Peeta's Games - igsygrace - Hunger Games Trilogy (2023)

Chapter 1: Prologue

Chapter Text

I am a wrestler.

So it says on the locker, in blurry ink on a piece of tape. So it says on the tournament schedule. So Mom said - "you're a wrestler" - when she eagerly signed the permission forms. That was more a command than a benediction, by the way. All of her sons are wrestlers. And in this world that is so restrictive of opportunity, of victory, it's important to her, I guess.

It just is not something that ever meant much to me. Wrestling takes time away from everything else I'd rather be doing with my day, first of all. And I grew up with two older brothers, a forced witness to a hundred little daily competitions. Everything was a game. Every. Little. Thing. The easier chores, the larger portion of meat - the fastest to school, the first to kiss a girl. I was the witness and wager-handler and glad I had no more to do than to pretend to be enthusiastic.

And as for the tournament itself? I have no taste for elimination competitions. Mandatory viewing. Winner takes all.

Yet - I would be lying if I claimed that I am unmoved by the buzz and chatter of the growing crowd that I can hear just on the other side of the locker room door. As it builds in volume and excitement, I can feel it. Whether they are for or against me, their energy fills me. I am not anxious for the day to be over, win or lose - I am eager to perform, for a moment, for the crowd. To be … something.

And I honestly think I have a chance at winning this thing. There's just one competitor left. I know his every trick; I know his every vulnerability. I've been watching him for years – my older brother, Rian. And yes, he's a little taller than me. He's a little stronger. But I have surprise on my side – the baby brother he's been roundly ignoring for years. I've seen the shock on his face as I've won round after round this week. Clearly, he hasn't really been paying attention to the way I perform.

I look down the locker room – he and I are alone in here right now. He's slumped down a little, eyes closed. I don't even know what time it was last night when the door slammed and mother started yelling at him and he finally pushed his way into our bedroom. It felt pretty late.

As if sensing my gaze, he looks up suddenly and half turns to me. So, I can see the shiner – god damn it.

"What did you do this time?" I ask, exasperated.

He shrugs. "Does it matter?" Then, resentfully: "I'm eighteen. I can stay out as late as I want."

It doesn't work that way – and he knows it. He's still in high school. There's a curfew. And it's not just that he's her son – he's an employee of the family bakery, and she's his boss. Why does he do it? If it's Will's example … but Will's fights with mother always managed to be righteous ones. When he left, he did it on his own terms. Rian compounds her sins by committing his own. She hits him when he defies curfew, when he skips school – that one time – that one really dreadful time – when he was nearly busted for shoplifting. But at the same time, I suspect that he wouldn't be this way if it wasn't for her heavy hand in the first place. He's surly and rebellious, and every strike she blows seems to entrench him even further. I can defend her no more than I can defend him; it feels as helpless today as it ever has.

"You've got to get along with her," is all I can say. "What are you going to do if she throws you out of the house after school?"

He shrugs again, but the look on his face speaks volumes. It practically shouts out how bleak he must think his future to be. He really doesn't like working at the bakery, but since Will is estranged, and I can be no more than part-time, it is going to fall on him like a hammer as soon as school lets out. No more wrestling – for which he has been the star and darling of the school the last couple of years. Just working for mom and dad, his life filled with the tedium of making bread.

"Maybe I'll get lucky and get reaped to the Games this year," he says, wryly.

"Why would you even say that?" I ask him angrily.

He opens his mouth, but his answer is lost to opportunity, as coach enters at that moment and gestures for us to follow him.

My eyes sweep the gym as I enter behind my brother. The student body is collecting on the bleachers, individual voices rising in chattering laughter. It is the best time of the year. Spring is full on – finals are still a couple of weeks away – the Reaping ages away, barely to be thought about. Everyone is, of course, divided into their cliques, which makes it easier for me to look for … yes - there. I have no idea – if she cares, really, about the wrestling; she's compelled to be here, same as everyone else. There are people who do care – my friends, some girls who have started to take notice, now that I'm a "jock." But isn't that how life is? The one person you really show off for probably doesn't even notice. Probably isn't even impressed. Yet – despite myself, despite all reason or any rational pep talks I might give myself – I perform for her.

Before I know it, our names are announced, mine and Rian's. The Mellark brothers, competing for the championship. I stare at him as we wait in the neutral stance, and he gives me an ironic look. I get a good look at the black eye, and I swallow, ruefully.

The first round goes exactly as I pictured: because he's taller than me, he goes for the head lock. I attempt the suplex, grappling forward for the bear hug. For what seems like forever, we are locked together, holding our stances – at a mutual impasse. But I use my better center of gravity to get the leverage and I finally throw him down.

He really didn't expect this, and there is now anger, as well as surprise, on his face. In the second round, he lunges for me almost quicker than the count, overpowers me – for a second we are struggling evenly, but my feet slip out from under me, and he wins the point.

Before the third round, it feels like we stare at each other for an eternity. The crowd noise is intense, amazing – yet it starts to recede into a strange near-silence between us. I can hear him breathing heavily – angrily. He wants this, more than anything; and he is off-put that he has to beat his little brother to get it. It's not just that he's underestimated me. He's underestimated the game – how painful it can be to win, as well as to lose. I understand. It's all knotted together. The fact that he's being thrown into life, all unprepared and unwilling. This final match perhaps the last experience for him of pure joy, for a while. The years of an angry upbringing: maybe we chose different ways of dealing with it, but at the core it is a mutual experience, and we should have been allies – all this time – but we weren't. The fact that I don't care – not really – about winning. Not at his expense. Not to impress some girl. Not to satisfy my friends. To win would be every bit as painful as to lose – maybe more so, this time.

He's quick at me again, but he used up so much of his strength on the last round that he doesn't quite get a good grip on me. I plant my feet and envelope him in a hug: my brother. Both love and defeat in the gesture; the incredible thing about wrestling: the strange intimacy of the struggle.

I am strong – a wall against him; I feel it. But I soften my stance, just a little, and my body twists as he gets the head lock. I'm pinned to the mat, my nose flat against it so I can hear my breath sucking in all around me. He wins.

He wins.

I smile through the award ceremony. I have the silver medal and two years left, anyway, to wrestle in school. I'm good at it, and, in this world that is so restrictive – so narrow of opportunity, and perhaps of happiness – that's something to grasp. It's in losing to my brother that I actually see the true value of the thing. Very strange.

My eyes sweep the crowd again. She's still here – she hasn't wandered out, bored of the spectacle. I tell myself that in my current state of heightened self-awareness it really doesn't matter to me whether or not she was impressed or even entertained by the sport.

People tell themselves things.

Chapter 2: Chapter One

Chapter Text

Chapter One

"Are you, are you, coming to the tree

Where I told you to run, so we'd both be free?

Strange things did happen here, no stranger would it be

If we met at midnight in the hanging tree."

I jolt awake in the darkness, the sound of my own breaths loud in my ears as the nightmares fade away, leaving nothing but the song in my head – a song I haven't heard for a very long time. The man in my dreams who was singing it – as wolfish monsters stopped their pursuit of me to turn towards him … the man in my dreams has, in real life, been dead for years.

As I wait for my heart to slow down, I stare across the room, where the curtain flaps idly over the half-open window. In brief glimpses, I see the dark gray sky of early morning. It's probably about five-thirty. Too early to rise, but too late to go back to sleep.

I slip downstairs on feet as quiet as I can make them (though three steps creak like billy-oh no matter what you do). At the foot of the stairs, I cautiously open the door to the bakery. The coast is clear: the door opens on my mother's office, still empty. The kitchen, which adjoins the office, is equally deserted, though I can tell by the scent of the oven, the presence of bowls on the counter, and the open flour sack, that my father has been up for hours. I hear his voice – not in the direction of the front of the shop, but just outside the back window. I go to the door and peer through the crack – just enough to see the back of his head and the identity of the young man he's talking to.

Reaping Day is a public holiday, so my father is under no obligation to work - but it would be foolish of him not to. This morning, buying food is the last thing on anyone's mind. But after the Reaping, everything will reverse, for most of us, and there will be a spike in demand for bread, cake and pie as the dread of the Reaping turns into the celebration of its passing. It is one of my family's best days for business – really one of the few days it's easy for us to meet our quotas, even though we don't even open for customers until the afternoon.

He comes back inside while I'm still hesitating over whether or not to slip away. He gives a start when he sees me, almost dropping the skinned squirrel I anticipated he would be bringing in when I saw him talking to Gale Hawthorne. Gale got fresh bread for it, if I know Dad– not an equitable trade, by any normal measures. But my father likes squirrel – and he's a pushover on Reaping Day, anyway.

"Peeta! What are you doing up?" he asks me.

"Couldn't sleep," I say. Then – spontaneously, and with an anxious sense that I'm too old to be making this confession - I add: "Nightmares."

The look of pain on his face is so intense, I have to avert my eyes. "Yes," he says, in a low voice. Then, in a tone of somewhat forced normalcy: "Do your friends have anything planned for today?"

I look at him, trying not to be disappointed by the evasion. Reaping Day lends itself naturally to either escapism or introspection, or some combination of both. In that instant, I am aware that I am of a level with him, now, in height. I'm told I favor him, too. His dusty-blond hair is darker than mine, but otherwise I guess I do see a bit of him in the mirror, when I squint – square chin, wide-set eyes, wide shoulders, stocky build (he's more fleshy than muscular, these days, but he had a wrestler's build, once).

"Yeah," I say. "Not much. Just hanging out this morning. I'll be back for lunch. Is Will coming?"

"Of course," he replies. "Of course." He looks shocked that I'd even ask. However sour the relationship between Will and Mom, it would not prevent him from breaking bread on Reaping Day with me and Rian for what could be – possibly – the last time.

I escape these thoughts – and the pain in my father's face – via the back door. I stand a moment in the tiny square of our yard, as the silvery dawn starts slowly illuminating the morning – the rickety pig sty (empty since last year); the gnarled old apple tree, leafy and familiar. Across the alley, the cluttered backyard of the Fessers' shop – they make and repair furniture. There are voices rising a few houses down – Gale Hawthorne, making more early-morning trades, it sounds like, his laughter echoing down the alley.

I walk the other direction, around the corner to the front of the bakery and the west side of Town Square, which will be the heart of today's "festivities." The Capitol crews haven't arrived yet, so the square is nearly deserted – just a solitary laborer is sweeping the steps of the Justice Building, which makes up the north side of the square.

I cross the square, pass the shops on the other side, then through the neighborhoods on the east side of town, up to school. I'm a bit early to meet the guys, so I just go behind the upper grade buildings to the soccer and stickball fields in the back. I jog over to the track and then start running laps – at a slow, but steady pace, the better to empty my brain of any thoughts of the day, remnants of the nightmares. Or try to, anyway. Since the track passes within sight of the north fence of District 12, I can see the outskirts of the thick woods – the forbidden woods – that surround us. The place – they have told us – so dangerous that our borders exist not to imprison but to protect us. The mutts live there - muttations - genetically-enhanced creatures left behind from the Dark Days, bred specifically to contain, capture, kill us: and now roaming wild.

Yet also – a fertile place. Apple trees grow near the edge of the woods, and in the fall, some people do go, furtively, to pick the fruit. Further in are berries, herbs, wild vegetables. Game – deer, rabbit, and squirrel, of course.

And how do we know this? Because, despite all restrictions, Gale Hawthorne and his cousin, Katniss Everdeen, venture in there, hunt and gather, and bring their goods back to town to trade – with shopkeepers like my father; with Peacekeepers, who turn a blind eye to this illegal activity for the prospect of fresh meat or fruit; with the Mayor himself, I've been told (but quietly – none of us openly talk of this commerce). And they're kids! Gale is 17 or 18; Katniss is my age. She and Gale both are fatherless and hunt and trade to survive. Still, a lot of us in District 12 skirt the edges of survival and they are the only ones brave enough to face the twin dangers – the monsters and the law.

I leave the track and walk over to the sagging chain link fence at the back of the school and grip the metal rungs as I look out at the woods, my feelings all twisted up in complicated strands of dread and longing, of fear and curiosity.

"Thinking of bolting, Mellark?"

I start and turn around. It's Aster, one of the girls from school – one of my crowd, technically, though not really one of my close friends. She's been hanging out with the girls, lately, and I guess one of them invited her today. Behind her, I see the rest of them approaching – Delly and Lily, Sammy, Hendry and Quill. They are, like me, from Merchant families: town kids. Aster is something else – almost as separate from us as the Seam kids, and sometimes as mistrusted. Back in the Dark Days of the rebellion, some families cooperated with the government before the end of the conflict and were rewarded for it after: houses and a certain amount of wealth that remains, in part, three generations later. The current generation had nothing to do with that, but resentment dies hard. And Aster is problematic in other ways – she is among the prettiest girls in school – fair and pert, slender and curvy. She has a constantly upturned expression, as if to remind you at all times that she has every possible advantage. That's one of the things that's served me as an antidote for her considerable charms. Especially over the last year as she has mysteriously come into our orbit.

"Hey, Aster," I say.

"Seriously," she continues, flashing me a slanted smile. "Thinking of running off into the woods?"

Not at all. The propaganda has worked on me, too well – I'm terrified of the woods and the creatures that stalk them. They hunt my nightmares, haunt my imagination. But I shrug. "Sure, why not?"

"Why should you? It's not like you're going to be Reaped. It's not going to be one of us."

She's right, but I try not to frown in disgust at the way she has put it.

The rest of the group have caught up to us, and we all head back towards the school – Sammy showing off the matches and smoke bombs he somehow acquired. Delly, my oldest friend – she lives next door – follows him closely, acting overly-interested in his plans to set fires in the garbage cans. Lily tries to link arms with Aster, but the other girl deftly avoids her and hangs back to walk with me.

This is interesting. Although – it's not the first time something like this has happened this year, nor the second. Since I joined the wrestling team, there have been some signs – slight, easy to ignore – that girls are starting to take notice. In fact, just last week, Sammy and Hendry were teasing me for not taking a girl to the end-of-year dance – apparently, I could have had my pick.

Nearly.

"It could be one of us," I say at last, contradicting Aster, who squints up at me in response.

"It's always someone from the Seam," she says.

"Pretty much," echoes Lily.

"What about Violet Fessers?" I ask.

"That was a fluke – what – five years ago?"

Delly, without stopping or turning around, pipes up. "She was engaged to Peeta's brother."

That puts a damper on the conversation, and Aster is quiet throughout the rest of the walk across the playing fields. It was only three years ago, actually. God, a nightmarish time. And, yes, thoroughly unexpected.

It's true that most kids picked to go to the Games through the Reaping are from the Seam, the sons and daughters of miners. The Seam is a neighborhood at the east side of the district – rough shacks lining the road that leads up to the coal mine that is the heart of our District's industry. We go to school with them, but they live very separate lives from us. Not that there aren't friendships – romances, even – between us, but these are rare, and marriages between the two groups even rarer. Not forbidden – just not exactly approved. The miners live on sparse wages – the families are quite poor. In lean years, when coal quotas are not met and wages withheld, people will literally drop dead of starvation. Kids – in school – kids – you can see it happening. Eyes will get smudgy, mouths dry. Thin turns to gaunt and then they simply disappear. Later, we will hear of their passing, attend their funerals. It happens. It happens to them, anyway.

So – most Seam kids take out tesserae. Tesserae allows them a monthly allowance of grain and oil – an allotment for themselves and each member of their family, if they take out the maximum amount. But, in order to do this, they must add more chances to the Reaping. Most of us kids have one chance per year of eligibility (ages 12 through 18) to have our names drawn at the Reaping. Depending on the size of their families, kids who take tesserae can have much, much more. Take Katniss Everdeen, for example – my age and from the Seam. She takes out tesserae – I've seen her wheel home her rations. If she takes one out each for herself, her sister and her mother, that's an additional three slips of paper, per year. I have five slips for the Reaping bowl this year – she has up to twenty, and hers is a relatively small family.

And this is how I - and Aster, Delly, Sammy - know ourselves to be safe. We send our poorest kids to the Capitol to represent us in the Games. Usually. Every once in a while, a townie will beat the odds and be chosen. It's a random process, after all. Three years ago, it was Violet, who lived in the house across the alley. And had dated my brother Will for so long that we had all almost forgotten when it started. He was just nineteen and out of the Reaping. It was her last year. They planned to be married in September. Instead, she was Reaped and taken to the Capitol to participate in the arena sport that has come to be known as the Hunger Games.

Each District sends two children to the Games. A boy from the Seam went with her, but I barely remember anything about him. That year, my family watched the games with more than the usual horrific sense of the inevitability of the end. Winners of the Games don't come from District 12 – our participants barely last past the first few days. Violet hid from the fighting for a couple of nights before she was killed by a pack of kids hunting together. They slit her throat. They slit her throat. And we watched her die.

That was when Will left home. He was – understandably, I thought – rabid throughout this whole process. The night she died, he started ranting about the unfairness of it all – the sport that was being made of us, for the sake of keeping the Capitol entertained. How it was rigged sometimes – that a townie was chosen occasionally just to remind us that even we are the playthings of the Capitol.

At this point, my mother had slapped him across the face. Told him to shut up, to man up. That she would not hear treason in her house – that she would not have him put dangerous ideas in his brothers' heads. He called her a fool and he left that night, to live with grandma. It's been frosty between them, all this time.

What he said about the Capitol didn't make much of an impression on me, at the time. But what did was the realization that life - no matter how you paper over the horror with romance and wrestling awards and stolen summer days to yourself – kind of sucks.

I suddenly become aware that Aster is speaking again, and her voice puts my teeth on edge. "Still, it's usually them, so what's the point of worrying about it? What the hell are you supposed to do? I do hope it's not Gale Hawthorne, though."

"I know, right?" says Lily.

I raise my eyebrows and Aster gives a little laugh. "I haven't had a piece of that, yet, and I hear it's worth it."

"What are you talking about?"

She just laughs.

"Peeta is so naïve," says Lily. "Everyone knows about Gale. He's not exclusive to Everdeen – not by a mile."

"They're cousins," I say, quickly, desperate to both change the subject and correct a common misconception.

"Are they?"

"I think."

"How do you know anything about it?" asks Hendry.

"My father – was pretty close friends with her mother. When they were growing up."

An accurate enough sidestep. Katniss is one of those true rarities – a product of both Seam and Town. Her mother was the apothecary's daughter. Her father a coal miner. But an unusual one. Before he died – before Katniss Everdeen and Gale Hawthorne took over his duties – he was the one who ventured into the forbidden woods and brought back game to trade with the merchants.

By now, we've reached the blacktop and conversation gets buried for a while as we watch Sammy and Hendry light smoke bombs – about half of them work – and aim for the garbage cans against the walls. I join in the cheering and whooping – but a bit absently. Nothing is adequate to take my mind off of today's Reaping.

After the smoke bombs are exhausted, we run through the hallways between classrooms, the other boys ripping off what remains on the walls – announcements about commencement, the dance, etc. A flyer for the wrestling tournament lands near my feet, and I pick it up, fold it in fourths and pocket it. Then we all separate, but not before Aster extends an invitation for the evening.

"Tonight – Victors' Village. When everybody's watching the recap. There will be moonshine. Come on," she says, looking directly at me. "You know you want to. With everyone stumbling around in the dark, you might even get lucky."

Yes, curfew will be suspended tonight, at least for as long as the opening commentary of the Games is on. Half the district will be crowded into the town center, watching the big TVs, enjoying - not the program itself - but the rare opportunity to be out in a crowd, long after dark. And the Victors' Village will be abandoned, its sole occupant, Haymitch Abernathy, on his way to the Capitol for the duration of the Games, serving as a mentor to the two poor kids who lose today's lottery.

But it's so absurd. Lucky? The only definition of the word worth thinking about is the one that gets me through the Reaping roday. I can't think about tonight with this looming horror approaching.

I give a half-hearted answer, walk back into town alone, and stop to watch the preparations in the square, which now are in full force. The Justice Building is being washed down, new banners hung. An equipment truck has arrived from the Capitol and is parked nearby. This contains the cameras and sound equipment. Today's festivities will be broadcast to the rest of the country.

Then, without really thinking about it, I head south from town. As soon as the buildings drop away, the unkempt wild grass sprouts up, dry under the summer sky. It's a short walk - just fifteen minutes - to the gates of Victors' Village. I stare through the bars at the large houses. They are two stories high, made of sturdy stone bricks, lining three sides of a large, manicured green lawn. The Capitol built these houses decades ago, intending them for the winners of the Games. If you do win the Games, it doesn't just mean being allowed to hold onto your life. Like all Capitol darlings, you also receive a substantial financial prize and are given one of these fancy government houses to live in. But we've only had two winners ever in District 12, and of them only Haymitch is still alive, so eleven of the houses sit vacant.

Could I do it? I wonder, returning the blank-eyed stares of the empty houses. Could I get as drunk as Haymitch and actually kiss a girl, do it with a girl? Even if I didn't love her? Even if I didn't particularly like her? I mean tonight, after the Reaping - I'll be safe, one more year. Whoever she is, she'll be safe. But it would also be … empty. And I guess maybe I'm odd, but that just doesn't appeal to me.

Now what? It's so early - still an hour before lunch. I look over to the east, where the sun is climbing up the sky. The Seam is in that direction, and the Meadow, which runs along a huge section of the fence. It's been a wet-enough spring that the wildflowers are still in full bloom there. I could take in that place this morning - one last whiff of the fresh smell of the air.

I turn around and head home.

After lunch, I manage a few moments alone in my bedroom, a prey to that quiet panic unique to Reaping Day. To distract myself, I say a mental goodbye to my own possessions; just in case. Not that I have a lot - there are old toys I have outgrown but haven't yet passed down to my younger cousins. Ribbons from school – mostly gym and wrestling, but one year I won an essay contest and – way back in the day – a teacher liked one of my art sketches so much she had it framed. And speaking of which … I pull up my mattress and dig out a couple of sketchbooks and a thin plastic box filled with pencils. They are nobody's business but my own and – there's nothing much, really, but I know better than to keep them openly under my brother's nose.

I flip through them - when I was younger, I sketched animals, trains and cars. Lately, though, I've been making a more careful study of things - trying to get the delicate veins of a blade of grass, or the variegated shading of a snail shell. But also, I'll occasionally draw people I know - my teammates and friends, my favorite teachers; people at school – in general. Now that school and wrestling practice is over - once the Reaping has come and gone - I'll have the rest of the summer to get real work in on this.

Sitting there, looking through them – the memories of my rapidly-disappearing childhood so very intense in the rough drawings - I have a morbid thought. What if I'm reaped and killed? Who would get these? Who should get them? My brothers, whose idea of worthwhile artwork begins and ends with drawings of naked girls? My mother, who would love to be confronted with the evidence of just how much time I waste on my "coloring?" No. I stack the sketchbooks together, rip out a piece of paper and write a note. I stick the note into the first book, then put them together in my top drawer, burying them under socks and underwear. No one will disturb it unless I'm gone.

I'm just closing the drawer when my brother comes in. After an initial moment of eye contact, we both avert our gaze. I mumble that I'll see him in the square and leave the room.

Outside, the grim festival atmosphere has reached its grimmest and most festive. It's hard to pinpoint where one emotion begins and the other ends - they all run together, like madness. There are the engineers, scurrying around, putting the final touches on the lights and cameras and speakers. There are the workers, putting finishing flourishes on the large screen that has been mounted above the front of the Justice Building. There is the crowd shuffling in - the kids of District 12 - all dressed in their best. The adults staking positions in a ring around the square - parents talking with blank faces, neighbors shaking their heads, gamblers making bets in the corners. The voices - despairing or indifferent, excited or stressed - all blend together in a single, anxious cacophony. I take my place in the shuffling line, sign my name to the ledger, and find my way to the roped-off line of 16-year olds and think how close the stage seems this year. All the cliques start clustering together in line. Delly joins me, followed by Lily and the guys; Aster is hanging with the other rich kids. They look relaxed … safe.

I see Gale Hawthorne a couple of rows in front of me and for a moment he turns around to laugh at some joke someone behind him has told – and I look curiously at his face, thinking of the earlier conversation. I'd never given it any notice, but in fact, he is unquestionably a good-looking boy – one of those guys who matured early and fully into his self-assurance. He's tall and well-knit – not muscular, per se, but sinewy and easy-limbed. Easy of expression, too - there's a perpetually sardonic expression on his face, as if he knows some secret the rest of us don't. I get the appeal.

On that note … I glance around and just get the glimpse of her at the end of the row - her dark hair elaborately braided (this is a specialty of her mother's) and her hands clutching at the skirt of a blue dress. Katniss Everdeen, the girl from the Seam. I'm reminded why I've always thought of them as cousins – her and Gale Hawthorne. They look a lot alike. What's handsome on his face is handsome on hers, sure; but it's more than that. There is a surface similarity of features: shape of the eyes, turn of the mouth. But she has an arresting quality beyond this - intriguingly elusive, difficult to pin down. It's in her expressive eyes, her serene self-possession, her natural grace. Not that I've noticed, or anything.

Good luck, Katniss, I think to myself. This is an annual ritual. She needs it, I remind myself, more than me.

Then, all too soon, it's 2 o'clock and the Reaping starts. Mayor Undersee rises - I can see from here the sheer exhaustion on his face. This would be difficult for him under any circumstances, but his daughter is also in this crowd, down the row from me.

"Once, long ago, this was a larger world," he begins.

This is straight out of our history textbook. There was a vast landmass - many times larger than our current country - called North America. Our ancestors' greed for resources, short-sightedness and descent into barbarism doomed this place and its people to waste and ruin - along with most of the rest of the world, as far as we know. Their smoking engines choked the air, melting the icy northern seas and causing the oceans to rise up and engulf much of the land. Droughts choked rivers and farmland. Massive storms wiped out the encampments where the survivors gathered. Disease ran rampant. Old territorial disputes could not be resolved peacefully, so wars broke out.

Upon their resolution, the greatly-reduced population regrouped and formed a new government. Rather hopefully, they called this new country Panem, meaning "bread" in an ancient language. (Bread, my father has said, has always meant peace, sustenance, sharing.) Thirteen districts were formed throughout Panem, and the seat of the government located in a great city in the west, encircled by mountains. Each district specialized in a single industry that would be needed by the Capitol, guaranteeing their unique and important place in Panem. In theory. With power and wealth consolidated in the Capitol, district trade rather quickly devolved to district tribute, and resentments arose.

The official story is that District 13, the easternmost district, grew greedy of its resources, wanted to collect on the profits on its graphite, and felt that it should hold power over the other districts. Finally, 13 challenged the primacy of the Capitol, involved the other 12 districts in a war known now as the Dark Days, and, eventually, was destroyed by the Capitol - upon which the other districts surrendered. Under the terms of the peace agreement, the Capitol now demanded human tribute: so, here we are today, our lives forfeit because of some long ago actions of our dead ancestors. Children of rebels - not that there's much of that left in evidence - perpetually serving out the terms of their punishment. It could have been worse, of course; instead of large-scale death, as 13 suffered, we have this slow-dripping horror - spread out over generations, so that we will never forget our ingratitude or the Capitol's mercy. "It is both a time for repentance and a time for thanks," as the concluding words of the litany remind us.

Sometimes - despite myself - I have to admire the efficiency of this system that has so thoroughly cowed us. It is designed to discourage cooperation. Certainly, it is difficult to think in terms of anyone in this crowd besides myself – even my brother. I just want to be spared, and that is also what the Capitol wants - for me to hunger for my own life at the expense of all the other kids around me. It's awful - and inescapable. And I'm probably not the only person to have these thoughts. But since I can't speak them aloud, they go nowhere, and trouble only me.

In the midst of all this ugliness, up steps Effie Trinket. In a gray, gloomy setting, she's like the garish gemstone you never knew existed, and probably wouldn't imagine even if you could. Her suit is bright green and her hair, thick and frizzy, is pink. She's from the Capitol - which would be obvious from her dress, even if we didn't know her - and she comes here every year on Reaping Day to pick the names from the glass bowls. The citizens of the Capitol - how to describe them? We see them on TV all the time, but it's hard to tell what most of them do. From what we see of them, it is to do nothing but lounge about the Capitol streets, shop in Capitol stores, wear outlandish outfits and primp their faces and hair in strange ways. Perhaps it is a deliberate contrast to us, in the Districts. We are monotone in our industries - they, without industry, are free to be as individual as they can possibly manage. It seems desperate to us - and strange. We might possibly envy them, more than a little bit.

Effie shows up every year with a unique hair color and an outfit that makes even our green woods and wildflowers look gray. We've seen her interviews on TV and know how she feels about being stuck with the smallest and poorest of the districts. Her presence every year is like a reproof - be more colorful, be more interesting! But we make fun of her at school, when the coast is clear.

Right now, she's nodding along as the list of District 12 Victors is read - all two of them. On cue, Haymitch arrives. By subtracting the years since he won his Games, he must only be in his late thirties or early forties, but he looks like he could be twenty years older. There's a wasted look to his face, especially in his eyes. He's drunk now - staggeringly drunk. Climbing the steps up to the stage seems to take everything he's got, and he makes a lunge for Effie that seems calculated to be a friendly hug but ends up looking like an ill-planned assault. Weird, nervous laughter tries to escape me, but I clamp it down. We are being televised, and I could get in huge trouble for making light of the Games.

Effie pulls herself together and replaces the mayor at the microphone. "Happy Hunger Games! And may the odds be ever in your favor!" This is her standard opening line, delivered in a clipped, chirpy voice that doesn't match the occasion at all. "Ladies first!"

That's the moment - that's always the moment - when fear clutches at my stomach like some vice. As Effie totters over to the girls' bowl on her impossibly high heels, the entire square, the entire district, chokes on its own breath and is silent, waiting. There will be a name, then a gasp – followed by a scream or a cry or a wail. Until then, this unbearable tension.

I look at the girls around me and ahead of me, think of the girl off to the side, and wait, wait for the name.

"Primrose Everdeen."

Chapter 3: Chapter Two

Chapter Text

Chapter Two

Oh, shit.

An eerie silence greets this announcement and I think it again: Shit. Then I think: this has to be a mistake. Primrose - Prim - Katniss' younger sister is only 12. It's her first Reaping. And at the very most, she has four slips in the bowl. But that's unlikely, considering how protective Katniss is of her. One slip - one - that's all Prim probably has - had - in that bowl.

The silence starts filling up with unhappy murmurs and the hot afternoon takes on a surreal quality as the wisp of a girl - so tiny, she might be eight or ten - walks slowly up from the back of the square. She takes after her mother, slight and pale, with bright blue eyes. I know her, actually, quite well. She comes to the bakery and stares at the window displays, sometimes with her sister – sometimes without. Once, I heard Katniss insist loudly to my father that they were not there to beg – that Prim just likes looking at pretty things. Nonetheless, my father has been known to hand her something fresh from the counter, as long as the coast is clear. The one time I questioned the wisdom of this – mother's a strict accountant – he told me that, as an artist, I should appreciate my audience. Not many in Panem ever will.

But that was just one of his misdirections. My father has a soft spot for fragile things, for unfortunate people, and for the little girl who looks like her mother.

She's dead, I think to myself. She's dead - that little girl. I glance down the row to see how Katniss is handling it. At school, her reactions to things are impossible to predict, especially since her father died, leaving her with not only huge responsibilities but a grudge against the world. I've seen her talk back to teachers; snarl at older, bigger kids; refuse invitations with a sneer. That's not all the time, but enough that we mostly just leave her alone.

Prim passes us; she lifts her chin as she walks up to take her place on the stage, and there's something about the gesture so courageous that tears actually start in my eyes. But it seems to strike her sister another way - all of a sudden, there is a commotion in the square.

"Prim!" she screams, pushing her way out of the row, heading straight toward the stage, behind her sister. "Prim!" For a second, I have a wild thought that she's going to attack the Peacekeepers or something equally outrageous, but no – the Peacekeepers pause, as does her sister, and there is a collective silence. Katniss takes a deep breath – her entire body shudders with it.

"I volunteer!" she cries out, and her voice is strangled. "I volunteer as tribute!" she repeats, more decisively.

A shockwave rolls over the crowd, and as it hits me, I feel faint - I feel my knees actually start to buckle. This is allowable - it's the one changeable thing about Reaping Day. One girl can volunteer for another girl - one boy can do the same. There are districts where - although it's technically against the rules - kids start training for the Games as soon as they can walk - and 18-year olds consistently volunteer, and one of them usually wins. But in District 12? This never happens - it's never happened in my lifetime, for sure.

All the noise of the crowd - everything that is being said on stage - the screams of her sister as Gale moves up to pull her away - recede as I watch Katniss walk up to the stage and turn toward us with a pale, but determined, face. Her eyes sweep the crowd and my vision blurs. This is impossible– my mind will not accept it. Not only did Katniss Everdeen not escape the net of the Capitol - she walked willingly right into it. To her death. On purpose. I'm filled with both incredible awe and unbearable heartache.

In the meanwhile, Effie is calling on us to applaud the volunteer, and it seems like such a strange thing to do, so inadequate a response. My hands don't even leave my sides and silence again fills the square. Then someone, in the midst of this, has a sense of proportion to match the occasion and before I know it, we are all touching our three middle fingers to our lips and raising them in the air. It's the farewell gesture we sometimes use at funerals, especially when a death is unexpected, or traumatic, or in some way admirable. At any rate, it's a good-bye forever, solemn and real - not grotesquely festive. And it's a protest - definitely a protest, of sorts. You can feel it - the frisson in the air - excitement, tinged with fear, but silent, silent.

Then, suddenly, Haymitch stirs and, ignoring the moment, staggers over to Katniss to embrace her. "I like her!" he shouts into the crowd - maybe he thinks we should be applauding? "Lots of spunk! More than you!" He points vaguely toward us - though over our heads, so I'm not sure if he's berating us, or the cameramen perched on the rooftops around the square. But I agree. Much more than us.

Then he falls right off the stage. Again, there's pandemonium as the 18-year-olds step back and let the Peacekeepers make sure District 12's one and only Victor hasn't killed himself in a drunken spill. District 12 is going to get a lot of airtime tonight, I think, dizzily.

Effie, in the meanwhile, has made her way over to the boy's bowl and is tapping her foot impatiently. We're clearly way behind schedule, and that's another thing we know about Effie from her years on TV - she worships punctuality. All of a sudden – it's almost an afterthought at this point - she's got a slip and is returning to the microphone. The crowd is still shuffling, trying to get back its bearings after the startling events of the day, when Effie reads the second name.

Someone gasps. My friends - Hendry, Quill, Sammy, Lily - all turn at once to look at me. I squint back at them, confused.

"Peeta Mellark!"

Effie's words finally detangle themselves in my head, the affirmation of the thing that has happened.

Delly has actually reached out to grasp my hand and I sort of shake it off with a dizzy impatience as I walk away from her. It's automatic, my legs carrying me toward the stage, through the crowd that parts away from me. I know what they're thinking - what I was just thinking about Prim Everdeen - he's dead. I'm dead. Absolutely dead.

But I'm also on camera. I'm suddenly as aware of this as I am aware of my own mortality. Tributes are - for a moment, anyway - famous. My face is being beamed live to the Capitol. The Reaping will be shown on TV tonight for all the districts to watch. Tributes and their mentors and oddsmakers will be weighing my abilities based on this moment. I have to wipe everything off of my face except for my determination to make it to the stage without breaking down. So, I look at Katniss, look at her pinched, closed-off expression, and try to make mine a mirror of hers. Then I take my place and stare out at the sea of faces - I know them, all of these people - but none of them look familiar to me. Something is wrong with my vision, and everything looks unbalanced and faint.

"Do we have any volunteers for Mr. Mellark?" Effie asks into the microphone, and her voice bounces everywhere. I think of Rian - reasonably, he's the only one who might be expected to volunteer for me. And that would be unbearable, so I just stare and stare out into the crowd, hoping not to hear his voice. If he says nothing, he's safe - he's done. He's out of the Reaping.

But when it doesn't come, still I feel it - a heavy despair, a sensation of being left completely alone. "Man up," says my mother's voice in my head, startling me. Is that a thing one can do? How? I've never understood that expression. The most courageous person I've ever known is the slight girl standing on Effie's other side, and she's had cause for courage that I've never known, before today.

I steal a glance at her as the mayor starts reciting the Treaty of Treason - basically the legal version of the history of Panem, the law that allows – no, requires - this to happen to us. She flicks her eyes away from me, and, at that, I'm abruptly awash in my strongest memory of her...

"Peeta!"

It's a shout from down the hallway, but I don't break stride - I am walking with a purpose to the doors. I need to get outside - fast.

"Come, on Peeta - we need someone with an arm."

"I told you - I'm grounded!" I shout over my shoulder. About fifty kids - all jostling to get out of the building at once - turn toward me, startled by my announcement. But I just take the opportunity of the pause to push through them and get outside.

The sun is glowing - everywhere, everywhere. It's as if yesterday - with its relentless curtain of hard, cold rain - was a million years ago, a million miles away. The sun illuminates every color in the universe - the blue sky is infused with light, the green grass reflects it, the little yellow flowers - the first of the spring - are like droplets of sunshine. I breathe in the light and it is thick and thin, heady and fine, and I am alive with it.

I look across the blacktop to the playground. She always waits there for her little sister, just like Rian used to wait for me, when I was in the lower grades. I squint my eyes against the brightness - the bruise on my face hurts, reminding me that I am not composed of light and springtime, but am just an eleven-year-old kid, bones and flesh. And so is she - Katniss Everdeen. Too thin, too pale of late. I saw her yesterday and the rain itself seemed close to beating her fragile body down into the earth. Her father died in January and when she finally came back to school after, she seemed to be wasting away; thin, yes - but more than that - something essential draining from her. Light from her eyes. Strength from her gait.

Please, look at me, I think. Forget yesterday - the shouts and the angry words. I only want ….

… And then she does look at me, and - it's automatic. It has been all day. It has been - always. My eyes flick away from her. I feel like she can read what's in my head, both the shame and the interest. I am not ready to deal with either.

So, I look away.

But in the second of eye contact, I did notice this: since yesterday, as if she has come back to life with the spring, she is surer-eyed, surer-footed. It's odd - what a little bread can accomplish.

I look back, curiosity getting the better of me. Prim has joined her now, as wan as any ghost, but bright eyed and optimistic as she glances up at her sister. This time, Katniss averts her eyes at my gaze.

… I only want to be forgiven.

But she bends down to the ground and picks a flower - one of the dandelions spotting the play yard - and holds it up to her face.

"Peeta!" This time it's Rian, a call I can't ignore - making sure I get home to my grounding, without delay. It's rare for me to be in this much trouble - trouble so bad, he can't even take any ordinary glee from it. He's as grim as the bruises on my face.

... After that day, I just stopped even contemplating approaching her. For whatever reason or combination of reasons, it was impossible for me. I accepted that this would be the one interaction, the one fateful moment our lives would intersect - one transition from rain to sun, winter to spring, starvation to survival. She certainly never looked back. It wasn't too long after that that squirrels started appearing at the bakery again. Clearly, she had started hunting, the way her father had done when he had been alive. It seemed so hard to believe - but at the same time, it really didn't. District 12's resident malcontent spirit had moved beyond the fence.

And now, here she is, going further afield. I look at her again, steadily, while she keeps her gaze down. Is she already thinking ahead, to the arena, wondering which so-far nameless, faceless tribute is waiting out there to cut her dead? The thought makes me feel faint. Technically, that tribute could be me.

But that will never happen. If I can kill anyone - and I'm not convinced of it, by any means - it will certainly not be Katniss Everdeen. She was the girl I tried to save.

Effie directs us to shake each other's hands. Like competitors, which I suppose we are. Her face is a model of stoicism and internal strength. I'm fairly sure I'm a mess in comparison. But when I clasp her hand, which is little, but firm in mine, I give it a little squeeze - for encouragement, for luck. She's due.

After this whole business is done, we're mercifully escorted off the stage and into the Justice Building itself, down a long hallway, and then to different rooms. I find myself alone in an elegant room, with wallpaper, thick, blue carpets and a couch and chairs arranged around a fireplace. I creep over to the window to look outside - I'm at the back of the building, I guess, and all I can see is scrubby field and train tracks.

Next to the window, there's a small table of dark wood, holding a couple of bottles that look like crystal and some empty glasses. This must be some kind of reception room for visitors from the Capitol.

The window is a temptation - there's the fence at the back of the fields, and the wildlands beyond. But the temptation is brief. Where exactly would I go? And what would happen to my family, if I fled?

The door abruptly opens and they come in - my father, my mother and both my brothers. I knew this was coming, but there was no preparing for it. Mom and Dad - their eyes are red and wet. The boys look sick. I go to my mother first - I know her - she's the one who will let me go first. She has to, she's hard like that - she doesn't like emotional scenes or burdens - so I hold her first, before she can start the process. This last moment that she can let herself love me, I'm taking every bit of it. Her tears more than anyone else's bring tears to my eyes - they are hard-won.

I can feel her parting from me, even as we separate - I can see her face closing up. Life will go on. She has two other sons - fully grown and both now safe from the Reaping for good. More than enough hands to help keep the bakery running. One less mouth to feed. This is how life is, and if I've been unlucky, on balance the family has not been – and the rest of them will live on and on, untroubled by the Reaping, at least until the grandchildren come along. She's pragmatic that way, and I know why. I know her. It hurts, but it's always hurt; today's no different.

Dad's another story. His soft and quiet personality contains vast - sometimes tempestuous - reserves of emotion. He gives me an enormous embrace. I've never felt the muscles in his arms like this before - they are tense around me, as if trapping me. A sound escapes him - a soft sound, like a low, gasping cry.

Then my brothers join the hug. I'm buried under arms and sprinkled with tears. I feel like I'm going to run out of time and nobody will have said anything, and I want to leave them with something, something that will make them think I am brave. Finally, I pull away from them - my father, my brothers - and swallow: "I'm going to try - to be a credit to you."

"Try to stay alive," says my father, in a strained voice.

I smile. "I'm not even the strongest competitor coming out of District 12," I reply, lightly.

"District 12 might actually get a winner this year," says my mother, actually surprising me for a moment. Then: "She's a survivor, that one."

That's more painful than it should be, considering that I'm thinking the same thing.

"I want to talk to Peeta alone," says my father, frowning at her.

Everyone raises objections, but he's firm, and anyway, this is too painful. They'll see me again - for at least one week more, I'll be alive and occasionally featured on the television screens of Panem. I won't see them again … I stare at them as they leave, Rian giving me one last anguished glance – tinged with the guilt that maybe he will carry with him for a while - then commit them all to memory.

I look at my father quizzically, but he just sighs. "Here." He holds out a small white package. Sugar cookies. Fresh ones – a luxury. How - odd, I think dully, staring down at the packet. This reminds me that there will be a rush on food at the bakery – any minute now, actually, and people will feel sorry for the baker's family, but they will be relieved, happy for their own – and he will have to bake and bake for them today, no time for grief until the night is over.

"Are there any messages you want me to send - anything you need me to do?"

I ponder this bizarre question for a moment. A sixteen-year-old doesn't leave loose ends. A sixteen-year-old leaves all the unfinished potential and unrealized dreams of a life that was really just starting. Something is horribly wrong with this - including the fact that I had never really thought this before about all the other kids I've seen Reaped to death. This is the 74th year of the Hunger Games. How has no one ever found a way to put this to a stop? How cowardly are we all? – making this compromise instead of fighting for our lives? I know the answer to this question already, of course – me, who can't even take on trees.

I shrug. "I already checked out my textbooks for next year," I say. "I guess the school will want them back."

"OK."

I think about the sketchbooks. Depending on who finds them first … but I can't bring myself to give these instructions. More than anything, the distribution of my sketches feels so final. "I want you -." I stop. What do I want? To remember me? To forget me? "I want you to know that I love you all," I finish. It seems inadequate.

The door opens and a Peacekeeper gestures my father out. He gives me a last hug, and his chest heaves with a sob that doesn't quite leave his body. Once he's gone, the tears spill right out of my eyes. Then the door opens again and Delly and Lily enter.

Lily looks anxious, but Delly - being Delly - is distraught and weeping harder than I am. She can't even talk at first, so Lily - who I've only been friends with for a couple of years - says stuff I can barely take in. How she's so sorry for me, but she's sure I can win if I put my mind to it. I was almost wrestling champion, wasn't I?

"The guys?" I ask, looking at the door.

"It's just us," says Lily softly. "There are a lot of people who want to see you, Peeta, and they could only pick a few of us. They want you to know -. We're all just going to be -. If this is it, we'll really -."

"Thanks."

"Oh, Peeta," sobs Delly.

Part of me finds all of this embarrassing, not to mention strange - that I am obliged to comfort these girls who are safe. On the other hand, it is- I suppose - gratifying to know I'll be missed. But it's a struggle not to resent them – their tears and their freedom – by the time they leave.

My final visitor, to my everlasting surprise, is Aster. Aster doesn't cry or even pout - just sits there for a minute looking pretty. I've never known what to say to her, so I don't speak either, just watch her expectantly. Finally, she shrugs. "Sorry I tweaked you this morning."

"No big deal," I reply, intrigued. I never would have thought of Aster as someone who feels the need to clear her conscience.

"This must be rough for you - going in with Everdeen."

"What? Oh - it's intimidating, for sure. But I'm sure there are plenty of other people who will have the chance to kill me first."

"I've seen how you look at her."

The words drop like blows. "What's the point to it?" I ask her, almost angrily.

"The point is - you've got a limited amount of time left. At least let her know - before you go." She gets up to leave before she is even called, approaches me, and kisses me on the corner of my mouth.

Chapter 4: Chapter Three

Chapter Text

That was weird.

And it temporarily stopped the tears from flowing, though I'm sure my eyes are so red and puffy from earlier that every camera is going to show that I've been crying anyway. What does it mean? What did she mean by it? Between her and me there is nothing. About Katniss and me there is nothing to say. I'm still fretting over this when the Peacekeepers come in and lead me out the door. We go out to the back of the Justice Building, where I rejoin Katniss and Effie, who are waiting outside a car. All of a sudden, I'm about to leave District 12 forever, and I'm not ready.

As we ride along the tracks and approach the train station, I glance over at Katniss a couple of times and see the same grimly determined look on her face that has been on it more or less all afternoon. Her gray eyes glimmer, but with light, not water. We are gathered together before we board the train to face cameras, and she gives away nothing.

Once we're finally on the train, I forget about her and her expressions for a while. The interior of this train is fancier than anything I've ever seen, in person. Plush chairs, ornate wall lamps, frosted glass dividers. In this first car, there is a table running down the length of it, and food is laid out on what looks like gold and silver platters. I don't even know what all this food is, just that it seems to be small, delicate and colorful. Cubes of meat and cheeses on little toothpicks. Tiny cakes barely larger than building blocks. Little glasses filled with some sort of quivering bright gel in reds and blues and greens.

Effie takes us through the car and beyond that to another car that is closed in except for a narrow hallway and a door. "This is your room, Peeta," she says. "I'll collect you for dinner in a little while, but in the meanwhile, you can get changed and shower."

I enter the room, and it is enormous - there is a huge bed on one end, covered by a thick red blanket. More ornate lamps and a dresser with a big mirror mounted to it. The drawers are filled with clothes. I pick out a pair of jeans and a t-shirt – I think they are brand new; at least they feel both softer and firmer than the hand-me-downs that make up my own wardrobe. Then, I tentatively open the door to the bathroom. Sure enough, there is a full-size bathtub and shower. I'm visited by an intense desire to clean the day off myself. It's only after the shower that I realize I've washed the dust of 12 off me for the last time and almost gasp with the regret … then I shake myself. Get over yourself, I think, sharply.

I suspect that I am expected to sit here, quietly, but I feel too antsy to sit still in this strange room, so I tiptoe back out into the narrow hallway and continue on through six or seven similar cars until I get to an open car set up with several rows of tables - the largest one set for four with china plates and multiple utensils, napkins and goblets. I go over to the windows and pull aside the curtains. The train is moving so fast - 250 miles an hour, we've been told - that the outside is a blur. I'm just turning away from this sight when I'm joined by Haymitch.

