Actions

Work Header

How Strange, Innocence

Work Text:

“One more time? For the cameras?” he says as the train pulls into the station.

I take his hand, I wave, I see Prim and Gale and my mother among the crowd, beaming with happiness.

None of it feels real. Part of me suspects I am not here at all. I am still in the cave, waiting out the rain, dreaming of this Pyrrhic victory.

The crowd finally disperses, and the cameras switch off. It’s time for Peeta and I to disembark and return to our lives, whatever they are now. I guess those big empty houses wait for us.

He turns without uttering a goodbye, but I hold tight to his hand.

“No,” I say.

He faces me, his brow knit in confusion. I thought I used up all my courage in the arena, but there is still a little left. “This isn’t fair,” I say. “I don’t want it to be like this.”

“None of this is fair, Katniss. What you did…” He takes a breath. “I know you did whatever you had to do to keep us alive, but I thought—”

“I didn’t know,” I begin. “What was real and what wasn’t with you. You were confusing from the start.”

He looks away. His hand, still tightly clasped in mine, is the only thing that feels real right now. I worry if he lets go, I’ll no longer have an anchor holding me here. I’ll wake back up in the arena, and I’ll never, ever escape.

“I don’t want to leave it like this,” I say.

“Like what?”

I shrug because I’m not sure how to put the desperation and fear I feel into words. How do I tell him I miss him already, even though he has yet to leave my side? “I don’t want to say goodbye.”

He meets my gaze, and I lose myself in the clear blue of his eyes, the ones that witnessed the same horrors I did. Does he have nightmares like I do? When he closes his eyes, does he see the dead laid out before him?

“Then we won’t,” he says.

We step off the train, hand in hand.

*

The next day, I sit in his new kitchen, in one of the chairs that has been waiting, unoccupied, for years. I wonder who came beforehand to clean the houses. There are no cobwebs, no obvious signs of age or disuse.

The scent of pine lingers in the house, but it’s the ugly, heavy smell of artificial cleaner. There is no comfort in it.

I try to explain my confusion about what was real and what wasn’t as Peeta sits across from me. I fumble my words as I always do, but a ghost of a smile appears on his face. Everything may not be okay, but for a moment, sitting here with Peeta, it feels possible.

“Most of the time I was sure it was an act. How could it not be? We had never said a word to each other before the Games.” I think back to the cave, his face so close to mine as we burrowed into the sleeping bag. I remember the way he kissed me, how I wanted more.

Is that love? To feel comfort and warmth and safety? To disappear into another person even if it is only for a moment?

My mother disappeared for much longer than that.

“Did you want it to be an act?” he asks.

“That’s not a fair question. I barely knew you. I still don’t.” His confession on stage at the interviews dazzled the audience, while it filled me with rage. My instinct told me he was using me, making me look weak. In the end, it was the confession that saved us.

“I didn’t want you to be a liar. But I wanted us to live. Both of us,” I say.

I try to sift through all the thoughts in my head, all the things I want to say. At every turn, I confront a contradicting thought. My head hurts, and I don’t want to talk about this anymore. But I will if it means I get to keep him.

“How do you really feel?” he asks.

“I told you, in the cave I did what I thought Haymitch wanted.”

“No, I mean now. How do you feel now?” His palms are flat against the table. I stare at them, my gaze trailing up his arms, and I remember how safe they made me feel. I wonder if they still would.

“How much did you mean?” I ask. I think of his words, how easy and heartfelt they sounded.

“Everything.” He is raw, open, exposed. It’s different now. Before he thought I cared, that I was falling too. Now he knows I was just playing a part. But still he holds nothing back.

“I…I’m afraid,” I confess.

“Of what?”

“Losing you.” It’s the simplest, easiest truth. I cannot describe in what way or why, only that I feel it, huge and overwhelming. It’s almost as big as the fear I feel toward the Capitol. Almost as if they are one in the same.

He reaches for me, and I do not hesitate. I grab his hand.

“I don’t want to lose you either,” he says. “But I don’t want to pretend anymore. I can’t.”

“Then we won’t. Not here. Not when it’s just us,” I say.

“And when it’s time for the Victory Tour? For the next Games?”

“The star-crossed lovers are parts we play. We can talk beforehand, write the scenes ourselves.” I squeeze his hand. “No more surprises. No more questioning the other’s motive.”

He nods. I still haven’t explained how I feel, but he doesn’t press me.

We sit in a huge house full of rooms that will never be used, but it’s no different from the cave. It’s still me and him, us against them. We have to protect each other.

*

Peeta eats dinner at my house nearly every night. He always brings dessert: red velvet cupcakes, raspberry cheesecake, peanut butter and chocolate chip cookies.

We play cards with Prim or read beside each other on the couch. He stays as late as my mother allows. Then, he hugs me goodbye and disappears into the dark.

He’s alone in that big house. It’s the same size as mine, the same layout, except I have my family with me. I have their laughter and their warmth and their conversation. I have their love. Even my mother watches me carefully as if worried what will befall me if she lets me out of her sight again.

Every night, after the house quiets, I stare at the ceiling, my eyes heavy with exhaustion, but I fight it until I can’t anymore.

The nightmares are vivid. Every night I return to the arena, but it’s bigger, darker than I remember.

I wake up screaming, tears spilling down my cheeks, my nightgown soaked with sweat. My mother and Prim do everything they can think of to comfort me. Finally, I beg them to move their bedrooms to the opposite side of the house. I take the one farthest away. I lock my door, and I burrow myself under the covers despite the heat.

I cannot allow them to comfort me. They always accompany me into the arena when I fall back asleep. Prim takes Rue’s place, and I cannot save her. I can’t save any of them.

One night, nearly a month after arriving home, I allow my mother to give me sleeping pills. She promises relief, tells me they will knock me into a dreamless sleep. Finally, I will know peace.

A couple of hours later I claw my way out of a nightmare. I wake tangled in my sheets, breathing heavy.

I killed Rue.

The dream was so vivid that it bleeds into memory, and I cannot remember what is real and what is not.

In the dead of night, I leave my house and rush over to Peeta’s. I knock on his door, and he answers seconds later. A white apron is tied around his waist, and his arms are coated in flour. I throw myself at him.

“Did I kill her? Was it my arrow?”

He rubs my back, tries to follow my desperation.

“Who? What do you mean?”

“Rue,” I say. “Did I kill her?”

Would I do that to survive? If it was the only way home to Prim, would I make an ally and cut her throat as she slept? There is so much blood on my hands. I’m a killer, a liar.

Peeta pulls back and pushes a sweaty lock of hair behind my ear. “Marvel killed Rue,” he said.

I squeeze my eyes shut, but I cannot conjure up the image, at least not the real one. I remember sitting with Peeta, practically in his lap, as we watched the recap on screen. Marvel threw the spear. I shot my arrow into Marvel. An eye for an eye, I guess.

“You covered her in flowers,” Peeta says. “Do you remember?”

I nod. This I can picture. There is no projection of it to muddle my memory as the Capitol did not screen it for the country. I sang to her, wove flowers into her hair. I remember.

“Come inside,” he says and shuts the door. “Sorry about that.” He points at my nightgown. I’m covered in flour, white as a ghost.

“You’re awake.” It’s an obvious thing to say, but he recognizes the unasked question.

“I have trouble sleeping at night,” he says.

“Me too.”

I follow him into kitchen and sit in front of the counter. He dusts his hands with flour and resumes kneading the dough.

All the windows are open, the cool breeze alleviating some of the heat rolling off the oven. The scent of fresh bread fills the room, and my stomach rumbles.

He tilts his head toward a basket where a loaf of bread is cooling. “Have some,” he says. “Be careful. It’s hot.”

I ignore his warning and rip off a hunk. I pass it from hand to hand, my fingertips burning. I take a bite and chew despite the heat. It feels good, almost. The pain reminds me I’m not dreaming.

I watch him work in silence as I finish my piece of bread. He sticks the dough onto the second shelf of the refrigerator before removing another bowl of dough. He preps it for baking and sticks it in the oven. Then, he washes his hands before sitting down beside me.

