Disclaimer: All Hunger Games characters and uses of the original sentences or paragraphs are the property of Suzanne Collins. I own nothing, nor do I plan on profiting from using her work. No copyright infringement is intended.
A/N: This is far overdue. I should have fixed this story a long time ago, but I'm doing it now. I'm sorry if you prefer the old one, but even so, I would love to hear your feedback in a review. It will be largely different from the original story I wrote.. I want to build her up to actually having sex with Peeta, unlike the one where I made it happen all in one fell swoop. Sorry for typos. Thank you for reading, enjoy. -Taryn(:
The air is bitingly cold when I step outside in the open, gasping for breath. Dew ridden blades of grass fly underneath my feet, soaking my socks in minutes. Once I hit the pavement they're numb enough to ignore the juts of rocks or cracks, while on my hand there is a throbbing, warm wetness that stings painfully. I know it's from shattering the window of the cellar underneath the empty victor's house, but that's behind me. The selfishness has been forgotten and now all I can do is sprint and out do Peeta.
For once in my life, I want to do better than Peeta. I want to feel as if I deserved what he gives me and I have to reach Haymitch before him. Before he can make Haymitch promise to stay behind in District 12 while he will follow me into yet another arena. To protect me. And this time, to never come back out.
When I crash through Haymitch's door, staggering through his home's front hallway, I dive towards the only illumination in the entire house. A small, lantern of light blooming from the kitchen. He's sitting alone at the kitchen table a half-empty bottle of white liquor in one fist, his knife in the other. Drunk as a skunk.
"Ah, there she is. All tuckered out. Finally did the math, did you, sweetheart? Worked out you won't be going in alone? And now you're here to ask me.. what?" he says.
I don't answer. The window on the far side of the room is thrown open and the wind rushing in chills me just the same as if I were standing outside. I'm panting from the run, but it's not why I lower my head and eyes, to stare at the slow, drops of blood falling from my arm and spotting his kitchen floor. I've hit a wall. I want to turn back, go find my mother and my sister and comfort them like I should be doing. They need me, now, not this drunken fool. The spiteful man who has been spitting disapproval and sarcasm since the Victory Tour at me and my ideas...
"I'll admit, it was easier for the boy. He was here before I could snap the seal on a bottle. Begging me for another chance to go in. But what can you say?" He mocks me in slurs, mimicking my voice. "'Take his place, Haymitch, because all things being equal, I'd rather Peeta had a crack at the rest of his life than you?'"
I bite my lip because once he said it, it is seeping through all my thoughts. I'm afraid I might just ask that exact thing. Then I think.. is that really what I want? For Peeta to live and for Haymitch to die?
Haymitch was dreadful, of course, but he is my family now. I can't make him do this. It is my selfishness all over again. There is no excuse for me to simply claim his life for Peeta's. Peeta still out did me. He has done it once more. He jumped over my wants and my choices, and he did it all without selfishness. Even better! He did it with selfless life sacrifice.
What did I come here for? I knew it was too late, why did I ever try? Come on Katniss, what could you possibly want by coming here? "I came for a drink," I croak, finally.
Haymitch bursts out laughing and slams the bottle on the table before me. I run a blood-free sleeve across the top of it and take a couple gulps before I come up choking. It goes down burning my throat. It takes a few minute to compose myself, and even then my eyes and nose are still streaming. But inside me, the liquor feels like fire and I like it.
"Maybe it should be you," I say matter-of-factly. I could feel the alcohol melt into my veins, turning into a sear that makes my skin tingle. "You hate life, anyway," I add, pulling up a chair.
"Very true," says Haymitch. "And since last time I tried to keep you alive... seems like I'm obligated to save the boy this time."
"That's another good point," I say, wiping my nose and taking another long drink from the bottle.
"Peeta's argument is that since I chose you, I now owe him. Anything he wants. And what he wants is the chance to go in again to protect you," Haymitch says.
I knew it. In this way, Peeta's not hard to predict. While I was wallowing around on the floor of that cellar, thinking of myself, he was here, thinking only of me. Shame isn't a strong enough word for what I feel.
"You could live a hundred lifetimes and not deserve him, you know," Haymitch says.
"Yeah, yeah," I say, but that thought hung up on my mind. It has always been there. How could a person accept something they don't deserve? How could said person, gain enough to actually deserve them? I didn't want to let Haymitch see how this effected me and I continue on talking without pause, "No question, he's the superior one in this trio. So, what are you going to do?"
