a/n: I apologise for what I'm sure is a plethora of typos. title and lyrics from Snow Patrol's lovely "Set Fire to the Third Bar" :)
Their words mostly noises,
Ghosts with just voices.
Your words in my memory,
Are like music to me.
I'm miles from where you are,
I lay down on the cold ground.
I pray that something picks me up,
And sets me down in your warm arms.
Her hands are sticky with his blood, and it isn't easy to hold the fork.
But the dishes scattered across the table are full, and she hasn't eaten this well in months, in years, in all her life, she decides, and she won't have another chance to eat like this. A plate of potatoes catches her eyes first, butter melted over them, delicious sauces drizzled around the rim of the dish.
She tries those first.
They melt in her mouth, and she likes the plate of greens, too, and the quail meat is tender, cooked in some sort of pink sauce that ends up on the blouse of her pretty yellow dress. She reaches for the bowl of melon, glistening with a creamy orange sauce, and she spears a few slices on her fork.
And she pauses, aware suddenly of the trickle of blood down her arm from her hands. The blood drips onto her stomach, seeps into her dress, dyes it a dark red, so very dark, so very red, enough to hide the pretty yellow material, and she stares at the spot of red dress, and she remembers.
How it happened. Why she is here. She remembers it all.
The last stop on the Victory Tour is the Capitol celebration, and Cinna saves the blood red dress for this final event, the cotton material so expensive it feels like silk against her skin, and he braids her hair neatly, pins it up with a sweet touch. She looks as beautiful as only he can make her.
All the food here is too much, and all the people here are too much, but she remembers to smile.
She dances with Plutarch Heavensbee like a happy victor should, but it costs her Peeta. She loses track of him. Her dance with Plutarch can't have lasted more than five minutes, yet Peeta isn't anywhere she looks, isn't with Cinna or Portia, isn't by the table of elaborately decorated cakes.
A hand touches hers finally, and she smiles in relief as she turns towards him.
"I couldn't find you anywhere," she starts, but her eyes land on someone who is very much not Peeta. Instead, the man stands a head taller, with bright red hair and bright green eyes and a smile too charming to sit right with Katniss. Her words falter, but Finnick Odair isn't fazed.
He takes her hand entirely in his. "And have you searched for me all this time?" he asks, amused.
She tugs her hand from his, but she manages to offer a smile. "I thought you were someone else."
"Ah, yes, your fiancé," he says, "but how about a dance, Katniss? I'm sure he can manage to survive without you for a little while." His teeth are too white as he smiles, but the cameras are pointed right at her, at them, and she smiles widely back and lets him take her hand.
He keeps her at a safe distance just as Plutarch had, and she trains her gaze on his shoulder. She doesn't know why he wants to dance with her when so many Capitol women would be happy to fawn over him, but she isn't about to ask, and she lets him babble for a minute about pretty things.
And she finally sees the cameras turn away, but he does, too, and he leans closer to her, too close, uncomfortably close, his hand sliding around to the small of her back. "I have a secret for you," he says, his breath warm against her cheek, and the words should be flirtatious, but they aren't.
"I don't like secrets," she replies.
"The top floor," he whispers. "If you hurry, you might be able to stop it."
He twirls her so suddenly she very nearly loses her footing in her stupid red heel, and she searches his face for some sort of explanation, but he only smiles as if he hadn't said a word. And he kisses her hand lightly and bows away, just like that. She stares after him as he disappears into the crowd.
The top floor? Stop it? Stop what?
She looks around for Peeta. She can't find him. Her heart beats a little faster. The top floor.
It takes three conversations she doesn't want to have to make her way out of the main hall, but she finally escapes, and she spots an elevator down the hall. It's a place to start, and she makes a beeline for it, cursing her heels as she tries to hurry, half-tempted to tear the awful red shoes off.
The doors slide open easily, quietly, and she thinks for an instant that maybe she should find Haymitch, or Effie, or someone to help her, someone who might actually know what's on the top floor, but she steps into the elevator, and the glass box shoots up before she can change her mind.
