I believe that. "Going to town?"

"Yes. I'm supposed to eat dinner with my family," I tell her.

"Well, I can at least walk you in," she responds. From the way she begins chewing on her lip and taking short breaths, I can tell she has something she wants to speak to me about and before I can ask what's wrong, she says, "Peeta, if I asked you to run away from the district with me, would you?"

The sentence stops me dead in my tracks. This question reveals everything. We didn't succeed. Snow didn't believe our love was genuine. It's because of this, I know beyond a doubt that she's serious, she means every word she said, but still I take her arm, making her stop as well. "Depends on why you're asking."

"President Snow wasn't convinced by me," she confirms. "There's an uprising in District Eight. We have to get out."

"By 'we' do you mean just you and me? No. Who else would be going?" I ask. Why I ever thought for a moment that it would be just her and I escaping into the wild is beyond me. Though we're friends we're not more than that, though I'd like to be. And she loves her family more than she loves anyone else in the world. Even if she ever does love me, she'll never love me as much as she loves Prim.

"My family," she says, unsurprisingly. "Yours, if they want to come. Haymitch, maybe."

The last two surprise me. I'd have thought she would have mentioned someone else. So I mention him instead, "What about Gale?"

"I don't know," she responds. "He might have other plans."

Smiling ruefully, I shake my head. "I bet he does," I say. He wouldn't run off into the wild with her. As much as Gale cares for her, he'd want to stay in District 12 and start an uprising like the one Katniss claims is happening in Eight. He wouldn't want to give up and hide. He isn't that kind of person. He would much rather fight. "Sure, Katniss," I add at the last second. "I'll go."

"You will?"

"Yeah," I say. "But I don't think for a minute you will."

She pulls her arm away from me, scowling. "Then you don't know me," she hisses. "Be ready. It could be at any time." As she stars walking back down the path, me following slowly behind, I think of a way to explain to her why I said what I did. She wouldn't leave because, in the end, she would realize that her mother and sister as well as Gale's siblings are not accustomed to the wild. Even if Katniss and Gale took care of us as well as they possibly could, we would still be captured and killed or tortured. The two of them are silent hunters. They know how to move through a forest without making a sound, but the rest of us – me in particular with my prosthetic leg – wouldn't be as quiet. Anyone looking for us would find us all too soon. Katniss is too smart to not realize this before she pulled us all into the woods.

"Katniss," I finally say. She slows. "Katniss, hold up." She kicks a bit of ice, blackened from the coal that has settled on every surface in District 12. She stops, waiting for me. "I really will go with you, if you want me to," I assure her. "I just think we better talk it through with Haymitch. Make sure we won't be making things worse for everyone." I'm just thinking that he could tell her what I was just contemplating if she doesn't figure it out herself when I hear a whistling, then the sound of something slapping against something else. "What's that?"

As Katniss is lifting her, listening as I am, I realize what it is.

It's the sound of a whip.

Something tells me that I don't want to go any farther into town. I want to turn back. Go home. Forget what I've heard and push it to the back of my mind. However, at the same time, I'm certain that if I do this, something even more terrible will happen, so I say, "Come on."

The square is packed. I can't see anything. I go over to the sweetshop and pull myself up onto the crates to see above the people. I'm about to squint in an attempt to better see what's happening, but I don't have to. It's all too clear to me what's happening. In the center of the circle of people, I see Gale tied to a pole with a turkey nailed above him. He's unconscious, only held up by the bindings on his wrist. His back is covered in blood as is the whip in the hand of a man I've never seen before.

I know I can't let Katniss see this, so before she is up on the box with me, I'm pushing her back down, blocking her way, "Get down. Get out of here!" My voice is whisper, but it's full of panic and desperation. I know she's not going to listen to me, but I have to at least try to get her out of here, so I can stop this and she doesn't have to see what's happened. I know she'll learn of it soon enough, but I don't want her to see this. I don't know what it would do to her if she did. Probably break her already fragile heart.

"What?" she asks, trying to push past me.

"Go home, Katniss!" I say, my anxiety beginning to creep into my voice. "I'll be there in a minute, I swear!"

She doesn't listen. She does exactly what I was praying she wouldn't. She pulls away from me and begins shoving her way through the crowd towards the center. I follow her, hearing every voice that warns her to go home, to go back because her appearance won't help him. I try to grab her arm to yank her away, but by the time I finally have a clear shot at doing so, I'm too late. She's reached the center of the square and can see clearly what is happening. However, I can tell from the look on her face she doesn't fully understand what is going on, until the man raises the whip again. Then her eyes widen and I know beyond a doubt that this day is not going to end well. I'm not going to be dining with my family. I'm not going to be going home tonight. Something bad is about to happen and I'm going to be caught in the center of it all whether I want to be or not.

Chapter Text

There is nothing I can do to stop Katniss from running to place herself between the whip and Gale. I stumble forwards, trying to grab the sleeve of her jacket, but I'm too late and I nearly fall on my face. No one around me notices, however. Their gazes are locked on what is going on only a few feet in front of me. I regain my composure just in time to see the whip hit Katniss in the face. A collective breath is drawn from the crowd and, though I want to get up and put myself in harm's way to save her, I'm frozen with shock. She falls to her knees, landing in Gale's blood that covers the cobblestones beneath our feet. I watch as she presses her hand to her cheek that's already swelling up. Even though she's clearly in a lot of pain, she manages to look up and shriek at the tall imposing man, "Stop it! You'll kill him!"

It's clear the man has no intention of doing so and will whip her if necessary when a voice, stern and familiar calms me instantly with two words. "Hold it!" I turn and see Haymitch shoving his way through the crowd. He steps over a fallen Peacekeeper that I recognize as Darius. There's a large purple lump on his head and I wonder what happened to put it there. A part of me already knows, but I don't have time to think about that right now. My attention is drawn back to Katniss and Haymitch when he pulls her to her feet and says, examining her bruised and bleeding face, "Oh, excellent. She's got a photo shoot next week modeling wedding dresses. What am I supposed to tell her stylist?"

Though others may not think so, even without her makeup and her braid stuffed in her hood, Katniss is very recognizable. How this man didn't realize it was her before baffles me. If her face didn't give her away, then her clothes should have. She wears the most expensive clothing in the district save for Mayor Undersee and the Peacekeepers. However, he recognizes her after Haymitch speaks. Either that or he knows Haymitch's looks enough that he can put two and two together.

The man pulls the whip away from Katniss, letting it drag along the ground. "She interrupted the punishment of a confessed criminal."

Everything about this man shrieks that he was sent her to put us in our places. After our failed attempt at subduing the districts, Snow must have decided, before he kills us, he has to make our lives a living hell. This is only the beginning. What will follow I can only imagine will be ten times as worse as what I'm seeing right now.

"I don't care if she blew up the blasted Justice Building!" Haymitch shouts. "Look at her cheek! Think that will be camera ready in a week?"

"That's not my problem," the man replies. Though his voice is chilled and full of hostility, there is doubt underneath that. He knows how popular Katniss is and the thought that he might have ruined her for the rest of the world is something that unsettles him. I wonder what Snow would do if he'd done to her what he did to Gale?

"No? Well, it's about to be, my friend," Haymitch responds, confirming the man's worries, though I know he won't really do anything. "The first call I make when I get home is to the Capitol. Find out who authorized you to mess up my victor's pretty little face."

"He was poaching," the man says. "What business is it of hers, anyway"

"He's her cousin," I say, stepping up to Katniss' other side, taking her arm. "And she's my fiancée. So if you want to get to him, expect to go through both of us."

If anyone else were to do what Katniss, Haymitch, and I are doing, they'd surely fail. Everyone else in this square is just a normal citizen of Panem. Disposable in the Capitol's eyes. Unnecessary. Replaceable if need be. If any of these people were to try this, they'd be whipped too. Either that or they would simply be killed. I know that, though we're able to stop this now, later something is going to happen to make us regret, if only slightly what we're doing. And as much as I try not to think about that, it's close to the only thing running through my mind.

A Peacekeeper, a woman, whom I believe has the name Purnia steps forward and says, her voice curt and stiff, "I believe, for a first offense, the required number of lashes has been dispensed, sir. Unless your sentence is death, which we would carry out by firing squad."

"Is that the standard protocol here?" The man asks. It's only now that I really study him and notice that, not only does he appear more threatening and dangerous as I originally thought, but he is wearing what can only be the uniform of the Head Peacekeeper. My brow creases slightly as I begin to wonder what happened to Cray. Probably too soft for President Snow's liking. This man is exactly what he thinks District 12 needs.

"Yes, sir," Purnia says. The Peacekeepers surrounding her nod assent.

"Very well," the man says at last. "Get your cousin out of here, then, girl. And if he comes to, remind him that the next time he poaches on the Capitol's land, I'll assemble that firing squad personally." He wipes off the whip with one hand and splatters all of us with flecks of Gale's blood.

As the Peacekeepers begin marching away and Katniss runs over to Gale, I think of how the man said, "If he comes to…" instead of "when". The thought that Gale could be dead before the day is out frightens me. If he dies, what will become of Katniss? She'll turn into what I would have had I come home alone: an emotional wreck, unable to handle life any longer. Gale has been her best friend for who knows how long and if he died now when she needs him the very most, she'd shatter. As close as we are, I could never help her if this boy dies.

"Better get him to your mother," Haymitch says.

A nearby woman sells us the board that she uses as a tabletop for her clothing store. We decide to use this as a stretcher. We put Gale on the board facedown. Then myself, Haymitch, and two men I don't know lift him up and begin carrying him back towards Katniss' house. She doesn't follow us right away. I hear her speaking to someone, a young girl I think, but only a few minutes later she's caught up with us and Haymitch is ordering her to put snow on her cheek. Her eye is tearing up now and the entire left side of her face is black and blue and purple.

As we walk, the two men I do not know, describe what happened. Gale went to trade with Cray, but instead he came upon this man whose name is Romulus Thread. No one knows what happened to Cray, but they didn't really have time to wonder. Before too long, Gale was dragged out into the square, unable to plead innocent seeing as he had that turkey on him when he knocked on the door of the Justice Building, before being whipped. He was conscious for the first twenty lashes. After that he fell unconscious.

"Lucky he only had the turkey on him," says one of the men. "If he'd had his usual haul, would've been much worse."

"He told Thread he found it wandering around the Seam. Said it got over the fence and he'd stabbed it with a stick. Still a crime. But if they'd known he'd been in the woods with weapons, they'd have killed him for sure," the other adds.

"What about Darius?" I ask, remembering the man Haymitch stepped over to get to Katniss when he arrived at the scene.

"After about twenty lashes, he stepped in, saying that was enough. Only he didn't do it smart and official, like Purnia did," the first man responds. "He grabbed Thread's arm and Thread hit him in the end with the butt of the whip. Nothing good waiting for him."

"Doesn't sound like much goof for any of us," Haymitch puts in.

As it begins to snow, thick and wet, chilling us to the bone, I wonder what is going to become of Darius. Really, he shouldn't be punished for what he did, but I know he will be. For a moment, I wonder how in the world is anyone in the Capitol going to learn of this, but I figure it out almost immediately. Thread will call them. Still, I don't know what they can do. Really, I hope I never find out.

When we reach Katniss' house, her mother opens the door. Her eyes widen slightly at the scene before her, but when Haymitch explains, she only nods and lets us in. We set Gale on the table in the kitchen and watch as she goes to work, trying to help him. I move away, but Katniss sits and watches until her mother orders her to get more snow on her cheek. After she does so, she returns to the kitchen and continues speaking with her mother. I stand in the doorway, doing nothing, barely listening. The only time I look up is when Gale's mother bursts through the door and sits next to her son, clutching his hand in both of her own. I'm knocked back into reality when I hear Gale moan. Katniss' mother and Prim are making some sort of concoction that I'm assuming will help him, but before I even have time to be grateful Katniss is protesting.

"That won't be enough. That won't be enough, I know how it feels. That will barely knock out a headache."

"We'll combine it with sleep syrup, Katniss, and he'll manage it," her mother responds. The herbs are more for the inflammation –" But Katniss doesn't let her finish.

"Just give him the medicine!" she shrieks. "Give it to him! Who are you, anyway, to decide how much pain he can stand!"

The sound of her voice must register in Gale's ears because he begins reaching for her, which only causes him more pain. That's when her mother orders us to take her out of the room, which is quite a chore considering she's trying to get away and screaming in our ears the whole time. Somehow we manage to get her to her room and pin her to the bed. When she stops thrashing about, we let go of her and she begins to cry. Neither of us try to console her because we know that's a moot point, so I turn to Haymitch and tell him about the uprising in District 8.

"She wants us all to run," I say. I expect him to answer with some sort of comment that is neither for nor against the idea, but he stays silent altogether. The both of us do until Katniss' mother comes in and tries to comfort her daughter.

This simple act makes me feel as though someone has reached inside my chest and is twisting my heart. Though Katniss may have come from the Seam and not always had enough to eat, she is one of the luckiest girls I know. She has a family who loves her more dearly than anything else and seeing how her mother treats her in comparison with mine is damaging. I don't hear the next bit of conversation I'm so focused on these facts. I'm leaning against the wall, my teeth gritted from the memories of the times my mother beat me. No one notices my struggle to keep myself from falling apart, of course, but I think that's better. What needs to be thought about is what Haymitch and Katniss' mother are discussing right now: what's going to happen to District 12 now that there's a new head?

There really isn't much time to contemplate that seeing as the doorbell rings only a few seconds later. Though it's neither been confirmed or denied, we're all thinking the same thing: Peacekeepers and when Katniss says, "They can't have him," I'm almost completely convince that that's who is at her door.

"Might be you they're after," Haymitch says, which is probably true. If they've come for Gale, then they've most definitely come for Katniss also.

"Or you," she says.

"Not my house," Haymitch reminds her. "But I'll get the door."

"No, I'll get it," her mother responds, her voice a deadly quiet.

As we all make our way downstairs, I think of what could happen to Katniss if there really are Peacekeepers at the door. Nothing good, of course. Probably pain. Gale is a clear example of that. They can't have her. And I silently promise I won't let them take her, though the more I think about it, the more I realize that it's unlikely it's Peacekeepers. Thread may be the new head, but after witnessing Purnia's defiance today, I don't think that even they would do anything more for this man. However, I've often been wrong and this could very well be one of those occasions. However, the person that is at the door is no one any of us suspected.

Madge, the mayor's daughter.

The minute the door opens, she holds out a cardboard box that is clearly meant for Katniss. "Use these for your friend," she says. Katniss takes the box and lifts up the lid. I can't see what's inside, but I can only assume its medicine. "They're my mother's. She said I could take them. Use them, please." And then she's gone.

"Crazy girl," Haymitch says softly as we head back into the kitchen. I can hardly disagree with him on this one. Of all the things Madge could or should have done, maybe this wasn't one of them. I only think that until I see Katniss' mother pull out a syringe from the box and shoot the clear liquid inside into Gale's arm. His face which was a mask of pain only moments before relaxes immediately.

"What is that stuff?" I ask.

"It's from the Capitol," Katniss' mother replies. "It's called morphling."

"I didn't even know Madge knew Gale," I say, staring at the boy on the countertop.

"We used to sell her strawberries," Katniss says. Her tone of voice holds a slight twinge of annoyance, but only someone who has been around her for an extended period of time, such as me, would hear that.

"She must have quite a taste for them," Haymitch says.

"She's my friend," is all she says in response.

Even though Haymitch and I offer to stay, Katniss' mother sends us home. I take my time leaving. I slowly put on my jacket, lace up my boots. Haymitch waits for me, even though he doesn't really have to, but I know why he does. He wants to walk me home and talk to me along the way, which is rather out of his way, seeing as he lives on Katniss' other side. Normally, this wouldn't be such a big deal, but with the way the snow's starting to come down and the chill that hangs in the air, it actually is.

When we do finally leave the house, he holds the door open for me, which is very uncharacteristic of him, but the moment we're outside, alone in the snow, I find out why.

"You know what this means, don't you?" he asks as we start walking.

No, I don't actually, so I give him a puzzled look. He responds with a raised eyebrow and a sigh, but explains anyway.

"She's not going to leave now."

"What makes you say that?" I ask. Clearly he's picked up on something I haven't.

We reach my house and I go up the few steps that lead to my front door. My hand is on the doorknob when I turn back to look at Haymitch for an answer. He shrugs, stopping at the foot of the steps. "She loves him."

The words freeze me. Haymitch notices, I'm sure, but he turns on his heel and begins heading towards his home almost immediately after he's spoken. My fingers are getting cold, since I forgot to put my gloves back on and the air is beginning to bite at my face, but still I don't move. Not only because this revelation is shocking and heartbreaking, but because it's something I should have known, something I should have picked up on the minute I saw her trying to protect Gale in the square.

Trying not to think about anything else on that subject, I turn the knob and go inside. I'll have plenty of time to think about this later. Right now, I should go upstairs, take a shower and go to bed. But I end up not doing either. I sit in my painting room, sketching out a new picture on a blank canvas. This one is of what happened today in the square. Only Gale in the frame. The next one depicts Katniss flinging herself in front of him to protect him. The last one I do before I finally go to bed around four in the morning, shows her on her knees in Gale's blood, one hand pressed to her cheek, just as it was after she was whipped.

I only ever paint things that haunt me, things I can't get out of my head. Though Gale and I aren't friends and I don't think we ever will be, seeing what happened to him today in the square left a deep impression on me. I can only wonder how long it's going to be before the images of that event leave my mind.

Chapter Text

Around four-thirty, I realize that sleeping really isn’t going to work out. Every time I shut my eyes, I see either Gale being whipped, his blood covering the cobblestones of the square, or I see Katniss taking the lash across her face in a failed attempt to save her friend before falling to her knees from the pain. To see something so terrible over and over again hurts. I know that if I do end up falling asleep, I will only see these images in my dreams as well and that isn’t something I’m interested in experiencing.

            I push back my blankets and don’t bother putting on a shirt or a pair of shoes as I shuffle to my baking room near my bedroom. I don’t have any sleep to rub from my eyes, seeing as I never got close to what someone might define as sleep. Almost without knowing what I’m doing, I begin baking some bread. It’s only after I’ve put in the oven and am dragging my hand across my face, I realize it’s covered in flour. I get a bit of it in my eyes and mouth. I splutter as I stagger towards the sink to wash off my face and arms. Once I’m finished with that, I turn to look at the oven to make sure I know when to take my bread out.

            In all truth, I don’t need to stare at the oven. I’ve been baking for so long that I simply know when it’s done. I could go do something else while I’m waiting, but my vision doubles and I know I’m not going anywhere. I’ve too much on my mind and trying to do anything else would most likely end badly. When I lived back at the bakery and I was thinking about other things, I tended to ruin the bread I was supposed to be making that day or mess up the flowers I was trying to frost on the cakes. This always resulted in a beating from my mother. It was for this reason that I made sure I didn’t do anything that involved my complete concentration when I was too busy thinking about other things.

            A beep comes from the oven and I’m snapped out of my thoughts. After I take out the bread, I return to my room to get dressed. It’s nearly five thirty in the morning now and I’m sure that, by now, everyone at the Everdeen house is asleep in bed. However, once I get over there, the bread wrapped in a cloth napkin, I find Katniss is still sitting next to Gale in the kitchen. I shouldn’t be surprised that she’s still there. It’s really something I should have expected. Her hand is wrapped around his, the look on her face is not one of complete serenity, but she doesn’t seem to be upset either. She doesn’t need to say anything for me to know that she’s chosen him over me, that she isn’t going to run away anymore because she knows that he isn’t going to come with her now that he thinks there is a potential to start an uprising here in the district. She loves him. She always has and how I could ever think for a moment that we could be together after all that has happened since we got back from the Victory Tour is quite beyond me.

            Over and over, I tell myself to stop watching them. I tell myself that I should leave the bread and go back home, but I seem to be frozen in place. No matter how hard I try, I can’t seem to move forward or back. All I can do is stare at Katniss and Gale and listen to the sound of my heart as it slowly breaks.

            Finally, after about fifteen minutes, I am able to move towards Katniss. I take a shuddering breath before I shake her shoulder. She wakes up immediately and I can tell from the way she moves that she’s stiff. She needs to go upstairs and sleep. It takes her a minute to realize that I’m the one who woke her. I don’t know what the expression on my face is, but it must be one of sheer brokenness, since nothing but guilt registers on her features.

            “Go on up to bed, Katniss,” I say softly. “I’ll look after him now.”

            As suspected, she says, “Peeta. What I said yesterday, about running – ”

            My heart really could not handle hearing the rest of the sentence, so I cut her off by saying, “I know. There’s nothing to explain.”

            “Peeta – ”

            I know she’s going to try to reassure me, help me, make me feel better about what’s happening, but she can’t. There is nothing she can say that will help mend my tattered heart. “Just go to bed, okay?” I know my voice is slightly cool, but I don’t think she notices it. She simply makes her way up to her bedroom. Once I hear her door shut behind her, I collapse into the chair she was sitting in only moments before, rest my elbows on the table, and put my head in my hands, pulling at the ends of my hair.

It’s cruel of me to be thankful that I came in when I did because I know that had I waited any later, she could have been kissing him, but I can’t control my heart nor my jealousy. If I could, then I wouldn’t be sitting here like this right now. I would be smiling, happy for them, despite the fact that I loved her, but I’m not. I’m unhappy. I’m angry. And the thoughts that are floating through my mind currently are abhorrent. I can hardly believe I’m actually allowing them to go through my head, but I suppose I can’t control that either.

For another hour, I’m alone downstairs, staring at Gale, making sure he doesn’t wake and that, if he does, I can find some medicine to give him. As much as I hate him for being the one Katniss loves, I would never wish this kind of pain on anyone. Near seven, I hear footsteps making their way slowly down the stairs. I stand and move away from the table immediately. I know it can’t be Katniss already, but I don’t want to be seen near Gale anyway. The person that does walk into the kitchen is her mother. She immediately begins to tend to the boy on the table and ignores me completely. I haven’t really ever spoken to her exclusively, so her silence isn’t surprising. In a way, it’s welcome. I don’t know what I’d say to her anyway.

“I never was able to thank you properly for keeping Katniss alive during the Games,” she says softly without looking up.

It would appear that none of my wishes are coming true. However, unlike anything else she could have said, this I do have an answer to, since it’s nothing too complicated. “You’re welcome.” Katniss and Haymitch may say I’m good with words and I am, but that’s when I have to be. I never spoke to Katniss until the Games because I didn’t have to. I was afraid she would judge me or find me ridiculous otherwise. Now I am getting the same feeling as I stand here with her mother. If I don’t keep my words simple, I don’t know what nonsense will end up coming out of my mouth.

“I don’t think you understand, Peeta,” she adds, looking up this time. “After I lost Katniss’ father, I nearly let my children die because of how sad I was. It was horrible and I will never forgive myself for it. When Prim was called at the reaping and there was another chance that I could lose my daughters, I didn’t know if I would be able to keep myself alive this time.”

She pauses and I’m about to respond when she continues, “When you said you loved her, I didn’t think you meant it at first, but when I saw how you were keeping her alive, how you nearly sacrificed your life for hers, I knew that I was wrong to think that. You do love her and I didn’t understand how I could ever have once doubted the love you have for my daughter. You kept her alive through that love and I can’t control whom she cares for, but if I did have a choice, I can’t think of anyone who would be more deserving of my daughter than you.”

There really is nothing I can say in response to this and she knows it. I believe that I’m no more deserving of her daughter than President Snow is, but that isn’t what she thinks. She meant every word she said and I don’t know why. I’m not that great of a person. I’m jealous over whom she does love. I wish that she loved me instead of him. I’m not happy for them. I’m really not at all who she thinks I am. The boy she saw in the Games was not who I am in my own head and I wish she could see that. I wish she could understand how undeserving I am of love.

We sit in silence, until I hear stirring upstairs. I can tell from the strangled cry that comes before the rustle of sheets being pulled back that its Katniss getting up. I don’t want to be here when she comes downstairs, so, without a word to Mrs. Everdeen, I leave the kitchen and head for the door. Just before I open it, I hear her say, “Don’t you dare forget what I said, Peeta Mellark.” And I know I won’t.

The world outside is utter chaos. Snow flies in every direction and when I step out into the blizzard, I sink up to my knees into what has already fallen. Instantly, my pants are soaked and by the time I get back to my house, I’m shaking like a leaf, half frozen. I don’t hesitate to take a shower, before I head to my painting room, but I don’t do anything. I simply stare at the white canvas on the easel, thinking about Katniss and Gale. At least at first. Then, I paint them. I paint Katniss exactly as I saw her when I went over to her house this morning. The picture is painful to look at. I know I’m a good artist and the accuracy of what I’m seeing is too much. I won’t throw it away though. I don’t do that with any of my paintings. I keep all of them in case I have to remember how I made a certain color or certain shape. I learn from my own work. However, looking at the picture before me, I come the closest I ever have to doing so.

The canvas is set aside instead of being put up on the wall or hung on one of the hooks tacked to the ceiling. I don’t want to display it. If I do I’ll have to look at it every day when I walk into this room, but I’m sure even if I don’t put it up, I’ll still glance in its direction whenever I step through the door. I’m just about to head off to bed when I think that checking in on Haymitch might be a good idea. As per usual, he’s drunk, so he hardly notices I’m even there, though I don’t spend too much time in his home. I only build him a fire and leave him some bread on his filthy table before I head back home, tired beyond all belief, which is unsurprising seeing as I got no sleep the night before. Running a hand over my tired face, I head towards my bedroom with every intention of having a nice long nap, but before I’m even halfway down the hall my phone rings. I think about not picking up, but when I remember the only people that could be calling me are Haymitch, Katniss, or the Capitol I think better of it. The only reason Katniss or Haymitch would call me is if it were an emergency and if the Capitol is calling, then not picking up would be a very bad idea.

            The phone is just inside my kitchen downstairs, so I stagger down the steps. The phone has rung several times when I reach it. I yawn and pick up, but before I can say anything, Katniss says, “Hey. I just wanted to make sure you got home.”

            I almost laugh, before revealing how truly tired I am by saying, “Katniss, I live three houses away from you.” That isn’t true. I live next door to her. I’ve lived next door to her for close to a year now, but for some reason my tired mind came up with something that isn’t even remotely accurate.

            “I know,” she says, “but what with the weather and all.”

            “Well, I’m fine,” I respond. “Thank you for checking.” Neither of us say anything for a while, then, because I feel I must, I ask, “How’s Gale?”

            “All right,” she says. “My mother and Prim are giving him snow coat now.”

            “And your face?” I ask, assuming snow coat is something to help the pain from the lash the whip left.

“I’ve got some, too,” she says. “Have you seen Haymitch today?”

“I checked in on him,” I reply. “Dead drunk. But I built up his fire and left him some bread.”

“I wanted to talk to – to both of you,” she says. I know she desperately wants to say it now, but I also know she’s smarter than that. After all that’s recently happened, the Capitol, no doubt, is tapping our phones.

“Probably have to wait until after the weather calms down,” I say, glancing out the window. “Nothing much will happen before that, anyway.”

“No, nothing much,” she agrees.