“Have you unpacked yet?” I blurt out. I’m not sure why. It was the first thing to pop into my mind. Last week, he admitted that despite packing up all his belongings from his childhood home, he never put them away. They sit in boxes and a couple of duffel bags upstairs in his bedroom.

“Not yet,” he admits sheepishly.

“Let’s do it now.”

“Now? At two in the morning?”

“It’s okay to bake at two in the morning but not unpack?”

He smiles, and warmth floods my chest, like I’ve swallowed a mouthful of the hot oven air. It’s sort of like the piece of bread I forced down; a sweet, pleasant kind of burning.

“You’re right,” he says. “Let’s do it now.”

I follow him upstairs, suddenly aware that I am headed for his bedroom. I will help him sort his personal belongings. Have I crossed some sort of line? He doesn’t seem to mind if I have.

He hands me a duffel bag, and I unzip it to find a wrinkled mess of clothing inside. I dump it onto the bed. I pick up each item of clothing, shake it out, and fold it. I separate his shirts from his pants from his pajamas. When he isn’t looking, I hold his clothes close and inhale their scent. Some smell like the soap he uses, clean and fresh. Other articles smell like the bakery, of cinnamon and dill and sugar.

I can’t decide which scent I prefer.

In the arena, we both smelled of damp and sweat and desperation. Lately, I catch his scent when we sit side by side on my couch, or he helps me in the kitchen.

My traitorous mind whispers to me that I should steal one of his shirts, wear it at night, pretend I am once more wrapped in his arms. I quickly squash the thought.

Once his clothes are sorted, he puts them away in his dresser or hangs them up in the closet. It doesn’t take too long, not with two people working together.

All that’s left is a couple of cardboard boxes. I suspect they’re full of wrestling trophies and other high school memorabilia, books and pictures of his family. I don’t dare touch it without his permission though. These belongings are more personal, more precious than clothes.

“I’ll be right back. I need to take the bread out of the oven.”

I nod, suddenly realizing how exhausted I am. I sit on his bed. It’s soft, like mine. I lay back, delighted to discover the pillows smell like Peeta, and I wonder if the sheets do too. I restrain myself from burrowing under the covers, but I do curl up in a ball. My eyes and limbs grow heavy. Sleep is a heavy smoke, crawling across the room, settling over me.

I try to resist, but I think I will be okay if I close my eyes. Peeta will be back in a few minutes. He will wake me.

I stir when a weight settles over me - a blanket, maybe? There’s the feel of a warm hand brushing the hair off my face.

Then, I tumble back into the dark.

*

I wake a couple of hours later to find myself asleep in Peeta’s bed. There is the faraway thought that my mother may notice my absence, but surprisingly, I don’t care.

I take off the blanket wrapped around me and venture into the next room where I find Peeta asleep. I lift the comforter and settle beneath it. I inch closer to him, but keep some distance between us.

I think of the cave, the sleeping bag, how close we slept beside each other then. I move closer.

Closer.

He stirs and rolls over, so he faces me. I slide my fingers the rest of the way and brush his.

He smiles in his sleep.

*

I no longer fall asleep in my own bedroom. I wait there, quietly, as the noises in my household fade: water running, toilets flushing, doors closing.

Then, I sneak out. I no longer have to knock. His door is always unlocked.

Sometimes, I watch him bake. Other times, he sketches, and I curl into his side with a book. Or we just head directly to bed, the exhaustion of the day a step behind us on the stairs.

It takes time - days, weeks, but eventually we fall asleep with our arms wrapped around each other, his heartbeat steady and constant in my ear.

The nightmares don’t stop. I don’t think they ever will. But they’re easier to deal with when I have someone else beside me. I don’t worry about bringing him back into my dreams when I fall asleep. He’s already a main fixture there.

He listens when I describe all the ugly sights, things both real and not. I dream of rivers of blood, of snarling mutts with soft, little girl eyes. I dream of my voice, lost, when Prim’s name is called.

I dream of Peeta, bleeding out on top of the Cornucopia. Cold hands, stiff limbs, arms that will never hold me again.

I wake screaming.

But he is always there to comfort me.

*

One month before the Victory Tour, Effie visits. She announces that she will teach us to dance, so we don’t embarrass ourselves (or her) at the parties they throw in our honor.

Effie shows Peeta where to place his hand on the small of my back. His palm is hot. I can feel it through the material of the dress Effie forced me into. He clasps my hand with his free one and we glide around his living room, in front of the furniture he pushed aside.

Effie shows us steps to different Capitol dances, but I like the first way, the plain way, the best. There are no steps to memorize or rules to follow. We just dance.

We give her a hard time, going left when we are meant to go right. I step on Peeta’s foot, sometimes by accident, sometimes not. When Effie finally grows tired of us, she excuses herself to Haymitch’s, which makes Peeta and I laugh.

She will find him unconscious and unresponsive if she’s lucky. If she’s not, he’ll be awake, drunk, and irritable. We wish her luck.

“Do you want to practice again?” Peeta asks.

If Effie asked me, I would have refused, but I find it difficult to say no to Peeta. Not when his arms are open, welcoming me to step into them.

“There’s no music,” I say. Effie shut it off before storming off in a huff.

“I’ll hum,” he says.

Somehow, we end up closer than we did in front of Effie. His hand dips lower on my back, not enough to touch anything he shouldn’t, but it feels more daring. Dancing with Peeta without an audience is oddly intimate, somehow more so than falling asleep in his arms.

Peeta hums a song I recognize, a happy tune the fiddlers play at the Harvest Festival. I join in. He goes quiet and leads me around the room, moving to the music I create.

We are so close, I cannot see him. My cheek rests against his chest. I open my mouth and close my eyes and sing the words. We move in a small, steady circle. I can hear his heartbeat, feel his breath ruffle my hair.

I realize as the song ends that I am happy. These days it’s rare that I feel it so acutely, like a fluttering in my chest. I return to humming, afraid that if I stop, Peeta will too.

“Katniss?”

I look up at him, and I don’t understand the way he looks at me. I try to decode each emotion one at a time, but all I get is happiness and sadness, yearning and fear. Contradictions.

I stand on my tiptoes and press my lips against his. It’s a brief, whisper of a kiss. A warm sensation runs through me, all the way down to my toes.

There is no more movement. My hand is still outstretched, clasped in his, while my other hand is wrapped around his back.

“I’m sorry,” I say.

“Don’t be. Not unless you didn’t mean it.”

“I meant it.”

He dips his head, and I kiss him again. He drops my hand and curls his fingers into my hair, and I do not think of the kisses in the cave, or the hand-holding we did on the train.

I think only of now because this is for us. Only us.

*

I worry it will be awkward when we go to sleep that night. I worry he will expect more kissing, and I’m not sure if I’m ready to do something so intimate in bed with him.

My worries are misplaced. Nothing is different at bedtime except the fluttering in my stomach and the heat between my thighs, as he wraps his arm around my waist.

“Peeta?”

I can tell his eyes are closed, that he is on the edge of sleep, but he buries his face in my neck and makes a noise.

“I think we should practice dancing more.”

“Effie’s gone home,” he says. “We don’t have to. If you don’t want to.”

“I want to,” I say.

*

Sometimes, Peeta puts on music. Other times, I sing. We glide around his living room. We even practice the steps of the Capitol dances, including an antiquated one called “The Waltz.”

We kiss until the world stops. It drains away and leaves behind only us and the sound of music. When he pulls me back onto the couch, I let him. I sit in his lap and explore the skin beneath his shirt. He is careful, so careful when he touches me. Always slowly, tentatively, as if I frighten easily.

Maybe he’s right. Maybe I do.

We kiss until the world doesn’t seem as horrible as we both know it to be. We kiss until the arena isn’t a memory but a vivid nightmare, and we pretend that we can both forget.

*

Gale’s kiss in the snow surprises me. No sooner does he touch his lips to mine than I pull away. It feels wrong, like a betrayal.

“I’m sorry,” he says. “I had to do that at least once.”

“Don’t do it again,” I say.

I turn to leave, but he grabs my hand. “Is it because of him?”

I know he refers to Peeta, but I play dumb. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

“I saw you, you know. Coming out of his house just before dawn. What are you doing over there?”

My cheeks flush. “That’s none of your business.”

“I thought you said the two of you were an act.”

