Fandom: The Hunger Games, Suzanne Collins
Story Title: "Capitol Pastries"
Series Title: Five Loaves of Bread
Summary: The only person who wins the Hunger Games is Snow, and you know it. You gave up happy when you kept playing Snow's games.
Character/Relationships: Katniss/Peeta, Peeta/Finnick, Finnick/Annie, Cinna/Johanna, implied Peeta/others, implied Finnick/others
Warnings: Spoilers for all three books (although as long as you know who Annie is, you're probably okay on Mockingjay). Hunger Games violence. Drug use. Cosmetic surgery/process abuse. Forced sexual slavery, emotional/sexual abuse, implied underage sexual contact, references to prostitution, explicit sexual content. Dubious/non-consensual sex under street drug influence.
Story Wordcount: 29,000
Disclaimer: All settings and proprietary language are owned by the author of the work from which this is derived.
Notes: Written for mellowdee for help_japan. :) This part started getting really long (and taking forever! :C ) so I'm going to post each 'verse as its own story in a series, rather than all five at once. There will probably be about a month between updates, but I really hope you enjoy it! I would never have managed to finish this without poppypickle, majestamoniet, skellerbvvt, thegirlwhowasonfire, theinkhead, badguys, and lovepollution. This portion is only about 97% beta'd.
Five Loaves of Bread
THIS STORY CONTAINS MATURE CONTENT AND DISTURBING IMAGERY. PLEASE be a safe, mature reader!
Peeta Mellark closed his eyes, screechy music wailing in his ears and fuchsia light pounding against his eyelids, as the leggy, green-skinned blonde bounced in his lap.
"Oh, Peeta," she simpered as she scratched her long nails through his hair, "You are so completely fantastic, you're just my favorite, and you should just pick me because I love youand – "
"Shh," Peeta murmured, eyes still closed as he leaned in to kiss her. "Don't talk."
The girl continued to squeak and snuffle as Peeta kissed her. The three tines of her split tongue coiled around his like snakes.
Peeta swallowed as the medusa-girl kissed her way down his neck, her tongue flicking out over and over to taste him. She was ahead of the curve, but Peeta had a feeling that split tongues would be all the rage in the Capitol by next season. He hissed as she bit the juncture of his shoulder and neck while she continued to grind down against him feverishly.
Talons raked through Peeta's blond hair from behind and he twisted his head to see his other companion for the night, a round, thick-hipped girl with silver and pearl tattoos twined all over her hairless body – even around the rims of her lashless, browless eyes. She smiled and bent her head to catch his lips in a kiss. She ran her hands down over his chest to tweak his nipples.
"When's my turn?" she purred. Her Capitol accent was so thick she was almost unintelligible. "I haven't gotten to fuck you in so long, Peeta, baby…"
Peeta stroked his finger along her arm lazily. "Soon, Lycisca… Scylla is almost done."
The bald girl pouted. "You'll run out of time for me."
"Never." Peeta smiled and cupped her enormous breast through the sheer silk of her dress. "You always forget how quickly I make you come."
"But if she's almost done – "
"Baby, you know I'm always hard for you," Peeta purred.
He'd gotten his injections right on schedule the previous morning. He was gritting his teeth in pain every moment that he wasn't using his mouth, but he was definitely always hard.
"Why don't you come dance with me while you wait your turn?" Finnick Odair held out a gallant hand. Between the oil, makeup, and sweat, he looked like he was made of molten gold tonight. "I just can't stand to see anyone have a bad time on such a big night."
Peeta arched an eyebrow and set his jaw. Finnick looked beseechingly towards Peeta, but Peeta looked away. He counted to three in his head and glanced back with pouting lips. Finnick stared back with wide, open green eyes. Then he took Lycisca by the hand.
Peeta's blue eyes spelled thank youas Finnick led Lycisca away across the crowded dance floor.
"Mmm, I'm glad she's gone," sighed the green-skinned girl still gyrating on Peeta's lap. He'd almost forgotten Scylla was still there. "Now you're all mine for as long as I can get you."
"All yours," Peeta echoed. He rested his pounding head against the back of the chair and glanced up at the clock ticking away in the ceiling.
Only twelve more hours until he could go home.
Peeta closed his eyes and leaned against the cool wall. The ground seemed to be spinning beneath him. Every muscle in his body hurt. His empty stomach roiled inside him, begging for food. The pounding in his head felt like a physical entity, pulsating like a swinging pendulum that even made his scalp throb.
"Hey," murmured a soft voice beside him. "C'mon. Got a five minute break to take a cocktail."
"I don't want one," Peeta whined. He swatted his hand vaguely and Finnick caught him, pinkie locking against pinkie. "I want sleep."
"Well, you can't yet," Finnick apologized. "Open up, I'll give you the pills. Nutrium first, open up. You're not gonna make it through if you don't."
"I want a sandwich," Peeta grumbled.
"You can have a sandwich later," Finnick soothed. "Come on, Peeta; we'll get in trouble."
Peeta sighed and opened his mouth. He chewed up the bitter, chalky dietary replacement pill while Finnick swabbed the crook of Peeta's arm with a cold disinfectant sponge.
"Adrenaline first, or Ketorolac?"
Peeta gagged down the paste coating his mouth from the pill. "Adrenaline."
Finnick rested his lips against Peeta's shoulder while he injected the fuel into Peeta's arm. Peeta shuddered as the drug started to course through his system, shocking him awake. The rush of the adrenaline dulled the ache in his back and neck and foot, but the glass-shard pain in his hips and groin from the Capitol drugs grew sharper. Peeta sucked in a cold breath through his teeth, doubling over.
"I got you," Finnick assured him quietly, catching Peeta's weight. "Ketorolac's comin'."
"Hurry," Peeta grunted, screwing his eyes shut as he buried his face in Finnick's chest. Even coated in club grime, Finnick smelled familiar and comforting.
The second needle pierced into Peeta's skin and the numbing pain relief slugged its way into his system, blossoming in the base of his abdomen and into his hips.
Peeta laughed a little as he groaned in relief. "That's such a weird feeling, when your cock goes numb."
Finnick chucked back and rubbed the back of Peeta's neck, giving him a minute to rest. "Yeah, but it's sure better than when it's not."
Peeta grunted again and nodded into Finnick's embrace. "How long now?"
Finnick glanced at the ceiling to check the floating clock. "Two minutes."
"Fuck," Peeta grumbled. He sighed and pulled back from Finnick, blinking into the dim light of the hallway. "You got stuff?"
"'Course." Finnick pulled the little bag of pink powder and a compact mirror from the hidden pocket in his tiny silver shorts. "I got it from Gloss."
"Aw, he always has shitty candycaine," Peeta said. "Why do you even ask him?"
"Enobaria was busy." Finnick cut bright pink lines on the mirror. "Minute 'n a half."
"Thanks." Peeta bent his head. He slumped against the wall again while Finnick sucked up the last of the drug. The pounding in his head had stopped.
Peeta opened his eyes. "Let's go do this."
Finnick nodded. He squeezed Peeta's hand reassuringly, then walked around the other side of the hallway to the back of the partition that created the set of a huge mansion parlor, complete with a sweeping staircase. Peeta cracked his neck, buzzing with energy and raw starvation nerves, as he boarded the lift up to the false second story. With five seconds to spare, he stepped onto the landing of the sweeping, blood-red staircase.
The buzzer sounded. The same sound that began the Hunger Games and signaled the start of every bloodbath at the Cornucopia.
Peeta grinned, wide and white, and bounded down the staircase. He tossed his blond curls nonchalantly as he hit the third step right on mark.
Scylla and Lycisca waited on the thick, leopanther-print carpet in the bright, gaudy, false room. Each wore more jewelry than legitimate clothing. Scylla's hair was teased high into spiral curls like snakes that matched her tongue. Lycisca's pale hairlessness had been polished like an opal.
"It's been a long ride," Peeta said, and both girls tittered. "We started out here four weeks ago as three strangers. You were just two among twenty-four girls, and you were all just what I needed to try to get over Finnick's betrayal. So I'm so grateful to you, and thank you two most of all. You're both… really something. Any man in Panem would be so lucky to have you. Scylla, you really surprised me with that pastry challenge. You've got a very intriguingpalate."
Scylla flicked the tines of her tongue out of her mouth and grinned coquettishly.
"And Lycisca." Peeta smiled. "You sure know your way around chocolate mousse!"
Lycisca feigned a blush and cupped her round cheek in her hand. Her bright blue fingernails shone like icicles.
"I've really enjoyed dating you both and I hope you know what a tough decision this is for me," Peeta said. "I think I know how Caesar Flickerman feels when it's time to pick a new wig!"
The girls laughed again.
"But now, I have to make my choice," Peeta said. He looked from the green-skinned blonde to the round, busty bald girl with a serious, earnest expression.
Then he glanced to the side, just past the red marker for the edge of the screen, and smiled radiantly.
"I choose Finnick," he said tremulously, holding out his hand. "I thought I could be with someone else, but I just can't. Can you ever forgive me?"
Finnick stepped out with his trademark white grin firmly in place and grasped Peeta's hand. They allowed a long moment of gooey staring for the camera to pan over and the music to swell, and then Finnick pulled Peeta in close for a blatant kiss, all visible tongues and tilting this way and that way towards the audience.
"Of course I forgive you," Finnick said breathlessly after as he rested his forehead against Peeta's. He stroked Peeta's jaw with his thumb.
"And cut!" called Cressida from the corner. "That's a wrap. Girls, thank you for your time. Finnick, Peeta, your train's cleared to leave as soon as you're packed to go."
Finnick pulled back from Peeta but carefully, romantically, calculatedly ran his hand down the length of the younger man's arm to mesh their fingers together. He looked over to Peeta. "Do you have anything to bring home?"
Peeta shook his head. "I never do."
"I was going to get that cloth for my boat," Finnick said, his green eyes full of meaning. "Is that okay?"
Peeta smiled. He squeezed Finnick's hand, and that was real. "Sure, yeah, whenever. That's fine."
They passed Cressida and each got a rough pat on the shoulder and a 'good shoot, boys' as they made their way out of the main studio lobby. The Avox crew was already striking the set, the illusory mansion façade they'd lived in for the last two months dismantling one gaudy, mother-of-pearl and leopanther-print decoration at a time.
Behind the studio, Peeta's stylist Portia caught up with him.
"We need to get that lipstick off rightnow," she said, standing on tiptoe to hold Peeta's chin. "Finnick's shade is just not right for you, Mellark. You look ridiculous."
Peeta rolled his eyes and hugged her with his free arm. "I'm sorry to offend."
Portia continued to chatter about Capitol things, makeup and feathers and whether Peeta should dye his hair in red stripes for the upcoming summer season, as she led them past the rest of the crew and their cameras into her workstation at the studio. She prepped a wide-gauge, painful needle and Peeta gnashed his teeth as she shot him up with the antidote to the sildenafil citrate that had kept him erect for days. She painted over the injection site with ointment and Peeta's pale skin knit back together without a bruise.
He let Finnick squeeze his hand hard while Portia injected him with antidote, too, and repaired his brown skin.
"Good as new," she pronounced both boys before patting their faces. Then Portia checked over her shoulder and opened the air duct.
Finnick climbed in first, then Peeta, and Portia closed it behind her, sliding it shut silently. Then they slipped like ghosts down the passageway and beneath the Capitol, into the labyrinth that led everywhere they could want to go. The path from the studio to Cinna's apartment was easy enough. They'd made the trek hundreds of times in the last six years.
They popped into Cinna's living room just in time for Johanna Mason to parade naked out of his bathroom.
"Oh, for cripes sake," she sighed. She glanced over her shoulder. "Pretty boys are here."
Cinna stuck his head out of the bathroom door. His hair and scarred shoulders were wet. "How was the shoot?"
Finnick raised an eyebrow and leveled him with a wry look. "The show is called 'A Victory of Love,' how do you think the shoot went?"
Cinna smiled sympathetically. "Just a second. There's food in the kitchen, help yourselves."
"Fat?" Peeta asked hopefully.
"Carbs?" echoed Finnick.
Cinna shook his head with a grin and ducked back into the bathroom to finish dressing. "Bread and cheese in the chillbox," he called. "And some of Johanna's food from last night, if you want, we saved some."
"Don't you ferning touch it!" Johanna shrieked from Cinna's bedroom. She hopped out into the hallway with only her skirt and one stocking on. "It is so ferning difficult to get a ferning rabbit to cook in this city; I didn't make that for you."
Finnick let go of Peeta's hand and ruffled Johanna's hair genially as he passed into the kitchen. Portia slung an arm around Peeta's waist, and they followed.
Johanna didn't bother to finish dressing as she stalked their heels into the kitchen. "I'm serious," she repeated in her deadliest voice.
"Okay, Joha!" Finnick laughed, raising his hands to show his innocence. Peeta smiled at the way Johanna's nickname sounded in Finnick's Four accent, yohanna becoming shoah. Peeta thought everything sounded a little better in Finnick's voice.
Cinna finally joined them in the kitchen, pushing his brown hair out of his green eyes with an elegant hand. He wore the short sleeves that he kept for his apartment and closest friends' eyes only, the ones that showed the hundreds of cuts from the Peacekeepers' torture when he was a child.
Portia, like a few of the other stylists, had been plucked up from District Eight before her fifth birthday, chosen for the size and neatness of her stitches. Cinna, however, had grown up in District Four with Finnick.
Cinna's father had withheld a thousand-count shipment of pearl oysters from the Capitol after his wife died when the Peacekeepers wouldn't allow trawlers to dock for hurricane season unless all of the quotas were met. So Cinna had taken his first trip to the Capitol at eight years old. All he saw was the inside of his cell. When the pearl oysters were found and every pearl counted intact, Cinna was shipped home fatherless, scar-ridden, and determined. Thea Odair took in the orphaned boy, and Cinna and her son had been fairly inseparable since.
It was Finnick who insisted that Cinna be allowed to join him in the Capitol as a part of his design team. Cinna's ropework was the best in Panem, he'd said, and would give his costumes a truer District Four flavor.
Really, it gave Finnick a safe harbor in the Capitol. And when Peeta Mellark came along three years later, also tortured, orphaned, and determined, the District Twelve style apprentice Cinna decided to give him a safe harbor, too. Peeta was younger than Cinna or Finnick, but he didn't stay young for long.
The littlest Victor gave his closing interview from a hospital bed, all dressed in white, with a rumpled blond halo of curls around his pink face. It was a striking difference from Finnick Odair, who had been the youngest Victor until Peeta, when he won three years prior. Finnick had climbed the rope ladder onto the hovercraft from the cove he'd dug himself in the Arena's shoreline. The Gamemakers had sent a massive aquatic mutt after him, something like a shark and a stingray together, but Finnick Odair speared it through with his trident and instantly became a part of Hunger Games history.
Finnick Odair was like a storybook hero. He could kill monsters.
Peeta Mellark was a storybook monster, the kind in the romantic stories Capitol girls loved: a beautiful face and kind words created the deadliest danger of all.
Johanna hadn't come along until recently, but she fit with them well – the girl who trained monsters to kill for her, and no one even suspected.
Cinna came into the kitchen with his hair wet and rolled his eyes at Johanna blocking the chillbox. He patted Peeta's shoulder and leaned to kiss Finnick on the cheek, then picked Johanna up at the waist and deposited her a few feet from the chillbox door.
"Eat," he urged Peeta and Finnick. They descended on the bread and cheese with gruesome passion. As Victors, they were exempt from needing tesserae to feed their families, but as the Capitol's favorite Victors, they hadn't eaten a real meal in weeks.
Once the train pulled away from the Capitol station and the last of the flashbulbs flickered away, Peeta lifted his head from Finnick's shoulder and scooted further away on the seat.
"Thanks," he said softly. "What a stupid idea for a show."
"I'll never understand any of it," Finnick agreed, staring at his knees. "Why anyone'd want to watch someone else go on dates. 'Specially if they liked them? I think it'd kill me."
"Apologize to Annie for me?" Peeta murmured, glancing up.
Finnick touched Peeta's shoulder. "She doesn't blame you."
Peeta looked down at his knees and nodded. Even though the ointments had faded away the bruise, his one real knee was still sore. Finnick punched his shoulder lightly. "You should get off in Four to stretch those legs. Say hi to Annie, see the ocean. C'mon. It's not like you can miss the train."
It was true – since it was a charter for Peeta to District Twelve, it wouldn't very well leave without him.
Peeta looked up and smiled. "Are you sure?"
"Yeah," Finnick said. "Annie loves you. And everyone loves the ocean."
Peeta did love District Four, but not for the ocean itself, which scared him. He loved watching Finnick with Annie and with Mags, how close they all seemed. He loved the musical accent of Four – totally understood why that was such a big part of Finnick's charm, honestly – and the strange, numbingly spicy food that Mags made in her weatherworn kitchen and perfumed the whole stretch of the Victor's Island beach.
The rain let up as the train slowed into District Four, where Finnick's boat was waiting at the mainland dock. Even Peeta smiled at the crisp, orange-and-white striped sails.
Finnick was a fourteen year old boy again as soon as he bounded off the train. He seemed like he was vibrating with energy as he bounced on his heels and waited for Peeta to tell the conductor about the delay. Then he grabbed Peeta's hand and they went racing down the beach. Peeta waited on the dock as Finnick knelt down in the sand, picking through a clump of seaweed for trapped glass. Finnick waded out into the water and looked up at the open sky, his face smooth and peaceful and reverent.