I go to bed after that, but when I wake up the storm is still going. It continues on for two days and when it finally stops, when the paths from the Victor’s Village to the city square have been cleared, lining the street with ten foot walls of snow, Katniss calls, asking me to go into town with her. I say yes and, somehow, we convince Haymitch to come along. We all know we have to talk about something, but only Katniss is the one that truly knows what. However, none of us speak. It isn’t until the village is a good ways behind us that Haymitch finally breaks the silence by asking, “So we’re all heading off into the great unknown, are we?”

“No,” Katniss responds, though I’m hardly surprised. “Not anymore.”

“Worked through the flaws in that plan, did you sweetheart?” he asks. “Any new ideas?”

“I want to start an uprising,” she says.

Haymitch starts laughing. “Well, I want a drink. You let me know how that works out for you, though.” His tone isn’t cruel in any way. He just doesn’t think there is any way we could start such a thing here and I don’t have to wonder why. The people of District 12 are not like the people of the other districts we saw on our tour. They are afraid. They hide behind their doors, almost too terrified to leave, even if they know they may starve to death. They would much rather die in a way such as that than to be whipped as they saw Gale was. Frankly, there are so many rules in this country that it’s hard to know when you’re breaking one. There are some that are firmly put in place and others that some people forget until they are punished for their crimes. However, this rarely happens in this district. The security is lax. We are treated with far more kindness than the citizens of District 11 are.

“Then what’s your plan?” Katniss hisses.

“My plan is to make sure everything is just perfect for your wedding,” he responds. “I called and rescheduled the photo shoot without giving too many details.

“You don’t even have a phone,” she reminds him.

“Effie had that fixed,” he says. “Do you know she asked me if I’d like to give you away? I told her the sooner the better.”

“Haymitch.” Her tone is bordering on desperate now.

“Katniss,” he mimics. “It won’t work.”

A group of men with shovels passes us and we stop talking. By the time they’re out of earshot, we’re too close to the square to continue our conversation and we’re so shocked by what we see that we couldn’t even if we tried. The square is not at all like it was before Gale was whipped. It has been turned into something I can barely take in. The Panem flag hangs from the Justice Building, Peacekeepers march through the streets, there are machine gun nests on the roofs of the buildings around us, and in the center of the square is an official whipping post, several stockades, and a gallows.

“Thread’s a quick worker,” Haymitch says.

There’s a flickering glow behind some of the buildings in the square and none of say it, but we know it’s the Hob. I know Katniss has friends there and though they were never mine, I’m still concerned as to whether or not they got out before the blaze began.

“Haymitch, you don’t think everyone was still in –” Katniss starts, before Haymitch says.

“Nah, they’re smarter than that. You’d be, too, if you’d been around longer.” His words calm me as well as Katniss. There’s a short pause before he adds, “Well, I better go see how much rubbing alcohol the apothecary can spare.”

As he walks away, Katniss turns to me, saying, “What’s he want that for?” I am about to give her a look that shows just how clueless she is when she adds, “We can’t let him drink it. He’ll kill himself, or at the very least go blind. I’ve got some white liquor put away at home.”

“Me, too,” I say. “Maybe that will hold him until Ripper finds a way to be back in business.” Glancing around the square, I swallow anxiously and add, “I need to check on my family.” I really just mean my father and my brothers, but I’m sure Katniss understands that. She’s seen how cruel my mother can be. She knows how hard it is for me to love her.

“I have to go see Hazelle,” she says, worry filling her voice as well. I can understand why she’d be worried about Gale’s mother. I think all of us expected her to be the first person that would be on her doorstep the minute the weather cleared, but none of us have seen her. That’s why, when a nightmarish amount of equally horrid scenarios of what could have happened to her begin rushing through my mind, I say, “I’ll go, too. Drop by the bakery on my way home.”

“Thanks,” she says. The fear is obvious in both our voices, but neither of us comment on it. In fact, the only thing that’s on my mind as we make our way towards the Seam is how afraid everyone is of us. When they see is walking by, they shut their windows and lock their doors. Whatever possessed Katniss to believe we could start an uprising here is beyond me. The people aren’t ready to break the law. She’s been doing it her whole life, but most of them have probably never once considered it.

Hazelle is in her home, keeping her ill daughter company. I only catch a glimpse of her, but I can see the measles spots covering her body like polka dots. “I couldn’t leave her,” her mother explains, clarifying why she hadn’t come to see her son as of yet. “I knew Gale’d be in the best possible hands.”

“Of course,” Katniss responds. “He’s much better. My mother says he’ll be back in the mines in a couple of weeks.”

“May not be open until then anyway,” Hazelle says. “Word is they’re closed until further notice.” She glances towards her empty washbin, but I don’t know why until Katniss asks, “You closed down, too?”

“Not officially,” the woman says. “But everyone’s afraid to use me now.”

“Maybe it’s the snow,” I say, trying to give her hope, though I know that isn’t true at all.

“No,” she says. “Rory made a quick round this morning. Nothing to wash, apparently.”

The boy in question wraps his arms around Hazelle from behind. “We’ll be all right.”

Katniss sets a generous handful of money on the table, saying, “My mother will send something for Posy.”

We leave and the moment we’re outside, she says, “You go on back. I want to walk by the Hob.”

“I’ll go with you,” I say automatically.

“No,” she says just as quickly. “I’ve dragged you into enough trouble.”

“And avoiding a stroll by the Hob…that’s going to fix things for me?” I ask, smiling. She doesn’t respond, so I take her hand as we walk through the streets to the burning building. There aren’t any Peacekeepers around it, but that’s because no one would be dumb enough to try to save it to begin with. Not that they could. The place was covered in coal from top to bottom and even if this had been an accident, not something intentional, no amount of water or snow could save the place where so many got their food for so long. The coal has turned to liquid and is running through the cracks in the road and over our shoes, blackening them. “It’s all that coal dust, from the old days,” Katniss says, though she doesn’t have to. I’ve been to the Hob plenty of times myself. I know just as much about it as she does. When she looks up, she adds, “I want to go see Greasy Sae.”

“Not today, Katniss,” I tell her. “I don’t think we’d be helping anyone by dropping in one them.” I’m hoping she listens to me. Not only would it not be good for them, but it wouldn’t be good for either. The last thing I want to see is her tied to the whipping post.

We go to the bakery where Katniss buys some cakes and I have a quick talk with my father about how the family is.

“They’re fine,” he reassures me. “Your brothers are staying inside for now. It’s too cold and wet outside for them to go to the mines anyway.”

“They’re closed,” I tell him. “And they work here.”

It seems he’s so distraught over what’s happened that he isn’t thinking clearly. This has happened before. Every time my mother has hurt me severely, so instead of talking about the state of things, I ask him what he thinks of the weather, until I decide it’s time to leave. When we leave, I glance around the square one last time and notice at the same time Katniss does that none of the Peacekeepers are ones we’ve seen before.

As time goes on, the state of things declines rapidly. People are punished regularly for crimes we’ve long since forgotten existed. By the time the mines are reopened, half of District 12 is starving. Children signing up for a tesserae skyrockets and whenever Katniss or I walk through the streets everyone gives us a wide berth. The only good thing that comes out of all of this is Hazelle becomes Haymitch’s housekeeper. This gives her extra money for her family and a better living space for Haymitch. Now whenever I walk into his house, it doesn’t smell like he left something to die in the basement.

I notice Katniss hasn’t returned to the woods and I completely understand why, considering how many people have been whipped, put in the stockades, or hanged. However, one morning when I get up, I notice her rushing out of the Victor’s Village in the direction of her old home in the Seam. I only have to wonder for a few moments why she’s decided to make the foolish decision of going back to her old wooded sanctuary now because when I look over towards her house I see a crate sitting on her porch. There is only one thing that crate could be.

Her wedding dresses.

Chapter Text

Even though I know she’s dreading the wedding and is probably anxious about what is going to happen since we failed in our mission to convince Snow of our love, I still wonder why she thinks she should go into the woods. And I might as well admit that I’m hurt by her outburst as well. Does she really not want to marry me so badly she would risk being arrested and whipped just for a few hours of bliss in the woods? In all actuality, the answer is probably no, but I still feel as though that is exactly what she’s doing. Why else would she leave the day the dresses arrived? I can’t think of any other explanation for that.

            As per usual when such heartbreaking thoughts invade my mind, I make my way to the kitchen, already thinking of baking a dill flavored bread as well as some cinnamon cookies and cupcakes. I want to bake more, but I have no ideas for anything else right now, so I decide to start with these and then figure out what else to do later.

            I pull out the ingredients for the dill bread first and take my time shredding the pickles, mixing the batter and kneading the dough. As I do this, squishing the stuff between my fingers, I remember when my father explained to me why people like bread that tastes like dill pickles. He said that it made them feel like they were eating healthy instead of something that wouldn’t help their body at all. It didn’t make sense to me when I was that young, always have enough to eat to keep me strong and healthy, but when I was older and walked through the Seam one day, I finally understood. Though our breads are far too expensive for any of the people here, the few who come to trade with us sometimes take the breads because they are desperately trying to give their children something healthy. The thing is not many people have things to trade with us, so those who really need the bread never get it, unless someone is generous enough to give it to them and food is so precious here that I don’t think that’s ever happened.

            Many people in the district think we make up our own prices for our breads and cakes and other goods, but that’s not true at all. If we did, they’d be a lot less expensive, so others could afford them and feed their starving families. But we don’t. The Capitol does. So we are forced to keep our food mostly to ourselves. The majority of our food goes uneaten because it costs too much, but we don’t get to eat it unless it’s been three weeks since we’ve taken it off the shelves and, by then, it’s stale and hard to eat. One time I ate a spoiled cupcake and was sick for a week. It’s hard to tell with pastries when something is no longer good because it rarely happens. Still, my mother found a way to blame me for what happened and punish me despite the fact that I was fairly ill.

            Bringing myself out of my thoughts, I glance down at the dough and notice there’s no longer any flour on it to keep it from sticking to the table. It takes me a minute to get it unstuck, but I pay attention after that, trying my hardest not to let my mind wander too much, but that only lasts for so long. I’m back to thinking about other things the minute I’ve put the bread in the oven to bake and start on the cinnamon cupcakes. I have to remix the batter twice because of how little attention I am paying. When I’m finally putting the cupcakes in the oven as well, I check the clock and see it’s nearly two in the afternoon. After having absorbed myself in my work, I feel the need to go see Katniss and talk to her about the wedding. I don’t know what exactly I’m going to say. I can’t tell her that she can call it off if she wants because we both know that she can’t. We don’t have a choice.

            I wash my hands, scrubbing off as much of the flour as I can, but my hands and forearms are still tinted white from the stuff. I manage to get it out from under my fingernails, so I don’t look as dirty as I actually am. After I change into some clothes that aren’t stained with flour, I glance out the window towards Katniss’ house and feel my eyes widen when I see a pair of Peacekeepers at her door. A man and a woman. I feel fear ice my insides as I watch the woman knock on the door and Mrs. Everdeen answer. I swallow hard. My idea of going over to the Everdeen house alone as gone out of my head altogether and now I’m thinking that there is only one person who might be able to sort things out with the Peacekeepers.

            Haymitch.

            So instead of going over to the Everdeen’s, I go over to his. I know knocking is pointless, so I let myself in and rush into the kitchen, but he’s not there. I dash upstairs and find him still in bed. Without thinking, I shake him violently until he’s awake. Then I pull at him until he’s sitting up. However, I wait until he’s more awake and pulling on his clothes that I tell him why he’s awake to begin with.

            “There are Peacekeepers over at Katniss’ house,” I tell him, the panic evident in my tone.

            He pauses in pulling on his pants, but it’s only for a second. A moment later, he regains his composure and says, completely calm, “We need to get over there then.”

            I want to yell at him and tell him that of course that’s what we need to do, but I don’t. It’s a stupid thing to get angry over. The reason I’m so anxious is because I don’t know what’s going on. I couldn’t stand to see Katniss tied to the whipping post as Gale was. As images of that imagined scenario flash through my mind, I begin trembling. I can’t remember ever once having been this scared, not even when I was chosen for the Games or when I was in the arena. It takes me a moment to realize why and once I do I wonder how I couldn’t have known it from the beginning: I’m afraid because I know that if the Peacekeepers get ahold of Katniss, she’ll be sent to the Capitol. I’m sure President Snow has told all the new Peacekeepers that they’ll be rewarded greatly if they can find a reason to arrest her and have her sent straight to him.

            The only thing that keeps me from screaming at Haymitch is the fact that I know that won’t help anything at all. In fact, if we start yelling at each other, then we might not get over there in time. Instead, I clench my hands into fists at my sides and breathe through my teeth, doing my best to be patient. However, by the time he is ready, I’ve become fidgety due to my nerves. I don’t even wait for him to follow me. I run down the stairs, out the door, and into the Everdeen home before he’s even straightened his shirt.

            What I see isn’t at all what I expected.

            There are no shouts or screams of protest. It takes me only a few moments of standing there to learn that Katniss isn’t even home. I’m so dazed from my earlier panic that I have to lean against the wall to catch my breath and calm down, but that doesn’t help. Once I’ve calmed my breathing, I’m still trembling and it isn’t until Haymitch gets to the house and has placed his hands on my shoulders that I finally relax, but then, my knees buckle and I sink to the floor. Having a prosthetic limb, this hurts considerably and Haymitch has to pick me up and help me limp over to a chair where Katniss’ mother helps to readjust my false leg.

            “Katniss isn’t home right now,” she says softly, rubbing some ointment on my stump, trying to ease the raw feeling. I know this already, so I nod. “The Peacekeepers are here to deliver her a message.”

            I calm down after that, resting in the chair Mrs. Everdeen placed me in. She replaces my prosthetic leg and helps me from the chair in the kitchen to a rocking chair near the fireplace. As I sit there, I close my eyes and take a short nap. I should probably go home to do this, but I want to be there when Katniss gets back. I want to make sure the Peacekeepers truly have no plans to harm her. If they do, I’ll have to stop them.

            I’ve always known that my vow to protect her could one day cost me my life, but that’s a small price to pay in exchange for her safety.

Chapter Text

We sit there for hours upon hours waiting for Katniss to return. My anxiety grows with each passing minute. Haymitch tries to distract me with a game of chess, but it’s obvious it’s not working after I lose four times in a row. However, I don’t know what else to do. It isn’t until night has set upon the world that she finally does come home. Everyone, including the Peacekeepers – whom Mrs. Everdeen has been keeping entertained all this time – look up, but I can’t see her. I only know she’s there because I hear her voice.

            “Hello.”

            “Here she is,” Mrs. Everdeen says brightly, “just in time for dinner.” Everyone in the room knows that she’s extremely late for dinner, but no one comments on it. Not even the Peacekeepers who have every reason in the world to.

            “Can I help you with something?” I hear her say, obviously addressing the Peacekeepers.

            “Head Peacekeeper Thread sent us with a message for you,” one of them says, a woman.

            “They’ve been waiting for hours,” her mother adds.

            And every moment they’ve been here has been nerve wracking for the rest of us. I kept wondering what they would do if she didn’t return. In fact, a part of me was starting to hope she wouldn’t. Perhaps it would have been safer for her to stay out in the woods. More than once I’d thought she might have run off with Gale and I was half-praying for that. But then I remembered the story she told me about the boy and the girl that she saw running from the Capitol, how the boy was speared and the girl turned into an Avox, and now I’m glad that I was wrong.

            “Must be an important message,” she says.

            “May we ask where you’ve been Miss Everdeen?” the woman asks.

            “Easier to ask where I haven’t been,” she responds, sounding exasperated. She crosses into my line of view then and as she throws her bag down before she sits, I can see that, though she’s desperately trying to hide it, she’s hurt. Her lips are pressed into a thin line that I don’t think she even notices she’s done and when she moves, she is limping. It’s slight and only someone who has spent a great deal of time with her would notice this. I turn away before she turns to look at me. For the first time all evening, I notice Prim is standing next to us. I blame the fact that I was so absorbed in mine and Haymitch’s game of chess that I didn’t notice her earlier, but now that I do, her stiffness, the anxiety in her posture, is hard to ignore.

            “So where haven’t you been?” Haymitch asks, sounding bored.

            “Well, I haven’t been talking to the Goat Man about getting Prim’s goat pregnant, because someone gave me completely inaccurate information as to where he lives,” she responds. Though the frustration is still evident in her voice, it’s clear to all of us that it’s only an act. In fact, the way we’re all behaving is completely an act. Our calmness, Haymitch’s bored tone. I’m already planning on how I’m going to respond to all of this when it’s my turn to speak. It’s going to be odd if I don’t. I’m supposed to be her fiancé.

            “No, I didn’t,” says Prim. “I told you exactly.”

            “You said he lives by the west entrance to the mine,” Katniss says.

            “The east entrance,” Prim responds, trying to correct her.

            “You distinctly said the west because, then I said, ‘Next to the slag heap?’ and you said, ‘Yeah’”, says Katniss.

            The slag heap is next to the east entrance,” says Prim, annoyance filling her tone.

            “No,” Katniss responds. “When did you say that?”

            “Last night,” Haymitch adds.

            “It was definitely the east,” I say. I look at Haymitch and we both laugh. I’m not entirely sure if it’s because of how ridiculously upset Katniss looks or if because we were both in our houses last night and never heard this conversation to begin with. When I notice her glaring at me, I try to calm myself as I add, “I’m sorry, but it’s what I’ve been saying. You don’t listen when people talk to you.”

            “Bet people told you he didn’t live there today and you didn’t listen again,” agrees Haymitch.

            “Shut up, Haymitch,” she says, meaning he’s right.

            We start laughing again and Prim smiles. I wonder if she knows that we’re acting this way to defuse the tension in the room. She’s young, but she’s not stupid. However, something tells me, she doesn’t know and that’s why she’s been so emotionless until now. She thought we were all being serious and didn’t understand how we could possibly be having so much fun when there were Peacekeepers in her house, who had come for her sister.

            “Fine. Somebody else can arrange to get the stupid goat knocked up,” Katniss says, laughing as well. I glance at Prim as her older sister turns her attention to the Peacekeepers. I can see her point of view. If a pair of Peacekeepers came for one of my brothers and I didn’t understand why everyone was acting as though this was no big deal, I’d be frightened too. Suddenly, I feel guilty. Why would I act this way when, clearly, Mrs. Everdeen and Prim don’t understand our way of handling things? They’re panicking enough as it is and to have us act as though this all just one big joke is probably weighing on them far more than the Peacekeeper’s visit is. We’ve all seen what can happen if you set a Peacekeeper off. You’ll be dragged to the Justice Building, sentenced, and then whipped or put in the stockades, sometimes even hanged. From the look on the face of the woman as she asks Katniss what is in her bag, I can tell that she is one of the people who would sentence her without a second thought. She wouldn’t even feel badly. She knows who and what Katniss is. In fact, she’s probably trying to find an excuse to do so. My face sobers completely and I move my eyes back to Prim once more before I push myself up and hobble into the kitchen to examine the contents of Katniss’ bag with the Peacekeepers.

            “Ooh, peppermints,” I say, spying a bag of candy. I open the bag and put one of the sweets in my mouth.

            “They’re mine,” she says, trying to grab the bag, but I toss it to Haymitch to stuffs a fistful in his mouth. I almost feel badly about this, but when I see him toss it to Prim, who is giggling, I allow myself to smile and join fully in the fun at last. “None of you deserves candy!” Katniss yells.

            “What, because we’re right?” I say. I wrap my arms around her from behind. When she gives a small yelp of pain, I almost pull back, until I remember the Peacekeepers are still there. Katniss does a good job of sounding indignant instead of in pain. “Okay, Prim said west. I distinctly heard west. And we’re all idiots. How’s that?” I add.

            “Better,” she says as I kiss her. She glances back towards the Peacekeepers whose presence has been ignored almost entirely up till now. “You have a message for me?”

            “From Head Peacekeeper Thread,” the women reiterates. “He wanted you to know that the fence surrounding District Twelve will now have electricity twenty-four hours a day.”

            “Didn’t it already?” she asks, trying to sound oblivious.

            “He thought you might be interested in passing this information on to your cousin,” the woman responds.

            “Thank you. I’ll tell him,” Katniss says. “I’m sure we’ll all sleep a little more soundly now that security has addressed that lapse.” I hold back a wince. This is exactly the kind of comment that could get us in trouble, but I know why she says it. The satisfaction is too hard to ignore in this situation.

            Once the door closes behind them, Katniss slumps and my concern for her grows. I wasn’t wrong when thinking that she is injured. My expression filling with worry, I ask, gripping her shoulders in an attempt to keep her from falling, “What is it?”

            “Oh, I banged up my left foot,” she says as though this is nothing. “The heel. And my tailbone’s hand a bad day too.” I help her over to one of the rocking chairs. She gingerly lowers herself onto the cushion beneath her. I press my lips into a thin line in an attempt to keep my worry at bay. She doesn’t like people fussing over her and considering how much I love her, this is hard for me to do.

            Her mother takes off her boots, asking, “What happened?”

            “I slipped and fell,” she says. All of us look at her, not buying it. “On some ice.” For a minute, I wonder why she’s lying to us, but then I realize I should have known all along: there is a very good chance this house is bugged. How the Peacekeepers managed to get in here and do that without us noticing is beyond me. A short while ago, we were talking about running away, not worried about who might hear us, but now we’re all concerned anything we say is being recorded on small devices hidden throughout the house.

            “There might be a break,” Katniss’ mother says, her fingers pressing against her daughter’s skin, trying to find out how hurt she is. She checks her other foot and deems it fine. She decides her tailbone is badly bruised. Even though I have a pretty good idea of what caused her injuries, I still can’t help but wonder how she managed to break her foot and bruise her tailbone. Then it occurs to me: she had to jump over the fence. I don’t know how, but it obviously involved falling.

            While Mrs. Everdeen and Prim help Katniss, I move into the kitchen and sit at the table, slouching in the chair, my elbows resting on the arms, my prosthetic leg stretched out in front of me. I don’t want to think about what would have happened had she fallen wrong. The fence surrounding District 12 is twenty-feet high at the very least. Falling from that height could be fatal. In retrospect, she’s lucky to have only broken her foot and bruised her tailbone.

            I don’t sit at the table for much longer. Mrs. Everdeen gives Katniss some sleeping syrup. Watching her eyes immediately droop as she falls off into oblivion, reminds me when she tricked me into having some in the arena. She did it to save my life, but if she had died, I would never have forgiven myself. Though, I would have died shortly after she did. I was already knocking on death’s door at that point. Still, I offer to take her upstairs. She tries to walk with me at first, but she’s so weak from the medicine that I just end up carrying her. I tuck her in to bed and am about to leave when she catches my hand.

            “Don’t go yet,” she says. “Not until I fall asleep.”

            To be honest, I’m reluctant to stay with her. My heart hurts enough from the fact that she has chosen Gale over me and I don’t want to give it any more reasons to be in pain. However, I am powerless against this girl and I sit down on the side of the bed, clasping her hand in both of mine. “Almost thought you’d changed your mind today,” I tell her softly. “When you were late for dinner.” I don’t have to elaborate. I know she knows what I mean.

            “No, I’d have told you,” she responds, tugging my hand up to lean against. She’s fading faster now and I can tell there’s something else she wants to tell me, but all she manages to get out is one last sentence, “Stay with me.”

            I don’t hesitate before I respond, “Always.”

            The next several days are very stressful. Particularly for Katniss and myself. Every time there’s a knock at the door when I’m over, she jumps. I hide my fear. It’s something I’ve gotten very good at doing and she doesn’t need to be worried any more than she already is. Instead, we distract ourselves by working on what she calls ‘the family book’. It’s a book full of pictures of plants and their medical uses along with other plants that are edible or ones to look out for. Katniss gives me the information on what the plants look like and then I draw them in the book. She prints the appropriate information around the picture. It takes our full concentration and that’s why we do it. That way we don’t have to wonder what’s going on in the world around us.

            One day in the middle of our work, I stop what I am doing and look up, startled by a thought. I blink and look into Katniss’ eyes as I say, “You know, I think this is the first time we’ve ever done anything normal together.”

            She whispers, “Yeah,” in agreement. “Nice for a change.” I nod. We go back to work.

            Every day I carry her downstairs and she turns on the TV, which sets our teeth on edge. Well, everyone’s but mine. At first, I was just as unnerved as everyone else was, but as time went on and I watched her as she stared at the television, I began to realize she wasn’t watching the reports from the Capitol just for fun, she’s looking for something. I don’t know what it is, but the look in her eyes when one particular broadcast about District 13 comes up is what first gets me thinking this and the day that a similar one pops up again, I know I’m the only one that sees her eyes widen a fraction.

            Whatever she’s been looking for she found it.

Chapter Text

It’s only a few days after I realize Katniss has found whatever it is she’s looking for that I notice her prep team arriving at her house. At first, I’m confused. I don’t know why they’re there, but after I see Effie, Cinna, and the three other members of the team, I remember that she’s going to be modeling her wedding dresses today. I wonder how many dresses Cinna sent for her to try on. Knowing the Capitol, I’m sure that no matter how many there are, it’s more than enough and that it’ll be a hassle getting into each one.

            Before I know what’s happening, I’m tugging at my hair, my fingers grasping at the blonde strands, pulling at them almost painfully. At first, I don’t understand why I’m so upset, why there is an emptiness in my heart, why I am in such pain. Then I remember: Katniss doesn’t want this wedding. She doesn’t want any of this. I’m sure that, if she had a choice, she’d want nothing to do with me either. She’d cut me out of her life if she could, but she can’t because I’m her fiancé whether she wants me to be or not.

            I spend the remainder of the day in my kitchen, baking cakes and breads that I’m sure will never be eaten by myself. I end up giving them to the poorer families in the Seam and around everywhere else in District 12. They all seem grateful and I’m glad that I’m able to help at least in some small way. I stop by the bakery on the way home to check up on my family. My mother requests I come over tomorrow and, though I have every right in the world to say no now, I’m still afraid of her and before I can stop myself, I’m saying, “Alright.”

            I go into town early the next morning before anyone is up. I don’t want to be in the presence of my mother any longer than I have to. Though I think going earlier will release me from her grasp earlier, something tells me that this will only prolong my pain and there is going to be pain. I saw it in her expression when she asked me to come over yesterday. It was the anger in her eyes and the ever present fear in my heart that forced me to say yes to her invitation, nothing more. For the umpteenth time, I curse myself for being so weak willed, for falling into the traps people create for me so easily.

            Traps. Traps that people create.

            This reminds me of when Katniss lied to me in the arena, when she told me she loved me and she really didn’t. Well, she never actually said the words, “I love you,” but from the way she spoke to me, I felt as though she had. She didn’t need to say the words for me to believe she did care for me. In the end, she didn’t. She revealed this to me on the train ride home. She thought I’d been faking it the whole time, so she told me she had ben and instantly my heart was broken. I’ve gotten over that now, though. The only thing that still haunts me is how she and Haymitch seemed to be able to converse with one another without having to say a word. They did that for far too long. I’m glad I finally told them they had to keep me in the loop. However, a part of me knows that they still aren’t. There are things they haven’t been telling me. I don’t know what to think about it at this point, but it makes me just as unhappy as it did before.