He's got a bandage on his forehead, but otherwise looks no different from normal. He frowns at me with squinted eyes, as if trying to figure out who I am. I realize he never saw my name being pulled, and he'd probably be too drunk to remember it, anyway. "Taking a nap," he slurs at me, then moves back to the previous car and goes into the private room.

I sit down at the table and spend the next twenty minutes or so contemplating the polish on the paneled walls while random thoughts about textbooks and curfews and dragonflies and sesame seeds and moonshine flit through my weary brain. I'm too overstimulated to even feel sorry for myself. Everything is just a whirl of confusion right now.

Effie and Katniss enter together. Katniss has changed into some dark green outfit that suits her very well, and she's wearing a gold pin at her breast. I glance at it surreptitiously, not wanting Katniss to think that I am staring: it's a bird enclosed by a thin circle. I don't remember seeing it when we were on stage together, so it must have been a goodbye gift. I’ve seen the design before - it escapes me where or when - but looks startlingly expensive for a miner’s daughter.

Effie smiles at me brightly. "Where's Haymitch?" she asks.

"He said he was taking a nap."

"Well, it's been an exhausting day," she replies, sitting.

Katniss' eyebrow raises just a millimeter before she sits down and I can totally read her thoughts. Exhausting for Haymitch? Sure….

Supper is served to us one course at a time. It's an extraordinary meal – like nothing I've ever eaten before. No holiday meal – not even the Harvest Festival, with meat provided by the Capitol – could come close to this. For Effie, it seems perfectly normal, but I'm dazzled – at first - just by the colors of the food. Orange soup, pink fruit, yellow vegetables, snow-white potatoes. It's so good – so full of flavor – that I can't stop eating it, even past the point of being full, even to the point of being sick. By the time I've reached the chocolate cake, every bite threatens to trigger my gag reflex – and yet, I must eat it – one piece, two pieces. At one point, I look over at Katniss and see that she, too, keeps refilling her plate.

Towards the end of dinner, Effie says something about how good our table manners are - I'm surprised by this, because I feel like some ravenous monster unable to control myself – especially, she explains, compared to last year's tributes, who ate with their hands, like savages.

There's a pause, during which Katniss and I both stop eating and stare at the woman. Katniss' face practically curls up into a sneer. Last year … they were Seam kids, as usual, probably people she knew. Then - and I almost laugh out loud at this - she sets down her fork very deliberately and finishes her meal by hand. Even the mashed potatoes, even the chocolate cake.

So, Effie's in a slightly less chipper mood when we finally stop eating and she leads us to another car - set up like a parlor, with a TV built into one wall. The Hunger Games commentary has begun, and they are about to start recapping the day's Reapings. Here, I think anxiously, is where Haymitch should show up and watch with us. As our mentor, he's supposed to help us size up our opponents.

But he doesn't, so Katniss and I just watch the recap in silence. I concentrate mostly on the Reapings from the first four districts. Districts 1, 2 and 4 are known as the "Career" districts. These districts are where - unofficially of course - children are trained in combat skills for years before vying for the honor of volunteering for the Games. Districts 1 and 2 are particularly successful at producing winners, trading off most years with a slight edge, I think, to District 2. The Careers also tend to make alliances in the opening days of the games, claiming the resources and hunting lesser opponents together. Watching and guessing at when and where the Career break will come at the end of the Games is where most of the suspense comes. Everyone's kind of excited when a non-career makes it to the end because the rest of us - at least, those of us in District 12 - loathe the Careers. They're basically Capitol – better fed, better loved, better cossetted in the arena. I think back to recent non-Career wins and I can only recall one. So, yeah - the person most likely to kill me is in that first third of tributes.

By the time I've stopped thinking about the Careers and pay attention to the screen again, I see a mismatched pair - a giant boy and a tiny little girl - being reaped from 11, and then our reaping is replayed. The commentators are as patronizing as usual, and my irritation grows as I watch. They coo over Katniss' volunteering as if it was a cute development and not breathtakingly somber. They play down the salute we gave her as "quaint." Then Haymitch takes over - lunging about, falling off the stage. We are altogether laughable, District 12.

"Your mentor has a lot to learn about televised behavior," Effie huffs, as the camera zooms in on her adjusting her hair in the aftermath of Haymitch's assault. Based on its angle, it seems to be a wig.

All my pent-up tension comes out in a laugh. "He was drunk - just like every year."

"Every day," says Katniss out of the blue - she's been very quiet so far. There's a laugh suppressed in her voice.

"How odd you two find it amusing," Effie hisses. "You know your mentor is your lifeline to the world during the Games - the one who advises you, lines up sponsors, gifts. He might be the difference between life and death!"

Haymitch - who seems to have a gift for arriving right on cue - appears at that moment. He sways a bit, mutters something about supper, then vomits all over the place. For a moment, the look of puzzlement on his face is almost comical, then he staggers forward, slips in his own sick, and lands face down.

"So - laugh away!" chirps Effie, darting from the room.

Katniss and I glance at each other for a beat after Effie leaves, then we both get up and pull Haymitch up by the arms. He's covered with his own vomit and the smell causes my own full stomach to wobble dangerously. We yank him between us to the closest sleeping car, the one he went into earlier, and pause for a moment.

"I guess - let's put him in the bathtub," I say, glancing at the clean bed.

We lower him into the tub, fastidiously keeping his vomit-covered front side away from us and I ponder the peculiarity of the circumstances - not the Games, but the current situation. In all of the years that I've gone to school with this girl, I have never actually spoken to her, and here we are, miles from home, about to strip and wash a grown man together.

I turn my head just a little bit - we're in close quarters. "It's okay - I can take it from here."

The relief on her face is palpable. "All right - I can send one of the Capitol people to help you."

I shake my head. I'm tired of giving the Capitol people reasons to laugh at District 12. "I don't want them," I say.

After she leaves, I carefully undress Haymitch and turn the shower on him until the vomit sloughs off his face and chest. He barely makes a sound or murmur of protest during this procedure. After this, I pat him vaguely with a towel and then pull him to his bed and lay him down. The train slows, then stops for a while, and I wait for a moment in Haymitch's doorway, wondering what is going on. But after a few minutes, the commute resumes.

I go back to my own room. My old clothes have been folded and set at the end of the bed, and I contemplate them for a while, tempted to put them back on, take myself back in time to District 12. I shake my head, attempting to free myself of morbid thoughts. I don't have time for them. I don't have the headspace.

I forgo both the Capitol's clothes and those from home and lie down naked on the enormous bed. Objectively, it's the most comfortable thing I've ever set my head down on. But in context, the size and strangeness of it make it hard for me to settle in and sleep. I need to sleep. I want to cry. I can do neither – I am anxious, frightened – still a bit nauseous. I don't know where to begin to think about what I'm supposed to do – how I'm supposed to behave – what I'm even supposed to hope for for myself. Eventually, exhaustion creeps over me and closes my eyes, and – strangely - there are no nightmares tonight, just good dreams - dreams of my brothers and my parents - that make me feel sad when I wake up the following morning.

I dress and venture out again, walk past all the sleeping cars and to the dining car, where breakfast has been served and Haymitch is sitting in front of an enormous plate of eggs, ham and potatoes. He waves me over and I sit across from him. I stare at his face – the grayish tint to the tan skin, the light wrinkles around his eyes. I've never really interacted with him before. Since he pays – and pays well – he gets his bread delivered to him; a special service. More often than not, I was not the one to do it, and when I did, I always would just leave bread on his porch. He rarely answers his door – too drunk, usually.

An attendant silently sets a mug in front of me and I think it might be coffee - which I've only had once or twice - but when I taste it, it is pure, creamy, dusky sweetness.

"Oh shit," I say, startling myself. Mom would have smacked me on the mouth to hear me say it aloud. "Oh, shit," I repeat. "That almost is worth dying for."

Haymitch's eyes glint approval - dark humor would be right up his alley. "Hot chocolate," he says helpfully.

Before I can take a second sip, Effie comes storming in from the parlor car. She pours herself a cup of coffee and Haymitch laughs at her uproariously. "Are you sure you didn't like what you saw, honey?" he asks her with a small leer.

"Lunatic!" she mutters.

I turn a puzzled look to Haymitch and he shrugs. "I don't usually sleep in my birthday suit, but then again, you normally don't come waking me up!" he shouts after her as she leaves, red-faced.

I blush and grab a roll to cover my embarrassment. Katniss enters on this scene, wearing the same green outfit from the night before. My appetite this morning is not what it was last night and I just start picking apart my roll, not sure if I really feel like eating it. I watch as Katniss is served a cup and hesitates over it.

"Hot chocolate, it's called," I tell her. She sips it tentatively, then her eyes widen and she gulps the rest of it down as quickly as she can, blowing away the steam in her eagerness to drink it.

She starts eating breakfast, and, just like last night, she tries everything twice and many things three times - eggs, ham slices, potatoes, fruit. She tries orange juice and cranberry juice and finishes with a second glass of hot chocolate. I try not to stare at her while she does this; it would be rude. It's just that there's something strangely appealing about this – her delight in her meal. I'm not sure why – maybe it's just that it invokes the pleasant memory of how it felt last night to actually taste food, to actually, for once, be full - more than full.

Then I remember: it's the old story – my desire, my need – to make sure that she is fed. What did I do it for, if it was only to come to this, in the end? Of all the huge, heavy things I have to grapple with at this moment, this is the largest and the most upsetting. Not that I have to play this Game - face a short, abrupt, brutal end. No – it's the fact that not only will I be dead soon, but so will she – despite everything I did to prevent it.

I look down at the table, to hide my thoughts in case the horror of them starts to show in my face. I grab another roll and try dunking the pieces in hot chocolate. It tastes like chalk in my mouth.

Haymitch grabs a glass of tomato juice and tops his breakfast off by pouring the contents of a flask into it. It's impressive, how early he starts. But I look up at him, irritated – angry, even. We are hours away - if that - from the Capitol and the most I've done so far is prepare myself to hold down vomit. That might come in use, sure, but don't we deserve a little more? For twenty-three years, District 12 kids have been dying under this man's watch, and he seems to be treating this trip like a more interesting way to get drunk. I'm trying to formulate the words to address this, but Katniss anticipates me.

"So, you're supposed to give us advice," she says, in a wary tone.

"Here's some advice. Stay alive," he says, and laughs as if he's told a clever joke. This only reminds me painfully of my last conversation with my father. I glance at Katniss, and she looks at me a second before her eyes harden. That's enough to put me over the edge.

"Very funny," I say, swiping the glass out of Haymitch's hand. It falls to the floor and breaks with a strangely satisfactory sound - and I spit out: "Only, not to us."

My answer comes in the form of a swift and very effective punch to the jaw. It knocks me right off my chair and I lie on the floor for a moment, seeing stars. Katniss gives a cry and I hear a loud thunk on the table - then an intense silence.

"Well, what's this?" says Haymitch. "Did I get a pair of fighters this year?"

I stand up, rubbing my jaw. There's some ice on the table and I reach for it, but Haymitch grabs my arm. "No," he hisses. "Let the bruise show - they'll think you mixed it up with another tribute before even getting to the arena."

"That's against the rules," I protest.

"Only if they catch you."

I would debate the wisdom of this, but Haymitch suddenly seems very involved, so I relax back into the chair and let it happen. He turns his attention to Katniss.

"Can you hit something better than a table?" he asks her, and I see now that her table knife is stuck, tip first, into the tablecloth. She pulls it out, throws it at the wall, and hits it dead between two panels. I've never been more impressed by her, and that is saying a lot.

Haymitch gets up and walks to the middle of the room. "Get over here. Both of you." We obey him and stand side by side while he circles us, poking us, pinching our upper arms, taking our chins and turning our faces back and forth. "Not entirely hopeless. Seem fit. You'll be attractive enough once the stylists get a hold of you."

This is a depressing reminder that the Hunger Games are not just a contest of skill, but a bit of a popularity contest. Rich Capitol citizens will sponsor certain tributes - ones they take a fancy to, as well as those they hope to win bets off of - with gifts in the arena: food, weapons.

Haymitch sighs. "OK, I'll make a deal with you. You don't interfere with my drinking." He pokes a finger at my nose. "I stay sober enough to help you. But you have to do exactly what I say."

That's the sort of deal that could come back to bite us, but it's better than nothing. I glance down at Katniss and say, "Fine."

"So, help us," says Katniss, and she starts asking him about strategy, but Haymitch raises his hand.

"One thing at a time. We'll be pulling into the station in a few minutes and you'll be put into the hands of your stylists. You're not going to like what they do to you, but don't resist."

Katniss starts to object, but he cuts her off, and I'm not really listening anymore. Minutes? My heart starts to thump. Haymitch shakes his head as if to clear it and leaves the dining car. As he does, the windows behind the curtains go dark and the room dims significantly. If we are indeed minutes from the Capitol train station, this must be the long tunnel that goes underneath the mountains east of the city.

Then the light suddenly returns and the train slows. As if our thoughts are exactly the same, Katniss and I run to the window and push the curtain aside - to see it. The Capitol. It fills the north horizon outside the window - we see the tall buildings, clustered together in rows, from here to the hazy distance. The ones closest to us, that loom over a long, low train station, are relatively short - five, six, seven stories high. Some of them seem to be of clear glass, reflecting the bright blue sky. Some are of painted stone in electric-bright colors - pink, yellow, green. This, I think, is where Effie would look right at home. Between the train tracks and the train station, an enormous crowd has gathered. Their faces are pressed so closely together, I think they must not number much less than the population of District 12 that can fit into the town center on Reaping Day.

As we slow to a crawl at the approach to the station, the people clustered around the tracks start pointing and waving to us eagerly. I catch faces rendered like masks with thick makeup, false eyelashes that extend farther out than would seem possible, skin tinted purple, green, pink. Katniss steps back, as if the sight of them disgusts her, but I swallow and smile, returning the waves. I have no skills in combat, so popularity with the crowd is my only possible hope.

The crowd disappears as we pull into the station and I sigh and look back at Katniss, who is staring at me with a curious look. "Who knows? One of them might be rich."

Chapter 5: Chapter Four

Chapter Text

I point at the reflection in the mirror. Now, this is an unusual sight: my own naked self, surrounded by three young women. But I feel oddly detached from the image – the person in the mirror could be almost any other young man in the world. If only.

"Calla," I say, aiming my finger at the girl who is twisting my damp hair around a hot metal stick. She's the most vivid, and easiest to remember – purple hair and eyelashes somehow lit up with neon lights. "Julia," I continue, pointing to the oldest of the women, who is blowing on the fingernails of my other hand. "And … Antonia." She is the youngest of the girls. She doesn't look much older than me and, under other circumstances, I'd probably be quite intrigued – her pink hair in pigtails and her wide eyes a startling golden color. But she's tweezing my body of stray bits of hair - so I'm not currently her biggest fan.

"That's right," says Julia, in that peculiar Capitol accent that lifts at the end of every phrase, as if all sentences were questions. But she doesn't meet my eyes and I frown at the mirror, feeling every bit as inconsequential to this moment as I did when they first got their hands on me, scrubbing me with three layers of exfoliating soaps, twice washing my hair and then smothering me in sweet-smelling lotions while they groused about how they got "stuck" with District 12 because the stylists they work with are so peculiar.

I'm startled out of my thoughts as Julia wraps a towel around my waist and Antonia abruptly straightens up and takes my chin in her hand, moving my face back and forth, much like Haymitch did on the train a couple of hours ago. "I don't know – an earring? Don't you think … especially with the hairstyle … it might add a …?"

"Portia said no alterations," says Julia firmly, and I nearly sigh in relief.

"I think the hair's done," says Calla. "What do you think?"

By now I understand that my opinion is not being solicited, so I just look at myself somberly while they all stare at my head. I've got thick hair that kind of scoops over my forehead in a natural wave. This wave has now been curled into a ridiculous cascade of yellow ringlets. Calla puts her fingers in it again and straightens the curls out just a little.

"That's it," says Julia.

"Yes," agrees Antonia, and then Calla sprays my head all over with something misty from an aerosol can. It smells like some kind of accelerant and my eyes sting. As the girls turn away from me to start packing up their equipment, I surreptitiously touch my hair and it feels weird, stiff and kind of crunchy.

I struggle to keep my breath steady. This beauty ritual is unpleasant, just as Haymitch said, but I couldn't predict what he actually meant by that. This – as innocent as it might seem - is where it begins: the process the Capitol uses to start stripping you of your own identity. I'm being prepped for the opening night parade, where tributes are costumed to represent their district and presented in pairs to the President. That means something to do with coal, our district's industry, which has almost nothing to do with me. Everything that I really am – someone who draws in sketchbooks and frosts cakes and watches a gray-eyed girl eat food – will be sacrificed to the ritual of the Games. I've never really seen myself before, on full display in a full-length mirror, and I sense I never will again. Once dressed again, I will be a tribute until my death.

"OK, Peeta, wait here," says Calla. "We'll get Portia."

Portia is my assigned stylist. The person in charge of transforming me. I wonder what form this will take, specifically for tonight's parade. District 12 tributes have typically paraded in coal miner outfits - and whether authentically baggy or unnaturally skimpy, they've never been flattering and probably even a bit self-defeating for the purpose of attracting sponsors. Some of the lazier - or less savory - stylists of the past have forgone costumes and paraded District 12 tributes around in nothing at all. Considering where my prep team has been today, I'm a little concerned about this.

I've just given in to the temptation to chew on my buffed fingernails when Portia enters the room, on soft feet. She's a petite woman in her late twenties or early thirties, her skin is dark brown and smooth and her hair is in a bright yellow bob. Her makeup, especially in comparison to the prep team, is fairly minimal - a brush of blue on her eyelids, a coral pink shade on her lips. She wears sea-green leggings and a thin gray oversized tunic that shows off one of her shoulders. She looks both elegant and confident. "Peeta?" she asks in a quiet voice.

"Hi."

"Portia." She extends a hand, and I carefully take it, painfully aware of the towel shifting around my hips.

She smiles gently and points to a chair behind me. There's a gray robe laid over it. "Go ahead and cover yourself up."

Portia leads me out of the "beauty room" to a lounge overlooked by a wall of expansive windows. We sit across from each other on some soft, luxurious chairs and she looks me over. "Your mentor - he's spoken to you about attracting sponsors and generally making an impression?"

I nod.

"My partner, Cinna, is the stylist for Katniss, and we'll be working together on your look this week. We know we have to spotlight coal, but we want to do it in some less - literal fashion this year."

I squint at her, trying to understand, but nothing comes to mind. Coal is pretty basic, difficult to translate into anything more interesting, I would think. But that's her job, not mine.

She smiles; she does a fair impression of a genuinely kind person, which is a bit off-putting. It's hard to meet kindness with resentment, which is of course how I truly feel. Peculiar, my prep team called her. Is this what they meant? "I just have to take a few measurements for the final fitting, then we have a couple of hours free. Are you hungry for lunch?"

Yes, I'm starving, in fact, having skimped on breakfast. Still, it's a little awkward at first, sitting down to eat with this young woman after I've had to strip again and have her measure my chest and hips.

But over lunch, Portia puts me right at ease. She asks me about school, about what I do at home, about what kind of food I like and what I do for fun. Before I know it, I've told her about almost everything: wrestling, baking, sketching. This last interests her. As a designer, she works with a sketchbook, too, and she promises me that, sometime this week, she'll make sure to show it to me.

I'm frankly a bit stunned by the end of this conversation. The Capitol sends us district tributes to these Games like we are really of no more worth than cattle - less even. They root for our deaths, they bet on our lives. I had not expected to find any actual humanity directed to me, and while I'm personally comforted, I'm also deeply disturbed. What does it say about the human race that both these impulses - friendliness and bloodlust - can exist together in one person?

"Do you have a girlfriend?" is the last question Portia asks me.

I look out the window in order to hide my blush. It's quite a view – one which I've seen on television, but so much more impressive in person. We're high up in the building called the Remake Center, which is at the bottom of a long avenue that leads to the City Center. Directly up the avenue I can see the President's Mansion. Weird to be so close. "No," I tell her, shortly. She doesn't press it.

After lunch, I have an hour or so to myself in Portia's section of the Remake Center, and I wander over to her workstation and see a few of the raw sketches she seems to be currently working on, along with swatches of fabric. The sketches seem to indicate a fascination with fire.

Finally, my prep team reappears and I'm dressed in a plain black unitard and black boots. Well, it's definitely not literally coal, I think to myself, and I'm not naked. I'm just not sure I'm going to make much of an impression. Then Portia comes in carrying a bright cape made of strings of red, orange and yellow, and ties it around my neck. A matching headband, with the same streamers, is tied around my forehead. Fire, I think - once we're moving, the cape and headdress will flutter and will probably look a bit flame-like. But Portia is not done.

"So, Peeta - I want you to trust me. This cape is going to be lit on fire for the duration of the parade."

"What!"

"The flames will be synthetic - they won't burn up the cape, they won't burn you. It will give the illusion of a real fire, but no harm should come to you."

I widen my eyes, wishing she was a little more definitive with that last bit. Well - so much for not making an impression. But there is no time to raise objections. Portia leads me and the prep team out into a hallway where we join Katniss - dressed exactly like I am - a young man, and Katniss' prep team in front of an elevator. We all go together downstairs to the bottom level of the Remake Center, which is where they keep the chariots that tributes ride and the horses that pull the chariots. During the elevator ride down, everybody chats happily except for me and Katniss. We just stare at each other and, for once, there is a crack in her expression, as if she's just barely managing to hold on to her extraordinary stoic reserve. Or maybe I'm just reading in her face what I'm going through in my own head.

We're led and helped up to a chariot with four black horses already attached to it. The horses are trained for this parade so we won't have to do anything; still, just feeling the power of them as they shift in their harnesses is intimidating. Portia and Cinna step back so they can look at us from a distance and, all of a sudden, Katniss is leaning into me. "What do you think about the fire?" she whispers.

I force a tense joke. "I'll rip off your cape if you rip off mine."

"Deal." She straightens up, and I look down and study her face. Her dark hair is back in its complicated braid and there is just a light touch of makeup on her eyes and lips. The cape and headband are a bit flat and garish in comparison to the black unitard, but I remind myself it should look very different in motion - and on fire. After a while, she breaks our mutual gaze and looks around. "I know we promised Haymitch to do whatever the stylists said, but I don't think he considered this angle."

I look around the stable and my eyes scan the people milling about, the other tributes, the other stylists and mentors. "Where is he anyway? Isn't he supposed to protect us from this sort of thing?"

Katniss' mouth crooks up into half a grin. "With all that alcohol in him, it's probably not advisable for him to be around an open flame," she says wryly.

I burst out laughing - and it's such a relief to laugh, as if all the weirdness and tension of the day has deflated into something almost normal, almost human. And - she's actually genuinely funny. I never saw this girl at school. Of course, this is the longest conversation we've had - ever - and it's in the most bizarre circumstances imaginable.

This is a short-lived state, though, as beyond the stable walls, the bombastic music of the national anthem starts up, and the wide doors slide open, revealing the crowd that lines the avenue under the gray light of the early evening.

The chariot for District 1 lurches forward and heads out onto the avenue. I catch a glimpse of their glittery costumes as they escape into the air. Then District 2 - Cato and Clove, I remember from the Reaping video - dressed in slate-gray tunics. Then District 3, and so on …. Just as the District 11 chariot goes into motion, Cinna reappears with a lit torch and jumps up next to us. Before we can react, he has put the torch to Katniss' cape, which ignites at once and starts fluttering in the breeze of its own flames. I watch in fascination as the fire dances delicately on the strings of the cape, but never burns it. My cape is lit next and Cinna smiles at us. "It works," he says in relief. And he lights our headdresses, gives some last encouraging words to Katniss and jumps down just as our horses hear their cue and start moving.

Then he shouts something at us and Katniss turns to me, in confusion. "What did he say?"

I swallow a gasp. With her hair and face wreathed in the synthetic flames, Katniss has somehow transformed. The fire makes her eyes darken, her skin glow. There is some kind of glitter in the makeup she's wearing, because she is sparkling now, with every movement. "I think he said to hold hands," I croak, and grab hers. It's delicate and warm. I look over at Cinna and he gives us a thumbs-up, and our chariot crosses into the avenue.

At first, it's incredibly intimidating - being scrutinized by this frantic, screaming crowd. On TV, you usually see the close-ups of the tributes while the commentators measure how well the stylists did - or did not - represent the Districts' industries with the costumes. Here's where you first start learning their names. I've never seen something from this perspective before - looking up the graduated stands, beyond the floodlights, to the featureless faces. And the noise - like a shrill thunderstorm. But after awhile, it all recedes into the background. In the screens set around the perimeter of the avenue, showing us what is being shown to the crowds at home, we have started to appear, in close up. I gape at the images - barely recognizing myself - and anyway, I'm not thinking about myself: like the crowd, I am transfixed by the girl next to me in the chariot.

Because - they are. By the time we are midway up the avenue, they are chanting her name. Maybe mine, too - I think I might hear it occasionally - but it's mostly her. And it's not a surprise: she is mesmerizing. Somehow, all those intriguing, indefinable, fascinating parts of her - the lift to her chin, the moody lights in her eyes - are the actual fuel to the fire that surrounds her. The glow of her costume seems almost ordinary in comparison.

And as the crowd warms to her, she warms to the crowd. She waves and smiles - her lips part in gratified surprise at their enchantment. Roses - pink, purple, yellow and red - are thrown at us, and she catches one, and actually blows a kiss back to the crowd.

I don't know if this is her own strategy, or just her being caught up in the moment, but it seems so natural and spontaneous on her part. The energy of the crowd is flowing through her and she is responding to it. If it's odd that it is coming out here - far away from home, in front of these despicable strangers - well, it's also incredibly timely. I don't mean just as a strategy. I mean that she's like a living rebuke to the Capitol, in sort of the same way Effie thinks she is to our district. Something exciting, when they expected dull. Something powerful, when they ordered up powerless. It's as if Portia and Cinna had dug into the earth for coal and instead found a living flame.

At the City Circle, which is the end of the avenue, we leave the stands behind and approach the other chariots as they circle around a ring of buildings, including the president's mansion. People in the windows hang out and gape at us, but the noise is less and the energy starts to drain from Katniss' body. I can literally feel it. She looks down at our linked hands, as if suddenly remembering that I'm here with her, and starts to pull free, but I grip her tighter. "Don't let go of me, please. I might fall out of this thing."

"OK."

The rest of the ceremony follows in a blur for me. I see President Snow get up on his podium and intone his normal welcome. I'm vaguely aware of the anthem playing. But something larger than even the Games has happened here this evening, and I'm struggling to process it. It's not just me and the way I've always kind of admired this girl. It's not just the way she and the crowd responded to each other. It's how she's come to represent more than the Seam, more than District 12, tonight - maybe even more than Panem. She's like some elemental being - the spirit of all of us. How we were supposed to be, maybe, before greed and pettiness ground us down to this ashy mess we've made of things. I think to myself, she has to win this thing. For me, for them - for all of us. And if I - a tribute whose death is necessary for this to come to pass - am moved to think this, how far was the crowd moved?

Our chariot makes a last turn around the circle, then follows the rest to come to a stop in front of one of the buildings along the ring - the Training Center. Cinna and Portia help us down from the chariot - I still haven't let go of her hand - and Portia extinguishes our flames. But Katniss' face is still lit up, from within. Finally, we let go of each other, and I massage my cramped hand.

I stare at her, trying to understand everything I felt on the chariot. It seems silly, now, as the murmur of mentors and stylists has replaced the thunder of the crowd. Perhaps I have an overactive imagination. And yet … "Thanks for keeping hold of me," I tell her. "I was getting a little shaky out there."

"I'm sure no one noticed."

I feel myself smile. "I'm sure no one noticed anything but you. You should wear flames more often - they suit you." This, at least, is perfectly true.

She blushes at this and she squints at me, her look puzzled. Then, abruptly, she leans over to me, standing tip-toe to kiss me on my cheek.

Chapter 6: Chapter Five

Chapter Text

Chapter Five

I'm spared the need to react to her kiss, as we are immediately summoned by the stylists to follow them into the Training Center. I can't feel my feet, or really any part of me except the spot on my face where her lips touched me.

Odd - the difference between two kisses. Yesterday - was it really yesterday? - Aster's kiss made no impression apart from surprise. Perhaps I could pin it on the different circumstances, but I'd be fooling myself and I know this. I've never really felt like this before - there's a euphoria that hurts, really deep down, and the pain is actually quite - oddly - satisfying.

Why did she do it? Aster's motivations were, frankly, easier to guess. But Katniss' are thoroughly mysterious. Maybe she's playing me. Maybe all of this - everything - the knife on the train, the response to the crowd, the kiss - is part of her strategy to butter up to me, to the crowd, to keep herself alive. I've found out tonight that I know nothing about this girl, who has an entire universe burning below the surface of her skin. I don't even care. Since I have no future, the meaning of the thing is actually of little concern compared to thing itself. That being the case - she can play me all she wants.

We are handed back to Effie and the three of us get into an elevator - all clear glass - and we ride up to the top of the building, the 12th floor. Effie starts talking excitedly about how well we looked, how beautifully we conducted ourselves tonight. Since Haymitch doesn't have a fellow mentor - being the only living Victor for our district - she'll be helping him out as much as she can, in addition to her normal duties of keeping us on schedule. In fact, she's already been talking us up all day to every well-connected person she knows. She - like us - hasn't even seen Haymitch since the train, which has been a disadvantage: she has no idea what form our strategy will take. Nonetheless, she's been laying the groundwork, telling everyone how much more fascinating we are than the typical District 12 tributes, what with Katniss volunteering and us generally rising over the barbarism of our district.

Table manners really must mean a lot to this woman.

"Everyone had their reservations, naturally. You being from the coal district. But I said - and this was very clever of me, I said, 'Well, if you put enough pressure on coal, it turns to pearls!'"

We both stare at her beaming face - she's joking, right? Even kids from the barbaric outreaches of District 12 know that pearls are found in shellfish. But she is smiling so broadly, so clearly waiting for a response, that I say, "Thank you, Effie."

Katniss nods. "That was clever," she adds, but she gives me a wry side look.

This is, all by itself, enough to get my thoughts racing again.

"Well, Haymitch will be joining us for dinner, at least, so we should hopefully get some forward progress tonight!" Effie says, as we step off the elevator and enter our suite.

Here's something that normally doesn't get shown on television, either. Maybe the Capitol viewers would find it mundane, but I can only gape at the size of this place. The front room is vast, divided into two sections - an enormous sitting room that by itself could host a party of thirty people and a dining room with a table that seats twelve. There are four bedrooms, and each one is almost as big as our apartment above the bakery, not including the enormous bathroom.

Effie walks me through the astounding features of my bedroom - the 'window' that's not a window but a screen that feeds into various cameras throughout the city, so I can look in on different views. The food service device, through which I can order anything on a menu and it will come straight to me from the training center kitchens. The wardrobe full of clothes tailored just for me.

I take a shower to wash the hair spray and body gel off me, but not before spending a moment touching the spot on my face where Katniss kissed me. It hurts, and I realize that's also the spot where Haymitch punched me. I play with the shower settings until I get a perfect warm gush over my body, and a combination of scents that please me - pine and clover, primarily. My body feels strange under my hands. I seem to be another person, entirely. I step out of the shower and onto a mat that heat-blasts me dry.

I feel overstimulated and confused, so when I dress and go back out to the main rooms, I make immediately for the large window, which I find out is really a sliding glass door that leads out to a balcony.

The balcony is in the back of the building, so I am looking out toward the western part of the Capitol - out over the tall buildings - they stretch up for twenty, thirty, forty stories, maybe more - and they are brightly colored in the silvery evening light, as if they are made out of hard candy. Beyond them, the red mountains look small and scrubby. I'm joined by Portia and Cinna. "Enjoying the view?" asks Portia.

When I nod, Cinna says, "Come upstairs, there's an even better one."

Puzzled, I follow them to the end of the hallway where the bedrooms are. The last door actually leads to a staircase that climbs up and onto the roof of the building. It's an exhilarating feeling, being under the sky again, with the warm wind blowing around me. There's a strange tinkling sound behind me - it sounds somewhat like a whole bunch of little bells being rung rapidly. We go around the small dome where the staircase ended and there is a garden right here on the roof. Well, flower boxes and trees in large pots. Small chimes hang from the tree branches, which accounts for the ringing sound.

All around the rooftop is a metal railing, and I go over and look out over the edge of it, down into the city. On one side, I can look down into the city circle and even over the president's mansion. I can see the construction crews dismantling the audience stands from earlier, but there are still plenty of people milling around, and I can faintly hear music playing from the street.

I've never looked down from such a height, and it's dizzying. I wonder what it would be like to fall from that height - I mean, what it would feel like before you hit the ground. It gives me a weird idea. "How do they keep people - tributes, I mean - from just jumping off the roof?"

"Not thinking of it, are you?" asks Cinna with a laugh.

"No, just wondering."

He reaches his hand past the railing and there is a slight crackle. "Force field. It would repel any attempts to jump."

"Well, I guess it's better than being confined indoors," I say.

We walk through the garden on the way back in and the loudness of the chimes strikes me as strange and deliberate.

Back in our suite, we go out on the balcony and I test the force field myself. After a moment of silence, I say, "I want to thank you guys for the outfits tonight. I've never seen anything like them before."

"You both did a good job, too," says Portia.

"But it's not just the costumes," and I look directly at Cinna now. "It's Katniss. You managed to capture some - essence of her - and have it all show up on the outside."

I see Cinna and Portia exchange a glance, but I refuse to embarrass - not enough time left for that.

"Are you and Katniss friends?" asks Portia delicately.

"No," I shake my head. "We'd never really even spoken before yesterday. But everyone in District 12 knows Katniss. She's different."

"That's our impression, too" says Cinna slowly.

"She has people to take care of at home. Her family - she feeds them, makes sure they are taken care of. She could win this thing."

Portia touches my shoulder. "Let's take one day at a time, Peeta," she says softly.

"I just wanted you to know. She's a good bet."

Cinna stares at me a moment, then some movement inside catches his attention. "Ah, looks like dinner is served."

We go inside and join Effie and Katniss, who are just sitting down at the table. A couple of servers have joined us, too. They wear white tunics and stand quietly against the walls. We are offered wine, and I refuse it, but notice with interest that Katniss accepts it. Haymitch joins us, looking clean and - I think he actually shaved.

Dinner is once again elaborate and rich. It is served in courses, so that you don't really know what's coming next and I've stuffed myself on mushroom soup and salad before a giant platter of beef is brought out.

Despite the fact that Cinna and Portia seem to be new stylists, they apparently know Haymitch very well, and I listen closely to their conversation, in which Haymitch seems to be checking up on people he knows in the Capitol. Although it's been just a year since his last visit, he seems to expect a number of them to have died or something.

"And have you heard from Messalla lately? Is he doing OK? How about Roget? Tigris? Did you ever work with Tigris, I forget?"

Cinna's answers are brief and a bit noncommittal. Effie tires of this talk and - two or three glasses into the wine herself - starts praising Portia and Cinna for their work on our costumes. "We will be able to get them sponsors for sure, just based on tonight!" she says brightly.

Dessert is brought in just then - a large chocolate cake. One of the quiet serving girls steps forward with a small torch and touches it to one corner of the cake - it ignites and the flames travel around the edges. Katniss says suddenly, "What makes it burn? Is it alcohol? That's the last thing I wa - oh! I know you!"

Every head at the table whips around to look at her, but she is staring intently at the serving girl, who has stepped back, with an expression of sheer terror on her face. Something is wrong with the adults, too - their faces are shocked. Effie huffs. "Don't be ridiculous, Katniss. How could you possibly know an Avox? The very thought."

I'm puzzled too. How could Katniss know anyone here? The girl - the Avox? - has a distinctly pale face and dark red hair and looks nothing like anyone I've ever seen in District 12.

"What's an Avox?" asks Katniss, and I wonder anxiously if the wine went to her head, because surely - even if she's never heard of an Avox before - she must be reading the unease in the room.

"Someone who committed a crime," says Haymitch firmly. "They cut her tongue so she can't speak. Probably a traitor of some sort. Not likely you'd know her."

"And even if you did, you're not to speak to one of them unless it's to give an order," adds Effie. "Of course you don't really know her."

I can tell it's not just that Katniss has committed some kind of faux pas. The adults are concerned that someone is listening. I jump in. "Delly Cartwright - that's who it is! I kept thinking she looked familiar as well. Then I realized, she's a dead ringer for Delly."

She's not - at all. Delly is blond, short and on the plump side. Katniss meets my eyes and she swallows. "Of course, that's who I was thinking of. Must be the hair."

"Something about the eyes, too," I add.

At that, the adults relax and I can breathe freely again, too. After the cake, we move over to the seating area to watch the recap of the parade. I'm eager to see Katniss again, bathed in flames. I expect to feel keenly embarrassed to see myself, but I have to admit, the costume improves my looks quite a bit, too.

Haymitch asks whose idea was the hand-holding.

"Cinna's," says Portia.

"Just the perfect touch of rebellion," says Haymitch approvingly.

Rebellion. This is a puzzle. Yes, most tributes - though forced into pairings by the Capitol - do not go in as allies, unless they join a pack, like the Careers. It's too awkward a situation, allying with someone from your own district, whose death is important to your victory. The winner of such a grouping would face a fairly hostile district upon returning home, and the mentors would be castigated for setting up that situation. Maybe that's what Haymitch means: that if we look like we'll be going in together, in defiance of traditional gameplay, people might think twice about hunting us? Rebellion, though. A loaded word. I thought we were all worried about the people listening in to our conversations ….

"Tomorrow morning is the first training session," Haymitch continues. "Meet me for breakfast in the morning and we'll talk strategy. Now - go get some sleep while the grown-ups talk."

We head down the corridor toward the bedrooms, but as we get to hers, I stop in her doorway and lean against the frame, curiosity having completely got the best of my reticence in speaking to her. She looks up at me warily.

"So - Delly Cartwright. Imagine meeting her lookalike here?"

She purses her lips, clearly hesitating about whether or not to say anything. I'm not sure if it's because she has something to say she doesn't want to admit or if she has picked up on the fact that conversations here might be overheard.

"Have you been on the roof yet?" I ask with forced casualness. "Cinna took me up earlier. The wind's a little loud, though."

"Can we - just go up?"

"Sure, come on." I lead her up the stairs and to the dome on the roof. As we step outside, the wind swirls around us. Katniss gasps, and I have to admit the city at night is as breathtaking as it is in the day. We are surrounded by a million lights in a field of velvety black. We go to the railing and look down at the street, where the lights are moving.

I explain about the force field and she says sarcastically, "Always worried about our safety." Then she asks, softly, "Do you think we're being watched?"

"Maybe. But come see the garden."

I lead her into the tinkling garden - it's even louder now that the wind has picked up. I can see she understands this is her best chance to not be overheard. She bends down slightly to examine a flower in the darkness, and whispers, "One day we were hunting."

"You and your father?" I whisper back.

"No, my friend Gale. Suddenly, all the birds stopped singing at once - except for one. Like a warning call. Then we saw her - the same girl, I'm sure of it. There was a boy with her. Their clothes were tattered. They were running like their lives depended on it. A hovercraft appeared out of nowhere. I mean, one minute the sky was empty and the next it wasn't. It didn't make a sound. A net dropped down and hauled the girl up - fast, like the elevator." She pauses. "They shot some spear at the boy; it went right through him. There was a cable attached to it, and it hauled him up. He was dead already, I think. We heard the girl shout something - like the boy's name, maybe. Then it was gone - vanished. And the birds all started singing again."

I ponder her story. It sounds so unbelievable, but I can't think of a single good reason she could have to make it up. And she's clearly upset. "Did they see you?"

"I don't know," she replies, but with an edge of doubt in her voice. "We were under a shelf of rock."

She straightens up and I see she is shivering, even though it is not too cold. I pull off my jacket and wrap it around her shoulders. "Did they come from here?"

She nods certainly.

But this is so strange. District 12 is far away from the Capitol. And beyond us is just the wilderness - and the remains of District 13. "Where do you suppose they were going?"

"I don't know that - or why they would leave here."

"I'd leave here," I say, forgetting to whisper. Shit. "I'd go home tomorrow, if they let me," I add, forcing a laugh. "But I have to admit - the food is prime." I have a sudden pang - a longing to walk downstairs and be in my mother's office in the bakery - with the smell of fresh bread perfuming the air. I shrug. "It's getting chilly. We'd better go back downstairs."

As we walk back inside, I hesitate on the question that is really worrying my mind. I mean - runaway Capitol traitors are intriguing, but I don't have enough time in my life to sort that issue out. Anyway, I can't help myself. I nervously lick my lips. "Your friend - Gale. He's the one who took your sister away - at the reaping?" As if I didn't know.

"Yes, do you know him?" she asks in surprise.

"Not really - the girls talk about him a lot, though. I - thought he was your cousin or something. You favor each other."

"No, we're not related," she says.

This is more disappointing than it should be, considering I more than half-suspected this. "Did he come to say good-bye to you?"

She looks up at me. I know I'm pressing it, but she answers me anyway. "Yes. So did your father. He brought me cookies."

This brings me up short. "Really? Well, he likes you and your sister. I think he wishes he had a daughter instead of a house full of boys." We've reached her door, but I can't let go, yet. "He knew your mother when they were kids."

"Oh, yes - she grew up in town," she replies, vaguely.

She hands me my jacket and looks back at me with eyes that are very serious, matter-of-fact, completely without artifice. I still can't figure out where it came from – the kiss that is still burning my cheek. I just wish I'd thrown her a compliment way before tonight. I try to keep my feelings out of my face. I want to tell her again how good she looked tonight, how good it is to have someone to talk to. But I'm not sure how to begin or if I really should.

"See you in the morning," she says into the silence.

"See you." I walk down the hall to my room. I sniff at my jacket, which has picked up the lemony soap scent from her.

I lie down on my huge bed and think for a little while about home - how my family and friends would have watched me tonight. We were the talk of the Capitol, which is unusual for District 12. And the crowds don't even know, yet, what Katniss can do. Unlike so many of the rest of us, she already came to the Capitol with deadly skills. She can hunt.

Hunt. So - it's not just her family that she has to go home to. There's Gale. Her friend, she called him. Maybe that's all there is to it. I've never seen them hang out at school. But - they're well-matched, that's for sure. Whereas, if I come home without her … it just all keeps coming down to the same conclusion, doesn't it? I might as well stop avoiding it.

"My death doesn't ensure her victory," I whisper into the darkness. My death is the least of her problems.

There has to be some way to guarantee her safety. And if I can do that - if I can do that - I might just be able to accept my fate.

Chapter 7: Chapter Six

(Video) HUNGER GAMES IN PEETA'S POV | PEETA'S GAMES BY IGSYGRACE

Chapter Text

Chapter Six

It is perhaps unsurprising that my dreams that night are ringed in fire. But the most vivid detail I recall in the morning is the silhouette of the hunter, dark against a blazing sunset, her bow and arrow primed for release. In the few moments I have to myself, blinking sleepily in my bed, I try to work out whether this was a nightmare or actually a good dream. I feel strange – a little nauseous, slightly giddy. But also calm and self-righteous. I may not have a clear plan as to how to accomplish it, but I do have a goal.

After I shower, I see some athletic wear has been laid out for me - this will be for the training sessions, which start today. I meet Haymitch coming out of his room and we walk into the dining room together. Katniss is already there, not eating anything but a roll, which she is absently dipping into her mug.

"Good morning!" I say and she turns and looks at me, and she frowns a little. It's palpable - the wall that she is putting up between us - and I get it, I do, but it's so contrary to every last instinct in me. Why hurry into the competition? It's coming soon enough.

I pick at some eggs and pancakes and a cup of coffee. Haymitch starts devouring stew. Katniss picks up another roll and turns it over in her hands, still frowning in contemplation.

After he finally finishes eating, Haymitch pulls out his flask and drinks straight from it. "So, let's get down to business," he says, wiping his mouth. "Training. First off, if you like, I'll coach you separately. Decide now."

Hmm, this might be a good idea - I need to figure out some way to achieve my goal, and maybe Haymitch can help.

"Why would you do that?" asks Katniss.

"Say you had a secret skill you might not want the other to know about."

Katniss and I look at each other, and I laugh out loud - all my skills are pretty benign. "I don't have any secret skills and I already know what yours is, right? I've eaten enough of your squirrels."

She raises her eyebrow, as if surprised. "You can coach us together," she tells Haymitch.

"All right, so let me know what you can do."

"I can't do anything," I say bluntly. "Unless you count baking bread."

"Sorry, I don't. Katniss? I already know you're handy with a knife…."

She shrugs. "Not really - but I can hunt. With a bow and arrow."

"And you're good?"

Seriously? Is Haymitch the only person in District 12 who doesn't know it? I suppose he could afford to buy real meat. It's just interesting that Katniss never attempted to gain him as a customer. Too close to the Capitol, maybe – that might be it.

Katniss hesitates on the answer. "I'm all right," she says modestly.

"She's excellent," I cut in, a little surprised to find myself annoyed by her self-deprecation. "My father buys her squirrels. He always says how her arrows never pierce the body - always just in the eye. Same with the rabbits she sells the butcher. She can even bring down deer."

Katniss' mouth drops open and she narrows her eyes at me. "What are you doing?"

"What are you doing?" I fire back. "If he's going to help you, he has to know what you're capable of. Don't underrate yourself."

At this, she curls her lip. "What about you? I've seen you in the market. You can lift hundred-pound bags of flour. Tell him that. That's not nothing."

Wait … what? Where is this coming from? "Yes, and I'm sure the arena will be full of bags of flour for me to chuck at people. It's not like being able to use a weapon. You know it's not."

"He can wrestle," she says, turning to Haymitch. "He came in second in our school competition last year, only after his brother."

"What use is that?" I retort. "How many times have you seen someone wrestle someone to death?"

"There's always hand-to-hand combat. All you need is a knife, and you'll at least stand a chance. If I get jumped, I'm dead!"

Why is she so angry at me about this? And also ... "But you won't!" My own resentment at her comes out in my voice. "You'll be up in some tree eating raw squirrels and picking off people with arrows. You know what my mother said to me - as if to cheer me up - she says maybe District 12 will finally have a winner this year. And she meant you!"

Katniss dismisses this at once. "Oh, she meant you."

"She said, 'She's a survivor, that one.' She is," I reply, fighting back tears.

Katniss' shock registers on her face, and all the angry energy in the air between us suddenly dissolves, leaving behind a slouching, morose silence. She looks into my eyes and, for the first time, she's not closed off to me. There is nothing but raw emotion in her face as she says, very quietly, "But only because someone helped me."

I wince. Damn Seam vagrant! That's my mother's voice, coming back to me from the past - from a day I have rehashed in my head dozens of times. What am I that you Seam brats keep pawing through my trash?

This time I hold on to her eyes. There were words we owed each other - all these years. And it's too late to exchange them. But what surprises me is the shame in her voice. What I did - back then - seemed almost like the least I could do. Yes, I got in trouble for it, but still - that was fleeting. However, it seems to have made a deep impression on her. I glance down at the roll she still holds in her hand. Bread. Talk about life and death …. Doesn't she know - that wasn't just about me? Or, how would she, I guess. I like to think I would have risked punishment for anyone in need, but, realistically speaking, I'm not sure that it's true. It is interesting, though, finding out that, for her, that day in the rain meant something extraordinary about me. I always thought it was glowingly - almost embarrassingly - obvious how extraordinarily I cared about her. "People will help you in the arena," I assure her. "They'll be tripping over each other to sponsor you."

"No more than you."

Enough of this. I roll my eyes at Haymitch, who I sense already can see it – the difference between me and the Girl on Fire. "She has no idea. The effect she can have." It's the least I can say - to explain, somehow, that she's special, different – as confirmed last night by the response of the crowd, let alone the response inside of me.