The sky in the Capitol was gray with coal smog and shadowed by the spires of skyscrapers. Here, there was nothing until the ends of the earth.
The last of the gray clouds broke while Finnick was underwater, like nature itself had been waiting for Finnick Odair to return to the sea. Then he swam over to his boat and hauled himself up over the side.
"C'mon, Peeta," he called, tossing a rope ladder over to the dock. "Annie's waitin' for me."
Peeta smiled and chuckled to himself before climbing up onto The Orion – like he was the one who'd spent ten minutes combing the tidepools for green glass. Finnick let out the bright sails and they pushed off for the short journey to Victor's Island. If Finnick were alone, he could have swum the distance, but Peeta was a land-bound sort of person. Especially with his prosthetic leg.
Victor's Island rose above the ocean in craggy, tall cliffs. Standing atop one like a small white seagull was Annie Cresta, her arms hugged around her ribs to keep from blowing away as she danced from one foot to the other, waiting for Finnick to come home.
Finnick moored his boat to the rocks and he and Peeta climbed the rickety steps up the cliff to where Annie waited. Finnick almost ran, but Peeta climbed slowly and carefully, holding onto the rope banister. District Four was a world away from Twelve: in District Twelve, all of the dangerous staircases led down into the earth, but in Four, they led up to the sky.
When Peeta reached the top of the staircase, Finnick held Annie in his arms as she touched his face. She measured his features with her fingers to make sure that he was still her Finnick: thumbs running below his eyes and over his cheekbones, carefully touching his lips.
"You're back," she sighed happily, and Finnick pulled her head down for a kiss.
Then Annie pulled back from Finnick with her eyes shining. "I found it!" she told him. She knotted her fingers into the soft hair at the nape of Finnick's neck. "I found the Diving Castle."
Finnick grinned at her and smoothed her tangled hair back from her face. "I always knew you would."
"It's on the East shore," Annie said. "Through the jungle. But you can see it from the boats. You can see it, Finnick. On the East shore."
Finnick's green eyes sparkled. "Really? It's really there?"
"Of course it's there," Annie said. "Of course it's there. I said I found it. I showed Mags, she said that's it. She said it's the Diving Castle."
Finnick turned. He still held Annie aloft like she was no bigger than a bird. "Hey, Peeta. You wanna see the Diving Castle?"
"What is it?" Peeta asked. "I have to get back to Twelve."
"I don't know," Finnick said. He shrugged and Annie giggled as his shoulders lifted her up and down. "Mags said it's a magic place… like thousands of years old. Before-before Panem. It's a big castle with a statue of a magic guy diving. I never thought it was really real."
"I did," Annie chirped. "I found it, I found the Diving Castle. It's on the East shore, through the jungle."
"How long does it take to get there, Annie?" Peeta asked.
"Three and a half days through the jungle. Six hours by boat," Annie said. "It takes a long time through the jungle and there are animals there, they're bad. They're bad animals. It's nicer by boat; there are no animals on the boat. Except Porgie. I brought Porgie in case there were animals."
Finnick's eyes lit up at the mention of his dog. "Where is Porgie?"
"At Mags' house," Annie said. "She's feeding him pieces of pork I think. I told her you said no feeding him people-food. I told her you said he's getting fat. He is fat, Finnick, he's fat. His belly drags on the floor. I tried to pick it up but he barked at me."
Finnick laughed and tucked his face into the curve of Annie's shoulder to kiss her neck. She cooed and ran her fingers over the wings of his shoulders.
"Do you want to see the Diving Castle, Peeta?" she asked.
"No, thanks," Peeta said. "Next time, definitely. I should get back to Twelve."
"Stay and eat lunch with us," Finnick implored him. "You can say hi to Mags and fat Porgie."
Peeta grinned. "Only if it's okay with Annie."
"It's okay with me," Annie said earnestly. "I like when you come here, Peeta. I like when you stay for lunch. Your face turns red when you eat Mags' food. It's funny."
"Finnick," Peeta heard Annie admonish softly, as he climbed off the boat. "No, no, no. That's for nighttime. Kisses only now." A shrieking, joyous giggle. "No, kiss me!"
Peeta smiled to himself as he wobbled on sea-legs back to the train, boarded, and rested his blond head against the rattling windowpane. He was glad that Annie had Finnick. He was gladder that Finnick had Annie to take care of him.
The train hurtled Northeast through the expanse of District Eleven, dry red desert that Haymitch once told Peeta had been full of black oil bled into low swampland full of tangled cypress trees and huge, black-bodied alligators. Peeta fell asleep before the fields frayed out gold and the orchards dotted with red and orange and pink-purple fruit, and didn't wake until blue nightfall was falling over the District Twelve train station. The smokestack of the train poured black into the muggy air, but everything in Twelve was already black. Even here, in the heart of the Merchant Quarter.
Peeta disembarked the train and nodded to Darius, his Capitol Avox. Then he pulled his shirt a little tighter closed and started out down the blackened brick road through the Quarter and towards the Victor's Village.
He always walked the long way, to avoid the Tributes' cemetery. He didn't need the reminders, his ten plain black rectangles of dirt and coal and breadcrumbs that stared at him with bleeding, betrayed eyes and accusing screams and never, never one making it past the Cornucopia.
Not since him.
He walked up the Main Row. All of the shops were shuttered for the night. Oily, butter-yellow lamps glowed on the plain black poles. The tailor. The cobbler. The apothecary. The undertaker.
At the end of the Row, the bent, burnt wreckage; the gaping hole in the street, blocked off by a rough wooden fence. Peeta wouldn't let them tear it down.
'An unfortunate accident.' The fuel lines into the bakery's big economic ovens had blocked; the jets backed up into the injectors down below the bakery floors. Four Mellarks died that morning when Farll Mellark lit the ovens and the bakery exploded like a bomb, rocking the entire Row and sending fire crews racing to stop the blaze before it approached the Seam and took the whole District with it.
Peeta Mellark was in District One, at the home of the goldsmith. That was the year that Annaeus wanted to weave Peeta's hair with strands of real gold. Peeta Mellark was wearing gold and eating cake when his family burned.
He stopped at the wooden warning posts and ducked under them to walk along the uneven edge of the crater. He stopped at the misshapen hunk of iron that used to be the cow statue outside the door. He smiled when he saw it, even though it was gone now, because he remembered how much his mother hatedthat cow, and how much that made his father and brothers love it.
He kissed three fingers of his left hand and touched the cold, grimy stump where the cow used to be.
Then he ducked under the fence again and jogged out towards his plain, square home in the Village. A stray goose from Haymitch's yard bleated at him angrily and chased him the last few steps across his lawn to the front door.
He'd go throw water on the old man tomorrow.
Peeta opened the front door – no locks in the Victor's Village, no, especially not for Peeta Mellark – and started down the hall in the dark. He'd never really decorated. He didn't have any belongings that mattered, anyway, since they all went up with the bakery.
The third stair still creaked. He was alone here, but it was still home.
He drummed his fingers along the wall as he walked down the upstairs hall to his bedroom. He knew all of the hollow places where the Capitol had hidden bugs and Beetee had swept them away.
He paused at the end of the hall. Light spilled out from beneath his bedroom door.
Not now, he thought, and dug the heels of his hands into his eyes. He slumped against the wall. They promised it would never be here, not here.
Peeta Mellark squared his shoulders and took a deep breath, then pushed open the door of his bedroom. He wondered who would be 'important' enough to have scored a hovercraft to Twelve and access to his house, and who hadn't woken Haymitch and been impaled on an empty bottle.
His stomach seized suddenly – it had been six hours since he'd left Finnick and Annie; they were going to head East around the craggy coves and volcanoes of when the Victor's Island had detached from the country that used to be there and shifted, roiling, off the seabed. It would be so easy to sink Finnick's boat with the orange sails. It would be so easy to see if Annie Cresta still couldn't drown.
Peeta straightened, composed his face, and opened the door.
His heart stuttered happily and he smiled down at the bare shoulders and long, dark braid peeking out from the blankets. He shut the door softly and crept over to his bed, sliding up the mattress.
Peeta pressed his nose to the nape of Katniss Everdeen's neck, inhaling the woodsy, earthen, bready smell of District Twelve before kissing the crest of her shoulders gently.
Katniss snuffled into his pillow and rolled over, one eye squinting up at him in the faded evening light from the window. She had a crease down one cheek from the pillowcases and her hair was in total disarray. The sheets slipped down as she rolled over, baring one small breast, but she caught the fabric quickly and yanked it up with a frown.
Peeta smiled. "What are you doing here?"
Katniss blinked. "Sleeping."
"Well, I can see that," Peeta laughed, scooting closer to her and leaning to kiss her forehead. He brushed a few strands of her hair back. "But why are you sleeping here? Prim's probably worried about you."
Katniss blinked and swiped at her hair, too, which only mussed it more. "I thought your train got in earlier. I let myself in. Sorry."
Peeta smiled. "Don't be sorry. You're a sight for sore eyes." He ran the side of one finger up the length of her taut arm. "Where are your clothes?"
"Covered in animal guts." Katniss held the blankets to her chest with one arm and pointed to the pile of her clothes with the other. "I didn't want to ruin your sheets."
Peeta laughed. "That's my Katniss."
He leaned forward to kiss her. Katniss deflected his kiss with her palm pressed against his mouth.
"You aren't my Peeta yet," she explained simply. Her gray eyes were unreadable and sad. "You're still Capitol Peeta."
Peeta Mellark, newly nineteen years old and the Victor of the 68TH Hunger Games, hung his head. He looked up through his long, blond lashes. "Am I?"
Katniss Everdeen's gray eyes softened a little. "Was it bad this time?"
Peeta closed his eyes and flopped down onto the mattress, nestling his face into the warm space Katniss' arms had left behind. His blond hair still fell around his face in perfectly-coiffed curls; his broad shoulders were cut through with muscle beneath his perfectly smooth and perfectly pale skin. The only more famous face in Panem was Finnick Odair.
Katniss was sixteen and skinny and callused, dark-skinned and long-haired and gray-eyed Seam through and through. The only people in the world who she knew how to be soft with were her sister Prim, and Peeta, the broken Capitol doll, who had only wanted to be a baker.
She pressed her face into the curve of his neck and waited for him to answer her.
"It's always bad," Peeta mumbled. He stretched out one arm and Katniss settled against his side; she below the blankets, he above them. He squeezed her close.
"I know," Katniss said. "But sometimes it's worse."
Peeta swallowed and began to unbraid Katniss' hair with one hand, weaving it through his fingers, trailing the strands down over her neck to feel her pulse beat beneath her skin. He tilted his face into the curtain of her long hair and breathed.
"I missed you," he murmured. "Every minute. I missed going to sleep with you and waking up with you and… just everything. I just missed you."
Katniss' hands cupped Peeta's jaw as she kissed him between the eyes. "How many this time?"
Peeta shook his head. He ran his hand through Katniss' long hair again, tracing his thumb along the curve beneath her bright gray eye. He leaned close and nuzzled his nose against hers, lips barely brushing, too soft for a kiss. "No one who matters."
Peeta rolled his eyes. "Finnick doesn't count. There's always been Finnick and there probably always will be."
Katniss' mouth twitched.
Peeta leaned up said the same words he had countless times before. "I love you more."
He tried again for a kiss, and this time Katniss allowed it. Then she actually smiled. "I know."
Peeta tugged at the ends of her hair and she tilted her face closer for another kiss. He loved the way that Katniss liked to be kissed – she didn't go for any of the little lead-up kisses, the teaser kisses, she just wanted to kiss him and be kissed back like it was the only thing that mattered in that moment. And because she did, it was. Peeta never felt like he was really back home until Katniss kissed him.
Peeta mumbled softly into Katniss' mouth and cupped his hand over the side of her neck to feel her pulse beneath her skin. He smiled when he felt it beat faster, then trailed his fingertips down over her bare shoulder. He nipped her top lip as he tickled the underside of her arm and Katniss yelped and pushed him.
Peeta fell back onto the pillows and laughed. For the first time in two months, he felt right.
Katniss smiled back at him, and Peeta thought she was beautiful. She had a little gap between her two front teeth. She had olive skin with light freckles raised by the sun and the smallest of wrinkles between her eyebrows from looking far out over the horizon – and, probably, from scowling. Her bottom lip was chapped at the middle and now, red and shiny and wet from Peeta's kisses. Her nose had a bump and turned up at the end. Her eyebrows were thick and dark and outrageous.
The Capitol would never approve.
And Peeta didn't think he could possibly love her more.
He touched her arm again, gently over the thin skin of her elbow, drawing circles. "Am I your Peeta yet?"
"You're always mine," Katniss said. She bent down and kissed him and her long hair fell around them both in a dark curtain. "You just forget sometimes."
Peeta cupped her jaw with his other hand.
"I neverforget that I'm yours," he whispered. "It's the only thing that I have." Peeta sighed warmly and stroked his hand softly over the side of Katniss' neck and down to draw teasing stripes across the wing of her clavicle. "So… am I your Peeta then?"
Katniss bit her lip and nodded. Peeta grinned and slid his hand to cup Katniss' breast. It was small and warm and plump and real. Peeta hummed low in his throat: he always appreciated what was real.
Katniss slung her leg up over Peeta's waist and perched over his hips before bringing her face down to kiss him again. Peeta dragged his mouth down to suck at Katniss' neck – he liked to leave marks on her, liked when she marked him. He hatedwhen anyone else did; those were battle scars. But with Katniss, it felt like an address placard. A signal of home, like the statue that used to stand outside the Mellark Bakery.
Katniss gasped when Peeta nipped at the column of her throat. He pulled back with heavy-lidded eyes and traced the maroon mark left on Katniss' neck with one fingertip.
"I missed you," he whispered reverently.
"I missed you, too," Katniss said. She smiled and it curled her mouth higher on the left, her gapped teeth biting into her lip just enough to stain it cherry red.
Peeta grinned mischievously and flipped Katniss so that her head landed just below the pillows, her hair spread out all around them like a pool of black ink. He pulled a trapped lock of her hair back into place, trailing it between his fingers as he placed it into the ray around her head.
"You're beautiful," Peeta said, preening, as he ran his hands along Katniss' sides. Then he narrowed his eyes. "You've got a lot of ribs again."
Katniss shrugged. "It was a long winter. I'm fine. Kiss me."
Peeta considered her carefully for a long moment before ducking his head and dappling kisses over her belly and the ticklish underside of her ribs, just where they jutted out. Katniss closed her eyes and ran her fingers through Peeta's thick, Capitol-conditioned, sweet-scented blond curls as he kissed down her body and tucked her legs over his shoulders.
In the Capitol, everything was flavored. Girls smelled like vanilla and tasted like strawberries, men doused themselves in musk and tasted like pineapple. And everyone had a hint of roses. Wet-copper blood and rotting roses covered everything in the Capitol.
Katniss… was just Katniss. Peeta tucked his head between her legs eagerly.
"I want – " Katniss panted, twisting against Peeta's mouth. She reached down, trailing her fingertips over his chest. "Peeta, please?"
"What do you want, Katniss?" Peeta murmured, kissing his way up her stomach and over her breastbone to her neck. He brought his fingers between her legs and touched her teasingly. "Remember… if you can't say it, then you can't do it. What do you want?"
"Peeta," Katniss whined, her hips shifting between his hands. "Peeta, I just – c'mon, I want – "
"Tell me," Peeta whispered. He kissed the dimple of her hip. "Tell me what you want, Katniss."
Katniss' cheeks flushed pink and she wavered, her hips rocking a little as she squirmed.
"I want you in my mouth," she whispered, so softly that Peeta barely heard her. "At the same time."
Peeta hummed low in his throat and stroked Katniss' inner arm. "That wasn't so hard, now was it?"
Katniss shook her head. Her cheeks were still pink but her eyes were bright. She bit her lip, then ran her palm over the side of Peeta's face. He grinned and slipped up the mattress to kiss her greedily. Then Peeta wrapped his big hands around her little waist and tossed her, giggling, back down onto her side. Katniss sighed and rested her small, callused hands on Peeta's hips to feel his muscles shift before leaning in to lick at him delicately, tentatively.
She always did this so differently than Finnick. Peeta was glad. Finnick had a lotof practice. Katniss only had Peeta.
And that might have been Peeta's favorite thing about her. It was the only thing that Peeta had that felt like something he could call his own - not Katniss, because despite what the Capitol wanted him to think, he'd lived with his family long enough and known Cinna and Finnick long enough to know that people could not be owned, but Katniss' love. There were a lot of people who said they loved him. A lot of people who even believed, fully and truly, that they did. There were even others who Peeta knew did really love him, like Finnick.
But Katniss was the only person who'd only ever loved him and no one else.
Katniss pulled back and whimpered, her spine arching as she came against Peeta's lips and tongue. Peeta groaned back and Katniss' hand searched for purchase across the base of his spine, clutching onto him as she dived back down to suck him into her mouth again.
Peeta's eyes fluttered shut as he drew his fingers in trailing lines up the length of her back, upside-down to the nape of her neck, where he played with the tendrils of silken, sweaty-dewed black hair. He bit his lip when he came, and didn't whisper Katnissuntil after.
He ran his hand in lazy circuits over Katniss' hip and rear and thigh. "Come tell me you love me."
