The world was on fire and no one could save me but you
It's strange what desire will make foolish people do
I never dreamed that I'd meet somebody like you
And I never dreamed that I'd lose somebody like you
No, I don't want to fall in love
No, I don't want to fall in love
What a wicked game to play, to make me feel this way
What a wicked thing to do, to let me dream of you
What a wicked thing to say, you never felt this way
What a wicked thing to do, to make me dream of you
And I don't want to fall in love
No, I don't want to fall in love
-- “Wicked Game” (Chris Isaak)
Word got out that he’d be working the counter at the bakery today.
He wasn’t even sure how, since it’d been a last minute thing—he’d planned on a somewhat leisurely morning holing up in his studio, taking advantage of those few, precious hours when the light was at its best and it poured in, unobstructed, through the large bay window of the spare room that faced the east. But the call came sometime around six o’clock, and his father’s gruff voice crackled into the earpiece, telling him his brother had been distracted when he reached in to pull out the first batch of starter breads and got second degree burns in the process. Could he come and help out?
It was the kind of careless mistake his mother would have no doubt given him a lashing for, but she’d always had a soft spot for Ty and let him get away with more than the rest of them have ever been able to. And that included his father.
By the time he snuck in through the back and tied on his apron, a small crowd had already gathered in the tiny space in front of the cake display, mostly small children who were whispering excitedly amongst themselves about getting to meet one of the “District 12 Victors,” though there were plenty of adults who’d accompanied them as well. The grown-ups were markedly better at playing it cool, but he could still see them furtively sneaking glances towards the door that led into the kitchen, pretending to listen to his mother when she was taking their orders. She couldn’t have liked that very much, and he had a feeling he’d be getting an earful about that the first chance she’d get to pull him aside. Come to think of it, she might not even wait until they were out of earshot; it’d be nothing at all to her to humiliate him in front of others. It wasn’t as though she hadn’t done that plenty of times before.
A hush fell on the group when he walked out into the front, heat rising up the sides of his face and spreading all the way to the back of his neck. Being a celebrity was going to take some getting used to, and he doubted very much that a few more months of this would make it any less surreal. A flash went off, followed by a nervous giggle. It was a girl he recognized from school, but whose name he didn’t know. She was several years younger, but from town, her flaxen hair braided in two pigtails that reminded him vaguely of Prim Everdeen. His heart gave an involuntary jerk. He realized then that he’d been hoping that Katniss might be among the faces he saw when he came out here.
Until he remembered he wasn’t supposed to be wishing for anything having to do with Katniss Everdeen anymore.
“Stop standing around like a useless Avox,” his mother hissed in his ear. “Take their orders. I’ll take the new loaves out.”
He didn’t bother to answer her with words, only acknowledging her with a nod. The less said between them the better. This way, they might be able to keep some kind of semblance of peace, however tenuous. He turned around, ready to greet his first customer, when he pulled up short.
Gale Hawthorne had walked up to the counter.
“Can I… help you?”
He wasn’t sure whether he’d been able to keep the edge off his voice. He thought he’d managed to do it, but the other boy looked back at him with a taut line of a mouth that made no attempt at curving, and threw a quick glance towards the back. Peeta knew what he was trying to do. He made sure to lower his voice when he spoke. “She’ll be a while. What’ve you got?”
Gale patted his game bag. “Two squirrels and a beaver.”
“Which one are you willing to part with?” He’d learned a thing or two about negotiating from his father. It was the one thing his mother didn’t think he was hopelessly incompetent at.
“Depends. What’re you willing to take for two cheese buns?”
Cheese buns. Peeta’s throat jammed.
More glances towards the back. Gale shifted his weight from one foot to the other. Peeta heard the heavy slam of the oven doors closing, and he knew his mother would be coming out soon.
“Just the one squirrel’s fine,” he said in undertone. He shoved two cheese buns in a paper bag and handed it to Gale. “But come back later. She usually goes home at two to take a nap, then she’ll be back at four.”
Gale nodded and stuffed the bag into his jacket. His mother must have caught the motion because she jabbed Peeta hard in the ribs in the next instant and it knocked the wind out of him. The woman would have made a fierce competitor in the arena.
“You been giving away the inventory again?”
“I’ll pay you for them, if you’re so worried about them,” he said. The muscle in his jaw tightened. “I’ll even add a little extra for all the trouble.”
His mother sneered. “Don’t you go throwing around your money and showing off. You think you’re better than all of us, is that it?”
He ignored her to help the next customer, a little girl who seemed too tongue-tied to address him directly and merely pointed at a chocolate croissant, then blushed profusely when he handed it to her. He’d just finished waving goodbye to her when his mother leaned in, her breath like poison fire on his ear.
“If you’re harboring any delusions that you have a shot at competing with that… cousin of hers, you’re stupider than I thought,” she said. Peeta’s eyes burned with dry tears, but he fought the impulse to blink them away. “No Seam tramp is going to want you when she could have someone who actually knows what he’s doing.”