I had been hoping he would give me advice to answer my own questions, but I guess that's Haymitch for you, no help at all. "I don't know," he sighs. "Go back in with you maybe, if I can. If my name's drawn at the reaping, it won't matter. He'll just volunteer to take my place."
We sit in silence, while my mind continues to nag me. Maybe he's right, maybe I'll never deserve him no matter what I tried. But do I really need to deserve him to give in? Love was an equal thing, or so I've come to think, as little of love as I tend to think of it. Peeta's love, though, is wholeheartedly one sided. At least, it has been for elven years. Maybe I've had it all wrong.
My mind struggles to dive more into the concept, but it is slightly fuzzy. The fire in my veins pulses in my head and makes it seem heavy on my neck. Do I really care? No, not really. Love me if he wants, if he can accept that I'm not ready. Yet... of course, he's my friend. I can save him, merely because I don't want him to die. Not for love, not like the country thinks... my mind grows so murky with unfocused thoughts, that I force it all out. "It'll be bad for you in the arena, wouldn't it? Knowing all the others?" I ask.
"Oh, I think we can count on it being unbearable wherever I am." He nods at the bottle, clenched in my fist. "Can I have that back now?"
"No," I say, hunching over it. Haymitch shrugs and pulls another bottle out from under the table. He gives the top a twist and takes no hesitation in swinging it back. As he does that, I realize I am not just here for a drink. Somewhere in my mind, it'd been trying to conjure up a selfless request. It's hard to find the words, the right ones, but eventually I manage to say, "I've figured out what I'm asking. If it has to be Peeta and me in the Games, this time we try to keep him alive."
There. The question contains no selfishness. No ask for sacrifice from another or to deem pain on one of my family members. I feel satisfaction for a mere second, until I see something flicker across Haymitch's bloodshot eyes.
"Like you said, it's going to be bad no matter how you slice it. And whatever Peeta wants, it's his turn to be saved. We both owe him that." My voice comes out pleading, slightly slurred. "Besides, the Capitol hates me so much, I'm as good as dead now. He still might have a chance. Please Haymitch. Say you'll help me." I don't like pleading, it's a weak thing to do, the last thing I want to do. Even when I was starving I hadn't turned to begging on street corners. But this seemed to be okay, if it is for Peeta, and that makes me feel better about it. The liquor helps.
Haymitch frowns down at his bottle, weighing my words. "All right," he says after a long pause of silence.
And just like that I can breathe again. "Thanks," I say. I should go see Peeta now, but I don't think I want to. My head's spinning from the drink, and I'm so wiped out, who knows what he could get me to agree to? Except the thought of facing my mother and Prim is worse. They will want hugs and kisses and words, that I'm not even able to choke out, let alone reassure. Besides, I should check on him. Haymitch seems to think he acted fine, but I just don't believe that. I remember what he looked like that first reaping, haggard, crest-fallen, and he had been crying on our way to the train.
As I step away from the table, taking the bottle with me, I tangle the bleeding hand into the bottom of my shirt. I stagger outside and along the houses, passing the front of mine. I see shadows in the front window across the drawn curtains, more than just the regular two and I know Gale must be there. Another obstacle I'm unable to face at the moment. I don't want a crying Prim to coddle, a furious Gale pacing at my back and the shadow of the deaf and blind woman my mother used to be. The very thought has my stomach turning. Instead, I hurry across my yard towards Peeta's front steps.
I am having trouble focusing, the liquor sloshes out of the bottle in my unsteady walk, slipping down my arm as I attempt to turn his doorknob. After the third try it swings open and I find myself wandering inside the front pallor, then through his empty, dark kitchen. I hadn't knocked or rung the bell, so I didn't think he would come running but what I don't expect is that there is no sign of Peeta, no lights are on. I call to him, but there is no answer. Had he gone out? Where would he go? Home? That makes sense, that he would go to comfort his family, something I couldn't do.
It almost makes me want to go to them, to check how they are handling this, but I just want this one night, one more hour. Enough time to accept that I am going back. Back, to the arena. Into hell one more time over and this time not to escape. President Snow will have most likely ordered me to be put to death this time around, my chances at winning are as low as they had been for Prim when she was reaped. I am going back, to die.
The thought makes me drink another long draught, and I stumble upstairs, since downstairs just seems so gloomy. At the top, through a crack of a door, a stream of light falls across the hallway and I move toward it, hoping maybe Peeta is home.
"Peeta?" I say. Lightly, I use a hand to push open the door, and wait tensely, my other fingers fumbling to keep a tight grasp on the bottle. There is no answer and my eyes sweep the room, the dark bathroom to the side, the empty tangled bed of blankets. Nothing.