Katniss shifted around until her head was sharing Peeta's pillow. "I love you."
Peeta opened his eyes and blinked, taking in the sight of her face, damp and pink with sweat and sex. He smiled at her and kissed her softly with open lips. "I love you, too."
A little while later, they stood in the lonely, neglected kitchen of Peeta's hollow Victor's Village house. He had put on a pair of soft flannel pants with a drawstring and one of the plain pullover shirts that his father had worn to stoke the ovens in July, when it got so hot that the air in the Mellark Bakery kitchen shimmered and bent. Katniss had tucked herself into his side, wearing one of Peeta's shirts and nothing else, while he puttered at the stove.
"What did you do in the Capitol?" Katniss asked quietly. She drew a spiral around his navel with the tip of one finger through his shirt.
"Just some bullshit program," Peeta muttered. He sliced through the rind on one of Prim's cheeses and the soft, runny white yolk oozed out. He scooped it onto two slices of bread and reached around Katniss' side for a block of the fancy Capitol cheese that he'd been hoarding away. "A thing about trying to find a date, I guess. They're doing the whole 'Peeta and Finnick are having problems again!' angle. Again."
"Aren't people tired of that?" Katniss asked incredulously.
Peeta sliced through the bright orange cheese and held up a chunk to Katniss' nose so she could inhale the sour, fruity, tangy aroma. This was real cow's milk cheese – nothing that could be found in District Twelve came close.
"No," he said. "The Capitol love to see us break up and get back together and break up and get back together. The more salacious the breakup, the better, too."
"That's dumb," Katniss said. "If they like you and Finnick, why would they want you to be sad?"
Peeta sandwiched the thick slices of nut-studded bread and two cheeses and put them on the salamander to toast. "They like me and Finnick because they watched us kill people. They like us becausewe're sad."
"I saw the previews for your program," Katniss admitted. "Who did you pick? The purple girl with the big boobs? Or the blonde girl with the white eyes?"
Peeta kissed the top of her head. "I picked Finnick."
"Oh," Katniss said. She pressed her face into his ribs and breathed in.
"I really pick you," Peeta reminded her, rubbing her side consolingly. His hand inched lower and lower until he had pulled the hem of her shirt up to her waist and tucked his fingers between her legs. "I love you," he murmured as he slid a single finger inside her. "I want you."
"We're in the kitchen," Katniss said, sounding breathless but baffled – like she couldn't imagine anyone ever doing this in a kitchen. "There's food right here."
"That's okay," Peeta said. "We're the only ones who're gonna eat it. Katniss, I want you." He twisted his finger and Katniss gasped. "Please…"
Katniss melted against his side. "Okay…"
Peeta slipped his fingers away and Katniss made a little whining sound, so Peeta preened, smiling, as he picked her up and settled her on the counter beside the stove. He tucked the hem of her shirt up around her waist and bent to kiss her between her legs again – just once, soft and open-mouthed and enough to make her whimper – before standing. Katniss' hands found the waist of his soft pants and just barely pulled them down low around the tops of his thighs.
Peeta fit himself to her slowly. She was always tense the first time, always tense when he came home from the Capitol. He tucked his lip between his teeth and stayed silent to drink in the rhythm of Katniss' stuttered breath until her legs tightened around his waist, hips against hips.
Peeta moved deep and rough and slow, grinding in hard, smooth undulations that made Katniss cry out softly, over and over, almost sobbing sounds against Peeta's ear and cheek and shoulder.
Peeta pressed his mouth to the side of Katniss face. "I love you – I really do – just, please – please just feel how much I love you." He sighed and it came up from deep in his chest like a growl. "You feel so good."
Katniss' thin fingers knotted into his hair as she drizzled kisses along the cords of his neck and shoulder.
"Ah, fuck, Katniss," Peeta whispered. "You're always the best thing I've ever felt." His hand scrabbled up her body to cup one of her small, pointed breasts through the soft shirt she still wore so he could circle her nipple with his thumb, raking over it lightly with his fingernails. "Your body is perfect."
Katniss' head dropped to his shoulder and one small hand moved down over the flexing flat of his back and around the powerful band of his hips to touch and feel where they were connected, her fingertips stroking over the deep, wide part of him where he couldn't fit into her from this angle. Peeta groaned approvingly and nipped her ear.
"Do I feel good?" he asked lowly. "Am I gonna make you come?"
Katniss nodded against his shoulder, pliant and gentle against him. Then she stiffened suddenly and raised her head.
"I forgot," she said breathlessly. "You hafta pull out. I ran out of those pills while you were gone."
Peeta kissed her temple. "We'll get more tomorrow."
"You have to pull out," Katniss repeated, looking him in the eye. "Just in case." Then she kissed him and her cheeks flushed pink. "You can do it on my skin."
Peeta grunted and kissed her, desperate and wanting to feel her orgasm and to know that he did that, he was the only one, she wanted him and he was who made her feel so good. Katniss' hips finally started to shift and rock and wantand she pushed her hand up under Peeta's shirt to feel his muscles moving as he fucked her. Her blunt, jagged nails scratched over his flat nipple and Peeta pulled her closer, her legs wrapped up tight around his waist so she could take him deeper and harder.
Katniss' head fell back against the kitchen cabinets with a clunk and Peeta scrabbled to cup the back of her head in his hand. He ducked his own head to suck at her hard nipples through the soft linen of her shirt and Katniss cried out once, twice, three times hoarse as came hard, one of her hands knocking a row of spice jars off their shelf.
"Oh, fuck," Peeta muttered, "Oh, fuck, I can feel you coming, Katniss, I love you, I love you – "
"Pull out," Katniss croaked breathlessly. "Peeta, you have to – "
Peeta growled and pulled out quickly, one hand working over himself as the other pushed Katniss' shirt up to bare her ribs and breasts. He kissed her as he came, speckling her stomach and the crease of her hip.
Peeta rested his forehead against Katniss, boneless and exhausted, while he caught his breath. Then he kissed her softly on the lips, the neck, the hard armor of her breastbone over her heart, and down to her belly. He licked once, just enough to tickle, and Katniss squirmed before she handed him a rag from the counter. Then she exhaled once in a great gust before slumping back against the cabinets again, her fingers gently combing through Peeta's damp hair.
"Annie says," Katniss began tentatively, brushing her fingers through Peeta's hair still, "Annie told me that um… I should remind you that love and sex aren't the same thing. That there's more about loving you than just – that."
Peeta frowned. "You talked to Annie about me?"
"She called," Katniss said apologetically. "She thought you would be back already and she wanted to know where Finnick was. But I told her not – not yet. Not yet when she called, I mean. Obviously, now, you're back, and Finnick is, too, but – "
Fear staked hot through Peeta's gut, splitting him open.
Peeta's hands tightened on Katniss' arms and he pressed his forehead against hers, holding her too close, trying not to explode.
"I told you never to answer the phone," he hissed. "Why would you do that? Are you stupid?"
"Hey," Katniss snapped sharply as she pushed back against his grasp on her arms. "Don't talk to me like that, Peeta."
Peeta let go and backed up across the kitchen. He sat down hard on the floor with his hands in his hair and his elbows cradling his knees. He tightened his hands until the grip hurt.
Whenever he panicked like this, all of a sudden Peeta Mellark was thirteen years old again and back in the Hunger Games, being stung by a dozen horrible trackerjackers and chased by mutts with dead Tributes' eyes.
Once the worst of the shaking had passed, there was a soft padding sound as Katniss slid off the counter and crouched down on the floor in front of Peeta. She reached out and touched his wrist gently with two fingers.
"Hey," she sang softly. "I'm sorry, Peeta. I wasn't thinking."
"You can't answer the phone," Peeta croaked miserably, looking up at her through bleary eyes. "Katniss, you can't answer the phone. You can't talk to Annie." He cast a glare to the offensive thing, red and square and blaring obtrusively from the white wall. "I should have pulled it out years ago like Haymitch."
Katniss kept touching his wrist, stroking the lines of his bones gently. "You said you need it. Or President Snow will come here."
Peeta closed his eyes again and ducked his blond head, rocking again. Melting trees and roses and blood and lizards with the Careers' eyes, poison berries and mud and blood and pus pouring out of his leg.
"I like talking to Annie," Katniss admitted. "She – I don't always know how to be with you."
"Well, Annie doesn't know how to be with me," Peeta said. "I'm not Finnick. We're not the same."
"But see?" Katniss whispered. She turned away. "I never know how to say things right to you. I don't wanna make you upset."
"You don't," Peeta whispered. He slid closer to her, sliding his arm around her waist. "When you're just Katniss, you never upset me. Don't be Annie. Just be you."
Katniss tapped her fingers along the length of Peeta's arm, tracing over his blue veins through pale skin.
"Well," she said finally. "If you want me to be myself, then I should say – the sandwiches burned. We wasted food. I'm gonna go feed them to Haymitch's geese."
Peeta let out a surprised laugh. He tightened his arms around her. "Just one more minute before you go."
"Okay," Katniss whispered. She kissed his forehead. "Hey, Peeta?"
"Will you make more sandwiches while I'm outside? I'm really hungry."
Peeta laughed again, more steadily, and shook his head. "Yeah. We'll eat dinner and then we'll go to bed. I'm so tired."
Katniss pressed her lips to the dip below his Adam's apple as she squeezed her arms around him tightly. Peeta kissed the top of her head before he pulled back to make new sandwiches, and Katniss took the burned mess out of the salamander and stepped out of the big, extravagant glass door at the back of the Victor's Village house.
The door shut with a click behind her and Peeta heard her call out to Haymitch's squawking geese, "Hey, stupid things, you get a treat!"
Peeta laughed as he sliced the loaves and griddled the sandwiches.
The red phone on the wall glared at him like a danger sign. He remembered the clinical signs the Peacekeepers had posted around the Merchant Quarter after the incineration of Mellark Bakery: WARNING. Central pressure failure. Ground is prone to sudden collapse. Tread carefully. Danger is present.
The red phone on the wall, too, was a constant reminder that for Peeta Mellark, danger was always present. And as Katniss slipped back through the door with her hair a windswept mess and Peeta's shirt falling from one shoulder, he remembered the signs that ringed the Seam after her father was killed.
"The sandwiches smell good," Katniss said. She scratched the back of her calf with the muddy toes of her other foot and smiled at Peeta. "Let's eat."
Peeta smiled and reached out to straighten the shirt back onto her shoulder.
"Why don't we eat upstairs?" he asked, thinking of the dormant bugs in his bedroom, silent and useless in the walls. "We can do the dishes with breakfast; it's okay."
Katniss' brow furrowed slightly, but she shrugged. "Okay." She grabbed her sandwich and took a loud, crunching bite as she started off for the stairs.
Peeta crossed to the glass door before following her so that he could shut the blinds. Below them, from far off across the dusty road, the ground began to buzz softly with the third shift at the mines roaring to life. He paused and took the phone off its hook. The hum of the dial tone seemed to amplify the electric bite of the bugs and the whirring of the mine machinery under their feet, and Peeta hung the phone back up again.
"Peeta? Are you still here?"
"Yeah," he called, turning out the light. "I'm still here."
"Mr. Mellark," said President Snow through the red telephone, early, early the next morning. "I trust you had a pleasurable night at home."
"Yessir," Peeta mumbled. There was a hissing sound on the other end of the line and Peeta cleared his throat. "Yes, sir."
"We do so try to ensure that the Victor's Village is not lacking in amenities," Snow said. "How was the cheese?"
Peeta swallowed. "Very fine, sir."
"It was a long winter in District Twelve," mused President Snow. He echoed Katniss' words from the night before. "There were high death rates in the elderly and children. People were driven to dealing with criminals. A boy was whipped for dealing in poached game. Can you imagine, Peeta? A mere boy thinking that he could steal from the Capitol, steal from me, and escape my notice?"
"No, sir," Peeta said softly. "I can't imagine."
"How's your nymphet?"
Peeta's hand clenched into a fist. "I don't know – I don't…"
He was stupid last night in the kitchen with Katniss, with the big glass door where any cameras could see in and the bugs for listening to every word. Katniss was stupid to have answered the phone, Peeta thought, and Annie should have known Finnick would never be in Twelve. The Capitol trains didn't take unnecessary trips East. Not even for Finnick Odair.
"Speak, Mr. Mellark. My informants tell me that the poacher often travels with a young woman, you know," Snow said. "Don't you worry about them disappearing off into the woods together each Sunday? People are the same at heart, Mr. Mellark. District Twelve may not be so virtuous as you think. At least my friends are honest with you."
Peeta rubbed his eyes. He knew that Katniss hunted with Gale Hawthorne. He'd taught them both to forage for edible nuts, mushrooms, and berries, back in his first year as a Victor with too much time and too few people in his life. He remembered the amazement on Gale's face when Peeta delivered his first Parcel as a Victor as clearly as he remembered little Prim Everdeen and Posy Hawthorne dancing around him on stickbug legs, laughing, when he brought Prim oranges for her eighth birthday.
"There's nothing between them," Peeta whispered, more to himself than to Snow. "There are so many mouths to feed."
"Yes," Snow agreed silkily. "Just as there's nothing between you and Finnick. I'm interested, how does the girl affect my favorite Victors?"
"Not at all," Peeta swore. "You'll enjoy the program."
"I'm more concerned that it proves a profitable fundraiser," Snow said. "The Quarter Quell is in fewer than two short years, Peeta. And you will see that we have something very special planned. You and Finnick both need to remain in perfect working order. Very in love."
"As much as I ever was," Peeta promised.
"As much as you are," reminded Snow. "You're back together again."
"That's right," Peeta confirmed. "We're back together again. Very much in love."
"Convince me," Snow said. "Alitta has invited you as the guests of honor for her pre-Games party. You will return to the Capitol in two weeks."
Peeta's stomach twisted. "Yes, sir."
"I do hope your judgment of the girl's integrity is correct," Snow said. "It would be very expensive if you gave Finnick one of the Districts' disgusting diseases. The people outside the Capitol are scarcely better than animals."
Peeta looked down at his fist. "Yes, sir."
"Until we speak again," Snow said courteously. "By the way, I've arranged for a supply of her pills to be sent to your home. Certainly can't afford to have little Mellarks running around with criminals and whores."
The phone buzzed as Snow disconnected and Peeta swore, kicking the wall.
He looked up and saw Katniss standing hesitantly in the door of the kitchen wrapped in sheets, her bedraggled hair tangled like the seaweed that littered Finnick's happy home in District Four. But there was none here; in Twelve, everything was just covered in black coal dust that blackened pink lungs and burned families to the ground.
Peeta tried to smile. "How did you sleep?"
Katniss shrugged. "Good. But I woke up and you were gone."
"I know," Peeta said. "President Snow called."
Katniss frowned. "How long until you have to go back?"
"Two weeks," Peeta said. He cleared his throat. "Do you want some breakfast?"
Katniss nodded and smiled. "There's eggs in the chillbox from a nest I found. It'd go good with the cheese on a sandwich."
Peeta nodded. "Alright. And I'll make you some bread to take back for Prim. Does she still like the sweet kind best?"
"With the nuts and orange peel," Katniss confirmed. "She fries it with honey."
Peeta smiled and kissed Katniss' head as she walked by him towards the chillbox. "I'm glad."
"Mm-hmm," Katniss agreed absently. "I liked the other one you made last time, after New Year's – with the red berries and frosting. It was like bread and cake at the same time. But I gave most of it to Gale for Posy, since it was her birthday after you left. Could you make that one again, since it's still cold?"
"Sure," Peeta said. "Katniss?" He touched her waist and gently turned her to face him. "You have to stop seeing Gale."
Katniss' brow furrowed. "Why?"
"I know about the whipping," Peeta said sternly. "It's too dangerous for you to be seen with him, not when you spend so much time out here with me." He pressed his lips close to Katniss' ear. "It's already a crime that I give you all my rations. Next time it could be you that gets whipped, and you're a lot smaller than Gale."
Katniss frowned and considered Peeta's face for a long time before she nodded. "Okay."
Peeta kissed her morning-sour lips gently. "Good." Then he unfolded the sheet from around her and let it fall to the floor with a soft, silken shush. His hand trailed over her waist and he thumbed the sharp crease of her hipbone thoughtfully before spanning her belly and measuring the space up over her ribs to the place where her heart beat beneath his fingers: steady and strong.
"I love you," Peeta offered softly. The tip of his longest finger tickled the soft underside of her upturned breast.
"Gale's only my friend," came Katniss' reply. "But you're the only one I love like this."
"I know," Peeta whispered. He rested his forehead against the hollow of Katniss' belly. "You're the only thing I love, too."
The trend in the Capitol this year seemed to be ice: cold, hard, deadly, but beautiful. Alitta's penthouse suite had been painted in ever-darkening shades of blue and glossed over with sheets of glass that rippled like a glacier. The chandeliers dripped with diamonds from One and the halls were lined with thick, head-on white bearskin rugs killed in Seven and tanned in Ten. Tied up on a dais hung the Victor from Four, and Peeta was frozen in the thick of it all. Alitta had dyed her fingers black like frostbite and used her shimmering blue fingernails to scratch at Peeta's arms as she directed his hands on her whip and Finnick's chains.
Most of the Capitol liked for their Victors to fit their Games personae: Peeta the meek and innocent, Finnick the swaggering hero. Alitta wanted them at their weakest. She paid for Peeta to be brutal and malicious and for Finnick Odair – to be all too human.