“We were. Are.” I hesitate. I hate these words, trying to define what Peeta and I are. Why can’t we just be?

“Do you love him?”

“I need to go,” I tell him. “I have to pack. The Tour starts tomorrow.”

“Right. Another two weeks away with him.”

I’m mad all of a sudden at how little understanding I get from Gale. I invented a relationship with Peeta in order to come home. Now I must go on the Victory Tour, a requirement as a victor. There is so little choice in my life, and I don’t appreciate Gale trying to force something else on me.

“I’ll see you when I get back,” I say curtly.

I go home, and Snow is waiting for me.

*

As soon as Snow is gone, I rush over to Peeta’s home. The door is unlocked, but he isn’t there. I pace the living room. I push aside the furniture. I unbraid and braid my hair.

Finally, Peeta walks in. He freezes in the entryway, surprised to see me. When he notices the arrangement of his furniture, he smiles.

“More practicing?” he asks.

I launch myself at him, arms threading around his neck, and kiss him. I waste no time before deepening the kiss and pressing my body against his. I unbutton his peacoat and push it off his shoulders. He moans into my mouth, and I savor the sound, the taste.

“What’s wrong?” he asks, suddenly pulling away.

“Nothing.” I resume the kiss and tug at his sweater. He pulls it over his head and falls back onto the couch, where I settle against his lap.

“Katniss, wait. What’s going on?”

He’s breathing heavy. I can’t meet his eyes. I trace his abdominal muscles through his thin white t-shirt and say, “Don’t you want me?”

“Yes,” he says. “God, of course.”

“You can have me.” I grind against his lap. The feeling is so good, so startling, that I do it again. Now I’m the one moaning as I move against him. My sweater comes off next, thrown somewhere across the room followed by my tank top.

Peeta’s eyes grow large as he stares at my bra. I take his hand and lead it to the clasp in the back, but he pulls away.

“No,” he says. “This isn’t you. What happened? What’s wrong?”

I hate that he knows me, can see right through me. I hate that I want this almost as much as I don’t. I don’t want to be forced to love a boy, but is it so bad if the feelings are there? That’s the problem, I realize. I don’t know my own feelings. It’s hard to discern what is real and what’s not when it’s tainted by threats of blood and violence.

“Peeta,” I say.

“I’m not that strong,” he says. “I can’t keep saying no. Tell me.” He rests his forehead against mine. His breath is warm against the top of my breasts. I find that I still want him to remove my bra. I want to feel his mouth against my skin.

I want this morning to never have happened.

In the end, I bury my face in his chest and just breathe. Peeta waits in silence.

Then, I tell him everything.

*

In our first televised interview before we leave for the Victory Tour, Peeta and I giggle like children with a secret. He keeps his arm wrapped around my waist as Caesar asks us question after question. We give each other a chaste kiss for the camera. When we pull away, our gazes meet and we kiss again, more intensely this time. Caesar has to call our names twice before we remember where we are.

Peeta is good at this. I’m alright if I follow his lead and rehearse with him beforehand.

When we reach District 11, I desperately want to say something about Thresh, about Rue, but I know what is at stake if I stray from Effie’s cards. I hold Peeta’s hand and let him do all the talking. He acknowledges their deaths briefly, but the speech is mostly about the generosity of the Capitol and our love story.

The crowd is sullen, silent.

We move on.

*

Haymitch praises us, but he says it’s not enough.

I suggest a wedding. It is inevitable anyway. Every year, Peeta and I will be mentors to the next batch of tributes. We will give updates on our lives, our love. A wedding is the only option besides death.

Peeta agrees, but his voice is hollow, his expression blank. I follow him out of the room to the back of the train.

“What’s wrong?” I ask.

“A wedding? Really?” he responds.

“Do you have any other ideas?” I sit beside him, close enough that our knees touch. A part of me thinks I should give him some space, both physical and otherwise, but I like our closeness. I like that I have permission to sit as close to him as I’d like. I can touch his arm or hold his hand. At night, I can explore the skin beneath his shirt. I’m learning every inch of him.

“No,” he admits. “But you and I...married? That’s for life. That’s real.”

“I know.”

“Do you?” He sighs and runs a hand through his hair. “You don’t even want to get married.”

“I don’t want a lot of things that I have now.”

Hurt flashes across his face, and I hurry to explain. “Not you, Peeta. That’s not...I meant the house. The money. The obligation to the Capitol. The title of victor.”

He doesn’t believe me, so I grab his hand and kiss him. “This, here, right now. It’s for me. For us. There’s no audience.”

“It’s all just practice, isn’t it? So we convince them?”

“No,” I say. “It’s what I want.”

He touches my braid, threading a few strands between his fingers. “I never know with you,” he confesses. “I don’t...I’m never sure.”

I press my mouth against his, run my tongue across his lips. I push him down on the couch and lie on top of him. Instead of slipping my hand beneath his shirt as I usually do, I head south and brush against him through his pants. He pulls away immediately.

“I didn’t say that because I wanted you to do this,” he said. “I don’t want to force you into doing anything you don’t want.”

“That’s it though. You can’t. We’re telling each other the truth now, remember?” I trace the shape of his erection, and he groans. I undo his belt. “I want to touch you.”

He lowers his mouth back to mine. Time slips away.

*

By the time we reach the Capitol, we have used every possible synonym for the words love, fortunate, and gratitude. We are the poster children for the Capitol. We are grateful, so grateful, that they allowed us both to live.

Every district featured a quiet, unresponsive crowd. Some wore angry expressions, their rage simmering just below the surface. Others didn’t care what we said. They just wanted it to end.

When Peeta kneels down in front of me on the stage of Caesar Flickerman’s show, my stomach performs a perfect flip. I know it’s not real - or not as real as everyone thinks. I know that I have no desire to get married, yet my body betrays me. Excitement buzzes under my skin, and I realize I am happy. If I must get married, I am relieved it is to Peeta. To someone so kind and thoughtful and handsome. To someone I enjoy kissing. To someone I can imagine a future with.

And it’s enough. While President Snow does not speak directly with me, he sends a few nods my way, and as he lifts his glass to toast his guests, we lock eyes.

We’ve done it. We have convinced him, convinced the Capitol. I doubt we have convinced the districts, but they are quiet, uncaring. Whatever spark I ignited has died out.

I am relieved.

But a part of me feels hollow. Not sad or disappointed or anything, really. Just empty, as if I lost something along the way.

*

The day after we arrive home after the Victory Tour, Gale knocks on Peeta’s front door.

“Your mother said you were over here,” Gale says to me over Peeta’s shoulder.

“Hi Gale,” Peeta says in exasperation. “Please come in.”

“I need to speak with Katniss. Alone.”

Peeta looks over at me where I stand in front of the couch. Our card game lies on the coffee table, unfinished. Peeta has been teaching me all the games he knows. My favorite right now is one called Spit. It has a ridiculous name, but it’s fun, and I’ve gotten quite good in a short amount of time.

“I’ll be right back,” I tell Peeta and step outside onto the porch.

As soon as the door is shut, Gale turns to me and asks, “You’re getting married?”

“That’s the rumor.”

“You’ve told me for years that you didn’t want to get married. Now suddenly, a few months with him, and you’ve completely changed your mind?”

“Come on,” I say, grabbing his hand. “Let’s go for a walk.”

Maybe I’m paranoid, but I’m worried that the houses in Victors’ Village are bugged. I guess overhearing this conversation doesn’t matter when Snow doesn’t truly believe our relationship is real, but I’d rather not give him or anyone else a reason to be upset with me.

I drop Gale’s hand as soon as he falls into step beside me.

“We have to get married,” I say quietly. “This is how it has to be.”

“Why? Why is this the only way?”

“Snow threatened me.”

This makes Gale stop. He steps in front of me, concerned etched across his face.

“And you,” I continue. “And Prim and my mother. Everyone I care about.”

“What? He’ll kill us if you don’t get married?”

“He said I needed to convince him. Of my relationship with Peeta. We decided marriage was the best way.”

“We who?”

“Peeta and I.”

“Of course Peeta thought you should get married. He’s in love with you.”

“Gale, I don’t know what you want me to say. This is how it is.”