There is a paint canvass set up next to his bed, so I move toward it curiously, sitting heavily on the edge, eying his newest and unfinished work. There are other paintings scattered across the floor and a mess of spilt paint laying underneath them, but I only move around them with my steps, wondering, what happened here? The unfinished one looks like the beginnings of the horizon, green paint in the allure of treetops, but anything else for it is blank. After a moment of deliberation, I take another drink of alcohol then slip off the bed and onto my knees. I reach a tingling hand towards the mess, to flip over one of the down turned pictures. For one moment I think maybe I shouldn't be doing this, or be there, in his room, without him knowing, but I already know he won't care. Peeta wouldn't mind if I set his house on fire.
Gray splatters of paint stained the first one so terribly I couldn't make out the pencil sketch, as a result I reach for a second. The second one is clear. I frown at the drawing and I feel my mind throbbing against my skull, trying to understand. He's in the picture, I know by the stocky figure, the waves of blonde hair, the strong jaw. It is a picture of Peeta, and me.
It is the picture of us in the Hunger Game, with me laying unconscious and huddled in a sleeping bag within our haven of a cave. In the background lays dark, murky outlines with jutted rocks and even further beyond that a sketch of rain clashing over the entrance. Next to me sits Peeta, slumped against the cave wall, his eyes closed and his face clear of any lines. Only one of his hands is touching me, laying over my forehead, petting back my hair.
I can remember it even now. The coldness of those days. Enough to creep into your bones and stiff your joints. The terrible ache in my head from the Careers and the feast. The anticipation coiled in my gut for his recovery. Waking up and falling asleep to the comfort, an old childhood comfort my mother used to give me, of someone's soft fingers smoothing back my hair. But why? It isn't a particular gruesome picture, like the others he would make of Clove or Cato. So why? Why would it be on the floor?
I reach for another, this time it is of him and I walking through the trees, him barefoot and me holding my bow, scowling. Then the next, Peeta and me, sitting at the edge of the stream, his leg sickly looking and me working to heal it. And it continues, all of them, though some are so soaked up in the spilt paint that they're unrecognizable, I know that it must be of us. Suddenly, I stand, forgetting the black head rush it causes and go toward his desk that is overflowing with scattered papers and art supplies. I leaf through folders and unorganized stacks, some of them are just nature, others of sunsets, Rue, the mutts, a golden cornucopia sitting in the middle of a clearing, bloody arrows or spears, dying Foxface and berries.
Nothing else, only that. None of them containing me. Those are all on the floor. I don't know why, maybe it was an accident, except it doesn't feel like it is. Dread and guilt and awfulness roils up inside my chest until all I can do is curl up around the liquor bottle I left on the floor. Paint gets in my hair and on my face, but I don't care. I decide to wait. Wait for Peeta and ask him what happened here. I want to know, even if it's as awful as I think it is, why he wouldn't want to look at these picture anymore. Because of me? Because he blames me for the Quarter Quell? Blames me for ruining his life? Or because he's sick of my ignorance, the way I pretended?
It isn't long at all before I hear the front door slam and I sit up, my head whirling, my stomach churning. I hear something drop downstairs, then footsteps on the stairs, running up them two at a time. They seem in a flurry. Then, there's Peeta, standing in the door way, the light illuminating his frowning, weary face.
"Katniss?" He paces into the room, eyes roaming around, then back on me. He kneels in front of me before I can even reply and he takes my hand into his. "I saw the blood downstairs, and on the front door. Are you okay? What happened?"
"I.." and he didn't wait for me to finish before pulling me to my feet and pushing me down on the edge of the bed.
"Wait, I'll get something to clean it."
It's started to sting again, as the open air reaches the slices and I try to pull it away, tuck it back around my dirty shirt but Peeta returns with an arm full of supplies and pulls it back out. My alcohol consumed mind struggles to understand why I don't like this, but soon it dawns on me. He's taking care of me. Again. It seems stupid, idiotic to my survival trained mind to be so giving, so open to betrayal and consequence. There is that, in one sense, then the other sense where it almost makes me admire him, because I can never be that person. Maybe Prim, I hope that for her, but me? No, I'm worse than Haymitch, and that thought brings the bottle back to my lips, downing every last drop just before Peeta rips it away.
"Since when do you drink?" he says. No malice, but an earnest lilt to his tone.
"Since now," I say, trying futilely to grab it back, then he rips out a particularly big piece of glass. "Ow!"