What if this is all some sort of twisted prank? But to what end?
And if she wasn't able to please Snow, of course Peeta is at risk. Why didn't she think about that? Why didn't she realise that she had no time to relax, to plan an escape into the woods? Why did she focus all her time on the food, easily letting Peeta escape her sight? It was beyond stupid.
The elevator opens to a long, decorated hall, and she doesn't know what to expect, but it isn't him.
Adorned in a blood red party jacket, President Snow waits at the end of the hall, and he rises to his feet when he sees her. She almost stumbles back into the elevator. "Miss Everdeen," he says, smiling. "I can't say you were the guest I expected." She hears the elevator doors clank firmly shut.
"I just wanted to ride the elevator," she says. "For fun." It's the first excuse that comes to mind.
"Oh, now," Snow begins, "I thought we agreed not to lie to each other, Miss Everdeen."
She stares at him. "I can't find Peeta," she says.
"I wouldn't worry about your fiancé," he replies, voice light. "I can assure you he is quite safe."
Her stomach churns, and she resists the urge to curl her hands into fists. "I thought we agreed not to lie to each other," she tells him. He chuckles, the sound wretched. "Where is he?" she repeats.
Snow clears his throat, and he returns to a plush chair, and Katniss can only wait. "We are not entirely different, you and I," he says, resting his hands in his lap and gazing straight at her. "We are both, shall I say, economical people. We make the most of our situations, isn't that right?"
She doesn't reply. She can't imagine he really wants an answer, and she's right.
"A beautiful, desirable victor is a rare jewel," he continues, "and some will pay a great deal for jewels." He says the riddle so matter-of-factly, and she tries to understand him, but it's hard to put the pieces together when he stares at her so intently, so smugly. "I usually like to wait a few years," he adds, "to add to the anticipation, but your sweet fiancé had already accumulated such interest."
And the pieces fit together bit by bit, people who will pay, a desirable victor, an economical man.
Her heart stops. "You can't do that," she says, shaking her head. "You can't." He wouldn't. After all, how can he keep up a facade of a happily engaged Peeta and Katniss if he sells Peeta?
She must have misunderstood. She must have. Her mind flashes to handsome Finnick Odair.
"Actually, I really can," he replies. "A few threats against you, and I have no doubt Mr. Mellark would be very compliant. I am sure of it, in fact." He pauses, and she can't remember how to breathe properly. "Of course, I've decided what with various time constraints this evening as well as a few specific requests, it would be easier to gain his compliance with alternative methods."
"I've done everything you've asked," she says, fighting to keep her voice steady. "I've played the part. I'm prepared to marry Peeta, to be the girl you tell me to be from here on out. I've done it all."
"It wasn't enough," he replies, and he doesn't bother with a smile this time. "Not even close."
"What else am I supposed to do?" she cries. He can't do this. He can't punish Peeta because she isn't in love with him, because she is so selfish; he can't. It isn't fair. He can't sell Peeta; it's prostitution, it's sick, it's twisted, and "tell me what you want," she says, "just tell me."
The panic threatens to swallow her whole, and she can't even see straight.
"I want a great deal, Ms. Everdeen," Snow replies. "I doubt, however, that you can deliver."
"At least let me try," she says, because if she has a chance to help him, a chance to save him —
They stare at each other, and she doesn't let herself blink.
"I want a vapid mind," he tells her. "I want you to play the part of a girl too stupid to plan a rebellion, and I want you to play it well. I want you to be unrecognisable for it. I want you to make your support for the Capitol and the Hunger Games as clear as crystal."
"Fine," she breathes. "Find. I promise. I will." She nods. It's what he wanted before, isn't it? And she'll do it better; she'll find a way to play her part well, to convince even him. She will, or she will at least until she can escape with everyone she loves, and she'll make sure Peeta comes, too.
If she can just save him now —
"Where is he?" she asks.
"That isn't all," Snow says. He pauses, stares at her. "I want a baby. Immediately."
"A baby?" The word somehow wipes her mind blank, and she doesn't understand.