Peeta didn't disembark the train in Four on their way back for the Reaping ceremonies. Finnick told him, quietly, not to be silly, it wasn't it fault, Annie would be disappointed not to see him, it got lonely for her and old Mags on Victor's Island, but Peeta shook his head and stared at his knees and waited, silent, for the black emptiness of District Twelve. On trips like this, he didn't think he deserved sunlight or seaweed or magic castles on the seashore, built thousands of years before anyone knew there could be a Panem.
Katniss wasn't asleep in his bed when he got back to the empty house in Victor's Village. Tomorrow would be Prim's first Reaping. After it was over, Peeta would have Haymitch deliver a loaf of bread with oranges and nuts and sugar frosting as an apology: neither Everdeen sister needed tesserae with his rations, but their friends did. The Hawthornes did. Everyone in Twelve had someone to lose except Peeta Mellark.
The morning of the 74th Reaping dawned bright and dry. Katniss knocked on Peeta's door early in the morning with a white paper basket full of wild strawberries and the stains of a few blackberries on her lips.
"You didn't come say hi last night," Katniss said as soon as they were alone. "It was bad, wasn't it."
Peeta nodded. He touched her hair reverently and pressed his face into the top of her head to breathe in the smell of her.
"Is Prim nervous?" he asked. Then he gestured to the countertop. "I baked her one of the breads she likes."
Katniss smiled. "She's nervous. We're all nervous. But she's only got one slip. She should be okay."
Peeta nodded and didn't say that he'd only had two.
Katniss reached up and rested her hand over his cheek. "Do you want help getting ready? Or are you going to come over for lunch before Effie gets here?"
Peeta shook his head and cupped his hand over Katniss' small fingers. "Just… stay with me for a while?"
"Okay." Katniss nodded. "I wish you'd let Haymitch Mentor so you could stay here awhile."
"He never gets Sponsors," Peeta sighed. "With me, at least there's a chance someone from Twelve might win."
"And then everyone gets food for a year," Katniss finished. "I get it."
But of course she didn't really. It wasn't about feeding the District. It was because Peeta Mellark had killed eight Tributes and four Mellarks and even though he continued to lead two children to their death, this way, at least he could honestly say that he had done everything in his power to help them survive.
"What time is Effie coming?" Katniss asked.
Peeta made a face. "Soon. She'll probably stop by Haymitch's house first since he's the senior Victor. Next year is the big anniversary of his win, too, and Snow is making a big deal about it already. The Quarter Quell."
Katniss' gray eyes tightened. "Do you know what it's going to be?"
Peeta shook his head.
"What if they take eight people in every District?" Katniss asked softly. "No one would be safe with that many names pulled."
Peeta kissed the top of her head and swallowed down his no one is safe now.
A few hours later, Peeta stood on the stage in front of the Justice Building, wearing fitted black pants dappled with rhinestones and onyx gemstones like coal and diamond, and – thanks to Portia's direction – a shirt buttoned up to his chin. Effie Trinket had swept into the District at noon and left a bright magenta kiss print on his cheek before packing up the Reaping balls and calling everyone together for the cameras.
"Ladies first!" trilled Effie. Peeta ground his teeth behind her.
Effie was such a twit.
Her hand reached into the glass Reaping Ball and dug around, flitting from paper to paper almost imperceptibly, touching the corners. She found a slip and pulled it from the ball.
"Katniss Everdeen!" she called, looking out at the crowd.
Peeta felt his stomach drop into his feet and his heart fly into his throat. Annie gibbering a warning to her partner, his head in her lap, Annie in the water. Night falling and Annie in the water. Day breaking and Annie in the water. Three days, and Annie in the water.
Johanna's family under the landslide. Johanna with her hatchet and her mutts and her furs, coated in blood like a red phantom, while her family fell into the ground, covered in mud, covered in ash. Johanna's whole village broken in the dirt, the lost colony in District Seven, full of ghosts and Johanna, the bloody monster.
Haymitch's girl hanging from the tree, wearing a necklace of rope, side-by-side with three – his mother, his brother, his cousin. Breeze lifting their hair, blue hollow in their black lungs, swinging on their ropes in the air.
Annie in the water.
Johanna's village in the earth.
Haymitch's family in the air.
Katniss stood on stage now in her blue dress and soft, girlish braids. Some boy had been Reaped, some Merchant boy with a turned-up nose, who Peeta didn't know. Effie twinkled at the camera. Haymitch stumbled. The buzz of the cameras died.
Peeta leaned over the side of the stage and threw up.
When Peeta Mellark was thirteen years old, he killed six people in the Hunger Games by tricking them into eating poison berries. When he was fourteen years old, he killed his family by telling Annika Templesmith 'no.'
When Peeta Mellark was nineteen years old, he would kill the girl he wanted to marry.
She would go up in flames.
Peeta received the phone call from Cinna only minutes after Katniss' name was drawn, and he spoke in a hushed voice from the black telephone in the Justice Building hallway, just outside the room where he could hear Prim and Mrs. Everdeen crying. For six years, they had been the closest thing he had to a family – Prim was as much his little sister as Katniss'; Mrs. Everdeen a kinder mother than his own had been – and now, instead of giving back to them, he had destroyed them. A third explosion had rocked the foundations of District Twelve: the Mellark Bakery went up first, and then the mines. And now Katniss Everdeen had been Reaped for the Hunger Games, and that meant no one was safe.
"I'm taking your Tributes," Cinna said simply. "Katniss is going to win."
"What about Finnick's?" Peeta asked dully.
"You gave up yours for Annie," Cinna reminded him. "Katniss is going to win. Go be with her. I'll be here when you get in."
Prim ducked out of the door to Katniss' waiting room then and Peeta hung up the heavy phone with a soft click.
"I'm sorry," he whispered. "I even made you bread this morning."
Prim Everdeen looked up at him with her blue eyes ringed in raw pink. She threw her arms around his ribs and hugged him tight, and Peeta was so bewildered that all he could do was pat the back of her head gently.
"You bring her home, Peeta," Prim said into his chest. She squeezed him a little tighter. "You bring her back and keep her here."
"I'll try," Peeta said, still patting her blonde curls.
Prim looked up at him with her sharp chin jutting into his ribs. "No. You bring her home. You know how. And you know she's good enough to win. You know she's the best. She's better than you were. If you got to come back, so should she."
Peeta swallowed. "I know." He disentangled Prim's spindly arms from around his waist and held her hands tightly. "Prim, listen to me. At my house, there's a loaf of bread on the counter for you and the Hawthornes. They're gonna turn my power off at midnight until the Games are over, so you and Gale need to empty the refrigerator if you want to keep the food. And – listen to me – behind the mirror in the bathroom upstairs, there's a cabinet. In the cabinet are pills. The small green tablets are for your mother, so she doesn't – so she really stays with you, do you understand? She should still have enough for the next two weeks but get the new bottle from my house anyway. Don't let her take more than one tablet in the morning, no matter what. No matter what happens, Prim."
Prim nodded. "Okay."
She took two steps down the cold marble hall, then stopped and flew back at Peeta. She kissed his cheek, but then caught his arm in her fingers hard enough for her nails to leave marks. "Bring her home."
Peeta nodded. Prim took off down the hall again and out of the back doors of the Justice Building to take the long road to Victor's Village. She, too, was avoiding the Tributes' cemetery. Two empty new graves already stood at the ready.
Peeta knocked softly at the door even as he opened it. Katniss sat on the plush velvet sofa with her knees drawn to her chest, holding her mother's hand. Larkspur was dry-eyed beside her, staring at Katniss with an empty face. Peeta touched her shoulder, and it was a long, molasses-slow moment before Larkspur looked up at him.
"I'm sorry," he whispered.
Larkspur blinked twice, then nodded.
Effie Trinket peeped her head into the room. "Two minutes! Arvid's already boarded; Peeta, you should be with us on the train!"
Peeta glared at her. "We're coming."
Larkspur stood up and wobbled a little on her feet. Peeta steadied her with his hands on her shoulders.
"Don't watch," he told her softly. "Just stay home and don't watch. Don't worry. Be with Prim." He gripped her arm hard. "Listen to me. Are you listening to me? Don't leave Prim. You can't leave her."
Larkspur took a deep breath and held it a moment before nodding. Peeta loosened his grip on her shoulders and was glad to see that she was able to stand steady on her own.
"We have to go," Peeta said apologetically. He looked down at Katniss on the sofa.
Larkspur kissed her daughter's hair, patted Peeta's cheek, and was gone.
Peeta swallowed and pasted on his sweetest smile. "You'll finally get to meet Finnick and Cinna and Johanna," he said. "Cinna is going to be your stylist. He just called me."
"He's the best," Peeta said. He held out his hand. "He and I will help you win."
Katniss' hand shook slightly when Peeta enveloped it in his own. "It's just hunting. If I can forget that they're people, it will be no different at all."
Peeta's mind wandered back to the horrific acts he had seen in the last six years; the Careers who carved out little girls' hearts and the crafty scientists from Five who engineered guillotines and garottes and needles. He thought about how Johanna had trained the Arena mutts to kill for her by plying them with bits of her opponents' flesh. "Not all of them are people."
Katniss shrugged again before standing. She wiped her hands on the sides of her soft blue skirt. "We should go. Effie will get mad."
Peeta nodded and centered himself with a hand on the small of Katniss' back to lead her to the train. He'd point out District Four through the windows as they steamed past. They would sit together with her District partner and Effie to share a lavish meal before chugging towards the Capitol at breakneck speed. But all he really wanted to eat was some sweet bread with nuts and orange peel and sugar frosting.
Despite the potential scandal, Peeta left his own sumptuous, customized train compartment that night and snuck into Katniss' small, trim, white Tribute bed. He wrapped his arms around her waist and pressed his heart close to her heart. He stayed awake all night to feel her breath on his neck.
Once they reached the Capitol, Peeta turned Arvid over to Portia with assurances that she was the best, and then brought Katniss to Cinna.
Peeta still kept his hand on Katniss' back, and he felt her relax at the sight of Cinna. He was, as always, dressed in simple black clothing and the barest touch of gold eyeliner, and he looked little different from the Merchants in Twelve. Katniss didn't know that beneath his calm and normal appearance was a second, natural layer of skin covered in angry scars.
"Hello, Katniss," Cinna said kindly. He held out his hand. "I'm Cinna. It's so nice to finally meet you."
"Hello," Katniss said cautiously. She glanced up at Peeta before she smiled and shook Cinna's hand.
"You and I are going to talk more after my prep team see you," Cinna assured her. "You won't like what they're going to do, but try your best to be nice to them. They're very sensitive."
Katniss nodded. "Okay."
"And don't let them touch your hairstyle," Cinna said. He smiled. "It's beautiful. Classic, really. In almost perfect balance with your profile. Who did it?"
"My mother," Katniss said softly.
"She has very clever fingers," Cinna said. He looked at Peeta. "I need to run off for a little while, just to check on some things. But you're in good hands with Venia and Flavius and Octavia."
He turned to go, and Katniss looked up at Peeta with suspicion in her gray eyes. "What's the prep team going to do to me?"
Peeta smiled sheepishly. "You know how I don't have hair on my leg?"
Katniss looked puzzled for a moment, then scowled.
Peeta stood behind the one-way glass in the Prep Center, watching the work done on Katniss. He'd insisted she get no major procedures, but in the end, it wasn't his call.
Katniss watched Cinna with an appraising eye as he circled her, taking in measurements and proportion.
"Have you slept with Peeta?" she blurted, then covered her mouth.
A look of comically grotesque shock and horror crossed Cinna's normally-composed face.
"No!" he said, swallowing a gag. "No, no, no… no. No. I don't mean to offend you. I can see why he's yourtype, but… no. No. No. Finnick, yes. Peeta… no. No." He shook his head doggedly. "No."
Katniss couldn't help the little, pinched smile that crossed her mouth. "Okay. Good. I'm glad."
Cinna smiled back at her.
He raised an eyebrow and tilted his head. "You haven't slept with Johanna, have you?"
"No!" Katniss said earnestly, her eyes wide. "I haven't even met her!"
"I know," Cinna laughed. "I'm teasing you. Johanna is my girlfriend."
"Really?" Katniss asked. "She always seems… scary. I know she's Peeta's friend, but…"
"No, she is scary," Cinna assured her. "But it works for her. People want to see her be scary. They want to see Finnick be charming and they want to see Peeta be innocent and they want to see Johanna be scary.
"And you, Katniss," Cinna said, offering her a robe, "It's my job to show people how to see you."
"I don't want to be naked," Katniss hedged. "That's not a very good look."
"You won't be naked," Cinna promised. He held out a soft robe and Katniss shrugged into it gratefully. Cinna took a seat at the little table in the corner of his studio and gestured to the other chair. "Have some lunch with me and tell me about yourself. I only know what Peeta tells me, but I want Panem to see you."
"There isn't much to say," Katniss said as she sat down. "I'm from the Seam. I try to take care of my family. Take care of Peeta."
"Why do you take care of your family?" Cinna asked. The lid of the table opened up and two plates of spicy, sweet-sauced ginger chicken that scented the room like oranges slid up from the Kitchens.
"My father died in a mining accident," Katniss said. "When I was twelve."
"That must have been scary," Cinna said sympathetically. "To have that happen on your first tessera year."
"That was Annie's Games," Katniss said. She picked up her fork and dragged it through the little pearly grains that nestled her chicken. "I can swim, but not as good as her."
"I don't think anyone can swim as well as Annie," Cinna said. He smiled at her. "Not even Finnick."
"Peeta can't swim at all," Katniss offered. "I tried to teach him once and it was a disaster. He wouldn't stop splashing me and then he thought he got bit by a fish."
"Do fish bite people in Twelve?"
"No," Katniss laughed. "He just hates to be bad at things."
Cinna laughed too. "He does. Now… tell me about the Seam. Peeta doesn't live there, does he?"
"No," Katniss said. "He lives in the Victor's Village, of course. His family lived in the Merchant Quarter – that's where the rich people in Twelve live. His family owned the bakery. We don't have one now. The Seam is for the miners, like my dad. We're just all covered in coal. It's all there is. And the Hob, which is where – " Katniss cut off abruptly.
Katniss bit her lip and looked down at her plate. "It's where we trade. I can hunt. I sell meat there. And sometimes my sister makes cheese."
"It's good that you can hunt," Cinna said. "I assume Peeta knows?"
"He said not to tell," Katniss whispered, still looking down. "He said that I should keep it a secret so I can use it."
"Okay," Cinna said. "That's a good idea. But you shouldn't try to look weak, either. After Hanna… they get suspicious."
"Yeah," Katniss said. "Peeta told me. He said that I should stay away from my best weapons until the Cornucopia, though."
"What is your best weapon?" Cinna asked curiously. He held out a placating hand. "You don't have to tell me."
"It's okay," Katniss said. "You're Peeta's friend. I'm good with a bow and arrow. And some other things."
Cinna considered her for a long minute before handing her the ivory-handled knife from his table setting. "Would you show me?"
Katniss shrugged and took it. She stood beside the table and took stock of the wall of headless dressforms that lined the far wall of Cinna's studio. Then she let the knife fly and it struck the heart of the center dressform, wobbling a little with the force of the blow.
Cinna's eyebrows were raised high. "Very impressive."
"Thanks," Katniss said gruffly. She sat back down and finally started to eat her chicken in earnest. "So what is my costume? A big silver knife?"
Cinna laughed. "No. But your eyes lit up when you talked about the Seam. It seems like you're proud of where you come from. I respect that, especially considering – " he didn't say that you've been brought here to die for it. "Considering."
"So I'll be in a Sexy Miner costume?" Katniss asked dully.
"No," Cinna said. "No one would remember you in that. It's my job to make people seeyou, remember? How you are. And how Peeta sees you. And how you see yourself. Talking about you is when Peeta really comes alive. He just gets… brighter, when he mentions you. And you're from the Seam, and the Seam is covered with coal. And what do we do with coal?"
Katniss looked up at him.
"We burn it," Cinna said, and his green eyes flashed. "You're not afraid of fire, are you, Katniss?"
A few hours later, Cinna called Peeta on the comm to come in and see the final product. Katniss and Arvid were dressed in what would surely be the most sensational Opening Ceremonies costumes in the history of the Hunger Games – Cinna- and Portia's handiwork was exquisite as ever.
But it wasn't what Peeta saw. Instead, Katniss smiled hesitantly when she saw him, and all he saw was her face.
Katniss' teeth were bright bleach-white. Her freckles had been covered up with foundation and the little wrinkle between her eyebrows smoothed out with toxins. Her lips were plumped and rosy and shiny. Her eyebrows were thin and severe.
Peeta's heart broke.
"How do I look?" Katniss struck a ridiculously angular pose.
Peeta pasted on a thin, downturned smile and tugged at the end of her long fishtailed braid. "Fierce." He turned and gave the same smile to Arvid. "You both do."
Arvid glanced up sullenly at Peeta. "We all know you want Katniss to win. Don't pretend you're not waiting for me to die."
Peeta let his smile fall. "I'm sorry."
"Thanks for not lying," Arvid said, and shrugged. "I'll run for the Cornucopia if you want. I don't care anymore. I never wanted to work in the mines anyway."
"Arvid – "
"Whatever, Mellark. Just make someone from Twelve win."