            When I reach the bakery that was once my home and knock, I think I’ll be waking my mother and that this will earn me a slap across the cheek. Maybe she’ll hit me with a rolling pin again. For some reason I don’t think she’ll be this harsh, but when she comes to the door, she looks as though she’s been up for a while. Still, she drags me into the house, her nails digging into my upper arm. I know she’s holding back, though. She knows she can’t cause too much damage to me anymore. Someone will notice. She’ll be revealed and she knows the Capitol wouldn’t take too well to one of the Victors of the last Hunger Games being physically abused by the woman who is supposed to be his mother.

            “Where have you been?” she hisses as though it’s nearly evening and I’ve spent all day getting here. A part of me wishes I had.

            I try to pull my arm from her grip, but she doesn’t let me. Struggling will result in more pain for me, so I don’t try a second time. I lick my lips and respond, “I just got up. I thought you would be expecting me later.”

            She scoffs. “There’s a mandatory viewing tonight, so, no, I wasn’t expecting you later.” She finally lets go of me and walks off muttering something about me being useless. This doesn’t hurt my heart as much as it once did. I’m used to her cruelty now.

            The rest of the day passes by slowly. I spend most of my time in the kitchen twice the size of my own helping my father and brothers bake bread. My father asks me to decorate several cakes as well. Typically, I’m modest, but when I saw the other cakes that had recently been decorated as I walked to the bakery, I had to admit that they weren’t as well done as what I can do. I think this is why my father gives me so many cakes to decorate throughout the day. He wants the window in front of his shop to look better than it currently does. As I carefully paint a flower onto the edge of one cake, I can’t help but wonder who has been decorating the cakes, since I haven’t been around. It definitely isn’t my father because our decorating styles are almost identical. It has to have been one of my brothers or my mother. Somehow I don’t think any of them would enjoy the task as much as I do and that’s why the cakes look so sloppy. In the end, I decide it’s my mother who’s taken over the decorating. My brothers would never get away with such messy cakes. She wouldn’t allow it.

            Finally, around seven my mother sends me home, telling me that the program I’m supposed to see comes on at seven-thirty. I don’t want to see whatever it is the Capitol has prepared for the citizens of Panem, but I also know that not viewing this could get me in trouble, so I don’t take my time getting home as I normally would. I walk swiftly. The season is turning from winter to spring, but it’s raining almost constantly and that makes the pathways slippery. I don’t want to fall on my back and crack my head open.

            I get home only five minutes before the program is about to begin. I turn on my television, sit down, and wait for whatever it is we’re supposed to see come on.

            I don’t have to wait long. Only a few moments later, I’m seeing Caesar Flickerman, announcing that we’re all going to see Katniss in her wedding dresses. A part of me wants to see this and another part – a larger part – doesn’t. Still, I can’t stop myself from looking at the screen when I see the girl I love flashing before me in a dozen different outfits, all of them different, all of them making her look twice as beautiful as she actually is. I’m still smiling when the showing is over and Caesar tells us that we have to keep our televisions on for a little longer, since there’s something else coming up, something that has to do with the next Hunger Games.

            It’s the seventy-fifth anniversary, which means that this year is a Quarter Quell, a glorified version of the Games. I don’t want my first year as mentor to be one where I have to watch my charges suffer more than they would normally. I’m almost positive that they’re not going to live. The fact that Katniss and I won last year is astonishing. There have only ever been two Victors from District 12 besides us and only Haymitch is still alive.

            I’m brought out of the stupor I was in when I hear the anthem playing. I see Snow come on stage with a small boy carrying a box behind him. There’s a quick recap of the Dark Days and the idea that every twenty-five years there would be a Quarter Quell, before Snow tells us what has happened in the past two Quells.

            “On the twenty-fifth anniversary as a reminder to the rebels that their children were dying because of their choice to initiate violence, every district was made to hold an election and vote on the tributes who would represent it.”

            The mere thought makes me wince. How much more terrible would it be to be handed over by your neighbors than to have your name pulled out of the reaping ball?

            “On the fiftieth anniversary as a reminder to that two rebels died for each Capitol citizen, every district was required to send twice as many tributes.”

            The odds of coming out of that one alive are slim, but it’s also the year that Haymitch won. Katniss and I figured out how he did it: he outsmarted the others, but I still wonder how he didn’t die. There were forty-seven other people to compete against instead of twenty-three. I wince a second time. It would seem that each Quarter Quell is more terrible than the last.

            And this year is no exception.

            After reminding us of what happened in years past, Snow takes an envelope from the box that holds centuries worth of Hunger Games, opens it and reads, “On the seventy-fifth anniversary, as a reminder to the rebels that even the strongest among them cannot overcome the power of the Capitol, the male and female tributes will be reaped from their existing pool of victors.”

            It takes me only a moment to realize what this means and once I do, I put my head in my hands and scream.

            There are two male victors in District 12. Haymitch and myself. But there is only one female and she’ll be going back no matter what I do.

            Katniss.

Chapter Text

It’s cold outside, but I don’t care. I leave my home the minute I’ve gotten over the shock of what just happened, which was surprisingly pretty fast considering I’m going to be dead before the year is out. I tromp across the yard to Haymitch’s house on the other side of mine. I don’t bother banging on the door because I already know it’s open and there’s a good chance that he’s already so drunk he won’t even notice the noise anyway.

            Sure enough, I find him sitting at the table, knife in hand, opening a bottle of liquor. Before he can bring it to his lips, I pull it away, look him square in the face and say, “I’m the one going in again. Not you.”

            He laughs. I’m not sure what I expected, but it certainly wasn’t this. Normally, this might insult me, but I don’t have time for that right now. I pull the bottle from his fingers, which brings him back to me. My expression is just as determined as it was before as I add, “Last year, you chose her, so now you owe me. You owe me whatever I want and what I want is the chance to go in again and protect her.”

            Without hesitation, he snatches the bottle out of my hands, proceeding to open it as he says, without looking at me, “How do you think that’s going to work out? You really think you can protect her? Look how well that went last time. Nearly got you killed, didn’t it?”

            These words sting, even though I know they’re only a result of what he just heard on the television only a few minutes earlier. I ignore them. “I won’t let that happen this year. I’ll be more careful. I was careless last year. I thought I could take the Careers and I was wrong. This year I’ll put all my concentration into protecting her. I’ll do everything I can to keep her alive. I’ll actually use my head this time, okay?”

            Haymitch shrugs. “I think that’s basically what you said last year,” he responds.

            Gritting my teeth, so I don’t respond harshly, I turn on my heel and stalk back towards the door. Just as I’m opening it to go out, I hear him say from the kitchen, “You know she has to win.” I don’t know what he means by that, but at the moment, I’m too angry to care. I throw open the door and am just rushing back to my house when I hear a voice calling my name. I turn around and see Prim and Mrs. Everdeen hurrying towards me. Confusion fills my features, but only for a moment. In the next, they’ve explained that Katniss ran out the door the minute she heard the announcement and they can’t find her.

            My eyes grow wide with fear and I swallow, trying to take it down with me, so I can comfort her family. Prim looks near tears and I promise her and her mother that I’ll help look for her, but, in all the time we search, we can’t find her. It isn’t until I’m back at home, lying in bed, trying to find solace in sleep that I hear the door to Haymitch’s house opening. I get up and glance out the window. Sure enough, it’s Katniss. I run my fingers through my hair and get back in bed, thankful to know she’s safe.

            I’m not sure if it’s due to my shock or the fact that I’m so exhausted from the news of the Quarter Quell, but the expected nightmares never come. I don’t wake up until midday and once I do, I lie in bed for a long time, staring at the ceiling, already coming up with plans as to how I’m going to protect Katniss against the other tributes, which have had more time observing how the Games are run and therefore have the advantage. I think I drift off again somewhere in the middle of this and when I wake, I know what I need to do. I push myself out of bed and head into town in search of Haymitch’s liquor supplier, Ripper. It’s harder to find her now that the Hob has been closed down, but find her I do. Haymitch isn’t going to like what I’m going to do, so he can’t know what I’m doing, until it’s done. Something tells me that when she went over last night, Katniss joined Haymitch in his drinking and she can’t do that, not if she’s going to win. None of us can do that. We have to have our heads.

            The minute she opens her door, I say, “If you sell Haymitch or Katniss anymore liquor, I’ll turn you in to the Peacekeepers.”

            I can tell the shock of my words has silenced her. She doesn’t know what to say and I think that’s a good thing. I pass her a handful of coins I shoved into my pocket before I headed over and add, “I’ll turn you in now if my money and threat aren’t enough.” The look on her face tells me that it is. I give her a tight lipped smile, saying, “Thank you,” and head back the way I came, this time in the direction of Haymitch’s house.

            I walk in unannounced and head upstairs without Haymitch’s notice. I find his liquor stash without difficulty, probably because he’s never had it threatened before. I put all of the bottles into an empty cardboard box, take them to the bathroom, and start emptying them into the sink. At some point during this procedure, I hear the door open downstairs and know it’s Katniss. I put the last few empty bottles back in the box and head back to the kitchen. I place the box on the table and say, “There, it’s done.”

            “What’s done?” Haymitch asks. He’s so drunk that he can barely focus.

            “I’ve poured all the liquor down the drain,” I say, readying myself for the storm that’s inevitably going to follow this statement.

            Now, I’ve Haymitch’s full attention. He pulls the box over and digs through it, beginning a futile search to find one I missed. “You what?” he asked, disbelief filling his slurred voice.

            “I tossed the lot,” I respond.

            “He’ll just buy more,” Katniss says.

            “No, he won’t,” I say. “I tracked down Ripper this morning and told her I’d turn her in the second she sold to either of you. I paid her off, too, just for good measure, but I don’t think she’s eager to be back in the Peacekeeper’s custody.”

            This makes Haymitch get up and try to knick me with his knife, but I block him easily. “What business is it of yours what he does?” I hear Katniss ask.

            “It’s completely my business,” I respond, turning to her. “However it falls out, two of us are going to be in the arena again with the other as mentor. We can’t afford any drunkards on this team. Especially, not you Katniss.” I add the last part when I remember what I Haymitch said the night before, though I still don’t know what it means.

            “What?” she splutters, clearly hungover, confirming my suspicions about her drinking last night, even before she adds, “Last night’s the only time I’ve ever been drunk.”

            “Yeah, and look at the shape you’re in,” I retort.

            There is surprise and anger on her face. I can tell this isn’t what she was expecting for our first meeting after the announcement of the Quarter Quell, but I don’t care. Though I’m not normally this way, I know that, this once, I must be harsh, otherwise she won’t believe I’m serious about what I’m saying. Neither of them will.

            “Don’t worry,” Katniss says, “I’ll get you more liquor.”

            “Then I’ll turn you both in,” I respond, allowing my tone and my features to express my seriousness. “Let you sober up in the stocks.”

            “What’s the point to this?” Haymitch finally asks.

            “The point is that two of us are coming home from the Capitol,” I say, my attention turning back to him. “One mentor and one victor. Effie’s sending me recordings of all the living victors. We’re going to watch their Games and learn everything we can about how they fight. We’re going to put on weight and get strong. We’re going to start acting like Careers. And one of us is going to be victor again whether you two like it or not!” My temper starting to get the better of me, I hurry out of the house, heading back to mine to call Effie about the tapes.

            Though they’re hesitant at first, Katniss and Haymitch eventually do agree to my plan. We watch the recaps every night. When Katniss comments on how we never met any of the victors, Haymitch explains what I already suspected: it wouldn’t be a good idea for a country on the verge of rebellion to see us befriending them. It saddens me that we’re going to be against these people. Some are too old for the Games and I want nothing more than for them not to be chosen, but I have no control over that. Since thinking about this hurts my heart too much, I focus on our training. The only one who might be more dedicated is Katniss, though I know the reason she’s working so hard is for the same reason I am: to forget.

            Gale comes to help us with snares after our exercises and weapons training. I don’t like being in his presence, but I know being unkind to him is not going to make Katniss happy, so I tolerate his visits, just as I’m sure he tolerates me being in the same vicinity as him.

            The day of the reaping comes and I’ve already planned what I’m going to say to my family. I’m going to stand up to my mother and tell my father to do with my brothers what he could never do with me: protect them. However, I’m never given the chance. After I volunteer to take Haymitch’s place and we’re taken into the Justice Building, we’re greeted by Head Peacekeeper Thread, who informs us there’s a new procedure this year. Our goodbyes are denied and we’re rushed to the station. There are no cameras waiting for us, no people we can wave goodbye to. This is so different from the year before, it’s unnerving.

            The three of us stand by the window as the doors of the train close and District 12 begins to disappear behind us. I watch it for as long as I can because I know I’m never going to be coming back. I memorized everything about it in the days leading up to the reaping and now I’m memorizing the skyline I’ve rarely been given the chance to see. Though it isn’t the best place in Panem to live, District 12 is still my home and, in all honesty, I wish it was here I could die instead of in an arena, killed by a stranger.

Chapter Text

Of the both of us, Katniss seems more in shock over what just happened than I do. She’s still staring out the window long after District 12 has vanished behind us, a vacant expression on her face. I know that, like me, she’d planned to say something to her family and her friends before she left, but that chance was taken away from her just as it was taken away from me. Out of the two of us, I feel as though she deserved to say her final farewells. I’m sure they were far more selfless than mine.

However, this thought does not remove the distressed look from her eyes, so I swallow and try to come up with words that will comfort her when I finally do, I know they’ll do nothing of the sort, but they calm me down slightly and they give me something else to think about. “We’ll write letters, Katniss. It will be better, anyway. Give them a piece of us to hold on to. Haymitch will deliver them for us if…they need to be delivered.”

She nods and leaves to find her room because we both know those letters will never be written. I could write mine. I could tell my mother to keep her hands off of my brothers and tell my father to stand up to her, but I won’t. Alive I’ve never been any good to anyone and I don’t think that my death and a few written words on a piece of paper are going to change that. Besides, Katniss doesn’t need to write the letters. I do. She is going to survive. She’s going to go home again. I’m not. My determination is just as strong now as it was before our first Games. It’s Katniss that’s going to be going home. I’ll do everything in my power to make sure of this.

In the end, I go to my room, sit down at the desk there, take out the spare bits of paper in one of the drawers and decide that I can write one letter. It won’t be to either one of my parents, but to my brothers. I’ve never been close with them and now it’s evident that I never will be, but I feel that I need to give them words of strength. They’re older than me and probably won’t listen or take anything I want to say to heart, but I feel as though I owe them this. I won’t be there to protect them anymore and they need something to remind them to protect themselves. I know it’s a vain notion, but, for once in my life, I want to feel as though I’m needed and this is the only way I can think of how to do it.

The letter is short. It starts and ends as all letters do and the paragraphs in between aren’t that significant either. In fact, once I sign my name at the bottom, I’m beginning to wonder if it’ll help them at all. I stare at the paper, at the words of comfort. When I reread it, I realize it sounds more like a suicide note than a goodbye letter. I sigh. I cross my arms on the desk and put my head in them. I clench my hands into fists and try my hardest not to think about what’s going to happen to my family after I die because the answer is even more heartbreaking than what will happen to Katniss’ and her friends.

Nothing.

Nothing will happen to them. Because I’m insignificant. Once I’m dead, no one is going to care. It’s not going to matter. It’ll be different if Katniss dies, which is why I have to keep her alive because if she dies nothing isn’t going to happen.

I go to dinner before Effie calls me. She’s just leaving the dining room to get Katniss when I arrive. When we’re finally all sat down and eating together, I try to make conversation, but fail miserably. No one wants to talk. It’s too painful to when we all know what’s going to have happened within less than two weeks. Finally, because I still want to cheer the table up and not think about the arena, I say, “I love your new hair, Effie.”

“Thank you,” she responds. “I had it specially done to match Katniss’ pin. I was thinking we might get you a gold ankle band and maybe find Haymitch a gold bracelet or something so we could all look like a team.”

“I think that’s a great idea,” I say, though I’m not entirely sure it is, considering what the president thinks of Katniss. “How about it, Haymitch?”

“Yeah, whatever,” he responds. He’s not drinking, but I know he wants to be. Now that the day of the Quarter Quell has come and he has to see his friends entering the arena, I’m sure that the last thing he wants is to be sober. I know the only reason he’s not drinking is because he owes me and he knows it. He said Katniss had to live and that means he can’t be drunk. He has to focus on us this year as much as he did last year and he doesn’t like it. Only one of us is going to be coming home this time and it’s going to be Katniss. It has to be Katniss. He said so himself.

“Maybe we could get you a wig too,” she chimes in. She seems to be attempting to lighten the mood as well, but Haymitch only shoots her a withering look. No one talks anymore after that.

Once we’re finished with dinner, Effie suggests we watch the recap of the reapings. I get the notebook I filled with information on the living victors before I join everyone in front of the television just as the anthem begins playing and the recap begins. They go by quickly. I stare the names of the chosen tributes and rip out the pages of the ones that weren’t chosen. I’m so focused on my work that I hardly take any real notice of any of them. To me, they’re only competition, people that are in the way of keeping Katniss alive. It’s a cruel way of thinking, but I can’t allow myself to care.

Haymitch and Effie leave almost immediately after the recaps finish. Katniss sits with me as I finish tearing out the unnecessary tribute pages in my notebook. I glance towards her and say in a soft voice, “Why don’t you get some sleep?”

I don’t want her to go away. I want her to stay here with me. I want her to spend her last few waking moments with me, but she needs to get her strength back up and, besides, we haven’t been as close, since we returned from the Victory Tour. The last time we were even moderately close was when Gale was whipped.

“What are you going to do?” she asks me.

“Just review my notes awhile,” I respond. “Get a clear picture of what we’re up again. But I’ll go over it with you in the morning.” I turn to her, knowing the look in my eyes is slightly pleading as I add, “Go to bed, Katniss.”

She says nothing else and does as I ask.

I put in tape after tape, skipping through them, only watching the parts where the tributes we’ll be facing come up. I study their fighting style, even though my heart isn’t really in it. I’m watching the one where a man named Brutus is the victor when I hear soft footsteps. I don’t have to turn to know it’s Katniss, but when she comes into my line of vision, I flip the television off and ask, “Couldn’t sleep?”

“Not for long,” she responds. She pulls the robe she’s wearing more tightly around her. No doubt the reason she’s up is due to nightmares.

“Want to talk about it?” I ask, knowing this can help her, but she shakes her head. This tends to mean that the nightmares were too horrific to relive. I don’t question it. I only open my arms and she does exactly what I was hoping she would: she walks straight into them. I pull her as close to me as I can without seeming too desperate, but I can’t hold myself back from burying my face in her hair and gently kissing her neck. I don’t want to ever let her go. I want to stay right here forever. I don’t want to ever arrive at the Capitol. I want to hold her. I want to be with her. I want to take care of her because I love her more than words can say, but that isn’t going to happen. Our wedding that would mean nothing anyhow is never going to happen now. I’m not going to be able to spend the rest of my life with her. I’m only going to be able to spend the next few weeks with her. Then I’m going to die and she’s going to go home. For the first time, I find myself praying that she’ll be able to find happiness with Gale. I want her to forget me. I want her to go home and forget I existed. It’ll be easier that way.

It’s the Capitol attendant bringing us a tray with warm milk that breaks us apart. “I brought an extra cup,” he says.

“Thanks,” Katniss replies.

“And I added a touch of honey to the milk,” he adds. “For sweetness. And just a pinch of spice.” I get the feeling he wants to say something else, but he just shakes his head and leaves the room. My brow creases with confusion. If I didn’t know any better, I’d think he was sorrowful.

“What’s with him?” Katniss asks.

“I think he feels bad for us,” I respond as the truth of it hits me.

“Right,” she responds, her voice full of sarcasm as she pours the milk into the mugs.

“I mean it,” I say. “I don’t think the people in the Capitol are going to be all that happy about our going back in. Or the other victors. They get attached to their champions.”

“I’m guessing they’ll get over it once the blood starts flowing,” she says, her voice flat. I don’t respond because I know she’s right. “So, you’re watching all the tapes again?” she adds.

“Not really,” I reply, glancing at the box. “Just sort of skipping around to see people’s different fighting techniques.”

“Who’s next?” she asks.

“You pick,” I respond, holding it towards her.

I can’t say I’m entirely surprised when she pulls out the tape with Haymitch’s name on it. Secretly, I’ve been wanting to watch it too, but I’ve never thought it was a good idea. Even when Katniss says, “We never watched this one,” I shake my head.

“No,” I respond. “I knew Haymitch didn’t want to. The same way we didn’t want to relive our own Games. And since we’re all on the same team, I didn’t think it mattered much.”

“Is the person who won in twenty-five here?” she asks.

“I don’t think so,” I say, giving the tapes a quick overall glance. “Whoever it was must be dead by now and Effie only set me victors we might have to face.” I hold the tape carefully as if I’m afraid I’ll drop it and it’ll shatter. “Why? You think we ought to watch it?”

“It’s the only Quell we have,” she says. “We might pick up something valuable about how they work.” Just like me, I think she feels as though this is some sort of invasion of Haymitch’s privacy. It isn’t really. This was televised for the world to see. But that doesn’t change my feelings. When Katniss says, “We don’t have to tell Haymitch we saw it,” I agree and put in the tape. She curls up next to be on the couch with her milk and we lose ourselves in the Fiftieth Hunger Games and the second Quarter Quell.

There’s a brief introduction of Snow reading the card before the tape cuts the reapings. Name after name after name is drawn and by the time we reach District 12, I can tell that both Katniss and I are overwhelmed by the sheer amount of kids going into the arena this year. When the woman who is calling names for District 12 starts calling names, I’m not really paying attention anymore until after the name “Maysilee Donner” is called and Katniss says, “Oh! She was my mother’s friend.”

On the screen, I see two girls clinging to the other girl going up to the stage. “I think that’s your mother hugging her,” I respond, my voice soft. There’s a girl next to her mother that looks familiar and it isn’t until Katniss says, “Madge,” that I recognize her.

“That’s her mother,” I say. “She and Maysilee were twins or something. My dad mentioned it once.”

Haymitch’s is name called next and my eyebrows rise at the sight of him. He was from the Seam obviously, but he wasn’t bad looking. He looks much stronger than he does now. Younger too, but that’s inevitable.

“Oh, Peeta,” Katniss whispers, “you don’t think he killed Maysilee, do you?”

Having been thinking the same thing, I automatically say, “With forty-eight players? I’d say the odds are against it.”

The chariot rides are almost identical to what we’ve seen every other year other than our own. The tributes from District 12 are dressed as coal miners, but we only see them for a moment before it cuts to the interviews. They go swiftly, but we’re able to see one full exchange between Haymitch and Caesar seeing as he’s the victor of this year. After that, it cuts to the Games itself and when I get a look at the place where the Games is taking place that year I gasp.

It’s beautiful and I know from now on when I think of paradise, I’ll think of this place. At least, that is until the Games themselves begin. It becomes apparent quickly that everything there is deadly in some way. The natural food and water is poisonous, the animals are dangerous, and the scent of the flowers when inhaled too directly is deadly.

Haymitch walks in one direction during his entire time in the arena. Even when he and Maysilee eventually team up. She keeps asking him why repeatedly and it isn’t until she stops and refuses to go any further that he finally gives an explanation.

“Because it has to end somewhere, right? The arena can’t go on forever.”

“What do you expect to find?” Maysilee asks.

“I don’t know,” he responds with a shrug. “I don’t know. But maybe there’s something we can use.”

There is a hedge that Haymitch came upon earlier that he couldn’t get through, but finally he and Maysilee manage too with a blowtorch they stole from one of the Careers. However, what they find on the other side is hardly exciting. Just dry earth with a cliff that leads down to some jagged rocks. The fall would be the death of anyone who slipped over the edge.

It’s then that Maysilee decides to leave Haymitch. He doesn’t give her even a look of goodbye. He just stares down at the rocks beneath him as she walks away. Once she’s gone, he kicks a pebble over the edge. It seems to be gone forever, but only a few seconds later after he sits down to rest, it returns. He gives it a puzzled look before throwing another rock over, this one the size of his fist. When this one returns, he laughs, but his joy is cut short by a screaming that can only be defined as Maysilee’s.

He runs to her and holds her hand as she dies, having been killed by some of the beautiful candy colored birds I saw earlier in the Games. After her death, a few more tributes are killed and then it’s down to Haymitch and this girl from District 1 that is twice his size. Their fight is deadly and bloody. Haymitch is cut deep in the stomach and she loses her eye. When he’s able to get away, he runs back to his cliff and falls to the ground as she throws an axe at him. She’s looking frustrated, but also triumphant, probably thinking that he’s going to die before she is, but only a few seconds later, the axe returns and lodges itself in her skull. The trumpets blare signaling Haymitch has won. I turn it off the minute the announcement finishes.

For a moment, we’re silent, trying to absorb what we just saw. Finally, I say, “That force field at the bottom of the cliff, it was like the one on the roof of the Training Center. The one that throws you back if you try to jump off and commit suicide. Haymitch found a way to turn it into a weapon.”

“Not just against the other tributes,” Katniss adds, “but the Capitol too. You know they didn’t expect that to happen. It wasn’t meant to be part of the arena. They never planned on anyone using it as a weapon. It made them look stupid that he figured it out. I bet they had a good time trying to sin that one. Bet that’s why I don’t remember seeing it on television. It’s almost as bad as us and the berries.”

When she starts to laugh, I look at her, concerned she’s gone mad, but these thoughts don’t last long because only a few moments later, I hear a voice say, “Almost, but not quite.” We turn around and see Haymitch drinking. To my surprise, he isn’t angry with us. He doesn’t even look surprised.

I would have just gone to bed silently after that, except I notice something on Katniss’ face that startles and worries me. She looks determined and triumphant and I know what she’s thinking. She’s not going to try to win this time. She’s going to be doing for me what I’m going to be doing for her.

She’s going to be trying to make sure I win.

Chapter Text

My prep team, Ambrose, Lamia, and Quinlan, are in tears throughout the morning as they make me look what the Capitol defines as beautiful. Since I’m male, my prepping with them takes a far shorter time than I assume it does with Katniss. By the time they leave, I’m exhausted from having to comfort them as they touched up my face, plucked at my eyebrows, and fussed with my hair. When Portia arrives, she looks sad too, but she doesn’t start crying like they did. She just crosses her arms, looks me over and says, “You really haven’t changed much.”

            It’s not an unusual greeting from her. Our conversations aren’t usually friendly, but that doesn’t mean we aren’t friends. I’m happy to see her, but at the same time I’m not. She looks the same way. Neither one of us wants to be any more attached to one another than we already are. It’s only going to make it harder when I die. I suppose our detached way of speaking is for the better. I wonder if this is how Katniss and Cinna are speaking now. Something tells me they aren’t. She’s far closer with her stylist than I am with mine.

            Without preamble, Portia pulls the outfit she is holding out of the protective plastic. She helps me into it and does my makeup. At first glance, the outfit is just another black unitard, similar to the one Katniss and I wore last year at our opening ceremonies, but I know there’s more to it. She presses a button that’s woven into the fabric on the inside of my wrist and when I look in the mirror, I don’t see myself. Instead, I see some creature that’s crawled out of a volcano. The costume has lit up and is a glowing assortment of oranges, reds, and yellows, making me look like molten lava. My face is covered in makeup. Really, there isn’t much, but to me, but with the crown she places on my head I look like someone else entirely.

