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Even when you win, you lose

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Peeta knows there is far more to life than the cake he is staring at, but right now, it is the centre of his fourteen year old universe. It has to be. If he doesn't dedicate his mind to dissecting every twist of candy lacing, every placement of silver baubles, working out the exact blue to pink ratio of the swirls of frosting, then he will be thinking about Katniss, and he has promised himself he isn't going to do that. Not today. Today is the day he grows up. "Today," thinks Peeta, "is the day this silly, pathetic, childish crush on a girl who doesn't know I'm alive is over." He does not add "today is the day I become a man", because frankly he feels silly enough about the whole thing already. In any case, this cake is important. It is going to be a masterpiece in baby blue and pink, and it is going to sit in the shop window, and, well, make everyone want to buy cake, he supposes.

She comes over to look at the cakes in the window, sometimes, with her sister...


Of course, that was only the fifth time he'd tried to shake off the crush that had inflated over the years to something the size of district twelve itself. He hadn't known then that it was impossible, that it was going to be with him like some kind of horrible internal scar for ever and ever. Well. Not forever. One way or another, it was going to be over by the end of the games. Even if all the Careers fell in a bear pit and everyone else died of an inexplicable plague, he knew, as he'd known
since he'd looked Katniss in the eye on the stage in District Twelve. He wasn't going to walk out of that arena alive. It was ludicrous. The only reason she would ever have to even recognise him in passing, and he was going to die of it.

One is never as circumspect as one might wish to be. The very first night on the train, Peeta had promised himself that Katniss was Never Ever Going To Know. It was difficult to decide whether this was a selfish decision, which preserved him from ever having to tell her, or whether he was avoiding putting her in an even worse position than she was already in. Much easier to kill a boy you barely recognise than one who's been pining after you since practically your first day of school. Probably. Maybe if he were being truly selfish, he would make her hate him so much she wanted to kill him. After he considered this, he concluded that he was being kind of an idiot. He would settle for never (ever) telling, and that would be that. Except of course it wasn't, because when you are a teenager besotted, it is apparently a little bit...noticable.

In the end, it is Cinna who sits and talks to him. After Portia is done turning him into what will become a human torch (Peeta may be a baker, but he's not entirely certain he's comfortable with becoming one with his oven), Cinna walks in, Peeta presumes to check on her handywork. Portia leaves with a nod to Cinna, which from subtle Portia could have meant anything from "I did the best I could" to "He's a superstar!", and Cinna invites him to sit on the sofa.

"So." He begins, with a genial smile. Katniss' stylist is already more likeable than his own.

"So?" Peeta responds, not entirely certain where the conversation is leading.

"Oh, Portia did a great job, of course. Actually I'm not here to talk about the outfit as much as the staging." He hesitates for a fraction of a second. Peeta pretends not to notice, though he is good at reading other people. He has to be. His mother's temper and his father's unpredictable moods have trained him well.

"There's usually horses, right?" Peeta says, to fill in the gap in conversation. He knows very well there will be horses. There are horses and carriages every year.

"Well yes, but that's not really what I mean. What do you think of Katniss?"

The question is so unexpected that Peeta's carefully prepared stock answer ("I didn't really know her that well, but what she did for her sister was very brave") evaporates in his mouth.

"Uhm. Well, she's. I mean. She looks at the cakes. With her sister. Sometimes." His brain has had absolutely no input here, and he winces at how stupid that sounds. Kicking himself would be a little ridiculous.

She looks at the cakes?! There is a button for everything in the Capitol. Is there one to turn you invisible, or to delete the last thing you said from history. On reflection there probably was, but Cinna does not seem to think the disjointed sentence was that peculiar an answer.

"I see." Cinna pauses again, thoughtfully. "And how long has she been...looking at the cakes?"