Arvid turned away and Portia put her arm around him, giving Peeta pitying, reproachful look. Peeta looked down at Katniss, whose face was downcast.
"Arvid," she said quietly. "I don't want you to die."
He didn't turn around. "You got Prim to think of anyway."
"Do you know Prim?" Katniss asked him. Her voice was raw with the mention of her sister.
"Seen her around at school. Seen both of you around. She needs you more than my family needs me. I'd want you to win even if I had a good mentor."
"Arvid – " Peeta started, but he was interrupted.
"I didn't mean it bad," Arvid said. "It's time to go anyway, ain't it?"
Cinna looked up at the huge, ornate gold clock on the wall. It was divided into stark segments of twelve, alternating black and white and touched with gilt and blood-red etching. "It is." Then he rubbed his hands together and nodded to Portia. "Now, we're going to light your costumes. It's not real fire, of course, just a little synthetic fire Portia and I came up with. You'll be perfectly safe."
He smiled at Peeta as he said the last bit, as if to say, I'm doing my part. After this, it's up to you.
Peeta had to admit that the effect of the fire swirling around Katniss and Arvid was dazzling. The Capitol crowd would eat it up. He tried not to think about the effects of a fire fad, and instead focused on helping Katniss and Arvid into their chariot.
"Remember, heads high!" called Cinna.
"Smiles!" reminded Portia.
Peeta smiled up at them. "They're going to love you."
Katniss didn't smile until Peeta winked at her and nodded, just slightly. Then she lifted her head higher and grinned wide and triumphant. She grabbed Arvid's hand and squeezed it. Then the caramel-colored horses began to lead their chariot out through the streets of the Capitol, past the Rose Club and District Fourteen and Brabantio's Design Studio and the people of the Capitol began going nuts for Peeta'sTributes: blowing kisses, swooning in their seats, screaming Katniss' name. They threw flowers and streamers. Peeta saw all of the familiar faces: round Annika Templesmith who liked to brush his hair threw aconite and Alitta who paid for Peeta to make Finnick bleed threw lobelias.
And then, right onto the board of the chariot, landed a single red rose.
The pounding music, the cheers, the admiration wormed their way into Peeta's blood and he felt sick. He wavered on his feet and felt Portia's steady hand come up to catch him, rubbing soothing circles into the small of his back.
Cinna gave Katniss a great advantage. No one would forget her. Not her name. Not her face.
Katniss, the girl who was on fire.
Katniss had no idea who had thrown the rose, even though Peeta did. She lifted it to her nose for a sniff, then blew a kiss to the crowd.
Almost immediately, the comm in Peeta's pocket began to buzz with Sponsorship offers. Her name echoed from all corners of the Capitol, people leaning out of windows and doors and lining the street. Everyone wanted pieces of her already: her attention, her kisses. Peeta's stomach twisted and he clenched his hands into fists at his side.
The chariot circled around to the long shadow of President Snow's mansion. Peeta couldn't take his eyes from Katniss' face, the way the firelight of her headdress flickered through the gray of her Seam eyes like the lightning in a thunderstorm. Portia moved her hand away but Peeta reached out and touched her wrist.
"Please don't let go of me," he murmured. President Snow stepped back out onto his balcony, and his eyes, too, seemed to immediately lock onto Katniss. "Everything's falling apart."
After the ceremony had ended and the Tributes filed back to their suites, Finnick found Peeta in the hallway, where he stood facing the wall with his forehead resting on the cool wood paneling.
"You're a shoo-in," Finnick assured him softly. He clapped Peeta's shoulder. "Can I meet her?"
Peeta sighed and lifted his head. "Yeah. C'mon."
They started off down the hall and were nearly to the elevator doors before Peeta noticed the crunching. He looked over to Finnick with a question in his eyes. "You have food?"
Finnick looked sheepish and showed him the handful of sugar cubes. "They're supposed to be for the horses."
Katniss was sitting quietly with Cinna when they arrived, but both smiled up at Peeta and Finnick when the door clicked shut. Cinna looked to the corner and said beeteeand they were all free to speak.
Finnick grinned at Katniss, who blushed slightly. "Hello, Katniss."
He held out his hand. "Want a sugar cube?"
Katniss' cheeks colored again and she glanced back and forth between Peeta and Cinna and Finnick before answering. "No, thanks. I'd love to borrow your outfit sometime, though."
Cinna applauded as he laughed lightly, but Finnick guffawed so loudly that he doubled over to put his hands on his knees. When he finished laughing, he gave Katniss an appreciative nod. "Et tu, Katniss." Then he smiled. "You should wear flames more often, miss," he said kindly. He tweaked Katniss' hair. "They suit you."
Katniss looked at her knees and smiled, but a sudden hot flash of suspicion raked through Peeta's stomach.
Finnick has Tributes, too.
Finnick has Tributes who will want to kill her.
"Hey, we've got an early morning tomorrow with Effie," Peeta said around the strangled knot in his throat. "Thanks for coming by, Finnick, but… we'll see you later."
Finnick's brow creased almost imperceptibly before he chuckled and tweaked Katniss' braid again. "I'll see you tomorrow then, Peeta. And a good night to you, miss Katniss." He bowed with a flourish and ducked out of the room.
"I'll leave you, too," said Cinna. He patted Katniss' cheek genially and clapped Peeta's shoulder on his way out of the room.
"I like Finnick," Katniss said once she and Peeta were alone. "He fits with Annie."
"He does," Peeta said. "But don't like him right now. And don't like his Tributes. Don't ally with them. Don't ally with anyone. I know you, Katniss, and how you are when you trust someone. It makes you easy prey. But you can't trust anyone in the Hunger Games, anyone except me."
"What about Cinna?"
"Cinna listens to me," Peeta said harshly. He took a deep breath and closed his eyes. Katniss touched his cheek and he tilted his head into her touch. "Just… stay away from the Four Tributes, okay? They're Careers and they're – just don't trust anyone in the Arena."
"Okay, Peeta," Katniss murmured. "I trust you."
Peeta sighed and wrapped his arms around her waist, burying his face in the side of her neck. "You smell different."
"There's all kinds of weird lotion on me," Katniss said. "They said it's supposed to smell like flowers."
Peeta inhaled and bit his tongue. Katniss reeked of blood and rose petals.
"Let's take a shower," he whispered, swallowing over his jumping throat. "They're actually really nice here. You'll love it."
Katniss' nose wrinkled. "I don't know. I always think showers are weird, it's like… hot rain. I like baths better."
"Well, you haven't tried these," Peeta urged her. "Come on." He rubbed her thigh, low by her knee but trailing softly in circles. "Get up."
Katniss sighed and bounded to her feet. She held out her hand to help Peeta stand and he smiled at her as he accepted. He never could convince her that it took more than a day of standing around to make the seam of his prosthetic leg ache.
Peeta smiled as he watched Katniss touch the doors of the immense shower in awe, tracing the crystal etchings along the panels and jabbing at the wall of control buttons with a trepid expression of glee – one button sprayed arcing jets of icy cold water that made her shriek in surprise, another flooded the shower with a softly sweet-scented perfume fog.
She looked over her shoulder at Peeta. "I do like this shower."
"I knew you would," Peeta laughed. "C'mere, let me take the pins out of your hair."
Peeta gently pulled the long pins out of Katniss' hair and combed his fingers through the waves left by her braids, measuring the weight of her long hair, and then slowly unzipped the back of her black costume. Katniss peeled her arms from the sleeves and Peeta unrolled it down the length of her legs.
Katniss sighed in relief when she stepped out of the costume, leaving it a pool of black and glimmering red-gold satin on the floor. "That was itchy."
Peeta laughed. "Would you have preferred a tail like Finnick's kids?"
"No," Katniss said. "Cinna did a good job. It was a good idea to do fire."
Peeta smiled and shrugged out of his own shirt. "It was. Cinna is very smart. He's really the best of the best, and I'm glad that he chose Twelve this year."
"Well, he chose it for you," Katniss said as she leaned into the shower and jabbed at a few buttons to send a spray of hot water and a soft-scented foam out of the jets. "He picked Twelve to help you get me out of the Arena."
"I guess he did," Peeta agreed. He stepped into the shower and Katniss tiptoed in front of him, sighing and rolling her shoulders as the hot water rolled over her. "I didn't think of it that way."
"He's a good friend for you," Katniss murmured, her eyes closed. "All of your friends are good for you."
"You're better," Peeta said, as he slid his hands over her belly. He drew his hands up to cup her breasts and felt her nipples pebble beneath his palms. "I love you."
Katniss relaxed against his chest and let her head fall back against Peeta's shoulder as his thumbs drew small circles over her nipples. She was quiet while he teased her open between her legs and quiet when he fitted himself into her slowly, still standing, his thighs pressed up against her backside. Even when Peeta felt her tighten up and come, she just sighed softly and melted back against him to whisper, I love you, too.
After they'd gotten out of the shower and dried off with the vents and electric hair dryers and Peeta had wrapped Katniss up cozily in a thick robe, he kissed her forehead.
"Have you seen the roof yet?" Peeta asked softly.
Katniss shook her head. "Cinna told me about it."
Peeta's lips twitched. "You can see practically the whole city," he said instead. "The wind's a bit loud, though."
Katniss nodded stoutly. "Can we just go up?"
"Well," Peeta smiled. "Since you're with Peeta Mellark, yes."
"That doesn't seem fair," Katniss hedged as she followed Peeta to the elevator. "Shouldn't all of the Tributes get the chance?"
The elevator doors closed with a soft chime and Peeta pressed the button for the topmost floor. "The Hunger Games are all about how Tributes don't get chances. You've got to make them."
"Peeta," Katniss whispered. "I don't know if I want to."
The elevator doors opened at the roof and opened with another chime. Peeta gestured out the door and Katniss followed him onto the cool, windy roof. The Capitol sparkled below them like the winking eyes of a thousand dragonflies and the scent of the city, flowers and roasting meats and musky perfumes and sweat and the soft burn of smoke, floated up to surround the dome of the roof garden. Katniss walked right out to the railing and leaned over to look down at the rushing street below, at the multicolored birds of people tottering about with bottles in their hands and money in their wallets.
Peeta came up behind her and wrapped his arms around her waist.
"You have to win, Katniss," he whispered.
"I don't want to live like you," Katniss answered. Her voice wasn't accusatory, but Peeta heard all of the words in it that she didn't say. They were the kind of words his mother had called him when he came home from his Games crying, a rose tucked into his jacket pocket.
Finnick always said that those words were the opposite of who Peeta was. Katniss didn't speak them or whisper them with the tone of her voice, but here, on the roof, with a little flyaway girl in his arms, Peeta felt six years of his mother's judgment crawling up his spine.
"I have you," he said back, squeezing the words out. "It makes it worth it. Having you."
Katniss turned and put her hands on his cheeks. Her gray eyes were somber. "Does it?"
Peeta nodded, then kissed her fingers. "I wouldn't hesitate to go away if it didn't. You're the only thing I have."
"That's not true," Katniss argued. "Peeta – you can't think like that. It's not good. You have Finnick, and Cinna, and Portia. You have Annie. I guess you have Johanna, when she feels like it. And Haymitch needs you; District Twelve needs you. You have to… you're worth it even when I'm dead."
"You're not going to die," Peeta said sharply. "There is no way that you are going to be allowed to die. I've tried it. If someone wants badly enough for you to win, you can't die. And I want you to win."
"I don't want to kill people, Peeta," Katniss snapped. She pushed at his chest and looked out across the spiral rooftops of the Capitol again. "I don't want them to change me in there. I don't want to – to turn into something I'm not. A monster. I'd rather just die as myself."
"They won't change you," Peeta lied softly. "And you will die as yourself. When you're ninety years old. In District Twelve."
Katniss shook her head again. "You come home smelling wrong."
"It won't happen to you," Peeta swore. "No matter what it takes, I won't let them – it won't happen to you. Whatever I have to do, whatever I have to say – "
"Don't," Katniss said. "This is my fight. You had yours, and you had a lot less help than I already have. I want to win or lose on my own terms. And I want you to promise me that you won't do anything stupid if I die."
"If you die," Peeta said lowly, darkly, his voice crackling, "I will set this entire country on fire."
Peeta only left Katniss' bed when Cinna came to rouse her for the morning's training. He patted Katniss' hair fondly before surrendering her to the Prep Team for a scrub-up before breakfast with Effie, then turned to Peeta with sad eyes.
"Portia's got your cocktail ready. She's just finishing with Arvid before Effie faints at the sight of his nails."
Peeta sat up and scrubbed his eyes with the heels of his hands before looking shallowly up at Cinna. "Do I even get to have breakfast with them?"
Cinna clapped Peeta's shoulder. "It's the first day of Sponsorship, Peeta. After last night, you have to know that things are really looking good for Katniss. They're looking good for you." He kissed the top of Peeta's head. "If I could bet, my money would be on her."
"Truly?" Peeta whispered.
"Truly," Cinna said. "Now c'mon, get up before Gloss and Baria get to the Templesmiths."
Peeta sighed and rolled his shoulders. The light spilling in through the slats of the blinds was dull and misty: haunted air, full of ghosts. He had dreamt of Mellark Bakery in the night. Of Katniss trading game to his father at the door, and his father's smile. That had never happened. But the explosion that followed and consumed his smiling father and trusting Katniss and the rest of the bakery – the cakes and cookies and the statue of a cow outside the door – had, and in his dream, Prim was there too, the Prim he had first met with her little-kid straggly legs and starving belly, caught in the blaze. He dragged himself out of bed and patted Cinna's chest absently as he stumbled off to the showers again and deluged himself in thick, lemon-scented antiseptic foam.
He stepped out of the shower and didn't even blink at Cinna standing at the counter warming the waxes and depilatory creams and mousses and conditioners and a huge palette of icy-colored eye shadows and body paints.
"Do you want me to dry my hair?" Peeta asked.
"No," Cinna said. "We've got to set it again. Your curls are falling."
"Can I sleep?"
Cinna shrugged. "Sure."
So Peeta dozed as Cinna permed his hair into riotous ringlet curls. Mags always ruffled Peeta's curls and called him 'Adonis,' and Annie would jump into a story in broken English and Spanish about a man with beautiful golden curls who was forced to spend one-third of every year in the land of hatefulness and darkness and death. Cinna knew the story from growing up in Four with Finnick and Mags, and none of them ever mentioned that Adonis was killed by the little huntress. Perfect aim with her bow and arrow.
Peeta woke when Cinna reapplied the stinging cream to his jaw and upper lip – the Capitolites would hate very little more than Peeta Mellark with facial hair – and Cinna smiled apologetically as Peeta creased his eyebrows.
"Off in a minute," Cinna promised. "And then we'll do your eyes, and you'll be done."
Portia knocked at the doorframe and bustled in with Peeta's cocktail wrapped in a black pack not unlike the packs in the Cornucopia' horn. She smiled at Peeta and gave Cinna a kiss on the cheek before she swabbed the inside of his elbow with a cold wipe.
Peeta nodded and Portia slid the first needle into his arm. Peeta sucked air through his teeth as an erection sprung up too quickly between his legs. "Ow."
"Sorry, sweetheart," Portia said, and tapped out the needle to his Ketorolac. She swabbed his arm again and injected the anesthetic, and Peeta sighed.
Then he looked up at Portia – much to Cinna's chagrin as he chased Peeta's face with the eye shadow brush – and smiled pleadingly. "Breakfast?"
Portia held out the Nutrium tablet with a flourish. "Delicious and satisfying."
Peeta sighed and let Portia set the pill on his tongue. He chewed it up and swallowed the dense, chalky paste, remembering sweet bread filled with chopped nuts and candied orange peel and glazed with white sugar frosting.
"Alright," Cinna said, sounding a little weary. "You're done."
Peeta looked in the mirror. A big-eyed innocent with raucous curls and a cheeky blue blush blinked back at him. "This is what they want."
Cinna nodded. "This is what they want."
Peeta stood and silently let Portia dress him in the glistening satin suit. He looked in the mirror again, touched his hair, and sighed as they headed out towards the breakfast compartment.
Katniss sat alone at the table, freshly scrubbed and coiffed with a tight braid wrapped around her head, shoveling a cut-up hash of egg and sausage and batter cakes with orange marmalade into her mouth. The rinds of pale purple melon slices sat discarded on the side of her plate. She had a bowl of rice topped with beef chip gravy at the ready beside her right hand, a mug of hot chocolate by her left, and a little cluster of fluffy butter biscuits sitting on the table.
Peeta's empty stomach twinged.
"Morning," she said, nodding to Peeta and Cinna. "What's this melon? It's good."
Cinna chuckled. "I'm not sure. I'll ask for you."
"Thanks," Katniss said, and dived back down onto her plate.
"Slow down," Peeta said. "You can't get sick at Training."
"You underestimate me," Katniss said wryly. "My mother says I have a hollow leg. For food. Not – " her cheeks reddened slightly as she nodded towards Peeta's prosthetic leg. "Like, I can just keep eating and eating."
Peeta smiled. "I know. I've seen it. Not a pretty sight. But this is richer food than you're used to. And your special skill can't be projectile vomiting."
Katniss scowled, pulled the bowl of rice and gravy closer, and defiantly stuck in her spoon. The door shushed open behind her and Arvid slumped into the room, Portia's protective arm slung around his shoulders consolingly.
Arvid loaded up a plate like Katniss' but picked at it listlessly, blinking blearily up at Peeta.