But it's also the most I can say. Between my swirling feelings for her, the raw pain of thinking about my mother, and my certain upcoming death, I can't elaborate – I choke on the words. Isn't it enough that even I have chosen her over myself? I stare down and start scratching at the table, resenting this whole stupid situation with every fiber of my being.

"Well then," says Haymitch, finally bothering to say something. He must at least find us more entertaining than most of his past tributes. "Well, well, well. Katniss, there's no guarantee there will be bows and arrows in the arena, but during your private session with the Gamemakers, show them what you can do. Until then, stay clear of archery. Are you any good at trapping?"

She mutters an assent.

"That may be significant in terms of food. And Peeta - don't underestimate strength in the arena."

I shrug, still not looking up at him, at her. Haymitch goes on to tell us what we should do in the training sessions and what we should hold off on, but I barely pay any attention. What difference does it make?

"One last thing. In public, I want you by each other's side every minute."

This was not the time to deliver that news. I had just decided to spend the next three days sitting in the corner of the training gym, feeling sorry for myself.

Katniss says, "But-."

Haymitch slams his hand on the table. "Every minute! This is not open for discussion! You agreed to do as I said! You will be together, you will be amiable to each other. Now, get out. Meet Effie at the elevator at ten."

Katniss stalks out immediately and makes a point of slamming her door.

But I stay put. Haymitch's strategy still seems to have something to do with linking us together, and I don't understand it.

"Don't take it personally, boy," he says suddenly. "It's hard for some - to be around the people they're expected to kill."

"Yeah - I get that."

"What was she talking about, anyway? About someone helping her? She meant you, didn't she?"

I twist my mouth. "Does it matter? It was a while back."

"I know you don't want to hear this, but - when I ask you something, assume it is because I think you have information I can use. I don't care about your personal life, kid. But - the Games are personal. You are a character on TV - I need your backstory."

I pick up a roll and stare at it for a moment. I can practically hear the sheets of rain. I can practically see the little girl, huddled under the apple tree, helpless, wet - dazed and smudgy-eyed. "It's just that ... it was about four years ago. I don't know if you remember - that winter that it rained so much. It was - late March or early April. Anyway, I was just twelve. At the beginning of the year, there was an accident in the mines. Bigger than usual - twelve miners died. That's when Katniss' father ..."

I look up to see if the story rings any bells with Haymitch, but his face is inexpressive.

"She was out of school for a while and - when she came back - she was really thin, really sick-looking. She was starving. One day, she came round the back of the bakery - in the alley - digging through the trash bins. But she could barely even walk. I -. " I shrug, remembering the icy sheets of rain, the anger on my mother's face - the desperate need to do something, anything. "I gave her some bread, that's all."

At this, his expression does open up, a little bit. "She's a proud girl," he says, filling in some of the gaps on his own. "And bread's a bit pricey."

"Yeah, I - it wasn't a popular move in my house."

"You were punished ... and she knows?"

I shrug again. "Maybe - it was kind of obvious. But - we never talked about it or anything, so I don't know. How exactly is this relevant?"

"Did you not understand me? Everything personal is relevant. And the more personal, the more true - the more the crowd will respond to you."

"I don't understand. You want me to tell that story on TV?"

He rolls his eyes. "If I tell you to, yes. But I'm just trying to figure you out - and her. Your motivations, your responses to things. When you're in the arena, I won't be there to tell you what to do or say, so I need to know enough to be able to guess or anticipate what you'll do in there. It's all part of the Game."

I feel like pointing out that he's had no real success at the Game - as a mentor, at least. I'm not even sure he's ever had a tribute make it to the final 8. But that seems counter-productive, so I keep my mouth shut.

By the time Katniss and I meet at the elevator, I have a headache. We ride down in silence to the basement level of the building. The elevator doors open onto a vast space with racks of weapons, obstacle courses, weights and just a whole bunch of stations. There's a balcony level that runs all along the room, and up there some men in robes are hanging out together.

The rest of the tributes are already there and we join them in a group. A no-nonsense woman called Atala addresses us and explains the schedule and rules. We're basically free to go to whatever stations we wish. We can't spar with any other tributes. We will eat breakfast and dinner in our rooms, but lunch will be down here. On the afternoon of the third day, we'll each meet one-on-one with the Gamemakers (who will be watching us from above, in the meanwhile) to give a private demonstration of our skills.

It's immediately apparent that, stripped of our impressive costumes, on a purely physical basis, both Katniss and I are in the middle of the pack here. I'm taller and broader than Katniss - but without her skills, obviously; the Careers look athletic and healthy, and we very shortly find out that they are skilled. As soon as Atala finishes her speech, they all head off to the weapon racks to start playing with swords and knives.

I look down at Katniss and see that she also has been following the Careers with her eyes. I nudge her arm and she jumps. "Where would you like to start?"

She scans the room. "Suppose we tie some knots," she says, pointing at a lonely station.

The trainer at the knot-tying station seems happily surprised to see us. Katniss is already good at basic knots and snares, so I play catch-up for an hour while she learns more advanced techniques. Katniss lets me choose next, and we go over to the camouflage station, which has paints in all colors, as well as real-world stuff – like mud and berry juice. I use my newly-acquired knot skills to weave vines together and sit down with the mud and paints. Katniss gets a lesson on the types of colors that go together in different environments, while I swirl the paints on my arm. I rarely get to work in colors, but I've studied the interplay of light and shadows that happen when you duck under the cover of a clump of tall grass, and I work in mud, berry juice and tan paint on my left arm until I have a combination that reminds me of that.

When I walk over to Katniss to see how she's doing, the camouflage instructor says my work is the best he's ever seen.

"So you do have a secret skill," Katniss says.

I shake my head. "I do the cakes."

"The cakes?" she asks, looking at me. "What cakes?"

"At home. The iced ones. For the bakery."

She grabs my wrist and examines my arm more closely, as if trying to make a connection between my frosting skills and my camouflage skills. "It's lovely. If only you could frost someone to death," she says icily.

I remind myself of what Haymitch said. "Don't be so superior," I say, laughing a little. "You can never tell what you'll find in the arena. Say it's actually a gigantic cake."

"Say we move on."

After I wash up, we find a free rack of knives and Katniss has me watch an instructional video on a control panel nearby then try sparring with one of the instructors, while she practices knife throwing. To my surprise, I find the medium-length knives easy to use, especially in combination with defensive wrestling stances. I take a moment to watch Katniss throwing knives - her accuracy is great, but she doesn't have the speed of Clove, the girl from District 2, who has been showing off her skills all morning. I glance up and see that some of the robed Gamemakers are keeping an eye on us.

After that, it's lunch in a small dining room that looks just like the school cafeteria back home. Even more so when the Careers bunch up together in one rowdy table and the rest of us eat in ones and twos off to the sides.

That first lunch together, we don't say much. Katniss looks miserable and my headache starts coming back. I wish I knew exactly why so much of her misery hangs on me. I really don't understand why she's bothering to hold me at arm's length just because we'll be "competitors" in a couple of days. She must know it's never going to come down to her and me.

After lunch, we try some sword fighting, which is neither her skill nor mine, but I'm a little better at it. She's used to engaging with her prey at a distance; it's counter to her instincts to lunge into an opponent, which is what I'm used to.

At dinner that night, Haymitch grills us about what we did, what stations and how long we spent. Then he obsesses over lunch - what did we eat, what did we talk about?

"What are we supposed to talk about, Haymitch?" I ask him wearily. "Home? The Arena? It's all a little depressing."

"You can talk about the weather, for all I care: you are supposed to - act - like - friends. So, find something to talk about and pretend to enjoy it!"

"Why exactly?" asks Katniss.

"Because I said so!" he growls.

The next day, we try fire starting, which I pick up pretty quickly; I'm no stranger to fire and it doesn't intimidate me. Then we learn about making shelters in shallow holes and rock piles. At lunch, I'm racking my brain for something to say, when I notice something about the breadbasket on our table that I didn't before. I empty it out and sort through the variety of rolls.

"I think they've included one from each district," I say. "Here's ours." It's a basic drop biscuit - ugly but fast, I've probably made a million of them over the years. "And … District 11." A seedy moon-shaped roll. "District 10." A puffy horseshoe loaded with onions and green peppers. And so on. "And there you have it," I conclude, putting all the rolls back into the basket.

"You certainly know a lot."

"Only about bread," I reply. "OK, now laugh as if I've said something funny."

She chuckles convincingly, and I join her.

"All right, I'll keep smiling and you talk now."

"Did I ever tell you about the time I was chased by a bear?" she says brightly.

"No, but it sounds fascinating."

Then she starts telling me about a day she was by herself in the woods, found a beehive and decided she was going to try to get herself some honey. But so did a black bear.

"Aren't they dangerous?"

"At the right time of year. This was late summer, though, so he was fat and lazy."

I laugh. "Have you ever had to shoot one?"

She smiles, relaxing into the conversation as if it was a real one. "Not yet. My father said it was risky. They have tough skin for homemade arrows, and you could make them madder than you want them to be if you stick them."

After lunch, we try spear throwing. Her aim is good, if not her distance, and I think a side benefit to this pairing up for training is that I'm getting a good idea of how difficult it would be for her to kill me with certain weapons. Then I look around and notice something. I pick up a longer spear and walk it over to where Katniss is aiming at a target and whisper, "I think we have a shadow."

Katniss turns around and looks at her, the little girl from District 11. This is the third time today she's hung around a station near us. A girl like a little bird - she puts me in mind of the little brown thrashers that make nests in our apple tree. Her hair is in two short ponytails and she is altogether delicate and tiny-looking. Like Katniss' own sister, she looks younger than her actual age, which must be 12. If you compare her with the 18-year-old Careers - twice her height and more than twice her weight - you would think the Games were unfair, or something.

I throw my spear. My throws are strong, but not as accurate as Katniss'. "I think her name's Rue," I add, as Katniss picks up another spear.

"What can we do about it?" she asks, somewhat harshly. But her eyes are sad, and her expression doesn't match her speech. I'm starting to understand, now, what is making her so cold.

Dinner that night is an emotional chore even worse than being on the training floor that day. Haymitch starts on us before the bread is set down on the table.

"What did you talk about today?"

"Bread and bees and bears," I reply.

"And we laughed at each other's stories," adds Katniss.

"Keep it up, keep it up. What stations did you do?"

"Fire and shelter-."

"Good, good."

"Peeta's good at starting fires. Also, we threw spears."

"Spears? OK, that's good, I guess."

"What do you mean?" I ask him.

"I mean – you're supposed to be under the radar, not demonstrating your skills."

Katniss and I look at each other. Now Haymitch is just complaining about things to complain. In fact, I'm pretty sure that was on his approved list of training skills just yesterday. "You don't know what you're talking about," she says. "We're both rubbish at it anyway."

"Hey!" I say. "Just because you have to stand about 4 feet away from something to hit it with a spear..."

"And you can't hit anything regardless," she laughs.

"Do you two think this is funny?" demands Haymitch.

"Inasmuch as we're allowed to think anything is funny anymore," I say.

"Which is not at all! This is life or death here!"

"For no more than one of us," says Katniss bitterly.

After dinner, we escape to our rooms and I try to lighten the mood. "Someone ought to get Haymitch a drink."

It almost works. Katniss chokes on a laugh and for a second her eyes brighten at me. Then her face darkens. "Don't. Don't let's pretend when there's no one around."

"All right," I reply heavily.

Alone in my room, I fight back tears. I can't help it. I'm so weighed down and exhausted by this whole thing. I'm lonely - all conversation here is either arena business or our forced small talk and I would give anything right now just to genuinely have a conversation with someone - anyone - about the weather. I'm tired of confronting my mortality and, above all, I'm crushed under the weight of planning my death to the benefit of someone who is so oblivious to it.

I wake up cranky on our final day of training. After lunch, we'll have our private sessions with the Gamemakers. Tomorrow, we prep for interviews. The next day, we'll be back in front of the cameras. The day after that, we'll be in the arena. The end. Katniss and I go down to the training floor one last time; our silence is thunderous. I'm sick of Haymitch and his ridiculous instructions. I eyeball the rack of weights and think that, at least once, before I go into my private session, I should get a feel for them. Katniss, too - I almost tell her that we should start at the archery station. It couldn't hurt her to get some practice in with the bows.

But we're not talking, and I let her lead me over to the edible plants section. It's like a quiz in school, with pictures of plants - grasses, berries, fruits, flowers - and you press a button corresponding to the answer from a choice of four or five. She's good at this one - I'm predictably awful, basically guessing. Once again, my deficits as an arena survivor must be all too clear to both of us.

At lunch, Katniss, to my surprise, starts talking to me about plants, giving me advice in a soft voice. "If you're starving, a lot of the nutrients in plants are at the roots. If there's fir or evergreen, you can also get some nutrients from the soft bark."

I shrug. "I'm still hoping for that cake arena."

Her laugh is cut short by an announcement over the loudspeaker, as Marvel, the male tribute from District 1, is called for his private session.

"This is it," she says tensely.

We wait as the tributes are called, one by one, and our conversation in between times is scattershot and random.

"I was going to have Mrs. Lonetree for English this year," I reflect at one point.

"Everyone said she's good."

I nod. "I had her in sixth grade. Too bad she didn't know more about edible plants."

Katniss gives a half smile.

As the tributes around us disappear, we take to wandering around the lunchroom, stretching our legs. At one point, I discover someone left behind a pencil and I occupy myself by drawing on napkins. It's hard not to be morbid and I find myself drawing swords and axes. But surreptitiously I keep looking up at the girl. Her nerves are not hidden; she can't quite compose herself. She looks tense and wound up. I really hope she can settle herself down before she's called in.

It is more than two hours until Rue is called away and we are left alone. By this time, she is sitting by herself at a table at the back of the room. It's so bizarre - but we might be back in school; it's always where she sat in the cafeteria, more often than not by herself. I berate myself for an idiot. I might have tried to make a friend of her a long time ago. Wouldn't things be less painful now? Or maybe it would be worse.

"District 12. Peeta Mellark."

She looks up at me and sees me staring at her. I stand up with a sigh and head back toward the training room, leaving my sketches behind. As I pass her, she says, "Remember what Haymitch said, about being sure to throw the weights." I pause - this is the second bit of advice she's given me today.

"I will. You … shoot straight."

We both sound like we're grasping.

I go back into the gymnasium where we've spent the last two and a half days. All the Gamemakers are gathered at one side of the room, so I walk over there. They are still eating lunch, at least there is a table set up in the balcony and I can hear the clink of utensils and glasses. They are all chatting with each other. They look so relaxed, like this is a party, or something. I clear my throat.

"Go ahead, son. You can start any time," someone says.

Oh. I look around and find the rack of hand weights and medicine balls. I've practiced with these before, in school, this past year when I joined the wrestling team. Since I have fifteen minutes and not much to do, really, I start with the 70 lb medicine ball, carry it back over to stand under the Gamemakers and I take a few breaths and throw it, overhand. It lands about thirty feet away from me, which is OK. Then I move on to the 75 lb, 80 lb, 90, 100. The last one is a 120 lb ball. I struggle hauling it over, and it's a pain to lift it - my arm is killing me by now. But I manage to get it up - up - and chuck it away from me, if only slightly.

Then I look up at the Gamemakers and I can tell that they've barely noted me. They are still eating and talking and drinking wine. Well, hopefully they made a tape they can watch back or something. Someone actually starts singing an off-key song, while I wait.

"OK, time's up - you may return to your suite."

I glance back at the door to the dining room, hoping Katniss has something spectacular in mind for her demonstration.

Chapter 8: Chapter Seven

Chapter Text

Chapter Seven

When I get upstairs, I wearily greet the grown-ups, who - by the way they jump tensely up when I enter - have been waiting anxiously for our return. Portia looks at me expectantly and I give her a faint smile as I go to the dining room and get myself a glass of water. I join the others in waiting for Katniss, refusing to speak, and really feeling nothing but relief that this portion of the Hunger Games is over.

After fifteen minutes, we hear the elevator, and then the doors to the suite open - and rapidly close - on Katniss. I can just see her red, furious face before she bolts down the hall toward the bedrooms and disappears.

"Oh, shit, now what," says Haymitch and he and Effie both hurry after her. Portia, Cinna and I sit in awkward silence listening to them demand, beg and plead for Katniss to leave her room. To no avail. They come back without her and Effie says, "Well, we'll let her relax until dinner. It's been a stressful … day."

I glance down the hallway, trying to read the situation. It's not much of a stretch - I know it probably has something to do with the Gamemakers' lack of attention.

"I'm going to go up to the roof until dinner," I announce, and take off myself. I know I'm leaving behind a roomful of anxiety, but I've decided to indulge my own for the moment.

I've got two hours until dinner and I need every bit of it to sort through my thoughts. It's time - really time - to start thinking about what is going to happen in just a couple of days, and to synthesize what I've learned so far.

I've learned what weapon I'm most comfortable with, so if I do want to defend myself, I need to look for a large knife.

Alternatively, I've also learned that I'm good at concealing myself, and that's a tempting strategy - to find some water, cover myself with mud and grass and wait for starvation to take me. The arena might not fit this design, but more than likely it will. There's a specific window for the length of time the Games considered the "best ones" run - somewhere between two and three weeks. Between a quarter and a third of the tributes die in the bloodbath at the opening, and then if there's a death every one or two days from there on out, it keeps the Capitol viewers entertained. Barren arenas without water sources or hiding places tend to lead to Games that end too quickly.

I'm good at starting fires, but if I'm by myself, that will be a mixed bag. Fires in the arena draw predators of all kinds.

That's it for my useful skills, which is depressing. And none of them seem adequate to keeping Katniss safe, unless she wanted to team up and hide out with me. That would be an unusual strategy, but it would keep me alive a little while longer, and her, too, possibly. The problem is, she doesn't trust me and she'd always be thinking of when to pull the trigger and kill me. And - even though she doesn't trust me, and doesn't really seem to like me too much, either - I think that she would hate to be put in that spot.

What will her strategy be? Get a bow if she can? Get away from the cornucopia, otherwise - run as fast she can away from the Careers and the bloodbath. Find water, sleep in trees, snare or shoot her food. If she HAD a bow, she'd be a formidable opponent for the Careers. But that could be 4, 5 or 6 on 1 - bad odds, even for Katniss. She'd want to wait out the fighting until there are fewer tributes left, hopefully fewer careers. If I have any hope of being useful to her, this is what I must do. Help thin out the Careers.

Well, that should be easy.

When I go back inside, Effie is in the hallway exhorting Katniss to come out for dinner. There's a bit of desperation in her voice, so, this ought to be fun.

I sit down at the table and start on rolls and soup. After a few minutes, Katniss finally makes an appearance, but she looks like she has spent the last two hours crying her eyes out. She's feigning calm as she sits down and accepts a bowl of soup.

Maybe she senses me looking at her, but she eventually looks up the table and right at me. I raise my eyebrows - what? She shakes her head. I'm uneasy. Clearly, her session went badly. So badly that it will make a difference? Scores posted after the training session don't really make much of a difference; even very high or very low ones can be deceptive. It's just to help get the betting started. And yet - it's hard not to care that my own score is guaranteed to be pathetic. That must go double for her.

So, as the main course is served and Haymitch finally turns to us and asks us how badly it went, I jump in first. "I don't know that it mattered. By the time I showed up, no one even bothered to look at me. They even started singing some kind of drinking song, I think. I just threw around some heavy objects until they told me I could go."

Katniss smiles at me gratefully.

"And you, sweetheart?" asks Haymitch.

Her eyes darken at the endearment and the smile abruptly vanishes. "I shot an arrow at the Gamemakers," she says.

The pause in the room is even more intense than the night Katniss mentioned the Avox. I don't know what I was expecting, but it wasn't that. My mind staggers between admiration and horror.

"You what?" exclaims Effie, echoing everyone's thoughts.

"I shot an arrow at them," continues Katniss - trying to act cool about it, but not entirely able to hide the panic in her eyes. "Not exactly at them, but in their direction. It's like Peeta said, I was shooting and they were ignoring me, and I just … lost my head, so I shot an apple out of their stupid roast pig's mouth!"

I put my hand to my mouth to hide an unexpected grin. Damn, would I have loved to have seen that. There's no way - no way - that has ever happened before. She really is something else.

"What did they say?" asks Cinna.

"Nothing. Or - I don't know. I walked out after that."

"Without being dismissed?" Effie gasps.

"I dismissed myself," she replies, and her eyes search out Haymitch's for his reaction.

"Well, that's that," he says, buttering a roll. I'm not sure whether it's a good or bad sign, but he seems a lot more relaxed than he did when he was berating us for our training day behaviors.

"Do you think they'll arrest me?"

"Doubt it. Be a pain to replace you at this stage," he answers coolly.

"What about my family?" she gets out, finally revealing the heart of her fears. "Will they punish them?"

"Don't think so - wouldn't make sense. Remember, they can't reveal what happens in the Training Center, because it's secret, but they'd have to, to use what you did to punish anyone. More likely they'll make your life hell in the arena."

"Well, they've already promised to do that to us anyway," I add.

"Very true," says Haymitch lightly.

Katniss looks from him to me and her expression is lighter. There is real gratitude in her face, and for a moment the three of us - we mismatched tributes from District 12 and our alcoholic mentor - are all on the same page.

Haymitch continues eating and actually starts to laugh. "What were their faces like?"

"Shocked," she says, grinning. "Terrified. Uh, ridiculous, some of them. One of them tripped backward into a bowl of punch."

We're all laughing now, except for Effie, of course, but even she has the capacity to surprise us today. "Well, it serves them right. It's their job to pay attention to you. And just because you come from District 12 is no excuse to ignore you. I'm sorry," she adds, looking around, "but that's what I think."

"I'll get a very bad score," says Katniss, sobering again.

"Scores only matter if they're very good," says Portia. "No one pays attention to the bad or mediocre ones. For all they know, you could be hiding your talents to get a low score on purpose. People use that strategy."

"That's good news for me," I say. "Hopefully that's how people interpret the four I'll probably get. If that. Really, is anything less impressive than watching a person pick up a heavy ball and throw it a couple of yards? One almost landed on my foot."

Katniss grins at me, which makes my unimpressive day today - indeed the last three days - all completely worth it. That's when I realize that - if it weren't for this whole Game thing - she and I really could have been friends. Hardly anyone I know appreciates my sense of humor like she seems to.

Her mood remains good for the rest of dinner, then we move into the sitting room to watch the scores announced. The Careers are mostly 8s out of 12, though both District 2 tributes, Cato and Clove, score 10s. This isn't a surprise to me. They're both not only quick and skilled with weapons, they are the leaders of the career pack. After District 4, the scores drop down to 4s, 5s and 6s. Although the District 11 tributes, Thresh and Rue are both above average, with Thresh getting a 10 and Rue a 7. I don't have time to ponder that surprising turn, because it's me, next and, despite my indifference to it, it's still awful waiting for my low score to be broadcast throughout the country. What will my brothers think? Or my friends?

But my score is an 8, surprisingly - well above average, and within the Career range.

"I guess someone was watching," says Katniss, and Portia squeezes my arm.

But I shake my head. That's weird. But even more surprising, Katniss scores an 11.

She gasps, Effie squeals in delight and Haymitch claps her on the back. Katniss turns to him, shock all over her face. "There must be a mistake. How - how could that happen?"

"Guess they liked your temper," says Haymitch heartily. Too heartily. I look at him closely; something about this is making me uneasy. "They've got a show to put on. They need some players with heat."

"Katniss, the girl who was on fire," says Cinna. He hugs her. "Oh, wait until you see your interview dress."

"More flames?"

"Of a sort."

Katniss then turns to me. "Congratulations," I say, trying to sound pleased.

"You, too," she says, but her smile is already fading.

She heads to bed and Portia takes her place next to me on the sofa. "Good job, Peeta. So for tomorrow …."

"More flames for me, too?" I ask.

"Not literally. You'll spend most of the day with Effie and Haymitch, preparing for your interview. If you finish with your prep early enough, I'll stop by with my sketchbook, as promised."

I blink at Portia - suddenly and unexpectedly the final friend I'll ever make in my life - then give her an impulsive hug. "Thank you," I manage to choke out.

She and Cinna take their leave, and Effie goes to bed, and then it's just me and Haymitch. Haymitch pours himself another drink. I think I'm actually going to miss this sight. "You and me - we need to talk," I tell him.

He turns to me with a pained expression that is hard to interpret. "Yes," he says. "We do."

"How bad is that 11 - or how good is it?"

He shakes his head. "If I could read the Gamemakers' minds, this mentoring would be a lot easier."

"Is it going to put a target on her back?"

He sits down on a chair opposite me, and frowns at his glass of clear alcohol. "It could. It will help her attract some sponsors at the outset, too, though. It's always hard to tell, in balance, which is better. Here's what you should know. You both made a splash on the first night, but Katniss is who everyone's talking about. They've dissected her upbringing, her motivations for volunteering. They are used to thinking of only Careers as volunteers, so they're wondering if she is more prepared, more eager for the fight, than most District 12 tributes. Some of the Career mentors have actually approached me about her joining them."

"Really? Is it really that hard for them to comprehend volunteering for your little sister? When she -."

Haymitch puts up his hand and I swallow my words. "Let's stick to subjects we can resolve. I've tried to keep you together so you can both benefit from her popularity, but there's only so far that can go. Sorry."

I smile at this. "You don't need to apologize. I get it. So, now what? Is there a way we can mitigate this situation at the interviews tomorrow? Take the target off her back, or - something?"

He transfers his frowns to me. "You need to worry about yourself, boy."

I shake my head. "That's what we need to talk about. I'm not going home - if I didn't realize it before tonight, I do now. There's no way I'll be able to fight off the Careers. If I try to stay out of their way, I'll just starve to death - and that's the best case scenario."

"That's no way to go in," he replies. Not that he can contradict what I'm saying.

"There's no other way for me. But what I want - what I really want - is for Katniss to get out."

"Look, that's very chivalrous of you, but -."

"It's more than that," I object. "She's Twelve - she's one of us - she's -."

"-but, as your mentor, I can't actively choose one of you over the other. Impossible task though it is, I need to try to keep both of you alive."

I frown through this for a moment. What he's saying can't be true; there's no reasonable way he could do it. "Well - that's … what if I put it this way? Can you figure out a way to keep me alive long enough to help keep her alive?"

"Did you have something in mind?"

"Yeah - get me in with the Careers."

The next morning, my sense of calm self-assurance has returned, but with it a feeling of anxiety. Katniss is not going to be happy with me today. I will likely die with her loathing me. But my strategy will hopefully be evident to the watching audience, and that will be preserved on tape - my own shot at immortality. Eventually, she'll understand.

Over breakfast, Haymitch murmurs instructions to Effie and I pretend to doodle on the top of the table. Katniss joins in much later. She looks relaxed and she's hungry. The girl can eat, there's no question. This morning, she piles a plate high with rice and lamb stew, and she's wolfing it down as soon as her butt hits her chair. We're silent. Effie is looking at a clipboard, absently tapping a pencil against it. Haymitch is drawing circles around the rim of his empty glass. I stare down at the table.

"So what's going on?" asks Katniss, suddenly stopping and, as if sensing something wrong, eyeing us. "You're coaching us on interviews today, right?"

"That's right," says Haymitch.

"You don't have to wait until I'm done. I can listen and eat at the same time."

"Well, there's been a change of plans. About our current approach." Haymitch glances at me and I brace myself. He shrugs. "Peeta has asked to be coached separately."

Chapter 9: Chapter Eight

Chapter Text

Chapter Eight

Katniss can't quite hide the disappointment on her face before she covers it with an indifferent mask. I look away from her before she can look at me. But I get off easy.

"Good," she says. "So, what's the schedule?"

"You'll each have four hours with me for presentation and with Effie for deportment. You'll start with Effie - I'll work with you this afternoon."

I watch Katniss and Effie disappear down the hall, then turn to find Haymitch's eyes glinting on me.

"What?" I ask nervously.

"You have it bad," he says.

I'm not used to speaking about this sort of thing openly, so I stutter on my words. "I don't - yeah - well …."

"Don't make this all about some crush on a girl," he says. "Think about what you're doing."

I don't know - it seems as good a reason as any other. But Haymitch doesn't seem the sentimental sort, so I don't bother to argue. It's all business from here on out. "Do you have any updates for me?"

"Yeah, I have a plan. First off, I know the District 4 mentors pretty well and I've put in the word that you'd like to join them. District 4 Careers aren't like 1 or 2. They're pretty well-trained, but not as ruthlessly nor as consistently. The Capitol doesn't favor them as much. And they are tight-knit, fishermen. They take care of each other in a way we don't in 12." He eyes me as if it's my fault and suddenly I'm thinking of Haymitch not as the hopeless Victor of District 12 but as the coal miner's son who probably had to take out tesserae. The kind of kid my friends always expected would go in their - in our - places. And in this flash of understanding about Haymitch's resentment, I finally understand Katniss'. I'm - such an idiot.

And so I say it. "I'm sorry," I tell him. I'm the one who is dying and he's set for life, but in this moment - I actually feel it: how, at least by way of birth, our roles in life were meant to be reversed. It sucks and - it sucks. "You're right; we don't."

But Haymitch waves off my words and the moment passes. "So - they're not bad kids, Careers or not. And they're kind of tired of the constant losing out to 1 and 2. It's been five years since 4 won a Game, and that was basically by accident. So they might consider taking you as an ally within the Career pack, to help them break off from the others when the time comes. After that, though - you'd be on your own."

I nod. "How will they persuade 1 and 2 to take me?"

Haymitch frowns. "If they can be persuaded that you can lead them to Katniss."

I draw in my breath. "Really? Why?"

"They're scared of her now. Since she won't join them, they'll want to get rid of her right away. So - if we can arrange this - here's how it will work. You get in with the Careers at the cornucopia and avoid the bloodbath. Let them fight it out. You'll be able to grab a weapon and you should make a show of swinging it around, but I have to warn you…."

"Yes?"

Haymitch spastically taps his mouth for a few seconds. "Defend yourself if you must, but killing - killing people. There's no easy getting over it."

I look from his hazy, bloodshot eyes to the empty glass on the table. "Absolutely," I say. "I'm – I - I don't look forward to it – at all."

He shrugs unhappily. "Thanks to Katniss' antics yesterday, there will definitely be a bow and arrows at the cornucopia. Hopefully, I can persuade her not to go for it, because she will be cut down before she can get her hands on it. But you need to make sure that you end up with it. So that if you do cross paths with her, you can get it to her. If she gets it - she has a chance."

"More than a chance. How do I get rid of the Careers, at least 1 and 2? Should I - should I kill them in their sleep, or - what do I do?"

"I doubt you get that opportunity. They will hunt for Katniss. You hunt with them. Turn on them when they find her, not before that. They'll kill you the minute they sense something is up. So - that's the other thing you have to do. You're going to have to put up two acts at once. You up for that?"

I smile. Living with my mother - acting was a survival skill. Just not one I expected to bring to the arena. "What do you mean?"

"Obviously, you're going to have to pretend you've turned on Katniss, to the Careers. But at the same time, you're going to have to find a way to convince Panem that it is a double deal. That you are trying to protect her."

"OK," I say slowly. "You mean - in the arena? Why? How?"

"Well, for one thing, I'm not going to be the mentor who endorsed my tributes turning on each other. You'll want to protect your reputation at home, too, dead or alive. Better for your memory, better for your family. And also - better for Katniss. After all this fire and shooting at Gamemakers, I've got to try to soften her image. The people here - the sponsors - they are fickle with their likes and dislikes. If they think that you two are actually allies - friends, even - or better … they will root for you, both of you. They'll find it - quaint. Unusual. Hopefully - compelling."

"How do I do that?"

He eyes me for a long time. "There will be cameras, everywhere, in there. You step away from your pack once or twice, whisper her name - wonder out loud about her. Keep reminding people that you are really trying to protect her, even risking your life to do it - they will eat that up. And it will be at least as beneficial for her as it is for you."

I try to imagine myself muttering Katniss' name to the moonlight in the arena and I shake my head. "Isn't that going to seem out of context?"

"You have to provide the context. Tomorrow night."

Tomorrow night? At the interview? Then I realize what he's saying. "Oh," I say. "But - what about the Careers? Won't they be suspicious of me if I - say stuff about that? How can I convince everyone else of one thing and them of the total opposite?"

"You won't need to. They know the interviews are bullshit - they won't really believe you no matter what you say. All they need from you is for you to be helpful in finding Katniss. What they believe is that they can get rid of both of you, as long as they can flush her out - and they are right about that. You're the one who needs to watch for signs that they are ready to get rid of you - always remember, their alliance is designed to break. Trust and betrayal are two sides of the same coin in the arena."

I nod. Everything he has said makes sense. It's risky - he's not pretending that it's not risky. But he's right. If nothing else, it's the way to acquire the bow for Katniss and to join her in a fight against the Careers if it comes down to it. But it comes at quite a cost. Not that I would be lying - not about the one thing. But to announce it, in front of the entire country…. "Shouldn't we warn Katniss about the plan ahead of time?" I ask.

Haymitch shakes his head. "Katniss can't act. She can barely hide her contempt for the Capitol. She'll be lucky if she can get out of the arena without being personally blasted by the Gamemakers. That's one of the reasons she needs this. But she'll object, and if we warn her ahead of time, we won't be able to predict what her on-camera reaction will be. Surprise is the best thing we can hope for - and it will be genuine, too, which is invaluable on that stage."

"Even if ... she thinks it might be true? On my end, I mean."

"From what I know of her so far - she'll need a lot of convincing on that front."

That's true - unfortunately. I rub the place where he hit me a couple of days ago. Also, where Katniss kissed me.

"Do you need to practice?" he asks, his tone surprisingly gentle.

I shake my head. "I'm not sure. How do I bring it up - in the interview?"

"There are ways to make the transition," says Haymitch. "And Caesar is damn good at picking up cues."

So, we spend the rest of the morning working with various prompts. It's actually quite easy - figuring out how to turn a conversation to my benefit. Haymitch is visibly pleased with me, and we're wrapping up as lunch is served. Katniss reappears noisily, stomping through the suite. She's wearing a long skirt, which she is holding up above her knees, the better to pound her feet. Her face is stormy - so the morning continued badly for her - and she refuses to look at me all through lunch. It makes me very uneasy about Haymitch's plans.

I give Haymitch a thumbs-up as I head back to my room, where I meet up with Effie. She's also not in the best mood and without preamble, she says to me, "Thank goodness, there's so much less work you need than Katniss."

She and I spend about an hour making sure my handshake is firm and my posture upright. She has me run through some elocution exercises and is pleased with my voice - though, she says, if she had enough time with me, she might be able to correct my District 12 "accent." I really hope she didn't try that line on Katniss.

As promised, Portia arrives at the end of the afternoon, and Effie - thanking me for giving her such an easy day - leaves us alone. I thumb through Portia's sketchbook - it's a beautiful oversized leather book, filled with color sketches, and pinned with fabric swatches. I get a preview of my outfit for tomorrow, which is just a suit with flame accents.

I glance up as Portia starts humming to herself - a song that is vaguely familiar. She's rooting through her bag and pulling out various items - pens, brushes, sheets of paper. It's still odd to me, when she acts so normal - so unlike anything I expected from a person not only from the Capitol but also employed by the Games. If I had passed her in the road, just by her looks alone - just the unnatural yellow color of her hair, the badge of her Capitol identity - I would have loathed her. But - she's not loathsome.

"Ah!" she says, pulling a wrinkled square out of the bag. She looks over at me and grins at my startled expression. Then she unfolds the paper - it's a flyer for the school wrestling tournament. I gasp.

"They found it with your clothes on the train. Sign it for me?" she asks with a grin. "And maybe you could draw something - show me what you got."

That's odd. I changed my clothes for the Reaping; I don't remember transferring this flyer to my good trousers. "Sign it?" I ask, holding out my hands. "Why?"

"Boy, don't you know how famous you are about to be?"

I blink, but there's such an irresistible twinkle in her eye that I can't help but grinning in return. "Right," I say. Then I flip the page over and in one quarter of the sheet, I quickly draw the fence line of District 12: Meadow in the foreground, forest in the back. Safety, imprisonment, division ... home. So much conflict, and so unnecessary. I mean the Capitol no harm. If it let me live ... or, if it just let her live ... but no, I don't think so. I think life itself is probably not enough for Katniss, like it was for me. She doesn't keep herself safe, confined. She kicks down fences, demands attention - she fights. And for her sake, so must I.

Katniss doesn't join us for dinner that night and Haymitch is roaring drunk and peevish. I can't get anything out of him and Effie doesn't even try. Before I go to bed, I finally ask him, anxiously, "Bad session with Katniss?"

"Let me put it this way, kid," he says sourly. "Her reputation is up to you, now."

I have a really hard time getting to sleep and then I end up sleeping in - almost until 10. When I stagger out to the dining room, I find Haymitch, looking green, holding a cup of coffee in his hands. "Where's Katniss?"

"In her room - with her prep team."

"Oh - should I be somewhere?" I ask in confusion.

"Yours is coming after lunch. You don't need the same amount of prep."

"Oh." So I start breakfast.

"You're in," he says abruptly.

My heart starts thumping erratically. Part of me was hoping the whole plan would fall apart and I could skip out on my planned production tonight and take the easiest path tomorrow - run from the cornucopia, hide out somewhere, and wait for death to find me. Tomorrow!

"The District 4 tributes are Dylan and Bet. The District 2 mentors say Cato and Clove are on board, as well."

"And 1?" I swallow.

"One will follow 2. Two are the ones to beat this year. Both of them are head and shoulders above everyone else in terms of capability."

I nod.

"Portia will take you downstairs before Katniss is finished - you'll get a very brief chance to make eye contact, nod, whatever. They have some idea about what is going down tonight, if my 4 contact did his job."

"What?!"

"They think you're intimidated by Katniss, as well, but you'll be trying to fool her into thinking you are on her side."

I touch my head - the headache that has plagued me off and on since the Reaping is threatening a comeback. "OK," I say. "Got it. I think."

When my prep team arrives, it's mostly a repeat of the parade day. I am directed to the shower with specific bottles of shampoo and soap, and when I come out I smell kind of sweet and buttery at the same time. While I sit with a towel draped across my hips, my face and neck are slathered with first a gel, then a cream; my fingernails are re-buffed and painted with a polish that is clear except for some silvery glitter; my hair is sprayed and gelled and curled again. I watch my skin and hair take on a shiny, glittery quality, which I'm assured will look like magic under the stage lights.

Portia enters with my suit - very simple black suit and leather shoes. At the sleeves of the jacket and the cuffs of the pants are an homage to the flames from opening night. They are drawn in flat gemstones of yellow, red and blue, and they flash in the light, like my skin. Portia observes me for a moment, then goes into her bag and brings out a little container.

"Lip gloss," she says, brushing my mouth with a clear, silky gel. "There we go. So, we have to take you downstairs really quick to meet - some of the other tributes."

"You know," I whisper.

She squeezes my hand. "I know. But - Peeta - don't give up entirely on your own life. You never know what will happen."

I return her squeeze. It's nice to feel that there is at least one person here who is actually on my side.

Down in the lobby on the first floor - where our chariots dropped us off - the other tributes are starting to gather. We'll be walking out to the city circle and sitting on a stage set up right in front of the president's mansion. I see Cato and Clove, immediately. They're laughing together, looking just like a couple of teenagers enjoying the night. Portia finds someone in the crowd and nods to him - a familiar-looking mentor I've probably seen before - a young man - and he nudges two tributes in front of him. I've seen them before, of course, but didn't really watch how they did during the training sessions. Both boy and girl have golden-brown hair and bronze skin. We all nod to each other, and then I meet Cato's eyes, and he looks me over. I'm bigger than either tribute from 4 and I scored as well in training, and maybe that's what he's thinking when he nods to me.

Portia takes me back upstairs, and we wait by the elevators for Katniss and Cinna. I feel sick to my stomach and her appearance doesn't help. Of course, she's gorgeous. Her entire dress is made of gems, and the same flame pattern on my suit is repeated in large on her skirt. When she moves, she captures the light at every possible angle and her skin, like mine, is glowing. But I've got used to seeing her up close, and I focus on her expression. She looks very determined - her chin lifts up, defiantly - but she's not entirely composed and her anxiety not entirely hidden.

I haven't seen her for the better part of two days, and I know she's mad at me, but it is good - just to see her. To feel the fluttering sensation in my gut again. To remind myself why I'm going through with all this.

Haymitch and Effie join us - Haymitch looking remarkably clean and stylish in a dark blue suit. We go down and he guides us to our familiar place at the back of the line. I'll be the last interview. As the doors open and we hear the music, he growls at us, "Remember, you're still a happy pair. So act like it."

I wonder what he wants me to do - touch her back as we walk in? I wouldn't dare. Nor does Katniss make any kind of conciliatory gesture. So, we just shuffle behind the others in a single line, and walk out into an evening sky that is completely overwhelmed by the bright lights surrounding the stage.

It's unnerving, seeing this all from the viewpoint of a tribute, instead of as an audience member. The cameras add glamour through subtraction. From home, I never saw the scaffolding, the cords, the fresh cuts on the plywood. The balconies on the nearby buildings, including the 2nd and 3rd floor balconies of the tribute center, are filled with Gamemakers and camera crews. Elevated seats - like the ones that lined the avenue during the parade - are set up to face the stage. I can see Portia and Cinna near the front. Beyond the seats, the avenue is filling with people, and the screens that are set up all around us show the side-streets filling up, as well.

I think about the town square at home. Mandatory viewing - the screens will be on and the square will be crowded with people. It's always so noisy. I used to be able to look out my bedroom window and crane my head just a little bit to watch the big screens. But my family will probably be watching from our apartment today. Better not think about that. Better not. I can't afford to lose my nerve.

Before I know it, Caesar Flickerman - the interview host - bounces on-stage. He's a slight, short man who has looked exactly the same my entire life. His long face is caked in white makeup, concealing his true age, which I think is pretty advanced. Same suit as every year - dark blue, dotted with tiny lights. Same hairstyle - piled high up on his head - just a different color every year. This year, it's light blue, and his lips and eyelids are painted to match - as always.

Caesar starts with a few jokes that seem to land with his audience; they're incomprehensible to me. Then, he begins, calling Glimmer, the District 1 female tribute, up to join him at the stage. I check out at that point. Perhaps I should be paying attention, but there are only two things I can concentrate on. One is my planned speech. Two is the girl next to me - her knee shaking against my leg.

When she is called up, I watch her anxiously. Haymitch wants her softer and she is definitely this, while still managing to be herself. Caesar helps her over her initial stage fright - when he asks what she's most impressed with about the Capitol, she mentions food. True. When he questions her about her opening night costume, she makes a gentle joke about her fear of being burned alive, then an honest compliment of Cinna. She twirls, and her skirt flashes and sparks as if it's on fire, too. Then he asks her about her training score - I perk up at this, nervous - but she demurs, reminding Caesar that the private sessions with the Gamemakers can't be discussed. Finally, he ends on her volunteering and she tells the truth here, even when Caesar asks her about Prim and what Prim said to her when she said goodbye. I sense Katniss' tension when she says, "She asked me to try really hard to win. … I swore I would."

The buzzer goes off just then and Katniss is applauded soundly and sent back to her seat. I want to give her a reassuring pat as I stand in my turn, but I can't bring myself to do it. My mouth is dry.

"So, Peeta Mellark - the baker's boy from District 12! I understand you're a great authority on District breads."

Well, that's a chilling way to start. Were they recording our conversations in the gym lunchroom? But I play along. I compare the green, seaweedy biscuits from District 4 to the green-eyed District 4 tributes. The cream-filled District 1 rolls to the luxury district. Etc. It's strained at times but, to my surprise, it comes easily to me - talking to Caesar, talking to the audience, which laughs and shouts in response to me. But I need to turn Caesar's thoughts to romance. "You didn't ask me what I find most impressive about the Capitol," I tell him.

"What's that?" grins Caesar, as if he's genuinely enjoying this conversation.

"My shower," I reply with a wink, which draws both laughs and catcalls. "I've never been more terrified of soap. Tell me, do I still smell like roses?"

I lean in and he makes a show of sniffing me. Of course I don't, but he says, "Maybe, yes …. What about me?"

Then we're making a huge show of sniffing each other, and the audience is screaming with laughter. "Well," I say, at the end of this run. "Maybe it's something that girls like."

More catcalls. And I look directly at the audience - it's hard to make out faces in the glare of the lights - and nod, as if we're all in agreement about something. (Involve the audience, says Haymitch in my head. You're a character on TV to them - a pawn on a game board. Make them look at you as if you were real.)

"Don't you have a girlfriend back home?"

Bingo. I pause to catch my breath - to pause on the precipice - then shake my head.

"Handsome lad like you? There must be some special girl. Come on, what's her name?"

I blink into the bright lights. "Well - there's this one girl I've had a crush on ever since I can remember. But I'm pretty sure she didn't know I was alive until the reaping."

A sigh floats through the crowd.

"She have another fellow?"

"I don't know, but - a lot of boys like her."

Caesar plays along just as if he had received my script. "So, here's what you do. You win, you go home. She can't turn you down then, eh?"

My heart starts thumping erratically and I'm not sure how successful I am at pulling off the sad expression I need next. "I don't think it's going to work out," I say, sounding hoarse and somewhat unconvincing in my own ears - which is weird, because this is the part of the interview that is actually true. "Winning - won't help in my case."

"Whyever not?"

My blush is not put on; I'm genuinely mortified to be saying this, here and now. Even my stammer - hopefully effective - is real. "Because - because she came here with me."

Chapter 10: Chapter Nine

Chapter Text

Chapter Nine

In the initial silence after this announcement, I don't know whether or not my statement has landed, and all I can do is look down at the stage, wishing it would open up beneath me. But slowly, as the full understanding of what I said rolls over them, the noise from the audience starts to grow. I hear sighs, some cries of "no!" And Caesar punctuates it with, "Oh, that's a bad piece of luck."

There's a loud sound of assent from the crowd. I finally look up and smile ruefully at the faceless mass. "It's not good," I agree chokingly. This is so bizarre - so bizarre! To be telling this long-time secret out loud, here and now - not to a friend, not to the girl herself, but to the Capitol. And I need everyone to believe it - and it's true! - but in this place and time, it feels so fake. An act on top of an act - a reductive process, magnifying this thing, which somehow diminishes it. Just … bizarre.

"Well, I don't think any of us can blame you," Caesar continues. "It'd be hard not to fall for that young lady. She didn't know?"

"Not until now."

At that moment, I look up at the screens and see that the cameras have zoomed in on Katniss. Here's an expression I haven't seen before. She's confused, blushing. I'm relieved to see that there's no visible sign of anger. That's something, anyway. Caesar asks the audience if they'd like to get her response to my declaration, and the crowd screams its approval of the suggestion. This unnerves me, but Caesar is just teasing us - Katniss' time at the microphone is up. "Well," he finishes, "best of luck to you, Peeta Mellark, and I think I speak for all Panem when I say our hearts go with yours."

The audience actually gets to its feet and the applause is deafening. I actually do feel touched - as well as amazingly hypocritical - when I put my hand on my heart and mouth a "thank you" to the crowd before going back to sit down. As the rush of the performance recedes, for a moment I'm not even sure what I feel or who exactly I feel it for.

Before I can sit, though, the anthem starts playing and all the other tributes rise for it, so I just take my place next to Katniss and raise my head while it plays. I can see her face and mine in the screens - we seem to be in all of them - and hers is unreadable, and mine appropriately stressed.

After the anthem, we're dismissed and I turn to Katniss, but she bolts away, holding up the skirt of her dress. She makes it inside the lobby and jumps into an elevator before I can catch up with her. I have to wait for the next one. I'm now incredibly sorry that we didn't tell her beforehand. Although ... it all went well - even better than I had anticipated.