"Sorry." Peeta doesn't sound very apologetic, but he continues to pick at the glass across my savaged palm. He's kneeling in front of me, his head ducked close to my appendage held propped up by another of his. They're soft, slow, tantalizingly precise. Moved with gracefully, unshaken actions and looking as if he has been made to do this. The careful hands of a baker, not as sure or swift as a healers like my mother's would be but sweet in their intent.
I hiss when Peeta uses the rubbing alcohol to clean away the blood, then I struggle to keep the room from spinning at the same time. There is a foul, yet bitterly sweet taste in the back of my throat, that makes me want more. Just as I move to rise, looking down at Peeta I notice the smear of paint along his jaw and all down the front of his shirt, just like the mess of the floor.
"What happened?" I ask, waving my newly bandaged hand towards the disorder
"Nothing to worry about," says Peeta. "Just slipped from my hands." He stands back up, gathering the supplies and disappearing through the bathroom door.
But I know that's not true, his hands are perfect. "Where were you?"
There's a shuffling movement from inside, then he calls back, "I went to my brothers. He was worried." Peeta's face reappears around the door frame, "Were you waiting long?"
"No," I say, and he slips back out of sight. My lips feel dry and plump at the same time, so I lick them, uncertainly. He's lying, twice now. First about the paintings and now about visiting Haymitch. Peeta returns to the room wearing a new shirt, not blood or paint stained, and pauses half way to me, crossing his arms around his chest. Almost as if he's uncomfortable that I am here at all. "Katniss, what are you doing here?" Peeta asks.
What am I doing here? I don't know, at all. I meant to check on him, but already he's helped me more than I have him. I just had to come. There are just things that only he would get. Things that my family wouldn't. "Haymitch told me what you said," I say.
Peeta frowns, the expression forming a large, unnatural V between his eyebrows. "He did, did he? And I can see he shared a little more than that, too." He waves a hand towards the empty liquor bottle sitting at my feet.
A feral, mean and snapping reply comes to mind, sitting on the tip of my tongue but I swallow it back. I don't want to fight with him. After all these weeks and months after the Hunger Games and then the Victory Tour, it's almost too unfair for me to become that way.
"Katniss," Peeta says, then deliberates... unsure.
I look up at him, like a guilty child caught doing something bad. I swallow tightly. "Do you miss it?" I croak. I didn't know what I intended by it at first, my mind was branching out in a lot of different directions.
One of them thought of the lingering touches and meaningless kisses, the arena, the first Hunger Games. Those parts of me feel guilty about that, and the other, and much smaller half, was reminiscent. But the guilt is obsolete, worse than all the rest. So large, that it makes me think of today all over again. My reaction compared to his. I go to be alone, wallowing in my own self-importance and grief, while he went to make sure Haymitch would save me, then to his family immediately after, because he thought they would be worried.
"I can't say I miss the lies," Peeta replies to my question. He doesn't miss the fighting, the death, or my kisses. He only means to be a good person. No, he doesn't even have to try, it is all natural. Though it's not natural. My reactions are sane, normal, and his are strange, to say the least. A constant puzzle. Peeta Mellark will always be a puzzle for me, something I can't figure out. Especially when I'm drunk. It only gives me the most obnoxious headache in the world.
I attempt to stand, not wanting to talk any long, but my knees shake and give out the same second. Peeta rushes forward, his arms catching me around the waist, steadying me, as my palms smack against his chest.
"I should take you home," he murmurs.
No. I don't want to go home. There will be mother and Prim, crying and sad... I don't want that. Sadness to compete with my guilt, or the already known fact of my death. I want to save their meeting until the morning. I try to tell him this, but my mouth has gone dry and the words too jumbled to come out.
Peeta begins to tighten an arm around my waist and pull me towards the door, but I plant my feet, my hands crawling up his chest and around his neck. My cheek rests against his collarbone and I breathe in the inevitable, intoxicating scent of him. It is licorice and nutmeg, musk and the slightly aromatic scent of paint, sugar cookies and burnt bread. My weight threatens to unseat his artificial leg, so Peeta moves his hands and braces them against my lower back.
"Katniss," Peeta says, uncomfortably. "You need to go. I can't let you stay here tonight.."
I want to say sorry. For hurting him so much, for all the lies and deceit. I wish, through the fog of fire in my veins and drunkenness of his smell, to tell him that I'm grateful for his love, for the comfort... for everything, if anything at all. I just want him to know, that I didn't mean to do it, that the berries were not only because of rebellion, he was a part of it, too.
"Katniss," Peeta whispers. "You're drunk."