Peeta slid into his seat at the table and steepled his fingers. Cinna and Portia bowed out to make alterations on the Interview costumes, and he nodded to them. He would see them in a few hours for another cocktail and to check on the status of the designs.
"So," he said, smiling at Katniss and Arvid. "Let's get down to business. Training. First off, I'm going to coach you separately."
Katniss' brow furrowed. "Why?"
"Because he's training you to win," Arvid said flatly. "And he's training me not to kill you, but not to live too long, either."
"That's not – true," Peeta said. "I just don't think it would be a good idea for you two to look too chummy. You can keep some skills secret from each other this way, if you want, or make your own alliances."
"You mean Katniss can make alliances," Arvid said. "With the Careers."
"I don't want to ally with the Careers," Katniss cut in. "I don't have to, do I?"
"No," Peeta said, giving Arvid a significant look. "I don't think that would be a good idea. But don't make enemies of them, either. Both of you. Either of you."
"Well, they're going to hate Katniss anyway, after the costumes," Arvid said. "And she's good. With the hunting. The whole District knows it. I can't do anything."
"I'm sure that's not true," Katniss said kindly.
"No, it's true," Arvid said. "If the Arena is a giant chimney that needs sweeping, then I'd have a chance, but otherwise…"
"Well, that means you're good at climbing," Katniss said gently. "Don't count yourself out."
"Katniss," Peeta said, touching her arm. "I'm the Mentor. Not you."
Katniss' lips twitched as she held back words. She dunked a biscuit into her hot chocolate instead and took a blithe bite.
Peeta sent the Tributes off to the Training gymnasium with individual instructions - Katniss, don't let anyone see you can shoot; Arvid, try all of the stations and see what feels best – and headed off down the brightly lit Capitol street towards the Rose Club. A coterie of photographers followed him, barking questions about Finnick Odair and their rekindled relationship and Is it true that you and Finnick had a lover's weekend on an island off Eleven?
Peeta smiled coquettishly. "The Games are on, my Tributes got the best ratings in the Opening Ceremonies, and you want to know what kind of massage oil Finnick uses when we're alone?"
The stream of questions steered off towards squawked, "Tell us about that girl!" and "Do you really think they can win?" and "They were wearing Cinna, too, weren't they? Just brilliant!"
Peeta grinned and shouldered his way into the Rose Club, where photographers were never allowed to go. Too many of Panem's rich, famous, and horrifically corrupt frequented its back rooms. Peeta and Finnick shared their own reserved space for clients and the occasional high-profit, low-cost late night broadcast program when the Arena was going to be particularly high-tech and needed additional fundraising.
The screechy, wailing music of the Capitol was already blaring inside the club's pink-lacquered doors, the bass of the drums reverberating from the walls. The smell of liquor was heavy in the air as the bartender, Hêbë, twirled bottles in her eight mechanical arms. Peeta could already see Finnick in the corner wearing his smallest gold net, drawing an ice cube down the long line of Annika Templesmith's cleavage; Enobaria was flashing her teeth at a donor in front of the bar. Gloss hadn't yet arrived, which was a blessing. Baria's donors would never hedge a bet on an unknown like Twelve, but Gloss and Peeta worked the same market. He had been young, too, but not so gentle or memorable as Finnick or Peeta. Aside from winning the year after his sister, Gloss had little pull of his own.
"Peeta!" Finnick called from the corner, shooting him a wide smile. Annika almost panted as she looked from one famous lover to the other.
Peeta bit his lip in a display of shyness and stalked his way over to Finnick with his smoothest, most sensuous gait. Finnick's skin was already hot and dewy with candycaine-sweat and slick with oil when Peeta wrapped his arms around him and pulled him in for a deep, showy kiss.
He left his arms loosely draped around Finnick's neck. "Good morning."
Finnick's hand traversed Peeta's waist and he tucked just the tip of his thumb beneath the waistband of Peeta's silk trousers. "Mornin'. I was just telling Annika about our little secret, unofficial bet."
"Oh?" Peeta asked, petting a lock of Finnick's hair. Finnick was always good at playing the Templesmiths.
"Yes," Finnick said before nipping a kiss to Peeta's nose. "If your Tributes win, then we go on a romantic vacation tour by Hovercraft and you get to have your way with meas many times a day as you can for a month." He tugged at Peeta's lower lip with his teeth. "But if my Tributes win, then – "
"Then I am putting you on a sex embargo," Peeta interrupted, shaking his head playfully. "Yours always win, it's not fair."
Finnick smiled perfectly sheepishly. "What can I say? The odds are usually in my favor." Then he gave an exaggerated glance over Peeta's shoulder and grinned. "If you'll excuse me for just a moment, darling, I see that Gloss has just arrived."
"Don't you let him steal you away from me," Peeta said, and kissed Finnick's cheek.
Finnick winked and bowed away, leaving Peeta with Annika Templesmith in the corner. Annika looked up at Peeta and smiled with her too-small teeth – before reaching her hand out to stroke the front of his satin pants as easily as she might scratch a cat between the ears. Peeta smiled, carefully controlled, while she giggled appreciatively.
"You know, Peeta," she said, "Mentors are not supposed to bet."
"Aw, it's just a little private wager," Peeta said, playing up his Twelve accent. Some Capitol citizens hated the different District drawls, but Annika wanted her Victors to be exactly who she had seen in the arena years before: District born, District bred, and young. "It won't do any harm."
"Unless Finnick's Tribute wins," Annika said. "I'd hate to see you two break up again so soon."
Peeta frowned for a moment before letting his eyes light up as he leaned in towards her ear. "Could you help me out?"
Annika kept petting the front of his trousers as she gave him a stern look. "That's cheating, Peeta."
"Oh, but I hate to see you sad," Annika simpered. "Oh, alright, Peeta, I can't resist – don't tell Finnick, but I'll Sponsor your Tributes. Clean water for the first ten days."
Peeta grinned beatifically and swooped down to kiss Annika right on the mouth. "Oh, thank you!"
Annika giggled and gave Peeta's crotch a squeeze. "Will I see you at my party tomorrow night to watch the Cornucopia?"
"Of course," Peeta said, his guts roiling. "I couldn't miss it."
Sixty seconds. That was how long the Tributes were meant to stand on their plates. Peeta knew that Cinna had sat with Katniss down in the Stockyards, and he was glad. But he wished that Mentors were allowed to see their Tributes for a last minute before they rose into the Arena. A last bit of advice. A last promise. A last look, a last kiss.
There was no way to know that the Katniss who came out of the Games - because she would come out- would be the Katniss who Peeta loved, or who loved Peeta. Finnick had gotten lucky with Annie, but even she had days of not recognizing Finnick, days of hiding in strange, enclosed places between rocks or behind walls and screaming when anyone came too close.
They all had their flashbacks.
The giant screens hung around the Templesmiths' massive home theater covered the Arena in almost 360°. Peeta could see Katniss standing tall on her plate with her chin high, and a few spaces away, Arvid with his weight shifting from foot to foot in a sway. Beyond them, he could see the horn of the golden Cornucopia: there were the backpacks and bedrolls, food, weapons, water. Sunglasses, hats, coats. Tarps. Tents. And at the center, a gleaming silver bow and quiver of arrows meant to tempt Katniss into the melee.
Peeta tried to remember how to inhale and exhale as he hoped that Katniss wouldn't be stubborn. He had told her to run for the forest. She'd be taken care of without needing the goods in the Cornucopia.
Thirty seconds. The crowd was restless in the Templesmiths' theater, jostling for the best spaces and already drunk and cheering.
Peeta found Finnick's hand and squeezed.
On the screen closest to the windows, Arvid finally looked up. He glanced at Katniss, and then to the bow at the center of the Cornucopia. He looked down at his feet.
And stepped off of his plate.
Peeta jerked back in shock as the sound of the explosion rocketed through the huge speakers ringing the theater and everyone hooted and screamed and started to riffle around looking for their booking slips. Odds on the Twelve boy to be first out: 4 to 1. The cameras panned to Katniss' face and her jaw had dropped, cheeks pale with shock. She looked up and her gray eyes locked with the camera for just a second.
Peeta could practically hear her whispering, He did what you wanted him to do, Mentor. He died.
Finnick squeezed Peeta's hand consolingly, his thumb rubbing along the ridge of Peeta's palm, but the scorecard ticked into place all the same.
PEETA MELLARK. Kills: 21. Six Tributes in his own Arena. Four Mellarks at the Bakery. Ten Tributes he couldn't save. Arvid, whom he convinced to lie down and die.
The gong rung out and Katniss wavered for just a second, her weight poised to take flight in any direction before she finally chose to heed Peeta's words and run for the woods. She stopped just long enough to grab a fallen black backpack and fend off a lethal blow from Brutus' evil-faced girl who could throw knives like one of Annie's gods threw lightning bolts.
The knife lodged in Katniss' backpack, and Peeta was glad that she'd ignored him long enough for it to fall.
And then Katniss ran for the woods. One camera followed her; one panel on the massive screens, but everyone else in the room was glued to the bloodbath at the Cornucopia. Peeta watched Katniss run. He'd already lost Arvid. It had taken less than a second. With Katniss, he didn't even want to blink.
By nightfall, she had found a tall tree and settled herself high in its branches. Peeta had noticed, because he was the only one looking, that Chaff's girl – a tiny little thing like a brown sparrow, only twelve years old – had followed Katniss' every move and was hidden by leaves in the next tree over. She had no pack. No water. No food. There was a little rustle, and Peeta thought he saw a tiny hand dart out to pluck some leaves to chew.
He pushed the blue button on his pack and released a silver parachute into the Arena. Katniss didn't smile as she unwrapped the canteen of clean water and steaming foil packet of lamb stew and barley. Peeta looked down, sadly and quietly, for just a moment – and pushed the blue button a second time. A smaller parachute fluttered down and tucked inside was a flaky, moon-shaped roll made of hundreds of layers of buttery-thin dough, stuffed with cheese and herbs.
He knew she would recognize the cheese. Prim must have pawned half of Peeta's belongings to afford to send it as a reminder for both Katniss and Peeta that she had to come home.
Katniss smiled for just a moment, and for Peeta, that was enough.
A phantom hand slid around his waist and down into his pants. "Sent her the pastry already? You must really want to earn another."
The next morning, Cinna grasped Peeta's wrist hard while he and Portia administered the cocktail.
"Peeta, I'm sorry," he hissed. "It's my fault."
Peeta's head jerked up. He choked on his Nutrium. "What is?"
"Seneca told me this morning – I shouldn't have done it."
"Cinna," Peeta snapped, "What?"
Peeta's heart dropped and he pushed Cinna away roughly, racing down the hallway with Portia on his heels with the rest of his injections. He skidded to a stop in the viewing room just in time to see that the forest arena had transformed into a world of flame and smoke, burning branches falling from the trees and exploding into showers of sparks and crawling vines of fire.
And there, in the thick of it, the fabric of her shirt pulled up around her nose and mouth, running on pace with the animals – natural and muttation alike – over the forest floor, was Katniss.
Portia caught up to Peeta and grabbed his arm, not to give him the shot of Ketorolac but just to steady herself. "Oh, Peeta," she whispered.
"She can run," Peeta said. "She knows fire. She's from Twelve. She lost her father to fire."
Katniss hurdled over a burning log and her face twisted in widescreen as the tail of her jacket caught fire. She dropped to the forest floor and rolled for a moment, dampening the flames, and stayed low just long enough to vomit up the remains of the stew and pastry. Peeta watched as she steadied herself on her hands and knees just long enough for a lewd cry to raise up from the Templesmiths' theater and he clenched his hand into a fist.
"She's alive," Portia soothed softly. "That's what matters right now."
And that was when the fireball rocketed out of the tree and caught just above Katniss' head.
"Peeta!" she cried, then froze and covered her mouth with both hands.
The scent of blood and roses drifted down the hallway.
"Peeta," Finnick said seriously as they waited on the steps of the huge, ornate black mansion just outside the Circle, "You don't have to do this. I can send her the burn ointment and say that it was a mixup – my boy got hit, too. Bad."
"No," Peeta said. "The fact she's in there at all means I've got to keep my nose clean. I get my own Sponsors for her. I'm sorry I dragged you into it."
"You didn't drag me into anything," Finnick said, and kissed Peeta's temple gently. "Neither of us asked for it."
The blood red doors swung opened and Peeta swallowed as they stepped into the macabre temple to hedonism and past Games. The unreturned tokens of dead Tributes were displayed in shadowboxes along the black velvet walls as Peeta and Finnick climbed the familiar, hated staircase.
The second floor of the house was little more than a giant gymnasium of a bedroom. A huge, round bed filled the center of the room and in the center of the bed, wearing a high-buttoned black suit like an undertaker and with red-and-black marbled skin like one of Mags' devils, waited their client for the night.
Peeta swallowed reflexively and reached for Finnick's hand.
"Welcome back, my boys," hissed Nero. His eyes were black from corner to corner and lid to lid, like a snake or a shark or dead thing left to rot. "Such a pleasure to see you. Which of you begs my benefaction tonight?"
Peeta closed his eyes, swallowed again, and ducked his head deferentially. "I do. Sir. My girl Tribute needs burn salve."
"Poor thing," Nero said carelessly. "She's pretty. I hope she wins. Salve is expensive. She'll owe us both."
Peeta imagined Nero being caught in one of the Arena's fireballs, exploding into bits like Arvid, falling unseeing dead to the floor like the Careers in his Games, who, too, fell for his kindness and meekness and submission.
"Will she die without it?" Nero asked. His voice peaked with interest in the idea of death.
"Yes, sir," Peeta said. He wasn't sure if it were true, but he was sure it was what Nero needed to hear.
Nero smiled with his leathern mouth and stood, his black suit falling perfectly into place around his skeletal frame as he walked sinuously towards Peeta and Finnick. Both men kept their heads inclined to the floor.
Without warning, Nero smacked Finnick hard across the face – enough that Peeta saw just a wisp of blood fly from the corner of Finnick's lip. Finnick didn't make a sound. Peeta did not react.
Nero kept smiling. "Please me," he said. "And we'll see whether your Tribute can survive."
He grinned up at Peeta and licked his black, scaly lips. Then Nero opened his suitjacket and emptied the contents of his pocket onto the blinking glass table.
Peeta's stomach clenched when he saw the little acid-yellow bottle, the needles.
"Jax?" offered Nero. His slit-pupiled eyes seemed to glow – or maybe really did, all things considered. Pheromone controlled responses were the new frontier in cosmetic surgery, Cressida had said.
Peeta struggled into his best, sweetest smile. "How about candycaine instead?" He pulled a packet of pink powder from his own trouser pocket. "This is good."
Nero's Glaswegian grin split wider. "I prefer jax."
Katniss needs burn salve.Peeta bit the inside of his lip and kept smiling.
"Okay," he said. He stroked Nero's spindly arm, gently rolling up his sleeve with the caress. He tied on the tourniquet and tightened it with his teeth before he filled the syringe with thick, neon fluid and tapped out the bubbles.
Jax. That fucking bastard.
Nero gritted his teeth as Peeta injected the drug into his arm and the first blazing, tingly flares of anesthetic shot up his veins to soothe the drug's fire. For most Capitol citizens, jax was a hot-and-cold, bittersweet hallucinogen that turned their already-multicolored city into a glowing, rainbow playground.
For Peeta, it was a return trip to the Hunger Games. Jax was derived from trackerjacker venom, and with Peeta's sensitivity, every trip was a bad one.
Nero had to know that. Everyone had seen Peeta covered in those welts, screaming his way through the forest as he tried to break through the visions of the mutts. Of course, some of Peeta's patrons liked to give him jax for precisely that reason.
Peeta Mellark won the Hunger Games by convincing the Careers that he could be useful for his knowledge of foods and foraging in their bleak, disorienting Arena – designed to look like sky below and forest above, the effects exacerbated by hallucinogenic fog rolling in every morning from the floor. For three days, he guarded their stash of food and clean water near the Cornucopia.
And then he killed them all with the juice of nightlock berries.
Peeta Mellark, thirteen years old from District Twelve, was the only Tribute to win his Games in one fell swoop by committing mass murder. He smiled and handed out canteens of dark purple juice and told them all it would give them the energy to keep going.
Then he stood alone as the Careers all sank into the storm-gray ground, more than half of the remaining Tributes. There was another cannon that night that he hadn't expected – a badger-faced girl from District Six who had been shadowing the Careers move-for-move, unbeknownst to Peeta when he mixed the cocktail.
He wouldn't have minded losing to someone from District Six. They never won, either.
Once the bodies had been cleared away, the only Tributes left in the Arena were the soft, pale, Merchant from Twelve and the pair from Eleven, a brutal big girl and a boy Peeta's age. They set a trackerjacker nest on him and waited for days as Peeta crashed through the noxious clouds, but Peeta Mellark, the little baker boy, did not die. The boy from Eleven starved while they waited for Peeta to fall, and once there were only two Tributes left, the Gamemakers sent in the mutts.
A wide-winged albatross with poisonous barbs on its feathers felled the Eleven girl. A peregrine falcon with huge steel claws slashed through tendon and bone on Peeta's leg, but it didn't matter: he had already won. They started operating on his leg as soon as he'd reached the hovercraft, so in lieu of a closing interview, the Capitol got another gory show. He had still been hallucinating from the trackerjacker venom as they put him under and removed his leg.