As I step off the elevator onto the 12th floor, I have little warning. Katniss is a blur as she rushes me – before I can even get her into focus, I'm slammed into the wall - there's a loud crash - and by the time I get my bearings, I'm sitting in a pile of what's left of the large urn that used to stand in the hallway just opposite the elevators. There's a sharp pain in my hands and I notice dizzily that I'm bleeding.

"What was that for?"

All the anger I was looking for before is there in her red, enraged face. "You had no right! No right to go saying those things about me!"

The elevator doors open behind her. "What's going on!" screams Effie. "Did you fall?"

She and Cinna rush to help me up. "After she shoved me," I say, shrugging them off of me when I'm on my feet. I stare at Katniss as if I've never seen her before – and – to tell the truth, I'm starting to wonder if I ever have.

Haymitch turns on her. "Shoved him?"

"This was your idea, wasn't it?" she spits at him. "Turning me into some kind of fool in front of the entire country?"

I pick shards of urn out of my hands and try pressing on the palms - first one, then the other, to stop the bleeding. "It was my idea," I say, stung that not only does she not believe me - she can't even credit me with the idea. "Haymitch just helped me with it."

"Yeah, Haymitch is very helpful - to you," she says, thinly.

Haymitch turns on her in exasperation. "You are a fool. Do you think he hurt you? That boy just gave you something you could never achieve on your own."

"He made me look weak!"

"He made you look desirable! And let's face it, you can use all the help you can get in that department! You were about as romantic as dirt until he said he wanted you. Now they all do. You're all they're talking about - the star-crossed lovers from District 12!"

"But we're not star-crossed lovers!"

At this, Haymitch practically loses it, grabbing her shoulders and pinning her to the wall. "Who cares? It's a big show. It's all how you're perceived." He goes on to tell her things we didn't even discuss, like how he can sell her as a heartbreaker, as the girl for whom boys fall down at her feet. He's awfully good at thinking on his feet, I'll give him that. And - he really seems to care what happens to us - or her - or us? That's a bit of a surprise, really.

But she doesn't see this and she shoves him away, still spitting mad. Cinna puts his arm around her. "He's right, Katniss."

"I should have been told, so I didn't look so stupid."

"No, your reaction was perfect," soothes Portia. "If you'd known, it wouldn't have read as real."

Well, this is fun - everyone smoothing over Katniss' reaction, when I'm the one standing here bleeding. "She's just worried about her boyfriend," I say, tossing a bloody piece of urn aside. And good luck to him, I add to myself.

She looks at me, blushing. "I don't have a boyfriend."

"Whatever," I respond. She really must think I'm thick. "But I bet he's smart enough to know a bluff when he sees it. Besides, you didn't say you loved me. So, what does it matter?"

In fact, I really can't figure why she's reacting this way. It can't be this bad to find out someone has a crush on you – even a fake crush – even if the someone is a person you're expected to kill. I expected her to be peeved by the surprise, not pissed off enough to shove me into a wall.

But my words seem to have finally reached her. Calmer, she now questions if she played her part well enough and, after receiving assurances that she did, turns to me with an abashed look.

"I'm sorry I shoved you."

"Doesn't matter," I say coolly. "Although it's technically illegal."

"Are your hands OK?"

She's suddenly solicitous and I just can't keep up with these whiplashing emotions. "They'll be all right," I say belligerently.

There's an awkward and embarrassed silence for a moment. Then Haymitch says: "Let's eat," and we all head for the dining room.

"Peeta," says Portia, arresting me in the act of sitting down. "Your hands are still bleeding!"

I look at them blankly.

"Come on, let's get you downstairs."

She takes me down to the main lobby and we go into a back office with a closet filled with various supplies, some of them medical. She washes my wounds with a wet cloth, smears some cream over them and then wraps long cloth strips around my palms. We are silent this whole time, and then Portia smiles at me and touches one of my cheeks. "Peeta," she says, "chin up. You did a good thing tonight."

"I don't know what I expected," I admit abruptly. "I mean, I knew she'd be upset, but part of me hoped she would - take it as a compliment, at least."

"Remember that the circumstances are trying, but also …." She bites her lip. "The thing about noble gestures is that you do them for their own sake. You have to remind yourself that that may be the only reward you ever get – not payment, not recognition."

I nod. "I know. It's just … I don't want to die." And at that confession - the first time I've actually said it out loud - tears fall down my face, running through my silvery makeup.

She hugs me. "I know - and, Peeta, don't go running to it. If it is your time, you'll know it. But don't go anticipating it. Fight for your life, as well as hers."

She's right. I wipe my face. These are the last tears I can allow myself to cry. Tomorrow - I'm a Career.

"Are you ready to go back up?"

"Yes."

When we rejoin everyone at the dinner table, Katniss looks at me with concern. Despite my better judgement, I allow myself to enjoy this sudden turn of events. It's been days since she's so much as looked at me and - so help me - I need it now just like I need food and water. She even sits next to me on the couch when we watch the replay of the interviews - which has to be the most awkward thing I've ever sat through in my life. She is sincere and charming. I am - actually quite good on television - bearable to watch, at least, although the conclusion of my interview is just as painful to relive as it was in the first place. The closing shot of the program is on us together as the anthem plays and it's impossible to read our faces, I think. Certainly, Katniss kept her fury well hidden. Maybe she's a better actress than Haymitch realizes?

There's a collective, strained silence as Haymitch shuts off the TV. He's leaving us now - going to take up residence in the Games Headquarters, where he'll monitor us in the arena and contact sponsors. Effie will be helping him out. We'll see Cinna and Portia in the morning, but not the others. It feels solemn and final, until Effie says, "Thank you for being the best tributes I've ever had the privilege to sponsor! I wouldn't be at all surprised if I finally get promoted to a decent district next year!"

Haymitch rolls his eyes as she kisses us on our stunned cheeks and hurries away. He crosses his arms and looks us over. I wonder how this moment has gone in previous years - this must be a banner year for him, at least in terms of excitement. And he looks downright sober tonight. Katniss and I accomplished that.

"Any final words of advice?" I ask.

He looks at Katniss. "When the gong sounds, get the hell out of there. You're neither of you up to the bloodbath at the Cornucopia. Just clear out, put as much distance between yourself and the others, and find a source of water."

Katniss nods, and I breathe a silent sigh of relief. Like Haymitch, I was worried she'd insist on arming herself. "And after that?" she asks.

"Stay alive."

I smile at that.

After Haymitch leaves, Katniss heads off to bed but I keep Portia in conversation for as long as she will indulge me. I know I'll see her in the morning, but I want her to know everything I'll be too anxious to remember to say then. I thank her for the beautiful clothes, for letting me sketch, for all her thoughtful advice. I never thought I'd like someone from the Capitol so much, and I tell her that, too. That if more people were like her ….

She puts her fingers to my lips and shakes her head. I'm not sure why it matters what the Capitol hears me say, at this point, but I nod and shut my mouth. She gives me a final hug goodbye, and I'm alone, apart from the Avoxes cleaning up after dinner.

At first I go to take a shower, but then remember my bandaged hands - that will have to wait for the morning. So I just change into sweatpants and a tee-shirt and lie down in my bed. After falling asleep and waking up two or three times, I know it will be hopeless, so I leave my room and quietly make my way out to the stairwell to the roof.

Behind me, the garden is tinkling like mad, but beyond that, there's noise in the night air. I hear horns, crowd noise, music, the occasional shout. I go over to the railing that looks over the city circle, and see the crowds have not disbursed. The party goes on.

I don't know how long I've been standing there, watching, before her voice startles me, "You should be getting some sleep."

"I didn't want to miss the party. It's for us after all."

She comes over and looks over the railing. "Are they in costumes?"

"Who could tell? With all the crazy clothes they wear here." I turn to her. She's also dressed for bed - she looks softer and more fragile, hugging her robe close against her chest, with the breeze rustling her loose hair. "Couldn't sleep either?"

"Couldn't turn my mind off."

"Thinking about your family?"

After a pause, she says, "No. All I can do is worry about tomorrow. Which is pointless, of course." She smiles thinly. "I really am sorry about your hands."

I try to erase any lingering anger or resentment I feel toward her and match the sincerity of her tone. "It doesn't matter, Katniss. I've never been a contender in these games, anyway."

"That's no way to be thinking."

I almost have to smile, how similar her words are to Haymitch's. "Why not? It's true. My best hope is to not disgrace myself, and …."

"And what?"

The words I started to say fade away, replaced by words that, as I speak them, come from some part of my subconscious I don't think I was aware of before. "I don't know how to say it exactly. Only … I want to die as myself. Does that make any sense?"

She shakes her head.

I'm not sure I can explain it - this elemental fear. Not death - not rejection. Not even pain. It goes back years, I guess - or at least as far back as I can remember. Watching the kids parade through the Capitol, endear themselves to their audience - and then change. Like the muttations that populate the arena - and the woods. Some innocent instinct for survival mutated into an appetite for blood. I can't comprehend the mindset that would engineer those monsters - these Games - deliberately. And what I fear more than almost anything else - is to get to the point where I do.

Will that even make sense to her - she who already hunts for her living? Maybe it won't even be too much of a transition for her - and this I fear, almost as much as I fear it for myself. I sigh. "I don't want them to change me in there. Turn me into some kind of monster that I'm not."

I look at her, and she bites her lip. I know she is motivated by other impulses, and they are good ones - I want to preserve them for her. But I also want her to remember something about this afterward. Something Haymitch, dark and cynical and wrecked, doesn't seem to know. Something, maybe, she can use to survive whatever the arena does to her.

"Do you mean you won't kill anyone?" she asks, finally.

I visualize that eventuality - and find it hard to imagine passively accepting a sword or a knife. "No, when the time comes, I'm sure I'll kill just like everybody else. I can't go down without a fight." I frown to myself as the next words form themselves. "Only, I keep wishing I could think of a way to show the Capitol - they don't own me. That I'm more than just a piece in their Games."

"But you're not," she replies impatiently. "None of us are. That's how the Games work."

Her impatience is making me impatient and also … how? How do I explain? When I'm not even sure …? And then I realize - that is precisely my plan: to work counter to their Games. To be the rogue piece who operates out of their control. I can't tell her explicitly how or why, but if I can just plant the seed, maybe someday she will understand. "Okay, but within that framework, there's still you, there's still me. Don't you see?" I look closely at her and will her to understand. Maybe our choices now reduce down to who we do or do not kill, maybe these are the only choices left - but there is no situation that completely takes away the knowledge that what they are forcing us to do is wrong. Their power to do it doesn't make them right. So - since I can't fight back against them - it is my determination to subvert their plan for me that takes me out of their control. This is a heady idea.

But the girl opposite me can't read my mind. "A little," she answers, shaking her head. "Only - no offense, but, who cares, Peeta?"

The thing about noble causes … "I do," I say urgently. "I mean, what else am I allowed to care about at this point?"

(Video) the hunger games from peeta's perspective

She leans back. "Care about what Haymitch said. About staying alive."

I smile at her bitterly. And so we've come full circle - this nonsense about me even having a chance to come out of this alive. She might do me the favor of acknowledging that that is an impossibility; she might have the grace to tell me 'goodbye.' "OK," I say sarcastically. "Thanks for the tip, sweetheart."

My use of Haymitch's endearment was not meant to charm her, and it doesn't. "Look, if you want to spend the last hours of your life planning some noble death in the arena, that's your choice. I want to spend mine in District 12."

"Wouldn't surprise me if you do. Give my mother my best when you make it back, will you?"

"Count on it," she says, and storms off.

Sigh. Well, I asked for it. If this was goodbye, if this was the last moment I ever spent talking to Katniss Everdeen, it's surprisingly apt. We never spoke to each other before five days ago, and by now we have had so many arguments, ranging from cold to explosive, that I am able to rate them on a scale.

I don't see Katniss in the morning, so there is no chance for apologies, no second chance to make a proper goodbye. Portia arrives early and takes me up to the roof. A hovercraft appears - suddenly above us, just as Katniss described - and a ladder is dropped down. I step on it, some kind of electric current traps me against it, and I am lifted up with the ladder, frozen. Once inside the hovercraft, a needle is injected into my forearm, and when it is withdrawn, there's a lump under my skin - it's the tracking device the Gamemakers will use to monitor my location in the arena.

Now I'm released and taken to a small room where there is a table and an ample breakfast laid out, but I sit quietly without eating until Portia comes in.

I can feel the massive engines in the craft give a sudden roar, and we push up into the sky. There is a small, high window in the room, through which I can see nothing but sky. It's a bright, blue early morning. Portia joins me and encourages me to eat. I do, but insensible to the flavors of the food. I am reliving the nightmares from my shattered night of sleep last night. They were really no different from the nightmares I always had before the Reaping - deadly things coming at me with sharp claws, sharp teeth. Other children, eyes made wild, chasing me with swords and axes.

After what seems like a short enough time, the windows black out and, after a few more minutes, we start our descent. A Peacekeeper fetches us and we go back to the ladder, which is extended again, but this time directly into a tube going underground. This makes sense. Tributes enter the arena from under the earth.

We find ourselves in the middle of a large, circular room with 24 doors. Portia checks some paperwork and leads me to one of the doors, marked 17. Inside, it's kind of like the locker room at school, but built for one. I am to shower, brush my teeth, and change into the arena clothes, which will be the same for each tribute. After the luxuries of the training center, this bare room and the simple everyday shower makes everything seem weirdly normal. As I wash, I remind myself again of my strategy. Find Dylan and Bet, grab a machete, grab a bow, try to get through the bloodbath in one piece.

The clothes are simple - plain underclothes, brown pants, green shirt, black thermal jacket, boots. Portia and I sit next to each other on a bench, wordless, until a glass tube descends from the ceiling and a voice announces it is time to prepare for launch.

"Remember, Peeta," she says, "remember to keep yourself alive, as long as you can. Be safe among the Careers. Don't trust any of them, not even 4. Be careful about who is watching when you sleep. Prepare yourself for a quick getaway. If you can't stow food and water in a pack, try to bury it somewhere you can find it again, if you have to run. You're smarter than most of them, and you can see the big picture. I know they are strong and brutal, but at the end of the day they are kids, and this is their first real - battlefield."

I nod. Then I step into the tube and it closes around me. I look up, but I can only see darkness.

Portia kisses her finger and presses it against the tube. I touch the spot with my finger, and then I'm suddenly being lifted up, into the darkness. As I approach the top, a disk slides open above me, and I see sunlight. Then I stop, and I'm out in the open air. I take a deep breath of it - it's cool and natural and tastes like pine. I'm on a small plain - behind me and around to the other side of the cornucopia are dense-looking woods. To my left and before me, there is a lake and a field of overgrown yellow grasses.

Then the announcer's voice booms around us, echoing in the plain. "Ladies and Gentlemen, let the Seventy-Fourth Hunger Games begin!"

Chapter 11: Chapter Ten

Chapter Text

Chapter Ten

That begins the countdown. We have sixty seconds to stand on our metal plates and take in our surroundings. The plates themselves are surrounded by active land mines that will go off if you step down too soon. I'm to one side of the Cornucopia, a giant golden horn, so I can't see what's inside it, but outside, tempting survival items are strewn about - food, water, weapons, tents, sleeping bags. But I am looking for just one thing - one person. I see her - she's four … five tributes down from me, staring intently at the Cornucopia. I follow her eyes and see that she is looking, specifically, at a bow. Damn it.

She suddenly looks up and around, stopping when she sees me. She stares at me and I shake my head with an exaggerated movement. No, Katniss.

Then the gong rings out, and I watch her hesitate, half turn, then stoop to pick up some item almost at her feet and start toward the forest behind her. I breathe a quick sigh of relief, then deliberately walk into hell.

In the front of the Cornucopia, there's a fight already happening and it's strangely loud - all hoarse yelling and crashing metal. Clove is throwing daggers and Cato is fighting off a surprise attack from the male tributes from 6 and 7. I run toward the weapons and find a knife the perfect size. Glimmer and Marvel are chasing down some of the smaller tributes. I am just turning on my heel to look for the District 4 tributes, when a small but ferocious boy launches himself at me and I am nearly knocked off balance. But I plant my feet and manage to throw him off of me. I stare at him for a moment as he scrambles to his feet, looking at me in terror. I know I yelled - he cut me when he attacked me, and I feel more angry than frightened at the moment - a primal, wounded anger.

As I step toward him, knife raised, two things happen simultaneously. There is a scream behind me - a girl's voice crying for help. And the boy drops dead just as he gets to his feet - a dagger in his back.

"Help!" screams the girl again - a strange cry in this place - and I run to it and find the District 4 tributes in the mouth of the Cornucopia: Bet is kneeling, Dylan lying on his back. A red stain is swelling rapidly over his clothes under the spear stuck in his body.

His mouth and eyes are open, but there are no signs of life; I can't see any breaths moving his lungs, nor can I find a pulse. "There's nothing you can do!" I tell Bet. "Arm yourself!"

I get up and survey the field, upon which a hush has settled, as eerie as the battle noise was unnerving. Aside from Dylan and the boy who attacked me, both boys from 6 and 7 are dead on the field. I go among the rest of the bodies, dreading that I will see Katniss among them, but even when I don't, my throat closes in horror. There are eight more - eleven in all - killed by the Careers. My face starts to hurt.

I take a few deep breaths while considering - for just a moment - bolting toward the trees, like everyone else. But two things stop me. First - I have to admit this - my ingrained fear of the forest is no less for the proximity of the Careers. Second - the silver bow suddenly glimmers in the sun as I stand there, catching my attention by just the corner of an eye. I have a job to do.

I stoop to pick up the silver bow and the quiver of arrows, and shrug them over my shoulders, then turn back to join the Careers. They are standing in pairs - 1 and 2. Bet is off to the side, still near Dylan's body. I go over to stand next to her and I can see the relief in her eyes as I do it. I'd be intimidated, too, left alone with the others.

"She just got away from me," Clove is complaining as I arrive.

"Still," says Cato, surveying the field. "We've done well for the first day."

"It looks like 6 and 7 had some sort of alliance," I muse out loud.

"Yeah, idiots," he says - and he actually laughs.

"So, we're really keeping Lover Boy?" asks Marvel, curling his lip.

"Yeah, I mean, we're down one, anyway. Lover Boy's going to help us find twirly girl."

It takes me a moment to realize that's meant to be a dismissive nickname for Katniss. Mortifying. Lover boy and twirly girl … he's making a joke out of my planned strategy; hopefully, I can sell it, anyway.

"Hadn't we better move away from - the bodies?" asks Clove, wrinkling her nose.

We all walk over to the lake and listen to the sound of cannons announcing the end of the bloodbath. From now on, cannons will sound as soon as a tribute dies, but the initial cannons wait until the end of the bloodbath. It's a horrible sound that all my life has been associated with violent death, but I'm grateful for it now. The count matches the body count at the Cornucopia, so I know that Katniss is still alive, that she wasn't killed in the woods. A hovercraft appears overhead, starting the long process of pulling up the bodies around us by means of a claw lowered from the bottom of the hovercraft.

Clove, who has a couple of inches on me, I think, opens her jacket which she has already somehow adapted for holding at least eight daggers. Glimmer has a long knife. Bet carries a trident. Marvel has a spear. Cato holds a huge sword in his hand and there's another in his belt.

Once the last body is collected, and the hovercraft vanishes, Cato clears his throat. "This is how we're going to work it. We control all the weapons and food, and probably the biggest water source." He points his thumb back to the lake. "We've got flashlights and night vision goggles. There are seven tributes out there, running for their lives, hungry, thirsty - and tonight they are going to be cold. For the rest of the day, we gather up the supplies. After sundown, we hunt. We have two primary objectives. Thresh from 11 and Everdeen from 12. After we take care of them, we can - discuss strategy after that."

I guess by that he means it would be time to break the alliance. The field will be, theoretically, weak at that point. There's the really small male tribute from District 3, who I think is 13 or 14. The boy from District 10, who was always limping during training. Little Rue. A sly, red-haired girl from District 5, who spent no time that I can recall on the weapons stations. And the girl from 8, who I also don't remember very well.

"Agreed?"

We all nod.

"OK, so the next thing to decide is who do we target first? 11 or 12?"

My heart starts thumping.

Bet says, "They went in opposite directions. 12 went to the woods, 11 went that way." She points toward the field.

"OK, after we gather supplies, we'll take a look at the field," says Cato. "It should be harder to hide there."

I wonder - is he actually less afraid of Thresh - huge, imposing Thresh - than Katniss?

"Lover boy!"

"It's - Peeta, actually," I say, frowning.

"District 12 has more cheek this year than normal," Cato says, spitting on the ground.

I shrug. "Well?"

"Well - what do you know about Everdeen? Does she have survival skills in the woods? What weapons can she use? How did she scare that score out of the Gamemakers?"

"Wait a minute, Cato," says Clove, eyeing me suspiciously. "First things first - what makes you think that you'll be able to lure her out, anyway?"

I meet her eyes. Here is where the act begins. "She's had a crush on me, for forever. She told me the night of the parade - she even kissed me. So, now that she thinks I like her, too…."

Clove snorts. I'm going to have to watch her - she's nobody's fool. "Then she's a moron, falling for that obvious on-screen stuff."

"Sometimes you believe what you want to believe," I reply, airily. "Anyway, does she have survival skills in the woods? There's no way. District 12 is shut up, no one is allowed in the woods. She might have a passing acquaintance with apple trees, but apart from that, no."

And how would they know different? It's well known in 12, and will soon become obvious to the rest of Panem, that Katniss has far more skills in the woods than is allowable. But the Careers will underestimate her, and everyone else will know I'm lying. Just as Haymitch told me to do, more or less.

"I don't know what she did in the private session with the Gamemakers, we weren't allowed to talk to each other about it. But she's a miner. She can use a pick, and, probably an axe. She knows a fair amount about explosives. She can build a fire. That's all I know."

"All right," says Cato. "Let's collect the supplies. All the weapons, by the cornucopia. Clove and I will do that. We'll pile up the gear over there. 12 and 4 - you do that. And the food over there, 1."

Now I see the truth in Portia's last words to me. Cato has swagger, but he's not necessarily smart. He is making several tactical errors, as far as I can tell. He's allowing the district partners time alone to come up with their own sub-strategies. He's putting all the supplies in similar piles, instead of spreading them out, burying what we don't want lost. If we're all going off hunting, what is to stop tributes from sneaking in and taking what they want? Maybe he's right and everyone has scattered as far from the Cornucopia as possible, but what if he's wrong? There are plenty of hiding spots just inside the woods. Even I know this. But, whatever.

Bet and I start walking around the grass, collecting everything that isn't food or weapons. The tents and sleeping bags, tarps, fire starters, goggles, water purifiers, random bits of rope, twine, wire, small shovels, hammers, etc.

"How are you doing?" I finally ask her, in a low voice.

She shrugs. "It is what it is," she says, but her voice sounds strained.

I glance at her. Without her costumes and makeup, she is still a good-looking girl. Not quite in the same league as Glimmer - whose healthy, fully-formed body was on nearly full display on interview night in a see-through dress. Bet is shorter, a little more athletic in build, and her long, honey-colored hair goes down her back in waves. Her most striking feature is her beautiful, somewhat slanted, blue-green eyes. The trident she clings to makes our task a bit awkward, as she is working one-handed most of the time. But I don't mind that it is extending the time our chore takes, because I dread having to hang out with Cato and Clove again.

"I guess I'm lucky you decided to join us last minute," she mumbles. "I'd be dead by now already."

"Oh, I don't know," I reply. "Cato seems to put a lot of stock in numbers."

"Maybe. At least in the short run."

Cool. We seem to be on the same page. That makes things a little easier. And also, I know that at least this Career won't slit my throat in my sleep - not yet.

"Hey," she says, handing me a plastic bag. "There are some bandages in there. Better wash up and wrap up your arm."

I look down at myself in surprise. I'd forgotten that I got cut earlier. It's not a deep cut, nothing as bad as the wounds Katniss gave me. The blood is already dry around the thin line. But she's right. I need to worry about infection.

After she and I are done gathering, I go back down to the lake. Awkwardly, still positioning myself so that I am not totally backside to the Careers, and still holding my knife, I scrub the blood off my arm and wrap a bandage around it, trying to copy the tight wraps that Portia made for my hands. I wish I had the medication she used. You can barely tell my palms were cut.

Marvel and Glimmer bring dried meat, dried fruit and apples over to the lake and we eat, and then set to purifying six bottles of water.

"Can you shoot that thing?" Glimmer asks me, nodding toward the silver bow.

Hmm. I lick my lips nervously, suddenly paranoid about what anyone might have heard or guessed about the Gamemaker sessions. "Not that well," I say, carefully. "But I thought it might be good to have a long range weapon. You can shoot, though, right? I watched you during training," I add, flirtatiously. "You're good."

In the responsive glow of her eyes, I'm suddenly reminded of Aster – I'm dealing with a girl who is well aware of her own power; but with her power comes a blind side – she is weak to flattery.

"Let me have it, then," she tells me.

"It's a little awkward to lug around," I reply – which is true enough. "I can carry it for now. When you need it..."

Next, the six of us head over to the field, which begins abruptly on what is roughly the southeast edge of the plain. The grass is thick, yellow, about five feet tall, topped with white tufts. We can clearly see where Thresh went into the grass, as his path is marked with broken shafts and footprints. But that doesn't make following him any less eerie. Visibility is immediately limited, and the grass around us rattles ominously - and there are other noises: chattering, slithering, scurrying noises that make us jump.

"Did more than one person go into the field?" asks Glimmer, pointing - two additional paths lead off in other directions..

"No," says Clove. "I don't think so. I think Thresh knew he'd be too easy to track so he doubled back and made a second path, then did it again and made a third path."

At that moment, we hear a rustling noise and all of us jump. If Thresh is constructing fake trails, he could actually have doubled all the way back around and be coming up behind us. Would he take on all six of us at once? Maybe not, but it's still a troubling thought.

"OK," says Cato. "Light's going down. We should prepare to go out and scour the woods."

I'm relieved to be abandoning the grass, although I'm not looking forward to going into the woods. Will we find Katniss? Probably not. She probably will be up a tree, having already figured out how to feed herself. I hope she has a way of keeping warm. But we might run into other, more hapless, tributes, and the thought frightens me. This is where I won't be able to prevent killings, and I'm worried how that is going to feel. The bloodbath was mostly over before I had time to process it. This will be like - when Violet died. And this time, I'll be watching close up.

I take a few breaths to clear my head. Unfortunately, a lot of innocent people are going to have to die, for Katniss to live. A lot already have. This isn't my doing. This is the Capitol's doing. And that reminds me, I have an important job to do.

I know the cameras are on us, watching us. Following the Careers is always the go-to, prime-time storyline of the Games, as they are always on the move, compared to the rest of the tributes with their generally-fruitless hiding. Their fascination with Katniss will guarantee her plenty of camera time, too, though, and through her there will be some camera time specifically for me, while they try to work out what I'm doing, given my confessions of last night. So, I'm thinking, they will definitely broadcast this.

Just before I enter the woods, behind the rest of the Careers, I pause out in the open, under the last light of the day, and look up into the sky with the most wistful expression I can muster. "Please be hidden well, Katniss," I murmur to the sky. Then I gulp and plunge into the woods.

Fear clutches at me immediately. I don't know where it comes from - it feels internal, deep within me, yet there is no question that the forest itself is eerie in the darkness, frightening on its own. The trees are thick; the shadows of the dark branches make web-like projections on the ground. They creak and shiver - wild things shuffle through the leaves or call out from hidden places. As the light dissolves around us, it feels like the trees and the shadows and the hidden things gather closer around me.

But this feeling is quickly overwhelmed by a sharper and closer fear - the four Careers who surround me. This is no place to be - surrounded by people for whom I am a mere number, no open ground on which to flee. Maybe I'm fourth in line to kill. Or third or sixth or eleventh - I don't even know when they plan to target me, only that they do. And what Cato plans may not be what Clove plans, may not be what Marvel plans. An impossible alliance that could fold at any moment.

I think the plan is probably to head off straight west, as much as possible, but once in the woods, that is difficult to do. The trees gnarl our path. Cato, in the lead, keeps trying to pick the easiest way around them (a logical guess about what the other tributes might have done) and Clove drops back behind me to take up the rear. The thought of her and her knives and my exposed back tightens my nerves.

As night falls, Cato hands out torches, and now our faces are cast into sharp relief - bright light and shadow. There is no fear among the Careers - at least none evident. Our lights, our noisy tread on the dead leaves and pine needles that blanket the forest floor - we make no attempt at concealment.

After a couple of hours we break and sit in a circle, facing each other, our torches stuck in the ground in front of us, our weapons in our hands. Marvel passes out more dried meat and fruit and we sip from our water bottles, watching each other with wide, suspicious eyes. This might be the worst moment, so far. My throat is dry no matter how much I drink, and I can hear my heart beating. Sitting opposite Cato and Marvel I feel is just a dangerous thing to do, and at any rate, it feels incredibly uncomfortable. Every slight movement from anyone, I have to tamp down my urge to jump to my feet and run. And as horrible as this feels, I know that there will be even worse moments to come.

While we sit, the anthem starts blaring through the arena, and, trained Hunger Games viewers that we are, we look expectantly up at the sky, where the images of the tributes killed today will be displayed. I wish they would show the names - they are just numbers up there, those still images of the faces that I saw today, dead.

When we start off again, Marvel joins Cato at the front of the line - perhaps he's uneasy, too. For Careers, neither Marvel nor Glimmer seem as deadly as they should. They are confident, yes, but it seems to emanate from their charisma more than any kind of obvious brute force. She's gorgeous (it's hard not to look at her, and I've even noticed Cato eyeballing her) and he carries himself like he thinks he is.

The chill starts ratcheting up and I can start to see my breath in front of me as we continue on. I'm weary and try to hide it when my feet start stumbling. We take a second break for food, and I have to start pinching myself to keep from nodding off. Sitting still, with the sweat freezing on me, I start to shake. The girls yawn openly. Cato's got a wild look on his face, and he starts muttering to himself, as if angry that the hiding tributes don't fling themselves in our path for his convenience. I don't know how we're going to do it - these woods seem massive and without end. By hunting at night, we are missing any subtle signs of human life. I can only assume Cato was hinging his ongoing success with sponsors and the crowd by bluntly killing not only those foolish enough to stay at the cornucopia, but anyone hiding nearby. But we've been scared off by Thresh and there is no sign of anyone, let alone Katniss …

But we continue on his chosen path, until: "Wait!" hisses Clove, suddenly, and we all stop and look back at her - she's pointing to the south.

There's a pale glow through the trees, clearly from a fire. Shit, I think - some poor, cold, foolish tribute, maybe hoping we were all asleep by now. Not Katniss, though. For sure, not Katniss.

Cato breaks into a run. Clove, who has the softest tread among us, now joins Cato at the front and I gratefully take up the rear. I don't dare get too far behind everyone, lest I trigger their suspicions, but my legs feel heavy. I wonder - if I have to now - how many I could take out. I'd start with Cato, for sure, but Clove would kill me within seconds. One - I'd maybe get one down by surprise. I wish there was a way to signal my intentions to Bet, but I've noticed she, too, is exhausted. She's been dragging the end of the trident on the ground. I don't know what to do - I don't think I can play this game after all. I don't want to be part of the group that is killing tributes. They have to die, for Katniss, I think. Why? Why do they? This whole thing doesn't make sense.

We pause on the edge of a small clearing. There's a fire burning low in it and a girl huddled near it. She's clutching a stick, as if it was her weapon, but she succumbed to sleep.

Before I can register more than this, Cato steps forward into the clearing. She wakes just before he plunges his sword into her midsection. Her screaming plea for mercy is cut off by the deathblow. The warmth of her blood steams into the air.

"Twelve down and eleven to go!" shouts Cato, and there's a hint of relief in his voice. Clove applauds, which is the signal for Glimmer and Marvel, as well - and Marvel and Cato both holler into the night. That 'eleven' includes most of us doesn't seem to register with them. Clove eyes me and I know it was a mistake not to join in the celebrating, but I just couldn't make myself do it.

"What's she got?" I ask, to distract her.

Cato checks around the fire. There is nothing - no weapon, no bag, no trace of food; nothing. "Worthless," he says dismissively, and I think painfully of her family watching this - if not now, at this moment, then during the endless recaps of it tomorrow. They'll wake up and she will be dead - this girl with black curls and soft hands. At the hands of a dismissive, brutish boy. OK, we have to kill each other, but can't there be some sadness, some - dignity in it?

What am I thinking? You have to shut that off, in order to do this.

I can't be unchanged by this. There's no way. As it is, I already hesitated - I don't honestly know what I might have done - over killing the boy who attacked me. In order to survive, I'd have to become someone I'm not. And after that? I'd have to live with it, forever. I'd have to live with this - my compliance in killing this girl - forever. Portia was wrong. The sooner I'm out of this, the better for me. If I didn't have to protect Katniss, I'd step in front of Cato's sword right now.

"Let's move," he says, "before the body starts stinking." He gets a general laugh from that and I am again nauseated by him. Fuck him. He knows that's not going to happen any time soon - it's just to emphasize that she's nothing anymore but a corpse.

Although, I realize as we move away, there is something distinctly unfinished about this encounter. Eventually, that fact brings everyone else up short as well. It is Clove, of course, who articulates it: "Shouldn't we have heard a cannon by now?"

"I'd say yes," says Marvel. "Nothing to prevent them from going in immediately."

"Unless she isn't dead," adds Glimmer.

"She's dead. I stuck her myself." Cato's defensiveness makes his tired voice rise.

"Then where's the cannon?" asks Glimmer.

"Someone should go back," says Marvel. I feel Bet tense next to me and I think I know why. Are the 1 and 2 tributes already cracking apart?

"I said she's dead!"

And right there, in the middle of the cold, dark forest, a fight breaks out between Cato and Marvel and Glimmer. For a few minutes, I watch it with cold anticipation, wondering if weapons will be drawn and this whole Career thing - my first day in the Games - ends in a mini-bloodbath in the woods. Finally, unable to take it any longer, I interrupt the argument: "We're wasting time! I'll go finish her and let's move on!"

And I walk back to the clearing without waiting for an assent, clutching my knife.

Chapter 12: Chapter Eleven

Chapter Text

Chapter Eleven

I slowly step into the light of the dying fire. She hasn't moved at all. Her eyes are open, glassy in the faint light. Her mouth is open on its final scream. It's - so - horrible. The cut at her midsection is long and blood still flows out of it. Still no cannon, so, she's not dead yet. Her heart is still beating. Could she be saved? Not here and now, not by me, but if someone got her to a hospital, now, could her internal bleeding be stopped and her damage healed?

I sit down next to her, close her eyes, close her mouth. I can only hope that she dies soon, on her own, or I am screwed (another horrible thing I never imagined I would think to myself). I'll have to take off now, with nothing but my knife, the bow I can't shoot and a half-empty water bottle. Yet, that is tempting, so tempting.

I take her wrist and feel for her pulse. I find it, but soft, erratic. And there, in the woods, I feel her death in my fingers. Her pulse fades, like the end of a song. And then it simply stops. Just to be sure, I pull aside her jacket and listen to her chest. I hear nothing. Maybe her brain is still holding on, and that's why the cannon hasn't sounded, but her heart is stopped, and that's the end. "Sorry," I whisper. "I'm so sorry." Then I stand up, feeling woozy and sick and, before I can do anything about it, I'm retching up dried apricots and beef jerky.

I limp out of the clearing, wiping my mouth. Well, that wasn't my finest moment. Add it to tonight's list of new lows.

"Was she dead?" Cato asks me as I approach him.

"No," I say solemnly, "but she is now." As if on cue, the cannon fires. "Ready to move on?" I ask steadily.

But the sky is beginning to turn gray with the morning, so we jog back the way we came, as much as we can - heading back east toward the lake. Night is over and it's time to regroup back at camp.

Exhausted and stressed, I lose track of time as we retrace our steps; the sun is fairly high in the sky by the time we get to the cornucopia. I'm so tired I'm starting to see double everywhere. My hunger doesn't even bother me - I just want to sleep. But there's a new wrinkle. Glimmer and Marvel, who had stacked up the food, notice that some of it is missing.

Cato goes ballistic. "It's got to be Thresh or Everdeen," he barks. "They must not be as deep out as we thought!" We? "We're going to have to come up with a watch system tonight."

"What about right now, Cato?" objects Marvel. "We have to get some sleep, so how are we going to divvy it up?"

"We stayed out too late last night," complains Glimmer. "I couldn't keep watch if my life depended on it."

That's so amazing a joke, I almost laugh out loud.

"I'm not tired," says Bet, quietly.

"Nor me," says Clove.

So - it's set up. Clove and Bet take first watch. Marvel and I will take second. Glimmer and Cato last.

We make camp just outside the mouth of the cornucopia. Those of us who sleep do it inside the horn, out of the sun. As soon as my head touches the ground, I'm out, and my sleep is short and black, without nightmares.

After three hours, I'm roused by Bet. She looks tense but, instead of going straight to sleep, she follows me outside and edges into me while she takes a drink out of her water bottle. "Wake me up when your watch is over," she murmurs. "Just be cool about it. I can't sleep with Cato keeping watch."

I nod slightly, and she hands me her bottle. "Fill and purify this for me, won't you?" she asks me loudly, and ducks into the cornucopia, passing Marvel, who is yawning. His silvery-blond hair is mussed and he has dark circles under his eyes.

She's right. I probably should stay awake during Cato's watch, too. I guess we won't be going far abroad tonight, thank goodness, so maybe the couple of hours I got just now will suffice for the day.

I toss Marvel a couple of granola bars from the food pile, and pocket a couple myself as I head over to the lake with my bottle and Bet's. I sit down and take off my shoes and socks and soak my blisters as the water purifies in the bottles. The granola bars are sweet but not very filling, and I think about all those enormous breakfasts during the training week which, like my life in District 12, has receded to a dream-like state. Twenty-four hours in, I might always have been here, in this arena.

I look toward the woods, and murmur her name. This is both duty and pleasure. I've never had much opportunity to say it out loud before, and I let my tongue caress it, now; the hard syllable and the soft one. It's not even feigned - I'm wondering where Katniss is, if she's found water, how deep she's gone into the arena. I would give almost anything to see her, but in these circumstances, seeing her would be a literal disaster. I have to hope I never see her again. Although - I do still need to try to get her the bow. How I could possibly accomplish this in time for it to be of use to her against the Careers, I don't know. Can't Haymitch just find a way to get a sponsor to send her one?

I look back out over the lake, my back to Marvel. "I miss you, Katniss," I murmur to the water. "This is harder than I thought it would be." This is for the audience. And it is also very true.

Then I go back to the cornucopia and ask Marvel if he wants me to fill up his water bottle. "No, I'll take it," he says coolly.

While he does that, I examine my surroundings a little more. If someone is watching us, waiting to steal food, maybe they are doing so now. I might not be safe here - maybe someone took weapons as well as food (Cato is such a fool!). I nervously make a circle around the cornucopia, and it's while I'm at the back end of it that I see something disturbing. Someone has dug up one of the tribute platforms.

I approach it carefully, sure I must be wrong, but there's no mistaking it. Well, it's not the platform itself, but the ground around it has been dug up. My mind reels through the possibilities, including that someone tried to dig their way back down to the launching room. Then I realize - the mines planted around the tribute platforms to keep the tributes from getting off of them early.

I run back around to the front of the cornucopia. "Psst, Marvel!" I hiss. "Come here!"

He looks at me with extreme distrust, grips his spear tightly and follows me back to the dug up pad. "What the hell?" he whispers, looking around.

We peer into the woods but I'm very aware that whoever might still be in there has the advantage of cover. "We've got to get back to the front of the cornucopia," I say.

"Do you think someone did that overnight? Why would someone do that?"

"Maybe to use the explosives inside them?"

"They're disabled," he says, rolling his eyes.

"Yes, they are turned off, but they still must have the explosives in them. It's like - dynamite. There are the chemicals inside that form the explosion, and there's a trigger. You cut away the trigger, the explosive is still inside. If you could find another way to set it off…."

"How do you know all that?"

"We go on field trips - to the coal mines, every year."

"So - you think maybe Everdeen …? You said she's good with explosives."

Oh, yeah I did. "Maybe," I say, unsure of how this will play. "Or maybe District 3? They work in electronics, right? You'd have to figure out how to reactivate the electronics controlling the trigger."

"Could they be in an alliance?" asks Marvel, nervously.

What an amazing possibility, a non-Career alliance. I'd like that very much if I wasn't currently with the Careers. Another thing to get nervous about. "Anything's possible," I say evasively.

After what we judge to be three hours has past - the afternoon is getting on - Marvel and I wake the next watch. He wakes Glimmer, leaving Cato to me - but first I touch Bet's shoulder and shake it gently until she wakes and blinks up at me.

Marvel and I go outside with Cato and Glimmer, show them the hole in the ground and discuss our theories. The idea of an alliance between Katniss and District 3 clearly unnerves him. And there's still Thresh. Maybe we are safe in our numbers, maybe we do control the food and have easy access to water, but we feel vulnerable, camped out here in the open. Eyes could be watching us from all sides.

"OK," says Cato. "I'll think of a plan by nightfall."

Back inside the cornucopia, I lie down in a bag next to Bet, and my feeling of unease does not go away. I feel trapped in here, pinned in a trap. I doubt Cato will give in to the impulse to get rid of us yet - not with tributes lurking on all sides. But he can be unpredictable. My knife might be better at close quarters, I guess, than his sword. I wish I'd spent more time practicing with it.

Bet and I look at each other periodically. I wonder about her district: is she from a fisher family or from a merchant family, like me? I don't know if it works the same way in District 4 as it does in District 12. I also never had fish until I came to the Capitol, and I liked it. I think about all these things, listening for Marvel's heavy breathing to indicate that he is asleep. I want to tell Bet about the latest developments. Maybe, if I could persuade her that Katniss has allied with District 3, she'd agree to slip away with me to leave this alliance. If I could get that bow to Katniss, that would certainly nullify the advantage of Cato, maybe even both Cato and Clove.

But even when I hear the soft snores come from the other bags, I can't risk it. They could be feigning sleep, listening in. Instead, I strain my ears for the conversation outside. I can't make out the words, just Cato's short sentences and Glimmer's flirty voice. Then I wonder, is Cato trying to pull Glimmer over to his side, leaving Marvel out? I know Bet and I will be the first he targets when the alliance breaks. So if he isolated Marvel …. Or is Glimmer flirting with him, trying to separate him from Clove? Or are they just two attractive 18-year-olds enjoying an evening to themselves, falling into the standard give and take of normal boys and girls?

When I wake up, it's dark and I sit up with a start. Bet is gone, Clove is gone, Marvel still sleeps near me. I jump up and rush from the horn, then see with relief that the other four tributes are just going through the food. Outside, it's not quite dark, but the sun is setting. I walk over to the other tributes and Bet gives me two tin cans. The lids peel off the top and one has chunks of chicken and the other fruit in syrup. Glimmer runs back to the cornucopia, perhaps to check on Marvel, or at any rate to wake him up.

"So, here's the plan," says Cato, not waiting for the District 1 tributes. "We leave together, make like we're going back into the grass, after Thresh, but then we split up - some of us stay in the grass, some of us head into the woods, and wait to see who comes to take the food, or works on the mines, or whatever is happening here. With any luck, it will be 11 or 12. If it's not - don't kill them at first. We need to try to find out who they're working with."

I really don't care for the idea of taking on Thresh, but if this is the plan, it sounds a lot better than walking through the woods all night.

About an hour later, I'm crouched under a tree, staring blankly at the cornucopia through night vision goggles. I don't have long to wait. I detect movement on the meadow not long after taking my position. Some smallish tribute creeping toward the cornucopia. I shake my head and start to rise, but then I realize, I'm too far away. If I get up, he'll run and get a knife in the back. I might still be able to save him if I wait for one of the others to grab him first.

It's Marvel who jumps up to grab him, and when he shouts, our flashlights turn on and we converge on the kid. It is the District 3 boy; he's scrawny and short, and his eyes are terrified. He's telling Marvel he can help us, he can help us, and Cato says, "Shut up a second!"

I position myself as near to Cato as I can and still feel comfortable.

"Who are you working with?" Cato roars.

District 3 insists he's on his own - not knowing that he's sealing his fate; in fact, when Cato has demanded an answer a third time, he does so with his hand on his sword hilt. When I think he's getting ready to strike, I say sharply, "Hold it!"

"What?" snarls Cato.

"What are you doing with the mines, kid? Can you reactivate them?"

"Yes, and I can help you!"

"Cato," I say, "we need someone to keep watch when we hunt."

"This one? He could be picked off at any time!"

"What's your idea with the mines?"

District 3 explains that we could put all our stuff in a large pile and bury mines around it, so that if anyone came near it, they would trip a mine and we could both secure the goods and kill tributes without having to waste resources. At night, when we hunt, no one would be able to see well enough to avoid the mines.

The six of us look at each other.

"How long would this take?" Clove asks. She sounds interested, which is a good sign. Cato will probably go along with it if she does.

"If I could work in the day, and got some help uncovering mines, I could do it by the end of the day tomorrow."

I know this wars with Cato's lack of patience, but I can't see the downside to this, from his point of view. So we lose one day. We get to sleep tonight, work a little tomorrow, then resume our plans the following day.

It sounds ideal. But I don't want to be the one to insist on it. Come on, Clove, come on….

"I say, we try it," she says. "I really want to see if this actually can work."

I breathe a sigh of relief.

"OK, Digger," says Cato. "You have until 11 and 12 are dead - that's it. IF you can deliver on the mines." I wonder if I'm included in his reckoning of "12."

That night, we build a fire and - maybe I'm getting comfortable because I'm still alive, or maybe it's just because I'm pretty sure Cato will stick to the plan and wait for Thresh and Katniss to fall before breaking up the alliance - but I spend that night a lot less tense. I keep District 3 - Neon is his name, though Cato will not stop calling him Digger - in between me and Bet, and that night, Cato arranges the watches by District - he and Clove, Glimmer and Marvel, me and Bet. Perhaps he, too, just doesn't care - our pact will keep us all safe from each other, for now. Or perhaps he wants to reconnaissance with Clove, get her take on Bet, Marvel and me.

Bet and I take first watch. We sit in near silence at the fire for a while, then, after the anthem sounds and the girl killed last night - District 8 - is shown in the sky, she moves in next to me and leans her head against mine to speak. I've never been snuggled up so closely to a girl before.

"I hate to say this, but Neon being here is a bit of a boon for us."

I frown. He's lower on the pecking order, I guess, but - oh. "You mean, we'll get an advance warning when the alliance is breaking?"

"Maybe."

"Maybe. Maybe not. I'd rather take off when either Thresh or - or Katniss is …." I can't bring myself to say the word. "Not both of them. I don't think they'll wait, anyway."

"You might be right. What would we do?"

I hesitate for a long time, then whisper, "I need to get the bow to Katniss."

Bet is very still for an even longer time – my heartbeat quickens almost to the point of danger – then she nods her head against mine. "I wondered," she says. "OK, deal."

I'm nervous - I'm not one hundred percent sure of her - but I know she won't take on the pairs of Careers on her own. I just might have to run from her once we break away from them, that's all. But in the meanwhile, I've reaffirmed my allegiance to Katniss on air AND introduced the idea of the bow to the sponsors, so I feel it is a well-done night of work.

For the rest of our watch, we just talk about our districts - she tells me about deep sea fishing with nets and tridents, catching giant fish, sharks and sting ray. The deep sea fishing expeditions take days and days, and it's a respite from being in the villages with the Peacekeepers. People can talk on the boats - talk freely. I'm surprised kids get to go on these trips. In District 12, you don't go to the mines until you're finished with school. I talk about baking bread - it's quite dull in comparison- and just try to imagine such freedom.

The next day is our work day, and, perhaps because we got a lot of sleep and we aren't pursuing tributes, it's downright cheerful. With the six of us helping unbury the mines, we are finished with that part of the job by midmorning. Neon shows us how to open the mines - we don't have enough screwdrivers to go around, but he shows us how to do it with knives - while he works on the insides of the first one he dug up. This involves stripping and crossing some of the internal wires, but carefully.