            “You’re not going to wave to the audience this year,” she tells me sternly, her eyes locking with mine in the mirror. “They’re beneath you. They’re all beneath you. Okay?”

            I nod. Katniss will be good at that, but I’m not sure I will be. However, when I think back, I didn’t wave to the audience last year, so why would I do that this year? Then again, last year I was terrified I was going to fly off the chariot. This year, I know how things work and I doubt I’ll be as frightened. Still, I think I can do exactly what Portia is asking.

            “You’re going to protect her again, aren’t you?” She says this as more of a statement than a question. There is no emotion in her voice.

            I nod again.

            “Why?”

            The question surprises me so much I have to turn around to look at Portia to see if she’s serious. When I see that she is, I say simply, “Because I love her.”

            “Even after what she did to you?” she asks.

            “That’s why I still love her,” I say, realizing as I say this it’s true. “I’d much rather her be honest with me. I wouldn’t want to go through my life thinking she loved me if she really didn’t. What kind of life would that be?”

            “A happy one,” she responds.

            I suppose she’s right. Maybe I would be happier right now if I knew Katniss loved me. But I realize in an instant that I wouldn’t be. I might have been before I knew we’d be going back into the arena, but now things are different. If I thought she loved me and I knew I’d have to give my life to save hers this time, I would be devastated that I had to leave her and we could never truly be together. It’s better than she doesn’t love me. For both of us. She won’t be broken by my death and I won’t feel as guilty about leaving her.

            I say none of this to Portia, but I know she can read it all in my face. She heads towards the door and I follow her. She sends me down to the Remake Center on my own. I don’t mind. I feel as though any more of her company will be awkward. Especially after our last conversation. I’d always felt as though Portia understood how I feel towards Katniss, but I realize now that I was wrong. Her understanding only goes so far. Then again, I think anyone’s understanding for anything has a limit of some sort.

            When I step off of the elevator, my eyes immediately find Katniss. I notice someone standing next to her and as I get closer I recognize that someone as Finnick Odair, the attractive man that every girl in Panem would die to be the lover of. He’s leaning in close to her, his lips nearly touching hers. Katniss isn’t mine. I established that only moments ago, but I bristle anyway. The look of embarrassment on her face as she turns her face from his to the floor makes me feel slightly better. He leaves before I get to her.

            “What did Finnick Odair want?” I ask.

            She turns to me, puts her lips close to mine, and drops her eyelids. I can tell she’s trying to look seductive and with all the makeup she has on, she’s doing a pretty good job of it, but even when she speaks, her voice just as alluring as the rest of her, I’m still unable to see her as such. “He offered me a sugar cube and wanted to know all my secrets.”

            I laugh. “Ugh. Not really.”

            “Really,” she responds. “I’ll tell you more when my skin stops crawling.”

            My eyes move around the room, taking in the other victors surrounding us. “Do you think we’d have ended up like this if only one of us had won? Just another part of the freak show?”

            “Sure,” she says, surprising me. “Especially you.”

            “Oh,” I say, a smile crossing my lips. “And why especially me?”

            “Because you have a weakness for beautiful things and I don’t,” she explains simply. “They would lure you into their Capitol ways and you’d be lost entirely.”

            “Having an eye for beauty isn’t the same thing as I weakness,” I counter. Before I can stop myself, I add, “Except possibly when it comes to you.” I hear the music outside of the Remake Center beginning. The roar of the crowd accompanies it as the first chariot moves into the City Circle. “Shall we?” I ask, holding out my hand to help her into the chariot.

            She climbs up without my help, pulling me up after her. “Hold still,” she responds adjusting the crown on my head. “Have you seen your suit turned on? We’re going to be fabulous again.”

            “Absolutely,” I say. “But Portia says we’re to be very above it all. No waving or anything.” I give a quick glance around the room and then behind me, my brows creasing as I add, “Where are they, anyway?”

            “I don’t know,” she replies, glancing at the procession of the chariots in front of us. “Maybe we better go ahead and switch ourselves on.” We do so and as we begin to glow, the people in the chariots around us are pointing at us. No doubt everyone will be talking about us again after the ceremonies are over. As we’re nearing the door and Cinna and Portia still haven’t shown up, Katniss cranes her neck, trying to find them. When she sees no sign of them, she asks, “Are we supposed to hold hands this year?”

            “I guess they’ve left that up to us,” I respond.

            We do end up holding hands, but we do exactly as Cinna and Portia told us. Never once to we glance at the Capitol crowd. We stare into the distance, too good for anyone here. After the speech from President Snow, we’re sent into the Training Center where we finally meet up with our stylists. Haymitch is there as well, but he’s talking to the tributes from District 11. When he spots us, he brings them over to greet us. The woman, whose name I know to be Seeder, gives Katniss a hug, before the man, Chaff, throws an arm around her, bends down and gives her a kiss full on the mouth. She jumps back and he and Haymitch laugh. I’m just as shocked as she is, until I realize that they’re only doing this to mess with her. Not me.

            As we’re heading towards the elevators, our fingers entwined once more, a girl rushes up to Katniss’ side. She’s dressed like a tree and it isn’t until she throws off the headdress that I recognize her as Johanna Mason. The victor from District 7, who won by pretending to be a weakling. She ruffles her hair and says to Katniss, “Isn’t my costume awful? My stylist’s the biggest idiot in the Capitol. Our tributes have been trees for forty years under her. Wish I’d gotten Cinna. You look fantastic.”

            Clearly taken aback, it takes Katniss a moment to respond. “Yeah, he’s been helping me design my own clothing line. You should see what he can do with velvet.”

            “I have,” she says. “On your tour. That strapless number you wore in District Two? The deep blue one with the diamonds? So gorgeous. I wanted to reach through the screen and tear it right off your back.”

            For some reason this thought makes me flinch. There’s something about the way she says this that makes me think her intentions aren’t entirely flattering. However, I’m only given a couple of moments to think this over. Only a few seconds after she’s finished her sentence. Johanna is taking off the rest of her costume. Save for the green slippers on her feet, she’s naked. “That’s better,” she says.

            We end up in the same elevator with her. She talks to me the whole way up. I notice Katniss glancing at us now and then and when she leaves, she tosses my hand away when we get off, glowering at the wall. I’m grinning, but not for the reasons she thinks. After she does this, I laugh, unable to stop.

            “What?” she says, turning to me, her face pure fury, but I’m still laughing.

            “It’s you, Katniss,” I say, smiling in a way that clearly shows I’m imploring her to understand. “Can’t you see?”

            “What’s me?” she asks.

            “Why they’re acting like this,” I clarify. “Finnick with his sugar cubes and Chaff kissing you and that whole thing with Johanna stripping down.” I try to make my face more serious, but it’s difficult when I realize just how clueless she is. “They’re playing with you because you’re so…you know.”

            “No,” she says. “I don’t know.”

            “It’s like when you wouldn’t look at me naked in the arena,” I explain, “even though I was half dead. You’re so…pure.”

            “I am not!” she exclaims. “I’ve been practically ripping your clothes off every time there’s been a camera for the last year!”

            “Yeah, but…I mean, for the Capitol you’re pure,” I say, trying to get her to understand. “For me, you’re perfect. They’re just teasing you.”

            “No,” she counters. “They’re laughing at me and so are you!”

            “No.” I shake my head, but I’m still trying not to smile. When Effie and Haymitch step off of the opening elevator next to us, I can see they’re happy about something, but when Haymitch glances behind us, his expression changes from pleased to stony within a second.

            “Looks like they’ve got you a matched set this year,” Effie says.

            Katniss and I turn around. I see the redheaded Avox girl that I remember calmed Katniss and helped her last year. Next to her is another Avox, this one a boy and also redheaded, which clarifies Effie’s statement. However, this thought has only just gone through my head when I realize I know him and I don’t have to look at Katniss to know that she does too. It’s been a while since we last saw him, but that last time was pretty significant. It was at Gale’s whipping.

            The new Avox is Darius.

Chapter Text

 My eyes immediately dart over to Katniss and I see Haymitch already has his hand clamped around her wrist to keep her from doing anything stupid, but I can tell from the look on her face that she knows anything she wants to do would be a bad idea.

I never knew Darius like she did, so I can only imagine the range of emotions going through her right now. The last time either of us saw him was when Gale was whipped. He had been hit on the head with the butt of the whip by Thread.

I swallow, trying to block that image from my mind. By the time I’ve managed to do so, Katniss has pulled herself out of Haymitch’s grip and his rushing down to her bedroom. No one stops her. We all know she needs time alone. After a moment, I go the same way to my room. I want to get out of this outfit. I want to wash the makeup off my face. But most of all I want to go home. I want to forget this is happening. I want to die in District 12, but we can’t all get what we wish for and I saw the last of my home only a day ago.

Before dinner, I peel off my suit and take a shower in the dark, letting the glowing light from the suit be the only illumination I have as I wash myself. I’ve only just gotten out of the shower, a towel tied around my waist when I hear a knock at the door. It’s undoubtedly Effie telling me to come down to dinner. I tell her I’ll be there in a moment and find some simple clothes to dress in before I head down the hall.

Cinna, Portia, Effie, and Haymitch are all there, but Katniss isn’t. I imagine she’s taking her time coming to the table. It’s difficult even for me to see Darius, though I didn’t know him half as well as she did. While everyone else talks about the opening ceremonies, I eat. Now and then I contribute to the conversation, but when Katniss comes into the room, my eyes are mostly on her, trying to guess what her current emotions might be. Halfway through dinner, she knocks a dish of peas off the table. I know she did it on purpose, so she could see Darius if only for a moment. I think I’m the only that notices their hands touch and the look they share before Effie begins yelling at Katniss, saying it isn’t her job to help clean up the mess.

We watch the recap of the opening ceremonies after dinner, but it’s not as interesting as last year. I get the feeling that none of us really want to watch it, but we do anyway because there’s nothing else we can do. Once it’s over Katniss gets up and thanks Cinna and Portia for their work before she hurries down the hall to her bedroom. I watch her leave, wondering if she’ll let me sleep with her tonight, but when I do knock on her door later, she doesn’t open it and I return to my room to sleep alone.

When I wake up and head down to the dining room for breakfast, only Effie and Haymitch are there. I sit down to the left of Effie and eat my breakfast slowly. She’s smiling brightly and it takes me a moment to figure out why, but once I see the golden bangle on Haymitch’s wrist, covered in a pattern of flames, I feel my eyes widen slightly. I didn’t think she’d actually give us matching jewelry.

“You’re going to make friends today,” Haymitch says out of the blue after Effie leaves to do something that I don’t hear the description of.

Startled, I give him a confused look. “What?” I ask. “Why?”

“Because you need to,” he responds.

“No,” I say instantly. “I’d rather it just be Katniss and I working together like last year.”

But he’s already shaking his head before I even finish my sentence. “You have to keep her alive, Peeta,” he’s telling me and I can tell from the look in his eyes that he means every word. “She wants to keep you alive, but you have to keep her alive. She needs to be alive, okay? And if that’s going to happen you need to do what I’m telling you.”

It takes a long time for Katniss to join us and I think the only reason she does is because Haymitch finally gets so annoyed with her tardiness that he storms down the hall and bangs on her door, telling her to get into the dining room this instant. When he returns, he’s fuming and his irritation grows, since it still takes her another five minutes to appear.

“You’re late,” Haymitch says, glowering at her.

“Sorry,” she responds, though she doesn’t sound sorry at all. “I slept in after the mutilated-tongue nightmares that kept me up half the night.” She manages to sound angry and hostile until the end of the sentence when her voice catches.

“All right,” he says finally, still sounding slightly irritated. “Never mind. Today, in training, you’ve got two jobs. One, stay in love.”

“Obviously,” she says.

“And two, make friends,” he adds.

“No,” she says instantly. “I don’t trust any of them, I can’t stand most of them, and I’d rather operate with just the two of us.”

“That’s what I said at first, but – ” I begin, but Haymitch cuts me off.

“But it won’t be enough. You’re going to need more allies this time around.”

“Why?” she asks.

“Because you’re at a distinct disadvantage,” he replies, sounding frustrated. “Your competitors have known each other for years. So who do you think they’re going to target first?”

“Us,” she says. “And nothing we’re going to do is going to override any friendship. So why bother?”

“Because you can fight,” Haymitch tells her, the seriousness I heard earlier back in his voice. “You’re popular with the crowd. That could still make you desirable allies. But only if you let the others know you’re willing to team up with them.”

“You mean you want us in the Career pack this year?” she asks, sounding disgusted. I can hardly blame her. I was in with them last year and it wasn’t the most pleasant experience, especially since I almost ended up dead because of what the leader of the pack, Cato, decided to do when he discovered that I was actually protecting Katniss instead of helping them to kill her.

“That’s been our strategy, hasn’t it?” Haymitch counters. “To train like Careers? And who makes up the Career pack is generally agreed upon before the Games begin. Peeta barely got in with them last year.”

My brow creases as I wonder how Haymitch figured out that plan. I think I must have told him about it, but at the same time I fell as though I didn’t because I knew he’d think it was a stupid idea. My thoughts are interrupted by Katniss saying, “So we’re to try to get in with Finnick and Brutus – is that what you’re saying?”

“Not necessarily,” he says. “Everyone’s a victor. Make your own pack if you’d rather. Choose who you like. I’d suggest Chaff and Seeder. Although Finnick’s not to be ignored. Find someone to team up with who might be of some use to you. Remember, you’re not in a ring full of trembling children anymore. These people are all experienced killers, no matter what shape they appear to be in.”

We both know Haymitch is right, but I also know we’re all thinking the same thing: who can we trust? I’m sure Katniss has an idea as to who she thinks she could team up with, but I’m not as popular with the crowd as she is, so I have no idea. I’ll have to judge the others for myself. However, when we go down – earlier than we did last year, since we were late – we’re the only ones there save for the tributes from District 2, Brutus and Enobaria, even at ten o’clock, the time training starts, only half of the tributes have shown up.

After Atala, the woman who runs the training, finishes speaking, Katniss tells me we should split up. That way we’ll be able to speak with more people. I’m completely opposed to the idea, but I don’t say this. I may be good with people, I may be charming as Haymitch and Katniss have told me countless times, and I have to admit that I am, but these people are going to be trying to kill Katniss. How can I speak with them as though we’re old friends when I know that eventually they’re going to try to find her and kill her?

The minute this thought passes through my head, I know that it’s stupid. I was with the Careers last year. I acted as though we were friends. I treated them nice enough. I knew that they were trying to find and kill Katniss, but I stayed with them anyway to protect her. Really, how is this any different? The truth is that it isn’t. I just had a plan last year and this time I don’t.

While Katniss heads over to the knot-tying station, I look around trying to find one that I might be interested in and also has someone I might be able to talk to. There’s no one where she’s headed, but I know that’s because she doesn’t like being around people. In the end, I decide upon the archery station. I’ve never used a bow before, but, then again, I’ve never used the majority of these weapons before. I might as well try something that I’ve seen Katniss use. Besides, it’s always sort of interested me.

Just as I thought, using a bow is a lot harder than Katniss makes it look. However, I must be a little better than some of the other tributes were expecting because I attract a bit of attention, mostly from the tributes from District 1, the brother and sister, Gloss and Cashmere. They’re nice enough, but I don’t like them and I can tell that they don’t like me either. I spend about an hour there before I head over to another station. This one is throwing spears, knives, and axes. Here I meet Johanna – who is naked again – Finnick, Chaff, Seeder, Brutus, and Enobaria. Finnick leaves to go to the archery station with the old woman from his district and after a short conversation between the two of us Johanna goes over the wrestling station. I stay with the rest of the group and learn how to throw knives pretty decently. I’m actually enjoying the company of everyone else and by the time we go to lunch, I have ten other victors I can sit with. I notice Katniss with the tributes from District 3, the ones Johanna and some of the others were making fun of earlier. I’m assuming she’ll sit with them, until everyone starts pushing the tables into a large circle, so we can all sit together. I help out, but a part of me is nervous. I can only be sociable for so long, though I think this applies to almost anyone.

After this is finished, I find Katniss getting her food. I grab a tray and rush up to her, asking, “How’s it going?”

“Good,” she says. “Fine. I like the District Three victors. Wiress and Beetee.”

“Really?” I ask. “They’re something of a joke to the others.”

This upsets her. “Why does that not surprise me?”

“Joahnna’s nicknamed them Nuts and Volts,” I say. I glance at the two of them, sitting in a somewhat secluded part of the circle. “I think she’s Nuts and he’s Volts.”

“And so I’m stupid for thinking they might be useful,” she says, her voice having turned venomous. “Because of something Johanna Mason said while she was oiling up her breasts for wrestling.” I should have known that mention of Johanna would cause her to act this way.

“Actually,” I respond, trying to calm her, “I think the nickname’s been around for years. And I didn’t mean that as an insult. I’m just sharing information.”

“Well, Wiress and Beetee are smart,” she hisses. “They invent things. Thy could tell by sight that a force field had been put up between us and the Gamemakers. And if we have to have allies, I want them.” She tosses the ladle of the stew back into the pot. Flecks of it fly out, covering the both of us in gravy.

“What are you so angry about?” I ask, trying to wipe the gravy from my shirt, honestly confused before it occurs to me, “Because I teased you on the elevator? I’m sort. I thought you would just laugh about it.”

“Forget it,” she says, shaking her head. “It’s a lot of things.”

“Darius,” I say, realizing instantly that I’m not the only thing upsetting her.

“Darius. The Games. Haymitch making us team up with the others.” As she goes on, she sounds more and more frustrated as well as upset.

“It can be just you and me, you know,” I say, meaning every word.

“I know,” she says. “But maybe Haymitch is right. Don’t tell him I said so, but he usually is, where the Games are concerned.”

“Well, you can have final say about our allies,” I promise. “But right now, I’m leaning toward Chaff and Seeder.”

“I’m okay with Seeder, not Chaff,” she says. “Not yet, anyway.”

“Come on and eat with him,” I say. “I promise, I won’t let him kiss you again.”

As promised, Chaff isn’t as bad at lunch. In fact, lunch is rather enjoyable. After nothing much happens until Katniss decides to go to the archery station. I just notice her going over there at first and I shrug. She’ll shoot some targets. There really isn’t much else to do. At least, that’s what I think until I realize that everyone is watching her. I turn and am mesmerized by her ability. It isn’t until she brings down five of these fake birds the trainer has been throwing for her that she realizes we’re all watching and she turns to face us.

The two of us sit in the living room until Haymitch and Effie show up for dinner. I’m expecting we’ll just sit at the table and eat in silence again, but I’ve barely gotten to my feet when he says, “So at least half the victors have instructed their mentors to request you as an ally. I know it can’t be your sunny personality.”

“They saw her shoot,” I say, smiling, knowing without a doubt this is the reason they want her on their team. “Actually, I saw her shoot, for real, for the first time. I’m about to put in a formal request myself.”

“You’re that good?” he asks. “So good that Brutus wants you?”

She shrugs. “But I don’t want Brutus. I want Mags and District Three.”

He sighs in response, ordering wine as he does so. “Of course you do. I’ll tell everybody you’re still making up your mind.”

The next two days of training are uneventful and similar to the first. I hate becoming such good friends with these people knowing I’m going to be unable to do what I did in the last Games. I’m going to have to kill some of them. I won’t be able to keep my hands clean. On the last day of training, which ends with our private sessions, everyone jokes about what they’re going to do. However, when everyone actually starts being called the racket dies down. Soon, it’s just Katniss and I alone in the lunchroom. She’ll be last. I’ll be next to last and I still have no idea what I’m going to do. Reaching across the table we’re sitting at, I take her hands and ask softly, “Decided what to do for the Gamemakers yet?”

She shakes her head. “I can’t really use them for target practice this year, with the force field up and all. Maybe make some fishhooks. What about you?”

“Not a clue,” I respond. “I keep wishing I could make a cake or something.” I’m only half joking about the last sentence.

“Do some more camouflage,” she suggests.

“If the morphlings have left me anything to work with,” I say wryly, thinking of the victors from District 6, who have used that drug as an escape from daily life. “They’ve been glued to that station since training started.”

We’re silent for a moment after that. Then Katniss blurts out, “How are we going to kill these people, Peeta?”

The question exhausts me. I rest my forehead on our entwined fingers. “I don’t know.”

“I don’t want them as allies,” she says. “Why did Haymitch want us to get to know them? It’ll make it so much harder than last time. Except for Rue maybe. But I guess I never really could’ve killed her anyway. She was just too much like Prim.”

This gives me an idea, something I can do, mixed in with the camouflage. “Her death was the most despicable, wasn’t it?”

“None of them were very pretty,” she responds.

She’s right, but I don’t have much time to think on it because they call my name. I leave the room and head back into the training room. I glance towards the camouflage area. Considering how much the morphlings have used the place in the last few days, there’s still a considerable amount of colors, enough to do what I’m planning. I glance towards the Gamemakers only once before I set to work.

Painting with my finger is no different than painting with a brush. The brush has become an extension of my arm over the last year and a half and using my finger feels like using that brush. There are certain things about it that are difficult to do without the bristles, but I manage to paint what I want to anyway. I stand when I’m finished and clean my throat. My hands are covered in every color I used and all of those colors are now meshed together on the floor.

In the perfect depiction of Rue. Dead and covered in flowers.

Chapter Text

Thinking of what Katniss did last year, I don’t stick around to find out what the Gamemakers think of my painting, but I’m sure they’re startled. When I get back to the District 12 apartments, I dash into my room and lock the door of my bathroom behind me, immediately getting in the shower to scrub my hands and arms, trying to wash away as much of the dyes as possible. I’m glad I did what I did, but at the same time I can’t help feeling frightened. Not nearly as frightened as Katniss was when she shot the arrow at the Gamemakers last year. I don’t break down sobbing, but I am afraid of the implications of what I have done. It could hurt Katniss. The Capitol already doesn’t like her, but what I’ve done could make them punish her in a way of punishing me. It’d be the perfect excuse. When I remember that the Gamemakers aren’t allowed to talk about our private sessions, I relax. However, I don’t feel completely at peace – or as at peace as I can be – until I see her at dinner.

            We’re silent until the soup is served, then Haymitch asks, “All right, so how did your private sessions go?”

            Katniss and I share a look at each other. I get the feeling we both did something reckless. She keeps glancing at my hands, which are still slightly stained from the dyes I used. “You first,” she says. “It must have been really special. I had to wait for forty minutes to go in.”

            I didn’t want to be the first to tell the table what I did, but now it seems I have no choice. I stare at my food and push it around on my plate for a minute before I say, “Well, I – I did the camouflage thing, like you suggested Katniss.” I pause, wondering how to put exactly what I did into words. “Not exactly camouflage. I mean, I used the dyes.”

            “To do what?” Portia asks, her turquoise hair up in the messy bun it always is.

            Katniss is the first to figure it out, but I think that’s only because she knows me better than anyone else at this table. “You painted something, didn’t you? A picture.”

            “Did you see it?” I ask.

            “No,” she says. “But they’d made a real point of covering it up.” I should have known they would. I don’t know why any part of me thought that the picture of Rue would be permanent. Anything like that would be gotten rid of immediately, no matter what they had to in order to do so.

            “Well, that would be standard,” Effie says, unconcerned. “They can’t let one tribute know what another did. What did you paint, Peeta? Was it a picture of Katniss?”

            “Why would he paint a picture of me, Effie?” the girl in question asks, sounding irritated.

            “To show he’s going to do everything he can to defend you,” Effie responds acting as though this should be obvious. “That’s what everyone in the Capitol’s expecting, anyway. Didn’t he volunteer to go in with you?”

            “Actually,” I begin, swallowing nervously, “I painted a picture of Rue. How she looked after Katniss had covered her in flowers.”

            Silence. Then Haymitch asks, in a voice that suggests he’s struggling to stay calm, “And what exactly were you trying to accomplish?”

            “I’m not sure,” I say, though this isn’t the truth. “I just wanted to hold them accountable, if only for a moment, for killing that little girl.”

            “This is dreadful,” Effie says immediately, her voice shaking. I think she’s going to cry. “That sort of thinking…it’s forbidden, Peeta. Absolutely. You’ll only bring more trouble on yourself and Katniss.”

            “I have to agree with Effie on this one,” says Haymitch.

            “I guess this a bad time to mention I hung a dummy and painted Seneca Crane’s name on it,” Katniss says. I could swear everyone in the room jumps when she speaks. Everyone is shocked beyond all belief, even me. It seems like something she would do, but at the same time I wonder if the Gamemakers will “forget” they have to keep private sessions secret and get rid of her before the Games begin.

            “You…hung…Seneca Crane?” Cinna says.

            “Yes,” she says as though it should be obvious this is what she did. “I was showing off my new knot-tying skills, and he somehow ended up at the end of the noose.”

            “Oh, Katniss,” Effie says softly. “How do you even know about that?”

            “Is it a secret?” she asks. “President Snow didn’t act like it was. In fact, he seemed eager for me to know.” This pushes Effie over the edge. With her napkin pressed to her face, she darts out of the room. “Now I’ve upset Effie. I should have lied and said I shot some arrows.”

            “You’d have thought we planned it,” I say, the corners of my mouth raising ever to slightly, gazing at Katniss.

            “Didn’t you?” asks Portia. She has her fingers pressed to her eyelids and I realize this is the first time I’ve seen her look this nervous. Normally, she’s good at hiding her emotions, and, for the first time, I wonder what made her feel as though she had to do that in the first place.

            “No,” Katniss says, looking at me with an expression that I can only describe as respect. “Neither of us even knew what we were going to do before we went in.”

            “And, Haymitch?” I say, suddenly remembering. “We decided we don’t want any other allies in the arena.”

            “Good,” he says. “Then I won’t be responsible for you killing off any of my friends with your stupidity.” The comment stings, but I know he’s right. What Katniss and I did was reckless and, ultimately, stupid.

            “That’s just what we were thinking,” she says.

            The table is silent until we get up and Cinna suggests, putting his arm around Katniss, that we see what our scores are. Everyone save for Cashmere, Gloss, Brutus, Enobaria, and Finnick get low scores. When it’s our turn, Katniss asks the question that’s on all of our minds, “Have they ever given a zero?”

            “No,” Cinna says. “But there’s a first time for everything.”

            And he’s right. Katniss and I both end up with a twelve, which shocks everyone in the room, but no one is celebrating.

            “Why did they do that?” Katniss asks.

            “So that the others will have no choice but to target you,” Haymitch says, his voice devoid of any form of emotion. “Go to bed. I can’t stand to look at either one of you.”

            I walk Katniss to her room, neither of us speaking a word. When we reach the door, I open my mouth to say goodnight, but she wraps her arms around me. I respond by doing the same, resting my cheek on the top of her head. “I’m sorry if I made things worse,” she says.

            “No worse than I did,” I say. “Why did you do it, anyway?”

            “I don’t know. To show them that I’m more than just a piece in their Games?”

            This makes me laugh. It reminds me of the last Games when we were both on the roof and I said the same thing to her. She hadn’t understood what I meant then, but it’s clear she does now and I’m glad for that.

            “Me, too,” I say. “And I’m not saying I’m not going to try. To get you home, I mean. But if I’m perfectly honest about it…”

            “If you’re perfectly honest about it, you think President Snow has probably given them direct orders to make sure we die in the arena anyway,” she says.

            “It’s crossed my mind,” I say.