Peeta stared at Nero's snakeskin lips and thought that was exactly why he'd insisted on it tonight.
Nero moaned a disturbing sigh as he settled back into the cushions, and Peeta untied the tourniquet. He handed it to Finnick without a word, and Finnick squeezed his wrist consolingly before starting to tie the rubber around Peeta's arm.
Peeta tried hard to swallow the whimper of pain that followed the flood of venom into his veins.
A dozen stingers two inches long piercing into his salt-sticky skin; buzzing like hovercrafts swinging and pinging around his ears; hard-bodied exoskeletons pelting his head like stones.
Peeta closed his eyes tight and rubbed the heels of his hands hard against his face.
I'm not in the Games. It's just a dose of jax. Katniss is in the Games. I'm safe. I have to save Katniss.
He opened his eyes and the room shifted. He watched a wall melt into inky black tar while beside him, Finnick injected himself – but he wasn't Finnick anymore, not really; instead, all Peeta saw was a glittering golden ghost. He reached out to touch it and saw Finnick's golden bones all break, mauled and misshapen and Peeta whimpered and pulled his hand away.
"It's okay," Finnick hummed, and Peeta looked over his shoulder to try to find his friend.
Sharp grains of broken glass encased his hand, and Finnick gently pulled Peeta to his feet. Whenever jax was in the room, Finnick made sure to take the needle last. Then he injected his own into the sofa behind him or let the yellow-green mess ooze down his arm. Peeta needed someone to watch out for him when he was back in the Games.
Nero sighed again and his head lolled against the back of the sofa. He gestured vaguely towards the bed at the center of the room. "Showtime."
Peeta stared at the floor. There were booby-traps all over the ground, courtesy the psychotic boy from District Two and his hold over the little one from Three. He could see them, glittering faintly against the leaves and the mud. He tiptoed around them. Finnick chewed the inside of his cheek and led Peeta forward, making sure to stagger his own steps and reach out to pet the air with his free hand. Once upon a time, Finnick had liked jax – depended on it, even, to make the Capitol less real and more bearable.
But then Annie had been Reaped. Annie, who never really saw the world as a real place, so the Capitol was even more terrible.
And then Finnick had bought Annie's life by trading it for Peeta Mellark, and he had watched Peeta rock and scream for hours while he waited for the pain and hallucinations of the jax to wear off. After that, they made a deal: they were in this together and they would work as a team. One of them would always stay sober. One of them would try to put a backup deal in place. And slowly, they developed a code of little touches and looks for the things their patrons never let them say - ouch, stop, no, really, stop now.
But when Peeta had to take jax, he couldn't even see Finnick. Let alone feel anything besides ouch, stop; no, really, now. That was the point of trackerjacker venom. Why it had been designed.
Why anyone in the Capitol thought that a weapon of war sounded like a sexy, fun party drug, Finnick would never understand.
Peeta whimpered and fought against the muttation bear that insisted on pushing him down into the giant bird's nest. He watched the ceiling melt away, stripping off in stripes of burning orange and red and - fire, something about fire. Something important about fire, fire and Katniss! Katniss on fire! Who had set Katniss on fire?
"Katniss," Peeta gasped.
"Shut up," Finnick hissed in his ear and Peeta jerked, surprised. His eyes slid into focus for the barest second and Finnick was above him, green eyes tight and sad. "Don't talk, Peeta. C'mon, shut up. Kiss me or something so you don't talk."
And then Peeta was suffocating, something pressed down over his mouth, sliding in and covering his tongue. He whimpered again and sank into the birdnest as something warm smoothed over his cock. Peeta closed his eyes and felt the nest take off like the birds had come back and dragged their home into flight with them, getting hotter and hotter and then he was burning and he cried out as the fires came, licking up his legs to the apex of his hips.
And then Finnick's voice was back in his ear, whispering that everything would be alright, and Peeta was glad that his friend hadn't burned.
After another sweaty hour, Peeta's eyes had begun to crawl back into focus – although everything still looked like a mirage shimmering over the head of a flame – and the time Nero could afford in a night was nearly up. Peeta's mouth felt like it was stuffed with cotton, too dry to speak.
"Alright," Nero said, his sibilant S's slurring on his black, black lips. "I'll send the girl some burn salve. But first," he grinned and the slit in his throat pulled tight and red. "A parting gift for her intrepid mentor."
"He's still strong on the first dose," Finnick cut in quickly, trying to shield Peeta with his body.
Nero's smile widened. "I know."
Finnick closed his eyes as Nero tight the tourniquet tight around Peeta's arm and shot him up again with a second strong dose of the bright yellow jax. Peeta's eyes were black and terrified as he whimpered and clawed at his arm, at Finnick's legs, at the floor.
Nero sighed with satisfaction and shifted his shoulders; the picture of relaxation. He waved a dismissive hand at Finnick and the pathetic puddle on the floor that was Peeta. "You may go. I'll make the call and send Peeta my receipt in the morning."
"Yes, sir," Finnick demurred. "Thank you."
He hoisted Peeta up by the armpits and slung him over his shoulder in a lifeguard's carry and boarded the black landcar waiting outside. Cinna and Johanna were waiting with an emetic, adrenaline, barbiturate, a bucket, water, a towel, dry toast… the usual kit for tending to Finnick or Peeta after a sale.
"What is it?" Cinna asked, helping Finnick straighten out Peeta's limbs across the backseat.
"Jax," Finnick said grimly. "There's nothing to do for him but wait."
"What a fucker," grunted Johanna, struggling to get Peeta's hands into gloves so he would stop scratching at his arms and face. "Why would anyone wantto see Peeta like this?"
Finnick shook his head and slumped over, elbows on his knees and face in hands. Cinna rubbed his back soothingly.
"This isn't your fault, Finnick," Cinna said softly.
"I brought him into this," Finnick croaked. "I just… didn't want – "
"You did not," hissed Cinna. "You didn't start the Hunger Games, you didn't Reap Peeta, you didn't tell Snow about Katniss."
"Annie did," Finnick whispered. "She didn't mean to. But when she called – "
"Katniss answered," Cinna said sharply. "No one told her that she should. It's not Annie's fault, Finnick, and it isn't yours. The only cause for this happening is the government. The Capitol caused this. Not you."
Finnick nodded and sniffled, trying to keep his tears silent. Peeta whimpered and whimpered, struggling and spasming on the seat.
"We've gotta stay with him," Finnick muttered. "Nero gave him a second dose at the end."
"We'd stay with you anyway," Cinna said. "Neither of you should be alone."
They unloaded Peeta at Cinna's apartment and Finnick carried him into the elevator and up the ten flights to Cinna's home, swept for bugs every six months by Beetee. The bedroom was clear, so that's where they would sit and wait for Peeta to come down.
"Did it work, at least?" Cinna asked Finnick quietly. Peeta curled in on himself, batting at the air, invisible mutts, crying out pathetically in his hoarse, broken voice. "Will Katniss get the salve?"
Finnick nodded. "She'll live. She'll win. She has to."
"Why does he even want her to win?" Johanna asked, staring down at Peeta screaming in the bed. His pupils rolled like dice. "Does he want her to end up like him? Or does he want you? Or Annie? Or I think she'll turn out like me."
Finnick was very quiet. He smoothed one hand over Peeta's damp hair and Peeta whimpered. His hands were clammy and wet when he reached up and clung to Finnick's wrist.
"I don't think he's thought about that yet," Finnick answered Johanna. "I think he just doesn't want to have killed her, too."
"I don't think it'll be worth it," Johanna said. She sat down at the foot of the bed and looked plaintively up at Finnick. Her eyes were flat and frank and her jaw set, even after Cinna sat down beside her and wrapped an arm around her shoulders. "I'm glad I killed everyone I loved."
"That's terrible, Hanna," Cinna murmured. "Things will change. It's good that Annie will be here for it. It's even better that Katniss will."
Johanna didn't even blink. "Annie isn't here, Cinna."
"Shut up, Johanna," Finnick snapped. "Peeta isn't you, and neither am I. He wants Katniss to live and so do I."
"Why?" Johanna challenged, pushing harder. "So she can be used like bait? Like they use Annie as bait? Is that what you want?"
"It's better than wishing she were dead," Finnick shot back. "You have Cinna, Joha. Why shouldn't Peeta and I get to tryto be happy, too?"
"Because you gave that up when you kept playing Snow's game." Johanna tilted her head, blinked, and her eyes filled suddenly with light and fire again. "You don't get to be happy, Finnick. Neither does Peeta. The only person who wins the Hunger Games is Snow and you know it. You think you earned Annie by letting every disgusting person in the Capitol fuck you, but Annie isn't a prize. And Katniss… I could stranglePeeta right now for trying to damn her to this life."
"Fuck you, Johanna," Finnick said – but he just sounded tired. "You have no idea what 'this life' is like. You're a psychopath, you know that?"
There was another long minute of quiet as Peeta started rustling again, less violently than before. He kicked out and Johanna caught his ankle before lowering it back to the mattress top, surprisingly gentle.
"Yeah," she said finally. Her voice was small and shrunken down inside her, a voice they almost never got to hear. "It's what the good doctor says."
Peeta woke slowly the next afternoon with his head pounding. He blinked twice through gummy eyes and looked around. Cinna's apartment. That meant he was in the Capitol. This shaky headache meant Jax. He sat up slowly and groaned as his empty stomach rumbled and begged for nourishment, and he rubbed it as he tried to remember –
"Fuck," Peeta gasped, scrambling out of the bed so quickly that his shaky legs couldn't hold him and he fell to the floor. "Katniss – I – "
"Peeta!" Portia cried, skidding into the room with the black packet of a cocktail in her hands. "I'm sorry, I didn't realize you'd woken up, I just stepped out – "
"Is she alive?" Peeta asked urgently. He grabbed Portia's shoulders to steady himself. "Is she alive?"
"She's fine, she's perfect," Portia assured him. "Oh, Peeta, sweetie, sit down, there we go…"
She led Peeta to sit down on the edge of the bed and opened his mouth with a gentle thumb on his chin to place a white tablet inside. Peeta chewed it hurriedly, gagging along the way, and flushed his mouth out with water. "Tell me."
"She got the salve this morning," Portia said. "She's good as new, Peeta. But – "
"She's taken an ally. Chaff's girl."
Peeta's pounding head struggled to remember the other Tributes. Then he saw Prim in his mind, stickbug legs and delicate arms like wings. "The little one."
Portia nodded. "They killed Finnick's together."
Peeta reeled back in surprise as Portia swabbed his arm for the injections. "Finnick's are dead?" He hissed as the needle slid into his arm. "Katniss – she killed them?"
"She and Rue," Portia confirmed. "They dropped a trackerjacker nest onto their camp and took out both from Four and that crafty girl from Five who's been shadowing them. And that big boy – the – from Two? He tried to climb up their tree after, but the venom made him fall. He broke his neck."
Peeta rubbed his temple. "How many left?"
"Katniss. Rue. The Two girl and One boy, Rue's District partner. That's it."
"The final five," Peeta said shakily. "How are the polls?"
"Choosing Rue… they don't like it," Portia admitted nervously. "It's down to five and she's got an ally… it's kind of like saying she doesn't want to win." Portia bit her lip. "Peeta… sweetheart, does Katniss wantto win?"
"She's going to," Peeta said fiercely. "She has to get home. She's got her sister, her mom… Katniss is going to win."
Portia patted Peeta's clammy cheek and brushed some of his limp curls away. "Why don't you send her something? If she knows about being a Victor… she might be worried about you, too."
Peeta nodded and kissed Portia's hand as she pulled away. He flopped across the mattress and hit the blue button on his comm. Then he turned on the videoscreen for the Games again, just in time to see the silver parachute flutter down to where Katniss and Rue had made camp near an outcropping of rock like a small cave.
"Why don't you get it, Rue?"
"It's not mine," Rue said softly, shaking her head. "Miss Seeder ain't sent me anything. I know I don't have Sponsors. I'm too small."
"Hey," Katniss said gently. "Peeta Mellark was small, too. And he won."
Rue gave her a little smile. "That's true." She checked both ways carefully and darted out of the cave to gather the parachute. She handed it to Katniss, who unwrapped the silver foil and smiled.
"It's chocolate," Katniss explained, smiling. She broke off a shard from the corner and handed the rest of the bar to Rue. "Try it. You'll like it."
"Well, this is yours," Rue said, trying to push the bar back into Katniss' hand. "You should have the big piece."
"It's okay," Katniss insisted. "I've had chocolate before. And something tells me you're hungry?"
Rue nodded sheepishly.
"Well, then eat it. But go slow. It's rich." Katniss smiled at her and smoothed Rue's hair. Rue grinned back and nibbled at the chocolate, slowly, then faster and faster. Peeta wondered whether Prim had gotten the sweet bread back in Twelve, and hoped that she'd remembered to share it with Posy and the younger Hawthorne boys. Gale could fend for himself.
The screen faded into Claudius Templesmith's commentary. "Sweets for a surprisingly sweet Tribute this afternoon! It's a sudden Game-change – haha – for Katniss Everdeen, the remaining Tribute from District Twelve, to take an ally. She had a lot of success earlier this week thanks to Sponsorships earned by her deliciousmentor, Peeta Mellark, the Victor of the 68TH Hunger Games, but it looks as though her popularity is slipping now. And let's hear the word on the street… "
Peeta's heart felt heavy as he listened to grotesque client after client decry Katniss for refusing to kill the little girl. Such an easy kill. Why spare someone so useless? The trackerjackers had been a lucky happenstance. Why would a Tribute who scored an Eleven at Training and had such wonderfulSponsorship want to keep a little girl alive?
Peeta closed his eyes and rang for Caesar Flickerman on his comm.
A few hours later, Peeta grinned coquettishly at Caesar as the ageless man petted Peeta's soft, blond curls and, beside him, patted Finnick's chiseled jaw. Finnick had to look solemn for the loss of his Tributes, but played the role of Peeta's lover perfectly with their clasped hands and fawning green eyes. Peeta was effusive for his Tribute's unlikely survival and "couldn't be happier to get to talk to youagain, Caesar."
Peeta's stomach twisted with the lie he was about to tell. At best, it would mean an audience with President Snow. At worst, Katniss would be killed immediately where she sat.
"This is the first year that you've had a real competitor for a Tribute!" Caesar simpered. "Are these Games just thrillingto watch? You must feel so much pride whenever that Girl on Fire takes on another opponent."
"I would, Caesar, I would," said Peeta in a fruity, silken voice. "If only it weren't for the baby."
"Baby?" asked Caesar, in some shock. "Your Tribute is pregnant?"
Peeta arranged his face into morose contrition. "And it's mine."
There was a beat.
Even Caesar Flickerman had been rocked into silence at Peeta's false declaration. Off to the side, a frown creased Finnick's brow.
"Why, Peeta Mellark!" stammered Caesar. "How did this happen?"
Peeta rose a blush. "Well, actually it's been an ongoing dalliance… you know how it can be; handsome, young Victor… beautiful, destitute, Specialty-class urchin…" He hung his head and looked up through his lashes, the picture of polite embarrassment. "I wanted to help her out."
An atypical look of concern and confusion mingled on Caesar's face. He looked human beneath his makeup. "Peeta – I'm not sure you should have told us all that little secret."
Peeta shook some blond hair into his eyes. "I'm not sure that it's fair to the good people of Panem if I didn't. I just want her to win so badly, you see. I'm really hoping for help with Sponsorships."
"Well, I think that will be easy to achieve," Caesar said, smiling easily again. "Two Victors! Has that ever happened before? I don't think it has!"
The Capitol always conveniently forgot about Annie. Finnick preferred it that way.
"How far along is she?" Caesar asked. "A celebrity baby! Oh, is it a boy or a girl? The little dear will be bornfamous. Providing fiery Katniss makes it out of the Arena, of course!"
"She's not far along at all," Peeta said, grinning. His comm was buzzing furiously in his pocket as Sponsorship offers rolled in. "And we don't know yet whether it's a boy or a girl. It was… unexpected, needless to say. But I just couldn't be happier, now that I've told you all about it, Caesar."
"And are you getting married, Peeta Mellark?"
Peeta swallowed. "Yes, I suspect so, if Katniss wins."
Caesar tittered and clapped his long-fingered hands. "What an event it will be! I expect your stylist will design the most beautifulgown for the ceremony. Oh, I what an exciting broadcast that will be, the wedding of two Victors! What a special, special event."
Peeta smiled without his teeth and tipped his head in acknowledgement. Their wedding would be made a special event, alright, if Katniss won. He had just sold his own wedding, sold Katniss' future, to President Snow for the price of keeping Katniss alive through the Games.
It would be worth it, he thought. He wouldn't kill her.
The interview ended with a series of vapid questions to Finnick about how hefelt about the turn of events, being, as he was, Peeta's longtime lover. Peeta sat silently beside Finnick, looking at his hands. The silent contemplation on his face was real.
Because of course, he had met Katniss out in the woods when he was almost fifteen years old and orphaned, and she was twelve and newly fatherless. She had a too-big bow and arrow in her hands and a long, heavy braid that reached her waist. Peeta had snuck up behind her to tug on her braid, planning to smile, planning to tell her that she needed to pay more attention if she was going to be out in the woods all alone, little thing like her.
But instead, he had tugged on her braid and Katniss spun around and walloped him in the nose without even missing a beat. When she realized he wasn't a bear, she dragged him back to the Seam so her mother could patch up his broken nose.