"This is the demo," he tells us, setting one carefully aside in the grass. We stand well back and chuck rocks at it until one of us hits it, and it explodes satisfactorily.

At lunch, we break, and I reluctantly hand the bow over to Glimmer and watch her practice with it, shooting at a tree. She can handle the weapon, but her aim is actually just fair, even after a great deal of practice. But she seems satisfied, and after practice she slings bow and arrows over her shoulders instead of giving them back to me. Great.

Clove uses the same tree for knife practice, and she is incredibly good. She's so fast, she could probably stick all the rest of us before we could even react.

The afternoon chore is trickier. Neon marks a pattern for the mines around our combined pyramid of goods, and we dig shallow holes. Each mine has to be set in the hole and mostly buried, before being reactivated. Cato makes Neon do this, but the little District 3 tribute shrugs as if it's no big deal. He reactivates each mine, then carefully finishes covering them with the loose soil.

And that's the day. He makes sure we see the path we can follow to get into the pile - but it's narrow and needs a bit of footwork, so Cato makes him do that, too. Neon has helped extend his own usefulness. Not bad.

Another night of watching follows. This time, I watch with Glimmer, Marvel with Bet and Cato again with Clove. They are definitely planning the end game, but still I'm not worried - we have time. Eventually, we'll probably have to go back into the grass after Thresh - though none of us relish the idea. And until then, until then - we will be together, waiting fruitlessly to catch Katniss.

Glimmer and I don't really talk much during our watch. She has put the bow away with her bag, so there's no easy way for me to ask for it back. I'm hopeful that I won't need it soon, anyway. I spend a lot of time deliberately not looking at her. It makes me nervous not to keep an eye on her, but staring could be so easily misconstrued. When she asks a question or makes a comment, I give short responses, then return to staring – longingly, I hope – at the woods.

The next day, I wake up to shouts from Cato. I've slept until noon. He points north. At first, I think it's smoke from a campfire, but then I realize that it's too big to be a simple fire from that far away. The forest itself is burning.

"What's happening?" I gasp.

"The Gamemakers are flushing someone out," says Cato with a grin.

It's far, far into the woods, and definitely not Thresh, I think, my heart sinking. It has to be Katniss.

Chapter 13: Chapter Twelve

Chapter Text

Chapter Twelve

I had forgotten the Gamemakers.

It was starting to look so simple; Katniss would outlast the Careers and ultimately defeat them. I'd take at least one out for her along the way. But of course, we aren't playing our own game, are we? We're playing theirs. In fact, there may be some harm in my strategy, some ways for it to backfire. Katniss may be popular with the crowd, but she probably isn't with the Gamemakers. The Careers, however, are popular with the crowd, the Gamemakers, and all the way up to President Snow. The favored Districts, the ones who fall in line. Here I am, having persuaded the Careers to let me join them, my stealth mission now perfectly clear to all of Panem. Is Haymitch getting fallout from the 1 and 2 mentors, for my treason?

He'll be OK. Arena alliances are made to be broken, and besides, he's the only Victor from District 12. The government will not let anything happen to him. It's Katniss who is in danger, now. Clearly, they are leading her out of safety, towards trouble. It's too soon.

"Eat up, everyone," says Cato. "And fast. Digger - get some food and arm yourself with something to keep watch on camp. You're earning your keep today."

"What are we doing?" I ask Cato. "Going to the fire?"

"What are you worried about?"

"Normally, I run from fires," I say wryly.

"It's a Gamemaker fire," he says, looking at me as if finally convinced I'm an idiot. "They are flushing tributes out of the woods. We have to go find them."

After we eat, the six of us take off, heading straight north toward the thick smoke that is starting to overtake the glow in the distant trees. I'm frantic with worry, anxious as hell. Because I do feel that this is it, for real - we've come to the confrontation I've been dreading, and I am going to see Katniss again, soon. Unless she's found some way of evading the fire that doesn't lead her this way. She doesn't know where we are, but she'd surely try to avoid the center of the arena.

I rehearse my frantic, half-formed plan. I'll have to stay close behind Glimmer, strip her of her weapons, toss them toward Katniss, and then attack the next closest Career to me. Cato would be best - or maybe Clove, she's deadlier at a distance than Cato - but it won't matter if I can somehow get Katniss the bow. With Glimmer unarmed and one Career down, her odds will be pretty good. Plus, one of the other Careers will turn to kill me before they concentrate on her. It will be a fatal mistake.

That leaves Bet, but I can't worry about Bet right now. I've given her fair warning of whose side I'm on; hopefully - in fact, probably - she'll bolt as soon as the fighting starts. Of course, someone will have to kill her eventually, but I can't worry about that right now, either; I won't be here to see it, anyway.

The north section of the woods is probably five or six miles away, on the other side of the lake, but the terrain is not flat and we have to navigate some small hills and large boulders, not to mention the windy path of the stream that trickles off of the lake.

Eventually, the heat starts rising around us and my lips and lungs sting from the smoke. I'm soon hacking, and I'm not the only one. Once again, Cato is a fool, and I suddenly feel hopeful that Katniss will hear us coming and be able to evade our search. I also feel the panic of walking deliberately into this heat and acrid air. It's counter-intuitive and at some point I'm just going to have to stop – I won't be able to go on.

Then, it happens. Cato gives a whoop of joy that chills me to my bones. We've crested the top of a particularly large boulder and he is pointing down. There's a small pond below the rocks, and Katniss is sitting in it; she's just getting to her feet at the sight of him and, in a flash, she's bolted away, back toward the woods.

We scamper down the rock and have to skirt around the pool. She's fast, but limping, I notice, as she disappears into the trees. I try to keep behind Glimmer, but I'm not fast, and I'm bringing up the rear as we run into the forest.

"We got her, we got her, we got her!" cries Cato and I urge myself forward, heart racing. I'll kill him, I think, right now. Why did I listen to Haymitch? I should have killed him Day 1.

But they don't have her. Katniss has climbed a tall tree and she's way up above us, perched like a bird on narrow branches. She has a knife, and she's pulled it out. For a moment I forget how bad this will look to her, me being here with the Career pack that has hunted her down, and try to catch her eyes. Then I remember and I drop back and ready my knife for use, though I don't know what exactly is going to happen next.

"How's everything with you?" she calls down to us in a cheeky tone.

I smile to myself. I want to laugh, but I know that this will goad Cato for sure.

"Well enough," he says. "Yourself?"

Her airy voice taunts him: "It's been a bit warm for my taste. The air's better up here. Why don't you come on up?"

"Think I will," he says grimly.

"Take this," says Glimmer, pulling the bow and sheath of arrows off her back.

They are almost … almost within my reach. I just can't fling them to Katniss in the current situation. Cato, in the meanwhile, is making himself vulnerable by climbing. So - I could take Clove first, maybe, and still have time to throw my knife right at Cato's back. I'd die by Marvel's spear and it would be Glimmer versus Katniss….

"No," Cato says, "I'll do better with my sword."

He starts climbing, but he's slow at it, and Katniss, in the meanwhile, climbs even farther up. She's a green smudge in the tree branches at this point.

Cato is on the lowest branch and looking for a good hand hold. I swallow my bile and creep up behind Clove, who is distracted, for once, watching him. Then Cato crashes suddenly to the ground and the girls scream. For a long second there's silence, then Cato sits up, cursing. Glimmer, putting the bow and arrows back around her shoulders, climbs up after him. She's better at this, and she gets up a couple of branches; then, balancing delicately, looking up through the leaves, she aims an arrow and shoots directly up. I hold my breath.

"Damn!" she says.

I look up and see that Katniss has climbed even higher. She must be near the very top of this tree, which seems a good forty feet up, but which might as well be a thousand: it's clear that this is where she has the advantage. In fact, the very size of the Careers - their major strength - is rendered useless here. At least for the moment.

"Can we smoke her down?" asks Marvel, as Glimmer jumps back down and shrugs at us.

"We'd be smoking ourselves out, too," I point out, desperately grasping at the most logical-sounding argument I can come up with.

"You can't just burn down a fresh tree," Cato adds in disgust. "It takes time. Lover Boy's right. We'd have to retreat ourselves, and she might be able to escape when we can't see her."

"Light's going down," says Clove. "She might try doing that anyway."

"This is ridiculous," says Cato. "She's treed, we're armed and surrounding her. Someone has to be able to reach her."

"She has a knife," I say. "She'd have the advantage of anyone climbing after her - if we even could."

"We should have brought a rope," says Bet. "Maybe, if one or two of us go back to the Cornucopia for some rope."

She means me and her, but I can't leave Katniss. I try to think my way out of this one, but Cato shakes his head. "It's getting dark. Whoever went back - it would be hard to find this spot again. We've got to get her down now."

The arguing among the tributes starts up again, so finally I interrupt:

"Let her stay up there tonight. It's not like she's going anywhere. We'll deal with her in the morning."

There's an uneasy, resentful silence, broken only by an occasional cough (the smoke from this morning's conflagration still clings to the air). Yet, I'm betting that they're all grateful for an excuse to put off any decisions for now. I add, in a quieter voice, "As long as she still trusts me, I'll be able to lure her down." This is my last and most desperate card to play. I've technically fulfilled my use to them, now that we have found Katniss. My only buffer against sudden death is the promise to deliver her.

Finally, everyone agrees, if reluctantly. Glimmer thinks it will be funny to trick her out of a tree; Marvel's still hung up on burning her down, and Cato's reluctance to disagree with him gives me a hint at what to expect in the morning. I build the campfire very deliberately away from the base of the tree - under the unnervingly close watch of Clove. Two problems to solve overnight - to think of some way of getting (1) the bow from Glimmer and (2) the Careers out of the clearing. This would involve persuading the Careers that I can shoot the bow (despite complete lack of evidence) and that they should retreat while I "persuade" Katniss that it's safe to come down close enough for me to kill her. I'd somehow have to convince them - well Cato and Clove, in particular - to buy that Katniss is a lot dumber than she is. It's far more likely - far, far more likely - that Cato will just burn down the tree in the morning.

So - that leaves just one solution, really. The one I've been putting off. Turn on them when they find her, not before that. Exactly. Katniss has bought us both some time by her superior skills in the trees; but time will be out with the sunrise.

Cato divvies up the night watch. It would be too much to hope for that it's me and Bet together, but in fact, he lets neither of us take a watch. I know he thinks that Bet just tried to bolt, and as for me ….

"Sorry, Lover Boy. Not taking the chance."

Yeah, my days in the alliance are numbered.

It's a blessing that I slept in this morning. Because I am not going to sleep tonight, watch or no.

I prop myself against a tree and set my knife across my knees. I can look straight up Katniss' tree and see her, vaguely, a small mass among the delicate branches and needles. I know she's not safe, yet, but part of me is ridiculously glad to have seen her, to have heard her voice - so familiar and evocative of home (bless her District 12 "accent") - and to have heard her taunting the Careers.

Chapter 14: Chapter Thirteen

Chapter Text

Chapter Thirteen

The anthem sounds in the sky as Cato hunches by the fire, taking the first watch by himself. Almost as if he's read my mind, he has set Glimmer to watch last. My latest plan is to kill her and then kill Cato - in his sleep, hopefully. Then flee, hoping Clove and Marvel both pursue me, in the heat of the moment. Neither of them will have use for the bow; it will be left behind for Katniss. There are a lot of unpleasant variables to this plan, but I'm pretty much out of options. By the time morning comes, Cato will have come up with some plan to get Katniss down, so the confrontation will need to happen at dawn.

There are no pictures in the sky tonight, but tomorrow night, mine will be.

Tonight, I have to let go of my life and steel myself to do the thing I never thought I would do - kill in cold blood.

Are you, are you
Coming to the tree
Where the dead man called out for his love to flee
Strange things did happen here
No stranger would it be
If we met up at midnight in the hanging tree

The tune winds its way through and buries itself inside my head, repeating over and over. As the night grows colder and my blood chills, I imagine there are things hanging from the boughs of the trees. Death is pressing in around me. It's as if I'm breathing its ashy breath. The glint of the weapons as they glow in the light of the fire. Blood on my hands. The dead man, singing and singing. The girl, starving and starving. The curiosity – strangely detached – about how and when it will come to me. Cato's sword? Clove's knives? Even Bet could, reasonably enough, turn on me when the time comes. Will it hurt? Will it take a long time? Or will it happen in an instant – one moment light, one moment … nothing.

Yes, I'm attempting to defend this girl, whose life has somehow come to mean more than my own fear of pain, and now even of death - but the thought of delivering the blows - plunging my knife into the unwary girl's chest, slicing the throat of a sleeping boy - is so horrifying that my mind keeps trying to retreat from it. All my sporadic resentment of this situation – this thing where I'm sacrificing myself for this girl who has no clue about it, for the boy who waits at home for her – returns to choke me. But I can't let it.

This whole thing is fucked. And the worst thing? That I didn't realize how fucked it was, not really - not until now. I've watched the Games every year - watched and hated them. Watched and hated the Careers, like we're conditioned to do, as if it is District 2's fault that we are forced into the arena. It's not even District 13's fault, as the Capitol has said, claiming to wash its hands of it all. We're just following the treaty, obeying the law. Bullshit.

Watched the District 12 children die, year after year - the ones who don't come back to school the following year. We're used to it. Like we're used to the empty desks of the children who starve to death. It's just our life, our entire life. Our entire life is an arena. It's even enclosed and I'm beginning to understand … the monsters beyond the fence, the ones that stalk the woods, the mutts and wild things - and the people who put them there? Are they truly worse than what we have become – a people who send our children to kill each other in this particularly brutal way?

I close my eyes, pretending to sleep. I make my breath sound heavier. I've pretended to sleep before. One time, the worst of the times, Ryan was in trouble and mom came into our room with a belt. I pretended to sleep through it - looking back, there's no way that anyone believed me, but it was better for me, for her, for my brother that we all agreed to pretend that I didn't witness anything.

She loathed herself after these episodes; at least, I've always had to believe this. Her father was a drunk - worse than Haymitch, probably – and to hear her tell it, he beat her nearly every night. Her brother, my uncle, is a drunk, too, and my cousins are also beat regularly - so regularly, teachers have asked me about it. For mom, these episodes were fewer and farther between, but they loom large in my memory. The last time she hit me was the day of the bread. But I was the well-behaved one in the house. My brother was the troublemaker - mimicking Peacekeepers, getting in fights at school, stealing candy once. I guess she was frightened that he would get himself executed one day and was desperate to stop him, but her approach didn't improve him.

Worse for me was her sarcastic tongue; the sort of words that ring in your head forever, long after bruises mend – that you are stupid or lazy or just not even worth the time. I've got to the point where, mostly, I let it bounce off of me. That's just her being her, I would say to myself, at the mercy of demons she couldn't conquer. It's a form of forgiveness, I guess. The only form you can give when there's no apology. Or maybe not. If I forgive her now, completely, in my heart, maybe it will make this whole thing easier for me. She was the one who showed me I could be brave enough to be defiant, even when I knew I was facing punishment. So - for that, I'm going to thank her, as well as forgive her.

I think about my father, then. His marriage is not happy - never has been - and that's not entirely mom's fault. He didn't marry the girl he wanted and, if you think about it, maybe it didn't have to be the tragedy they seem to have made of it. I have to hope there was at least something between them. After all, I'm their third child - I have to hope I came out of something other than convenience or my dad's desire to have a daughter.

Or perhaps it's enough that I seem to have been born with a purpose.

It's weird – the sense of fatalism that pervades my participation in this Game. It makes me feel more important than I really am – and also, at the same time, much, much smaller. Insignificant. A pawn in someone's game. Her volunteering and my name being called - just like that. One of only two people, maybe - eligible for the Reaping - for whom her life meant more than his own.

I think back to how she ensnared me - all those years ago. And it wasn't anything she did on purpose - it was my over-sensitive heart, really. But ever since then, though I lived and breathed and looked like a normal boy, I was bound to her in this strange and immovable way that made something like this - insane situation that I'm in now - almost inevitable. It might have ended less dramatically, with just burnt fingers, a broken heart – but it was always there, dormant, waiting for me to eventually pick it up and figure out what it was. Until I went on stage to declare it, I never really put a name to it – I never called it a crush or an infatuation or anything like that. She fascinated me, but she's a fascinating person. She was just Katniss. There were girls and there was Katniss – all in a category by herself. Always in the corner of the eye. Always my first association – the first notes of a song, the first aroma of bread when it is almost done, the first drops of rain, the first spot of color in the spring: she was in all these things.

So, it was always just a matter of time. I had this vague idea that school would end and it would just fall into place. Then she volunteered, and my name was called. As if ...

I shake off these melodramatic thoughts and take a moment to think guiltily about Bet - the girl who actually is in an alliance with me right now. Bet - who I won't kill, unless she turns on me or Katniss, first. I wish I could shake myself free of the inevitability of her eventual death. It feels like my fault, and it hasn't even happened yet. This place is fucking awful.

Clove follows Cato, and she spends her watch whistling soundlessly, practicing her knife throws. For two hours, I watch her under my narrowed eyelids, filled with anxiety. She's smarter than Cato - she must have figured out that I lied about Katniss' knowledge of the woods. And who knows what else? Hopefully, she's just not scared enough of me to bother.

Marvel follows Clove, and I relax a little. This time I just listen to the night sounds - the scurrying creatures, maybe foxes or possum? The hooting owls. I can see the stars through the netting of the trees, and just try to relax and enjoy the sight of them. Periodically, a light shoots across the sky, then vanishes. It reminds, me, oddly enough, of the Capitol.

The Capitol - a whirlwind of color and food. Nothing elegant about it. Except for Portia, so strange to me, and a little disturbing. It's impossible to reconcile that a genuinely decent person could voluntarily participate in the Games. No matter how hard I try, the math does not add up. Yet – I like her. Maybe for selfish reasons. She's the first person who ever talked to me about art and my drawings as if they actually mattered. Does that make me the shallow one – dedicated to this noble cause, as she put it, but ultimately as susceptible to flattery as anyone else?

She and Haymitch - both telling me to look after my own life, but both of them helping me to put this plan in motion to help Katniss, instead. Curiously dedicated, to the very end, to this bizarre notion that linking us together, Katniss and I, is some kind of viable winning strategy.

This thought troubles me until Marvel wakes up Glimmer to take up her watch. Then my mind flits back, in panic, to the task at hand. Glimmer stirs the fire, then sits up against a tree opposite - so she is facing me. This will make a sneak attack very difficult, I think in consternation. Nonetheless, at dawn, I must get up and kill her. All I'm going to do, from now until then, is visualize her and Cato, climbing up that tree, deliberately going after Katniss. Muttations in human form. And hope that makes it easier for me to do this thing.

But as the silvery light starts up in the sky, I notice two things simultaneously. One is that Glimmer's head has slumped over; she's asleep. Two is that there is an odd sound coming from the tall tree, like an ugly caw of some strange bird, a grating, sawing sound.

I look up, grasping my knife. I can just see Katniss way up above. She's changed positions overnight, and she's in motion - not climbing up or down, but shaking or something. Then I understand. She's sawing a branch.

I hold my breath and try to puzzle this out. She's so far up that any branch she drops on us will not be dangerous to us. Does she mean to use it as a weapon, somehow? That makes even less sense. Perhaps a distraction? All I know is, she knows what she's doing in the woods, so I need to pause and let her -.

The branch is weighed down with a massive bee hive. I have a split second to register the fact before it comes crashing down on us, hitting the fire and scattering sparks and wasps together.

I jump up first, my wakefulness a distinct advantage. The knife slides down to the ground but there is no chance to retrieve it. I know only one thing in the entire world – to run, as fast and as far as possible. By the time everyone's up and screaming, I have bolted away from the strange mass of fiery, smoky, swirling bees. Marvel yells, "Get to the lake, the lake!" But I can't see who is or is not behind me. I feel one sting, two, three, and I'm frantically moving.

Then, as the world around me starts collapsing in sparkly shards, I find myself slowing down, down, down. One, two, three people pass me – indistinct as shadows. There is a slow hum in my ear, a buzzing. No ordinary bees, I think. The muttation version. Tracker jackers, whose stings are poison - hallucinations, fear, death. There's a burning sensation on my chest, and I look down to see myself on fire. Real or not real? I frantically pat myself down and try to find my bearings.

I can see the tracker jackers following behind the others as they continue to run. It's so curious, like a shimmering trail of smoke. I look down at myself and see smoke trails there, as well. Otherwise, I seem to be intact, though I feel lighter than I should. I'm not holding my knife - that accounts for it. A disaster. I have a job to do with it, I remind myself. What is it? What?

The bow! Did I miss my chance to secure it for Katniss? Where is Glimmer? Is she with the boys? Is she behind me?

I turn around, and even the process of pivoting makes the earth beneath me rock unsteadily. I head back toward the woods - the woods that look like smudgy watercolors – flat, blurry. Surreal. I hear some strangled gasps coming from one side of me and I pursue the sound. Eventually, I come upon her, twitching on the ground, her face and hands swollen, her honey-colored hair around her like a golden net.

"Bet?"

Even as I say it, there is a cannon. Boom! It sounds different today, reverberating strangely. Bet keeps twitching and I go to her, but she is so deformed, the sight frightens me. Then she stops and Boom!

Someone else has died, too, I think dully. I pick up Bet's trident, which is light; the three prongs are sharp and quivery. This wasn't my strong suit, but if I'm in close enough range….

As I move away from her, the hovercraft appears and picks her up and pulls her out of the arena. I watch her go – almost curiously envious that she has escaped this nightmare place. Then I head into the trees, following the trampled grass back toward where we camped last night. I can hear footsteps behind me and I run from them, determined to make it there first. It makes no real sense, but the tree and Katniss are one and the same to me right now.

And, astonishingly enough, she's there. She's hunched over Glimmer's body and at last she has her bow. But there's something wrong with her, something dizzy about the way she's looking at me. Something limp and helpless about the way she is holding the weapon. If she could effectively arm herself, I'd be dead already, probably. I see a swollen purple sting on her neck and know she must be at least as confused as I am. But the footsteps are coming behind me. "What are you still doing here?" I hiss at her. I go up to her, prod at her with the shaft of the trident. "Are you mad? Get up! Get up!" The footsteps are upon us now. "Run! Run!"

I turn around to face Cato. The venom has made his face purple and puffy. I see his red eyes zoom out at me. He dropped his big sword, but he still had one in his belt and he lurches forward with it now. But it's not toward me he is running, it's the escaping girl. Desperation forces my limbs to move. I lurch forward to block him, the trident hitching up with the spastic movement of my hand. He looks so unreal – so unlike himself – that it helps me visualize, instead, the training dummies in the tribute center.

"No!" I thrust the trident forward with every ounce of strength I can muster, and I catch him in the side as he tries to swerve around me. He screams in rage and brings the sword down on me in one quick, sickening stroke. It goes deep, deep into my upper thigh and I fall to the ground.

Chapter 15: Chapter Fourteen

Chapter Text

Chapter Fourteen

"What are The Hunger Games?"

In the last moments of lucidity, I'm startled by the dewy voice, which sparkles in my ears from some directionless location. I look up and the world breaks into pieces, each piece like a mirrored shard reflecting multiple - contradictory - things at once. Cato - staggering around, grunting in confusion. Cato - lying on the ground next to me, moaning and whimpering. Cato - clean and whole, dressed in a toga - smaller, much smaller, actually, than in real life. Boyish and curious as he stares at me.

"What are you doing here?" I ask the child. "You need to get out of here!"

"No - you need to get out," he argues. "Go! Run! And run!"

I reach out for the Cato on the ground, but I can't quite touch him. It's the wounded Tribute, making so much noise, who looms over me. I can feel the pain in his left side - excruciating, a screaming pain.

Run!

The command seems to come from the trees, and we both heed it. Cato lurches away - back toward the lake. The trident with which I wounded him lies on the ground where I thought I saw his body. The prongs are red and shiny. I force myself up and shuffle deeper into the woods. Each step reminds me of the clicking sound of steel on bone.

Sweat slides off of me and I wipe my forehead and blood drips down my fingers. Where does it come from?

Slithering things in the grass. The things I heard last night, hiding in the darkness, now come out in the light. They are blurry, but I see their shapes - snake-like and black, rattling through the leaves on the forest floor. Dripping off the lower branches of the trees, dropping all around me. This place is worse … this place is so much worse … this place is so much worse than I had ever imagined it to be. But I dare not leave the trees. In order to get home, I'd have to cross the open fields between the woods and the fence, and everyone will see me - naked and exposed.

Bad. This is bad.

"What are The Hunger Games?"

I look up again, only to find that I'm sitting on the ground, bent double over my bleeding leg. The ground tilts and I wretch from the dizziness, but there's nothing in me - I'm just heaving. And I'm so hot. And my hand won't stop dripping from the blood.

"You had no right to say those things about me!"

I look up again and my mouth scrabbles to find its voice. Nothing comes. She's just too beautiful for words - her dress shines like silver fire. Her face is like pure light. "Peeta," she demands, sharply. "What are The Hunger Games?"

I can't speak. Nothing comes. Nothing. My throat is so dry, like a husk, like sandpaper. I've never felt this thirsty before. I swallow compulsively, but I keep getting drier and drier.

I struggle out of my jacket, and the cool air of the woods settles tight against me, like a comforting second skin. Bad, this is bad. Something has made a mess of my leg - it's red and oozing. I tie the jacket around it so I can't see it any more. Better. But I need water.

Getting to my feet is harder this time, but something urgent - something I can't really remember - is driving me on. I ignore everything else. The dripping, rattling snakes. The smell and slick heat of blood. The insistent question.

"What are The Hunger Games?"

I look up again. I'm under the bare sky, sitting on a muddy bank. There is a quiet noise - bubbling and whispering - and I see the sparkles of the sun off its fluid surface: a creek. Opposite me, where there is sand and grass, some boulders and a lonely tree, sits a little boy - pale, curly hair and a solemn face.

"Shut up! Shut up, shut up! You'll be overheard."

"But - what are they, really?"

I have a strange feeling - like I will not be allowed to put my mouth in the water and quench my thirst until I answer the question.

I laugh, sourly. "They are a time for repentance and a time for thanks," I say, wryly.

"What does that mean?"

I shake my head impatiently. Mean? What can they mean? "The Games are life and death," I say. "Hunger and thirst, the instinct to survive. Fear or fight. Weakness. Dependence. Cowardice. Love and hate. Everything is here," I conclude.

"What does that mean?"

Why won't the little shit be satisfied? I think, angrily. "You always ask such stupid questions," I tell him. "There is no one answer, you idiot. There is more than one way to play the Game."

Close your eyes.

Her lips are soft, softer than her voice. And they are cool and wet. The cool, silky feeling flows down through me - from my lips, swirling around my tongue, flowing down my throat. She kisses me all the way from death to life and back toward death - I'm satiated but suffocating, at the last, unable to breathe.

Gasping, I lift my head out of the water. My reflection sparkles back at me. I am startled by my pale, thin, foolish look.

I sit up in the mud again and carefully release my jacket from its knot around my leg. "Oh, shit." Exposure to the air makes it hurt even more, but I grit my teeth and splash water over it, attempting to clean it. I look at my jacket, but it is so wet with blood, I set it back down again, sickened.

I get handfuls of mud and smear it over the wound, hiding it - sealing it off. Whether this is more hygienic or less, I have no idea. But I can't look at it, can't keep it exposed, and I have nothing else to cover it with.

I look at my hands, red with mud and blood. I try to wipe them off on the rocks next to me, but I can't get rid of the blood. I stare at my red palms as the color swirls, like finger paints. That is - so weird, I think. And then I look up and the entire world is now swirled around this way, trees, rocks and sky.

Her slender figure breaks the perfect orange disk of the rising sun and I cover my face as she turns to me, her shining eyes too bright for direct contact. My heartbeat says her name, but I have no voice. I can only watch mutely as she raises the bow and fits an arrow to the string. "And you thought I wouldn't find you," she says, mysteriously.

I shake my head vigorously and lift my blood-stained hands, but the arrow flies at me.

I wake up with a gasp. It takes a minute for me to register that the sun has gone down and the anthem has started to play. I automatically look up at the sky - the sky where I expected my own face to be tonight. Glimmer and Bet appear instead, and I experience a genuine moment of sadness before turning to more pressing matters. The world is no longer swirled around, nor populated by hallucinations, though it seems vaguely misty, and the mist hums faintly. I'm not cold - in fact, I'm fairly warm - but I am swampy.

I crawl up the bank until I'm on dry land. I put my jacket back on - it's stiff with the dried blood and mud, but I figure I might as well preserve my heat while I can. I have no sleeping bag. I'm not mobile enough to make a fire. I'm so exposed. In fact, I can't believe I slept all day and I'm still somehow alive. The Careers must still be down and the rest of the tributes huddled in their respective hiding places. Who is left, by the way? Marvel. Cato and Clove. Neon. Thresh and Rue. There's … the boy from 10 left and that red-headed girl from 5. Me and Katniss. That's ten. And now the Careers are outnumbered again, with Cato's two targets - Katniss and Thresh - still alive. I'm glad I won't be there to see Cato's fury when he's lucid enough to work all this out. If Thresh is paying attention to the Cornucopia, this could be his chance.

I look around, anxiously. I need cover. I'm out of the forest, but it's not too far away. But when I get up, I find walking to be nearly impossible - it's not just the intense pain, but an essential weakness in the leg - something important has been injured; a ligament probably. So I crawl downstream, slowly, until I come to a thick clump of rushes. The ground is a little bit wet, and that's uncomfortable, but when I settle in between the thick, tall grasses, I feel about as well hidden as possible.

Habit keeps me awake and watchful. I know one of two things is true about my situation with the Careers. One possibility: Cato is convinced that he wounded me badly enough that I am no longer worth their time. Or - angry with me at the betrayal, and too afraid to pursue Katniss and Thresh with reduced numbers - he will decide to hunt me down first and finish the job. That's a bad strategy - but it wouldn't surprise me if his emotions got the better of him in just that way.

It's too bad that Clove would definitely talk him out of that one. The more time Katniss has to recover before they pursue her, the better. Perhaps I could still be helpful as a decoy. I wonder if I'll be able to make it back to the Cornucopia. We'll see how it goes in the morning, I think hopefully. I mean - I'm hurt, but still alive.

The friendly gulps of the frogs and the chirping crickets harmonize a lullaby that eventually lulls me to sleep. It's a fitful rest - I know I wake several times before my body finally relaxes into a deep sleep, and the nightmares return. Katniss features again - this time throwing tracker jacker nests at me while demanding that I explain myself. But I'm still mute in my dreams, unable to explain.

When morning comes, the dreams linger. They're a little funny, in the light of the day - but there's a solid warning in them. As far as Katniss is concerned, I'm a Career. I separated from her in training and I helped to hunt her down. True, I warned her off Cato and held him off, but even I barely remember how that went - the whole incident is lost in the tracker jacker haze - so she might have reason to doubt that whole encounter. Unfortunate. Now that she's armed, maybe it's me who she'll actually pursue first … well, no. No - I can't even imagine it. I don't care how angry she is at me, I'm District 12 and there are unspoken rules about that sort of thing. It would be badly received back home. No - she, like Cato, ultimately, will leave me to my fate, which, hopefully - and I mean that literally, I'm so happy this morning to be out of it, at last - hopefully will be a peaceful starvation to death, alone in a hiding place. Now, if I can just get to one.

I warily test my leg again and find it even less mobile today. So I stick to crawling, exit the reeds and sit in the sun to dry off and ponder the entire situation.

Katniss is still alive. So are three of the Careers. But Cato is wounded and the tracker jackers may still be working on the others. And Katniss has the bow. I have to congratulate myself on my own small part in that. I will have pleased Haymitch - an unexpectedly happy thought. If she regains her own senses in time to find herself a fresh hiding spot and plan out her engagement with the Careers - she will win this thing, for sure. I don't know if she can put herself in the killer mindset better than I can, but at least she has the chance - open wide - if she can find a way to take it. That's the most I can do.

Me - I'll be down awhile with this injury. Also, I'm weaponless and without food. Yeah - I'm down for good, most likely. If I'm honest with myself. But I feel at peace with it. This is what I intended from the beginning. Now, miraculously, I have survived my adventures with the Careers and did not - yet - have to die in violence. And it won't be too bad, here. I have water, so I won't die of thirst - a brutal death. Infection might outrace hunger and take me, feverish and insensible, out of this place. I think that's the best case scenario, quite frankly. I should be happy about it.

So - my top priority is to avoid being killed by another tribute. I take a long drink of water and then spend the morning digging a hole in the mud above the stream. It takes some time, but, eventually, I have a nice shallow grave for myself.

Then, I get to work on my face. I need a fat, thick mask of mud - mixed with grass and gravel - to keep myself hidden, but able to breathe. It's tough without a mirror, but my fingertips can "see" for me - the textures of the mask forming as I swirl and smear layer after layer on my face and, thickly, over my long yellow hair.

After that, comes the tough part. One last long drink of water and I lower myself into the hole and start replacing the mud over me, feet first, until there is finally nothing left to do but lay my head back and close my eyes.

It's another night without faces, I notice, as I drift off to sleep.

Chapter 16: Chapter Fifteen

Chapter Text

Chapter Fifteen

I wake up the next day with the noon sun in my eyes - I must have got at least fifteen hours of sleep, a luxury I rarely even got at home. I don't feel hungry, I don't even feel thirsty. Just - rested and strangely peaceful. Beyond the friendly gurgle of the creek, I hear chirruping birds and frogs and buzzing insects. It reminds me of Sunday afternoons, excused from the bakery, going out to the meadow to catch lizards, draw gophers, or just enjoy the sun. But the arena is more beautiful than District 12, just like death is more restful than mere sleep. There are trees on the other side of the creek, cattails and wild flowers and great big tumbling white boulders. It's all fresh and unspoiled by coal dust or ugly buildings or defeated faces.

"Katniss," I murmur aloud. I'm not sure that I actually have any "face" time, now that I'm buried in the ground and immobile. But it's worth remembering that, somewhere out there is a girl who might still need my help. The heartbreaker. The romantic hero of the games. A girl who kills for me, in the same way I die for her - at least, hopefully, the audience will be persuaded of this. Someone to root for now and shower with affection after - like that one tribute from District 2 with the fangs … she's a little terrifying, a little glamorous and very much alive. Like Finnick Odair - the beloved victor from District 4; girls swoon for him - the Capitol loves him. And he loves them back.

Katniss will be a different sort of Victor, of course. Or - I think so, anyway. The one thing I have learned since the Reaping is that I didn't really know her, at all. But this I know - the girl who sacrificed herself for her little sister - who fretted over Rue, over the mute girl from the Capitol - who couldn't help herself but to give me advice on the last day of training … this girl will make a rare Victor. Someone who values kindness, and justice, and fairness. What more do I need to know than that?

A morning nap brings strange dreams - not so much dreams as snippets of memories from long ago. The happier girl she used to be when she was little. Not that she would ever win any awards for a sunny personality, she just was less inclined to scowl and more to smile before her father died. Fighting with Mr. Alecorn over the answer to a math problem. Tapping her feet along to the fiddle music when we learned folk dancing in fourth grade. That time she won four-square at recess on a rare day of public interaction.

When I wake, I find I have slept all of the day away. A beautiful sunset is directly in my line of sight, with trails of pink and green over the peachy orange sky. I've never noticed before how many colors go into a sunset. I would like to paint it, I think, suddenly. I'm going to do that someday.

The sound of a cannon wakes me the next day. It's the opposite end of the day and now the orange sky is on the other side of me. "Katniss!" I croak out loud. I struggle against the cocoon of dried mud until I've broken out of it.

Gasping and exhausted after this effort, I stay on my hands and knees for a moment, weak and dizzy. When I try to stand up, it takes every effort - and another effort - and then a third. Just when I've finally convinced myself that I can't do it, I manage to wobble to my feet. I feel strangely, unaccountably light, lighter than air.

Then I take a step and a sharp pain, a pain that feels like it is shearing my leg in half, lengthwise, brings me back down to earth. I stumble forward into the stream and just put my hands out in front of me in time to save my face. I put my parched lips down into the water and just let it run over them. Then I force my tongue out and slowly lap water up into my mouth. My sense of urgency at the sound of the cannon can't compete with my body's thirst for water. My mind can't make my body move until I've spent a good five minutes drinking. For my trouble, I end up with a pinching sensation in the region of my kidneys.

With an even more glacial effort than before, I pull myself to my feet again. Now that I know to expect the pain, it doesn't knock me over, but it does take so much time to walk that I look back after what seems like half an hour and see I haven't legitimately left the area of my final resting place. I begin a rambling, fever-tinted argument with myself, which may or may not be out loud:

"You have to do something."

"My time's up. What could I do? I can't even move."

"You can't just lie down here. You have to fight - your life and hers."

"I can't. I can't. I have to die for her to win, anyway."

But the stubborn voice wins, at least for the moment, and I move, in super-slow-motion, downstream, toward a small copse of trees. Once I get there, I collapse at the foot of a tree and put my head on my knees to stop the dizzy sensation that I am about to pass out.

The tree is a fir, with soft, red bark, and some other voice comes to me now, and it's Katniss'. I'm not hungry, but I am weak, so perhaps I should eat. I pull off a strip of bark and put it in my mouth. It doesn't chew easily, and my jaw starts hurting before it's mushed down enough to swallow.

I've repeated this twice before my stomach turns over and I retch. The undigested bark comes up, rough in my throat, followed by a gob of green mucus.

When that's done, I start shaking, uncontrollably. I want to move away from the pile of sick, the smell of it makes me feel even worse, but I can't move. Darkness covers the edges of my vision, and it grows inward, until all I can see is a pinpoint of light, and there's a rushing sound in my ears. This is it, I think vaguely, this is the end. I'm still struggling against it, some piece of me refuses to give in. But within seconds, I've blacked out.

Once again, it is the anthem that wakes me. I wonder how long I would be allowed to sleep if it wasn't for the cannons and the anthem. Over and over. But I'm so happy I didn't miss it. Especially since I missed the second cannon. Two tributes died today - the lame boy from 10 and Neon. My elation that Katniss survives is followed by depression about Neon. I wonder why the Careers finally turned on him? Everyone I've tried to save so far - except for her - is gone.

Maybe it wasn't the Careers. Maybe Katniss is now hunting tributes on her own. I'd like to think not, but what can she do? In order to get home, what else can she do? But I don't think so, somehow. She would target the Careers first, and not until she had to - not until it came down to it.. This must be Cato, on the hunt again.

This thought makes me uneasy. I'd rather not have to worry about Cato again. Why the hell am I still alive? I wonder. I think of the District 8 girl and it's almost like it's some judgement on me for my part in her killing: suffering her long-drawn-out fate by way of Cato's incompetence with a sword.

Who is left? I count hazily. Me and Katniss. Marvel, Cato and Clove. Thresh and … Rue? Wow! That is a surprise, how long that little girl has lasted. … The red-haired girl from 5. Is that it? Eight? It's something of a milestone, especially for me and Katniss - and the District 11 tributes, to be honest. I can't remember the last time either district had a tribute come this far in the games. I guess now the Capitol camera crews will be heading to District 12, to interview my family and Katniss' - and other people we know. We're not particularly camera-savvy in District 12, so I wonder how that will go. I try to imagine my father's stubborn silence, my mother's surly annoyance at being bothered. I also wonder how my whole act/strategy has really been playing at home. I wonder what it's like for my father to get the periodic camera shots of me, just sleeping in the mud. Puking in the woods. I'm not providing much fodder for entertainment at the moment, so I'm sure the camera's rarely on me, now.

It's time to bury myself again. Katniss doesn't need me anymore and I'm almost as mobile in the ground as I am on my feet. I wish someone would take Cato and Clove out for her, though. I regret not killing at least one of them. Sort of. I guess I mean I'll regret it if one of them ends up winning. Which I won't know about anyway. This whole thing is still really messing with my head. Yep, time to bury myself again. I can only help Katniss now by dying, so I best get back to it.

I go back to my little hole and, since the mud has somewhat dried, I dig a little further into the wet earth. I have to redo the mud on my face, since so much of it washed off in the creek this morning. Working in the dark is harder, less accurate, but I should be relatively well-concealed overnight, and tomorrow I can fix it, paint myself back into the earth.

In the morning, I wake up alive, so I work on perfecting my concealment. With my jacket covering my hands, I smooth the mud over my body and face, until I get a result that feels reasonably undisturbed. Then I slick the thick mud over my hair, bring my arm in to rest against my warm body and close my eyes. The air is sweet. I drift in and out of sleep. At one point, I'm awakened by the sound of footsteps - I think - but so light and soft, it's probably a deer walking by the stream or something. My heartbeat doesn't even rise by a half beat. I'm completely, one-hundred percent calm.

A sound wakes me in the late afternoon, muffled and almost cottony. It's like the cannon, but the ghost of the cannon, a whispered, regretful memory of the sound that long ago I had to anticipate and fear, but now means nothing to me. And then a second boom. Two more dead, I think. Maybe one of them is me? Maybe I woke up in time to experience my own passing and the muffled cannon for me is the last sound I'll hear.

You're losing it, Mellark. You're finally losing it.

Maybe.

My face is not in the sky that night. It's Marvel and Rue who have died. And Rue's face is the last thing I see that night and all the next day.

Morning comes on the other side of my eyelids. I feel the light instead of seeing it. Afternoon. Evening. My naps are coming in longer cycles. It's not sleep - it's passing out - and the critical voice in my head knows it and is scared. But the braver part of me finally has the upper hand and in my head there is a mantra I use to calm myself. "If it's your time, you'll know it," says Portia.

That night, I'm awakened not by a loud noise but by a tickling sensation on my nose. I open my eyes for the first time since last night and see a bug with spindly legs crawling up the bridge of my nose. It is so close to my eyes, it looms large, like a monstrous creature, a muttation of some kind. I've had no interaction with another living creature for so long that it is like a little gift, this insect. Then it startles and hops away. The sound of the anthem follows. I am so sick of the national anthem of Panem, I think wearily. But tonight it closes with a new flourish. Tonight there are trumpets, and they herald the voice of Claudius Templesmith, the Games' announcer, whose voice I haven't heard since the first day of the games.

"Attention, tributes. Attention. Congratulations to you for your skill and success in making it to this point. There has been a rule change in the Games. From this point, two tributes may win the Game, as long as they are both from the same district. I repeat, two tributes from the same district can be crowned co-winners of the 74th Hunger Games."

Chapter 17: Chapter Sixteen

Chapter Text

Chapter Sixteen

No.

My first reaction is total despair. This rule change comes too late for me and, anyway, I've made up my mind to it. I've accepted my death. Death has been strangely slow in accepting me in return, but, regardless, it can't resist me forever.

My second reaction is panic. Will Katniss come looking for me? I would - immediately - but would she? She might still think of my joining with the Careers as an unforgivable act of treason. On the other hand, back in District 12, our friends and family and everyone really will be expecting her to seek me out. And she must know it. But will she find me? And should I make it a little easier? Poke my head out of the mud, clear up my face. I'm not even sure I can move anymore. I can't remember the last time I did.

And if she did find me? Well, I'm a liability, a dying partner. I could not help her fight off Cato, Clove or Thresh. But maybe sponsors would reward her; in fact - is it possible? Has the star-crossed lovers thing really played that well - well enough to inspire an unprecedented rule change? Did Haymitch predict this all along? From the very beginning, he wanted us to present as friendly, linked together. Portia and Cinna, too. They know the citizens of the Capitol better than I do, of course. I guess … I guess? … this little teenage romance drama might be an interesting distraction in these Games. The crowd's reception of my confessions about Katniss on interview night was certainly enthusiastic.

It's hard to imagine my sporadic whispers into the night have fueled a reaction so strong that the audience demand we both get the chance to live. Maybe it's Cato and Clove who are the intended beneficiaries? There was no sign of attraction or intimacy between them that I could see, but then again, there were those mutual watches and who knows what has happened since then?

I fall asleep puzzling over the whole thing, and wake up early. This new wrinkle has reactivated my brain and put off thoughts of death, for now. But it can't reanimate my body. I can't move my arms, I can't wiggle my muscles. I'm encased in mud, unable to get out. Only my eyelids and lips can move, and that barely. I feel sorry for Katniss, if she is trying to search for me today. She should be concentrating on Cato and Clove, who are now a full, deadly team. Between his brute, conscienceless strength and her speed and skill, they have to have the upper hand again.

"Peeta. Peeta."

It's not a human voice. It's a bird, singing my name. I don't think I'm hallucinating this, except that I must be. I hear the chirping sound in the sky above me. I listen in fascination. Peeta, Peeta. My name whirls around me and then it fades away. But soon after, too soon for coincidence, I hear footsteps, splashing in the water. I can't angle my head to see. It might not be her. This might be it for me; or it is my last chance to see her. I have no choice.

"You here to finish me off, sweetheart?"

I'm surprised by the sound of my voice, which is faint and rough and dry - hardly recognizable. But I've chosen the right word. For the audience, a simple endearment. Between us, a code of our alliance.

"Peeta? Where are you? Peeta?"

My heart thuds back to life with the sound of her voice, but I have no idea how to direct her to my location. Then I hear her boot stamp the ground right next to my ear.

"Well, don't step on me," I say. Now I'm not thinking about anything but about her icy dismissal of my camouflage skills the first day of training. I want to laugh out loud.

I open my eyes and see - with a dazzle in my vision - that it is in fact the bird that has found me. Then my eyes focus and I see that I am staring at her pin - the gold pin she brought from home. Up close, I see that the bird in question is a mockingjay - a bird descended from the muttations of the Dark Days. I shift my eyes up to look at her face. She is thinner and scraped up and bruised, but beautiful - so beautiful. She is surrounded by the silver mist I associate with tracker jacker hallucinations and it is the exact color of her eyes. I am befuddled by her strange, otherworldly appearance - this arena version of the girl who has always fascinated me. For a moment, I'm not quite sure how real she is.

Then she finds my eyes and her startled gasp makes me grin.

She kneels down next to me. "Close your eyes again," she says wonderingly, and I do. "I guess all those hours of decorating cakes paid off."

I blink at her and smile. "Yes, frosting," I agree in my raspy voice. "The final defense of the dying."

"You're not going to die."

"Says who?"

"Says me. We're on the same team now, you know."

"So I heard. Nice of you to find what's left of me."

She produces a water bottle and presses it to my lips. I take a swallow, but shake my head when she urges me to drink more.

"Did Cato cut you?"

"Left leg. Up high."

"Let's get you to the stream, wash you off, so I can see what kind of wounds you got."

I'm feeling dizzy with the giddiness at seeing her again, strange and feverish. But if the strategy is working, it must be maintained. "Lean down a minute first. Need to tell you something." She puts her ear next to my mouth and her hair tickles my face. "Remember," I whisper, "we're madly in love, so it's all right to kiss me anytime you feel like it."

She laughs - a light conspiratorial laugh, that seems to hold some hint of promise in it. "I'll keep that in mind. But first things first. Let's get you up."

"This is going to be harder than you think," I warn her. I try to struggle up, to break the mud, but there is no movement in me. Katniss easily breaks through the mud and grasps my arms, but the effort to dislodge me takes forever. And it hurts. It feels like she's ripping off my legs. I have to grit my teeth to keep myself from screaming.

She's breathing heavily and sweating at this point. "Look, Peeta, I'm going to roll you into the water, OK?"

"Excellent," I say, although that sounds incredibly painful.

"On three. One - two - three."

(Video) The Entire Life of Peeta Mellark (Hunger Games Explained)

Horrible animal gasps come out of me as she rolls me once to the edge of the water.

"OK, change of plans. I'm not going to put you all the way in."

"No more rolling?" I say tightly.

"That's all done. Let's just get you cleaned up. Keep an eye on the woods."