            It’s crossed my mind repeatedly within the past few days. I want Katniss to live. I want her to go home to her family. I want her to live life without me. I want her to find happiness with Gale, but I don’t think the Capitol is going to let that happen. Selfishly, I pray that if she does die, I’m already dead by the time she does. I couldn’t bear to hold her in my arms as the life slips out of her. Seeing her dying is the last thing that I would ever want to witness.

            “But even if that happens, everyone will know we’ve gone out fighting, right?” I ask.

            “Everyone will,” she replies.

            That’s when I realize, I want to die and have Katniss go home or I want us both to die. I can’t live without her. I couldn’t survive if she died in the arena when I promised myself I would protect her. I will have failed in my mission to keep her alive if she dies. If I die protecting her, I will die happy. I can’t let her die. I have to put my life on the line every day for the rest of my life to keep her alive.

            These are the same thoughts that were running through my head last year at this time. I was vowing to protect her, promising she would go home and I did what I promised I would, but this time is different. This time, the Capitol hates her. They want her dead. They want her out of the picture so the rebellions in the districts will stop. They think that if they kill her they can crush them, but they aren’t going to kill her, at least, not as long as I’m alive.

            “So what should we do with our last few days?” she asks.

            “I just want to spend every possible minute of the rest of my life with you,” I say, swallowing back the tears that have formed in my throat at the thought of her being dead and me unable to save her.

            “Come on, then,” she says, pulling me into her room.

            It’s such a relief to sleep in the same bed as her again. I sleep soundly for the first time in a long time, my arms wrapped around her, protecting her from the world. I can’t protect her from the pain in her own head, but when I wake up I realize that neither of us have had any nightmares. When she opens her eyes, I say, “No nightmares.”

            “No nightmares,” she agrees. “You?”

            “None,” I say, realizing she didn’t understand I was talking about myself when I first spoke. “I’d forgotten what a real night’s sleep feels like.”

            We don’t get up for a long time and once we do, ready to be coached on how we should conduct our interviews, we’re given a note from the redheaded Avox girl that that those sessions have been canceled.

            “Really?” I say, taking the note from Katniss, rereading every word twice. “Do you know what this means? We’ll have the whole day to ourselves.”

            “It’s too bad we can’t go someone,” she says.

            “Who says we can’t?” I respond.

            We end up on the roof having a picnic. Halfway through the day, I go back down into the District 12 apartments and get some paper, so I can sketch Katniss, while she weaves nets and ties knots out of the vines around us in the flower garden we’re sitting in. We play a game where we throw an apple at the force field that surrounds the roof where one of throws an apple at it and the other has to catch it.

            We aren’t bothered at all and towards late afternoon, when Katniss is lying with her head in my lap, my fingers moving through the soft dark locks, I begin thinking that I could stay in this day forever and never be unhappy. It isn’t until Katniss asks, “What?” that I realize my fingers have stopped combing through her hair.

            “I wish I could freeze this moment,” I say. “Right here, right now, and live in it forever.”

            “Okay,” she says softly.

            I smile as I say, “Then you’ll allow it?”

            “I’ll allow it.”

            I continue moving my fingers through her hair when she falls asleep and it isn’t until the sun starts setting that I stop and wake her up, so she can see the sunset. It looks beautiful even against the Capitol skyline. “I didn’t think you’d want to miss it,” I tell her.

            “Thanks,” she responds and I can tell from the look in her eyes she truly is grateful.

            We don’t go down to dinner and no one tries to make us either.

            “I’m glad,” I say. “I’m tired of making everyone around me so miserable. Everybody crying. Or Haymitch…” I stop. I know Katniss knows what I was about to say and I don’t need to say anything more.

            We sleep together that night and when we’re aroused by Katniss’ prep team one of them, a plump woman with evergreen skin bursts into tears at the sight of us. Another woman says, “You remember what Cinna told us.” And the first woman leaves. I leave shortly afterwards and find Ambrose, Lamia, and Quinlan already waiting for me in my room. They don’t have to spend as long on me as they do one Katniss and when Portia comes in, she’s holding a tuxedo, the kind that people get married in. I know instantly that this is President Snow’s doing and she doesn’t say this because she can tell from the look in my eyes I’ve figured it out for myself.

Once I’m dressed, I look actually quite nice. We leave the room and wait for Katniss and Cinna by the elevator with Effie and Haymitch. When I see her, my breath is taken from me. She looks so beautiful in her white wedding dress. My gloved hands are clasped behind my back and I know I look like what any groom in the Capitol would look like. In District 12, weddings aren’t this fancy. The couple signs a form in the Justice Building and is assigned a house. A traditional song is sung when they cross the threshold into their home. Afterwards, they always go to the kitchen, make a fire, and roast their first bit of bread. I don’t know if it’s done in any of the other districts and I don’t even know how the tradition was started in the first place, but no one feels married until after the toasting.

We’re the last tributes to arrive and when we do, the others fall silent. Almost everyone is glaring at Katniss and when Finnick comes over, he says, his voice scornful, “I can’t believe Cinna put you in that thing.”

“He didn’t have any choice,” she retorts. “President Snow made him.”

“Well, you look ridiculous!” Cashmere exclaims.

We’re just starting our procession onstage when Johanna comes over to straighten Katniss’ pearls and say, “Make him pay for it, okay?”

The interviews go by quickly and just as I did last year, I don’t pay attention until Katniss takes the stage in her beautiful gown. The audience is already a wreck from having to watch their favorite victors talk about how they think this could all be changed, but when they see her, I’m wondering if they should summon some Peacekeepers. They look to be on the verge of a riot.

Once they calm down, Caesar Flickerman says, “So, Katniss, obviously this is a very emotional night for everyone. Is there anything you’d like to say?”

Her voice is shaking as she says, “Only that I’m so sorry you won’t get to be at my wedding…but I’m glad you at least get to see me in my dress. Isn’t it just…the most beautiful thing?” Then she stands and starts to spin. I gasp and press my hand to my mouth when I see it going up in flames. However, once the smoke clears, I see that Katniss isn’t hurt at all. In fact, she looks twice as beautiful now than she did before.

She has been turned into a mockingjay.

Chapter Text

The minute Katniss stops smoldering, I begin to panic. I hardly hear Caesar asking what she is. I don’t really see him reaching out to touch her dress. All I see is Cinna sitting in the crowd, staring at his creation. When Caesar asks him to stand and take credit for what he’s done, my already rapid heartbeat speeds up. This is a dangerous move. Knowing what I do about how Katniss’ pin has become a symbol of rebellion, how, in the districts right now, there are uprisings occurring, I wonder if he knows what he’s done. He’s now in danger. It’s only a matter of time before President Snow realizes he has no choice but to do away with him. I’ve never been as close to Cinna as Katniss is, but I do like him and the thought of him being harmed because of something reckless he did worries me as much as I’m sure it worries her.

            The buzzer sounds and Katniss walks off stage, while I take her place. I keep my eyes off of her, not wanting to draw more attention to her. If anyone sees me staring at her, then they’ll stare at her too. Once I sit down in the chair beside Caesar, we begin our joking. This year it’s mostly about fires, feathers, and poultry, but my heart isn’t in what I’m saying. I’m distracted. I’m thinking up something to say, something that will win the audience over and it isn’t until Caesar finally directs the conversation towards Katniss and I that I finally figure it out.

            “So, Peeta, what was it like when, after all you’ve been through, you found out about the Quell?” he asks.

            “I was in shock,” I say. “I mean, one minute I’m seeing Katniss looking so beautiful in all these wedding gowns, and the next…” I trail off as though it’s too painful for me to go on, which, truly, it is. This is just yet another reminder that the both of us could end up dead.

            “You realized there was never going to be a wedding?” Caesar asks, his voice gentle.

            I hesitate, unsure of what to say next, knowing I can’t say what I truly want to, until the proper moment. Instead, I come up with something else, something just as promising as my other idea, though not quite, and say, glancing at the audience, before returning my gaze to my interviewer, “Caesar, do you think all our friends here can keep a secret?”

            It’s a ridiculous thing to ask. Not only is the entire audience watching me, but so is the entire country. There is no reason to ask for people to keep this a secret. It isn’t going to be one once I say it. Everyone in our world is going to hear it.

            Still, Caesar says, “I feel quite certain of it.”

            “We’re already married,” I say softly. The audience gasps in surprise. I glance towards the screen for a moment to see Katniss’ face, but the cameras are riveted on me.

            “But…how can that be?” he asks.

            “Oh, it’s not an official marriage. We didn’t go to the Justice Building or anything. But we have this marriage ritual in District Twelve. I don’t know what it’s like in the other districts. But there’s this thing we do,” I say before I describe the toasting.

            “Were your families there?” he asks when I’m finished.

            “No, we didn’t tell anyone. Not even Haymitch. And Katniss’ mother would never have approved. But you see, we knew if we were married in the Capitol, there wouldn’t be a toasting. And neither of us really wanted to wait any longer. So one day, we just did it. And to us, we’re more married than any piece of paper or big party could make us.” There are so many ways in which this could be true. I’m beginning to wonder if the people back in District 12 – the ones who know our love isn’t as genuine as I wish it was – are actually believing what I’m saying. A part of me hopes they are. It’d be nice to believe that someone outside of the Capitol truly thinks that we are in love.

            “So this was before the Quell?” Caesar asks.

            “Of course before the Quell. I’m sure we’d never have done it after we knew,” I say, truly starting to get upset. “But who could’ve seen it coming? No one. We went through the Games, we were victors, everyone seemed so thrilled to see us together, and then out of nowhere – I mean, how could we anticipate such a thing like that?”

            Caesar puts an arm around my shoulders as he says, “You couldn’t, Peeta. As you say, no one could’ve. But I have to confess, I’m glad you two had at least a few months of happiness together.” The crowd bursts into applause and this time when I glance at the screen, I see that the cameras have switched to Katniss. She’s smiling sadly. For the first time, I’m unsure if the misty look in her eyes is true or false.

            I pull myself out of my own thoughts, realizing the opportunity for my “big finish” so to speak has come and say, before the audience can be too happy, “I’m not glad. I wish we had waited until the whole thing was done officially.”

            “Surely even a brief time is better than no time?” Caesar says, sounding utterly shocked.

            “Maybe I’d think that, too, Caesar,” I say, my having gone from tragic to sour in an instant, “if it weren’t for the baby.”

            No one can hear Caesar’s reply due to the anguished cries of the audience and I don’t think it matters because the buzzer goes off only a few moments after I finish speaking. I return to my seat while Caesar tries to regain control of the crowd, but it’s a lost cause. When the anthem begins to play, it’s turned up so high I’m sure I’ll go deaf, but with the noise the audience is making, I’m thinking that it’s probably twice as loud as I’m currently hearing it. I take a shuddering breath and realize that tears are falling down my face. Silent tears, but tears nonetheless. They’re not entirely fake because I’m just now beginning to realize how utterly hopeless my thinking that Katniss and I could ever be happy together was. I should have known that this was all too good to be true. Even with her not loving me as I love her it was still too much to ask for. When I feel her hand close around mine, I hold hers without hesitation. Though I know it’s not, I can’t help thinking this may very well be the last time I ever get to feel her warm fingers entwined with mine.

As I stare at the screen, I notice that all of the other victors are joining hands as well. It’s a true act of rebellion and I wonder how dearly we’ll pay for this later. The cameras aren’t shut off in time to block out what we’ve done and by that time, the chaos has surged up to the stage. We’re practically pushed off, but I keep a hold of Katniss and guide her to the elevator. Finnick and Johanna try to get on our car, but they’re blocked by a Peacekeeper and I can’t say I’m too sorry about that because I need time to absorb the fact that this peace is over. Katniss and I are going into the arena tomorrow. This is still on my mind when we step out of the elevator, but I don’t allow myself to think about it for much longer before I place my hands on her shoulders, stare into her eyes and say, “There isn’t much time, so tell me. Is there anything I have to apologize for?” I can’t help remembering last year when she pushed me into a pot and my hands got all cut up because I fell in the shards. I’d rather that didn’t happen a second time.

“Nothing,” she says. We both know what I did was risky, but we also know that we’re not going to have to deal with the ramifications back at home. Katniss may have to if she survives this arena, but I won’t. I’m planning on dying, just as I was back before the first Games.

We wait for Effie, Haymitch, Portia, and Cinna to come back up, but it’s only Haymitch who steps off the elevator. He looks as harried as I felt when I was hurrying Katniss and myself to the elevators after my interview. “It’s madness out there. Everyone’s been sent home and they’ve canceled the recap of the interviews on television.”

The two of us run to the window. Far below us in the streets is what I think the closest the Capitol has come to having a riot on their hands in their own city. “What are they saying?” I ask, not turning my gaze away from the colorful crowd below. “Are they asking the president to stop the Games?” Everyone knows that won’t happen, but there is still hope in my heart that if enough people want that, then that is what the people will get.

“I don’t think they know themselves what to ask,” Haymitch responds. “The whole situation is unprecedented. Even the idea of opposing the Capitol’s agenda is a source of confusion for the people here. But there’s no way Snow would cancel the Games. You know that, right?”

I do. Of course I do. I was just hoping otherwise. That’s why I don’t talk. I keep my gaze focused on the crowd beneath us. I don’t want to think about Snow is going to do, but I’m one hundred percent sure, I’m not going to like it. None of us are.

“The others went home?” Katniss asks.

“They were ordered too,” Haymitch says. “I don’t know how much luck they’re having getting through the mob.”

“Then we’ll never see Effie again,” I say, finally turning away from the window. “You’ll give her out thanks.” It’s more of an order than a request, but I know that Haymitch won’t take offense. I’m sure he would have done this even if I hadn’t asked.

“More than that,” Katniss says, emphatically. “Really make it special. It’s Effie after all. Tell her how appreciative we are and how she was the best escort ever and tell her…tell her we send out love.”

For a while we just stand there in silence, none of us wanting to break it, knowing what lies beyond this moment. Haymitch is the one that breaks the silence. I think he’s the only one that understands the longer we delay the inevitable, the more it’s going to hurt when it comes. “I guess this is where we say our goodbyes as well.”

“Any last words of advice?” I ask.

“Stay alive,” Haymitch says, but it isn’t in his usual tone. It’s wavering. He gives us both a quick embrace I know that’s almost more than he can stand. A part of me is convinced that once he’s alone, he’ll be crying. “Go to bed. You need your rest.”

“You take care, Haymitch,” I say.

I’m heading back to my room and have just reached the hall when Haymitch’s voice stops us. “Katniss, when you’re in the arena,” he pauses as though he’s unsure how to continue.

“What?” she asks.

“You just remember who the enemy is,” Haymitch finishes. “That’s all. Now go on. Get out of here.” The quicker we leave, the sooner he can let his true feelings show. It’s easier to let them out, I know, so I follow Katniss to her room. I tell her I’m going to shower in my room, but she tells me not to and I don’t question it. I’m just as certain as she is that if our doors close, we’re not going to be able to spend the night together. The doors will lock and we won’t see one another until we’re in the arena later in the day.

I’m restless during the night. I think I sleep a bit, but it’s definitely not much. By the time Cinna and Portia arrive at dawn and I know I must leave Katniss, I feel more tired than before and wish that I had only a few more hours to sleep, though I don’t think I’d be able to sleep anyway. Before Portia takes me away, I give Katniss a light kiss and say softly, “See you soon.” She responds with the same words.

Portia and I are heading to the roof to get on the hovercraft where we’ll ride to the arena, but we’re not even halfway there when Haymitch intercepts me. He startles the both of us and when he pulls me by my upper arm to the side away from Portia, I’m alarmed.

“What are you doing?” I hiss, wrenching my arm from his grip.

He doesn’t explain, he only holds out a locket and presses it into my palm. “She’s trying to protect you, you know, but you have to get her out of there. She is the one that has to live. You know that don’t you?”

I nod, remembering how he told me the same thing the night the Quell was announced.

“You need to give her this,” he continues. “When the time is right, give her this.” And before I can ask what it is he’s gone.

The ride to the arena is the same as it was last year. When I get on the hovercraft, a tracker is placed in my arm and when we’re nearing the place, the windows blackout. Portia and I don’t talk, but there really isn’t anything to be said. When we reach the Launch Room, I take a quick shower and run my fingers through my hair repeatedly.

While I wait for the announcement that I have to get ready for the launch, I sit down next to the suit I’ll be wearing in the arena – a blue jumpsuit with zippers up the front, a padded belt covered in purple plastic and a pair of nylon shoes with rubber soles – and take the locket Haymitch gave me from around my neck to inspect it. On the front is a mockingjay, Katniss’ symbol. The symbol of the rebellion. It makes sense that this is what would be on the front. Fiddling with it, I try to find the catch to open it. In fact, I’m beginning to wonder if it’s a locket at all when I finally feel something on the side. I press down on it and the locket pops open. I open it further, so I can see what’s inside and when I do, I know exactly what Haymitch is trying to do with this.

There are pictures of Gale, Prim, and Katniss’ mother. They’re all smiling and laughing, something I’ve rarely seen any of them do.

Haymitch’s voice rings through my head again. When the time is right, give her this. He means when I think I can convince her she’s the one that has to go home, I need to show her this and remind her that there are people back at home that care about her and need her. No one needs me. Not really, but there are so many people who need Katniss. Truthfully, the entire country needs Katniss. She’s the only way this rebellion will work.

Portia helps me into my outfit and doesn’t say anything as she does so. However, once I’m all ready to go, she pulls me into a tight embrace. It’s so unlike her that it takes me several minutes to return it. She still doesn’t say anything, but she doesn’t have to. The way she’s shaking and the way her breath is shuddering says everything. She doesn’t want this. She has never wanted this. No one has. For the first time in my life, I feel as though I’m being held by a mother that loves me. Of course, Portia isn’t my mother and is far too young to be my mother, but that is the feeling I get and I don’t want to let go.

A voice tells me to prepare for the launch. I go into the circular tube. The last thing I hear Portia say before it closes around me is, “Remember who the enemy is, Peeta.” It’s the exact same thing Haymitch said to Katniss the night before and I can’t help wondering exactly who it is they mean.

I close my eyes, take several deep breaths and ready myself for the plate to rise, but it doesn’t. And it still doesn’t. I look at Portia, but she’s just as confused as I am. What’s going on? It’s then that the door bursts open and a small group of Peacekeepers rush into the room. Two hold her hands behind her back, while a third begins to beat her. I’m so horrified all I can do is watch in terror, wondering what this is for.

Then I remember Katniss’ smoldering dress and I know that she had a part in it. She had a part in all of our costumes. The Capitol knows she’s just as guilty as Cinna is. Fear shoots through me as I wonder what is happening to him. Most likely the same thing. Finally, she’s dragged away and almost instantly afterwards the plate begins to rise. I’m not even given the chance to see what kind of damage was done to her.

My fingers are still pressed against the glass when the first bit of wind tousles my hair. I straighten up and force my face into a mask of calm. I can’t let my fear show. I know what’s going to happen to her. Or at least I think I do and it’s not going to be good. However, all of that is pushed from my mind when the plate stops moving and I’m able to thoroughly glance around the arena. I try to look into the distance and see what is ahead of me, but I can’t. The sun is glaring off of the ground which is moving in waves around me.

Waves. My eyes widen in realization.

We’re surrounded by water.

Chapter Text

Preoccupied with how I’m going to be able to compete in these Games at all, I barely hear the voice of Claudius Templesmith announcing, “Let the Seventh-fifth Hunger Games begin.” The canon hasn’t gone off yet, signaling we can move from our plates into the water, but I don’t think that even when it does I’m going to be able to do anything about it. For a moment, I think that these Games are going to be only done in the water and if that’s the case, then I’m going to be one of the first ones dead. However, it occurs to me that the Cornucopia would have to be on a raised bit of land and if I could get there, maybe I’d have a chance. Still, I doubt it and besides, it’s not me who’s going to win. It’s Katniss.

            Finally, just as the gong sounds, I see it. There is land ahead of me. The sun was simply blocking my view. And just as I suspected the Cornucopia is in the center of it. Squinting, I manage to make out spokes spiraling out from the small bit of land where the Cornucopia sits. In between each of the spokes is two tributes placed equidistance apart. The one next to me is Mags. She hasn’t moved from her plate either. I can barely see the mouth of the Cornucopia and I can just make out Katniss firing her bow at some of the Careers: Enobaria and Brutus. Finnick is nearby, stabbing others with his trident. I think about trying to swim out to them, but I know it’s no use. I’ll only end up drowning myself.

            It takes a while for Katniss to notice that I’m still stranded. I watch Katniss beginning to take off the weapons she’s equipped when Finnick stops her. He places a hand on her stomach and says something. For a moment, I’m confused. Then I remember what I said in the interview. She’s supposed to be pregnant. Instead, Finnick dives in and comes after me. I’m hesitant to let him take me, but in the end I give in, though that’s only because I notice Haymitch’s golden bangle on his wrist. I don’t fight him as he drags me to shore and once there, Katniss helps me up. I’d thought we weren’t going to have allies. We’d decided we didn’t want any. Clearly, Haymitch had other plans.

            “Hello, again,” I say, kissing her. “We’ve got allies.”

            “Yes. Just as Haymitch intended,” she responds, confirming my suspicions.

            “Remind me, did we make deals with anyone else?” I ask.

            “Only Mags, I think,” she says as she nods in the direction of the elderly woman, who has finally gotten off her plate and is paddling towards us.

            “Well, I can’t leave Mags behind,” Finnick says. “She’s one of the few people who actually likes me.” This confuses me seeing as I’m sure that everyone likes him, but I don’t say anything. Something tells me that this statement goes far deeper than I could ever imagine.

            “I’ve got no problem with Mags,” Katniss says. “Especially now that I see the arena. Her fishhooks are probably our best chance of getting a meal.”

            That must mean there’s no food in the Cornucopia. Judging from what Katniss and Finnick do have, it must only be filled with weapons.

            “Katniss wanted her on the first day,” I say to Finnick.

            “Katniss has remarkably good judgment,” he responds as he scoops Mags up out of the water. She says something that I can’t understand, then pats the belt around her waist. I figure out what she means right before Finnick speaks.

            “Look, she’s right. Someone figured it out.” He points to Beetee, who is desperately trying to swim to shore. He looks more like something’s pulling him under the waves and he’s flailing to get away from it. For all I know that could be the case. There could be dangerous animals in the water. Something tells me that’s not true though. If it were, I’m sure he’d already be dead. Suddenly, I’m frustrated. If I’d known this sooner, then Finnick wouldn’t have had to come out and rescue me. I’m getting tired of being the weak one, not that it’s something I can really help, but this should have been something I could have done on my own.

            “What?” Katniss says.

            “The belt. They’re flotation devices,” Finnick explains. “I mean, you have to propel yourself, but they’ll keep you from drowning.”

            There is a hesitation between the four of us. Then Katniss suggests we move on and no one protests. She hands me a knife and a bow with a quiver of arrows. I’m not very good with either, but at least I have something to defend myself with. After Mags tugs at Katniss’ sleeve and says something I don’t understand, but Katniss must, she gives the elderly woman an awl. Then Finnick, using a net I didn’t notice he had before, hoists Mags up onto his bag and we make our way into the dense forest only a few feet from the beach.

            It’s a steep incline and I know that this isn’t really a forest, it’s something else. A jungle. I don’t know how I know that word, seeing as I’ve never seen a jungle before in my life, but it must have something to do with past Games I’ve watched on the television with my family at home. The trees are different and so are all of the other plants. Before too long, I also notice how incredibly humid it is, though I’m getting the feeling that this is something I also learned about jungles from the past Games.

            Due to the training Katniss and I did prior to the Games, we’re in pretty good shape. I lead the way up the slope and no one stops for a rest, though we’re all a bit short of breath, for a long time. Finally, Finnick requests we stop and I don’t think it’s for his benefit. However, I’m not really watching them, I’m looking at Katniss. She looks back the way we came, but only for a moment, then she glances around and quickly climbs a tree. She isn’t gone for very long, but she’s gone long enough for Finnick to get suspicious. In fact, when she climbs back down, he’s standing near the trunk, holding his trident up in casual defensive position. However, I don’t go over to stop him. I really rather doubt either one of them are going to hurt the other.

            “What’s going on down there, Katniss?” he asks. “Have they all joined hands? Taken a vow of nonviolence? Tossed the weapons in the sea in defiance of the Capitol?”

            “No,” she says flatly.

            “No,” Finnick confirms. “Because whatever happened in the past is the past. And no one in this arena was a victor by chance.” Then he glances at me. “Except maybe Peeta.”

            I’m not entirely sure what Finnick means, until I remember the last Games and everything that happened then. I never killed a person, except for accidentally and it was Katniss that thought of the berries instead of me. I’m not a killer, that’s what he means. I think that what he’s saying is also a compliment, but I’m not entirely sure I should take it that way. If I’m supposedly the good person everything things I am, then I’m the weak link in this small chain. If anyone has to die, it’s going to be me.

            Still staring at Katniss and Finnick, I notice something in both of their eyes that wasn’t there a moment before. Something dangerous. Things are getting too tense between them and I have to ease this tension before something bad happens. I deliberately step between them and ask, “So, how many are dead?” I can tell she’s upset with me for doing this, but I don’t care. I’m not going to let Finnick kill her and I’m not going to let her kill Finnick. It’ll have to happen eventually, yes, but now is really not the time.

            “Hard to say,” she says. “At least six, I think. And they’re still fighting.”

            “Let’s keep moving,” I say. “We need water.” There hasn’t been a sign of it so far, but I’m sure there has to be. The water we swam through is salt water and therefore undrinkable. There has to be some sort of place where we can get water, otherwise all this greenery would be dead. It wouldn’t even be this green or this humid if there wasn’t water somewhere nearby.

            We head back up the slope, looking around for a pool or stream of some sort. I stay at the head of the pack, slashing through the vines that are in our way. Out of the blue, I hear Katniss scream something at me, but by then it’s too late. My knife hits something solid and an agony I cannot remember having ever felt jolts through me. For a moment, the wall of vines in front of me melts away and I see blue sky, then I’m thrown back.

            I’m gone from the world before I hit the ground.

Chapter Text

It is utterly dark in the world I have gone to, but there is a bright light a short ways away that I’ve only seen once before. At the end of the Games last year, when I was in the operating room on the hovercraft that was taking us back to the Capitol, my heart stopped twice and both times I saw a light that looked just like the one before me now. The only difference between then and now is that I was out of my body. I could see everything around me. I wasn’t in this black space. However, it takes me only a moment to realize why this is.

            My heart has already stopped.

            Last year, my heart was still pumping when I went out of my body and tried to comfort Katniss through the glass, tried to stop the doctors from amputating my leg, willed myself to stay alive. It’s different now, though. Then I had the choice as to whether or not I followed the light. I could stay behind with Katniss or go on into whatever lies after death. But, this time, I don’t have that option.

            I guess this isn’t so bad, dying this way. I would rather have lived through the first day of the Games at least, protected Katniss for a little longer, but, the more I think about it, the more I realize that she’s fine on her own. She is very smart, very skilled with a bow and weapons in general. If push comes to shove between her, Mags, and Finnick, I’m sure she’ll get out alive. If she hides up in one of the trees, she could stay there until the others kill themselves or shoot whoever happens to run by.