To his surprise, Peeta finds himself talking. And talking. He remembers how he pulled on her hair in the first year of school (the reason has been lost to the mists of memory and was perhaps never more than the caprice of a six year old boy) and how she gave him a look of such contempt he was afraid to look in her direction for a month. He remembers more the year her father died, how every day she came to school looking grimmer, and thinner, and more tired. He remembers a teacher throwing a pen at her because she couldn't remember her spelling, another one telling her off for dozing in class. He tries not to remember the night he gave her the bread, because he is so ashamed it was all he could do. He tells Cinna everything anyway. He states often how stupid it all is, and how he has never even spoken to her before now. It is ridiculous, that he is talking about this aloud, in an outfit that is going to be set on fire, to a man wearing golden eyeliner and who is nodding seriously, like his teenage crush is actually worth knowing about.

At the end, when everything has come out, Cinna nods.

"Well, that's certainly something worth considering. Do as I say, when you're out there, alright?"

If he'd known spilling everything to Cinna was going to lead to this, he would have kept his mouth shut. Rule number one. Rule number twenty. The only rule. Katniss must Never Ever Know, was about to be broken. On television. In front of everyone in the world. And it was all his idea. Maybe there had been a few prods from the team, but once he'd come out with it, well, then there was no going back. Cinna had agreed it was going to help her stay alive, and after that, well. The only ending he would ever call happy was one in which Katniss went home.

In the studio, he hears nothing that comes before him, until Katniss is in the chair. He watches her twirl, and falls in love for the seventy-fourth time. He should know how to deal with her by now, how whatever the situation, she is incapable of being anything other than Katniss, but it still knocks him for six. And then he is on. They have rehearsed exactly what he will say and how to say it. Things start off well, he has a bit about bread that has been rehearsed so many times it contains no humour to him, only empty words he is stringing together, but the audience is laughing, and he actually begins to relax. Everything is going well, he is genuinely amused when Caesar actually tries to find out if the shower system has left him smelling floral. And then the thing he knows is going to happen goes and happens. The half cheeky grin one quarter leer one quarter wink expression on Ceasar's face followed by a simple "So, I'm sure the girls at home all want to know the answer to this one. Peeta, do you have a girlfriend?"

Haymitch, in his gruff way gave a few sentences he might want to drop into the conversation. Things about Katniss that would draw the sponsors. Peeta can remember none of them. He is lucky he doesn't talk about how she sometimes looks at his shop window, or just repeat the word cake over and over again and then run out of the room like a maniac screaming about frosting. In the end, all he can do is stammer it out.

"She...came here with me..."

What reaction he is hoping for from Katniss he has no idea (the audience, as everyone expected, has gone wild). He knows she isn't going to fall all over him and declare her undying affection, but he didn't expect to be picking shards of hideous pottery out of his hands. Her contempt makes him, for only the second time in his life, angry with Katniss Everdeen. It isn't fair. It isn't fair at all, and he wants to be the one who was wronged, so he can throw things and shout at people and be so damn angry at the whole damn thing, but really, in the end, the idea all came from him, and his stupid mouth, so he can just take credit, can't he? At least she comes round. And apologises. He tries not to forgive her instantly, but he doesn't seem to have a choice. Afterwards, on the roof, he wants to tell her "I'm not kidding. I really am stupidly in love with you. Haymitch wanted me to tell everyone you had hair like the sun or something! He wanted me to fake it, and I can't fake it because it's real." Instead, they just fight again. She really does think he's playing a game. Fine. If that makes it easier on her, fine. He forgives her again, anyway.

What if, Peeta thinks that night, he had talked to her. Just once. Just one time. If they'd been friends, if she'd just...And now, well. If you put a knife to his throat and forced him to eat peppercakes for the sake of his own survival, he'd probably resent you for it. And even though he was rather partial to peppercakes, if he had to eat them every day, give some kind of sad sick little performance to convince everyone that his love of peppercakes was a beautiful things and worth preserving...After a while, even though he was inclined towards a fondness for peppercakes in the beginning, (it makes Peeta wince a little to think of this, but he knows as he tries and fails to sleep that it's true), well, he'd really fucking hate them by the end, wouldn't he?

The next morning, Peeta sits, not eating, not drinking, waiting for everything to begin, and decides it doesn't matter. Katniss is going to survive the games. She is going to survive if it kills him, and he knows very well that it will.