She sits me up against a rock and I watch her go to work with a calm and efficient quickness. She has a large pack and from it she extracts a startling number of objects, starting with two bottles and a water skin. After filling one, she leaves the other two containers wedged in a rock in the stream, so they fill up on their own while she pours the contents of the first on me. In this fashion, a steady stream of water slowly, but surely, washes my days in the mud off of me. When she finally finds my clothes under the mud, she unzips my jacket and pulls off my shirt. I cry out when she tugs at my undershirt - it feels like my flesh is pulling away. "Stay still," she whispers, and she pulls out her knife and cuts the shirt right off of me.

"Whew," she says, staring at me. "You should have taken the stingers out at once. Keep still."

"I'm not going anywhere," I whisper back. She gently uses the tip of her knife and her thumb and forefinger to dig the stingers out of the three lumps on my chest and the one on my neck, just under my ear. She pulls some leaves out of her pack, chews them and applies the chewed wads to each of the lumps, and that's such a pleasant sensation - the leaves, yes, but also the cool feel of her hands - that I sigh.

"Keep watching the woods," she says softly, as she notices me gazing at her face. I nod and try to look away from her.

She takes my jacket and shirt to the stream, washes the mud off of them, and sets them to dry on a boulder. Then she's back in front of me, applying cream to my chest. Again, it's hard to distinguish between the two things - the medication and the hands that apply it - but it all feels like heaven.

She stops in the middle of this, and feels my forehead. Her cool hand is such a relief to the blistering heat of the day. "Hmm." She goes back into her pack and I see she has some kind of first aid kit, from which she pulls out pills. She puts them up to my mouth, along with the water bottle. "Swallow these." After I've done that, she says, "You must be hungry."

"Not really. It's funny, I haven't been hungry for days." It shouldn't surprise me by now, but she reaches again into her pack and this time pulls out some kind of food - it looks like a roasted chicken wing or something - and offers it to me. The smell of it makes me nauseous and I turn my head, swallowing.

"Peeta, we need to get some food in you."

"It'll just come right back up."

She offers me a dried apple slice instead and at least the smell doesn't make me sick. I accept it and chew on it obediently. Then a second and a third. Dried apple - she must have got that from the Career's food supply. Or off of Marvel, himself, perhaps.

"Thanks," I say, "I'm much better, really. Can I sleep now, Katniss?"

"Soon. I need to look at your leg first," she says.

"No." I try to wriggle away from her insistently cool hands, but my body only slumps a little to one side.

"Shh."

She removes my boots and my socks. She pauses then, and her face is flushed - with the effort, but also with embarrassment. I try to help her, unhooking my belt, unbuttoning the top of my jeans, but the zipper is too hard for me. Just based on her nonplussed expression - the way she gingerly reaches down to do this, eyes averted - I try to set my face in a neutral and business-like expression, as if this is nothing more than a simple medical examination (which is what it is, of course). And I think there is only one brief moment that I let this expression slip. This is very strange.

Nor is the result particularly appealing. My jeans slide off me quite easily - I've lost several sizes since entering the arena - only to reveal my white, spindly calves and the wounded thigh - dark purple and swollen, attractively accented with spots of blood and yellow-white pus. There's a horrible smell, too. Looking at it - in somewhat detached curiosity - I'm actually surprised I'm as lucid as I am. Then I see that Katniss' face is green.

"Pretty awful, huh?" I joke mildly.

She gets that set, closed-off look again, that one I saw so many times during that week after the Reaping. "So-so," she says shrugging. "You should see some of the people they bring my mother from the mines. First thing," she adds thoughtfully, "is to clean it well."

So she goes back to work with her bottles of water and her soft hands and while I try to keep watch, the range of my vision isn't great and all I can think of, anxiously, is how she's as exposed and vulnerable as I am right now. She's done all she can reasonably be expected to have done - found me. She must know, having seen the wound, that my situation is hopeless. Unless the rest of the tributes unexpectedly vanish and I'm scooped up to a hospital now, I'm 100% going to die in this arena, and I can only make winning harder for her at this point. Honestly, if she wants to save me - let alone herself - she needs to leave me to my hiding place and try to kill the rest of the tributes, right now. But I don't want her to go into danger. I want them to kill each other so she can stay with me. More dilemmas - they never end in here.

She's found another tracker jacker sting and treats it, rubs more of that medicinal cream on me. Then, with a deep breath, she eyes the wound, as if it's a puzzle she just can't solve. And who expects her to? "Why don't we give it some air and then…."

"And then you'll patch it up?" I ask softly, ironically; I know it's not that simple. But she looks at me with her determined expression, and what answer can I possibly make to it?

"That's right. In the meanwhile, you eat these." She takes my hand, puts some more dried fruit in it and goes back to the stream with my jeans and my socks. When she comes back up, she fingers the contents of her first aid kit and looks up at me. "We're going to have to experiment some." She starts with the leaves she used for the tracker jacker stings. "These draw out infection," she explains, and starts chewing. She chews up four leaves, smooshes them together and, with a deep breath, presses the wad against my thigh. I let out an involuntary groan. It's not an unpleasant sensation, but there is pain at even the slightest touch of the wound. Katniss looks almost as equally pained - her face starts going pale on the edges - and when yellow pus begins running down the side of my leg, I think she is going to faint.

"Katniss?"

She looks up at me, looking as woozy as I feel. "What?"

"How about that kiss?" I mouth, trying to grin.

She laughs again, but this time there's an edge of panic to it.

"Something wrong?"

"I - I'm no good at this," she confesses, looking away. "I'm not my mother. I have no idea what I'm doing. And I hate pus. Eugh." She pours water over my wound and then applies a second wad of leaves. "Euuuugh."

"How do you hunt?" I ask in surprise.

"Trust me. Killing things is much easier than this. Although - for all I know, I am killing you."

"Can you speed it up a little?"

"No. Shut up and eat your pears."

Since she is going above and beyond, it's the least I can do, and I slowly chew on the pears while she keeps applying wads and wads and wads of leaves until finally the pus stops running. This has visibly reduced the swelling, and she pokes at the wound. She can now see how deep it is, though this seems to alarm her less.

"What next, Dr. Everdeen?" I ask, impressed not only by what she's done, but her air of authority in doing it. She may claim not to know what she's doing; but she can certainly fake it.

"Some burn ointment, I think. That helps with infection. And then - wrap it up?" Within moments, she's covered up the wound with a clean bandage from her kit, and it does improve the vista, considerably. Then, to my surprise, she pulls an empty backpack out of her pack and hands it to me. "Cover yourself with this and I'll wash your shorts."

I'm puzzled. Modesty is the last thing on my mind at this point. "Oh, I don't care if you see me."

But it's her modesty that is at play. "You're just like the rest of my family," she says, leading me to wonder how many naked miners end up being treated in her tiny house in the Seam. "I care, all right?"

She turns around and I not only remove the underpants but manage to toss them into the stream myself. They are way too filthy to hand off. She goes down to the water and gingerly grabs them before they float away, then starts beating them against rocks to clean them. "You know, you're kind of squeamish for such a lethal person," I say, obediently covering my offending parts with the small black pack (it's too warm and - now that she's moved away, taking her cool hands with her - I feel my body temperature rising quickly again). "I wish I'd let you give Haymitch a shower after all."

She looks over at me, wrinkling her nose. "What's he sent you so far?"

"Nothing," I say. I hadn't even expected anything - especially when I was with the Careers. I guess I could have used something over the last couple of days, though, now that she mentions it ... "Why - did you get something?"

She looks a little guilty. "Burn medicine," she says. "Oh and some bread."

Hmm. Not that - if Haymitch had asked me - I wouldn't have wholeheartedly endorsed this. But it's interesting to have confirmation that she was the one that he did end up choosing. Still - nothing for her to feel guilty about. "I always knew you were his favorite."

"Please, he can't stand being in the same room with me."

I think back to that last day of training, and Haymitch, drunk and frustrated with her. "Because you're just alike," I say, with sudden realization.

If she comments on this, I miss it. As the sun climbs the sky and the day grows ever hotter, I just try to keep concentrating, with increasing difficulty, on watching for trouble. I obediently keep the little backpack pressed up against my genitals, but my grip is slowly fading. ... And suddenly, she is shaking me awake.

"Peeta, Peeta, we've got to go - now."

"Go?" I blink up at her. "Go where?"

"Away from here. Downstream. Somewhere we can hide you until you're stronger."

Urgency has trumped modesty - anyway, the backpack slipped away while I was sleeping - and she brings me my dried clothes and helps me into them, anyway - my underwear, jeans and shirt. "No shoes," she says, when I reach for my socks. "We're going to walk in the water so we don't leave footprints."

I nod. "Look, I have to warn you. I haven't been able to walk on my leg in days. I went from there -" I point at the nearby copse "- and back three days ago or something, and that took forever."

"Well, what about all the work I just did?" she says, smiling at me. She pushes my hair out of my eyes. "Come on. You can do this."

She pulls me upright and puts my left arm around her shoulder. I lean against her so I can avoid putting full weight on my leg, but I'm no faster than I was before and, by the time we've walked maybe fifty yards through the water, I'm stumbling. She sets me down on the bank, pushes my head against my knees and urges me to breathe, to stay with her, while she pats my back. The darkness overtakes me, then recedes, and I feel nauseous, but eventually I can raise my head again. She points to the rocks up on the opposite side of the stream.

"Look. That's where we can go. Do you see the cave there?"

My heart sinks at the distance and the climb, but I nod as firmly as I can. That is somewhere she can hide as well as me, and I have put her at risk for too long. I take several deep breaths as she helps me back up. It's a good thing I've lost so much more weight than she has, as she is dragging me - practically carrying me - up the bank and up the rocks by the time we're done.

The cave is the size of a small room. Maybe the size of my mom's office, although the ceiling is lower, so it feels smaller. I collapse to the floor, gratefully. I've reached the point of the fever where I've got the chills, and I'm shaking. But I'm aware enough to register that this is so much better - out of the sun, no longer exposed. For her, a good place to hide. For me - a much better place to die. The sunlight streaming slantwise through the cave mouth flickers like a lazy candle as Katniss moves about, and in and out. Unpacking her magical pack. Sprinkling aromatic pine needles on the floor all around me. I'm vaguely aware of being helped into a sleeping bag. Of water on my lips, trickling down my throat. Once, I am surprised to see her face up close next to mine and she is lit up by not only the setting sun, but that strange, silvery light again.

At the feel of dried pears against my lips, I close my mouth tight and shake my head. I don't know how much bile I can still possibly have inside me after all that wound-cleaning from earlier, but I definitely feel it rising. Her expression conveys frustration, but I've reached my limit.

"Katniss," I murmur.

The light again flickers as she moves closer to me. "You need a haircut," she says, lightly, pushing the hair out of my eyes.

"Thanks for finding me," I say. My voice is fading. But there are things I want her to know. Now that I can be completely honest with her.

"You would have found me if you could," she replies. She touches my forehead with her cold hand and the frustration in her eyes widens into alarm.

"Yes. Look, if I don't make it back-."

"Don't talk like that. I didn't drain all that pus for nothing."

My lips crack as I smile. It's the wrong time to think it - the wrong time for everything - but it is at this exact moment that I realize that I truly am in love with this girl. "I know," I answer, hoarsely, "but just in case I don't-."

"No, Peeta, I don't even want to discuss it." She puts her fingers on my lips.

"But I-."

Then, suddenly, out of nowhere, she leans down and stops my words with a kiss. Her lips, like her fingers, are so cool. My stomach twists in knots. I know I told her to do this. I know there is still a game to be played. But - I have never been actually kissed before, for real, and it follows so closely on the moment of illumination about my feelings for her that it is hard to separate the two very different sets of circumstances. The act we are putting on - the actual feelings that motivated the act in the first place. They converge in me, meld together in the heat of my body. And I'm already on fire, but the fire seems to spread, sinking below the surface of my fevered skin to soak my entire body - my guts, my heart - the vaguely-confused area of my body she made me hide before. By the time she pulls away from me, I'm all melting and breaking up in the heat - there's very little about me left that is still solid.

She does not go far - her silver eyes stay close to mine. Her breath is quick against my face as she says, "You're not going to die. I forbid it."

I forget what I was going to tell her before. It was something to do with all this anyway - was it about the act or about the real thing? That no longer seems to matter. "All right," I agree. And now, I really don't want to.

Chapter 18: Chapter Seventeen

Chapter Text

Chapter Seventeen

And yet, I do.

I wake up in a coffin - dead, but somehow still conscious. There's a small room, somewhere, and it's very hot and stuffy. People are coming by to look down on me. My father. My friends. Last of all is a girl who is more an amalgamation of her various forms than she is the real thing. Darkly beautiful, accompanied by that misty light, her gray eyes glimmer with unshed tears - there is gold dust around her eyes and across her cheeks so that her skin shimmers. The long, black braid folds over her shoulders; the soft hair at the end of it touches my face as she bends down over me. Her lips press - very lightly - against mine - and I gasp in an attempt to draw breath.

"Peeta."

The kiss on my lips feels real. And something smells … so good. Something like home.

"Peeta, come on. Wake up."

My eyes flutter open. Her face is right up against mine and there is steam rising between us. She holds up a container. "Peeta, look what Haymitch sent you."

It's a tin of yellow broth and smells like chicken. I automatically shake my head, but she presses a spoon up to my mouth. "You can't get better if you don't eat."

I force myself to accept the spoonful.

"One more, come on."

I take a second.

"There you go," she says, and rewards me with a kiss. From that point forward, I take her spoons and her occasional kisses.

"Good job! That's done. Now, you can go back to sleep. You'll feel better in the morning, I promise."

I drop off immediately, but my sleep is restless. At some point, I wake up to the sensation of something wet being put on my forehead. At another, I wake up and feel her body pressed against mine, in the sleeping bag. These things confuse me, and I dive back down into sleep, where my dreams make more sense. There, I'm in the kitchen bakery and the back door is closed, and the room is filling with the heat. It's uncomfortable, but I'm in the right place. Back home.

When I wake up for real, it takes me a moment to register my surroundings. The cave. The pine needles. The sleeping bag. The kisses.

Katniss is nowhere to be seen.

My heart races and I start trying to extricate myself from the sleeping bag. I've just freed my arms, when she reappears, ducking inside.

"I woke up and you were gone," I pant. "I was worried about you."

She laughs, then comes over to me and gently eases me back down. "You were worried about me? Have you taken a look at yourself lately?"

"I thought Cato and Clove might have found you. They like to hunt at night."

"Clove?"

"The girl from District 2. She's still alive, right? Or did I miss something?"

"Yes, there's just them and us and Thresh and Foxface."

"Foxface?"

"That's what I nicknamed the girl from Five. How do you feel?"

I reach up to touch my forehead, and I think I'm a bit less hot. Certainly, I'm feeling a bit more clear-headed. "Better than yesterday. This is an enormous improvement over the mud. Clean clothes, and medicine, and a sleeping bag - and you." As I say it, I realize just how lonely I've been; not just over the last few days, but ever since the bloodbath. No one to really talk to. Everything a carefully-guarded secret. And - I had given up on ever being able to see or talk to her again. It's overwhelming to be here, alone with her now.

She reaches out to me and I take her fingers in my hand and press them to my lips. Her eyes look startled, but not displeased. "No more kisses for you until you've eaten," she says quietly.

She helps me sit up and she brings me the pot from last night, only now it's filled with mushed up berries. I find I can swallow it without any problem, but I again refuse the meat she offers me. I look at her angular face and the dark circles under her eyes. "You didn't sleep."

"I'm all right."

"Sleep now," I say. "I'll keep watch. I'll wake you if anything happens." She looks hesitant. "Katniss, you can't stay up forever."

She blinks slowly. "All right. But just for a few hours. Then you wake me." She sets down the two water bottles and the water skin on the ground next to me. "Those are full," she says, "Drink them."

I slither out of the sleeping bag and she takes it, opens it and spreads it out so we can both lie down on top of it. She fits an arrow to her bow and clutches it as she lies down. Her eyes are still blinking as she looks up at me, and I smile and stare out at the cave entrance. But I feel her hair draped over my hand and I follow the line of her braid up to the top of her head and stroke her hair, gently. For a soft gesture, I find it strangely unsettling.

But it seems to relax her and she soon drops off.

For the first time in many days, I manage to stay awake for several hours all in a row. It's not easy, though. Occasionally, I blink myself away from the precipice of sleep. At one point, I reach for a bottle, but it takes an effort for me to lift it to my lips and the water doesn't make me feel any better.

Otherwise, the day passes quietly. I've become used to the sounds of this area - the quiet whisper of the stream, the chirping birds and the rustle of the leaves in the breeze. There are no footsteps, no cannons. I don't wake Katniss. I feel perfectly awake and she looks perfect asleep. Her face is relaxed. Besides, I'm not really sure how quickly or slowly time is passing. When she wakes on her own, the light slanting into the cave is starting to turn golden.

"Peeta, you were supposed to wake me after a couple of hours!"

"For what? Nothing's going on here." I feel the urge to wipe the consternation off her face. "Besides, I like watching you sleep. You don't scowl. Improves your looks a lot."

She then does scowl at me, and I grin, thinking, there's the Katniss I know. Not that I'm not extremely gratified by the company of this gentle, solicitous Katniss with her ready kisses. No. But that's not the girl I fell in love with.

But the other girl is back at once. She's frowning, touching my cheek. "Your lips are dry. Have you been drinking?"

"Some."

She checks the water bottles and knows I'm lying. She shakes her head and digs out her first aid kit and takes out some pills. "Take these - and drink." She stands over me, arms akimbo, while I drink the entire bottle, then a second. My stomach feels unnaturally distended when I'm done. "Now," she says, matter-of-factly, "can you help me get your clothes off?"

I shrug off my jacket and shirt, while she pulls off my pants. More cream, more leaves go on the wounds on my chest and legs. Then, she takes a deep breath and unwraps the major wound. We both look at it - me in somewhat detached curiosity. It's clean, but swollen; the skin is shiny, like when you first get a scar. And there are two fairly large red streaks extending from the wound up toward my hip.

"Well - the pus is gone," she says.

I let out a long breath. It will do me no good to stammer around this bad news. "I know what blood poisoning is, Katniss. Even if my mother isn't a healer."

But stammer she does. "You - you're just going to have to outlast the others, Peeta. They'll cure it back at the Capitol when we win."

I stare at my ruined leg. Perhaps she's right to convey optimism: the audience might abandon us if it believes my cause to be hopeless. "Yes," I agree. "That's a good plan."

"You have to eat, in the meanwhile. Keep your strength up. I'm going to make you some soup."

"Don't light a fire," I say, as she gathers up her bow. "It's not worth it."

"We'll see."

While she's gone, I put my tee-shirt on, but not the jacket or jeans. It's too hot - I'm too hot. I lie back down and wonder if I should sleep while she's out, so I can be awake later to keep watch, but I'm so worried about her, I can't sleep.

When she comes back in, she stands over me for a while and looks down at me with such a worried expression. Then she wets some cloth and kneels down next to me, pressing it against my forehead, which, for a second, does feel better. "Do you want anything?" she asks, as I blink again against sleep.

"No. Thank you, Katniss. Wait, yes. Tell me a story."

"A story?" She looks taken aback. "What about?"

"Something happy. Tell me about the happiest day you can remember."

After frowning at me in consternation for a moment, she sits back and complies. I phase in and out of the story as she tells me about getting a birthday present for her sister, which involves her - and Gale - bargaining for the right to buy a wounded goat, possibly dying of infection. It's an interesting glimpse into her daily life, but the happy part escapes me until she gets to the end of the story, where she earns the goat, buys a pink ribbon to put around its neck, and presents her to Prim. The goat survives, being nursed back to health by her mother and Prim.

"They sound like you," I say.

"Oh, no, Peeta - they work magic. That thing couldn't have died if it tried."

I smile at that. "Don't worry. I'm not trying. Finish the story."

"Well, that's it. Only I remember that night, Prim insisted on sleeping with Lady on a blanket next to the fire. And just before they drifted off, the goat licked her cheek, like it was giving her a goodnight kiss or something. It was already mad about her."

Her face has taken on a faraway look and I smile. "Was it still wearing the pink ribbon?"

Her eyes crinkle. "I think so. Why?"

Why? A goat is a goat. A goat with a pink ribbon is a symbol of family - of love. "I'm just trying to get a picture," is all I say in explanation. "I can see why that day made you happy."

"Well, I knew that goat would be a little gold mine," she says, with a hint of her normal defensiveness.

"Yes, of course I was referring to that, not the lasting joy you gave the sister you love so much you took her place in the reaping."

"The goat has paid for itself. Several times over."

I realize now that I have fallen for a girl for whom admission of affection is a real struggle. An intriguing challenge I deeply regret I will never get the chance to face. "Well, it wouldn't dare do anything else after you saved its life. I intend to do the same thing," I add.

"Really? What did you cost me again?"

"A lot of trouble. Don't worry. You'll get it all back."

"You're not making sense," she says.

Oh, yes I am - and she knows it, even if she can't admit it. All the confusion I caused her - naming my emotions on stage, turning on her once we got into the arena - has been mitigated by our alliance, now. And once I'm dead, I leave her only with this legacy of her soft and tender care of me. She will be seen as a Tribute of unusual gentleness - of fierce loyalty to her District (as represented by me) - a healer and not a murderer. Any trouble I did cause - between her and Gale, for instance - will dissolve upon my passing. All this will serve her in the dark years she faces as a Victor. It's almost too neat, too clean, to be true.

Right on the heels of this thought, we hear trumpets rend the air and she jumps up, alarmed.

Claudius Templesmith's voice booms all around us. "Attention, tributes, and congratulations again, on surviving so far. We have reached that point in the Games in which hunger need not be a part - that's right, it's time for a feast!"

Katniss waves the words away with disgust. We don't need food at the moment and the real reason for a Hunger Games feast, anyway, is to get the desperate tributes together in one place and force a fight. "Now, hold on. Some of you may already be declining my invitation. But this is no ordinary feast. Each of you needs something desperately." She glances down at me, and I shake my head, as the exact same thought has struck us at once. "Each of you will find that something in a backpack, marked with your district's number, at the Cornucopia at dawn. Think hard about refusing to show up. For some of you, this will be your last chance."

With a second, but brief, glance at me, Katniss walks over to the mouth of the cave and examines the late evening sky. I know exactly what's going on. I struggle to my feet and stagger over to her, dizzy but determined. I put my hand on her shoulder and she starts. "No," I say forcefully, "stay here. You're not risking your life for me."

"Who said I was?" she replies, unconvincingly.

"So - you're not going?"

She turns to me with an exaggerated smile. "Of course, I'm not going. Give me some credit. Do you think I'm running straight into some free-for-all against Cato and Clove and Thresh? Don't be stupid. And lie down." She leads me back to the sleeping bag and lays me down on it. "I'll let them fight it out, we'll see who's in the sky tomorrow night, and work out a plan from there."

That so exactly matches the argument I was going to make, that I know not to believe her. And I can see her glance toward the outside, as if in her head she is already running back toward the Cornucopia. "You're such a bad liar, Katniss," I hiss at her. "I don't know how you've survived this long. Never gamble at cards."

She flushes in anger. "All right, I'm going - and you can't stop me!"

"I can follow you," I retort, panicking. "At least partway. I may not make it to the Cornucopia, but if I'm yelling your name, I bet someone can find me. And I'll be dead for sure."

"You won't get a hundred yards from here on that leg."

This is so insane - like when we were pushing each other at Haymitch for consideration. Our worst fights always seem to be about sacrificing ourselves. I wish she would just allow me the dignity of dying on my own terms without threatening to throw herself after me. I take a deep breath to calm myself down. "Then I'll drag myself. You go and I'm going, too."

She looks at me in exasperation. "What am I supposed to do? Sit here and watch you die?"

"I won't die. I promise. If you promise not to go."

She stares silently at me a moment, so clearly measuring my capacity for stubbornness next to hers. Then, she shakes her head. "OK, then, you have to do what I say. Drink your water, wake me when I tell you to wake me, and eat every bite of my soup no matter how disgusting it is!"

I sigh - unconvinced but relieved to end the conversation on my terms. "Agreed. Is it ready?"

"Wait here," she says and she slips outside. The truth is, she could escape me any time she wants. I have to somehow convince her that my injury really isn't as bad as all that. That I have time to outlast the Game.

She brings in the pot, in which she has combined chopped-up poultry meat that she calls groosling, water and some herbs. "Oh, this is good!" I say, after two spoonfuls. My stomach feels odd and I can't actually taste anything, but I feign enthusiasm with every ounce of my strength. "This is really delicious! How did you manage to make this? You didn't light a fire, did you?"

She smiles, and after I'm done, she gives me more pills and makes me drink more water. "I'm going to wash up," she says, taking the pot and spoon and heading outside. She's gone quite an inordinately long time, and I'm just planning to get up and make good on my promise to crawl after her, when she returns. She's holds the pot out to me.

"I've brought you a treat. I found a new patch of berries a little farther downstream."

I start to shake my head -I'm beyond full right now - but remember my promises to her and open my mouth obediently. She puts the whole spoon in my mouth and the berries slide down my throat. They are definitely berries, but they taste like something else, too, something familiar. "They're very sweet," I protest.

"Yes, they're sugar berries," she says, sticking the next spoonful in my mouth. "My mother makes jam from them. Haven't you ever had them before?"

These berries have not only an unnatural sweetness but also a strangely sticky texture, and taste nothing at all like something that would grow wild around District 12. Although - they are not entirely strange. "No. But they taste familiar. Sugar berries?"

"Well you can't get them in the market, really, they only grow wild," she says and pops a third spoonful in my mouth.

"They're sweet like - like syrup," I say. Syrup! My eyes widen and I start to lean forward so I can spit them out. Beyond the tang of the berries is a flavor exactly like the sleep syrup we take when we have fevers or colds at home. It helps you sleep off a minor illness. I don't know by what enchantment she got her hands on it, but I know what she's doing to me, and she can't, she can't-.

But before I can lift my head, she clamps her hand down on my mouth and nose, so I am forced to gulp the entire mouthful down. I struggle against her, panicking; for a second convinced that she has decided, for whatever reason, to rid herself of me ... maybe it's to put me out of my misery ... when she releases me, I continue to resist; I roll over and jam my finger down my throat so I can gag it all back up before the drugs render me incapable of following her to the feast. But my eyes cross and the cave floor rolls up to meet me, and I'm out again.

Chapter 19: Chapter Eighteen

Chapter Text

Chapter Eighteen

There is no way to get comfortable in the kitchen today. The ovens are at full strength, filling the room with the intense heat. The back door is open on the icy rainstorm - the sheets of water pouring down like someone is dumping buckets. I'm working alone in the back, moving frantically between oven and counters, between the heat of the fire and the cold of the open door. It's pure misery. And I'm behind on my math homework. And I need to finish a drawing for Delly's birthday. And we're behind quotas already - the winter has been miserable, between the foul weather and the huge accident. They had to close a whole section of the mine off, so the poverty and misery has been spreading out among the entire district, from its nexus point of the mining families - those with dead husbands or ones out of work - to the merchants. Rarely do we feel so interconnected as when we all start suffering as one.

For those of us whose families are still intact - we will survive this. Things will get better. But for now - there is just me working frantically by myself in the kitchen. While Ryan tends the front of the store and my father and Will try to unload some of the fresher-looking day-olds under a dripping tent in the market. While my mother groans and mutters to herself in the office.

"Damn Seam vagrants!" she thunders, suddenly. I know this voice - there's a rising anger in her and it is reaching the point of no control. Suddenly, she's running into the kitchen and through the back door. Screaming. "Get out of my bins, girl! Do you want the Peacekeepers on you? What am I that you Seam brats keep pawing through my trash? Do I look like I can support some misbegot vermin on top of my own?!"

I sneak out behind her and peer around her back, through the curtain of water falling down over the flooded gutters on the roof. There, collapsing against our apple tree, is the girl from the Seam. It's like she's losing a battle against the rain - as if it is pushing her into the ground. At any rate, she looks so frail and confused - and desperate. And hungry.

I follow my mother back into the kitchen - where she screams at me for leaving my post. We can't afford a speck of imperfection on today's loaves. We're down to the last of our ingredients and you just know - you just know - your father is not a decent-enough salesperson to make enough for the next quarterly shipment, so we will be screwed even going into the spring ...

Is she dying? The question explodes in my brain, drowning out my mother's voice. Right here, right now - my mother's vulgar screams the last human voice she hears? I've never seen it happen. I've seen the aftermath - the gaunt body, sitting up against a brick wall in the town square. I've been to a funeral or two or three or five or ten ... kids I went to school with, their bodies more like smears than human shapes in the wooden coffins. I knew she was struggling - feared it might be happening - berated myself for not figuring out a way to help her. And she came here, only to be screamed at by my mother.

And me, turning my back on her - an entire houseful of bread at my disposal.

I sneak a glance at my mother, who still stands in the kitchen, holding her head. Silent now, but a barrier. I've managed not to think of her this way, all these years - an enemy, an opponent. She's my mother and, yeah, she's harsh, but - so are a lot of people. But now - I need her out of the way. Either that, or ...

A speck of imperfection? That's it!

I go to the oven where the timer indicates a few seconds left before the bread is finished. Not enough time to change the timer. But, it doesn't matter. I put on the oven mitts just as the timer is about to go off. This is the good stuff, too - full of nuts and fruit, practically a substitute meal. Times are so lean right now that only the rich will be able to afford this, so it is worth more than ever. Worth more than a life, though?

As I pull the rack out, the bread pans jiggle - it's a warped rack, you have to be careful with it. All I have to do is just wriggle - slightly - and the rack slips out of its track, and the bread slides into the coal.

I give a shout - as if in surprise - and I can feel my mother whip around as I frantically pull the bread pans off of the fire. There is a surface - but irrevocable - scorch mark at the end of each loaf.

I have not even finished pulling them out of the oven before she has cleared the space between us and as I turn she hits me - hard - several times across the face with the palm of her hand. It stings - and it also stuns. My ears ring from the blow and the bread loaves clatter to the ground. "You stupid creature! No one will buy that now! When will you ever learn to pay attention to what you're doing, you idiot boy!"

I bite down - hard - on my urge to start wailing like a little kid. "They're only just -."

"Feed it to the pig!"

And now I have to bite down on a cheer. This is exactly the result I anticipated. And it might not have happened in a good month - with her in a better mood, or at least a more reasonable one. We might have had this bread for dinner ourselves, at the very worst. I pull the bread from their pans and huddle the loaves against my chest.

She's still there, staring at the house - of course, she must have heard all of that, or at least the noise of the shouting. She lifts her head a little as I come out and venture into the rain. In just my short sleeves with the apron over them, I'm absolutely freezing out here. But I can't hurry. I tear a small amount of bread off one of the loaves and cross the yard, slowly, toward the pig pen. "Daisy," I say loudly. "Daisy - come on, piggy!" But I toss the loaves into the direction of the girl in the rain, and - not daring to meet her eyes - make my way back into the house, slowly - cold, wet - aching ... something hurts, not just my face. My leg hurts and my whole body aches. And it's so cold ...

... And I wake up, and find myself - cold, wet, aching - on the floor of the cave. There is a rushing sound outside - and a roll of thunder in the darkness. It's raining now, and very cold water droplets are dribbling through some unseen cracks in the cave roof, pooling around me. All my limbs ache. I have a strange, sweet, unpleasant taste in my mouth.

"Katniss!" Everything comes back to me in a rush.

Then I look around and see her - she's lying down just to my right, pale and silent, and blood is pooled around her head. Heart pounding, I jump up. Something falls to the ground as I get up - I look in curiosity as a clear needle rolls over the uneven ground. But that is to puzzle over later. I go over to her and turn her over. She's got a good-sized gash on her forehead and it's dripping blood. The socks on her hands have a scary amount of dried blood on them. But she's warm and alive.

I find her pack and open it, rummaging inside for the first aid kit I've seen so often over the last couple days. I get one of her cloths, pour water over it, and clean off her forehead. She moans a little, but doesn't wake up. I tear a strip off of her roll of bandage and wrap it around her head a couple of times. She doesn't feel hot or anything. She just probably lost so much blood that she passed out. I take the bloody socks off her hands and the damp socks and shoes off her feet. I wrap her up tight in the sleeping bag and push the pine needles together in a vaguely pillow-shaped pile for her head. Then I take stock of my surroundings.

First I pick up the needle that fell off my arm. I also see a tiny backpack with the number 12 on it. The feast. They sent me an antibiotic and Katniss got it for me. I'm stunned by her yet again. And I'm alive. I look down at my leg and see that the red streaks are fading and the shiny quality to my flesh is gone. It looks a little swollen around the lip of the wound, but not in an unhealthy way. And it doesn't hurt nearly as much. I can walk on it with barely any discomfort.

The anthem sounds and Katniss simultaneously mumbles in her sleep. I peer outside into the darkness and see Clove's face in the sky. I have a mixed reaction to seeing her. She was so clever, so skilled - way too ready for these Games. In a different world, where her cleverness could have been put to actual use, she would have probably been a great and important person. Yet, I am relieved; yes, very relieved.

Back in the cave, I use some of the scattered needles to wipe away the blood on the floor. I find my jeans and jacket and pull them back on. I find Katniss' knife and clutch it. My stomach growls and I find the groosling in her pack and eat three pieces before I even think about what I'm doing. That stuff might have to last a while. I push down hunger and gulp down water, instead. I try to count on my fingers the number of days it's been since Cato stuck me with his sword, but I come up blank. It all seems a blur of blood, mud and nausea. I'll ask Katniss when she wakes up.

When it gets too cold for me, I climb into the sleeping bag and maneuver myself gently next to Katniss; but stay wide awake, watching the cave entrance, gripping the knife. I'm well-rested and feel no need to sleep, but the night goes by slowly. I wonder how this game will end. Will Cato finally pursue Thresh - and who will come up the winner? Then there's 5 - Foxface, as Katniss calls her. Where is she? What has she been doing? How is she surviving? How does she expect to win without confronting anyone?

Now that the feast is over, there will be some time before audience boredom becomes a factor. Then, we'll be driven together again, somehow. Hopefully, not before I have time to regain my strength, so I can help Katniss finish this thing up.

As I think that, a lightning flash lights up the cave. There is no chance weather in the arena, so I occupy myself by pondering what this might be about.

Overnight, I change Katniss' bandage twice. When the rain starts dripping through the rocks, I take a plastic sheet she has among her supplies and wedge it up in the low rocky ceiling over the sleeping bag.

By the early morning, her dreams are making her restless, and she starts thrashing around a little in the bag. I touch her arm. "Katniss? Katniss, can you hear me?"

Finally, at last, her eyes slide open and they look at me, dark gray like a storm. A moment of confusion is replaced by a gasp and a smile. "Peeta," she says, weakly.

"Hey. Good to see your eyes again."

"How long have I been out?"

I shake my head. "Not sure. I woke up yesterday evening and you were lying next to me in a very scary pool of blood. I think it's stopped finally, but I wouldn't sit up yet or anything."

She puts her hand up and feels the bandage. I hand her a water bottle, and she empties it with a couple of long gulps. Then, she eyes me. "You're better."

"Much better. Whatever you shot into my arm did the trick. By morning, almost all the swelling was gone."

"Did you eat?"

I smile apologetically. "I gobbled down three pieces of that groosling before I realized it might have to last a while. Don't worry - I'm back on a strict diet."

"No, it's good. You need to eat. I'll go hunting soon."

"Not too soon, all right? You just let me take care of you for a while."

I bring her groosling, raisins and more water, and when she shivers, I unzip the sleeping bag and rub some warmth into her feet before I wrap my jacket around them. "Your boots and socks are still damp and this weather's not helping much," I tell her apologetically. "I wonder what brought it on? I mean - who's the target?"

"Cato and Thresh," she says at once. "Foxface will be in her den somewhere and Clove, she cut me and then…."

"I know Clove's dead. I saw it in the sky last night." I hesitate. "Did - you kill her?"

"No. Thresh broke her skull with a rock."

I wince, despite myself. "Lucky he didn't catch you, too."

She looks distressed. "He did. But he let me go."

"What?" This makes no sense.

She shakes her head. "I teamed up with Rue," she explains. "After the tracker jackers. Since she was good at finding food, and I was able to trap it - even before getting the bow - we decided to take away the Career's food advantage." She touches the bow thoughtfully. "So - she went to light fires to lure away the Careers and I went to the food supply, and blew it up."

"You figured out the mines."

"Foxface figured out the mines," she says with a touch of exasperation. "I saw her doing it. I just figured out a way to use the mines to blow up the pile. It was more powerful than I expected. I lost my hearing entirely for a while and I think it's gone for good in my left ear."

"You're kidding!"

She purses her lips. "Anyway, Cato killed that Boy, from 3, when they got back."

I nod. "Yeah - the mines were his thing with them - like finding you was mine - and, once they were destroyed, he should have grabbed a bunch of food and just taken off. I don't know - maybe he thought he could still outsmart Cato."

"In the meanwhile, Rue had got stuck in one of their traps; at least I guess it was one of theirs. Before I could free her, the boy from 1 - killed her. And I killed him. I covered Rue in flowers before they could take her away. And District 11 - they sent me bread."

A chill runs through me. A funerary rite for another tribute? And a gift from another District? I don't think such a thing has ever happened before. Or, if it did ... "I bet they didn't show that on the air," I say quietly.

"No, probably not," she whispers. "But I told Thresh. After he killed Clove. And he let me go - because he owed me, for Rue."

This still makes no sense. "He let you go because he didn't want to owe you anything?"

"Yes." Resentment closes up her face for a moment. "I don't expect you to understand it. You've always had enough. But if you'd lived in the Seam, I wouldn't have to explain."

"And don't try. Obviously, I'm too dim to get it."

She frowns. "It's like the bread. How I never seem to get over owing you for that," she says.

"The bread? What? From when we were kids?" I smile, suddenly thinking of Haymitch and his insistence that personal stories were needed for the arena - backstory. "I think we can let that go, now; I mean, you just brought me back from the dead."

"But you didn't know me. We had never spoken. Besides, it's the first gift that's always the hardest to pay back. I wouldn't even be here to do it if you hadn't helped me then."

The enormity of what she's saying closes over me. I guess she's right - I guess I always knew it, too - but it's very different hearing her actually say it. "Why did you, anyway?" she adds.

My heart thumps. "Why? You know why," I answer her softly. And she does. On the one hand is the act. On the other are all the emotions that inspired the act. Here, they intersect, indistinguishable from each other.

But she shakes her head and then I realize that she has been speaking for me, not the audience. She has been speaking to me - a near-stranger who once fed her bread, for no reason that she has ever been able to understand - and not to the boy who pretended to admire her just to make her more likeable for a foreign crowd. This will take a lot of unpacking, I think wearily.

So, I just smile evasively. "Haymitch said you would take a lot of convincing."

"Haymitch? What's he got to do with it?"

"Nothing. … So, Cato and Thresh, huh?" I muse, steering the conversation away from dangerous areas - at least until I can figure out what and how much I can say. I am supposed to be in love with her - and literally everyone knows it. I forgot about that for a moment - and so did she. It's very easy to forget the audience. "I guess it's too much to hope that they'll simultaneously destroy each other?"

But she looks upset at that. "I think we would like Thresh. I think he'd be our friend back in District 12."

"Then let's hope Cato kills him, so we don't have to," I say grimly.

To my surprise, I see tears start in her eyes. But we're on the verge of treason here, so I ask her if she's in pain.

"I want to go home, Peeta," she says in a small voice.

"You will, I promise," and I bend down to give her a kiss on her forehead.

"I want to go home now."

This vulnerable Katniss is not the one who's going to be able to get past the remaining tributes, but I am disarmed, anyway. "Tell you what. You go back to sleep and dream of home. And you'll be there for real before you know it. OK?"

"OK," she whispers. "Wake me if you need me to keep watch."

"I'm good and rested, thanks to you and Haymitch. Besides, who knows how long this will last," I add, and I glance out at the storm. Cato or Thresh. And we're trapped here in a cave together. Is the audience hoping for some more drama between us? Between Cato's sword and Clove's knife, it's all we can do to be awake together at the same time. But that may change once she's recovered.

It's a good thing, probably, that all those days with no food accustomed me to going without, because I go hours doing my best not to think about it, and I'm mostly successful. Of water there is plenty. The rain doesn't cease - it gets stronger in fact, and I have to reposition the plastic and use the broth pot to catch the water pouring in. But finally, as the light in the sky starts going from gray to dark gray, and I feel my first yawns coming on, I wake her up.

"I'm hungry," she says.

"Me too!"

But there isn't much to eat. Two pieces of groosling, some raw roots and a handful of dried fruit.

"Should we try to ration it?" I ask dubiously.

"No, let's just finish it. The groosling's getting old anyway and the last thing we need is to get sick from food poisoning. Tomorrow's a hunting day," she concludes optimistically.

She divides the food into two small piles and each one is gone within minutes. "I won't be much help with that," I say. "I've never hunted before."

"I'll kill and you cook. And you can always gather."

She's clearly forgotten my lousy score at the plant recognition station. I fret again at my lack of survival skills - wish I could be much more help to her. "I wish there was some sort of bread bush out there."

"The bread they sent me from District 11 was still warm," she sighs. "Here, chew these."

She hands me a couple of mint leaves and I follow her lead and pop them in my mouth.

Shortly after that, the anthem starts and we hurry over to the cave entrance to check the sky. No faces.

"Where did Thresh go?" she asks. It sounds like she's back in tribute mode. "I mean, what's on the far side of the circle?"

"A field. As far as you can see it's full of tall grasses, as high as my shoulders. I don't know - some of them might be grain. There are patches of different colors. But no clear paths. Just grass."

"I bet some of them are grain. I bet Thresh knows which ones, too. Did you go in there?"

"Not really. Nobody wanted to track Thresh down in that grass. It has a - sinister feeling to it. Every time I look at that field, I think of hidden things. Snakes and rabid animals, quicksand. There could be anything in there."

She cocks her head at me. "Maybe there is a bread bush in that field. Maybe that's why Thresh looks better fed now than when we started the Games."

Does he? That's terrifying. "Either that or he's got very good sponsors. I wonder what we'd have to do to get Haymitch to send us some bread."

She raises her eyebrows and her tone changes abruptly. "Well, he probably used up a lot of resources helping me knock you out," she says with a sly grin.

I take her hand and stare down at her fingers; mine are paler than normal, white and bloodless - but something pleases me about the contrasting stripes our fingers make when they are entwined. "Yeah, about that. Don't try something like that again."

"Or what?"

Her coy response knocks me for a loop. "Or - or … Just give me a minute."

"What's the problem?" she grins.

"The problem is that we're both still alive. Which reinforces the idea in your mind that you did the right thing."

"I did do the right thing."

I think of the alternative - the thing that could so easily have happened instead; her, cut down by Clove's knives; me, waking up to find myself in here all alone. Still dying - and for nothing. I squeeze her hand. "No, just don't, Katniss! Don't die for me. You won't be doing me any favors, all right?"

She turns so that she is facing me, but still holding my hand. She tilts her head up to look at me. "Maybe I did it for myself, Peeta, did you ever think of that? Maybe - you aren't the only one who worries about - what it would be like if …" Her voice trails away, and I almost gasp in anticipation of the end of that sentence.

I look down into her eyes, trying to figure out what I'm seeing there. Perhaps a warning should be going off in my head, but my defenses are way down right now. Her expression is unreadable. It's neither calculating nor completely innocent. "If what, Katniss?"

Her lips move, as if she's on the verge of saying something. But she shakes her head just slightly and finally mutters, "That's exactly the topic Haymitch told me to steer clear of."

I don't understand it, but I vaguely associate it with my evasion from earlier. Are there things Haymitch didn't tell me about her feelings? Anyway, it's time to return her kisses, yes? I owe her that much - I mean, the audience. "I guess I'll have to fill in the blanks," I say, and I bend down and kiss her.

This ... is different. And only partly because I am more conscious, now, of what is happening. That makes it only marginally less confusing. It feels mutual, natural - innocent and - and - not . At the first brush of my lips against hers, I know that ... I just know that what I may have imagined before - about kisses, about touching a girl - pales in comparison to the reality. As has everything about her, to be honest. Admiration and desire meet and entwine, clinging to each other in a way that will be very difficult to detangle.

I wait a couple of breaths for her to withdraw. But she doesn't. Her lips are full and warm, bringing fire, and after a moment, they press further into mine. She wants more. I'm not sure what I'm doing - I experimentally move my mouth so that the tip of my tongue can taste her lower lip. She doesn't push me away, but actually moves into me a little. Something dangerous and disruptive is happening - trouble has been reintroduced to our relationship, big time - so I force myself to stop. I force myself to pull away, straighten up, take a long, steadying breath. Then, I'm distracted by the red stain on her bandage.

Her lips are still parted, expectantly, when I give her a quick kiss on her nose. "I think your wound is bleeding again. Come on, you better lie down. It's bedtime anyway."

She scoops down first and picks up her socks, but she can't quite hide the blush that spreads over her cheeks. "They're dry enough to wear. You'll need your jacket tonight." She reaches over to her pack and grabs some night vision goggles. "I'll take the first watch," she says, matter-of-factly. "Not that anything's likely to happen in this weather. But you never know."

Then we hesitate over the sleeping bag. Some boundary has been crossed tonight, which makes our sleeping together - though necessary - feel awkward. Especially when you consider the watching crowds. I hasten to take my place in the sleeping bag, bitingly aware that all of Panem has watched something they had no right to see. But once she's settled in next to me, the bag quickly fills with our body heat and it's so wonderful after the chill rain; I just appreciate it for what it is. We are allies in this Game; it is our job to keep each other safe and alive. Everything else can be worked out later. I pull her down so that her head rests on my arm and murmur, "Wake me up when you need me."

Before I've even had time to settle into my pleasant dreams, she's waking me up again, apologizing. "Sorry, I can't keep my eyes open anymore," she whispers.

"No problem."

"Tomorrow, when it's dry, I'll find us a place so high in the trees, we can both sleep in peace."

I take the goggles and don't argue with her, though I can't even imagine myself doing that. I distract myself by watching the shiny strands of the rain dripping across the mouth of the cave. I wish it wasn't so cold; otherwise, I'd get up and move around a little. I feel like I've been lying down for years. On the other hand, there's Katniss, curled up against my arm. I stare at her coiled braid. Over the last couple of days, her hair has started unstringing from its bonds and there are stray strands all over the place. It looks adorable and mussy.

I have to keep my thoughts away from there.

She wakes up in a few hours, just as the light - such as it is - is coming up. She's disappointed to see the rain continue as hard as ever.

"I should go out and try to find something to eat," I say, eyeing the cave mouth unhappily.

"You'll never be able to see anything," she says, shaking her head. "Me neither. This CAN'T last forever. The audience must be getting bored."

"Should we check the creek level?" I say, wondering if they're planning to flood us out.

"Later," she says. "We just need to forget we're hungry, that's all. Tell me - about Cato. He seems unhinged."

"He can be," I reply. "He's scared of you. You and Thresh. But he's also very cocky and doesn't always make good decisions. Clove was smarter, and more accurate with her weapons, too."

"How'd you get in with them? And when?"

"Last minute," I say. "Day of the interviews. Haymitch arranged it through District 4." I'm silent a moment, thinking of Bet, whose death now seems a lifetime ago. But that's how time works in here, stretching on forever and ever. "What happens when the rain stops?"

"We have to eat. But hopefully so will Cato. And Foxface. But I think Cato will confront Thresh first, and whoever survives will be wounded. Thresh took his backpack, at the feast."

"And Foxface?"

Katniss shakes her head. "I just don't know. She could be hiding in another rock right near us and we might not know. But attacking isn't her thing. She might be able to design some sort of trap, maybe?"

"If the rain doesn't end soon …." I say.

She nods. "I know."