Yes, I know. But he is so close, so tempting. How can I resist? I am finally allowing myself to see. To see how truly cruel I really am. I have been trying to lie to myself, about who I am, about what I'm doing. How could Peeta love me? He obviously didn't know me. And he offered me comfort, no pay back. Peeta has given me life, hope, love, and I have given him only a scowl, lies, and poisonous berries that brought the wrath of the Capitol down upon his neck.
"Peeta," I say, breathe, wiggling myself free enough to have my own air. His eyes are so blue right now, that I struggle to remember what I meant to ask. "Can I show you something?"
"Show me something?" Peeta repeats. "Like what? Where?"
Wordlessly I take his hand and pull him toward the door, down the stairs and outside. It's still dark, the moon high in the sky and the stars winking distantly. The air is cool and crisp and it's like breathing in an air of sobriety. My words do not even slur when I tell him to keep up and be quiet.
Peeta makes no move to ask questions, and for that I'm grateful. There are no Peacekeepers out, no one in the Seam is in the spirit to celebrate the Quarter Quell, all is deathly silent. The meadow is swaying in the light breeze, a field of welcome but eerie in its serenity.
The only time Peeta rebukes is when I pause at the electric gate to hear that it's out this night, the first of few since the crack down. He gives me a sharp look of uncertainty but I shake my head to reassure him. If it was on, I'd be the first one to turn back, and if I thought that the Head Peacekeeper Thread might attempt to lock me out again, then I wouldn't have brought Peeta. "Trust me," I say and slip easily underneath the usual place of uprooted fence.
Peeta takes a few more seconds to get through, his new shirt already beginning to get dirty. We continue through the edge of the forest, until Peeta abruptly stops, planting himself in the spot, gazing about himself.
"You like it," I say.
"Yes," Peeta whispers, as if afraid to disrupt the sight. "It's different from the arena.."
"That's the thing about not having twenty-three others out to kill you, places start to look better and a lot less threatening."
Peeta lowers his gaze to mine. "Twenty-two," he corrects. "You only had to worry about twenty-two."
From there, it is nothing but silence, as he returns to my side and I move to give him a tour. I chose to take the usual snare trail that Gale and I walk, just so I can point out interesting landmarks or familiar trees and bushes. I show him an owls nest nearer the west edge of our path and he forces me to hold my breath, so I can hear what he did; the soft hoot, of the recently hatched spring-ling babies. Winter was certainly passing quickly, almost as quickly as my life is. Soon, before even the Primroses are in full bloom I'll be in an arena, who knows where.
Peeta is leaning over a small outcrop, standing on his toes. There is a stream that runs down there, the soft tinkling sound better than any piano song Madge had ever played for me. The moon is large, silver and soft against the reflection, staining the world white and black and precious. It is almost a dream, the way Peeta spins around to beam at me, confessing a wish to draw it. "I'm glad," I say. My eyes look at his hands, and then back up at him.
"Why'd you show me?" he asks.
"I'm not done, there's still more," I say in return. I turn to lead Peeta elsewhere, and he bounds to my side in moments, taking my hand, wordless.
I tell him to sit, close his eyes, and he does, surrounded by the grassy sward that I've brought him to. My father's hunting bow, my favorite one with the polished shine and well-loved dark wooden exterior is right where I left it, and I retrieve the bow and then the single arrow next to it, from inside a hollow log nearby. Swiping away the leaves and sparse dirt from the bow, I take a seat directly across Peeta. With one hand I place the bow across his legs and hide the arrow behind my back in the other.
"Can I open them?"
Peeta examines the weapon with infinite care. "What is it?"
"A bow," I say, resisting the urge to roll my eyes.
"It looks expansive."
"It was my fathers, the one he used the most. He would polish it after every hunt, I don't know what with, but I remember he loved that bow very much."
Peeta gazes upon my expressionless face, then looks at the arm I have behind me. "What else?"
"Something stupid," I say, pulling it out. I run a thumb along the feathers, fraying them, but they immediately go back into place. I feel a heat crawling up my neck, the next words surprisingly difficult to get out. "An arrow, the only one that he's made that I have left. I hid it from Gale. I didn't want to lose it, you know?"
"I think I can understand."
My shoulders pivot to point away and towards the ground, my braid falling against the left side of my jaw. If it was loose, I would be able to hide behind a curtain of hair. "You don't. It's stupid, I know, it's just an arrow. But..."
"But?" Peeta prompts and I feel him lean in a little closer.
"But it feels like him. He made it..." but that's all I could finish, the words had become harder and harder and now I couldn't bear to say anything else, lest I'd die of humiliation or the uneasy feeling in my chest. So I plucked the bow from his lap and stood swiftly, tucking them away from sight again. When I return to Peeta, seating myself skittishly, arms wound tightly about my stomach, a light smiles traces his lips.
