All characters are the property of Suzanne Collins. This work is written solely for the enjoyment of exploring that world in new ways.
Summary: This one-shot is Peeta's point of view from pages 371 to the end of "The Hunger Games" as he and Katniss leave the train to refuel on their way back to District 12.
Author's blog: gkkstitch-gkkmouse(dot)blogspot(dot)com
I've been floating in a cloud of relief since we left the arena. The feel of her thin warm fingers in my hand is the only thing that is keeping me anchored to the ground. We are alive! More importantly, she is alive. The fact that we are both alive and together, really together, is more than I would have hoped for.
But I feel it again. I wasn't sure when it started, the growing distance I felt from Katniss. She had gone to change. Maybe that's when it started. When she came back to join us, I felt my heart stop again. This time, it wasn't because I was dying. This time, it stopped at the sight of her, transformed back into the girl I had fallen in love with years ago. Cinna had made her beautiful in the eyes of Panem, but he never had to do anything to make her beautiful in my eyes. Seeing her in the simple pants and blouse again, seeing the old Katniss—my Katniss again—simply took my breath away.
But it's in her eyes; that guardedness that has always defined her. I feel it weaving around her, even now.
"What's wrong?" I say.
"Nothing," she answers.
We continue walking, past the end of the train, out where we feel we can really be alone for the first time, out where I'm fairly sure there are no cameras hidden in the scrubby bushes along the track. She still remains quiet. I remember the time we spent together in the cave. Looking back on that time now, from this place of safety, I feel my eyes drift closed a moment as I recall her body pressed against mine, sharing the small sleeping bag. I can still feel her breath on my face from her answer during the interview when I asked her what she would do with me now that she had me. I feel her in my arms, her lips pressed against mine. I want to feel it again, but her silence feels like it's telling me no.
Maybe she's just nervous. Maybe she's nervous about going home. Maybe she's nervous about me meeting her family. I know she sees my life as privileged compared to hers. I suppose it is. I've never had to hunt and scavenge to survive. I've never been the sole provider for my family.
She jumps when Haymitch comes up behind us. His voice is low when he says, "Great job, you two. Just keep it up in the district until the cameras are gone. We should be okay."
I have no idea what his words mean or why he feels compelled to warn us, because his tone does sound like a warning: quiet and conspiratorial. He doesn't look at me and I watch him head back to the train.
"What's he mean?" I ask, confused.
"It's the Capitol. They didn't like our stunt with the berries," she says, her words tumbling over each other.
"What? What are you talking about?" I ask with a familiar bitterness toward the Capitol growing in my stomach.
"It seemed too rebellious. So, Haymitch has been coaching me through the last few days. So I didn't make it worse," she says.
I hear her words, but one sticks in my ear. Coaching? Coaching her? Why would he need to coach her? We used the word a lot at the training center. We were coached on what to say, how to act... and I hear myself repeating the words in my head. What to say. How to act. She's being coached. I feel my stomach roll over.
"Coaching you? But not me," I say and I feel like I'm stating the obvious, but I'm not. It's not obvious to me. I don't want it to be obvious. I don't want to feel this doubt clawing at my belly more painful than being disemboweled by mutts.
"He knew you were smart enough to get it right," she says.
Get it right? My vision begins to go dark around the edges and all I can see is Katniss. She needed to get it right. No. No! No, it was right! It is right! There's nothing to get.
"I didn't know there was anything to get right," I say. "So, what you're saying is, these last few days and then I guess..." and this thought is more horrifying than hearing my name called for the reaping, "back in the arena... that was just some strategy you two worked out." I want to make it a question, but I can't. I can see it in her eyes. I can see the reason for the distance now. I can't make it a question, because it is obvious to me now.
"No. I mean, I couldn't even talk to him in the arena, could I?" says Katniss.
"But you knew what he wanted you to do, didn't you?" I say. Please deny it, please deny it, I repeat in my head, but she says nothing. Katniss' only response is to chew on her lip. The action used to be endearing. Now it looks guilty. I drop her hand and she has to take a step, as if to catch her balance. "Katniss?"