“Do you love me?” he asks.

“What?” The words sound familiar yet foreign, like from a language I used to know. I’m not sure how to respond.

“We could run away,” he says. “You, me, our families. We can leave the district. Then you wouldn’t have to get married. There’d be no threat.”

“There’d always be a threat,” I say. “How far would we get? How long could we survive? How long before they find us?”

“I love you,” he says.

My heart breaks at how earnest he is. I want to tell him I love him too. I wish I could. I hate to see him hurt, and yet, I can’t. I don’t.

“I’ll do whatever it takes to be with you.”

“I can’t leave Peeta,” I say. “If we left, they’d kill him. His family.”

“And that’s the only reason?” Gale asks.

“He’s important to me,” I say. “I could never just leave him behind.”

“You never answered me,” Gale says.

“I....” Words fail me. I wish I am back inside Peeta’s home, playing cards, laughing the afternoon away. I know this is a defining moment in our relationship. My answer will split it into a definitive before and after.

Finally, I say, “I don’t. Not the way you want me to. I’m sorry.”

“You were only supposed to be gone for two weeks,” Gale says. “Not forever.”

“I’m still here. I’m still me, and you’re still you. Nothing has to change.”

“Everything already has.”

*

When we are not in the Capitol posing for pictures or trying on outfits for the wedding, Peeta and I are in District 12. Technically, I still live with my mother and Prim. I will not move two houses down to Peeta’s home until after we are officially wed, but I spend more and more time over there. I still sleep there every night.

My mother is happy for us, although a little worried about us marrying so young. We’re to marry just before the Quarter Quell, only a couple of weeks after my seventeenth birthday.

Almost every night, Peeta and I practice dancing. We can’t even call it practice anymore. Moving with him is easy and effortless. We glide around the room, making up our own steps to songs I sing.

“Was that story true?” I ask one night a couple of months after the Victory Tour as we sway side to side. “The one about you hearing me sing when we were kids.”

“Yes,” he says. “I love your voice.”

I look up at him and smile. I don’t wear my engagement ring around the house, but I often glance at him and remember that we’ll be married soon. Sometimes I feel afraid, but the fear fades away quickly. There is no reason to be afraid with Peeta.

“I remember your wrestling matches,” I tell him. “I remember your match against James Everett.”

“You do?”

I rest my head against his chest, close my eyes, and picture it. It was one of the few I attended. I sat with Madge who told me what a jerk James was. He was badmouthing Peeta all day and bragging about the beating he would give him. In the end, he tapped out after Peeta got him into a chokehold thirty seconds into the first round.

Peeta’s brother, Rye, got the wrestling team to carry Peeta on their shoulders. It was an amazing afternoon for him.

“I’m surprised you remember that,” Peeta says.

“I remember more than you think.”

“Yeah?”

“I always noticed you,” I say. “You were so nice to everyone. And you were always smiling and surrounded by friends. But it wasn’t until after the bread that I started keeping track of you.”

He presses his palm flat against the small of my back. I drop his hand and wrap my arms around his waist. He is warm and smells clean, like fresh laundry and soap. I’m not sure when we stopped moving, but we now stand stationary in the middle of his living room. I don’t want to move. I never want to let go.

“I was so upset when you were reaped,” I confess. “I wanted it to be anyone but you.”

“Why?” he asks in a voice so quiet, I can barely hear him.

“Because you’re you. How could I kill someone so kind and generous? Someone who saved my life? You didn’t deserve it. You didn’t deserve any of it.”

I think of his prosthetic and how it must pain him when we dance too long. But he never complains. He just spins me and dips me and asks me to sing once more.

“You didn’t deserve it either,” Peeta says. “No one does.”

I can feel the danger in our words, so I just nod against his chest.

“I don’t think I would have survived without you,” I say.

“I know I wouldn’t have without you.”

“I’m sorry,” I say. “About your leg. It was my fault.”

“You know I would have died otherwise. You know there was no other way.” He runs a hand through my hair. “Thank you,” he says, “for saving my life.”

Whatever I feel is too big, too much. It overpowers me, and if I didn’t kiss him in that moment, I would have cried instead. I try to convey everything I feel in that one kiss, but I know it’s not enough. His hand slips down my back and cups my ass, and I want more. I need to give him more.

I undo his belt, and he grabs my wrists.

“Katniss,” he warns.

“I mean it,” I tell him. “I mean everything I do with you.”

I pull his pants and boxer briefs down as I kneel in front of him. I’m nervous, but I can do this. I want to do this. I want him to understand how much he means to me, that I’d do anything to make him happy.

I wonder if one action can convey an apology and gratitude and love all at once.

I carefully run my finger down his length. It feels smooth, like the silk trim on my new dresses. I take him into my mouth, and he lets out a groan of approval. At first, it is too much, and I nearly gag. I place my hand at the bottom of his shaft and slowly, I bob my head up and down. He grabs my shoulder as if to steady himself. His other hand disappears into my hair.

“Can you--can you move your hand too?” he gasps.

I comply. My hand chases my mouth, and he sighs, pulling my hair slightly. I barely know what I’m doing, having only overheard girls talking at school about what they do at the slag heap. But it seems to be working. On a whim, I hollow out my cheeks and suck harder. He palms the back of my head, forcing his cock deeper into my mouth. He realizes what he’s done the next second, and relaxes his grip.

“I’m going--I’m going to come.”

I move my hand faster, my tongue swirling along his length. The first spurt hits the back of my throat. I force myself to wait until he’s finished, then I pull away and swallow it all in one gulp.

I wipe my mouth and turn away, suddenly shy. He shuffles backward and pulls up his underwear and pants. I listen to the jingle of his belt and as he fastens it.

He kneels down in front of me, and I finally meet his gaze.

“Was that okay?” I ask.

“It was perfect,” he says. “It was...god, Katniss. You...”

He surprises me with a kiss. I thought he’d be grossed out, but he doesn’t hesitate to slip his tongue into my mouth.

“You’re a painter,” I say when he pulls away. “You’re a baker. You like to sleep with the windows open. You never take sugar in your tea. And you always double-knot your shoelaces.”

He stares at me, his lips parted, as if he wants to say something but can’t.

“I notice you,” I say. “I notice everything about you.”

“I’m glad it was me,” he whispers. “At the reaping. I’m glad we were together.”

It’s true and it isn’t. I’m relieved I’m alive, and I know I would not have survived without him, but I also regret he had to go through the Games at all.

This is a new, strange thought. If I could have kept him out of the Games at the expense of my own life, would I have done it? Would I make the ultimate sacrifice to keep him safe?

I’m not sure about then, but I know about now. If it came down to me or him, I’d choose him over and over. Always.

But I don’t know how to tell him this, so I kiss him again. We curl up together on the couch and kiss and kiss, and for a little while, happiness is within my grasp. It’s easy, obtainable. It’s his arms around me, and his mouth on mine.

For a little while, happiness is all I know.

*

“For this year, our third Quarter Quell, as a reminder that loyalty lies with the Capitol before everything, including blood, we will be reaping two members of the same family.”

I lean forward on the couch, not understanding what President Snow has just said. I can’t.

“Families with at least two children between the ages of twelve and eighteen will be entered into the reaping. One family name will be selected. If more than two children in the family are eligible, then it is up to the children to determine which two will enter the Games. Remember, it is an honor to represent your district as tribute. May the odds be ever in your favor.”

“Rye,” I say. “He’s…”

“Eighteen. Tyler’s twenty.”

I am relieved until the next moment when I remember Gale’s family. Rory. Vick. They’re eligible. They’re…

“This is a punishment,” I say quietly. “This is for me.”

A Siblings Quarter Quell the year after I nearly sacrificed everything to save my sister. This isn’t a coincidence. But I convinced Snow. Peeta and I quelled the unrest in the districts. He can’t pick the Hawthornes. He won’t.

I lean into Peeta’s side and close my eyes.

“What are we going to do?” I ask.

“There’s nothing we can do.”

*

With the exception of my mother and Prim, no one from home attends the wedding. It is an extravagant affair that passes quickly. One of my stylists - the trio blurs together - keeps handing me glasses of pink drinks, and soon even I am having a good time. In Peeta’s arms, I can ignore the garish decorations, the gilded people, and we just dance.