"Stop it," I snap.
"Stop.." Laughing at me? Mocking me? "Just stop."
There is a long pause, where there is only the soft rush of the stream nearby and the hoots of the owls. An orchestra of crickets tweeted and cricked nearby, bringing back the dual headache of the alcohol that had sat almost forgotten. But I felt alone with Peeta. Truly, completely alone, with no Panem peering in or President Snow breathing over my shoulder. "I wanted to show you my home. My real home." I lift my head to gaze at him and he holds my eyes steadily. "I feel like I know so much about you, that you've given up everything to me freely and I've just bottled it all up from sight. I just want to let you in, for once. For real. That's why I had to bring you out here, because otherwise, it's not real."
Peeta says nothing, only stares at me.. so long that I look at the ground again, running my bandaged fingers through the blades, nervously.
"Thank you," Peeta says, softly, finally.
I shrug. Then, I hear him moving across the ground toward me, and his hand crawls on top of my fidgeting one. He pulls it gently into his lap and interweaves and unweaves our fingers there. "There's... a closet, in my house. Not the victor one, but my old house, above the bakery. It's full of old things, junk really, boxes of silverware my father got when my grandmother died and old pictures of my brothers and me." Peeta's voice is no more than a whisper, and slowly, infinity slowly, he raises my hand to his face and momentarily rests his lips there. "I used to hide there. When she would get really bad..." his eyes close. The hot breath fanning across my skin gives me shudders. "And she would never find me, because she didn't know I knew where it was. I used to think that closet was the best place ever, and I still love it, drafty and cold and lonely as it is..." He pauses. I move my hand to unfold and rest along the side of his face, and he gives a breathless laugh. "It's stupid, really."
"No, it's not stupid."
"It is," Peeta sighs, pulling himself back up and my hand away from his face. We are level again and I feel my stomach withering, thinking again of that day when our eyes briefly met across the school yard. The ugly, purple swollen side of his face.
"You were starving and hunting at the same age. You weren't afraid of facing wild dogs or bees.. or bears! All the while I was hiding in little rooms. Sounds cowardly to me," Peeta says, smiling weakly. "You're braver."
"Not really," I admit. "You didn't run and hide like I did earlier."
"Doesn't mean I'm not terrified."
I could taste the fear of rejection and of consequence in my mouth, metallic, rusty, complete insanity. I regret taking him out here, yet at the same time I don't. I feel vulnerable, the tear that my father's death left in my heart now always in Peeta's sight, forever. He'll always know about the insignificant, but entirely important to me, bow and arrow out here. What if he told someone? Why can't I bear to let him know about this weak spot? Why do I want to run, run and forget him completely, pretend this never happened, but my heart is pounding at the same time?
Without warning, I kiss Peeta.
His lips, pressed firmly against mine, are a surprise. They're warm, light as breath, firm as the give of a peach against my mouth. A stronger scent of everything I smelt earlier, plus dirt and the grass and the fresh spring air fill my lungs. A smell that makes my stomach drop through my feet. A smell that replaces the bitter remains of alcohol in my mouth and supercedes all thought in my mind with an overpowering hunger for more.
Peeta's tongue slips between my lips for a second, jarring me. I push away, gasping, my face going blood-red. He looks guilty. He tries to pull away, but my fingers tighten around his hand still in mine, stalling him.
"You told Haymitch that you want him to save me, again," I rush out.
"I can't let you die," Peeta replies, just as fast. "You have something to live for, I don't."
"What do you mean?" I say, my voice sharper now. "'You have nothing to live for?'"
"Your family needs you, Katniss," Peeta says. "I don't want you forgetting how different our circumstances are. If you die, and I live, there's no life for me at all back in District Twelve. You're my whole life. I would never be happy again." I start to object but he puts a finger to my lips. "It's different for you. I'm not saying it wouldn't be hard. But there are other people who'd make your life worth living."
My head is still fuzzy from the drink, and Peeta holds such a strong stare. I think of my family. My mother. My sister. And my pretend cousin Gale. But Peeta's intention is clear. That Gale really is my family, or will be one day, if I live. That I'll marry him. So Peeta's giving me his life and Gale at the same time. To let me know I shouldn't ever have doubts about it. Everything. That's what Peeta wants me to take from him.
"No one really needs me," Peeta continues to say, and there's no self-pity in his voice. It's true his family doesn't need him. They will mourn him, as will a handful of friends. But they will get on. Even Haymitch, with the help of a lot of white liquor, will get on. I realize only one person will be damaged beyond repair if Peeta dies. Me.