Only when she disappeared again into the back did he unclench his fists.
* * *
Asleep. Why didn’t that surprise him?
A pool of soured saliva gathered where Haymitch’s cheek lay smashed up against the table. Peeta smelled a hint of vomit nearby, too; he made sure to watch where he was walking, lest he step in it inadvertently. Only when he came closer did he notice it was all over Haymitch’s clothes, crusted over his stained vest, with bits of regurgitated food stuck in his unwashed hair.
He liked to think he was a compassionate person, but there was no way he was going to be helping Haymitch into the shower this time around.
“Get up,” he said, tossing the bread onto the table—making sure to check for traces of vomit or spilled liquor first. “Haymitch!”
He gave one of the table’s legs a swift kick. The sudden motion made Haymitch jerk awake, and Peeta’s heart shot up straight into his throat as he barely dodged the wide swing of Haymitch’s arm as it slashed into the air with a knife—a serrated one, for good measure—just millimeters where Peeta’s shoulder had been.
Blood throbbing in his ears, Peeta straightened, catching hold of Haymitch’s raised arm as Haymitch made another attempt to wield the knife, until recognition hit his eyes and he registered who was in the room with him. He loosened his grip, and the knife fell onto the table, skidding across until it hit the loaf of bread in the center.
“What do you think you’re doing?” he said, wrenching his arm away from Peeta’s grasp. “I could have killed you!”
“Not with those reflexes,” Peeta said. He was feeling punchy today, and Haymitch was as good a target as any.
“Oh, that’s very funny.” Haymitch stumbled backwards, his balance still a little off.
“I came by to make sure you had some food. Last I checked, alcohol doesn’t qualify for sustenance.”
“Very altruistic of you,” Haymitch grunted. He nodded towards the kitchen counter, which was littered with empty bottles, dishrags soaked with God-knew-what, and… the skinned carcass of a rabbit. “Between the two of you, I haven’t had this much company in years.”
Peeta swallowed hard. She’d been here. Though from the looks of the rabbit—or the smell of it, anyway—it had been at least a day or two since she was.
“These things need to be refrigerated,” he said, shoving the rabbit into the garbage.
“You don’t say.”
“Look, if you’re not even going to bother taking care of yourself-”
“I’m sorry, you’ll have to excuse me if I’m not used to anyone fussing over me, much less two tributes who, let’s face it, I didn’t even think would be around by this time.”
Haymitch rubbed his eyes with the heels of his palms. Peeta thought for a second about just cutting his losses and walking out now, but in the end, that damn compassion of his won out. He walked over to the utensil drawer to get out a knife, then sat down and began slicing into the bread.
“You’ve got to be hungry. When was the last time you ate?”
Haymitch shrugged. “Yesterday sometime. I don’t exactly keep track of these things.”
Peeta shoved a few slices in his direction.
Peeta’s eyes wandered over to the bottle of white liquor in between them. From this angle, it almost looked innocuous, like water, only a little cloudier.
“You ever had any?”
“That,” Haymitch said, nodding towards the bottle. “You’re looking at it like you want some.”
“No, that’s ok.”
Haymitch grinned. “Of course. Sheltered town boy probably wouldn’t dream of having a drop of it-”
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
“Didn’t sound like nothing.”
Haymitch narrowed his eyes. He seemed to be studying Peeta, trying to size him up, trying to figure him out, like a puzzle that needed to be solved. Peeta wasn’t sure whether to be offended or just generally uncomfortable, but he broke the gaze and stared back at the bottle.
“Why do you drink this all the time?”
Haymitch sighed, rubbing at his eyes again. For a long time, he didn’t answer, and Peeta simply assumed he wasn’t going to, until he leaned forward and reached for the bottle, tilting it back and forth, watching the liquid shape-shifting inside.
“Do you dream about it?” he said. He looked up, as though expecting Peeta to ask him to clarify why he meant by it. But Peeta knew exactly what he meant. Any Victor would.
“Then you know why.”
A long stretch of silence followed, then Haymitch said, “What do you dream about the most?”
Peeta hesitated. He knew Haymitch was probably expecting him to say the reaping, or Cato’s sword slicing into his thigh, or the rabid eyes of the Mutts that had chased them into the Cornucopia. And it’s true, those things weaved in and out of his nightmares on a regular basis.
But the nightmare that haunted him the most had nothing to do with any of the things he saw or experienced in the arena. It was that moment on the train, that moment when he’d had to reach for Katniss’s hand and look back into the crowd, pretending he was fine. Pretending that she hadn’t just admitted that everything had been a lie.
And for the first time, he understood Haymitch’s answer. He knew why. This was why.