Snow stands, his eyes trained on her. "By the Quarter Quell in six months, I want to tell the world that Peeta Mellark and Katniss Everdeen are to have a baby. I want you pregnant as you mentor the next Hunger Games. A baby, Miss Everdeen." He smiles, slow and cold and wrong, and she can't tear her eyes from his. "If you don't want anyone to touch your beloved fiancé," he says, "I'll need you to spread your own legs. That's what I want. A baby."
"I can't," she whispers.
Any child she had would be thrown into the Games, would be manipulated and used. Any child she had would starve, would die, would suffer endlessly, and she can't do that; she won't do that. It's too much to ask.
"I don't think you realise how benevolent my offer is, Miss Everdeen," he says. "I could instead ask you to exchange places with Mr. Mellark, and I could make sure whoever buys you impregnates you. Should you try to resist, not only would Mr. Mellark suffer, but your beloved sister, mother, and cousin all would as well."
"But if I have a baby," she whispers, "if I have a baby with Peeta, you won't — use him?"
Snow smiles. "If you have a baby by the Quarter Quell in six months," he tells her, "Mr. Mellark will be yours. He will not be sold. He will not be hurt."
And her mind starts to seek out other promises, guarantees of safety for Prim and for Gale, because if she is about to have a child just to serve the whims of the Capitol, surely to be reaped, surely to die, she must make it worth it. But the sudden thought makes bile rise up in her throat — can she really just barter the life of a future child like that?
Except it won't be like that. If they can escape, all of them, into the wild, she can have her child away from the Capitol, safe from the Capitol. It wouldn't be a good life for a child, and the baby wouldn't ever truly be safe, but if that's what it takes to protect Peeta now, to stop what's about to happen —
"Fine," she says. "Deal."
"Are you quite sure?"
She swallows thickly. "Yes."
"I should warn you that, should you be unable to extinguish the fire you've managed to spark, even with a child, I have already conceived of a plan to dispose of both you and Mr. Mellark. It would be an unpopular move, certainly best avoided, but I will not hesitate to resort to it should need be."
The words dispose of make her stomach tighten, but she doesn't have time for his vague threats when he already presented real, solid, present threats. "Where is Peeta?" she asks, insistent.
And Snow turns his head, looks at the doors just a few feet behind him. She starts towards them, tries not to walk too quickly but finds herself running, and the gold doorknobs are cold in her hands, but they're not locked, and she tears the doors open. It's an elegant room, a bedroom, and a window stretches across an entire wall to reveal the bright lights of the Capitol. She doesn't care.
Her eyes fall on the bed, on Peeta, unmoving.
She stumbles towards him, and her ankle twists painfully under her, but she reaches him, touches his feverish face. She finds his pulse, but he isn't conscious, and she spins around wildly to spot Snow in the doorway, his expression blank. "It really wouldn't have been so terrible for him," he tells her, "after all, he wouldn't have remember much; we have the best drugs money can buy."
She can't look at him. She turns back to Peeta, and she smoothes his damp hair from his face.
Drugged. About to be raped. She checks his pulse a second time, just to feel the erratic beat.
"I'm afraid I need to apologise to a certain gentlemen," Snow says, "but I'll let you keep the room, shall I?" And the doors shut a moment later, followed by the distinct click of a lock, as if to tell her that she might as well start her end of the bargain tonight. Her stomach revolts at the thought.
She clutches a hand to her mouth, and she forces breath in and out of her nose. This can't be real.
Where is Haymitch? And Effie? The party must end soon, and they're all supposed to be back on the train to return to District 12 that night. But someone will probably make up an excuse, Snow will see to it. Katniss wonders suddenly if he talked to Finnick, if he led Katniss here, if he meant to use Peeta against her, to force her into this deal from the start. It would make perfect sense.
She wonders if Finnick has ever been on this bed, but, no, she won't let herself wonder that.
She touches Peeta on the cheek, and she can feel the sweat bead against her fingers. She needs a cold cloth to cool him down. She needs to take care of him. She can do that. She can take care of him, nurse him through whatever awful drugs they fed him, and they'll make it out of the Capitol.