            Without warning, I’m slapped back into reality. I feel someone’s lips on mine and an instant later, I’m coughing, pain radiating out from my chest. I hear someone say my name and a pair of fingers pressing themselves to the pulse at my neck. My hair is brushed away from my forehead and as my eyelashes flutter open, I see Katniss above me.

            “Careful,” I say weakly. “There’s a force field up ahead.”

            She laughs, but she’s crying. Out of the corner of my eye, I see Finnick. He must have been the one who was kissing me, though god only knows why. Still, I don’t question it. Whatever he was doing must have saved my life and though I was ready to leave this life in whatever dark world I’d entered, I’m glad he brought me back.

            “Must be a lot stronger than the one on the Training Center roof,” I say. “I’m all right, though. Just a little shaken.” It’s a lie. My chest aches. My entire body aches. And my limbs feel like lead. It’s hard for me to move.

            “You were dead!” Katniss shouts. “Your heart stopped!” Her hand clamps over her mouth as suddenly as her words escaped it. She’s starting to sob. I figured her first tears were just out of worry of me having been dead, but now she’s considerably more upset than she was only a few moments ago and I’m beginning to worry.

            “Well, it seems to be working now,” I say, trying to reassure her. “It’s all right, Katniss.” Even though she nods, she’s still just as upset. She’s not consoled at all. “Katniss?” I want to move towards her and make sure she truly is alright, but it’s still hard for me to move and when I try, I feel like a slug.

            “It’s okay,” Finnick tells me. “It’s just her hormones. From the baby.” For the first time I look at him directly and he seems worn out. I attribute this to the climb we’ve taken up the hill, the heat surrounding us, and, perhaps, bringing me back to life as well.

            “No. It’s not – ” she starts, but she’s unable to control her sobs and I wish I could push myself up and hold her, but my limbs are still heavy and moving just doesn’t seem like a good idea to me. Instead, I move my gaze to Finnick, who is glancing between Katniss and I. He shakes his head and I wonder what he’s thinking, but it’s right then he decides to ask me, “How are you? Do you think you can move on?”

            “No,” Katniss says immediately as Mags hands her a thick wad of the moss hanging off one of the trees, so she can use it as a handkerchief. “He has to rest.” Suddenly, she stops what she’s doing, crawls over to me and picks something up off my chest. It takes me a minute to recognize it as the locket Haymitch gave me. Now isn’t the right time for her to see what’s inside, so I’m hoping she can’t tell that there is an inside.

            “Is this your token?” she asks.

            “Yes. Do you mind that I used your mockingjay? I wanted us to match,” I improvise.

            “No, of course I don’t mind.” She smiles at me, but it seems forced and it takes me only a few seconds to figure out why. I’ve never been the target of Snow’s anger and mistrust. That’s always been Katniss. She’s the one who pulled out the berries in an attempt to save the both of us. She’s the one whose mockingjay has become a symbol of rebellion in the districts. I know that she’s trying to keep me alive, just as I’m trying to keep her alive and her seeing this necklace is only going to make her worry.

            “So you want to make camp here, then?” Finnick asks.

            “I don’t think that’s an option,” I say instantly before Katniss can agree. “Staying here. With no water. No protection. I feel all right, really. If we could just go slowly.”

            “Slowly would be better than not at all,” Finnick agrees, helping me to my feet. All of the things that have happened today. I’ve seen Portia beaten nearly to death and I died. I can see Katniss is feeling just as frustrated and unstable as I am, even though she’s checking over her weapons in an attempt to hide it. Not for the first time, I wonder if she experienced what I did. I’m sure that the Capitol had people go in to beat up Cinna, while she watched as well.

            “I’ll take the lead,” Katniss says.

            I start to object, worrying that she might be attacked and I won’t be able to get to her in time, but Finnick cuts me off, saying, “No, let her do it.” He gives her a curious look, then adds. “You knew that force field was there, didn’t you? Right at the last second? You started to give a warning.” She nods. “How did you know?”

            I know, in fact, I’m surprised I didn’t notice. She told me during our training days that Beetee and Wiress could see the force field around the Gamemakers because there was a small square in the air that didn’t look quite right. However, I don’t say this for two reasons. One, because it’s Katniss’ question to answer, not mine and, two, I don’t want to get the two of them in trouble. They’re already in enough trouble. They’re in the arena. I think the only way they could be in more trouble is if they were Katniss.

            “I don’t know,” she says. “It’s almost as if I could hear it. Listen.”

            Everyone falls silent, trying to hear the force field. For a minute I think that she truly could hear it, but when I hear nothing, I realize that she’s making this up in an attempt to keep Wiress and Beetee safe.

            “I don’t hear anything,” I say.

            “Yes,” she insists. “It’s like when the fence around District 12 is on, only much, much quieter.” We all go silent again. I think I’m the only one who knows that there’s nothing to hear. “There!” she exclaims. “Can’t you hear it? It’s coming from right where Peeta got shocked.”

            “I don’t hear it either,” Finnick says. “But if you do, by all means, take the lead.”

            “That’s weird,” she adds, turning her head from side to side, a look of confusion crossing her features. “I can only hear it out of my left ear.”

            “The one the doctors reconstructed?” I ask, fully supporting her act.

            “Yeah,” she says, then shrugs. “Maybe they did a better job than they thought. You know, sometimes I do hear funny things on that side. Things you would ordinarily think have a sound. Like insect wings. Or snow hitting the ground.” She’s gotten the attention off her and on to the surgeons who fixed her ear after last year’s Games. I know this pleases her, but I’m not as angry and spiteful of the Capitol as she is and I wonder if it’s really fair they should be punished when they were just doing their job.

            Mags nudges Katniss, saying something that sounds like, “You,” so Katniss begins moving again, up the slope. Finnick makes a cane for Mags and a staff for me, though I tell him I’m okay, out of some of the branches lying around. Truthfully, I want to lie down and sleep for the next thousand years, but that’s not an option, so I put on my brave face and continue walking, Mags in front of me, Finnick behind me.

            As we walk, Katniss throws some nuts she got from one of the trees to the left, so she knows where the force field is. Mags is eating them, but I don’t say anything. We’re all hungry and these nuts are as good as anything. Eventually, Katniss hears the smacking noise Mags makes as she chews and she turns around, shouting, “Mags! Spit that out. It could be poisonous.”

            She says something unintelligible and licks her lips. She looks at Finnick as though expecting him to agree with her, but he only laughs, saying, “I guess we’ll find out.”

            We continue on for a while longer. I’m trying not to think about anything other than putting one foot in front of the other, but there’s something about Finnick that’s worrying me. Why would he rescue Mags, but let her eat nuts that could kill her? And why did Haymitch give him his flame bangle? Why did he save me? I manage to keep these thoughts out of my mind for the most part and focus on making sure I don’t trip and fall over. I’m sure if I do, I won’t get up again. A part of me thinks this wouldn’t be such a bad idea, but another larger part reminds me that I have to stay alive to protect Katniss and it’s that part that forces me to keep myself conscious of my surroundings. She seems to notice my exhaustion and maybe she notices Mags’s as well because she says, “Let’s take a break. I need to get another look from above.”

            As I lean heavily against my staff, she scales a tree. She’s back only a few moments later to tell us that the force field has us trapped in a circle. “A dome, really,” she explains. “I don’t know how high it goes. There’s the Cornucopia, the sea, and then the jungle all around. Very exact. Very symmetrical. And not very large.”

            “Did you see any water?” Finnick asks, hopefully.

            “Only the saltwater where we started the Games,” she says.

            “There must be some other source,” I tell them, wondering exactly where that source is. “Or we’ll all be dead in a matter of days.”

            “Well the foliage is thick,” she says. “Maybe there are ponds or springs somewhere. At any rate, there’s no point in trying to find out what’s over the edge of this hill, because the answer is nothing.”

            “There must be drinkable water between the force field and the wheel,” I insist. We all know this means heading back down towards the Cornucopia where the Careers are. There’s only two of us in our small group that are strong enough to fight and I’m definitely not one of those two. Mags would be more help than I am.

            In the end, we only go down a few hundred yards, but midafternoon, we stop. I’m thankful. I can’t stay upright much longer. Finnick chooses a campsite a short ways away from the force field, saying we can use it as a shield of sorts in case any enemies should try to attack us. He and Mags begin to weave mats out of the tall grass growing around us. I make myself useful by collecting more nuts and throwing them against the force field to cook them. Katniss stands guard. We all seem to be doing very well, but it’s clear we’re all miserable. With no water and the humidity, what we all want most is a very cold drink.

            “Finnick, why don’t you stand guard and I’ll hunt around some more for water,” she says. I don’t like that idea, but we really have no choice but to let her go.

            “Don’t worry,” she tells me as she starts backing away from us. “I won’t go far.”

            “I’ll go, too,” I say, fighting off my exhaustion.

            “No, I’m going to do some hunting if I can,” she adds. I know this has two meanings. She doesn’t want me to exert myself and I’m far too loud. I’ll scare off all the game like I did when we were hunting last year. “I won’t be long.”

            Katniss’ definition of long and my definition of long are two very different things. However, I think my definition isn’t quite as lengthy as hers simply because I care for her more than words can express and I begin panicking after she’s been gone for only a few moments. It’s for this reason that whilst she is gone and Finnick, Mags, and I make a sort of hut out of the mats that they’ve been weaving, I feel as though she’s been gone for hours. I’m just finishing filling up a bowl Mags weaved with some of the nuts when she finally returns. We all give her a hopeful look, but she shakes her head. “No. No water. It’s out there though,” she says, holding up a skinned animal of some sort. “He knew where it was. He’d been drinking recently when I shot him out of a tree, but I couldn’t find his source. I swear, I covered every inch of ground in a thirty-yard radius.”

            “Can we eat him?” I ask.

            “I don’t know for sure,” she responds, “but his meat doesn’t look that different from a squirrel’s. He ought to be cooked…” She trails off. How are we going to cook this animal? We can’t start a fire. We’re in such close quarters in this arena that someone will see the smoke and then they’ll come after us and I don’t think we’d come out on top of that fight, especially if it were against the Career pack. However, I have another idea. I take a cube of the meat, put it on the end of a stick and drop it against the force field. This does exactly what I’d hoped it would: though the outside is completely blackened, the inside of cube is cooked perfectly. The others start to applaud me before they remember where we are.

            The night wears on and while Finnick asks Katniss questions about the animal she found, I think about the faces we’re going to see in the sky tonight. I’m worried about it. When the time does come, I sit next to Katniss and wrap my fingers around hers. The sky brightens with the seal of the Capitol and I swallow hard, holding my breath as the faces appear. It starts with the man from District 5, meaning everyone else in districts 1, 2, 3, and four are still alive. The male morphling from six comes next, then Cecilia and Woof from eight, both from nine, the woman from ten and Seeder from eleven. Then the Capitol seal comes back. Once the anthem finishes, the sky darkens once more.

            I’m so distracted by the faces we saw that I hardly notice the silver parachute that lands in front of us. It isn’t until Katniss says, “Whose is it, do you think?” that I finally come out of my trance and see what the rest of them do.

            “No telling,” Finnick responds. “Why don’t we let Peeta claim it, since he died today?”

            I take the parachute, untie the cord and flatten out the silk this odd metal object is placed on. “What is it?” Katniss asks, but no one knows. We pass it around, each of us trying to figure out what this could be, but none of us can. Even when Katniss asks Mags if she could fish with it, the elderly woman shakes her head. Frustrated, Katniss lies down on her mat and jams the object into the dirt. I rub the space between her shoulders, trying to comfort her and relieve some of the tension I feel there. Then, quite suddenly, she sits upright and exclaims, “A spile!”

            “What?” Finnick asks.

            She pulls the thing out of the ground, saying, “It’s a spile. Sort of like a faucet. You put in a tree and sap comes out.” She glances around at the trees surrounding us, doubtfully. “Well, the right sort of tree.”

            “Sap?” Finnick asks.

            “To make syrup,” I say, clarifying. “But there must be something else inside these trees.”

            In an instant, we all know what that is. Water. Finnick goes to one of the trees and is about to hammer the object into it when Katniss says, “Wait. You might damage it. We need to drill a hole first.” So using Mags’s awl, I create a hole in the bark. Finnick and I take turns working out the bark to make the hole bigger, until it can fit the spile. Then Katniss puts it in the space we’ve made. For a moment nothing happens, then a few drips come out. After we adjust it a bit, we get a steady stream and we take turns taking drinks and splashing our faces. Once we’re done, Katniss ties the spile to her belt. Finnick offers to take the first watch and no one protests.

            I feel as though I’ve just fallen asleep when Katniss is shaking me awake, her voice full of panic and a slight hysteria. There’s mist around us and there are blisters on my skin. I put two and two together at once.

            This mist is poisonous.

Chapter Text

Though I know the mist is poisonous, I’m still only half aware of what’s going on. I hear Katniss screaming and I feel my skin burning, but my mind is muddling and soon I can’t even remember that the mist is something to be wary of. I watch as Finnick gets up and throws Mags onto his back, darting away from us. I think he’s abandoning us, trying to save himself, but then Katniss grabs my arm and yanks me to my feet, dragging me through the jungle.

            “What is it? What is it?” I ask, trying to understand some of what’s going on.

            “Some kind of fog,” she responds. “Poisonous gas. Hurry Peeta!” I really do try to hurry, but I’m still weak from what hitting the force field did to me and I keep tripping. I know that we don’t have time for this and I try harder to watch where I’m going, but it isn’t until after Katniss tells me to try to step where she does that I actually am able to speed up a bit.

            Finnick and Mags are ahead of us, giving us encouragement, telling us we can do this. I’m beginning to feel confident that we can, I feel something strange happening to my face. I want to reach up and touch it, but I’m afraid to. It feels like it’s sagging. My left eyelid slowly covers my eye and my vision becomes impaired. It’s for this reason that my prosthetic leg catches on some vines and I’m knocked to the ground. Katniss turns to look at me and I can tell from the look on her face that she’s just as startled and worried about what has happened to my face as I am. She’s opening her mouth, saying my name, when her arms begin jerking uncontrollably.

            This mist is more dangerous than we thought. It’s targeting our nervous systems.

            Katniss pulls me to my feet too fast, forcing me to trip and fall to the ground a second time. She hauls me to my feet. I can feel her arms twitching. My legs are doing something odd too. They’re not twitching exactly, but I’m moving as though I’m some sort of toy. I tumble forwards and that’s when I notice Finnick is above me. If I remember correctly, he was a good distance ahead of us before, but this mist could be playing tricks on my eyes.

            “It’s no good,” he says. “I’ll have to carry him. Can you take Mags?”

            “Yes,” Katniss replies. I watch as Finnick hands Mags over to Katniss before he pulls me up and slings me across his back. We’re traveling much faster than Katniss and Mags are and I’m half tempted to ask Finnick to slow down, so we don’t lose them, but they seem to be keeping up pretty well, despite the fact Katniss keeps falling over. Then she falls and she doesn’t get back up and I try to scream to Finnick that he has to stop. All that comes out is a raspy groan, but that seems to alert him. He spins around and runs back to them.

            “It’s no use,” she says. “Can you take them both? Go on ahead, I’ll catch up.”

            I’m about to protest, about to try to find some way to make my voice work and tell Finnick he is not going to let her do this when he says, “No. I can’t carry them both. My arms aren’t working.” It’s only then I realize they’re jerking too. My heart breaks from the tone of his voice as he says, “I’m sorry, Mags. I can’t do it.”

            Because of the angle I’m in, I can only partially see what happens next. Mags stands, kisses Finnick – on the lips I think – and runs away. It’s only after I hear the cannon that I realize she ran into the mist and died. She sacrificed herself for us. Finnick runs away from the scene as fast as he can, despite Katniss calling after him and my desperate attempts to speak and tell him that he has to stop and get her too, but then he collapses. I fall to the ground, lying on top of him. I try to move, but I can’t. My limbs aren’t working. They’re frozen now. I watch as Katniss trips over Finnick and is unable to get up as well. I close my eyes. Dying here isn’t so bad, I guess. At least Katniss and I will die together. I still feel regret for being unable to keep her alive, but that one thought gives me some heart and I’m able to make my lips turn upwards.

            I’m just accepting that I’m about to die when I hear Katniss make some sort of croaking sound. I snap my eyes open. She can’t die before me. I won’t let it happen. However, when she makes the sound again, I’m able to make out two words that calm me.

            “It’s stopped.”

            I turn towards the fog and watch as it rises up into the sky and disappears. I roll off of Finnick and onto my back. For a while, we lie there gasping and twitching, the poison still flowing through us. I’ve closed my eyes in an attempt to block out the pain, but when I open them again, I see two creatures with orange fur sitting in the trees above me. “Mon-hees,” I say, unable to speak clearly due to one side of my face drooping. The word comes to my mind immediately, though I don’t know why. I’ve seen them somewhere before, perhaps in another Games or perhaps we were taught about them in class. Either way, this seems like a good sign. Surely they wouldn’t be here if there was danger nearby.

            After a moment of staring at the creatures, I push myself up onto my hands and knees – falling over several times in the process – and begin to crawl down the slope. Katniss and Finnick follow me, also crawling, since we can’t really do much else. Eventually, we reach the beach and we crawl across the sand to the water. I am sticking my face in it to cool off when I feel as though my skin is on fire. I jerk back. I’m vowing not to go into the water when I realize that there was another feeling, one of the pain slowly going away. I put my hand in the water. It hurts, but after a few moments, the pain subsides and a milky white substance flows out of the blisters on my fingers. I remove my clothes and begin to slowly soak myself in the water. I notice Katniss is doing the same and once we’re completely washed ourselves, we turn to Finnick, who is lying face down in the sand.

            Moving out of the water, I go up to him just as Katniss has done and begin pouring water with my hands onto his wounds. He moans in pain, but I ignore it. This has to be done. I end up finding some shells that carry the water far better than we do. Once we’ve gotten all of the visible wounds, I flip him over onto his back and cut away his jumpsuit and begin pouring the water on his arms.

            “We’ve got to get him in the water,” Katniss whispers. I nod and take his feet. We pull him around and begin slowly pulling him into the water. As we do so, he seems to get better just as we have. I can feel my face going back to normal as well and by the time Finnick is able to cure himself on his own, it’s exactly as it should be.

            “I’m going to try to tap a tree,” Katniss says, reaching for the spile on her belt.

            “Let me make the hole first,” I say. “You stay with him. You’re the healer.”

            She claims this isn’t true, but she kept me alive during the last Games, though I was dying of blood poisoning, so she’s a lot better at this than she thinks. I head into the jungle, find a tree and begin jamming my knife into the bark repeatedly, trying to make a hole big enough for the spile to fit in once Katniss brings it over. It takes me quite some time and the more I work at the tree, the more frustrated I get. I’m cursing to myself when finally, I get the hole just big enough to put the object into. It’s then that I hear footsteps behind me and I know Katniss and Finnick have come to see how things are going.

            “Peeta,” I hear Katniss say. “I need your help with something.”

            “Okay,” I respond. “Just a minute. I think I’ve just about got it.” She can wait. I’m almost done. “Yes, there. Have you got the spile?”

            “I do,” she says. “But we’ve found something you’d better take a look at. Only move toward us quietly, so you don’t startle it.” There’s something wrong. I can tell by the tone of her voice. I want to ask what, but I’m getting the feeling I’ll find out soon enough. Panting from my work, I agree with her and begin to walk slowly back towards her. I’m trying to be quiet, I really am, but I know I’m loud.

            Then it occurs to me.

            Why do I have to be quiet? What reason is there to be silent? It’s then I feel some sort of presence. There’s something above me in the trees, something menacing. I’m nearly to Katniss and the beach when I decide to look up. I only see the trees full of the monkeys we first saw before they all screech and jump down, converging on us, attacking us. It doesn’t take too long for me to figure out that these are not normal monkeys. They’re mutts. I slash at them with my knife, but there are too many. I have a bow and quiver of arrows on my back, but I don’t really know how to use them, so I stick with my knife.

            “Peeta!” I hear Katniss shout a short time later. “Your arrows!”

            She’s run out and she needs mine. I nod in her direction and begin to take the thing off. I’ve nearly gotten it when I hear a high pitched scream. I whip around and see the female morphling from District 6. She has her arms held wide, stretched towards the sky. I see a monkey hurtling towards her. I know the creature was trying to go after me, but instead it smashes into her and sinks its fangs into her chest.

Chapter Text

Guilt feels me instantly when I realize what has just happened. She’s sacrificed herself for me. I know if she hadn’t I’d be dead right now, but I wish that’s exactly what had happened. I have her blood on my hands now.

            Dropping the quiver of arrows, I stab the monkey, still clinging to the morphling woman’s chest, over and over again until it lets go and falls to the ground. I kick it out of the way and brace myself for another attack. In fact, I want it. I want to avenge this woman, so I can pay her back for saving my life. I even yell, “Come on, then! Come on!” But they all disappear. They go back up into the trees making this section of the jungle just as silent as it was when we first got here.

            “Get her,” I hear Katniss say to me. “We’ll cover you.”

            I lift the morphling gentle into my arms and carry her to the beach. Finnick’s and Katniss’ protection isn’t really necessary. Nothing else comes out to attack us during the short walk to the sand. All that’s left of the mutts are their corpses. I lay the morphling in the sand and Katniss cuts away her suit to see the damage done by the monkey. There are four deep gashes and though it isn’t bleeding that badly, I know it’s a lot worse than it looks.

            She’s so thin. I’ve never seen anyone this thin before. It makes me wonder how she’s still alive. She has those drugs running through her system and it doesn’t look as if she’s eaten in weeks or months. We can’t do anything for her. We don’t have the proper materials to heal her or even give her a fighting chance at surviving. All we can do is sit there and watch her die.

            “I’ll watch the trees,” Finnick says, trotting off. I can tell from the look on Katniss’ face that that’s something she’d like to do too, but the morphling is gripping her hand so tightly that I think she’d have to pry her fingers out of the woman’s grasp and I know that she wouldn’t do that. She is not cruel. However, I can also see in her expression that she doesn’t know what to do. The last person she watched die like this was Rue and she sang to her. She may not know what this woman likes, but I’ve got a feeling that I do.

            Kneeling down next to her, I stroke her hair, trying to calm her somehow. I don’t know if I can keep this area as calm as it is right now. We’re in an arena. At any moment the Gamemakers could send something after us and this brief peace will be gone. However, I take advantage of this moment and when I begin to speak, I keep my voice soft. “With my paint box at home, I can make every color imaginable. Pink. As pale as a baby’s skin. Or as deep as a rhubarb. Green like spring grass. Blue that shimmers like ice on water.”

            I can tell I have every last bit of her attention. Her eyes are locked on mine and I don’t look anywhere but into hers.

            “One time,” I continue, “I spent three days mixing paint until I found the right shade for sunlight on white fur. You see, I kept thinking it was yellow, but it was much more than that. Layers of all sorts of color. One by one.”

            Her breathing has slowed. Her fingers are swirling in the blood on her chest. She understands my love for painting because she loves it too. I watched her paint the face of the other tribute from her district. She wasn’t a bad artist. Even if she has lost her mind, she never lost what was important: her soul.

            “I haven’t figured out a rainbow yet,” I add. “They come so quickly and leave so soon. I never have enough time to capture them. Just a bit of blue here or purple there. And then they fade away again. Back into the air.”

            Her hand moves away from her chest and up to my face. She carefully paints something with her blood on my cheek. I’m not disgusted. I don’t mind. In fact, I feel honored that she would want to decorate me in the way she decorated her friend. Even though I can’t see the decoration, I whisper, “Thank you. That looks beautiful.”

            I watch as her face lights up, then she makes a small sound, her hand falls back onto her chest as she takes one last breath. Then that cannon sounds and she’s gone. I carry her out into the water, letting her float away. I wish she could sink into the bottom of this beautiful ocean and rest there in peace, but that won’t happen. In fact, by the time I’ve gotten back to shore I can see the hovercraft lifting her out of the water and into the air.

            Finnick returns just as I do, his hands full of Katniss’ bloody arrows. He drops them in the sand next to her and says, “Thought you might want these.”

            “Thanks,” she says. She goes into the water to wash them off. Once she’s finished, she gets some moss to dry them off with. She returns with a confused expression and asks Finnick, “Where did they go?”

            “We don’t know exactly,” he responds. “The vines shifted and they were gone.” At first, I don’t know what they’re talking about, but once he says this, I know they’re discussing the bodies of the monkeys. It isn’t as odd to me as it is to them that they’re gone. The Gamemakers have to clean up after us.

            “Don’t scratch,” Katniss says, making me realize only then that I’ve been itching the sores that were caused by the deadly mist touching my skin. “You’ll only bring infection. Think it’s safe to try for water again?”

            We go back to the tree I was tapping earlier. While I stick the spile into the hole, Katniss and Finnick stand guard, but there’s really no need. Nothing comes after us. I get a good flow of water coming from the tree and we take turns covering ourselves with it and drinking in as much as we can. We fill the shells I found earlier with the water before we head back to the beach.

            The day is drawing to a close when Katniss says, “Why don’t you two get some rest? I’ll watch for a while.”

            However, Finnick responds saying, “No, Katniss, I’d rather.” I know why he wants to be the one to watch. Mags’s death may have been sad for all of us, but he knew her far better than any of us and it definitely hurt him the most to have her die. I turn myself onto my side, so I’m not facing him and feel Katniss lay down beside me after she thanks him. It’s only a few moments after that I fall asleep.

            “Peeta,” a soft, musical voice says. “Peeta, wake up.”

            My eyelids flutter open and I see two faces leaning over me that look as though they’re falling apart. I jump and let out a small scream. It’s then that I realize the faces were that of Finnick and Katniss. They fall back into the sand laughing and whenever they look at me they fall all apart again. When they’ve finally calmed down and I’ve managed to forgive them, a parachute lands next to us, containing a loaf of bread. It’s from District 4 and clearly meant for Finnick. There’s a strange look in his eyes as he turns it over in his hands. However, he doesn’t explain his feelings to us. All he does say is, “This will go well with the shellfish.”

            While Finnick cleans the shellfish I hadn’t noticed before, Katniss covers me in the ointment they’re both wearing. It makes my itching disappear and makes me feel considerably better. Once she’s finished, we eat the shellfish with the bread and it is just as good as Finnick promised. When I finish my bit, I wish instantly we had more.

            Quite suddenly, we hear someone screaming in the section of the jungle across from us as the ground begins to vibrate. An enormous wave swallows that wedge and hits the water with such force that we get a bit of the aftershock. It begins to take our things with it back out to sea, but we manage to grab everything before it does. All except for our jumpsuits, which are so tattered and torn, we don’t really want them anyway. After that a cannon fires and a hovercraft appears to pull a body out of the trees.

            The water calms and we rearrange our things back to the way they were before. I’m just beginning to relax again when Katniss says, “There.” She nods to someone behind me. I look over my shoulder and see three figures stagger onto the beach and make their way towards us. Without speaking we go back into the trees. They don’t look like they’re doing particularly well. One is dragging one of the others and the third is walking in circles as though it’s following something spinning in the sky. They’re all a deep red.

            “Who is that?” I ask. “Or what? Muttations?”

            Katniss is pulling back an arrow, about to shoot one of the three of them when Finnick yells, “Johanna!” He runs away from us and towards the group.