We are married.

We are husband and wife.

Everything has changed, and yet nothing has. Hadn’t we long ago accepted the fact that we’d be together forever? It was the only way to save our families. Our entire lives stretch before us, the promise of watching our tributes die, of thinly veiled threats from Snow to get whatever he wants, the demand of children to raise for the slaughter.

But for now, drunk and sparkling and wild, I am happy. I almost believe it can last forever.

*

That night, when we settle into our hotel suite together, I tell Peeta I’m not ready to have sex. He assures me it’s alright before kissing a trail down my body. He pushes my flimsy nightgown up until it’s bunched around my waist before pressing a kiss to the inside of my thigh. I realize his intention a second before he dips his tongue into my folds, and I gasp, squeezing my thighs together.

“Is this okay?” he asks.

I hide my face beneath my arm but nod vigorously. He returns his attention to the space between my legs, and my head spins. When he mouth finds my clit, I gasp, and my hands reach for him, blindly. I run my fingers through his hair as I writhe against his mouth.

His name falls from my lips. I chant it, sing it, until I see stars burst behind my eyelids. A delicious, almost unbearable kind of pleasure runs the length of my body, but he doesn’t stop, not until I beg him too. He crawls up the bed, and I kiss him.

“There are plenty of other things we can do until you’re ready,” he says. “There’s no rush. We have nothing but time.”

*

President Snow doesn’t attend our wedding brunch the next day, but he requests my presence sans Peeta immediately afterward. One guard waits outside the door. Another stands in the corner of the room, pretending not to listen.

“You’re married now,” he says by way of greeting. “There are certain expectations that come with being someone’s wife.”

I don’t follow his line of thinking. Did I not play the part well enough? Most of the time, being with Peeta doesn’t feel like acting. I don’t understand how I could have failed.

“You’re to consummate the marriage,” Snow reminds me.

I blanch at his words, suddenly cold. I reach down by my side as if searching for a hand that isn’t there.

“We did,” I say.

“Miss Everdeen, we agreed not to lie to each other. There’s no reason to start now.”

“Do you have cameras in our--our…?” My stomach tightens. I taste bile in my throat.

“I know everything that goes on in this country. Don’t forget that.”

“Of course,” I whisper. Of course. Everything Peeta and I do, have ever done, is recorded. No matter what privacy we think we have, nothing will ever truly be just for us. “I understand.”

“Good. In a few years, the Capitol will expect children.”

He’s goes silent after this, his attention returning to a stack of documents on his desk. I stare at him in disbelief.

“Is that it?” I ask. “That’s all you wanted?”

“Yes,” he says, eyebrows raised. “Unless there is something you required?”

Of course. He knows what thought has been on my mind other than the wedding. He’s waiting for me to say it.

“The Quell,” I begin. “That was your idea.”

He smiles a wide, ugly grin. “That’s quite the accusation.”

“I don’t care if it’s true or not. I’m just worried.”

“About your cousins?” he asks.

I hate the way he says it, the implication in his tone. “Yes.”

“You’re worried their name will be called?”

“I’m worried the reaping will be fixed,” I say, my voice surprisingly strong. I don’t know where this bravery has come from, but I cling to it.

“I could guarantee their name won’t be entered into the reaping at all. How does that sound?”

Guilt runs through me, but I quickly squash it. I no longer care about what is fair and what is not. Nothing about this situation, this country is fair. I’m only playing by Snow’s rules.

“What do I have to do?”

“Have dinner tonight with the new Head Gamemaker.”

“What?” Surely, I misheard him.

“You and Peeta will be dining with Ecken Elliott tonight. You will be kind, patient, and accommodating. If you do well with him, then you won’t have to worry about the Hawthornes.”

“That’s it?”

“That’s it. I hope you and Peeta will make him very happy. He’s been eager to meet you.”

“We can do that,” I promise.

“Ecken will be at your suite at six tonight. Please be ready.”

“Of course,” I say. I wonder what the catch is. Perhaps Ecken will force us to relive our games or share favorites stories of past arenas.

“Remember, Miss Everdeen, there are consequences to not doing as I ask.”

“I know,” I tell him. I don’t need to be reminded.

*

Peeta is skeptical about my arrangement with President Snow but ultimately agrees.

“There must be some sort of catch,” he says.

“I know, but what is it?” I answer. “Maybe he’ll want some insight on the new arena?”

“No, he can’t share anything with us. We’re mentors now.”

I shudder at the thought.

“The victors who attended the wedding are having a late lunch together. Do you want to come?”

The idea of being around people sounds exhausting. I wonder what value Peeta sees in associating with victors. Perhaps he is looking for advice on how to mentor? Haymitch certainly won’t be any help. But these people are monsters, aren’t they? Killers, liars, hunters.

I wonder what value Peeta sees in spending time with me.

“I think I’ll stay behind and take a nap before dinner tonight,” I decide.

“Are you sure? Some of them are really nice.”

I remind myself that these victors were tributes once. And before that, they were just children, trying to survive. It’s hard to reconcile the two images. I can’t think about the way I looked or the things I did just a year ago without my stomach turning.

Once upon a time, I was someone else entirely.

“Have fun,” I say and without thinking, lean over and kiss his cheek. He looks at me, startled.

“What?” I ask.

“You -- nothing. It’s just...that felt very married.”

“We are married.”

“I know. Sorry. Never mind.” He pulls me into his arms. “I’ll see you later, okay?”

I nod. As soon as he’s gone, I crawl into bed and fall fast asleep.

I wake hours later with a little time before our dinner guest. I shower and select a sleeveless green dress hanging in the suite’s closet. Octavia flutters in moments later with a tight smile.

“Oh, you’re already dressed,” she says. “You’re to wear the red one.” She disappears into the closet and pulls out a long, sleeveless red dress cut deeply down the middle. I know better than to argue, so I slip it on. The neck plunges down past my breasts, stopping finally at my belly button. Octavia asks me to take off my bra so the material doesn’t show.

“Are you sure I can’t wear the green?” I ask.

“Mr. Elliott requested red,” she says simply. “Now, let me fix your hair.”

I sit and fiddle with the edges of my top, stretching them as far over my breasts as I can manage. As Octavia curls my hair, leaving it down in soft waves, a bad feeling washes over me. I look at the clock and hope for Peeta’s quick return. He’ll need to get ready too.

After Octavia leaves, I pace the room until there’s a knock on the door. My heart sinks. Peeta has a key. He wouldn’t have to knock.

Anger runs through me, but I bury it. Peeta must have a good reason for being late. I just hope Mr. Elliott will not count Peeta’s tardiness against us.

Ecken Elliott looks to be in his mid-thirties, younger than I expected for a Head Gamemaker. His eyes are unnaturally dark, nearly black, but they are the only enhancement I notice. He smiles at me, and I nearly take a step back. His smile is reminiscent of Snow’s, a suggestion that he will take more pleasure out of this interaction than I will.

“Katniss Everdeen!” he exclaims. He grabs my hand with both of his and shakes. “It’s wonderful to finally meet you face-to-face. You have no idea how long I’ve wanted to.”

He walks past me into the suite without waiting for an invitation.

“The girl on fire,” he says, turning back to me. “Your dress suits you.”

I mumble a thank you, suppressing the urge to cover myself.

“And where’s your husband?” he asks.

“I apologize, but his luncheon ran late. He should be here any minute.”

Ecken gives me that smile again. I hide my hands behind my back and dig my nails into the tender skin of my wrist. It helps to calm my nerves, but I still feel jumpy.

Another knock at the door. Ecken answers, and an Avox pushing a cart enters. She puts out plate after plate of extravagant food, pours three glasses of wine, and exits.

“Shall we begin without him?” Ecken asks.

I nod in an attempt to be a pleasing host. No sooner do we sit down than Peeta enters. With the exception of his red cheeks, his skin is a ghastly white. He wears a pained expression that immediately changes to anger when he spots Ecken sitting across from me.

“Ah, Peeta! I’m so delighted you could join us,” Ecken says before taking a bite of steak. I finally notice how rare the meat is. The plate is red with blood. I put my fork down.