In the thoughtful pause that follows, I find a small white rock and, after I scratch it on the ground for a while, it makes a faint white line, like a very thin piece of chalk. I doodle absently on the floor, making animal heads out of circles and ovals. Katniss eventually asks what I'm doing. "Oh, just drawing - stuff," I say. "Look." And I take the little rock and scribble 'KE + PM were here' on one of the cave walls - the dry one under the plastic sheet. "Wish I knew the date," I shrug.

"Something for the tourists to see later," she says sarcastically.

I laugh at this, but mirthlessly. This arena will one day be a tourist attraction. We see the commercials sometimes on TV - after this game is over, it will be open to the public, complete with concession stands and reenactments. My first kiss, even.

There's nothing much to do, and an unnerving spate of thunder and lightning starts up - I continue drawing just so I can ignore it. I try to make a map of the arena on the wall, as much as I remember it. The cornucopia and the lake and the field and the encircling woods. I'm not sure where we are in relation to all this, since I can't remember which direction I went or how far I walked after the tracker jacker attack. But Katniss eventually helps me with this, showing where the stream branches off of the lake, and also the location of several ponds.

"You were always the best in art class," she says airily.

I blush, wondering if this is an actual memory or something for the audience. "Thanks," I stammer.

Then, after a long pause: "Peeta. You said at the interview you'd had a crush on me forever. When did forever start?"

I turn away from the wall and frown to myself. This is private. But nothing in my life is private anymore. Then, I look into her eyes and think, well, why not? Haven't I waited long enough? I sit down opposite her and gather my thoughts. "Oh, let's see," I say lightly. "I guess it was the first day of school. We were five. You had on a red plaid dress and your hair … it was in two braids instead of one. My father pointed you out when we were waiting to line up."

"Your father?" she says, startled. "Why?"

I bite my lip. If only I'd had the option to tell her this before - on the roof, for instance. Or the guts to tell her long ago - during all those years I wasted. But I can almost hear Haymitch and his lectures about backstory; the more sincere, the better. "He said, 'See that little girl? I wanted to marry her mother, but she ran off with a coal miner.'"

"What! You're making that up!"

I shake my head, silently apologizing to my parents. "No, true story. And I said, 'A coal miner? Why did she want a coal miner if she could've had you?' And he said, 'Because when he sings … even the birds stop to listen.'"

A look of wonder spreads quietly across her face. "That's true," she says in a near whisper. "They do. I mean, they did."

Images from that day - held so closely and carefully inside me - flicker now at the surface of memory; I can smell the day, hear the voices - feel that jolt: a child's first infatuation, so much stronger than it is ever given credit for. "So that day, in music assembly, the teacher asked who knew the valley song. Your hand - shot right up into the air. She stood you up on a stool and had you sing it for us. And I swear, every bird outside the windows fell silent."

"Oh, please," she laughs.

I swallow, remembering so specifically - I never could forget this. "No, it happened. And right when your song ended, I knew - just like your mother - I was a goner." I blink on the words, then smile wryly. "Then for the next eleven years, I tried to work up the nerve to talk to you."

"Without success," she says, matching my wry tone.

"Without success. So, in a way, my name being drawn in the reaping was a real piece of luck." I feel like my blush must be burning all the TV screens in Panem.

She's looking at me with that same expression of wonder, as if she's struggling to refute what I've said in her mind. Finally, she says, "You have a … remarkable memory."

I reach forward and push a strand of hair away from her eyes and tuck it behind her ear; my fingers linger on her cheek. "I remember - everything about you. You're the one who wasn't paying attention."

"I am now."

I wonder if she can feel my pulse quicken in the tips of my thumbs. Something is about to happen – something I'm not even sure I'm ready for - and I give her an out, if she wants to take it. "Well, I don't have much competition in here," I say.

But if Gale crosses her mind, she makes no sign. Her lips are parting again and she swallows and says, "You don't have much competition - anywhere."

Then she leans in and touches my lips with her lips. I close my eyes, remind myself of the cameras, of the audience, to keep myself from going overboard … and then there is a noise directly outside the cave.

Katniss jumps and makes a grab for her bow and I take the knife from my belt and jump toward the cave entrance. I see it at once - a silver parachute, draped over a large basket. I should probably be more careful, but hunger and happiness render me temporarily insane, and I dash outside into the rain, grab the basket, and hand it in to Katniss. I can't contain my smile at her stunned expression. "I guess Haymitch finally got tired of watching us starve."

Chapter 20: Chapter Nineteen

Chapter Text

Chapter Nineteen

Katniss has laid out the food from the basket before I've had time to shake the water out of my hair. Rolls, goat cheese, apples, and a hot tureen that, though sealed shut, smells so good my mouth is immediately watering. Katniss opens it up and squeals - it's her favorite, lamb stew with dried plums. I can see the look on her face, though, and I put a hand on her shoulder.

"We better take it slow on that stew. Remember the first night on the train? The rich food made me sick and I wasn't even starving then."

"You're right," she sighs. "And I could just inhale the whole thing." But she pulls out the dishes and silverware that are included in the basket and serves up a small meal - a roll each, half an apple, and small serving of stew.

The small meal vanishes and Katniss and I look at each other with wide eyes. "I want more," she says.

"Me, too. Tell you what. We wait an hour, and if it stays down, then we get another serving."

"Agreed," she says. "It's going to be a long hour." She takes herself away from the food and scoots inside the sleeping bag.

"Maybe not that long," I reply, grinning. "What was that you were saying just before the food arrived? Something about me … no competition … best thing that ever happened to you?"

"I don't remember that last part."

"Oh, that's right. That's what I was thinking. Scoot over - I'm freezing." I crawl into the bag with her and let her rest her head on my arm. As I expected, everything that has happened - everything that has become tangled together - is difficult to unravel. I remind myself that all I have to do is enjoy it as it happens. My desires and the audience's (I assume) are probably about the same, right now. To relax and enjoy the romance and secretly hope that the rain outside never stops. Unfortunately … no. Well … no. But, now that the future has opened up in this unexpected way, is the thing itself still more important than the meaning …? No - I won't think about it. I won't think about it. Not yet.

"So," she says, "since we were five, you never even noticed any other girls?"

"No, I noticed about every other girl, but none of them made a lasting impression besides you."

"I'm sure that would thrill your parents, you liking a girl from the Seam."

"Hardly," I reply honestly. "But I couldn't care less. Anyway, if we make it back, you won't be a girl from the Seam; you'll be a girl from the Victors' Village."

"Oh." She is silent for a while. "But then, our only neighbor will be Haymitch!"

I laugh. "Ah, that'll be nice. You and me and Haymitch. Very cozy. Picnics, birthdays, long winter nights around the fire retelling Hunger Games tales."

She laughs. "I told you - he hates me."

"That's right. Who am I thinking of? Oh, I know. It's Cinna who likes you. But that's mainly because you didn't try to run when he set you on fire." I laugh, too. Haymitch - Cinna - Portia. We may actually see them again. "On the other hand, Haymitch - well, if I were you, I'd avoid Haymitch completely. He hates you."

"I thought you just said I was his favorite!"

"He hates me more. I don't think people in general are his sort of thing."

She laughs. "Hey," she says, more seriously. "How do you think he did it?"

"Did what?"

"Haymitch - how do you think he won the Games?"

That's a good question. I remember how he warned me against killing people. He must have had to, but I'm sure reluctantly. It's hard to imagine him with a warrior mentality. It's also hard to imagine him as an audience favorite. A Seam kid with a scowl would not have been immediately endearing to the Capitol. Katniss had Prim and then Cinna and now me to bring out her softer side. Haymitch couldn't invent Prim, but he had Cinna and Portia working to bring us together as a team before he even knew how I felt about Katniss, and his strategy advice to me was sound. "He outsmarted the others," I conclude, thoughtfully.

She nods. After a while, she squirms around and says, "I know it hasn't been an hour, yet…."

I grin. "Yeah, let's eat."

She jumps over to the basket, and as she's serving out another small plate of food, the anthem starts. I go over to the cave entrance and peer outside.

"There won't be anything in the sky," she says. "We would have heard a cannon."

But she's wrong. I blink up and feel a sharp pang - not for myself, but for the news I have to deliver. "Katniss."

"What? Should we split another roll, too?"

I glance at her; she is determined not to hear it. "Katniss."

"I'm going to split one. But I'll save the cheese for tomorrow." She finally looks up at me. "What?"

"Thresh is dead."

"He can't be."

"They must have fired the cannon during the thunder and we missed it."

She shakes her head, adamant. "Are you sure? I mean, it's pouring buckets out there. I don't know how you can see anything." She jumps up and pushes me away from the entrance. By the way her shoulders slump, I know she managed to see him before his picture disappeared. Her face is sad, and she slides down to the ground.

"Are you all right?"

She shrugs, then hugs herself tightly, as if trying to hold in emotions. Sadness - and anger - flicker in her face. She swallows and says, very carefully, "It's just that … if we didn't win … I wanted Thresh to win. Because he let me go. And because of Rue."

I can tell she hasn't said exactly what she's thinking - because she can't. This is something the Capitol will not tolerate, not for long. The Games are designed to divide us, district by district. Alliances are false - made to be broken; betrayal is built right in. This weird rule change - this one that allows for couples - is probably straining the system enough as it is. But Katniss … so, this was why she worked so hard to keep me at arms' length during training week … Katniss can't work that way. She can't help making connections and, mirroring the cross-district alliance that formed her family, she doesn't necessarily confine these to the people she is expected to. Something about Rue changed her perspective on the Game - something about Thresh solidified this perspective.

This is why they do it: keep us divided and isolated from each other. District residents never even interacting with each other, except for briefly, in the arena. Laborers kept separate from shopkeepers. Children born into families in which even love has to be measured, carefully, because of the Reapings that loom like a death sentence over everyone. Kill or be killed. The ultimate dividing line. So much easier to plan, to accept, when they are actors on TV - when they are faceless, nameless numbers in the sky. I think of Haymitch and his constant drunkenness, and know, with an uneasy feeling, how impossible it will be to escape this - this guilt of being still alive, of being happy that others are dead. So that even winning - even coming to these realizations - even feeling love blossom in my hands here ... "Yeah, I know," I say; and I realize that as Rue and Thresh changed her perception of the Games, so is she changing mine. I came in to subvert them. Now that there is a chance I will survive them, I would like nothing more than to smash them.

But this can't be said. "Eat. It's still warm." I hand her a plate and she stares down at the food.

I take the other plate, but don't eat - just watch her for a moment.

"It also means Cato will be back hunting us," she says glumly.

"And he's got supplies again."

"He'll be wounded, I bet."

"What makes you say that?"

"Because Thresh would never have gone down without a fight," she says. "He's so strong - I mean, he was. And they were in his territory."

"Good - the more wounded Cato is, the better. I wonder how Foxface is making out."

"Oh, she's fine," Katniss scowls. "Probably easier to catch Cato than her."

"Maybe they'll catch each other and we can just go home," I say. "But we better be extra careful about the watches. I dozed off a few times last night."

"Me too, but not tonight."

We finish the stew and put away the plates and the tureen.

"I'll take first watch," I offer, watching her strained face.

We settle into the sleeping bag, me sitting up holding the knife, Katniss burrowing down in the bag, with her bow and an arrow at her side. With protein in my blood again, my head feels clearer and staying awake is easier tonight. Also, my mind is reeling from the events of the day. This girl - whose backside is against my left leg - and her kisses. I still do not quite understand what is going on in here. On the one hand, if I were pretending to fall in love for an audience, I'd do pretty much what she did - compel the other person to make all the confessions about their feelings - drop into random flirtatious asides. I'm accustomed to the very closed-off expression on her face that indicates strategic thinking on her part and I've definitely seen it many times over the last couple of days.

But that is what makes the other times the more intriguing - that open look of wonder when I spoke about her father and about my reaction to her singing. That distinct look of disappointment at the end of our kisses, which I'm almost completely sure indicated a desire not to stop. Or am I fooling myself? What do I know about real kisses or false kisses?

I shake my head. It's too early to be thinking about such things. We are very close to home, now - there is no arguing that Thresh's death shifts the advantage to us - but we need to be very careful not to relax, not to let our guards down. The arena is closing back in on us.

After a few hours, I'm getting tired and my stomach has started growling again, so I climb out of the bag and dive into the basket. The knives they provided are dull, but I manage to cut an apple into ragged slices, divide a roll in half and cover each half with a layer of goat cheese and apple slices. Then I wake up Katniss, holding a roll under her nose.

"Don't be mad," I tell her. "I had to eat again. Here's your half."

A wolfishly hungry light gleams in her eyes. "Good," she says, grabbing it and taking a bite. "Mmm."

"We make a goat cheese and apple tart at the bakery," I say.

"Bet that's expensive."

I finish up my roll and lick my lips. Such a luxury in this small, dark, rainy place. "Too expensive for my family to eat. Unless it hasn't sold and has gone very stale. Practically everything we eat is stale." By the look on her face, I've shattered some misconception of hers - why does she think we buy her squirrels, anyway? I duck back into the sleeping bag next to her and drop off to sleep.

The early sun is shining into the cave when Katniss shakes me awake. Her face glows with it. Impulsively, sleepily, I pull her head down and kiss her for a long time - just our lips together, our breaths together. She breaks the kiss, but only after a while.

The sun! I blink at the unfamiliar light.

"We're wasting hunting time," she murmurs.

"I wouldn't call it wasting," I tease her, stretching my arms and sitting up. "So, do we hunt on empty stomachs to give us an edge?" I add, eyeballing the basket.

"Not us. We stuff ourselves to give us staying power."

"Count me in." To my surprise, she divides up the remainder of the stew and rice and hands me my half. "All of it?" I ask, nervously.

"We'll earn it back today."

The stew is cold, which makes the lamb pieces a little tough and gamey, but I'm never going to be particular about food again, if I ever was.

Katniss, who already did know not to take food for granted, wolfs it down, then scrapes off the gravy with her finger. We're struck by the same memory at once, I guess, because she grins, "I can feel Effie Trinket shuddering at my manners."

I laugh and toss my fork away. "Hey Effie, watch this," I say to the invisible cameras. I lick the gravy off my plate, and finish by blowing a kiss to the air. "We miss you, Effie!"

Katniss giggles, but she reaches over and covers my mouth. "Stop! Cato could be right outside our cave."

I pull her hand away. "What do I care?" I say, kissing her once, twice. "I've got you to protect me, now."

She's half blush, half exasperation when she pulls away from me. "Come on," she says.

But as we pack, I feel a sense of dread overcome me. Yes, the rain has been wearisome, and the hunger that preceded the basket horrible, but now we have to go back into the arena, where lighthearted flirtation and kisses have no real place.

"He'll be hunting us by now," I say solemnly. "Cato isn't one to wait for his prey to wander by."

"If he's wounded-."

"It won't matter. If he can move, he's coming." I look down at the small knife I have - one of Clove's, Katniss explained; a near-miss from the Bloodbath - and feel inadequate to the task. But I'm going to have to stay especially alert, because it is Katniss he will target first.

Outside, the world is drenched, and so green I think I must never really have seen the color before. Down below us, the stream has risen several feet. We fill up the water bottles, and Katniss checks some snares she set days ago, when I was still out of it. They're empty. She nods as if she expected it.

Clambering down the rocks made it clear we are both still pretty weak, and my leg still isn't one hundred percent. I'm shaking as we stand next to the stream, and Katniss - still bandaged up just in case - looks paler than she should. As we walk upstream, Katniss points out that the place she found me has been swallowed up and cleared away by the water, so we can come back to the cave, if we need to, as long as we're careful not to leave traces now.

After a while, we've left the rocky part of the stream and we're back in the woods. I follow Katniss curiously, while she sniffs the air and her eyes dart everywhere, with the arrow pulled back on her bow. But after a few paces of this, she stops and turns to me with a frown.

"What?"

"You've got to move more quietly. Forget about Cato, you're chasing off every rabbit in a ten-mile-radius."

"Really? Sorry, I didn't know." I'm not sure how to fix this, so I try not to shuffle my feet as we walk, but I'm still favoring my left leg, so my right does come down with extra weight.

"Can you take your boots off?" she asks me.

"Here?"

"Yes, I will, too. That way we'll both be quieter."

I stare at her while she starts taking off her boots. This is a change from when she was so sarcastic and trying to hate me during the training week, but I'm not sure I like being patronized any better. Nonetheless, I pull off my boots and socks, stuff socks into boots and tie the bootstrings together so I can sling them over my shoulder. This makes walking even more off-balance and - I'm not sure she understands, she's so light and maybe she's used to walking barefoot, but every little rock and twig I step on causes a sharp pain and for my tread to be even harder to control. And I don't want to be concentrating on my feet when I'm trying to keep an eye out for Cato. There are only so many things I can do at once. I try to walk a little farther behind her.

But we go a couple of hours without seeing any animals and when we stop to drink water, I come to a difficult decision. "Katniss. We need to split up. I know I'm chasing away the game."

(Video) CATCHING FIRE IN PEETA'S POV | THROWING SPARKS BY IGSYGRACE

"Only because your leg's hurt," she says kindly.

I decide not to argue and accept her attempt to help me save face. "I know. So why don't you go on? Show me some plants to gather and that way we'll both be useful."

"Not if Cato comes and kills you."

I laugh at that - that of course was once exactly my way of being useful. "Look, I can handle Cato. I fought him before, didn't I?"

She gives a slight, almost imperceptible shake of her head. I'm torn between delight in her concern for me and frustration by her lack of faith in me. "What if you climbed a tree and acted as a lookout while I hunted?" she suggests.

I roll my eyes. "What if you show me what's edible around here and go get us some meat? Just don't go far, in case you need help."

She sighs and takes me over to a clump of grass. They look like normal grasses to me, but when she pulls them, the roots are thick and bulbous. "These," she says shortly. "Can you whistle?"

"Yes."

She whistles a couple of notes. "Repeat that."

I do, and we whistle back and forth for a bit.

"That's our signal," she says, sternly. "Periodically, just whistle out - and I will too - and we'll know we are both still OK."

I put on my socks and boots again, double-knotting the frayed laces while she watches me with a dubious expression. She leaves me with the pack and in a few paces she turns back to me and whistles - I answer her back - then, with a worried look she continues on.

I shrug, trying not to be worried about us calling out to each other in the woods, and finish digging up the roots. I pull out the plastic sheet from the pack and lay them out, then head back to the stream - maybe I can catch some fish, or something. Down by the stream, some berry bushes are growing right next to the water. They look like fat purple blueberries. I smile to myself, thinking of the "sugar berries," then start picking them. I have nothing to transport them with, so I have to carry a handful at a time, back and forth to the sheet. On my second trip back, I realize I haven't heard a whistle in a while, and I pucker my lips, but the sound dies when I hear a rustling in the brush behind me. I freeze, gripping my knife, but no one appears, so I walk cautiously back to the stream.

I've just gathered a full hand of berries when I hear her crying out. "Peeta! Peeta!"

I run back up and, as I approach the place where we separated, an arrow flies past me and lodges into a tree just behind me. I jump back and the berries fly everywhere. "What are you doing?" she screams at me. "You're supposed to be here, not running around in the woods."

My heart is racing from the near-miss, but I try to remain calm. "I found some berries down by the stream," I explain, rationally.

"I whistled. Why didn't you whistle back?"

"I didn't hear you. I guess the water's too loud." I go up to her and put my hands on her shoulders - she's trembling.

"I thought Cato killed you!"

"No, I'm fine," I say, hugging her. But her arms stay at her sides, still trembling.

She pushes away from me. And in her face - all anger and fear, no strategy - I find the answer to my questions. She cares for me - and this is real. "If two people agree on a signal, they stay in range. Because if one of them doesn't answer, they're in trouble, all right?"

"All right," I agree, reeling from my realizations..

"All right. Because that's what happened with Rue and I watched her die!" She turns away from me. "And you ate without me!" she adds, grumpily, poking around inside the pack.

"What? No I didn't!"

"Oh, and I suppose the apples ate the cheese."

"I don't know what ate the cheese, but it wasn't me," I say, smiling at her behind her back. "I've been down by the stream collecting berries. Would you care for some?"

She doesn't say anything, just goes over to the plastic sheet and picks up a few of the berries. She straightens up suddenly - and the cannon sounds.

I jump, and she whips around, looking frantic. We're frozen in place, staring at each other, then a hovercraft appears, just a hundred yards away or so. It reaches down to the ground and picks up a thin body. Foxface's long red hair streams out below her as she's lifted away.

This is it! I realize suddenly. I grab Katniss' arm, force her to her feet. "Climb! He'll be here in a second. We'll stand a better chance fighting him from above."

She stands her ground. "No, Peeta - she's your kill, not Cato's."

I stare at her, wondering if her wound has started bleeding again. "What? I haven't even seen her since the first day. How could I have killed her?"

Katniss holds out her palm, and the berries roll around them.

Chapter 21: Chapter Twenty

Chapter Text

Chapter Twenty

I bend down and put my elbows on my knees, my face in my palms. "They're poisonous? But how did she - why did she ...?"

"She was taking food from the career pile like that - just a little bit. Enough to stay alive, but not enough to draw them after her. She probably just took a couple; you would never have noticed. And she would not have questioned the safety of berries we were about to eat."

That makes it worse. Like she trusted me, and I betrayed her somehow. "I wonder how she found us. My fault, I guess, if I'm as loud as you say."

Katniss puts a comforting hand on my shoulder. "And she's very clever, Peeta. Well, she was. Until you outsmarted her."

I push away from her hand and stand up. I feel the tang of bile in the back of my throat. I guess if Katniss cares about what is owed and what is owing, I care about the injustice of it all - District 8, killed in her sleep; District 5 - killed by my berries. "Not on purpose," I say bitterly. "Doesn't seem fair somehow. I mean, we would have both been dead, too, if she hadn't eaten the berries first." I pause on the thought. "No, of course not. You recognized them, didn't you?"

She nods. "We call them nightlock."

"Even the name sounds deadly. I'm sorry, Katniss. I really thought they were the same ones you'd gathered."

"Don't apologize. It just means we're one step closer to home, right?"

That's true - just like it was true with Thresh. But, like Katniss, I'm having a hard time celebrating. "I'll get the rest," I say glumly. I gather up the plastic sheet by all its corners, so that the berries are bunched inside, but Katniss stops me.

"Wait!"

She pulls out a leather pouch from the pack and funnels the berries into it. "If they fooled Foxface, maybe they'll fool Cato as well. If he's chasing us or something, we can act like we accidentally drop the pouch and, if he eats them …."

"Hello District 12," I finish softly. I'm not being very consistent, I know, but that sounds like the perfect solution to our current problems.

"That's it," she smiles up at me.

"He'll know where we are now," I realize suddenly. "If he was anywhere nearby, and saw that hovercraft, he'll know we killed her and come after us."

She nods and regards me for a while, then the pack and the trees and her catch - which I see includes squirrel and rabbit. "Let's make a fire," she says. "Right now."

"Are you ready to face him?"

"I'm ready to eat. Better to cook our food while we have the chance. If he knows we're here, he knows. But he also knows there's two of us and probably assumes we were hunting Foxface. That means you're recovered. And the fire means we're not hiding, we're inviting him here. Would you show up?"

"Maybe not," I say. I'm not sure if Cato's motivations can always be guessed at, though, through logic.

I gather wood - as dry as I can, though everything that is not green is still somewhat damp from the days of rain. But maybe the one thing I did learn during the week of training is how to make a fire in the dampest conditions, so I've soon got a blaze going. Katniss skins her kill and chops the rabbit in pieces. We gather some rocks by the stream to prop up skewers of rabbits and squirrels. Katniss lets the fire die down to coals on one side, and she and I wrap the roots up in leaves, and place them right on the coals to bake. It doesn't take long for the smell of the meat to make my mouth water, and all the time she tends the food, I glance at her and think how fortunate she was - we are - to have had her father to teach her these skills in the woods.

Katniss packs most of it up, except for two rabbit legs. "I think we should go deeper into the woods. Find a tree to sleep in."

I shake my head. "I can't climb like you, Katniss, especially with my leg, and I don't think I could fall asleep that high off the ground."

"It's not safe to stay in the open."

"Can't we go back to the cave? It's near water and it's easy to defend."

She sighs - and glances behind her shoulder at the trees, as if they are literally calling to her. When she turns back to me, she smiles, comes over to me, stands on her tiptoes, and gives me a kiss. "Sure, let's get back to the cave."

I smile back. "Well, that was easy."

While she retrieves her arrow, I throw a bunch of wood on the fire to make it look like we're camped out here for good. Katniss hands me a rabbit leg to eat while we walk and we go back down to the stream and follow it back to the cave.

This takes longer than I would have thought and I'm exhausted long before we get back there. And my leg, although definitely clear from infection, has taken real damage and stiffens up after too much exertion.

"I see your point about not wanting to walk back here," I confess, once we get inside.

"Yes - although - the wind's coming up and it's going to be cold tonight up in the trees. And - it's good to have walls around us."

In fact, it's almost homey. Katniss rations out the food we cooked earlier in half, then halves it again for our dinner. It's delicious - fresh, still a little warm. But my eyelids start drooping almost immediately.

"You need to sleep, don't you?" she smiles.

"I do. Are you OK for now? I probably need only a couple of hours."

"I can give you at least four. I'll set your plate aside and you can eat then. Now, get into the bag and get some sleep."

I'm already starting to snore as I'm laying my head down, and I am just faintly aware of her pulling the sleeping bag up to my chin and kissing me on the forehead before I crash.

When she wakes me, the sky is starting to lighten and I bolt upright. "I slept the whole night! Katniss, you should have woken me up!"

"I had too much to think about to sleep," she says, yawning. We switch places and she crawls into the sleeping bag. "Wake me up if things get interesting."

I finish up last night's dinner, then occupy myself for a while drawing pictures on the floor, one ear always listening for a trace of sound outside our cave. I am in a heightened state of anxiety, and am filled with foreboding. It started yesterday, when the cloak of the rainstorms receded. But it's worse today, with just Cato remaining. We can't tell ourselves he's hunting anyone else. One good thing about being in here is I know Cato will make a lot of noise scrabbling up the rocks to find us. Unless time has taught him to be softer. Still, it's excruciating waiting for any faint sound that would warn of his coming. I jump to my feet probably five times this morning. And when I go outside to pee, I feel ten times more vulnerable than usual.

When Katniss wakes up on her own, it's the afternoon. She stretches and smiles. "Any sign of our friend?"

"No, he's keeping a disturbingly low profile."

"How long do you think we'll have before the Gamemakers drive us together?"

That's the question I've been asking myself all day. "Well, Foxface died about 24 hours ago, so there's been plenty of time for the audience to get bored. I guess it could happen at any moment."

"Yeah, I have a feeling today's the day," she says, sitting up. "I wonder how they'll do it."

We find out once we go outside.

Katniss has declared it another hunting day, and we eat most of the food from yesterday, pack everything else up and arm ourselves. Katniss takes time to pat the rocks outside the cave entrance - as if in farewell - and I do get the feeling, the gnawing sensation, that I will never see the cave again.

We clamber down to the stream and find it has vanished. The water - so high yesterday from the days of rain, is completely gone.

Katniss makes a disappointed noise, then reaches down into the stream bed. "It's not even a little damp. They must have drained it while we slept."

"Good thing our water bottles are full," I say.

"For now."

"The lake. That's where they want us to go."

Katniss bites her lower lip. "Maybe the ponds will still have some water."

"We can check," I say. I don't think there's a hope of it, but it puts off the confrontation with Cato for a little while longer.

We go back to where I buried myself, then cut into the woods and follow the treeline back until we break off and find the pond where the careers and I found Katniss the day of the fire. Probably not so many days - surely, less than two weeks - have passed since then, but so much has happened that that day seems to belong to someone else.

The pond is also dry.

"You're right," she says. "They're driving us to the lake. Do you want to go now, or wait until we're out of water?"

To me, even worse than thirst is this horrible dread. "Let's go now, while we've had food and rest. Let's just - go end this thing."

She nods, and turns to look south, in the direction of the cornucopia. I put my arms around her, resting my chin on top of her head; she resting her chin on my arms. "Two against one," I say into her hair. "Should be a piece of cake."

"Next time we eat, it will be in the Capitol," she says, resolutely.

"You bet it will."

Yet, we stay for a minute like this, standing together. I can feel her heartbeat against my arms. I can feel my heartbeat against her back. Against all conceivable odds, she has survived all the way to this final opponent. And, against all odds even more remote, I am here with her. But we still have to commit one final, unchangeable, unforgivable act.

On that, as if we can read each other's minds, we break apart and move on. A little north of the pond is the place just in the woods where she dropped the tracker jacker nest on us. The nest itself is largely dissolved. Katniss touches it with her boot and it crumbles. She looks up at the tall tree. "Let's move on," she says, darkly. I'm not altogether fond of the spot myself.

We hike back over the uneven ground and finally get to the cornucopia a little before sunset. Katniss shows me the spot where tributes can hide and spy on the plain without being seen. After waiting for a while with no sign of Cato, we carefully walk to the cornucopia, approach the mouth of it from different sides, and check inside to see if he's hiding there. Then we walk over to the lake and I fill our bottles and purify them. Katniss stands over me, tapping her foot anxiously.

"We don't want to fight him after dark. There's only the one pair of glasses."

"Maybe that's what he's waiting for. What do you want to do? Go back to the cave?"

"Either that or find a tree." She looks at me as if waiting for my argument, but I have none. She'll be safe in a tree, at least. "But let's give him another half hour or so. Then we'll take cover."

We sit by the lake, close but looking away from each other; she watches the woods, I watch the field. She sings a small, four-note melody, and the birds in the woods pick up her call. Mockingjays, I guess. The air is eventually filled with their trilling, and in their voices, the melody becomes a harmony.

"Just like your father," I say.

"That's Rue's song," she whispers. "I think they remember it."

Then she stiffens, and a moment later, I hear it, too: a strange dissonance in the melody, and then a shrieking sound.

We jump to our feet, weapons out. Then Cato comes out of the trees, heading toward us. He has no weapons in his hands - did he somehow lose them? Katniss lets the arrow fly and I hold my breath, but the arrow just bounces off his chest. "He's got some kind of body armor!" she cries.

He's right on us - eyes bulging, sweating, panting, and I brace myself to try to catch his neck or something with the knife, but he bolts right past us, then turns toward the cornucopia.

There's a wild howl from the direction of the trees. A large creature of some kind, wolfish maybe, leaps out onto the meadow. Others join it. Katniss runs without hesitation after Cato, toward the cornucopia, and I follow.

Chapter 22: Chapter Twenty-One

Chapter Text

Chapter Twenty-One

My leg has stiffened and I fall behind Katniss pretty quickly, just hobbling; I can feel the hot breath of the creature right behind me. When she reaches the Cornucopia, she turns around and cries out. She lifts her bow and arrow and shoots - just past me. I hear something fall to the ground behind me. "Go, Katniss! Go!" I scream out.

She starts scaling the sides of the Cornucopia, on the tail side, the smallest end. I am just behind her, and when I touch the side of the horn, I cry out - it's molten hot. Katniss' face appears above me. "Climb!" she orders.

I'm doing it one-handed (with the knife in my right hand) and one-legged (dragging my left leg behind me). She shoots another arrow and there is a cry not just from one creature, but several. Katniss hauls me up the final feet, and we sit together, panting. Cato is behind her, but doubled-over, heaving. He's much thinner than the last time I saw him. Katniss whips around and puts another arrow to her bow, then Cato yells, "Can they climb it?"

"What?" shouts Katniss.

"Can they climb it?" I repeat. We look back at the short end of the horn and see the muttation wolves assembling there. They are eerily unalike - they come in multiple colors and sizes; I see long black fur, curly blond, dark red. They stand up on their hind legs and both Katniss and I scoot back in horror. Katniss shifts her aim from one to another, but as she does so, her eyes widen. Her fingers tremble on the bow, then she screams.

"It's her!"

"Who? What is it, Katniss?" She is staring at the mutts with all the whites of her eyes. I take her by the shoulder and shake her.

"It's them. It's all of them. The others. Rue and Foxface and … all of the other tributes," she croaks.

I turn - and then I see it. The wolf-mutts are wearing numbers around their collars. A 1 on a blonde mutt. A 4 on a honey-colored mutt with sea green eyes. I gasp and look back at her, feeling sick. "What did they do to them? You don't think … could those be their real eyes?"

Her mouth moves as if scrabbling for an answer, but before she can answer, I feel myself abruptly yanked away from her. A mouth full of knife-like teeth has grabbed me by the calf and I automatically clutch at Katniss' arm as I am pulled away from her. Katniss grabs my arm and tries to pull me back, but we are both slowly heading over the edge of the horn. "Kill it!" she screams, and I slash blindly with my knife. I hit hot fur and feel flesh break beneath me. Katniss regains the edge and pulls me back onto the horn.

We haul ourselves up away from the low point of the horn, up towards where Cato is still doubled over. Katniss fits an arrow to her bow again, but she uses it on a huge black mutt that jumps up and almost lands on the cornucopia. I bend down to feel the blood flowing freely from my calf. It's too much. A tingling sensation runs up the back of it, as if it's about to fall asleep. Then, a hand is on me, and it's not Katniss.

Cato's arm, tight underneath the body armor he's wearing, grips like a vice around my neck. It's a headlock, and my last clear thought is how stupid I feel, taken by a simple wrestling maneuver. All this time I have been wary of him and now, when we are so close to the finish, this is how I end, after a moment off my guard. In a way, it was preordained, I think hazily. Cato kills me. Katniss kills Cato. She wins. She wins. At least I'm here to know that it ends the way I wanted.

Cato backs up, still gripping me - but the movement lets me take a breath, and my mind races again. My wound - it's bad. My throat - I have to get him off of me.

I look up to see Katniss, standing in the sunset, the howls of the mutts rising around her, her bow trained toward us.

Cato laughs. "Shoot me and he goes down with me."

As I watch Katniss trying to work through this dilemma, I think, I just need leverage. If I can get his hand off me, I can use my feet against him. That's it. I raise my finger up to Cato's hand and make an "X" motion across it. Cato jerks, but too late. Her arrow is embedded in his hand, and he falls away from me with a shriek. I slam back into him and I feel him lose balance and slide toward the edge of the horn - but he's grabbed my jacket and again I am dragged toward the edge of the Cornucopia. And again Katniss grabs for me, anchoring me to the Cornucopia, and he falls to the ground without me.

Katniss and I sit in a puddle of my blood, clutching each other, as we hear the pack of mutts grunt and snarl, converging on him. We hear him struggle against them in the mouth of the Cornucopia. We hear a blade ringing through the air. Perhaps he had a knife hidden on him, or perhaps he picked up one left in the Cornucopia. The body armor is mostly protecting him against their teeth. We occasionally hear him yell out, but there are more mutts that die by his hand. We hear him fighting his way toward the side of the Cornucopia. He's trying to get back to the tail end, where he will have a fighting chance of climbing back up to join us. Where Katniss is waiting with her last arrow.

I feel a black wave of nausea - a familiar feeling - pass over me. I clutch my calf with both hands, trying to staunch the flow of blood. What I need - what I need - is for Cato to die. For the trumpets to play and the hovercraft to snatch me from the arena.

Cato starts running out of strength, but only after some time has passed and the moon has risen. He collapses and, with horrible, animal sounds of triumph, the remaining pack of mutts drag him back around and right into the Cornucopia. There, his screams and their grunts and howls are amplified inside the metal horn.

As night deepens, the air ices over and the Cornucopia rapidly grows cold. I start shivering, but it's not just the weather. Except for the lack of tracker jacker hallucinations, this is a very familiar sensation. I taste metal in my mouth. I see spots in front of my eyes.

"Peeta? Peeta!" Katniss' sharp voice pulls me back a little. She puts her hands over my hands and looks at the flow of blood.

"Sorry," I say, weakly.

"No, I'm sorry. You need a tourniquet." In a haze, I watch her open her jacket and take off her outer shirt. She cuts off one sleeve and wraps it tightly around my calf, just below my knee. She takes her last arrow, inserts it in the knot, and twists until the flow of blood stops. It's incredibly tight, but I don't object. I know it needs to be, and I can't feel my leg right now, anyway.

She wraps the rest of the shirt around the tourniquet and lies me down. She lies next to me, wrapping her arms tight around me. "Don't go to sleep."

"Are you cold?" Without waiting for her response, I unzip my jacket, wrap it around her and zip us in together. We're both scary thin. I can feel her ribs against mine. But at least we can fit together in this cocoon, and heat stirs to life between us. I don't want to - not when I'm so close to the end - but this is an excellent place to die.

"Cato may win this thing yet," she whispers to me, shivering.

"Don't you believe it," I say, and I pull her hood over her cold ears.

The arena has been a nightmare already. The opening bloodbath, which I can see burn against my eyeballs every time I first start to sleep. A girl's death mask face, eyes and mouth frozen open in a scream. Bet's bloated face. Pus running down my leg. But this - this icy cold night, with my leg throbbing with pain and squeezed tighter than a drum. With Cato's echoing screams and the wet snuffles of the mutts. This is unbearable.

"Why don't they just kill him?" asks Katniss. Like me, at the last, she only pities Cato, who is being made to suffer because of the armor he was given specifically to survive her arrows.

"You know why," I say, and I pull her against my chest.

She smells like dirt, blood, old sweat and - a little - like pine. And I breathe her in, this girl, brave and kind-hearted, a little hard also, and bracingly fair.

"Peeta!"

Why is she yelling at me? "What?"

"Stay awake, Peeta! You have to stay awake!"

I swallow my exhaustion and nod mutely. I put my face against her shoulder and keep smelling her. I catch a whiff of roasted rabbit. Goat cheese. A gold pin.

"Peeta, wake up! Peeta!"

"Hmm hmm." Bread, fresh baked and golden. Salty green with seaweed. Slightly acrid with the edges burnt.

"Peeta!"

She won't let me be, so I open my eyes wide and stare up at the sky. "The moon has moved. The night will be over soon."

She shakes her head against my shoulder.

"Yes, you'll be OK. When the sun is up, you'll be OK."

I close my eyes and again, the smells come to me. The rose and lavender settings in the shower. The sweet, buttery scent of the skin cream. The lemon yellow clinging to my jacket. Hot chocolate. Hot caramel.

"Katniss," I say, opening my eyes on a sky acid-etched with orange at the edge. "I think the sun is rising."

She opens her eyes and looks up at the sky. She looks at me and her lips part open in consternation. We can still hear Cato - gurgling, moaning.

"I think he's closer to the mouth, now, Katniss," I say, after listening for a while. "Can you shoot him?"

She nods. "My last arrow is in your tourniquet."

I unzip my jacket, freeing her. "Make it count."

She loosens the tourniquet, releases the arrow, and then ties it back on me. My leg feels swollen now and cold. But it's down the list of my current priorities.

She crawls to the edge of the horn and I follow her. Deftly, with the arrow fitted to the bow, she leans over the edge. I hold on to her ankles, ready to draw her up if she starts to slip or the mutts attack. I hold my breath. For the first time since I entered the arena, tears start in my eyes. There is a part of me that is tempted to call her back, to not be the one to make this kill. Maybe we win. But the corpses we leave behind us….

I feel, more than I hear, the release of the arrow. And I put the last of my strength into pulling her back up. Her face is gray.

"Did you get him?" I whisper.

The cannon answers me.

"Then, we won, Katniss."

"Hurray for us," she replies flatly.

A loud noise gets our attention. It's not the trumpets signaling the end, but a hole opening up in the plain. The remaining mutts, about seven or eight, run from the cornucopia and into the hole. The earth closes above them.

As the sun continues to rise, we sit together. I'm trying desperately not to collapse, not to black out. Katniss looks steadily at me. Nothing happens. No hovercraft, no trumpets.

"Hey!" she shouts. "What's going on?"

Dread is starting to rise in me, like green bile. "Maybe it's the body. Maybe we have to move away from it."

"OK," says Katniss. "Think you could make it to the lake?"

"Think I better try."

We crawl and scoot our way down to the horn of the Cornucopia, then slide to the ground. Katniss helps me up and my left leg is useless at this point - again - so she supports me as we walk back to the lake. She brings me water out of her hand, and I suck on it gratefully.

The hovercraft suddenly appears, and it extracts Cato's body from the mouth of the cornucopia. We watch it go - an unrecognizable mess of torn clothing and flesh stripped down. Contradictory memories flash through my mind. The handsome gladiator of the tribute parade. The cruel killer of the woods. The rage. The pathetic end.

The hovercraft disappears and there is still silence. Not silence, really - I have just become attuned to the sounds of the wood. When I pay attention, I can hear the mockingjays pick up their song again, and the other early morning birds. Plaintive mourning doves and chirruping larks. But from the Capitol, from the Gamemakers, from Panem, there is no sound. If the hovercraft had not appeared, I might be prepared to believe that they have ceased to exist. It is so easy to forget the real world in this simulated one. "What are they waiting for?" I wonder aloud.

"I don't know," she says. She looks down at my leg and frowns. She gets up and hunts around the grass. I'm puzzled by what she's doing until I see she has found an arrow. She has just turned back to me when we hear a voice: Claudius Templesmith, without trumpets.

"Greetings to the final contestants of the Seventy-fourth Hunger Games. The earlier revision has been revoked. Closer examination of the rule book has disclosed that only one winner may be allowed. Good luck and may the odds be ever in your favor."

There's a split second to think everything in the world. I see Katniss' face as she registers the meaning of this announcement, and my mind races. I don't know for sure who they mean to survive … oh - yes, I do. They waited until she was armed again. And I'm on the ground, with only this knife that isn't even my natural weapon. How deliciously cruel a storyline they have given me, I realize; now I see the conclusion of the script. To let me go to the brink of death, to bring her to me and give me hope and life again - all for the sick amusement of the audience - only to have me die at their pleasure, after all. And, even crueler, have it done by her hand. Or goad me into turning against her at the end.

"If you think about it, it's not that surprising," I say, half to myself. I struggle up to my feet and pull the knife from my belt. She gasps, but I throw the knife into the lake, irretrievable. They don't own me; they don't have the use of my hands. Only one person owns me. I look at her and see - fittingly enough - the arrow pointed at my heart.

She drops both arrow and bow and lets them fall to the ground.

"No," I say. "Do it."

I hobble over to her. I collect her weapons and put them back in her hands.

"I can't! I won't."

"Do it," I insist. "Before they send those mutts back, or something. I don't want to die like Cato."

"Then you shoot me!" she says angrily, shoving the bow back to me. "You shoot me and go home and live with it!"

"You know I can't," I say, gently. I drop the bow and arrow, and they lie between us. A final dilemma. Then I remember, all I need to die is to not be saved. "Fine. I'll go first anyway." I rip the bandage off my leg and let the blood flow freely.

"No, you can't kill yourself," she says desperately. She kneels down and tries to reverse my work, but I step back.

"Katniss, it's what I want."

"You're not leaving me here alone!"

I pause, knowing how I would feel to be left by myself here in the space between the final kill and the appearance of the hovercraft. But that is just a small moment in time, compared to all the life she has left to live. I pull her to her feet and clasp her upper arms as firmly as I can muster. "Listen to me. We both know they have to have a victor. It can only be one of us. Please, take it. For me." I think about the cave, and all I had planned to tell her. All that I wish I had told her before. "I need you to know, I'm not sorry. I've liked you for such a long time, and I've fallen in love with you, Katniss. What would be the point of me going home without you? And you think I could kill you? Let me bleed out, and it will be the Gamemakers' hands, not yours, if that's what you want. Stay with me, while I go. And then you can go home. Please, Katniss."

But her gaunt, gray face has frozen into that set expression. Closed off, careful, determined - defiant. I think of her anger at Thresh's death and know, without flattering myself, that it will be tenfold at mine. It will live with her - for a while, at least.

She reaches down to her belt and pulls off a leather pouch. For a moment, I'm confused, then I realize what she's doing. I grab her wrist. "No, I won't let you."

Her silver eyes meet mine, in a look meant just for me. "Trust me," she whispers, as if she doesn't want anyone but me to hear her. I hesitate ... but I do, I trust the look in her eyes. If she's figured something out … if she simply needs to make her own choice…. So I let her go.

She grabs my hand and pours a handful of the nightlock berries into it. Then she pours a handful out for herself. My hair stands up on my arms as I realize what exactly she intends. Now, she's making the Gamemakers choose. To let us both live or to watch us both die. I look at her and I am on the cusp of a decision myself. I could throw the berries in my mouth now, hoping the Gamemakers snatch her back up to the Capitol before she can follow me. Or I can follow her. Let my death and hers be a statement - of love, a little; of defiance, a little. Of refusing, at last, to play the game.

There's something different about her right now, something otherworldly, something – great. I've always known it. She's too good for Panem. But right now everything she is on the inside - grim, determined, inflexible – is right out in the open. And I'm going to do what she says. My nod to her is barely perceptible; it's just for her.

"On the count of three?"

I bend down and give her one last kiss. "The count of three."

She locks her free hand in mine, but turns away from me, and we stand back to back.

"Hold them out," I croak. "I want everyone to see." If they want a dramatic finish, they will get one, and it will be unforgettable. She will never be forgotten.

She pauses, then squeezes my hand. She is ready. "One."

I close my eyes. I deliberately bring to mind a vision of her, touching her hands to my cheek.

"Two."

I think of her, crouching in my backyard, in the rain.

"Three."

I open my eyes and blink in the sunlight as I bring the berries to my mouth. My lips touch the cold skin of the berries.

Then the trumpets blare.

"Stop! Stop! Ladies and gentlemen, I am pleased to present the victors of the Seventy-fourth Hunger Games, Katniss Everdeen and Peeta Mellark! I give you - the tributes of District Twelve!"

Chapter 23: Chapter Twenty-Two

Chapter Text

Chapter Twenty-Two

I throw the berries from my hand. This could be another trick, but I'll worry about that later. Katniss is still alive. I turn to her and see she is wiping her tongue with her sleeve - I pull her over to the lake so we can flush our mouths with water.

"You didn't swallow any?" she asks.

I shake my head. "You?"

"Guess I'd be dead now, if I did," she says, her eyes widening.

"Do you think this is really -" I start to say, but suddenly the air is rent open by noise. We can hear a raucously cheering crowd being piped in. And then a hovercraft materializes overhead and two ladders descend.

Katniss stands, helps me to my feet and places my foot on the first rung of a ladder. I grip the ladder sides with both hands - my knuckles, I notice curiously, are blue, and not just with the berry stains. Katniss doesn't go to the other ladder. She goes to the other side of mine and stands with me on the bottom rung, one hand clutching the ladder, the other clutching me. The electric current freezes us, and the tingling sensation rushes up my toes, up my right leg and to my chest and -.

- I jolt awake, and start screaming.

The room is dark and strange. Multicolored lights watch me like the eyes of wild animals. The pain in my left leg is so piercing and intense, I have never felt anything like it before. Not Cato's sword nor the wolf mutt's teeth felt like this. I wave my arms, trying to reach down for my leg, but I'm either restrained or so weak that I can't accomplish it.

My heart starts making an audible noise - a strange, mechanical beeping - and a cold, numbing sensation washes over my entire body. The pain goes away, but I'm nerveless and disembodied. Who am I? I wonder.

Footsteps. Then a door opens, letting a small light in - but it's too bright, anyway, and I put a defensive arm over my eyes. "No!"

"Peeta, Peeta. Shh."

Haymitch.

I slowly remove my arm and look. It is Haymitch, for real, and with him some mysterious people dressed in white coats. But I'm not convinced there is a world that isn't a wood-encircled plain, with a stream that rushes by the rock cave that is my home. Especially since Katniss isn't here.

"Katniss?"

Haymitch approaches me and he smiles, but his eyes are worried. "Katniss is fine. She's here, but recovering."

"Recovering? From what?"

"From the arena. She's being fed, rehydrated. Made pretty again," he adds with a touch of sarcasm.

I shake my head. I never saw anyone as beautiful as the emaciated, gray-faced girl who offered me death in the palm of her hands. "Am I alive?" I ask him earnestly.

"You're both alive. Good job, boy."