"I do," I say. "I need you." He looks upset, takes a deep breath as if to begin a long argument, and that's no good, no good at all, because he'll start going on about Prim and my mother and everything and I'll just get confused. So before he can talk, I stop his lips with a kiss.
He slips his hand behind my neck, pulling me gently toward him, until are bodies are plastered together. Fingers twine into my braid, loosening it, his nails running along my scalp. For a minute my eyes are closed and there is nothing but this boy. Peeta. The one I need. Rustling deep in my soul, a fire buried inside me is rearing to the surface. It is so new I almost break away. Except a hunger opens up in me at the same time, keeping me in place, and this is not like the Victory Tour kisses. Only once in our first Hunger Games was there anything akin to this, but my head wound got in the way and ended it before I could understand.
This time, there is nothing but us to interrupt us. And after a few attempts, Peeta gives up on talking. The sensation inside me grows warmer and spreads out from my chest, down through my body, out along my arms and legs, to the tips my being. Instead of satisfying me, the kisses have the opposite effect, of making my need greater. I thought I was something of an expect on hunger, but this is an entirely new kind.
Just as my back starts to ache from leaning forward so much, Peeta's hands move out of mine and from my hair, so he can lift me into his lap, my legs shifting instinctively around his waist, our lips never parting once. I feel lightheaded and fully alert all in one, and the chorus of the night around us strums along with my hammering heart.
After the need for air becomes apparent, Peeta breaks away. His face moves to pivot between my jaw and shoulder almost immediately, his kisses continuing hot and heavy against the side of my neck. It is so sudden, so new, an embarrassing noise escapes my mouth and Peeta pulls back.
"I'm sorry," he says, flushed. "I didn't.."
"No, it's okay," I say, as breathless as him.
"Katniss," Peeta whispers some minutes later, his hot breath running down my neck. "You're drunk."
"No," I say, stubbornly, then I pull his face up with the hand that isn't against the back of his neck and press my lips to his. "I'm not, really." I stare at him, trying to convince him. "Really."
"Katniss," Peeta warns, "just think." Think? About what? I am thinking. I'm thinking about how new the taste of him is, and about how the craving to give back throbs in the back of my mind. I hate owing people. Does he know how much I owe him? Won't he just understand that I mean it?
I guess I should expect that. He trusted me before, during the Games and it ended up I was only pretending to love him to save myself. Now, Peeta's trained to think that I don't mean anything I do, alternatively he has to ponder about the nearest possible thing it could be about. Instead of the less obvious, he goes for the more selfish option. Blame the alcohol, because I'm freely kissing him without cameras. Pawn off the reason I'm letting him do something new, because I'm trying to manipulate him. To make him fall for it again, just so I can get what I want; his survival.
"You don't trust me?" I say next.
Peeta's expression turns earnest. "We shouldn't be doing this."
My lips are still warm from the kiss and the smell remains in my lungs. I want to taste his lips again, desperately. But I shove away this new hunger, swallow it like a child chokes back bitter medicine. "Fine," I snap, untangling myself from him. It hurt, a little, for him not to trust me. "Then let's go. I don't even want to be here anymore."
Peeta follows me, but a constant five yards lagging, and doesn't utters a single word to me when I stand beyond the lifeless fence, waiting for him. The moment he's inside District 12, safe from the outside and the law, I run across the meadow and I don't look back. I assume he'll make it home, I don't really care.
As I stagger up the steps to my house, the front door opens and Gale pulls me into his arms. "I was wrong. We should have gone when you said," he whispers.
"No," I say. I'm having trouble focusing, and my throat tightens, the pressure behind my eyes threatening me with tears. I'm not sure if it's because of Peeta or because over Gale's shoulder, I see my mother and Prim clutching each other in the doorway.
"It's not too late," he says.
We run. They die. And now I've got Peeta to protect. End of discussion. "Yeah it is." My knees give way and he's holding me up. I feel a choked sob escape my throat, and the headache that had been warded off completely overcomes me. This seems appropriate since the world is determined to make my life one big tragedy.
When I wake up, I barely get to the toilet before the white liquor makes its reappearance. It burns just as much coming up as it did going down, and tastes twice as bad. I'm trembling and sweaty when I finish vomiting, but at least most of the stuff is out of my system. Enough made it into my bloodstream, though, to result in a pounding headache, parched mouth, and boiling stomach. I turn on the shower and stand under the warm rain for a minute before I realize I'm still in my underclothes.