And he went back every day that he was in District Twelve after that.
In the hallway after they wrapped, Finnick pushed Peeta more roughly than necessary into the shaft that led to the tunnels to Cinna's apartment.
"You do realize that you just told all of Panem that Katniss is an underage prostitute, right?" Finnick hissed as the two men ducked through the Avox tunnels.
Peeta glowered at him. "I'm going to do what I have to do to bring her home." His voice chilled. "Just like you did to bring home Annie."
Annie Cresta had been treading water the first time Peeta Mellark had sex with a man.
Finnick sighed through his nose. "And what are you going to do when she wins and there's no baby?"
Peeta shrugged. "She lost it in the stress of the Hunger Games. Tragedy always makes people happy."
"Not always." Annie's brand of tragedy wasn't one the Capitol could make into currency. They only bought sad stories they could pay for. "They might make you have a baby," Finnick said. He bit the inside of his cheek. "Is that – do you and Katniss want that?"
Peeta's brow furrowed and his blue eyes darkened, and before he said anything, Finnick already knew the answer. "Katniss doesn't. I do."
Finnick put his hand on Peeta's shoulder. "I do, too. And Annie. But it's hard with her – you know how she gets sometimes about touching. It's hard."
"I just think it would be nice to have someone love me like that," Peeta said. He trailed his fingers along the side of the wall and felt it bump beneath his fingertips. "I idolized my dad. He was the best person ever."
"Katniss idolizes you," Finnick said. He kneaded Peeta's shoulder with his thumb.
"She won't after this," Peeta whispered. His hand faltered on the wall and then he slid down against it, hunched on his haunches with the heels of his hands pressed into his eyes.
Finnick slid down beside him and put his arms around Peeta's shaking shoulders to let him cry.
Hours later, as though she had impossibly heard his interview, Peeta saw the apology in Katniss' gray eyes, the little yellow flowers she picked and wove into a crown for Rue's hair. Primroses.
She didn't intend to make it home. She was going to make sure that Rue won.
But that wasn't her job, Peeta thought grimly as teeth caught on his bones, it was the mentors' job to make sure the right Tribute stayed alive.
"You and me," Chaff said gruffly, "We're square. We're square forever, Peeta. Don't never ask me for a favor again."
"I won't," Peeta said. He looked at the huge glass screens surrounding them and felt empty. "There isn't anything left to ask for."
"Yeah." Chaff leveled Peeta with a long, difficult stare. "I reckon… you won too young."
"You were only three years older," Peeta said, his brow creasing. "We're all young."
"Not like you," Chaff said. "You worked in a bakery. You had big brothers. Hell, you killed everyone without not a drop of blood. You won too young. You got raised Capitol."
"I got raised in District Twelve," Peeta argued. "I had my family, and – Haymitch. I'm not Capitol."
"How many games you playin' right now? How many cards you got up your sleeve?" Chaff shook his head.
Peeta tongued the back of his teeth and looked at the floor. "I just want to bring her home. I just – love her. You never gave Finnick grief like this for Annie."
"Annie brung herself home," Chaff said. He looked at the screen, where Thresh was stalking Clove through the massive cornfield just as surely as she stalked him. They were locked into a circular dance, both with weapons drawn, and it was only a matter of time before the pas de deux erupted. "Finnick just helped."
"I am just helping Katniss," Peeta said. "I'm helping her the best way I know how. It's what Finnick did for Annie. It's exactlywhat Finnick did for Annie. At least I'm not breaking in a fifteen-year-old kid – "
"No," Chaff agreed. "You're willing to let a twelve-year-old kid die. We all have a price. You were Finnick's. And that little girl in the Arena who looks at Katniss like she hanged the moon is yours."
Peeta closed his eyes. "Chaff, if there were any other way…"
"If there was, it wouldn't be the Hunger Games," Chaff said. He crossed his arms and the angry, scarred stump. He gave Peeta a sort of fragile, bitter smile. "It ain't supposed to be like this for us. We take the kids and we grow 'em up, teach 'em how to survive and how to kill each other, and turn 'em loose. It's like raising mushroom-pigs, you treat 'em like pets until it's time to set them to the woods and let 'em be animals. That's our job. But you're acting like you're right in there with Katniss."
"My heart is," Peeta argued.
"Your mind is, too," Chaff said. He tapped Peeta's forehead with the tip of one finger. "Your brain is wired right into that Arena right now." He raised an eyebrow. "Maybe once you get old 'n ugly, they'll make you a Gamemaker. You're good at the spectacle."
"I will neverbe a Gamemaker," Peeta snapped. "They're murderers."
Chaff leaned back in his chair, tipping his weight up to balance it against the floor. "Is that so?"
"You know it is," Peeta said.
"I don't see them bigwigs in the Cornucopia every year with they tridents and axes and ropes," Chaff said. "I don't see Seneca Crane convincin' people to drink the juice."
Peeta's lips quivered. "Being a killer isn't being a murderer. The Gamemakers, they – they plan it out, they act like it's a story…"
Chaff tilted his chin.
Peeta looked down at the floor and clenched his fists once, twice. "I can't let Katniss die."
"I said we square," Chaff said lightly. "You made your choices. But you know this is going ta change everything when Katniss comes out. You're both different people now. And you ain't better for having saved her this way."
"Well, maybe I – " Peeta took a deep breath and shook his head. "It might not come to it. There's still Clove out there, and Marvel. And Thresh – "
"Thresh ain't gonna kill Rue," Chaff said gruffly. "No matter what. He's a good boy. Man, almost. He's good. And you know Katniss won't let Marvel or Clove get near 'em." He shrugged his broad shoulders. "I can't tell you it's okay. But if you can live with everything you done, then it's not my place to tell you whether it's okay or not."
"I couldn't live if Katniss dies," Peeta said. "That's all I know."
Chaff studied Peeta's face. "I wish you won older. Because Katniss is. She's older than you was. She might see things different. And you better hope with your whole heart, what's left of it, that shecan live with everything you done to make her win."
In the darkest hours of the night, while Peeta was having cinnamon-sugar licked from his skin by a cadre of brightly-colored bachelorettes, Thresh and Clove killed each other out in the fields, putting an end to their three-day battle royale out in the rain.
Three Tributes left.
The 74TH Hunger Games would end within the hour.
Peeta touched the corner of the screen, leaving his thumbprint on the cold glass. He watched as Katniss smiled at Rue and tugged at the end of one of the little girl's braids. She checked over their shoulders and pulled the groosling off of its spit before splitting it into pieces.
She let Rue choose first. Of course she did.
A warm hand slid along the base of Peeta's spine, but he knew Finnick's touch as well as his own and didn't move.
"Katniss had an easy day today." Finnick nodded up at the screen. "She's sweet with Chaff's girl."
On the screen, Katniss was telling Rue a story about Prim and the goat, and Rue laughed happily, her mouth full of groosling.
"I can see why you like her," Finnick continued. "There aren't many people who can make you forget you're watching the Hunger Games."
Peeta's chest felt tight and hot as he watched Katniss' grin, which didn't reach her wary, watchful huntress' eyes as she kept constant vigil over the darkening forest. Rue stared adoringly up at Katniss.
"I love her," Peeta whispered. The hand that wasn't tracing Katniss' face on the screen came up to press against his chest, holding his heart inside. "I understand now. About loving her. I understand what Annie meant."
Finnick smiled sadly. "It does make it worth everything, doesn't it."
Peeta's hand clenched over his chest as on the screen, miles away, he saw Katniss exchange a smile with Rue. He turned to Finnick with huge blue eyes blurred by tears. "I don't know."
Finnick's eyes flashed. He held Peeta's jaw in his palm and made Peeta look up at him. "What did you do?"
The Arena began to hush and crackle as a blossom of ice bore down across the plain and forest, ringing the land and pushing deeper. Animals and mutts alike raced towards the warmth, but were frozen in their tracks. The water crystalized in the lake and the stream and bubbled the leaves with diamond as it froze instantly.
Katniss left her fire and began to run, Rue flying along beside her.
The camera panned over the white Arena, yellow arrows mapping the distance between Katniss and Rue with the flash freeze. From the other side of the Arena, Marvel came barreling out of the tall stalks of grain with ice on his heels.
And a spear in his hand.
Only when they instantly replayed in slow motion, moments later, did the Mentors see what ended the 74th Hunger Games. Katniss glanced away just long enough to pull an arrow from her quiver and load the shining silver bow, but it was long enough – the spear entered Rue's body and she fell. Marvel was dead before the ice could frost Rue's black hair; Katniss' arrow lodged deep in his neck and he stumbled back into the encroaching winter. He froze solid, a statue of horror, before he could drown in his own blood.
The freeze stopped.
Katniss dropped to her knees at Rue's side, where the little girl had curled herself around the spear still embedded deep into her stomach.
"You get to win," Rue whispered. Katniss twined her hands into Rue's dark fingers, slick with blood. Her breath puffed white in front of her.
The Capitol did love ice this year.
"Sing," Rue whispered.
Peeta pressed his fists to his forehead and gritted his teeth in pain, shaking and shaking and it was himagain in that Arena crashing through the hallucinogenic fog and running from the mutt like a bird, a singing bird, lullabies from home pouring from its mouth as it chased him down, dead bodies everywhere, Peeta Mellark kills with kindness –
Lay down your head, and close your eyes
And when they open, the sun will rise.
Finnick grabbed Peeta's shoulders and guided him down to sit and wait out the flashback. But it didn't come. Peeta's eyes were wide and clear as he watched Katniss crouch protectively over the dying little girl on the screen, the Arena still ringing with the sound of her singing Rue to sleep.
Here it's safe, and here it's warm
Here the daisies guard you from every harm
Here your dreams are sweet–
–and tomorrow brings them true
Here is the place where I love you.
Deep in the meadow, hidden far away
A cloak of leaves, a moonbeam ray
Forget your woes and let your troubles lay
And when again it's morning, they'll wash away.
The last cannon sounded.
Everything was still and silent in the viewing hall. Everything was still and silent beyond the windows, where the sound of revelry usually floated its way into every crevice of the Capitol. Everything was silent on the screen, where Katniss did not move from her place protecting Rue: keeping her good and safe.
Finnick's eyes were hard. "What did you do, Peeta?"
Katniss leaned forward and pressed her lips against Rue's temple.
Peeta looked away, and Finnick pulled his face back to look him in the eye again. "I sent Clove right to Thresh… with parachutes. I p – " he swallowed and closed his eyes. "I promised the Templesmiths a month… for the ice." He pressed his lips together before exhaling a shaky breath. "And I sent the spear."
Here it's safe, and here it's warm
Here the daisies guard you from every harm.
"That was from the Cornucopia," Finnick said. "We've all seen Marvel with it for – "
"No," Peeta whispered. "That wasn't… Marvel died last week." He exhaled a shuddering breath. "That's a – I got Seneca to put it in. Gloss doesn't know. I told Chaff a few days ago, before Thresh – that's why it didn't go for Katniss. It was programed for Rue. They made it out of Marvel's body, but… Finnick, I had to!" Peeta sobbed. "I – you know what it's like, I had – "
Finnick blinked, his face blank, and stood slowly. "They need you for the hovercraft."
"Finnick – "
"I'm gonna go home," Finnick murmured. "To Annie."
"I had to make a choice," Peeta said. He looked from the dimming screen emblazoned with Panem's flag to Finnick's drawn face with a heartbroken, earnest expression.
Then he glanced to the side, just past the red marker for the edge of the screen where Caesar Flickerman and Claudius Templesmith were waiting for him to board the hovercraft.
"I thought I could be – I thought I was doing the right thing," Peeta whispered tremulously. "Can you… can you ever forgive me?"
Finnick stepped back, then forward hesitantly with his lips drawn tightly before he crouched down and gently grasped Peeta's hand. There was a long moment when Finnick just stared at Peeta and Peeta held his breath, still hiccoughing from the tears. Finnick leaned in and gently kissed Peeta's forehead.
"I have to forgive you," Finnick murmured. He rested his forehead against Peeta's and stroked Peeta's jaw with his thumb. "Just… be honest with Katniss. Please. And then be patient. It takes ten times as long to put yourself back together as it does to fall apart."
In the background, the screens flicked to blue and Cressida's voice rang out from somewhere deeper in the hall. "And cut! That's a wrap on this location. Pack 'em up, boys!"
Finnick stood. "I'm gonna go say goodbye to Cinna and Johanna. Go get Katniss."
Finnick walked off down the hall, flashing a quick, bright smile to Caesar and Claudius, and Peeta stood. He wiped his eyes and let Portia bustle over to dab his face with something that tingled and took the puffiness away.
He boarded the hovercraft and heard echoes of District Twelve, of Katniss and Rue, of taloned birds, howling like ghosts in his ears.
Here your dreams are sweet –
– and tomorrow brings them true
Here is the place where I love you.
The air above the Arena was still cold as Peeta watched Katniss rising towards the hovercraft. She looked small as she clutched the hanging ladder, and a hundred worlds away from the warm, brown bare shoulders that greeted him in his bed back home.
Here is the place where I love you.
And then she was standing in front of him, hollow and bloodied and skinny. But alive.
Katniss was alive.
"Peeta!" Katniss sobbed, wrapping her arms around his neck. She smelled of sweat and blood and the black-ashen smell of old charcoal. "Peeta, I don't know – it happened so fast, I just turned away for a few minutes, and then the cannon – "
"Shhhh," he soothed gently, rubbing circles into her back. "It's okay. You're okay. You're alive. You're coming home."
"But Rue – "
"It's alright," Peeta repeated. He rested his lips against the top of her head. "You're coming home to Prim and your mother and me. And the baby."
Katniss looked up at him with baffled, crazed eyes. "Baby?"
"They know," Peeta said. He slid his hand over her stomach and felt it rumble with hunger under his fingers. "Everyone already knows about the baby. They know we're lovers. And they're okay with it, Katniss. They loved it."
Katniss' head tilted as betrayal filled her gray eyes. She blinked. "Oh."
"I love you so much," Peeta said softly, hoisting her up into his arms. And then he kissed her, aware of the cameras zoomed in on them, and thought, Do you know? Do you know how much danger you were in?
After long minutes of kissing, Caesar Flickerman taps on Peeta's shoulder to continue the show. Cinna waited on the hovercraft, looking at Peeta with a crease between his eyes, and whisked Katniss away.
"So! Now that you've got your girl back, what are you going to do with her?" Caesar wiggled a grotesquely colored eyebrow and Peeta tasted bile in the back of his throat.
But he smiled. He tossed his blond curls. "Put her somewhere she can't get hurt."
Katniss wore a simple, pale yellow nightgown, and lay wide-awake on her side when Peeta slipped into her room that night. She didn't look at him as he climbed into the bed and curled himself around her, one arm wrapped around her small waist. He caressed her belly with his thumb through the soft silk and kissed the back of her shoulder.
"We only need to keep it up until we're back in the District and the cameras are gone," he whispered into her hair. "We should be okay."
"Cinna told me that you said I'm a – " Katniss' voice caught in the back of her throat. "That you pay me."
"It was a stunt," Peeta said hoarsely. "For the Capitol. I'm sorry."
"Was it? Was it all for the Games, how you acted?" Katniss whispered. "Do you think you bought me Peeta, do you think… I never – I didn't love you because you're a rich Victor, you know. I loved you in spite of that."
"Loved?" Peeta's heart jackhammered up against his ribs and stirred up sickness in his stomach again. "You don't – "
"I do. I just don't… I don't know. The closer we get to District Twelve, the more confused I get. I always thought that the boy with the bread, back home, that he was the real you. But now I'm not sure."
"Well," Peeta croaked, pain palpable in his voice, "Let me know when you work it out."
Katniss nodded, still not facing him. Her ear nestled deeper into her pillow.
Peeta wanted to tell her that she wasn't being fair; that he did what he needed to do because life wasn't worth living without her. That he would be broken beyond repair if Katniss had died. That he needed her. But it wouldn't be fair on his part. He couldn't expect her not to end up hating him, not with what she just went through. He wanted to tell her how much he still missed her, even lying right here in his arms.
But instead, Peeta laid silently holding Katniss close, dreading the moment when he would finally have to let go.
Author's Note: I usually don't write these, really, and particularly not at the end of works. However, I wanted to let anyone who reads only on FFn know that this series (Five Loaves of Bread) will be going on hiatus until at least February, possibly as late as April. Smart Pop Books signed me to write a fan guide to The Hunger Games - The Panem Companion: An Unofficial Guide to Suzanne Collins' Hunger Games, From Mellark Bakery to Mockingjays - which will be coming out in December 2012! My manuscript is due in February, so that's going to be my main focus for a while; however, I DO plan to go back to posting lots of little, fluffy/light, 1k-maximum fics for THG and multiple other YA lit fandoms, the way I did earlier this year, just because... I could never give up fic entirely! :) Three and a half months without any fic at all would be terrible for me! If you would like to read my fandom announcement or the official press release for The Panem Companion, you can see them on my LiveJournal (aimmyarrowshigh) or on the Smart Pop Books website.
Additionally, I quickly want to thank Panem Radio, Cinna's Reading Room, Muttations Podcast, and Nightlock for featuring my fics recently! It's a huge honor and I'm grateful to everyone for reading (even though I am the WORST at review-replies. Sorry.)