“I need to speak with my wife. In private,” Peeta says.

Ecken’s happy smile abruptly disappears. I tell Peeta not to be rude. “We have a guest,” I remind him.

“Yes, Peeta, there’s no need to be rude,” Ecken echoes. “Have a seat.”

“Katniss, please, I need to speak with you right now.”

I’m about to chastise him for his behavior, when I realize how desperate he sounds. We’re supposed to be honest with one another. We’re supposed to protect each other. I stand.

“Sit down, Katniss,” Ecken orders.

I don’t sit, but I don’t move closer to Peeta either. I knew this wouldn’t be an ordinary dinner, and I can feel our actions building toward something, but I’m still not sure what.

“This dinner is over,” Peeta announces. “You can send President Snow our apologies.”

“I don’t think that’s a good idea,” Ecken says. “But if you insist on skipping dinner, we can do so.”

“What’s going on?” I ask, my voice surprisingly bold. The dread growing inside me has reached a crescendo. It seems like whatever I am about to learn is the kind of information you can never unknow. This is something I’ll have to live with.

“Mr. Elliott has purchased us for the evening,” Peeta says, staring straight at Ecken.

“What?” I don’t understand. I can’t.

“I had a conversation with a few victors today,” Peeta said. “They enlightened me on what exactly these dinners entail.” Peeta walks over to me and wraps an arm around my waist, pulling me possessively into his side. “We’re not interested.”

“If you were paying attention to the conversation,” Ecken says, “I’m sure you realize that you don’t have a choice.”

“There’s always a choice,” Peeta insists.

“I suppose you’re right. If you’re willing to deal with the consequences.”

Peeta swallows, but doesn’t say a word. I think of Gale’s younger brothers and how they will certainly be reaped if Peeta and I don’t go along with whatever Ecken expects of us.

“You really have nothing to worry about,” Ecken says. “I mostly just like to watch.”

“Peeta, what does he…” My question breaks off, collapses on itself as soon as Peeta looks at me. Because I know, suddenly, what is expected of us. We are to perform for the man who has bought us. We are his for the evening. We are completely at his mercy.

“Look at me,” Peeta whispers. He turns me completely, so my back is to Ecken, and I can see only him. “It’s just you and me, okay?” he says. “We’re home, in the living room. We’re dancing.”

Tears prick the backs of my eyes. My throat aches from the unreleased pressure. He kisses me, and I let him, and it’s nothing like being at home. It’s nothing like our dance.

“Take off her dress,” Ecken interrupts. “I can watch television shows more graphic than this.”

Peeta hesitates a moment too long. Ecken storms over and grabs me.

“If you’re going to hide her from me, at least give me a little view.” Instead of reaching for the zipper at the back of my dress, he shoves his hands underneath the deep cut of the front and forces the dress down my shoulders. I immediately throw my arm up to cover my breasts. Before Ecken can move my arm, Peeta grabs his wrist.

“I’m sure President Snow explained this is our first...dinner,” Peeta says.

“He did.”

“Then, maybe you can let us set the pace?”

“Perhaps if you move at something other than a glacial speed, I can allow it,” Ecken says. I turn toward Peeta, and he slips the dress carefully off my hips, until it is nothing but a pool of blood red satin on the floor. He keeps my back to Ecken and wraps his arms around me.

“I can’t do this,” I whisper.

“Think of your family,” he whispers back. “You can.”

Peeta’s next kiss is hungry, wolfish. It’s unlike any kiss he has given me before, and I’m grateful for it. My arms are wrapped tightly around him, and I try to wrap my mind around him the same way, but I can feel Ecken’s eyes on me, watching, devouring.

But I can’t simply go along with the motions. We have to make this a show.

I pull at the bottom of Peeta’s long-sleeved shirt and yank it over his head. The kiss is broken for only a moment, but it’s enough time to let the situation come rushing back in. I press my mouth against his and kiss him until the whole room drains away. I want to think about home, pretend we are in his bedroom in Victors Village, but I worry about tainting the memories I have.

I decide we are alone in the hotel suite. It is our wedding night, and I’m ready to take the next step.

I undo Peeta’s belt and pants. I wonder if this is enough. If he can just lay me down and we can finish this with a quick coupling.

Somehow, I doubt it.

As our mouths slant against each others, I feel a hand slither around my stomach. I stiffen.

Ecken’s bare chest brushes against my shoulder as he slips his hand into my underwear and begins to rub circles around my clit. I whimper, my nails digging into Peeta’s back. Finally, I can’t stand it, not for one more second, and I push Ecken’s hand away.

“I can’t do this.”

“I thought you just wanted to watch,” Peeta says.

“Do you have any idea how much I paid for tonight?” Ecken asks. “A little interaction should be expected.”

He drops kisses down my neck, across my shoulders, down to the side of my breast. I have to breathe through my mouth; otherwise, I cannot get enough air in. I take a step away from him.

“I’ve just about reached the end of my patience with the two of you. You think you’re special because you’re victors?” Ecken asks. “You’re nothing. Less than nothing. You belong to us.”

He rips the belt out of Peeta’s pants and hits him across the face with it.

“No!” I gasp. I try to grab Peeta’s chin to examine the wound, but Ecken pushes me back.

“Tie him up,” he orders me, belt in hand. I shake my head. “Katniss, tie him up now.”

Peeta nods at me, and I take a step forward. Ecken jerks his head up to indicate Peeta move toward the head of the bed. I wrap the belt around Peeta’s wrists and the bars of the bed. I kiss the corner of his jaw and whisper an apology.

“It’ll be over soon,” he whispers back.

I move to sit on Peeta’s lap, but Ecken yanks me backwards. “No,” he says. “Now Peeta gets to watch.”

“No!” Peeta yells, but he can’t get his hands free. “Don’t you touch her!”

Panic is an animal clawing up my throat. When I feel Ecken’s hand on my hip, I lash out. The next thing I know, his torn skin is beneath my fingernails, and his cheek is bleeding. I stand there, chest heaving, and stare at him.

“Forget it. Forget it!” Ecken turns, grabs his shirt, and storms out of the room.

“I’m sorry,” I say, although I’m not sure who or what it’s for. I rush to the bed and undo the belt, and then I’m enveloped in Peeta’s arms, his scent, his warmth.

Then, the tears come.

*

I don’t warn Gale the day of the Reaping. I cannot. I’m still not sure if it is my fault. Perhaps Snow manipulated the situation. Maybe the dinner with Ecken would have happened with or without the deal I tried to make.

I sit on the stage, Peeta’s hand clenched in mine, and I listen for Effie’s cheery voice.

The Josefs are called: three girls and a boy all within reaping age. The four gather on the stage. The oldest bends in front of the youngest one, kisses her, and sends her back into the audience. She hugs the second oldest and whispers in her ear before sending her back too. Then, she and the boy stand hand in hand.

No one claps.

*

“I don’t understand,” I tell Peeta as we board the train. “It should have been the Hawthornes.”

“Maybe it was an empty threat,” Peeta says. “Maybe Snow was just testing us.”

“Maybe,” I say, but I don’t believe it.

When we sit across from our two tributes at dinner, I can’t find the right advice to offer. Now that I am on the other side, I understand Haymitch’s reaction to us last year. I too want to distance myself from this pair of tributes. I do not want to learn anymore about them than I have to.

Finally, I ask, “What did you whisper to your sister on stage?”

The oldest girl looks at me, her shoulders square, her face hard, and says, “I told her what she needed to do to keep our family fed. I told her how to survive.”

I excuse myself from the table and don’t return.

*

Both of our tributes die on the first day. Their deaths crack me open, allowing in all the pain and heartache I’ve been trying to avoid. I spend the rest of the day in my room. I don’t even let Peeta in.

Everything hurts, and I realize everything will always hurt. Everyday. Year after year, tribute after tribute.

I think things cannot get worse.

They can.

The news of the fire at the bakery comes the next day. Peeta’s family nearly perished, but they made it out.

All except Rye.

*

The Games go on somewhere out in Panem, but my entire world narrows to a bedroom and Peeta.

“I’m sorry,” I say.

He says nothing.