My mother must have just stripped off my filthy outer ones and tucked me in bed. I throw the wet undergarments into the sink and pour shampoo on my head. My hands sting, and that's when I notice the stitches, small and even, across one palm and up the side of the other hand. Vaguely I remember breaking that glass window last night. Then I think of Peeta, the mediocre bandages that were there before, then all of last night comes rushing in. It makes me feel restless, unsettled. I remember the kisses, the bow, arrow... that awful closet.
In seconds it is like my heart swells for him, choking me and the emotions in it were brimming over the edge, teetering like a liquid about to spill from a overflowing glass. I do not like the feel at all. It is incomplete, like something misplaced. It is almost painful, actually. My hand slips from my hair, and lay at rest just on the side of my neck, rubbing a sore spot there. I don't like it. All of it is disconcerting. New. New is bad. New is foreign and unknown. And as I towel myself down, I think of that look on his face, when he stared earnestly back at me. When he wouldn't admit that he didn't trust me, but I knew. I could tell. And it hurt.
I don't want to think of them, they only reminded me of the upcoming Hunger Games. Instead, finally clean, I pull on my robe and head back to bed, ignoring my dripping hair. I climb under the blankets, sure this is what it must feel like to be poisoned. The footsteps on the stairs renew my panic from last night. I'm not ready to see my mother and Prim.
I have to pull myself together to be calm and reassuring, the way I was when we said our good-byes the day of the last reaping. I have to be strong. I struggle into an upright position, push my wet hair off my throbbing temples, and brace myself for this meeting. They appear in the doorway, holding tea and toast, their faces filled with concern. I open my mouth, planning to start off with some kind of joke, and burst into tears.
So much for being strong.
My mother sits on the side of the bed and Prim crawls right up next to me and they hold me, making quiet soothing sounds, until I am mostly cried out. Then Prim gets a towel and dries my hair, combing out the knots, while my mother coaxes tea and toast into me. They dress me in warm pajamas and layer more blankets on me and I drift off again.
I can tell by the light it's late afternoon when I come round again. There's a glass of water on my bedside table and I gulp it down thirstily. My stomach and head still feel rocky, but much better than they did earlier. I rise, dress, and braid back my hair. Before I go down, I pause at the top of the stairs, feeling slightly embarrassed about the way I've handled the news of the Quarter Quell. My erratic flight, drinking with Haymitch, weeping, going into the woods with Peeta. Given the circumstances, I guess I deserve one day of indulgence. I'm glad the cameras weren't here for it, though.
Downstairs, my mother and Prim embrace me again, but they're not overly emotional. I know they are holding back. Looking at Prim's face, it's hard to believe she is the same little duckling I left nine months ago. The combination of that ordeal and all that has followed – the cruelty in the district, the parade of sick and wounded that she often treats by herself if Mother's hands are too full, the new me – these things have aged her years. Wasn't that what I was trying to prevent? Hadn't I taken her place in the reaping to spare her a dead childhood and an inevitable strain on her hands?
But I must see that she has grown, too. We're practically the same height now, but that wasn't what made her seem so much older. It is something in her eyes, they are no longer the same innocent, wide abyss of blue they were not too long ago. They're composed, knowledgeable.
I have to be strong now, more than ever. Stronger than her. I smile at Prim, weakly, and she returns it with a beam. "How's school?" The only subject I can think of that does not involve the Hunger Games.
"The same. We're learning about the four main types of coal. Lignite, subbituminous, bituminous, and anthracite." Prim still rocks on the tips of her toes, especially when she's trying to remember things, and I think of Rue the same way someone takes a fist in the face. "The coal value is determined by the amount of the carbon it contains... I think."
"That's right," our mother interjects. "Exactly right."
And now I'm thinking of father, and I know Mother is, too, because she stares at the pot of stew in front of her like it's as deep as an ocean. I know I can't slip away, not now. There's still a reason to fight. I remember Gale's words: if the people have the courage, then there will still be something we could do. There are still things I can do. I don't know what they are yet, but since I started this, I could contribute, surely. I have to remember, even when the fear threatens to swallow me up, that I still must fight. What ever I end up being, or doing, or the happenings of these Games, I still have to fight. I have to be strong for the others. It's not too late for Prim. Sweet Prim, or Rory, or Vick and little Posy. They still have something of themselves. They are better than me. And the remembrance of our lost fathers suddenly rears into my face, knowing they have lost, too, but Prim is ignorant to it, eating her bowl of stew silently. I don't know how to help, but for now, I have to be an example.
For a long while after I sit beside Prim, my fingers stroking through her hair and talking occasionally, as we wait patiently together for our mother to return to us.