She's the only one who can make this better for me now. I actually want to disappear back into that awful cave, back in time with her, feeling her gentle hands cleaning my wounds, soothing my fever, stroking my face. I'd live in that place for eternity now, on the edge of death, as long as she was with me. My heart is racing now, but I need to know.
"It was all for the games," I say. "How you acted."
Acted. She was acting. I feel the word being burned across my chest. It was all an act? I don't want to believe it, but I need to hear her say it. At the same time, I suddenly want her to be struck mute.
"Not all of it," she says, tightly holding onto my flowers.
But some of it? Does it make me pathetic and weak that part of me is desperately grasping for hope? I suddenly understand my father so much better.
"Then how much? No, forget that. I guess the real question is what's going to be left when we get home?" I say.
Am I willing to accept less than crumbs of her affection?
"I don't know. The closer we get to District 12, the more confused I get," she says.
I hear her words, but not an answer, so I wait for further explanation, but none is forthcoming. Maybe I won't even get crumbs after all. "Well, let me know when you work it out," I say. I can hear the pain in my voice, but there's nothing I can do to hide it.
I walk back to the train before I lose it in front of her and disappear into my room for the night. I close the door softly behind me before swinging my cane like a mace. My groosling feather pillow explodes. The wood paneling on the wall is pockmarked like the cheeses from the training center. A glass lamp evaporates, throwing glitter into the air.
I fall onto my bed, panting harder now than I did after running from Cato, and bleeding worse. The small warm fingers I love have punched through my chest and ripped my heart out. I love her. Have always loved her. I hate Haymitch for making her believe that the only way we could survive the Hunger Games was for her to lead me on. He took my feelings for her and taught her to use them as a weapon, maybe not against me, but a weapon nonetheless. And, like a fool, I fell on that weapon—the only one that can really destroy me—content to let my life bleed away as long as it bled into her.
I feel hot wet tracks of tears down my face. I cruelly grab huge handfuls of my hair hoping that this pain will distract me from the gaping hole in my chest. Stupidly, I recall Katniss leaping into my arms at the ceremony while the audience explodes in cheers, and that kiss... the kiss that I thought was the beginning of our lives, reborn together.
I silently endured the tracker jacker stings. I never made a sound as Cato's blade laid open my leg. I never cried out when Katniss probed and prodded the infected wound. Nothing can keep me silent now, and my anguished cry breaks out over the roar of the train.
I have no sense of the passage of time. It's dark beyond my window, though. My face is sticky with salt as I wipe my palms over my cheeks. The scorching pain has left me numb and hollow. I still hate Haymitch, but I also still love Katniss. My resignation that she will never feel the same towards me feels like being buried under a shipment of grain. I can't change how I feel though. I've lived with unrequited love for so long now that even imagining she'd ever feel the same towards me is more like a dream than reality.
But I still love her, and I can't stop. I won't stop trying, either. She never saw me before, but now she does. I have a connection to her that no one can ever have. We survived the Hunger Games. I feel like I've been playing games with her my entire life.
I'm done playing now. I have one skill that no one can see or measure, and I'm expert at it. I'm patient for love to grow. It might not keep anyone alive, but it keeps me alive.
I don't come out until we're pulling into District 12. I nod at her, but my face is expressionless. We just stand there silently, watching our grimy little station rise up around us. Through the window, I can see the platform is thick with cameras. Everyone will be eagerly watching our homecoming.
I hold my hand out to her. "One more time? For the audience?" I say.
She takes my hand and holds it tight, preparing for the cameras, and I dread the moment when I will finally have to let her go.
A/N: Thanks to my friends: LolaShoes, Brooke Lockart and masenvixen for their quite viral story-pimping natures which helped me discover "The Hunger Games" trilogy. I don't know who was infected first, but it has certainly spread!
I specially have to thank IrishGirlTaken and apologize to her. She was, after all, the very first one to tell me to read this series months and months ago, but I foolishly buried my nose back into Twilight FanFic. I'll have to make a mental note to never ignore her advice again!