I run him a hot bath and coax him into it. I sit on the tiled floor behind him and wash his hair, slowly, methodically. He sits, staring straight ahead, so I fetch a cup to dunk beneath the water and dump over his head. The floor and I end up soaked, but I don’t care.

When I’m finished, I sit there, drawing circles on his shoulder, my head resting against the edge of the tub.

He startles me a couple of moments later when he asks, “Can I wash your hair now?”

“You want me to come in?”

“Please.”

I strip without hesitation and settle in front of him, the water sloshing over the sides. He uses the cup to wet my hair, and then shampoos and rinses it. He uses the conditioner next, his fingernails massaging my scalp. After he rinses me again, I lean back against his chest and he holds me tightly.

“I’m sorry,” I tell him again. “It was my fault. I--”

“Don’t,” he says. “You know it isn’t. You know whose fault it is.”

“But if I had just let Ecken--”

“No,” he says again. “And that’s all I want to say about it.”

The troubled feeling within me doesn’t go away. If anything, it only grows stronger, but I have to respect his wishes. I close my eyes and breathe in the scent of the lavender shampoo.

The water grows cold, but it is a long time before we get out. We finally wrap ourselves in towels and lay on the bed side by side. I hate the silence. It feels too heavy, dangerous, but there are no words to say.

I sense his exhaustion, but instead of letting him fall asleep, I discard my towel and crawl on top of him.

“I think there will be more dinners,” I whisper.

“I think so too.”

“I don’t want our first time to be in front of a stranger.”

“Katniss…”

“Just because we’re not doing this in our own time doesn’t mean it wouldn’t have happened anyway,” I tell him. “Same as the wedding.”

His face softens. He pushes a damp strand of hair out of my face. “Yeah?”

“Yeah,” I say. “I’m happy it’s you.”

“I love you. You don’t have to say it back, but I want you to know. No matter what. I love you.”

I kiss him, long and slow. I throw his towel on the floor, and we slip beneath the sheets. His hand lands between my thighs, and I shiver beneath him. We take our time, kissing, exploring.

Just before he pushes into me, I tell him, “This is for us. Just us.”

And then I’m gone, lost to a world of pain and pleasure and movement.

I never want to be found.

*

Our next dinner is with a couple named Luther and Trixie Bell. They don’t touch us. They barely seem to notice we’re in the room. The only words they speak are requests for us to change positions. They strip and fool around just as we do, almost as if they are an echo of our actions.

The next several dinners are similar. Sometimes we get a single buyer, but they all just want to jerk off and watch us.

It’s enough. We’re enough.

But I don’t know for how long.

The Games end with a showdown between a girl from District 2 and a boy from District 1. The boy is strong, but the girl is good with throwing knives. Her accuracy wins her the title of victor.

Finally, we get to go home.

We have almost six months before we must report to the Capitol. As soon as we arrive home, we shower together at Peeta’s house before climbing into bed. We don’t emerge for almost twenty-four hours.

It’s a wonder we come out at all.

*

It only takes a couple of days before we can pretend the Capitol does not exist. We have enough to eat, enough to feed our families, enough to provide for our friends.

Peeta and I resume our nightly dancing lessons. We always end the evening in his bedroom, exploring each other without an audience.

We establish our domestic routine. I spend my mornings hunting, and he spends his baking. We eat lunch together. We often visit the community home with leftover desserts and fresh meat.

Most nights we eat dinner with my mother and Prim.

We don’t visit with Peeta’s family.

When the Victory Tour kicks off in District 12, we greet the girl from District 2 and attend the party at the mayor’s house thrown in her honor.

Then, we fly back to the Capitol where we wait to attend the biggest party of the year.

Meanwhile, we have more dinners.

*

When Ecken Elliott walks into our suite, I’m not surprised. I knew he would reappear sooner or later. It doesn’t matter. I’ll do whatever he asks to keep him from growing violent again.

Peeta squeezes my hand so hard it hurts.

“Are you here to watch?” Peeta asks.

“Something like that.” He gives us a sinister smile. “Take off your clothes. Katniss, you can keep your bra and underwear on.”

I stand in front of Peeta once he has stripped. Countless of Capitol citizens have seen us completely naked by now, but I hate how vulnerable Peeta is in front of this man.

“Sit down,” Ecken orders.

Peeta complies. Ecken produces a coil of rope and hands it to me. “Tie him to the leg of the bed.”

My hands are cold, clumsy. I try to touch Peeta as much as possible as I tie a loose knot around his wrists.

Unfortunately, Ecken checks my work. He backhands Peeta, and points at me. “I know you can tie a better knot than this.”

Ecken reties the rope, and Peeta winces.

“Now what?” I ask. I’ll never be ready, but I want to get this over with as quickly as possible. I’ll screw him while Peeta watches if it means no more harm will come to our families.

“You’re the girl on fire,” Ecken says. “Have you ever hurt anyone with your flames?”

“They were fake,” I said. “A trick.”

Ecken pulls a lighter out of his pocket. He flicks it and holds it dangerously close to Peeta’s skin.

“Stop!” I grab Ecken’s wrist. “What are you doing?”

“You both disappointed me last time I was here,” he says. “I think it’s time you were punished.”

He grabs my wrist and forces me down in front of Peeta. He shoves the lighter into my hand.

“Burn him,” Ecken says.

“No.” I shake my head for emphasis and try to back away.

Ecken grabs my jaw, his fingers digging into the tender flesh of throat, and presses his mouth against my ear.

“Do I need to remind you of the consequences you face if you don’t follow directions?” he asks. “I hear you have a sister. Perhaps she’ll enjoy my games.”

He yanks my wrist up and holds my hand against Peeta’s chest. “Light it,” he orders.

“It’s okay,” Peeta says.

“No, it’s not. I can’t. I can’t do this.”

“I promise Katniss, if you refuse to do as I say, both of you will lose something precious to you. Do you understand?”

Ecken flicks the lighter and pushes it against Peeta’s skin. The smell of burning flesh, the sizzling sound, the sharp intake of Peeta’s breath that quickly melts into a muffled scream—it fills my head, my senses. I turn away, ready to throw up.

“Again,” Ecken orders, and pushes my hand forward.

Drops of sweat bead at Peeta’s hairline, fall down his cheeks. I realize some of them are tears.

“Please don’t make me do this,” I say.

“You’re right,” Ecken says. “This is hardly any fun. The smell is rather unpleasant too.” He throws the lighter behind his shoulder. This time, he pulls a knife out of his pocket.

“Don’t worry,” he says when he sees my wide eyes. “We’re not going to kill him. And you know the Capitol will fix him right up. No scars to worry about.”

“Please,” I say. “Please.”

He presents the knife to me. With shaking hands, I take it.

“Shall we begin?” Ecken asks.

*

By the time Ecken leaves, Peeta is unconscious and the floor is covered with his blood. I cannot wake him or staunch the bleeding—there are too many cuts, in too many places. I pick up the hotel phone to call Haymitch, thinking he’ll know what to do, when an Avox and a doctor let themselves in. They lift Peeta onto a stretcher and without a word of comfort or information, they take him from the room.

I try to follow them, but the Avox holds up her hands to stop me. She shakes her head, and I scream at her. She drags me back into the room and turns on the shower for me.

I sit in the tub in my underwear and let the water steal away my remaining energy. The water runs red, then clear, but nothing is absolved.

I hurt him. I hurt the boy I love most in the world. I took a knife and left trails of blood across his body. I held a lighter to his chest and watching the flames lick his skin. He cried, he cursed, and he never met my eyes.

I am exactly who I suspected I was. A killer, a liar, a monster.

We were supposed to protect each other.

Eventually, the Avox returns to fetch me. She wraps me up in a huge white towel, and I stumble like a drunkard toward the bed. The carpet has been scrubbed, the sheets have been changed, the phone has been wiped clean of blood.

The Avox forces me to take two blue pills. I don’t bother asking what they are. But I do ask her where Peeta is. I say it over and over until the pills knock me out.

When I wake, Peeta is beside me, fast asleep. I check his body: his chest, his stomach, his arms, and legs. His skin is pristine. There are no faint cut lines or burned patches of skin. He is perfect.

I go into the bathroom and throw up. I don’t come out for the rest of the night. When Peeta wakes, he calls for me, but still, I do not move.