            “Finnick!” Johanna shouts in reply.

            Katniss looks at me. “What now?”

            “We can’t really leave Finnick,” I respond.

            “Guess not,” she agrees. “Come on, then.” She sounds upset and I know why instantly. She has disliked Johanna from the start and now that she’s here she’s going to have to deal with her. I’m trying to listen to what she and Finnick are talking about when Katniss adds, “She’s got Wiress and Beetee.”

            “Nuts and Volts?” I ask, confused, while also feeling very amused. “I’ve got to hear how this happened.”

            When we reach them, Johanna is pointing towards the part of the forest she came from and telling Finnick, “We thought it was rain, you know, because of the lightning, and we were all so thirsty. But when it started coming down, it turned out to be blood. Thick, hot blood. You couldn’t see, you couldn’t speak without getting a mouthful. We just staggered around, trying to get out of it. That’s when Blight hit the force field.”

            “I’m sorry, Johanna,” Finnick says, reminding me that Blight was the male tribute from District 7 and Johanna’s partner of sorts.

            “Yeah, well, he wasn’t much, but he was from home,” she says. I can tell she’s more upset than she’s letting on. “And he left me alone with these two.” She nudges Beetee with her foot. It’s then that I notice he’s lying face down in the sand and barely conscious. “He got a knife in the back at the Cornucopia. And her – ”

We turn to Wiress, who’s still walking in circles, muttering, “Tick, tock. Tick, tock.”

“Yeah, we know,” Johanna says, sounding as though she’s had more than enough of her. “Tick, tock. Nuts is in shock.” Wiress stumbles into Johanna as though she’s drawn into her by her voice. Johanna pushes her as hard as she can away from her, making her fall to the ground. “Just stay down, will you?”

“Lay off her,” Katniss snaps.

“Lay off her?” Johanna hisses, her eyebrows narrowing, utter loathing filling her eyes. She steps towards her, making me tense up, worrying what she’s going to do. She slaps Katniss as hard as possibly can, making her stagger back. I take one step towards her, thinking of putting myself between the two of them, but a part of me feels like this wouldn’t be a good idea. “Who do you think got them out of that bleeding jungle for you? You – ” That’s when Finnick decides to carry Johanna off into the sea. He dunks her in the water over and over again, while she sounds obscenities at Katniss. My hands clench into fists and my blood boils at her words. I thought she was alright at first, but I’m beginning to dislike her as much as Katniss does.

“What did she mean?” Katniss asks me. “She got them for me?”

“I don’t know,” I say, then add, “You did want them originally.”

“Yeah, I did. Originally,” she responds. She glances down at Beetee. “But I won’t have them long unless we do something.”

I carry Beetee back to our beach camp, while Katniss leads Wiress in the same direction. She washes her in the shallows and I set Beetee down closer to the trees. When she comes over to check on him, she takes something off of his belt and sets it aside. It takes us a while, but when we finally manage to get his jumpsuit off, we take him into the shallows and wash him as well. Once we’re finished we go back to shore and lay him on his stomach on Finnick’s mat, so we can examine his wound.

“Be right back,” Katniss says after staring at him for a moment. When she comes back, her arms are full of moss. She places it on his back and then ties vines around him to keep it in place. Then she coaxes some water into him and places him back in the shade.

“I think that’s all we can do,” she tells me.

“It’s good,” I reply. “You’re good with this healing stuff. It’s in your blood.”

“No,” she says, shaking her head. “I got my father’s blood.” There’s a short pause before she adds, “I’m going to see about Wiress.”

By the time we’ve all gathered together again, the sun is starting to go down once more. Katniss and Johanna offer to take the first watch and no one argues. I lay down on my mat and close my eyes. The last thing I hear before I fall asleep is Wiress whispering, “Tick, tock.”

Chapter Text

“Get up!” Someone’s shaking my shoulder. My eyelids flutter open and I see Katniss over me, looking frantic. “Get up,” she says again. “We have to move.” As everyone starts to get up she explains why Wiress was saying ‘tick, tock.’

            The arena is a clock.

            Whilst everyone else wakes up, I glance around the arena, my eyes darting from spoke to spoke that surrounds the Cornucopia. It makes sense now that she says it. In fact, I wonder how we didn’t figure it out earlier. I hear Johanna protesting Katniss’ idea to move, but she seems to be against anything Katniss says or does. When she wakes up Wiress, she says, “Yes, tick, tock, the arena’s a clock. It’s a clock, Wiress. You were right.”

            I turn back to them as Wiress says, “Midnight.”

            “It starts at midnight,” Katniss nods in response.

            “One-thirty,” Wiress says, nodding towards the section with the blood rain.

            “Exactly,” Katniss says. “One-thirty. And at two, a terrible poisonous fog begins there.” She points to the jungle nearby. It’s too close for my liking. “So we have to move somewhere safe now.” Wiress stands up, seeming relieved as Katniss asks, “Are you thirsty?” She gives Wiress the rest of the water in the bowl.

            It’s then I realize no one has checked on Beetee. I move over to his side and try to lift him into my arms, but he protests, saying, “Wire.”

            “She’s right here,” I say, thinking he means Wiress. “Wiress is fine. She’s coming too.”

            Still he won’t let me take him. “Wire,” he says again.

            “Oh, I know what he wants,” Johanna says, sounding extremely exasperated. She picks up the thing that we took from his belt. It’s still coated in blood. “This worthless thing. It’s some kind of wire or something. That’s how he got cut. Running up to the Cornucopia to get this. I don’t know what kind of weapon it’s supposed to be. I guess you could pull off a piece and use it as a garrote or something. But really, can you imagine Beetee garroting somebody?”

            “He won his Games with wire. Setting up that electrical trap,” I say, disliking Johanna more and more. “It’s the best weapon he could have.”

            “Seems like you’d have figured that out,” Katniss says. “Since you nicknamed him Volts and all.” There’s something about the way she says this that makes me suspicious of Johanna. How could she not have known he needed his wire in the first place? She’s known him far longer than Katniss or I have. How could she have forgotten that?

            However, I’m not given much time to think on this, since only a few seconds later, Johanna’s saying, “Yeah, that was really stupid of me, wasn’t it? I guess I must have been distracted by keeping your little friends alive. While you were…what, again? Getting Mags killed off?”

            She’s gone too far. I can tell by the way Katniss tightens her hold on the knife at her belt.

            “Go ahead. Try it,” Johanna hisses. “I don’t care if you’re knocked up, I’ll rip your throat out.” I know she won’t do anything right now. I wouldn’t let her, but it’s only a matter of time before one of the two of them can’t stand the other anymore.

            “Maybe we all had better be careful where we step,” Finnick says, shooting a look at Katniss. As he gives Beetee his wire, I think it’s really unfair of him to be upset with her, especially when he was Johanna who was being so cruel. “There’s your wire, Volts. Watch where you plug it.”

            This time when I try to pick Beetee up, he doesn’t protest. “Where to?”

            “I’d like to Cornucopia and watch,” says Finnick. “Just to make sure we’re right about the clock.” I doubt we’re wrong, but no one else has any better ideas, so we make our way to the golden horn and the pile of weapons that has dwindled dramatically.

Once we get there, I set Beetee down in the shade and call Wiress over. I hand her the wire, saying, “Clean it, will you?”

As Wiress starts to sing some silly song about a mouse and clock, Johanna rolls her eyes and says, just adding to my dislike for her, “Oh, not the song again. That went on for hours before she started tick-tocking.”

“Two,” Wiress says, standing and pointing at the jungle.

“Yes, look, Wiress is right,” Katniss says. “It’s two o’clock and the fog has started.”

“Like clockwork,” I say. “You were very smart to figure that out, Wiress.”

“Oh, she’s more than smart,” Beete says. “She’s intuitive.” He seems to be doing much better now. “She can sense things before anyone else. Like a canary in one of your coal mines.”

“What’s that?” Finnick asks.

“It’s a bird that we take down into the mines to warn us if there’s bad air,” Katniss says.

“What’s it do, die?” Johanna asks.

“It stops singing first,” Katniss explains. “That’s when you should get out. But if the air’s too bad, it dies, yes. And so do you.”

While everyone is preoccupied with Katniss’ story about the birds in the mines, I rush over to the closest bit of jungle away from the Cornucopia. I go a short ways into the trees, pull a large leaf from one of them, and hurry back out to the others before anyone can notice I’ve gone. I sit down in the sand, place the leaf in front of me and, using my knife, I begin to draw a map of the arena. The Cornucopia in the center, the twelve spokes going out towards the jungle. I draw a circle to represent the water line. When I feel Katniss’ presence behind me, I say, “Look how the Cornucopia’s positioned.”

“The tail points toward twelve o’clock,” she says.

“Right,” I say. “So this is the top of our clock,” I quickly write the numbers one through twelve around the clock face. “Twelve to one is the lightning zone,” I write lightning in minute print here, then write in blood, fog,and monkeys in the corresponding sections.

“And ten to eleven is the way,” she says. I add it in. By now Johanna and Finnick have joined us, armed in such a way to make them deadly.

“Did you notice anything unusual in the others?” I hear Katniss asking Johanna and Beetee. But they’ve only been in the blood rain section. “I guess they could hold anything.”

“I’m going to mark the ones where we know the Gamemakers’ weapon follows us out past the jungle, so we’ll stay clear of those,” I say, marking those sections with diagonal lines. It isn’t much, I suppose, but, sitting back, I tell everyone, “Well, it’s a lot more than we knew this morning, anyway.”

That’s when I notice the silence. Wiress has stopped singing.

Katniss spins around and lets an arrow fly into Gloss’s right temple. I watch Wiress fall from his hands and into the water, her throat gushing blood. Johanna throws an axe that hits Cashmere in the chest, killing her instantly. Finnick knocks away a spear that I didn’t notice Brutus had thrown at me, which results in him taking Enobaria’s knife in his thigh. The cannons are just going off, letting us know that Wiress cannot be saved when the ground moves and the spit of land we’re standing on begins to spin. I fall to the ground and dig my fingers into the sand, doing my best to hold on. When it stops, I notice that everyone has managed to hold on and the bodies of the dead have been flung out to sea.

“Where’s Volts?” Johanna asks as we stumble to our feet. We circle the Cornucopia once, but don’t find him anywhere. Then Finnick sees him floating in the sea, trying to paddle back to us, but not doing a very good job of it. He goes out into the water to pull him in and by the time he’s back, Katniss has jumped in to go get Beetee’s wire, which is still being held in Wiress’s hand. She manages to get to her right before the claw from the hovercraft descends upon her and carries her away. When she returns to the beach, she hands Beetee his wire and then sits down next to me, wrapping her arms around me. I don’t say anything. I don’t have to. My actions that are similar to hers speak for themselves.

“Let’s get off this stinking island,” Johanna says. We all agree and decide to head to the twelve o’clock beach, but when we begin heading away from the Cornucopia, we all go in different directions.

“Twelve o’clock, right?” I ask. “The tail points at twelve.”

“Before they spun us,” says Finnick. “I was judging by the sun.”

“The sun only tells you it’s going on four, Finnick,” Katniss says.

“I think Katniss’ point is, knowing the time doesn’t mean you necessarily know where four is on the clock,” says Beetee. “You might have a general idea of the direction. Unless you consider that they may have shifted the outer ring of the jungle as well.”

“Yes, so any one of these paths could lead to twelve o’clock,” she says.

We walk around the Cornucopia again. When we can’t discern one part of the jungle from the other, Johanna suggests we follow Brutus and Enobaria’s tracks, but they were swept away when the island spun around. No one knows where anything is. “I should have never mentioned the clock,” Katniss says bitterly. “Now they’ve taken that advantage away as well.”

“Only temporarily,” says Beetee. “At ten, we’ll see the wave again and be back on track.”

“Yes,” I say, relieved by this observation. “They can’t redesign the whole arena.”

“It doesn’t matter,” Johanna says, managing to frustrate me again. “You had to tell us or we never would have moved our camp in the first place, brainless. Come on, I need water. Anyone have a good gut feeling?”

No one does, so we choose a random path. Once we get to the beach, we all cautiously peer into the jungle, trying to figure out what danger lies in its depths.

“Well, it must be monkey hour,” I say. “And I don’t see any of them in there. I’m going to try to tap a tree.”

“No,” Finnick says. “It’s my turn.”

“I can at least watch your back,” I offer.

“Katniss can do that,” Johanna says, making me suspicious. “We need you to make another map. The other washed away.” She pulls a large leaf off one of the nearby trees and hands it to me as Katniss and Finnick head into the jungle. I bet she’s hoping that something will happen in there and Katniss will die. Or maybe she’s said something to Finnick, while Katniss and I were sleeping and told him to kill her when he got the chance. I try not to dwell too much on this and make the map, but I’ve just finished drawing the Cornucopia when I hear a scream. But it doesn’t belong to Katniss. She couldn’t make a scream like that. It belongs to a child. A small child. Someone who can’t be older than twelve or thirteen. There is only one child I know that is that age.

Prim.

Chapter Text

Without a second thought, I rush towards the edge of the jungle, ready to run in and find Katniss and Prim, ready to rescue them from whatever horrors are hidden in the trees. Then, without warning, the screams cut off. At first, I think that my mind was playing tricks on me and I heard nothing at all, but when I reach out towards the jungle, my hand hits an invisible wall. I bang my fists against it, trying to break through to get to Katniss, but it doesn’t work. Johanna tries to hack through it with her axe, but that doesn’t work either. We are trapped outside the jungle just as Finnick and Katniss must be trapped within.

            It’s about ten minutes before I see them running back towards us, both looking very shaken and upset. I have both of my hands placed on the invisible wall and I’m shouting to them, trying to warn them that it’s there, but they obviously can’t hear me because Finnick runs into it face-first, making blood gush from his nose and Katniss rams it with her shoulder. She falls back and watches as we try, yet again, to break through to them, but we still can’t.

            Finally, knowing it’s no use, I sink to my knees and place my hand on the wall. Katniss places her hand in the exact same spot mine is on the other side. I say soft, comforting words to her, telling her everything is going to be alright, that I’m here, that I won’t leave her. Only a few short minutes later, I learn the source of the noise. It wasn’t Prim. It was a jabberjay. I watch Katniss shoot as many out of the trees as she can, but there must be too many because she empties her quiver of arrows within a few seconds. She tries to brace herself against the noise, but she can’t. She curls up next to Finnick, her hands over her ears, waiting for it to end. The sight of her so broken and defeated hurts my heart and the minute the wall vanishes, I go to her, carry her out of the jungle and back onto the beach, rocking her back and forth, telling her that everything is going to be alright.

            “It’s alright, Katniss,” I whisper as I feel her trembling in my arms.

            “You didn’t hear them,” she replies.

            “I heard Prim,” I say. “Right in the beginning. But it wasn’t her. It was a jabberjay.”

            “It was her,” she says. “Somewhere. The jabberjay just recorded it.”

            “No, that’s what they want you to think,” I tell her, even though I’m not entirely sure myself. “The same way I wondered if Glimmer’s eyes were in that mutt last year. But those weren’t Glimmer’s eyes. And that wasn’t Prim’s voice. Or if it was, they took it from an interview or something and distorted the sound. Made it say whatever she was saying.”

            “No, they were torturing her,” Katniss says flatly. “She’s probably dead.”

            “Katniss,” I say patiently, “Prim isn’t dead. How could they kill Prim? We’re almost dow to the final eight of us. And what happens then?”

            “Seven more of us die,” she replies.

            The words are like a fist around my heart, squeezing the life out of me, but I force myself to continue. “No, back home. What happens when they reach the final eight tributes in the Games?” I lift her chin, forcing her to look into my eyes, knowing if I can’t calm her this way, then I can’t calm her at all. “What happens? At the final eight.”

            “At the final eight?” she asks. It takes her a moment, but finally she says, “They interview your family and friends back home.”

            “That’s right,” I tell her. The fingers around my heart are loosening. “They interview your family and friends. And can they do that if they’ve killed them all?”

            “No?” She sounds surprisingly unsure.

            “No,” I repeat, sounding far more certain than she does. “That’s how we know Prim’s alive. She’ll be the first one they interview, won’t she?”

            Her doubt is making me question my own words. However, I know that I need to calm Katniss down and if I believe this, I know Katniss will. She seems to lose her worry for a moment, but it seems to come back just as quickly, so I add, “First, Prim. Then your mother. Your cousin, Gale. Madge. It was a trick, Katniss. A horrible one. But we’re the only ones who can be hurt by it. We’re the ones in the Games. Not them.”

            “You really believe that?” she asks, almost as though she’s read my thoughts.

            “I really do,” I say.

            Apparently, this isn’t enough because she turns to Finnick, who looks completely convinced that I’m correct, and asks, “Do you believe it, Finnick?”

            “It could be true,” he says, revealing even he has a trace of doubt about what could be happening beyond the confines of the arena. “I don’t know. Could they do that, Beetee? Take someone’s regular voice and make it…” He trails off as though it’s too painful for him to continue and maybe it is. I wouldn’t know. I didn’t hear anyone I love in the trees.

            “Oh, yes,” Beetee responds. “It’s not even that difficult, Finnick. Our children learn a similar technique in school.”

            “Of course Peeta’s right,” Johanna joins in, managing to sound both frustrated and emotionless at the same time. “The whole country adores Katniss’ little sister. If they really killed her like this, they’d probably have an uprising on their hands.” Without warning, she throws her head back and shouts at the sky, “Don’t want that, do they? Whole country in rebellion? Wouldn’t want anything like that!”

            I know I’m not the only one who’s shocked by what she’s just done. I’m staring at Johanna, but out of the corner of my eye, I can see the surprise on Katniss’ face as well. Johanna isn’t nice and I don’t think she ever will be, but what she just did is definitely one of the bravest things I’ve ever witnessed. If you can call it brave, that is. The more I think about it, the more I think the correct word for what she’s just done is foolish. However, I’m not given much time to think on it before she stands, grabbing some shells as she does so, and heads towards the jungle, muttering, “I’m getting water.”

            Katniss grabs her hand as she walks by. “Don’t go in there. The birds –” she starts, but she’s cut off.

            “They can’t hurt me,” Johanna replies, tugging her hand free. “I’m not like the rest of you. There’s no one left I love.” No one says anything as she goes. We all know that pity isn’t something she’ll appreciate and, frankly, I don’t know what I could say anyways. Nothing I say would be good enough. She’s had everyone she loves taken from her and I can’t even begin to imagine what that might be like. Better to keep my mouth shut.

            While she’s gone getting water and Katniss’ arrows, Beetee plays with wire and Finnick goes for a swim. I know Katniss wants to follow him into the water, but she’s still shaking. In an attempt to distract her, I ask, “Who did they use against Finnick?” It really isn’t the best question to keep her mind off of what just happened, but it seems to do the trick just fine.

            “Somebody named Annie,” she says.

            “Must be Annie Cresta,” I mutter mostly to myself.

            “Who?” she asks.

            “Annie Cresta,” I repeat. “She was the girl Mags volunteered for.” Which is the only way I know her name. “She won about five years ago,” I add.

            “I don’t remember those Games much,” Katniss says and it only takes me a minute to remember why: that was the summer her father died. She had other things on her mind. “Was that the earthquake year?”

            “Yeah,” I say. “Annie’s the one who went mad when her district partner got beheaded. Ran off by herself and hid. But an earthquake broke a dam and most of the arena got flooded. She won because she was the best swimmer.”

            “Did she get better after?” she asks. “I mean, her mind?”

            “I don’t know,” I say. “I don’t remember ever seeing her at the Games again. But she didn’t look too stable during the reaping this year.”

            Finnick may have the girls of the Capitol wrapped around his finger, but he doesn’t love any of them. He loves a girl who was driven insane because she was put in a place she didn’t belong and survived. I know that many children are put in the arena that don’t belong there or, more accurately, weren’t prepared to be there, but they usually die and don’t have to deal with the aftershock of what they went through. It was different for Annie, though. She won the Games and never got better.

            It’s the blast of a cannon that brings me out of my thoughts. A hovercraft appears over the six-to-seven-o’clock zone and reaches down several times to grab what must be several parts of one person. No one can tell who it is. I don’t know what happens in that zone and I never want to. The images make me cringe and, in an attempt to get them out of my mind, I get another leaf and draw another map, while Finnick weaves another water basket as well as a fishing net. Katniss takes a swim and I watch her, while Finnick cleans the fish he manages to cat with his net. Once the anthem begins we regroup and look up at the sky to see who’s died today.

            Cashmere. Gloss. Wiress. Mags. The woman from District 5. The morphling who died to save me. Blight. The man from 10. There are eight dead. Plus the eight from the night before. Two-thirds of us are gone in a day and a half. That has to be some kind of record.

            “They’re really burning through us,” Johanna says once the anthem plays again and the images in the sky fade into darkness.

            “Who’s left?” Finnick asks. “Besides us five and District Two?”

            “Chaff,” I say without hesitation. I promised myself I would look after him for Haymitch. I haven’t been doing a good job of that, but I know he’s still alive and that thought makes me feel as though I’ve done at least something right.

            A parachute drops down in front of us, full of bite-sized rolls. “These are from your district, right, Beetee?” I ask.

            “Yes, from District Three,” he says. “How many are there?”

            I don’t know what the significance of that is, but Finnick takes them, turning them over in his hands as he counts them and finally responds with the number: “Twenty-four.”

            “An even two dozen, then?” Beetee asks as though this is far more important than we could imagine, though, I still don’t see how.

            “Twenty-four on the nose,” Finnick replies. “How should we divide them?”

            “Let’s each have three, and whoever is still alive at breakfast can take a vote on the rest,” Johanna says. Katniss laughs a little and I don’t know why, but Johanna gives her a look of approval. This doesn’t make much sense to me either, but I don’t try to make sense of it.

            After the giant wave, we go back down to the beach to make camp and make sure to stay on the wave’s wedge. The clicking of the insects from the beach over stays in the jungle, but none of us knows as to whether or not they’ll stay in the jungle if we decide to step over, even if it’s accidental.

            Katniss and I volunteer to take the first watch. Finnick is restless, murmuring Annie’s name in his sleep. Johanna practically collapses into the sand and I don’t know how she didn’t earlier, since she can’t have gotten more than an hour of sleep since the start of the Games.

            The two of us sit in the damp sand, back to back. I watch the jungle and she watches the water. At first, we seem to take our job very seriously, not speaking or even acknowledging the other is there, then, at some point, Katniss lays her head on my shoulder and I automatically reach up and begin running my fingers through her hair. That’s when I remember the locket Haymitch gave me and his order to give it to Katniss when I thought the time was right. I don’t know how much longer either one of us is going to live with how quickly the tributes are being taken out, so now is as good a time as any.

            “Katniss,” I say, my voice soft, “it’s no use pretending we don’t know what the other is trying to do.” She doesn’t reply. This is probably the last thing she wants to talk about, but we have to talk about it. She has to know that. She also has to know that the viewers in the Capitol want to hear this conversation and, if we want the other to survive, we have to give it to them. I swallow. “I don’t know what kind of deal you think you’ve made with Haymitch, but you should know he made me promises as well. So I think we can assume he was lying to one of us.”

            Of course, Katniss probably thinks that I don’t know to whom he was telling the truth, but I do. He wouldn’t have given me this locket if it weren’t Katniss he wasn’t trying to keep alive. We both understand that it’s her that has to live and, besides, I’m selfish. I can’t live without her. I need her to survive.

            “Why are you saying this now?” she asks.

            “Because I don’t want you forgetting how different our circumstances are,” I say without hesitation. “If you die and I live, there’s no life for me at all back in District Twelve. You’re my whole life. I would never be happy again.” She starts to object, but I put my finger on her lips, silencing her. “It’s different for you,” I add. “I’m not saying it wouldn’t be hard. But there are other people who’d make your life worth living.”

            That’s when I pull the locket from around my neck and hold it in the moonlight, so she can see it more clearly. The mockingjay sparkles. I pop it open and reveal the photos it contains. Prim and her mother, laughing; Gale, smiling. I don’t have to look at her face to know that it’s doing what it’s supposed to. The locket is the perfect weapon and Haymitch knew that. That’s why he gave it to me to give to her.

            “Your family needs you, Katniss,” I whisper.

            She’s staring at the locket, at the pictures, understanding that they need her and that they’re more important than I am and I would be lying if I said that doesn’t hurt my heart. I am jealous of Gale. I always have been. If she lives and I die, she will live a life with him. She will be happy. She will be alright. That’s when I realize something for the first time and, without thinking, I say it out loud.

            “No one really needs me.”

            “I do,” she replies, my heart breaking as she says it. “I need you.” I know it isn’t true. She doesn’t need me. I open my mouth to tell her this, that she needs to stop saying things like that, but then she kisses me and for a moment, I give up my argument. When she pulls back, though, I try again, but she doesn’t let me. Eventually, I give up and just let her kiss me. I really can’t complain when I’m kissing the girl I love. I let myself fall into a world where I’m happy and she’s happy and we’re not in the Games, we’re just a couple that’s in love and none of this is just for some twisted Games, but then the lightning storm starts up and I’m pulled out of that fantasy.

            Finnick wakes up too, crying out as he does so, pulled out of whatever nightmares he was forced into in his sleep. Almost instantly, he says, “I can’t sleep anymore. One of you should rest.” When he notices how we’re wrapped around each other – something I hadn’t even noticed until this second – he adds, “Or both of you. I can watch alone.”

            I untangle myself from Katniss saying, “It’s too dangerous. I’m not tired. You lie down, Katniss.” I’m expecting an argument, but I don’t get one. She lets me lead her over to where the others are and lies down without complaint. I put the locket around her neck before I place my hand on her stomach where our child would be. We’re back in the Games now, might as well act like it. “You’re going to make a great mother, you know,” I say. I kiss her one last time and go back over to Finnick. 

Chapter Text

A parachute is slowly drifting down from the sky by the time Katniss awakens the next morning. I tried sleeping near dawn, but was unable to drift off and ended up keeping watch with Finnick, until morning light. Then, after everyone else woke up, the parachute came and now we have another twenty-four rolls of District 3 bread. Everyone gets five and no one says anything how if another person dies, we’ll be able to split the remaining rolls evenly.

            While I eat, I sit next to Katniss. There’s something different about her and the way she’s holding herself. I try to figure out what as I eat my bread, but nothing comes to mind. I’m opening my mouth to ask her what’s wrong the moment I’ve finished my food, but she just takes my hand and pulls me into the water, saying, “Come on. I’ll teach you how to swim.” I nod and act like this is, in fact, what she wants to do, but there’s something about her expression and the way she says this that makes me think she has some sort of ulterior motive for pulling me into the water.

            She teaches me a basic stroke and has me practice it a few times. However, when I look at her to see if I’m doing alright, she seems distracted. I stop swimming just as she calls me over to tell me she figured out how we can rid ourselves of the itchy scabs covering our bodies. However, her true intentions are revealed almost instantly when she says, “Look, the pool is down to eight. I think it’s time we took off.” She says this under her breath, though I’m pretty sure no one else can hear her.

            I nod and think about what she’s said. Somehow, I don’t think it’s a good idea to leave just yet and as soon as I say, “Let’s stick around until Brutus and Enobaria are dead. I think Beetee’s trying to put together some kind of trap for them now. Then, I promise, we’ll go,” that I figure out why.