When he looked back up, he noticed that Haymitch had been watching him this entire time. Without a word, Haymitch pushed the chair back, walked over to the dish rack, and retrieved a glass, then set it down right in front of him and poured the cloudy liquid in it until it was halfway full.
This time, Peeta didn’t refuse it.
* * *
“How much of this did you give him??”
His head was pounding. His head was pounding, and it was heavy, as though his brain had been replaced with a sack of flour.
“Listen, I told him to take it easy-”
“Oh, that’s helpful. Really helpful. Good job mentoring.”
Peeta pried his eyes open. There were two of everything: two glasses, two empty bottles, two Haymitches.
He was going to throw up right then and there.
“Are you all right?”
He tried to answer, but he didn’t think opening his mouth would be a good idea right now. He wasn’t sure what would come spewing out of it.
“He’ll be fine, he just needs to sleep it off.”
“He doesn’t drink this stuff like it’s water, Haymitch.”
“Would you stop acting like I poisoned him?”
Peeta levered himself up on his elbow. His head wasn’t too happy with that motion; the room went into a spinning motion, and he closed his eyes to see if that would help, but when he opened them again, the spinning had only slowed. At least there weren’t two of everything anymore.
“How long have I been out?”
“I’m not sure,” Katniss said. “I’d ask him, but he’s not exactly a reliable judge of time either.” She pressed her lips together. “It’s almost six.”
He groaned before he could stop himself.
“I need to go.”
Standing up wasn’t a good idea, though. His artificial leg caught on one of the table legs, sending him crashing back down on the chair within seconds of raising himself up. Katniss flew to his side and grabbed hold of his arm. He looked down on her hand, and she must have felt the self-consciousness of the moment, because her grip loosened ever so slightly.
“Get him home, would you?” Haymitch said. “He’s in no shape to get there by himself.”
“And whose fault is that?”
“Yeah, yeah, I’m a bad influence. Just make sure he gets there all right.”
Katniss opened her mouth, but closed it before she could say something. She tightened her hold on Peeta’s arm once more and gave him a slight tug to get him upright.
“You think you can manage?” she said.
The truth was, he wasn’t sure. But he wasn’t keen on staying here either, so he was going to get himself to walk out the door, even if he had to resort to crawling out of it.
“Hey, thanks for the bread,” Haymitch called out.
Peeta managed a grin in spite of himself, but didn’t say anything else, instead, concentrating all of his effort into keeping steady on his feet. Katniss was watching him as they walked. He could see her out of the corner of his eye, but didn’t dare look in her direction. They trudged on awkwardly, pausing every few steps for him to stop the world from circling all around him, finally getting to the front door of his house, where Katniss stopped, looking up at him hesitantly. He realized she was waiting for him to hand over his keys.
“You really shouldn’t do that,” she said. “Leave it unlocked like that. You never know who might-”
“Who would bother?”
She brought her brows together to form a deep crease in her forehead. For a second, he thought she might say something like, “You wouldn’t understand,” but she said nothing.
He wouldn’t understand, though. There were a lot of things he didn’t understand, apparently.
She walked him into the living room, depositing him onto the couch. His balance—or lack thereof—threw both of them off, and he was a second too late in releasing his hold on her, taking her down with him when he fell back onto the cushions, her chest flattening against his, their chins almost knocking. He felt her breath on his face, warm and shallow, and her mouth was only inches away. So close, he could easily reach up and press his lips to hers.
She made no move to untangle herself from him. It was at least a minute or two before he jammed his elbow into the cushions to prop himself up, and this seemed to jar her out of the moment as well, as she finally got to her feet.
“I should… you’ll be ok?”
“What are you waiting for? I thought you were in a hurry to leave.”
Pain flashed in her eyes. Peeta regretted his words as soon as he said them. For as much as he hated his mother’s talent for cutting into someone with words, he’d inherited every bit of her skill and then some.
“What do you want from me?” There was a rawness to her voice. A mixture of confusion and pity.
“Nothing you could ever give me, sweetheart.”
Her face grew steely at once. That warrior look he recognized—the huntress afraid of nothing. She reached for the door and threw it open. “You’re a really lousy drunk, you know that?”
The room shook with the slam of the door. Peeta stared at the space where she stood just seconds ago, watching it split into two, then come back to a single image once again, before blurring as the tears came.
The hollow ache in his chest deepened, moving into the pit of his stomach where it dug and dug until it could dig no more, then his stomach gave an almighty clench, and he flung himself forward in the direction of the first floor bathroom, but didn’t make it there before he vomited the entire contents of his stomach.
No Seam tramp is going to want you when she could have someone who actually knows what he’s doing…
What do you dream about the most?
Peeta wretched one more time, until there was nothing else to bring up out of his throat but acid and saliva.
His nightmares would be bad tonight. Trains and caves and hidden cameras and Gale Hawthorne’s lips kissing hers.
He wished he had never reached for her hand on that train.