*

We pretend nothing has happened, but I can’t stand touching him anymore. His arms, once a comfort, a refuge, are now a reminder of everything I have done wrong. How can I allow him to provide me with a sense of peace when it was my hands that cut him? Hurt him?

We attend parties full of monsters. I am not separate. I am not above them. I am exactly the kind of person a victor needs to be: cruel and ruthless. Peeta is nothing like that. He was merely dragged along for the ride.

The night before the Victory Tour is to end in the Capitol, I return to our suite late. I avoid Peeta more and more, unable to speak to him when he’s awake or find comfort in him when he sleeps.

I arrive back in the middle of the nightmare. Peeta thrashes around in bed, mumbling incoherent words under his breath. This, I think, I can fix. I can wake him gently and settle him back into sleep. If I’m lucky, he won’t even remember waking in the morning.

I approach him in the dark, and his words grew clearer, louder.

“No!” he yells. “No, please!”

I’m at his side, my hand reaching to gently shake him awake, when he yells, “No, Katniss, stop!”

He jerks awake, and we stare at each other in the dark.

And then, I run.

*

No one is safe while Snow is alive. There will always be a new threat against our loved ones as he forces us further into depravity. I cannot hurt Peeta again like that. I won’t. I won’t.

I hide in a closet on the next floor up. I sit there, rocking back and forth, until I can remember who I am.

My name is Katniss Everdeen, I think.

I’m seventeen years old.

I’m married to Peeta Mellark.

I am a monster.

The world fractures around me, turns to dust. I can’t breathe. Even my thoughts are unstable, threatening to fly out of my head.

The biggest mistake I ever made wasn’t holding those berries up for the world to see.

It was that I didn’t swallow them.

*

“Cinna, I have an idea for my dress tonight. Is there any way you can add sleeves? I want you to give me wings.”

*

The victor from District 2 is much smaller in person. She is sharp, fierce, but I can see how overwhelmed she is from all the attention. Men and women reach out to touch her as she walks past, a step behind her escort.

I remember the feeling. At least I wasn’t alone.

There is table after table of decadent food, and glasses of green drink that make you sick. I touch nothing. I am surprisingly calm, but I don’t want to risk it with a bite of food. I need to focus.

I disappear from Peeta’s side just long enough. When I reappear, I almost tell him that Snow wants to see me immediately, but I’m much too selfish. I want one more dance.

He takes me in his arms, and we turn in a small, slow circle. I try to memorize everything about this moment: the warmth radiating from his chest, the scent of his cologne, the feel of his fingers entwined with mine.

“Snow wants to see me after this,” I say.

He stiffens, but doesn’t stop moving. “Alone?”

“Yes.”

“I should come with you.”

I shake my head. “He specifically said alone. I’m sure it’s nothing.” I force a smile.

“I can wait outside his office for you.”

“It’s okay,” I say. I can’t have him near me when it happens. I shouldn’t even be dancing with him right now, whispering in his ear like we’re sharing secrets.

The song changes, but I don’t let go. “I love you,” I say suddenly. “I’m sorry I didn’t say it sooner.”

“Katniss…”

“I didn’t realize that’s what this feeling is. I didn’t know…but I do now.”

“You’re not talking like it’s nothing,” he says, panic in his voice. “What else did Snow say to you?”

I kiss his cheek before staring up into his eyes.

“I know this is selfish, but I’m glad it was you at the reaping and in the arena. I’m glad it was you by my side.”

“Katniss, you’re scaring me. Is this about my nightmare? Because I swear—”

“It’s fine,” I say. “I’m not worried, and you shouldn’t be either.”

I move to walk away, but he grabs my hand. “I’ll see you soon,” he says.

“It’ll be just a few minutes.” I can’t resist kissing him one more time. “I love you,” I say again, and it’s a promise.

He doesn’t say it back. He doesn’t say anything at all. He just watches me go.

*

I find a guard who finds Snow for me. Snow is all too willing to excuse himself from the party for a private meeting. We go to his office. Once more, one guard stands outside the door, another accompanies us inside.

President Snow sits behind his desk, but I remain standing.

“Here to make another deal?” Snow asks. “Because I’m sure I could arrange to give Peeta a break from your dinners if you agree to a few…solo performances.”

I shudder at the thought. So far, I haven’t had sex with anyone but Peeta. The idea of being intimate with anyone else, let alone a Capitolite, fills me with nausea.

I hug myself, shy, uncertain. I pretend to give his deal some thought.

“This offer has an expiration date, Miss Everdeen.”

“Are you ever afraid at these parties?” I ask.

“Excuse me?”

“You throw parties for monsters and think you’re safe. It just seems rather foolish.”

I think he understands my words, but it’s a second too late.

I reach beneath the sleeve of my blue black dress, yank out the knife, and bury it in Snow’s hand, pinning it to the desk. I remove my second knife and throw it across the room where it impales the guard in the chest. He gasps and falls to the floor.

Before Snow can call for his other guard, I rip the knife out of his hand and slash his throat. Sounds gurgle out of his mouth, but he cannot form words. I walk around the desk and watch him sink to the floor, his hands clutching at his throat.

Part of me wanted to make his death slower, drag it out until he begged me to put him out of his misery. But in the end, I knew I wouldn’t have the time to do it. Not without someone walking in or overhearing us. I cannot risk him being saved. Without Snow in charge, who will there be to punish my loved ones? I will be arrested, put to death, but will anyone else think to hurt Prim or Peeta or my mother? It will be too chaotic, an entire government in upheaval.

I’ll be lucky if I make it to the executioner’s block. I may just languish in jail.

My fate doesn’t matter. As long as Snow is dead and Peeta and Prim and Gale are safe.

It may be too much to hope for, but maybe the Games will be interrupted as well. Maybe that spark I lit last year with the berries can be reignited.

I almost don’t care. Let the country burn itself to the ground as long as my loved ones are safe.

I watch Snow struggle through his last breath, and there is no satisfaction. There is only the regret that I didn’t think to do this sooner.

I walk out of his office, my bloodied hand and knife behind my back. Drops of red hit the pristine carpet, and I stab the guard waiting outside.

I meet no one else on my way back to the party.

I slowly descend the staircase leading to the ballroom. Peeta looks up, and his relief is palpable. I do not smile in return. Instead, my gaze alights on Ecken Elliott, enjoying a drink with the newest victor.

My hand hidden behind my back, I walk straight over to him. My mind feels light, fuzzy. I am outside myself, watching this happen.

I catch Peeta staring out of the corner of my eye. I ignore him.

“You look well,” I tell Ecken. I look at the newest victor and glare. “If you’ll excuse us.”

The girl rushes off, relieved. Even she could sense what hides behind Ecken’s dark eyes.

“I see your husband has recovered quite well,” Ecken says. “Perhaps we can set up another dinner soon.”

“Why wait?” I ask him. I curl an arm around his neck and lean close to his ear. “Why don’t we begin now?”

I don’t want for a response. I plunge my knife into his chest. Someone screams. Everyone backs up, giving Ecken and I space. Everyone except for Peeta.

I hear the frenzied shouts and the loud footsteps coming from the floor above us. I take a step back. Away from Ecken. Away from Peeta. Blood drips from my knife, my fingertips. The edges of my bird wings are drenched.

I wish I felt happy. Or relieved. Or even remorse. But I don’t feel anything at all.

The guards reach the stairs. I kneel in the center of the ballroom floor and drop my knife. Peeta rushes over to me, tries to pull me to my feet.

“What happened?” he asks. “Are you all right?”

“Go,” I tell him. “Don’t let them think you were involved.”

“What happened?” he demands. “Let me stay with you.”

“I love you,” I tell him. “And I won’t let them hurt you again.”

I want to tell him more. I want to tell him I’m sorry I couldn’t protect him before and that I won’t be around to protect him now. I want to tell him I’d do it all over again if it meant saving his life. I want to tell him I love him over and over because the words are too precious to only be heard a handful of times.

I want to tell him I was just playing the Game the best way I knew how.

I didn’t win. Haymitch was right. There are no winners. Only survivors.

And Peeta will survive, even I don’t.

I hold my hands up, my wrists together, and I wait for my arrest.