            If we go now, we’ll have to deal with not only Brutus and Enobaria, but this group as well. Plus Chaff, since no one knows what he’s up to. Though he’s Haymitch’s friend and this makes me automatically protective of him, when I put his life against Katniss’, there is no competition. Katniss comes first. She has always come first and she always will come first. Not to mention, Haymitch specifically told me that she has to come out of the arena alive this time around, so I push aside my thoughts of the man that’s his friend and return them to the now.

            “All right,” Katniss says in response to my earlier statement. “We’ll stay until the Careers are dead. But that’s the end of it.” She turns and waves to Finnick. “Hey, Finnick, come on in! We figured out how to make you pretty again!”

            We spend another fifteen to twenty minutes scouring the scabs from our bodies and helping the others do the same. Then we slather ourselves in the medicine again, though, it doesn’t look nearly as bad now as it did before. In fact, staring at Katniss against the background of the jungle, I think that we might just be able to blend in with the leaves.

            My thoughts are interrupted by Beetee calling us over. When I said he was coming up with a plan, I hadn’t been entirely sure about that. Ever since he’d awakened, he’d been fiddling with his wire and muttering to himself, so I figured he was trying to come up with something. Now, my suspicions are confirmed when I come over and he says, “I think we’ll all agree our next job is to kill Brutus and Enobaria.” There are nods from everyone in the loose circle around him. “I doubt they’ll attack us openly again, now that they’re so outnumbered. We could track them down, I suppose, but it’s dangerous, exhausting work.”

            “Do you think they’ve figured out about the clock?” Katniss asks.

            “If they haven’t, they’ll figure it out soon enough,” Beetee replies. “Perhaps not as specifically as we have. But they must know that at least some of the zones are wired for attacks and that they’re reoccurring in a circular fashion. Also, the fact that our last fight was cut off by Gamemaker intervention will not have gone unnoticed by them. We know it was an attempt to disorient us, but hey must be asking themselves why it was done, and this, too, may lead them to the realization that the arena’s a clock. So I think our best bet will be setting our own trap.”

            “Wait, let me get Johanna up,” Finnick interrupts. “She’ll be rabid if she thinks she missed something this important.”

            “Or not,” Katniss mutters. I don’t say anything, but I don’t disagree. Johanna tends to always be upset about something.

            When she’s joined us, Beetee tells us to move back a bit before he begins drawing in the sand with a stick he must have found near the edge of the forest. He draws the clock and the twelve wedges and then begins pointing things out with the stick, saying, “If you were Brutus and Enobaria, knowing what you do now about the jungle, where would you feel safest?”

            “Where we are now,” I say instantly. “On the beach. It’s the safest place.”

            “So why aren’t they on the beach?” Beetee asks. I know he isn’t trying to, but he sounds like a schoolteacher and I feel like an incompetent student. Somehow I don’t think I’m the only one going through this emotion.

            “Because we’re here,” Johanna replies, sounding impatient. She’s clearly unimpressed with Beetee’s attempt at patronizing us all, though I don’t think that’s his intent.

            “Exactly,” he says, either pretending not to have noticed Johanna’s impatience or ignoring it completely. “We’re here claiming the beach. Now where would you go?”

            There’s a short silence, then Katniss says, “I’d hide just at the edge of the jungle. So I could escape if an attack came. And so I could spy on us.”

            “Also to eat,” Finnick adds. “The jungle’s full of strange creatures and plants. But by watching us, I’d know the seafood’s safe.”

            Beetee smiles, almost as though he didn’t expect us to figure out this much. “Yes, good. You do see. Now here’s what I propose: a twelve o’clock strike. What happens exactly at noon and at midnight?”

            “The lightning bolt hits the tree,” Katniss says.

            “Yes. So what I’m suggesting is that after the bolt hits at noon, but before it hits at midnight, we run my wire from that tree all the way down to the saltwater, which is, of course, highly conductive. When the bolt strikes, the electricity will travel down the wire and into not only the water but also the surrounding beach, which will still be damp from the ten o’clock wave. Anyone in contact with those surfaces at that moment will be electrocuted,” Beetee quickly explains.

            There’s a small silence while everyone takes in everything Beetee has just said. It makes sense, really. Water is conductive and with that much electricity running down an equally conductive wire, we could, in theory, fry the beach. Then something occurs to me and I say, “Will that wire really be able to conduct that much power, Beetee? It looks so fragile, like it would just burn up.”

            “Oh, it will,” he assures me, making me think he’s just as crazy as Johanna has said all along, but then he adds, “but not until the current has passed through it. It will act something like a fuse, in fact. Except the electricity will travel along it.”

            “How do you know?” Johanna asks, still not convinced.

            “Because I invented it,” Beetee says, sounding slightly surprised, though I’m not sure anyone in this group except himself knew this. “It’s not actually wirein the usual sense. Nor is the lightning natural lightning nor the tree a real tree. You know trees better than any of us, Johanna. It would be destroyed by now, wouldn’t it?”

            “Yes,” she replies, sounding upset to have been proven wrong by Volts.

            “Don’t worry about the wire – it will do just what I say,” Beetee says.

            “And where will we be when this happens?” Finnick asks.

            “Far enough up in the jungle to be safe,” Beetee replies.

            “The Careers will be safe, too, then, unless they’re in the vicinity of the water,” Katniss points out.

            “That’s right,” Beetee says.

            “But all the seafood will be cooked,” I say.

            “Probably more than cooked,” Beetee replies. “We will most likely be eliminating that as a food source for good. But you found other edible things in the jungle, right, Katniss?”

            “Yes. Nuts and rats,” she says. “And we have sponsors.”

            “Well, then. I don’t see that as a problem,” Beetee says. “But as we are allies and this will require all our efforts, the decision of whether or not to attempt it is up to you four.”

            “Why not?” Katniss says, voicing all our thoughts. “If it fails, there’s no harm done. If it works, there’s a decent chance we’ll kill them. And even if we don’t and just kill the seafood, Brutus and Enobaria lose it as a food source, too.”

            “I say we try it,” I tell the others. “Katniss is right.”

            Finnick looks at Johanna and raises his eyebrows, making it clear he won’t go forward without her. “All right,” she says finally. “It’s better than hunting them down in the jungle, anyway. And I doubt they’ll figure out our plan, since we can barely understand it ourselves.”

            Beetee wants to check out the lightning tree before rigging it, so we leave our beach and head to the one bordering the lightning section before heading into the jungle. Unfortunately, Beetee is still took weak from being stabbed in the back to walk on his own, so Finnick and I take turns carrying him. Johanna leads us and Katniss takes the rear.

            When we’re close to the tree, Finnick suggests Katniss take the lead. “Katniss can hear the force field,” he tells Beetee and Johanna.

            “Hear it?” Beetee asks.

            “Only with the ear the Capitol reconstructed,” she replies, but I know he doesn’t buy it. He’s the one that told her about how to spot them in the first place. However, he doesn’t say anything. Probably because he knows that revealing he knows how to truly spot a force field, he’ll get himself in trouble, should he live through the Games. He won’t because I’ll kill him to save Katniss if I have to, but I try not to think about that at the moment.

            “Then by all means, let Katniss go first,” he says. “Force fields are nothing to play around with.”

            No one mentions my brief encounter with death due to the fact I crashed into one.

            Katniss moves up in front of us and throws nuts at the force field, which I spot even before she does so, due to the fact there’s a small fuzzy square to her right. She throws a nut in that direction and it bounces away sizzling.

            “Just stay below the lightning tree,” she tells everyone else.

            We each are given duties the moment we reach the tree. Finnick is to guard Beetee while eh examines the tree and Johanna will tap for water. I gather nuts and Katniss hunts. She returns a short while later with three of them and after she cleans them, the both of us sit down behind the line she drew with a stick near the force field and throw cubes of meat as well as nuts at it to make them edible.

            Beetee messes with the tree for longer than I could ever count and, at one point, throws a stick at the force field for no reason any of us can figure, though he says, “Well, that explains a lot.” Out of the corner of my eye, I can see Katniss trying not to laugh.

            When the clicks start up from the section of the forest near us, we all listen intently. Beetee eventually says, “It’s not mechanical,” though I don’t feel that really explains anything.

            “I’d guess insects,” Katniss says. “Maybe beetles.”

            “Something with pincers,” Finnick replies.

            The clicking grows louder as though our words have made it all the more eager to find a way to break out of its confines, so it can strip the flesh from our bones. I have a feeling it could do that in only a few seconds.

            “We should get out of here, anyway,” Johanna says. “There’s less than an hour before the lightning starts.”

            We end up not going very far, only to the tree of the same height in the blood-rain section. We have a small picnic and right before the lightning strikes, Beetee tells Katniss to climb our tree to see what’s going on in the lightning section. She returns shortly after a bright light illuminates the sky above us and tells Beetee what she saw. I can’t tell if Beetee is truly pleased with the way she explains things, but he at least acts satisfied.

            After that, we return to the beach, taking our time getting there. Once we arrive, Beetee tells us we’ve done good and have the rest of the day to ourselves. However, we end up working anyway, since this could be our last chance for seafood. Finnick, Johanna, and Katniss dive for shellfish, while the rest of us try our hand at spearing them. Katniss seems to enjoy diving, though I don’t know why. Unfortunately, I can’t swim, so I am no help in this department.

            Once we have enough food, Finnick, Katniss, and I clean and lay it all out, while Johanna stands water. I am in charge of a small pile of oysters. I take my time with them, prying them open, throwing the shells aside, and setting the meat on a leaf that Finnick pulled from the forest. I pry open my second to last one and find something glimmering inside. It takes me a moment to recognize what it is and once I do, I laugh. “Hey, look at this!” I hold up a perfect pearl about the size of a pea. I grin conspiratorially and say, “You know, if you put enough pressure on coal it turns into pearls.”

            “No, it doesn’t,” Finnick replies, but my comment wasn’t meant for him. Katniss laughs and I know she’s understood what I was saying. Last year that was how Effie presented us to the citizens of the Capitol: as coal covered pearls.

            I rinse off the pearl in the water, half terrified I’ll accidentally drop it and be unable to find it again. Once I’m finished, I hand it to Katniss, saying, “For you.” I watch her examine it and she smiles at me, but there is something in that smile and her small, “Thanks,” that makes the happiness that had filled me only moments ago vanish.

            “The locket didn’t work, did it?” I say this as more of a statement than a question. Finnick is right there. He can hear every word I’m saying, but it doesn’t matter. We’ll all be dead soon anyway and I don’t care if he knows about my present to Katniss. I swallow hard, fearful that somehow she will find a way to die and let me live. “Katniss?”

            “It worked,” she says.

            “But not the way I wanted it to,” I say, averting my gaze. I can tell from her tone of voice that she’s lying. I keep my eyes on my oysters after that, not sure if I’m simply refusing to look at her or if I can’t.

            We’re just about to eat our seafood when another parachute appears and this time we get twenty-four rolls and some spicy red sauce. We have a feast and the sauce ends up tasting very good on our seafood. We eat until we can eat no more, but it isn’t everything. We throw our remaining food back into the water, so Brutus and Enobaria can’t get to it once we leave.

            We have nothing to do now, other than wait. Katniss and I sit on the edge of the water, holding hands, not speaking. I said what I was going to last night. There is really nothing else for me to say. I wish I had more words that could make her understand just how much she needs to live, but I know now that no matter what I do or say, I won’t convince her of this. The locket was my last best hope and it turned out that the powers Haymitch claimed it had were useless. Perhaps it might have worked on someone else. Katniss is just too stubborn.

            Out of the corner of my eye, I see her put the pearl in the small pouch she made out of the parachute that came when we received the medicine. I hope she’ll keep cherish it even after I’m gone.

Chapter Text

When the anthem begins that night, I don’t even bother looking into the sky. There won’t be any faces. The audience probably wants blood and the only reason the Gamemakers haven’t sent anything after us is only because of Beetee’s trap. Which we still have to set up. Around nine, we leave the beach and silently hike up to the tree. Once there, Beetee has Finnick assist him in wrapping his wire around the trunk. First, however, he unrolls about twenty or thirty yards of the stuff and ties it around a branch. I don’t know what this means, but I’m soon lost in the rhythm he and Finnick take on as they wrap it around the trunk in a way that looks significant, but I can’t really tell. I know as much about electricity as Katniss does, which is to say none.

            When he and Finnick finish, he tells us the rest of the plan: Katniss and Johanna have to run the wire down to the beach and throw the coil into the ocean, then run back to the jungle before the lightning hits. If they go immediately, they should be safe in time.

            “I want to go with them as a guard,” I say before anyone else can volunteer. After the discussion the two of us had at breakfast this morning, I want to stay as close to her as possible in case anyone suspects we might be breaking off the alliance soon.

            “You’re too slow,” Beetee tells me, making me worried that he has some sort of hidden agenda. “Besides, I’ll need you on this end. Katniss will guard. There’s no time to debate this. I’m sorry. If the girls are to get out of there alive, they need to move now.” He hates the coil of wire to Johanna.

            I glance at Katniss. I can tell she doesn’t like this plan any more than I do, but what choice do we have? My insisting to stay with her will, no doubt, cause suspicion among the rest of the group and the last thing we want them to do is wonder about what we’re planning. However, at the same time, I know that Katniss trusts Beetee and therefore I trust him, which is the only reason, besides the obvious, that I don’t argue the point any further.

            “It’s okay,” Katniss tells me. “We’ll just drop the coil and come straight back up.”

            “Not into the lightning zone,” Beetee reminds her. “Head for the tree in the one-to-two-o’clok sector. If you find you’re running out of time, move over one more. Don’t even think about going back on the beach, though, until I can assess the damage.”

            Katniss takes my face in her hands. “Don’t worry. I’ll see you at midnight,” she assures me. Then she kisses me, probably thinking I’m going to argue some more, but I won’t. I close my eyes and enjoy the moment, before she pulls away, turns to Johanna and says, “Ready?”

            “Why not?” she responds, shrugging. “You guard, I’ll unwind. We can trade off later.”

            And then they’re gone.

            “How long will it take them to get down to the beach?” I ask Beetee absentmindedly as I watch them disappear into the night.

            I don’t get a response. I turn and see Beetee uncurling the wire from around the branch he’d tied it around earlier. He wraps it around the hilt of a knife that I recognize as my own. I wonder vaguely how he got ahold of it without my notice, but really I’m more concerned with what he’s doing. Finnick isn’t saying anything either. He’s only watching Beetee intently. Clearly, they know something I don’t and I’m about to ask one of the two of them what’s going on when the part of the wire that Johanna and Katniss ran off with goes slack. I hear footsteps in the trees below. I whip my head towards them and immediately take off in their direction. Finnick calls out to me as I go, telling me to come back, but I don’t trust him anymore and Katniss is in danger.

            As I hurry down the slope, armed with only a knife I’d had hidden in my boot, I wonder what’s going on. Did Johanna and Finnick make a deal with the Careers before the Games? Did they tell them to come after Katniss when we were separated? And, if so, how would they have known when to do that? There isn’t any form of communication in the arena. They must have figured it out beforehand.

            Suddenly, a canon goes off and I freeze. I try to remember how many there are of us left, but I’m panicking too much, thinking that it could be Katniss to count properly. I hurry even faster down the slope, not caring that the lightning is going to strike the tree soon, not caring that I could be making too much noise and be killed by one of the Careers. All that matters is getting to Katniss. I have to save her. I have to protect her. That’s my job. I made it my job after I gave her that burnt loaf of bread so long ago and it became even more of my job after the first Hunger Games we were in.

            I’m shaking with panic, imaging Katniss dead and bleeding somewhere and unable to help her. I slump against a tree and try to gather myself, but I can’t. I feel like a child again, terrified that my mother is going to hurt me when I’ve done something wrong. Then, before I really know what I’m doing, I’m screaming, “Katniss!” I know I shouldn’t. The Careers could hear my location and come after me instead, but, if she’s dead, that doesn’t matter anymore. If she’s alive, it could help her. “Katniss!” I call again.

            Only a few moments later, I hear her response, coming from the direction I’d come. “Peeta! Peeta! I’m here! Peeta!” She doesn’t sound well. Her voice sounds ragged and tired, but it’s strong enough that I know she’s alive enough to hold on, she’s alive enough that I can find her and save her from her attackers. She continues calling to me and I hurry in her direction.

            “Katniss!” I call again. I race back up the slope, dropping my knife. If there’s anyone near her and she’s injured, I can just use her bow on them. I’m not a good shot, but if they’re as close to her as I think they are, then I don’t think I’d be able to miss.

            Suddenly, there’s a bright light and a loud crack as the lightning strikes the tree. I freeze and look in the direction of it. There’s another light, too, one racing towards the forcefield. It takes me a moment to figure out what’s happened: someone was able to put the wire through the forcefield. They were able to get through the chink in the armor.

            I’m just wondering what’s going to happen when there’s another bright flash of light as electricity from the tree reaches the wire. For a moment, all around me there is sky, there is more than the arena, there is life beyond this wasteland that they’ve put us in and all this time, if we’d just been smart, we could have reached it.

            Then everything around me explodes.

Chapter Text

Dirt flies into the air, trees are set on fire, and bright colors burst into the sky only moments after the lighting struck the tree and set its electricity into the force field. I’m knocked to the ground and for a moment I black out. When I open my eyes again, I’m staring at the sky again, watching with fascination as the colors up there keep exploding over and over again. It takes me a moment, but eventually I recognize them as fireworks.

            Then something more ominous looms over me.

            A hovercraft.

            One of the claws that retrieves bodies from the arena after their owners have been killed descends. I try with every ounce of my being to push myself to my feet, to run, to find Katniss and somehow get out of the imploding arena before we both die, but I can’t even move. The aftershock of the explosion impaired me more than I’d initially thought and I can do nothing as the claw wraps around me and pulls me into the hovercraft.

            By the time I get up there, some of the fogginess in my brain has cleared and the minute the claw releases me from its grasp and I have full control of my body again, I begin swinging at the soldiers I see in white uniforms surrounding me. I notice Johanna and Enobaria are tied up in a corner. They have blindfolds and gags and it’s then that I realize there is no way I can fight any of these people off, no matter how hard I try.

            I stagger to the wall of the hovercraft and yell obscenities at the soldiers as they slowly close in on me. I swing at them a few more times, but eventually one of them grabs my arm, pulls me to him and is able to get a blindfold around my eyes, ropes around my wrists, and a gag in my mouth despite my struggling. I’m thrown down next to the woman already there and I realize, for the first time, that I’m not going to die.

            I’m going to be tortured, until I’m begging for death. Then I’m going to die. It’ll probably be a public death, too, so Katniss, wherever she is, can see. I’m betting that, had she been captured, she would be in the hovercraft with Johanna, Enobaria, and me, but she isn’t, and something tells me she got away. Something tells me she’s safe and for the first time in a very long time, I allow myself a small smile.

            The ride to the Capitol takes longer than I want it to. I really just wish we’d get to the Capitol and the torture could begin because waiting for it, knowing it’s going to happen, is far worse. I know that once it starts, I’ll be proven wrong, but at the moment, I comfort myself with this fabricated truth. That and the fact that Katniss is safe. That’s the only reality I will accept for her. I don’t want to think that she was caught in the arena when it exploded or that she was captured by the Capitol as well. I know that they’re both possibilities, but I trust my instincts and they say now, just as they did before, that Katniss Everdeen is safe and that’s all that matters.

            Once the hovercraft stops and we arrive at the Capitol, it takes another long while for us to be escorted off. I hear the soldiers around us talking, but I don’t know what they’re talking about. They’re talking too softly for me to hear. Johanna’s trying to say something to me, but her gag is getting in the way. However, Enobaria seems to understand her just fine because she’s saying something, too, and I wonder if the explosion in the arena gave me some sort of brain damage. Logic tells me no, but the panic that has been rising in my chest ever since I was captured, ever since I realized my death will not be a quick and painless one, is screaming yes.

            The group of soldiers that leads us off the hovercraft is anything but gentle. They grab us under the arms and basically throw us in front of them. When we stumble and fall multiple times, they resume gripping our arms and dragging us forward. We go down several winding halls and down even more elevators. By the time we reach the cells that they’re going to keep us in, I’m certain we’ve spent over an hour walking.

            My blindfold and gag are torn away, the ropes around my wrists are undone and I’m thrown into a small cell where three of the walls are made of concrete and the fourth, the one the door is on, is bars. I can hear other prisoners talking and I hear Johanna, in the cell across from me, say my name multiple times, but I never respond. I pace for a little while, letting out my pent up energy that stems from my panic, until finally my legs give out and I sit in a corner, shaking, wondering what’s going to happen to me. I like to think of myself as selfless, but as I sit the corner trembling, listening to Johanna say things to a girl in the cell next to hers that sounds more hysterical than not, I know I am the exact opposite.

            For three days, I sit in the cell, sometimes taking to Johanna through the bars, sometimes the other girl, who I soon learn is Annie Cresta. She’s been here longer than we have. There are healing cuts on her arms and legs. Her face is badly bruised. Her lip is split. Johanna and I try to lighten the mood by talking about the different tortures we could go through, trying to act like they’re no big deal and that we’ll both be fine. Eventually we have to stop doing this because it scares Annie and we know that whatever they’re going to put us through is worse than we can possibly imagine.

            On the fourth day, the soldiers return, they open my cell door and pull me out. They don’t bother blindfolding me or binding my arms again because they know as well as I do that there’s nowhere I can run to, there’s no way I can get out of their prison. I follow them with my head held high into a dark room where there’s only a chair, a box, and President Snow. To be honest, I’m surprised he’s there. I didn’t think I was important enough to be tortured by the president himself, but it turns out that I’m actually not. One of the soldiers stays behind after the others leave and I realize that, even if the soldier hadn’t stayed, I’m associated with Katniss Everdeen, the Girl on Fire, the spark that started the rebellion that is, no doubt, in full swing throughout the districts. I’m more important than I realize and, for the first time, I know why I’m here.

            They think I know something.

            This scares me more than anything else has because I don’t know anything, but they won’t believe me. They’ll try to torture it out of me and no matter what they do, no matter how much pain I suffer, I won’t be able to tell them anything and therefore assure my death. Even if I did tell them something, tell them what they wanted to hear, they probably wouldn’t believe me. They’d think it was a story I’d been fed in case this happened and I almost wish they had given me a story, then, once the torture was too much, I could tell them the story and they’d believe it.

            My thoughts are broken by the soldier, who straps me to the chair before stepping aside. For the first time, I notice there is a humming coming from the box I saw when I first came in.

            “Peeta Mellark,” President Snow says. He’s been quiet up to this point, standing in the shadows of the room that is lit only by a sconce on the wall. Surprisingly, he’s as impeccably dressed as ever. I don’t know what else I expected, something more cliché, I suppose, but I don’t have much time to dwell on that. I’m about to be tortured. I have to think about survival now, not the president’s wardrobe.

            “To be honest, if I could have chosen anyone to capture, it wouldn’t have been you.” He moves so he’s standing in front of me. “I don’t think you know any more about the plans that sparked the rebellion in the districts than I do. If I could have chosen, I would have captured that pretty boy from District Four or the electrician from District Three. I know that they know far more about the plans going on in District Thirteen than you or I do.”

            My eyes widen. District Thirteen? Wasn’t it destroyed in the first rebellion?

            The president smirks. “You didn’t know of its existence?” he asks me, though it’s obvious I didn’t. “To be brief, yes, it exists. We let them live, telling them they had to retreat underground and, for the most part, they did. The only reason we let them live was because, though their main reason for existence was mining graphite, they also were in possession of nuclear power. They threatened us with their missiles and we made a deal with them. No doubt they’ve been trying to get back at us ever since, more so than the rest of you, especially since they weren’t being held in check as the other districts were, but I guess we thought that they weren’t doing too much. Unfortunately, we were wrong. We underestimated them and, as we speak, are planning a counterattack. By the time we’re finished with them, there shouldn’t be a District Thirteen at all.”

            He steps back and looks at the box, letting out a heavy breath as he says, “Anyway, that’s not really what we’re here for. We’re here to let you know the full power of the Capitol. Actually, we’re here because we need to break Katniss and we know that, although she may not love you the way you want her to love you, that she loves you in…a different sort of way and may be willing to do anything to protect you. So, yes, as you’ve probably already suspected we’re going to torture you, but not in the way that most people are tortured. We’re going to torture you, so that by the time those in District Thirteen inevitably try to save you, you’ll be working mostly in our favor rather than in theirs.”

            If I was afraid before, I’m terrified now. What do they mean I’ll be working in their favor? How can they even do that? Then President Snow nods towards the soldier and he opens the box. He grabs a pair of tongs I hadn’t noticed before that were sitting on the table next to the box and reaches in. What he pulls out is the last thing I would have expected.

            A trackerjacker.

            Suddenly, it all makes sense. Trackerjackers produce hallucinations and if you get enough of their venom in you, you can die. However, the last bit isn’t what concerns me. The first bit is. If President Snow is here while this torture is going on, he can say whatever he wants to me, bring in whatever parts of my past he wants and he can tell me that it isn’t true and I may believe him. I know that I’m going to have to be stronger than I originally thought to resist this torture and as the soldier allows the trackerjacker to sting me and I let out a cry of pain, I wonder if I’ll be able to.

            Four or five trackerjackers are allowed to put their stingers into my flesh before President Snow moves, so he’s standing in front of me once more and he begins to tell me, “You know, Peeta, Katniss really isn’t your friend. She’s your enemy. She’s been working for us the whole time. She’s a mutt. She always has been. That girl you tried to save? She’s gone. She was replaced with someone you don’t know years ago. She killed your friends, your family. She isn’t your friend. She’s your enemy.”

            As he speaks, his face shifts in and out of focus. Sometimes it’s Katniss saying those things, other times it’s him. He says the same thing over and over and over again for what feels like hours, but, in truth, was probably only thirty minutes. Eventually, he stands back, moves his eyes from my face to the soldier behind me and says, “That’s all for this time. Take out the stingers and give him the antidote, then return him to his cell. We’ll do more tomorrow.”

            With that, he leaves.

            The stingers are ripped from my skin, a prick of pain in my elbow lets me know that I’ve been given the antidote, then I’m hoisted from the chair by two soldiers (I hadn’t even noticed the other one come in the room) and half carried back to my cell. I’m dumped inside and I lay on the ground for longer than I was in the room, telling myself over and over and over again that what they said wasn’t real, it was all a lie. Katniss is my friend, the girl I’m in love with, she’s not anything Snow told me she was.

            It’s not real, it’s not real, it’s not real.

            I tell myself this over and over and over again, until the words lose their meaning and they become a muddled mantra in my head. I try not to let myself fall asleep until I believe the words I’m telling myself, until I know that the only reason I’m questioning it is because of the venom that was moving through my veins only a short while earlier.

            By the time dinner comes around, I’ve convinced myself that what the president said wasn’t true and never will be. I’ve almost convinced myself that it never even happened. I’m in a relatively good mood considering the circumstances. I even think of good things as I lie on the cot I hadn’t noticed before and close my eyes, ready to fall asleep.

            However, my last thought before I drift off into dreamland is the last I want it to be, the last I could ever dream it would be. It’s this thought that reshapes my entire future.

            Is it real?

            And I realize I don’t know.