I blink. "Was it?" I ask, thinking of corpses.

"You had your moments," he says. "Look, boy, you're going to be fine, but - there is something ….."

One of the white-coated strangers steps up at this point. "Mr. Abernathy!" she protests.

"What? You're not going to tell him? How are you going to pull that one off?"

"Tell me what?"

The woman looks daggers at Haymitch. "There is a process. You don't just tell someone…."

"Tell me what?"

"I'm Dr. Nero, head of your psych and physical therapy team," says the woman. "I'm sorry to have to tell you -"

"Out," says Haymitch, abruptly. "Out - all of you. I'll handle it."

A few more objections, but Haymitch apparently has a certain amount of authority, at least over me, and soon we're alone.

"What is it?" I ask anxiously.

He sighs. "I like the lighting in here - it's nice and dark. So - you got out by the skin of your teeth, son," he says.

"And?"

"Your heart stopped on the hovercraft, which was not the best place for a medical emergency. But they managed to pull you through. You're not the first Victor who they've nearly lost between the arena and the Capitol - but that may have been the closest shave I've ever seen."

"Is there something wrong with my heart?" I ask.

"Nothing unusual. Shock and trauma - unique to your arena experience, hopefully, and not something to worry about now. Count yourself lucky - also count your blessings that someone on the hovercraft didn't decide to do what the Gamemakers couldn't - and ensure only one Victor came back to the Capitol."

I frown. Haymitch's tone is very quiet and very solemn. Yes, the Gamemakers made a mess of everything - what am I supposed to do with any of that? But this still doesn't explain …. "Haymitch, I don't get it. If there's nothing wrong with my heart, what's the big problem no one wants to tell me?"

He pauses. "They couldn't save your leg."

"What? My - what?!" I reach down, run my hands over both my thighs. "I don't understand, I -."

"Lower left leg, Peeta. The tourniquet saved your life, but it was on too long, and - Peeta - leave it for now…."

"But I can feel it!" I cry. "It hurt - like crazy - it hurt!"

He grabs my arms as I start to flail about and the heart monitor starts to beat ominously. "Leave it! It's called phantom leg syndrome - I've seen it time after time back home. For awhile, your brain will think it is there - it should be there - and send pain, like a distress signal to the spot in your head where the pain should be. This won't last."

I start gasping for breath.

"Keep still, boy," Haymitch insists grittily against my face. 'Keep still."

Alone again in the dark, I try not to shiver. How will I wrestle? I wonder. How will I run?

What will Katniss think about it?

Wait a minute ... I will never wrestle again, I will never run. When will they give me my crutches? That's what the miners use - yes, Haymitch is right, there are many such in Twelve: the injured miners who beg on corners. And I had never given them much thought aside from vague feelings of pity.

I am fed, wheeled to the bathroom. It is dark and quiet in this hospital - the corridors are steely and unfriendly; nothing like the crisp, white, high-tech institutions I have seen on Capitol television. Hardly anybody bothers to talk to me, and when they do, they come in to sit beside me and ask me strange questions.

"Do you find yourself experiencing uncontrollable moods? Depression? Anger? Resentment?"

"Prior to your visit to the Capitol, have you ever experienced uncontrollable moods? Depression? Anger? Resentment?"

"What is your earliest memory of your mother? Is that memory angry, sad, happy or neutral?"

"What is your earliest memory of your father? Is that memory …."

What are the Hunger Games?

Why did she want a coal miner if she could've had you?

'Haymitch," I ask one morning. "Do the nightmares ever stop?"

He laughs grimly. "For some people, maybe they do. But you're alive to have them. Consider that."

I do. Maybe he's right. "Thank you, Haymitch. I owe you more than I can ever repay."

"I don't deal in borrowing or lending," he replies sourly. "I do my job, that's all. Which is yours, now, I suppose. And hers."

"When can I see her?"

He shakes his head. "They want to save your reunion for recap night."

"Is there something you're not telling me? Is she actually OK?"

We're interrupted by some of the hospital staff. They've come with my wheelchair, and since I'm immobile and helpless, I passively let them lift me into it.

"She's fine," Haymitch assures me as I'm wheeled out of the room. "Trust me."

I'm taken around a few corners and past a familiar-looking elevator to a cluttered office where I'm fitted with a prosthetic leg.

This being a Capitol prosthetic, it is not a simple stump, such as the district amputees get. This is a fully-synthetic replacement for my missing leg: it suctions like magic to the end of my real limb. The titanium leg is encased in a soft, flesh-like shell. The foot has a complicated structure of joints and springs that will provide some realistic give against the ground when I learn to walk on it.

Back in my room, Haymitch has been replaced by one of the psychiatrists who keep trying to get me to confess to some kind of deep-seeded anger against someone, anyone.

"What is the nature of your resentment? Resentment toward your parents? Resentment toward your mentor? Resentment toward your district partner? Resentment toward the Capitol?"

"I'm alive," I say, carefully, remembering Haymitch's vague pseudo-warning about how I'm basically a spare Victor. "For which I am nothing but grateful." My tone is cool, but it's the best I can manage.

"Medications are available to you for anxiety, depression, suicidal ideation. Further treatments are available to counter paranoia, schizophrenia, sexual pathology and sociopathy."

"I don't, I - I'm fine. I'm fine. I'll be fine once I'm home."

I feel neither believed nor listened to, but eventually the psychiatrist leaves and is replaced by Portia - and I make a choking sound of delight.

"Peeta!" she exclaims, coming over to give me a hug.

"Portia! I never thought I'd see you again."

She puts her forehead against mine. She doesn't congratulate me or say that I did a good job or mention my leg, or anything like that. After a moment she withdraws from me and says, "I can't believe you found a way to sketch in the arena."

I smile.

"Recap show is tonight," she says softly. "When I come back with the girls, you'll be getting dressed and I'll take you to the city circle."

At last.

"It's good to see you again, Peeta," she says, as she leaves.

Next, an older woman - mute, an Avox - comes in and helps me walk around the room. It's hard, at first, to try to put weight on it; it feels so unnatural, so I put too much weight on my whole leg and my gait is loud and uneven. I guess it's a good thing I no longer have to be quiet and agile in an arena. After a bit, I am able to hobble around with the help of a cane. I feel ... broken.

Calla, Julia and Antonia come straight to my hospital room and flutter over the prosthetic, divided in opinion about it. Antonia admires the realism; she thinks it might be better, in the long run, than my actual leg. Calla pinches her mouth at such talk, and Julia has periodic fits of the giggles. She gives me a much-needed manicure, while Portia shoots me a sympathetic glance from the corner. After they're done, she helps me into a black suit with a silky shirt in a soft yellow.

I grab my cane and follow her to an elevator, and it's then I realize that this 'hospital' is actually just the sub-basement of the training center, right underneath the gym. We go two floors up to the ground floor, but instead of walking out the front - toward the lights and the crowds - we go through to the back of the building, in the same direction that Portia took me for bandages the night before the games began. From there, we exit the building from the back - I breathe in, finally, the true air of the real world, and look up at the first glints of the real stars. A back alley leads to the back of the stage. Underneath the stage is a plain wooden room with a metal disk set in it.

"You stand here, Peeta," directs Portia. "Katniss is on the other side." She points to a wall. "We'll be introduced first, along with Haymitch and Effie, then you and Katniss will be lifted to the stage at the same time. Obviously, there is no protocol for two victors greeting each other at this point, but I think everyone would agree that spontaneity will - play well."

"Got it," I nod, stepping on the plate. Vivid images flash before me - so vivid, it's as if I'm still there - looking around the plain for Katniss, digging up mines with the careers. Portia and the prep team leave and I stand still, waiting. This is the dream, I think fuzzily. The Capitol is scaffolding and paint. The arena was real.

The anthem sounds, and Caesar is announced. He is jovial and the crowd is screaming with anticipation. Both prep teams are called up to the stage and congratulated. Then Effie. Then Haymitch, brought out to thunderous applause. From swan-diving off the stage to bringing two victors in to the finish line - he's had himself quite a Games.

I wonder how much applause is going on among the Gamemakers now. Even after several days to come to terms with it, I still can't quite believe that I'm here. Between the choice of no or two winners of the games, I'm genuinely surprised they went for two. That sets a dangerous precedent. Something to be countered, something to be avoided in future games. How will they go about that? I wonder uneasily. What happens to the Games when a fake pair of lovers exploits a weakness in a fake set of rules? If I were a mentor, I'd be planning right now on how best to pander to Capitol sentimentality next year … oh shit, hold on a minute. I am one.

But then the stage is parting above my head and the metal plate lifts me up on to the stage, to face the crowds in the streets. I try to adjust my eyes to the bright lights, and I turn, confused, looking for Katniss.

She's standing a few yards from me. For a moment, she and I just stare at each other. She's so much rounder and cleaner than the last time I saw her. Her pale yellow dress and her long, loose, glossy hair, pulled back behind her ears, make her look a lot younger, too. She's the Capitol version of herself, not the slim, earthy huntress of the arena.

She leaps across the stage and throws her arms around me, slightly knocking me off balance. But I recover and I throw my free hand around her and start kissing her. Once I start, once I press against her glossy lips, spontaneity takes over - I have to go in for another, and another, and another. Her face is at once filled with longing and anxiety, but her eyes glint at me and her hands are so tight on me, I don't think she has any intention of letting go. At some point, Caesar makes an attempt to separate us, but I push him back. The kisses grow longer and more intimate, until Haymitch finally interrupts a lingering embrace, saying "OK, you two, we haven't got all night."

The crowd - which I honestly haven't heard all this time - is erupting in screams and chants and hollers. We really are crowd favorites. Maybe our lives can be the symbol that our deaths weren't - maybe the Capitol can get the idea that love can be more entertaining than murder.

Death's easier to manufacture, of course, I remind myself as I take a seat next to Katniss on a plush red couch. She folds her legs up under her and leans in against me. Caesar tells a couple of jokes then dives right in.

Among the many things I never considered before is how excruciating this part must be for the victors. There is absolutely nothing about the Games I want to see again. And what makes it even worse is that the whole thing has been edited down to three hours of highly-stylized melodrama, complete with a soundtrack. They show the Reaping - sad music plays over sweeping shots of District 12 that somehow make it look even uglier than it is - then the chariot ride, the announcement of our training scores and highlights from our interviews.

Once the footage of the arena begins, the focus is largely on me, and I'm taken aback, at first, until I realize that they are specifically emphasizing all the times I mentioned Katniss, or otherwise made it clear that I was double-crossing the Careers. They are telling a love story, and I'm the only one really maintaining it for the first half of the Games. I squirm internally at each scene. My breathless whispers for Katniss look beyond phony; my formless plan to get the bow to her seems pathetic; I look so consistently frightened and hesitant that at times I silently root for Clove to stick a knife in the boy on the screen.

Katniss, on the other hand, looks self-possessed and determined. I see her almost die of thirst, almost get killed by fireballs, and finally confront the Careers. I see my leg get stuck again by Cato, and then watch myself zig zag through the woods until I come upon the stream. I'm grateful that any one-sided conversations that I might have had during the early part of the tracker jacker hallucinations were either edited out or were completely manufactured by my imagination.

From that point, the screen time moves firmly to Katniss, with occasional shots of me slowly dying in the earth. I learn that even in my sleep I kept on whispering her name out for the cameras. But now - and more interestingly - I get to see Katniss' alliance with Rue develop and Katniss blowing up the Career pile. Rue dies, and Katniss sings to her. Then it cuts to the announcement of the rule change, and Katniss cries my name out in what can only be described as spontaneous joy.

The final hour of the recap is given over to her finding me and nursing me back to health, highlighted by our conversations and kisses in the cave (overlaid with sappy music), so that anyone watching would think we flirted with each other nonstop. All those lonely watches we took while the other slept are nowhere to be found.

But who am I kidding? - I'm as intrigued by this portion of the program as anyone else. I study it curiously. Objectively, I can see in my face that I am besotted. Katniss is more cautious. Confused, occasionally intrigued. By the time we get to the Cornucopia, there's no question that she desperately did not want me to die. There's also no question that she responded to my kisses. Somewhere between those two things, I think I can form a picture for the future.

The final shots of the recap are things I don't remember - me passing out in the hovercraft and being worked on frantically, Katniss screaming my name as she watches them attempt to revive me. The fear in her voice is ten times more convincing than my wistful glances at her in the cave; at the end it is her, not me, delivering on the plot of the star-crossed lovers.

I glance at her and find her looking at me, steadily. I just smile at her and mouth a 'thank you' as the lights go up.

Chapter 24: Chapter Twenty-Three

Chapter Text

Chapter Twenty-three

The anthem of Panem plays - that sickening herald of death - and we rise accordingly. I recall keenly that horrific feeling of looking up at the sky, afraid to see the faces - but aware, just under the surface, that each face in the sky moves you closer to the end of the arena. And the self-loathing that accompanies that feeling.

Hopefully, my face is a mask - I think it is - because President Coriolanus Snow himself is now mounting the stage. He is followed by a small girl who carries a single crown on a pillow.

Of course, there is no protocol for a double-coronation. I watch Snow carefully and, although he is quite small - surprisingly short as well as somewhat frail - my fear in his presence is consequential. I have an irrational (or perhaps rational, actually) fear that he will make a final decision, here and now, between Katniss and me. Obviously, there can not be more than one winner … but my fears dissolve as he makes a show of taking the one crown, holding it up for the audience, and giving it a dramatic twist until it splits neatly into two halves - two silver coronets instead of one crown.

He himself places the coronets on our heads - me second. I stand stiffly - respectfully, I hope - and I hear him murmur some words of congratulations - though I can't make them out, since they are drowned out by the noise from the crowd. He has been backed into a corner - it seems - and he may not like it but here we are, adored by the mobs. No wonder the Gamemakers couldn't kill us. Public feeling would have risen against them.

No - they will ride it out until the crowd stops caring. Which, eventually it will; it always does. What happens then - who knows? Something to worry about later. By next July, the Games will go back to normal, no lasting harm done to the Capitol's brand.

I find myself waving and smiling, waving and smiling, as the ceremony draws to a close and the crowd gives its final ovation. It feels like hours before Caesar Flickerman blows his final kisses to the audience, reminding them to tune in to the final interviews tomorrow night.

The stage abruptly darkens and Katniss grabs my hand. Our night is not over. Effie arrives to whisk us right off the back of the stage and up the stairs to the president's mansion, which serves as the backdrop. An enormous banquet is set up just inside the mansion, occupying an enormous open reception room. Katniss and I are set up at our own table at one end of the room, while food is served to us in courses - food we can never quite eat because of the people coming up to greet us. Effie quite determinedly keeps this line of people moving. There are sponsors to thank, important citizens to greet, fans with whom we are expected to pose for pictures.

Every once in a while, I can sip a bit of soup or eat a piece of roll, but it's a lost cause, mainly. Under the tablecloth, on my lap, Katniss' right hand is locked tight around my left.

Just as the crowd is starting to thin, staggering home drunk as the late night stretches into early morning, and I'm at last able to eat a couple of bites of beef, Effie taps Katniss on the shoulder and says it's finally time to be off. We leave the mansion and cross the circle - already bereft of its stage, put away until next year's Hunger Games - to the training center. It's dawn, and I'm not even tired - my eyes seem ratcheted right open.

We ascend to the 12th floor and I think, horribly, how we are now the only occupants of this building. It still doesn't seem real - even after seeing it again on film: in fact, the thick production values of the recap film make the whole thing feel completely fictional, in retrospect. What if none of them were real? Cato and Clove. Bet and Rue. Thresh and Foxface. That girl - damn it, I still don't even know her name - who died in the trees.

When we get off the elevator, I turn to Katniss and start to say something - anything - but Haymitch sends me off to my room with Portia.

"What?" I ask her, as my door closes behind us.

"What do you mean?" she smiles. "I just want to see if red suits you," she adds, pulling some red fabric swatches from somewhere.

After she leaves, I shower and change, then head to my door. Katniss will meet me on the roof - I'm almost certain of it. But my door is locked, and I can't open it.

I think of pounding on it and demanding to be let out, but I don't follow through. Nothing that has been done by Haymitch and the stylists has been random. I'm guessing they - like me - aren't sure what Katniss will actually say to me - how she will actually act toward me - once she feels safe from the cameras. I'm guessing they - very much unlike me - want to wait to get her out of the Capitol before finding out.

I'm frankly not worried. I just want to kiss her, once, out of the view of anyone, let alone the entire country. I'm pretty sure I'll know then what I need to know.

Portia and the prep team wake me up in the early afternoon. I am wearing a white suit with a red shirt today. If I'd had the choosing, this is not a look that I would select for myself, but Portia's instincts are better, and I look - I'm sure I look good for the Capitol viewers, anyway. This is a popular style in the Capitol right now, kind of breezy, kind of confidant and casual. Cocky. I can practically visualize Cato in it (oh, fuck, Cato and his mangled body ….).

I go down the hall to the sitting room and see it transformed. For one thing, Caesar himself is here, looking larger than usual and fully out of place. The little red couch we sat on last night has been placed in the room and some cameras are pointed at it from several angles. Vases of red and pink flowers surround the sofa.

Katniss is talking to Caesar. She's wearing a gauzy white dress and flat pink shoes. She's dressed like a little girl; all I can think about are Reaping dresses.

I pull her aside. "I hardly get to see you," I say, trying not to sound petulant. "Haymitch seems bent on keeping us apart."

"Yes, he's gotten very responsible lately," she murmurs.

"Well, there's just this and then we go home. Then he can't watch us all the time."

She responds with a noncommittal smile.

We sit together on the couch, stiffly, and Caesar says, "Go ahead and curl up next to him if you want. It looked very sweet."

Katniss relaxes and, tucking her feet up underneath her, she leans toward me and I pull her in.

Shortly after, we're live and Caesar is smiling and leading, as always, with jokes. "So, Peeta, does the decor remind you of anything?" he says, sweeping his hand over the room.

"Oh!" I say. "Roses, yes. I missed that smell. After weeks of no showers, I definitely regretted any bad thing I ever thought about the ones here."

"You certainly spent your fair share of the games in dirt."

I give a chuckle that feels wrong on all levels. That's one way to describe my burying myself in the ground to wait for death. I remind myself that I'm supposed to be appreciative and gracious. After all, I'm the one who was supposed to die. "Well," I say, "maybe next time I get in a sword fight there will be showers nearby."

"And you, Katniss - speaking of mud, I'll never forget the sigh of relief we felt across Panem when you finally found water. That - was - excruciating."

Katniss stiffens. I can almost read her mind. "It was no picnic for me, either," she says, and I can feel her struggle to maintain a neutral tone.

"Oh, and speaking of picnics! The lamb stew, eh? It doesn't hurt to be honest with Caesar Flickerman, that's what that goes to show."

Katniss has nothing to say to that, so I say, "That was a lifesaver, for sure."

"I have to say, we have never, never seen anything in the history of the Hunger Games equal to the days you spent in the cave. Do you have any idea how riveting that was?"

I smile thinly. There are some things I won't joke about no matter how badly the Capitol wants it. "I - it is difficult to say," I tell him. "Honestly - at the time - I wasn't thinking about the audience."

Caesar's smile spreads over his face; it's an unpleasant grin. "Oh, that I can imagine, yes," he tells me, winking. I squirm internally.

"But of course," I soldier on, "for me it was also - as you say - riveting."

"Well, Peeta, we know from those days in the cave that it was love at first sight for you from what, age five?"

This is steadier ground. "From the moment I laid eyes on her."

"But Katniss, what a ride for you. I think the real excitement for the audience was watching you fall for him. When did you realize you were in love with him?"

I feel Katniss give a little jolt next to me and I glance at her; I have a hard time imagining her giving any kind of answer to this type of question. In fact, she gives a faint, embarrassed laugh and looks down at her hands. "Oh, that's a hard one…."

Caesar steps hastily in. "Well, I know when it hit me. The night when you shouted his name from that tree."

"Yes," she agrees thoughtfully. "I guess that was it. I mean, until that point, I just tried not to think about what my feelings might be, honestly, because it was so confusing and it only made things worse if I actually cared about him. But then, in the tree, everything changed."

I look down at the top of her head and think, well, that's true, anyway. Does … she ... love me? I'm not sure about that; she hasn't said it, and it's a bit annoying to have Caesar say it for her, now that I think about it. Our whole relationship has been put together backwards.

"Why do you think that was?" asks Caesar.

"Maybe - because for the first time - there was a chance I could keep him."

I feel my smile split my face. It is both the perfectly politic - perfectly strategic - thing to say, and also pretty much the most wonderful thing anyone has ever said about me. I press my face against her temple, breathe in the exotic scent of her soft hair, and ask, "Now that you've got me, what are you going to do with me?"

She turns her head so that our foreheads touch. She closes her eyes. "Put you somewhere you can't get hurt," she replies, steadily.

I seek out her lips. They taste like her hair smells.

"He might need that help," says Caesar lightly. "Considering his propensity for serious wounds. Both of you, really." He lists off our various injuries in such a way that I imagine they are inserting some footage from the arena behind his words. "And those mutts, which were among the more amazing inventions I've seen yet," he finishes.

Caesar looks at me and I say "ouch" because I can't think of any other response to his praise of those terrifying mutts that took half my leg and somehow combined my old fears of both mutated beasts and mutated children. As if they had even had access to my nightmares.

"How's your new leg working out?" he asks me sympathetically.

Katniss jerks. "New leg?" Apparently, no one told her. She reaches down and pulls up the bottom of my pants. I suppress the instinct to draw away from her. "Oh, no," she breathes, almost to herself, as she touches it.

"No one told you?" asks Caesar.

"I haven't had the chance," I say, with a shrug. It occurs to me that this is the first time the audience will be learning this as well, unless they actually filmed or recapped the operation. I suppose they probably did. For the first time in ages, I think about my family and friends, watching this now. It's strange how remote they feel from me, like I don't belong to them anymore. Like I hardly even belong to myself. This interview is causing me real distress - drawing out real anger - and all I want to do is escape with Katniss to a cave somewhere and shut out the rest of the world. I wonder if this feeling will change - it must change - when I get home.

"It's my fault," says Katniss, fretfully. "Because I used that tourniquet."

"Yes," I reply dryly, "it's your fault I'm alive."

"He's right. He'd have bled to death for sure without it."

In fact I did, really. Katniss looks at me, blinking back tears, and she presses herself into me and buries her face in my chest. This is the first time since we started that I feel comfortable here on this couch. I pat her back and tell her, "It's OK. It's OK." And it's true that her distress makes me feel a little better about the whole situation. Her lack of repulsion over the missing limb is almost the only thing that matters to me.

"Come on, Katniss," adds Caesar gently. "No real harm done, in the end."

After a moment, she straightens up and smiles wanly at me.

"Peeta," says Caesar, "on that. It must have been a difficult night, waiting for Cato to die."

"On - several levels," I respond, wondering where he's going with this.

"The question of victory was still unanswerable at that point."

"Yes, in fact I contemplated my own death pretty thoroughly several times that night, at least when I was lucid enough to do so."

"And then, even when it was done, and just the two of you were left. The final plot twist! When Claudius made that announcement …."

I feel the room grow heavy with sudden tension. I glance beyond Caesar, for a moment, and see Haymitch's gray and gloomy face. He's watching Katniss with narrowed eyes. "Yes, that - was a surprise," I agree vaguely.

"Katniss, I know you've had a shock, but I've got to ask," says Caesar, his voice lowering. He sounds almost gentle. "The moment when you pulled out those berries. What was going on in your mind … hm?"

She pauses, and I know that whatever she's about to say is going to be, at most, a partial truth. Even though I was in a sleep- and blood-deprived fog of half-awareness, I remember the look in her eyes that was meant only for me. That whatever motivations she had for using the berries, they were not for the Capitol to know. "I don't know," she says, finally. "I just - couldn't bear the thought of - being without him."

"Anything to add, Peeta?" asks Caesar.

"No. I think that goes for both of us."

Caesar's expression relaxes and for the first time I understand that he's been guiding this interview very tenderly. Making light of things the Capitol will expect him to make light of - discomfort, wounds, death. Shining a light on my feelings for her, and hers for me - just as the recap of the game itself was edited to be the love story of its Victors. Why? Well, what other story do they have to tell? The two last tributes refusing to kill each other at the end? Katniss challenging the Gamemakers? That would be a bit of a disaster, I suppose. But - they've already let us both survive, split the crown, proceed with our lives. So - for what reason should this interview mean so much to Caesar - to Haymitch, for that matter?

Caesar wraps up the broadcast and I shake my head to clear it of these thoughts. To be honest, it's been exhausting, being forced to confront how I really feel - about her, about the Games, about the Capitol. A month ago, I was a kid in school, just trying to pass my final exams. I can go back to being that kid again, I think, in just a day.

But as I stand, and accept hugs and kisses from Portia and Effie, I realize how ludicrous a thought that is. Nothing of my life will be the same as it was. I'll be moving out of my house, leaving the bakery. I won't even be going back to school. And there's this girl in my life now, the only other person in District 12 who knows what I've been through. There's this girl to - to - what is the best word for it? There's the old-fashioned word - to court, I guess? To convince her to love me as shatteringly as I love her (if that's even possible). But she's already been closer to me - physically, emotionally - than anyone, ever. It just feels like we missed a step somewhere.

On the car ride to the train, this preoccupies my thoughts. We've still never kissed when it wasn't on camera. Maybe it's time to roll things back to amend that. Once upon a time, my fears of being Reaped - and, let's be honest, my awe and self-doubt - kept me from being able to work myself up to approaching her. But, I'm a different person now.

After dinner on the train with Haymitch and Effie, Katniss and I sit together and it's just natural to have my arm around her. She's not talkative - she's got that old look on her face, thoughtful and set, unreadable. When the train takes a fuel stop, I ask her if she wants to go outside.

Nobody seems to mind when we step off the train and go out into the free air. I don't know what district we're in, or even if we are in any district. There's just a lot of flat ground - thin, gray-green grass as far as the eyes can see. Looking back the tracks in the direction we've come, I can see, I think, the smudge of the mountain range that walls in the Capitol. But, it's far, far away. Finally, we're alone, for the first time since the arena. No - really, for the first time ever.

We walk along the train tracks in silence for a while, hand in hand, and I marvel at how wide and empty the world is. Then I look down and see something that makes me smile. Their heads bent low, some humble pink and white flowers with ragged petals grow along the tracks. They're not as stylish or aromatic as the roses, but we're not either - at least, not anymore. I stop to pick a bunch and I give them to her, hoping they will speak for me. About all of it. About our humble origins and the wilds of our home. About how pretty things still manage to push up through even barren environments. About how I'm a boy who likes a girl. All of it.

She smiles and smiles - though without quite losing the worried glint in her eyes.

"What's wrong?"

"Nothing."

We pass the back of the train now, and we stop. It's a little strange standing here in a world without boundaries, so we make our own, unwilling to leave the company of the train. I've just made up my mind to say something when Haymitch suddenly appears, comes right up to us and lays his hands on our backs. It's a gentle, but insistent, pressure. We're not on our own yet.

"Great job, you two," he says out of the corner of his mouth. "Just keep it up in 12 until the cameras are gone. We should be OK." Then he leaves, as quickly as he came.

I look at Katniss, but she makes a point of watching Haymitch until he gets back on the train. When she finally looks back to me, she avoids my eyes. And at long last - after a long delay; a delay I know, in my heart, I encouraged - the alarm bells go off. "What's he mean?" I ask, feeling in general like I'm walking off a cliff.

"It's the Capitol," she says, slowly. "They didn't like our stunt with the berries."

"What are you talking about?" I ask.

"It seemed too rebellious. So, Haymitch has been coaching me through the last few days. So I didn't make it worse."

"Coaching you? But not me." I think over the last few days. What behavior was 'coached?' Her hurling herself at me on the stage? Her curling into me earlier during the interview? Even her distress at my injury? Now I feel not so much like I'm falling, but like I've landed, and hard.

"He knew you were smart enough to get it right."

No, no, I won't have that. First of all, I wasn't smart - clearly. Secondly, no. She might have been putting up an act, but she's not going to distill everything I did and said and felt and experienced down to the same. "I didn't know there was anything to get right," I manage to say. Then I take a deep breath and ask the question that maybe a prior version of me would not have been brave enough to ask. "So, what you're saying is, these last few days and then I guess … back in the arena … that was just some strategy you two worked out?" As the words come out, I take a moment to appreciate Haymitch's craftiness, but that moment gets buried in an immense wave of depression.

"No," she replies. "I mean, I couldn't even talk to him in the arena, could I?"

"But you knew what he wanted you to do, didn't you?" Somehow, I think, even if it was all a fiction, it will be easier for me to take if it originated with her. "Katniss?" Then I remember that the 'fiction' actually originated with me and I drop her hand. Katniss can't act, said Haymitch. And I am such an amazing fool. "It was all for the Games. How you acted."

"Not all of it," she says, cruelly giving me a tiny shred of hope to cling to.

"Then how much?" I ask, then realize I can't trust anything she says right now, anyway. What is real, what she says to be kind - there would be no way to tell. "No, forget that. I guess the real question is what's going to be left when we get home?"

"I don't know. The closer we get to District 12, the more confused I get," she says, and there is a pained - or pitying - look in her eyes as she stares at me.

It's on the tip of my tongue to ask if the confusion is all me - or if it is Gale. Or both of us. But there's no way to ask that question without sounding like an ass, and she doesn't clarify, so I just say, trying to sound indifferent and failing completely, "Well, let me know when you work it out."

I walk back to the train by myself and go back to my room, lie down on the bed, and contemplate the most recent change in my circumstances. Although sadness presses all around me, my eyes are dry, and deep inside, there's almost a completely blank feeling. I can't remember the last time I cried - I feel like it was before the arena. I wonder if the Games wounded that part of me that lets grief flow out that way. "Man up." I hear my mother's voice, suddenly. Well, there you go.

I find myself dreading meeting my mother. The way we parted. The things I did and said in the arena - kissing this Seam girl, bringing up my dad's first love. Yes, there are things I had to do and say there - to survive. Hurting people on the outside - people who were safe from the more immediate threat of death - was one more sacrifice to make to the Capitol. As Katniss knows. If there is or was anything between her and Gale, I realize, she's got a lot of work to do to smooth over all the things she said and did to me.

I spend a while daydreaming that bit - the things she said and did…. I fall asleep on these thoughts, but my sleep is not as pleasant.

Nightmares come, predictably, and they are worse than they've ever been. I find myself walking in a tangled darkness, approaching a fire in the woods. Then I hear the animal sound - the snuffling, the hoarse call - of the mutts. I know I can't run, so I turn around to take a stand. She jumps out of the tree and she lands on four feet, but rises on two - a strange creature, with mottled fur and silver eyes - both dark and bright at once. Her claws are her weapons, not the bow and arrow, and she falls on me with them, and tears the flesh of my leg. Up high on my thigh. Down low, below my knee. Then the creature is gone, and Katniss is kneeling over me, with a look of concern I can no longer trust. She has something in her hands.

Close your eyes.

And I obey her and darkness settles over my dream.

Trust me.

But I blink and there's a rope around my neck, now. And I can't ask her the questions that need to be asked - nor can I make the demand that needs to be made: leave me alone.

I'm frozen on the ground. I can't move.

I wake up that way, my body frozen in place. For a moment, it's as if I'm missing all my limbs, and then my blood starts to flow again, with a painful kind of tingle, and my breath comes out of me, ragged and frantic. My heart is racing.

It was a nightmare, I remind myself in the darkness, listening to the metallic zing of the train's movement over the tracks. I can't start thinking this way. I have to keep things in perspective. I have to remember that we were nearly strangers, thrown together in a situation impossible to imagine. That she saved my life, and she didn't have to. That what is true today, in this moment, may not be true next month, next year, five, ten, fifteen years from now. I might fall in love with someone else - Caesar was right, there will be plenty of takers now, if I want - Katniss might feel differently about me later. Who knows? The only thing I can do right now is concentrate on the job at hand, and remember that there will still be Capitol cameras when we get home, at least long enough to record our loving return to District 12.

I can't get back to sleep, so I sneak out at dawn for some hot chocolate and sweet rolls, then return to my car and take a series of fitful naps. My mind seems to fear sleep now, after the nightmare, and I keep waking up before dreams can come.

When we cross the fence of District 12, I'm still tired and depressed. I can't scare up any excitement or happiness at the thought of home. I wish Haymitch had waited until after our arrival - and whatever celebrations accompany it - before saying anything, because I truly doubt my ability to pull off any kind of act. When I come out to the dining car and see Katniss already peering out the window, the light of home on her face, it's only a sense of defeat that comes to me. She looks at me - eager, concerned, puzzled, exasperated - all these things at once. She is confused. That part isn't a lie, or an act. I wasn't a part of her old life, and she doesn't know what to do with me now, where to put me and my love for her, and the kisses she's not entirely indifferent to, and the things we lived through that nobody else can understand.

She turns back to the window with a little gasp as the train station - so gray, battered and small compared to its Capitol equivalent - approaches. I look, too - I can see the crowd of people surrounding the station. It's not just our families; it might be most of the entire district. They sent us both off to die, but we have both, miraculously, returned. Something real for District 12 to celebrate. And it's not just us. For the next year, even our District will benefit from our victory, as food will come from the Capitol once a month, for every single man, woman and child of District 12. There: perspective.

I reach out my hand, and she looks at me, unsure and apologetic. "One more time? For the audience?"

She takes my hand and grips it tightly, like she did that night on the Cornucopia, keeping me from sliding down into death. It's odd, though, the difference perspective brings. We were allies, then - but playing two different games. We are strangers again, now. It was the arena that was the dream - or the nightmare. Nothing about it was real.

(Video) hunger games deleted scenes that should have stayed in the movie

The End

FAQs

What are some good questions to ask about the Hunger Games? ›

Hunger Games Book Club Discussion
  • What does the future hold for Katniss, Peeta, and Gale?
  • What did you think of Heymitch? ...
  • What do you think is the future of the political structure?
  • Will there be a rebellion? ...
  • Will there be retaliation against Katniss for her actions?
Oct 15, 2008

Who wrote Peetas games? ›

Peeta's Games (Peeta's Games, #1) by igsygrace | Goodreads.

How does Katniss react to Peeta declaration once they are alone? ›

1. How does Katniss react to Peeta's declaration of love? She's angry because she feels he made her look weak. He says Peeta made her look desirable, and that will win her sponsors.

Who does Katniss team up with why do you think she chose this person? ›

Who does Katniss team up with? Why do you think she chose this person? She teams up with Rue because Rue warned her about the tracker jacker nest and helped her heal her wounds from the tacker jackers. Also, Rue gave Katniss a sense of comfort because she reminded her of Prim.

What mental illness does Katniss have in the Hunger Games? ›

Katniss Everdeen, heroine of The Hunger Games series by Suzanne Collins, is said to have PTSD, demonstrated by the psychological effects of her traumatic journey through life.

Why did Katniss say yes to the 76th Hunger Games? ›

4 (Enobaria, Haymitch, Johanna and Katniss)

Katniss was actually revolted by the idea of the Games, but voted in favour in order to make Coin think she was supportive of her. Haymitch seemed to notice this, and voted in favour because of Katniss, which makes her realise that they are very alike after all.

Why does Peeta lose his leg? ›

Peeta's Leg Amputation

You wouldn't have guessed it from the way the film made it appear; however, Peeta's injury was much worse than you thought. It was so bad, the Capitol deemed his leg unsaleable, hacked it off and replaced it with an artificial one. When Caesar asks Peeta how his new leg is working out.

Why is he called Peeta? ›

Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson: Katniss' fellow District 12 tribute comes from a family of bread bakers, and his name is an alternate—or dystopic, if you will—spelling of pita. The humble Peeta stands in contrast to the grandiose Panem, which, as noted above, is Latin for bread.

Why is Gale's name in 42 times? ›

All Gale wants is to keep his family and those close to him safe. By the time he was 18 (the same year "The Hunger Games" takes place), he had put his name into the Reaping 42 times in order to gain extra food for his family and reduce the chance of his three younger siblings being chosen as a District 12 tribute.

Did Peeta really have a crush on Katniss before the Hunger Games? ›

2. Peeta fell in love inside the arena, not before. So Peeta stands on stage and tells the truth: that he's had a crush on Katniss for years. Peeta doesn't confuse a crush for the four-letter word, and neither should we.

Did Peeta have a crush on Katniss before the games? ›

Ever since he was five years old, Peeta had a huge crush on Katniss Everdeen. On the first day of school, Peeta's father pointed her out, saying that he wanted to marry her mother but ultimately didn't as she married a coal miner.

What if Peeta died in the first Hunger Games? ›

Well, if Peeta died, then the whole "star-crossed lovers" thing wouldn't be of any use anymore. The Gamemakers wouldn't announce a change in the rules that would allow 2 tributes from the same district to win, so there could only be 1 victor.

How was Gale linked to Prim's death? ›

Before the Capitol battle, Gale had explained to Katniss his series of bombs designed to feed off human compassion: a small bomb would go off, and then when medical aid rushed in, a second bomb would go off, killing those people as well. Incidentally, it's this exact type of bomb that took Prim's life.

Who does Gale end up with? ›

Katniss was by Gale's side during the treatment and kissed him, which brought Gale back to consciousness. Katniss then decides that Gale is the one she will love.

What does Prim whisper to Katniss? ›

Prim makes Katniss promise that she'll try really hard to win. Katniss doesn't believe that she has any chance of winning because tributes from the wealthy districts have grown up training for the Hunger Games. They see it as an honor to serve as tribute, and tributes from those districts almost always win.

What did Katniss do to Rue when she died? ›

Katniss avenged Rue when Marvel killed her. As a memorial to Rue's death, Katniss covered her in flowers and sang to her until she died, indicating to the Capitol that Rue was not just a piece in their games.

Why is Katniss deaf? ›

Katniss is rendered deaf in one ear after she blows up the Careers' supplies, and she doesn't regain any hearing on her left side until afterwards when the Capitol gives her a hearing aid.

What did Katniss do for Rue as she died? ›

Katniss wreaths Rue's face with flowers and presses the three middle fingers of her left hand against her lips, saying goodbye to Rue. She decides that she will make the Careers pay for Rue's death and gathers her supplies to move on through the woods.

Why did Plutarch smile when Katniss killed coin? ›

In the letter, Plutarch reveals that he is overjoyed that Katniss has killed Coin — that, in fact, Katniss killing Coin was part of Plutarch's plan all along.

What did Katniss name her kids? ›

I just wanted to share with my fellow Hunger Games fandom that I looked up Katniss and Peeta's children's names and Suzanne Collins has in fact confirmed that their daughters name is Willow and their sons name is Rye.

Is Coin evil Hunger Games? ›

She is the President of District 13 and the leader of the rebellion against the Capitol, however it turns out that she is a corrupt and ruthless woman who is in some ways worse than the people she fights, including President Coriolanus Snow.

Why did Peeta paint Rue? ›

Peeta painted Rue's picture to hold the Gamemakers responsible for her death. Seneca Crane was the previous Head Gamemaker, who was executed for allowing two victors.

Was Katniss faking her love for Peeta? ›

Katniss realizes that if she pretends to be in love with Peeta people will want the capitol to let them survive. Katniss has stopped pretending to love him when Snow shows up and tells her he knows she doesn't really love him and that he doesn't want the capitol to know that because that might cause issues.

Why did Cato say he was dead anyway? ›

No purpose, no excitement. Just Dead. Maybe he is just realizing that he could not win and that he knew Katniss would kill him and he could not win without clove. So he kinda just gave up because there was no use in trying to win if he did not get to be with clove in the end.

Why did Peeta get an 8? ›

Peeta Mellark - 8, for physical strength. Katniss Everdeen - 11, for her skill with a bow and arrow and her fierce temper. (Highest training score in the 74th Hunger Games).

What is Effie Trinket's full name? ›

Euphemia (Effie for short) is the most famous member of the Trinket Family. Just like her mother, Euphemia Trinket, she is an escort of District 12. She appears in the films, Capitol Couture, and the books. She is a friend of Katniss, Peeta, Haymitch, and more.

Who is Katniss pregnant by? ›

Katniss and Peeta Mellark's son is the second child of Katniss Everdeen and Peeta Mellark. He has an elder sister, and was born a little more than fifteen years after the Second Rebellion.

Why was Katniss name in 20 times? ›

Poor people often need tesserae to survive, so the children of the poor end up having their names entered numerous times. Katniss, who is sixteen, will have her name in twenty times, and Gale, who is eighteen, will have his in forty-two times.

How many times is Katniss's name in the reaping? ›

It is also cumulative, so Katniss Everdeen, when she was sixteen, had her name put in the glass ball twenty times. Gale Hawthorne, who has five family members including himself, had his name put in the glass ball forty-two times.

Why did Katniss never speak to Gale again? ›

Katniss realizes that she will never again completely trust Gale because of her lingering suspicion about the parachute bombing. Katniss attends a meeting of former Hunger Games victors to debate whether or not every Capitol citizen should be put to death as many rebels want them to be.

Is Cinna In love With Katniss? ›

While Haymitch and Katniss had to figure out their relationship, Cinna and Katniss understood and loved each other from the start.

Does Peeta have a fake leg? ›

He is "broad-shouldered and strong." Part of Peeta's left leg was amputated following the 74th Hunger Games, forcing him to walk with the aid of a prosthetic leg for the rest of his life.

Why did Peeta say Katniss was pregnant? ›

Biography. During the interviews for the 75th Hunger Games, Peeta lied about Katniss being pregnant to try to protect her from the Games, and Katniss later stated that she miscarried due to an electric shock in the arena to avoid further questioning.

Why did Katniss choose Peeta instead of Gale? ›

"Peeta represents comfort to Katniss. Katniss is a warrior at the end of these movies, she's a veteran, she doesn't want excitement, she doesn't want another warrior-hunter, like Gale. "Peeta represents the life that Katniss has sought through all of these movies, it's just peace and a safe family."

What did Katniss do that caused Peeta to fall in love with her? ›

According to the first book, Katniss had a "stirring feeling in her chest" when they kissed, and it made her want another. And when she realized that Peeta's feelings toward her were more than just a tactic to survive, she felt genuinely happy. It might not be love yet, but it seemed to be the first romantic hint.

What does Peeta say to Katniss in bed? ›

Just before the end of The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 2 (2015), Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) wakes from a nightmare and abandons her bed to crawl into a cuddle with her long-time Games partner Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson). As she rests her head on Peeta's chest, he asks her, “You love me.

Would Katniss have survived without Peeta? ›

Katniss says she couldn't have survived without Peeta, and from Peeta's reaction she realizes he remembers giving her the bread those years ago. Haymitch tells them not to reveal their strengths until the private session with the Gamemakers and to be sure they're always seen together.

Who does Katniss think Peeta killed? ›

Summary and Analysis Part 3: Chapter 24. Katniss can tell that Peeta feels bad about unintentionally killing Foxface. As they cook their food, Katniss realizes she hasn't been very nice to Peeta all day, so when he asks to go back to the cave, Katniss aggress even though she doesn't want to make the long trek back.

What if Katniss killed Peeta? ›

What she did with Peeta was an act of defiance that lit a spark of rebellion throughout the district. Killing Peeta would have enabled the status quo — more reapings, continuation of the HG, continued oppression of the districts — and delayed a rebellion for a while.

What were Prim's last words? ›

LAST: "It's okay." Aptly in character, Prim's last line of the series is said almost in passing, but it pays testament to her character nonetheless.

Who is responsible for Prim's death? ›

In Mockingjay, Prim dies from President Coin's bombs and later Katniss votes to have The Games continue.

Who is responsible for Prim's death in The Hunger Games? ›

Katniss learns that Coin considers her expendable; Coin staged a supposed Capitol atrocity which kills Prim, and after the war, calls for a final Hunger Games using the children of the Capitol war criminals. When finally given the chance to execute Snow, Katniss kills Coin instead.

Who did Gale marry in The Hunger Games? ›

Gale does not marry anyone in The Hunger Games. He and Katniss talk about running away together and starting a new life in the wilderness, but they never officially marry.

Did Katniss love Gale more? ›

Katniss Everdeen was in the middle of a love triangle with Gale Hawthorne and Peeta Mellark throughout The Hunger Games franchise, but in the end, she ended up with the latter.

Did Gale ever love Katniss? ›

When Katniss comes home to District 12, Gale immediately confesses his love for Katniss, and she realizes she might have feelings for him, too — but she can't explore them, because she has to continue her fake relationship with Peeta or else her entire family, including “cousin Gale,” will be killed.

What did Gale say after he kissed Katniss? ›

Gale goes for it, Catching Fire

Katniss on her relationship with Peeta: "It was an act. I did what I had to do to survive, if I didn't I'd be dead." Gale grabs Katniss's head and lays a chaste kiss on her, before saying "I had to do that. At least once."

What stops clove from killing Katniss? ›

Clove earned the first kill in the Games during the bloodbath when she threw a knife at the boy from 9 and struck him in the back. Next, she targeted Katniss's head but was thwarted when Katniss shielded herself with her backpack.

What happens to Haymitch at the end of mockingjay? ›

Later life. After the Second Rebellion and Panem's transition into a democratic republic, Haymitch, alongside Peeta and Katniss, return to Victors' Village in District 12, where they remain as the district is rebuilt around them.

What the Hunger Games teaches us? ›

In life, you never win everything- things and people are lost along the way. Grieve for those who pass, and don't hang on to the possessions or professional opportunities you lost. Looking forward is the healthiest thing for you and for those who love and depend on you. In life you should always put yourself first.

What is the Hunger Games trying to tell us? ›

Answer and Explanation: The key idea in The Hunger Games is how violence can be used to control a people. President Snow uses the Hunger Games as a way to remind the districts of their helplessness, while also feeding his constituents' unceasing appetite for entertainment.

What is interesting about the Hunger Games? ›

Suzanne Collins got the idea for the books while flipping between war coverage and reality shows. Many actors, including Emma Roberts and Evan Peters, reportedly tried to get cast in the films. Liam Hemsworth said Jennifer Lawrence used to purposely eat smelly foods before their kissing scenes.

What was the main reason for the Hunger Games? ›

The purposes of the Hunger Games are to provide entertainment for the Capitol and to remind the districts of the Capitol's power and its lack of remorse or forgiveness for the failed rebellion of the current competitors' ancestors.

What is the most important part of Hunger Games? ›

1 Rue's Death - The Hunger Games

Rue's death scene is one of the absolute most important scenes in the first movie.

What is the ultimate message of The Hunger Games? ›

If you were to pick the main theme of the Hunger Games series, the ability and desire to survive would rightfully come first and foremost. They are stories of survival, physically and mentally. Due to the poverty and starvation issues within Panem, survival is no sure thing.

Why is Katniss so important in The Hunger Games? ›

Katniss Everdeen is the main protagonist and the narrator of The Hunger Games trilogy. After her younger sister, Primrose, was reaped to participate in the 74th Hunger Games, Katniss volunteered to take her place as the female tribute from District 12. This action set in motion the events of the entire series.

What is Effie Trinket's famous line? ›

Effie Trinket : Happy Hunger Games, and may the odds be ever in your favor.

What is the strongest district in The Hunger Games? ›

District 1 (Luxury)

The wealthiest district is the Capitol's prized possession. District 1 is known for providing Panem's elite with luxury items like jewelry. It also is home to the “Careers,” a group of tributes who desire to test out their strengths in the Hunger Games.

What shocking secret does Peeta reveal during his interview? ›

What shocking secret does Peeta reveal during his interview? During Peeta's interview he reveals that he had a crush on Katniss this whole time. How does Katniss react to Peeta's confession? She feels angry because she thinks that he is making her feel less and a fool.

Videos

1. The Hunger Games: Mockingjay - Part 1 Deleted Scene - I'm Not Asking (2014) - THG Movie HD
(THG Fansite)
2. President Snow's Panem Address #2 - "Unity" (4K)
(The Hunger Games)
3. catching fire from peeta's perspective
(Amanda Todhunter)

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