And she'll worry about the rest later.
A bathroom is attached to the bedroom, the tub as wide as the old bed she used to share with Prim, and three sinks line the counter under a brightly lit mirror. She finds a washcloth, runs it under cold water, and returns to Peeta. She climbs up on to the bed beside him, and she tries not to be sick as she dabs his flushed face with the cloth. She checks his pulse a third time, just to be sure.
How is she supposed to do this?
What will he say when she tells him what kind of deal she made to protect him?
He will be angry, she knows. And she almost smiles at that, because only her brazen attitude toward her own safety can ever seem to make him angry. She almost smiles at the thought. Almost.
He probably wants a baby with her, at least a few years down the road, like he wanted a marriage.
But he wouldn't want it like this. And maybe it doesn't have to happen. She doesn't even have to tell him, does she? She can tell him that Snow only drugged him as a warning, and she agreed to play her part better, and she'll omit all the rest. It wouldn't be hard. They'd return to District 12.
And they'd escape, the two of them, Prim, her mother, his parents, his brothers, Gale, the Hawthornes, maybe even Haymitch. All of them can make it; it's a fighting chance, at least.
It shouldn't take more than a few weeks to talk to them all, to make a tentative plan, to escape.
That's it. That's what she'll do. That's what they'll do.
She lies back, pressing close to Peeta, and she stares at the ceiling. It sweeps over her suddenly, the feeling that someone might be staring right back at her from a camera. It would make perfect sense.
She hates the vulnerability that chokes her, and she wants to hide Peeta from the cameras that she is now absolutely certain are littered through the room. But all she can do is turn away from the cameras herself, hide her own face, not let them see a single emotion that flickers across her face.
If they want to spy on her, she won't make it easy for them.
Her thoughts skid to a sudden, terrible stop. They do want to spy on her, and it will only become worse now that she has made an actual deal with Snow, a deal with a deadline. He won't let her forget the agreement; he won't let her find a way to wiggle out of it, she knows that.
The decision to run, a decision that came so easily when she realised she couldn't please him, isn't applicable anymore. It wouldn't work. Because she can please him now, and he won't forget that. She can't run. She won't have the chance, will she? She argues with herself, tries to make what she wants fit what can actually happen, and the dark desperation claws her heart to raw, red shreds.
The marriage will have to happen. The baby will have to happen. It will buy them time. If they can make it to the Quarter Quell, can show the world that they are happy and in love and together, they can satisfy Snow. And as soon as he doesn't have a keen eye on them, they can make their escape.
Peeta. Her eyes snap to his, proof that he is alive, that he is fine, or that he will be fine. He is fine.
A fever blazes in his gaze, and she presses the cloth to his forehead as he blinks, dazed by the drugs. "I'm right here," she whispers, holding his drugged stare. "It's alright, Peeta. I'm right here."
His hand shakes as he reaches forward to touch her elbow, and his palm is hot and sweaty against her elbow, but she only clasps her own hand over his. "I can't let you," he murmurs, breathing heavily, "I can't let you go to the — the feast. I can't. Not for me. You can't — for me. No." He tries to shake his head, and he looks at her with a kind of determination threaded in the delusions.
She realises where his mind is, back in the Games, back in the cave, back in an old fever. She touches his cheek. "I won't," she says. "I'll stay right here with you. I'll stay." She smiles, and she acts on impulse, shifting just enough to press a kiss to his dry lips, a small reassurance.
After all, they're in the cave, aren't they?
He nods a little, and he lets his eyes flicker closed.
She moves closer to him, runs her hand down his back, where the soft material of shirt clings to him with sweat. His breath is even hotter on her cheek, but she likes the feeling of it, the reminder that breath does leave his lungs, that he is here and alive and untouched, unharmed, hers.
And she is back at the start. What will he say when he finds out about the deal she made?
Anger. Hurt, too. Anxiety. Fear. Desperation. She can hear the broken strain in his voice as he says he isn't about to sleep with her if she doesn't really want to be with him, if she doesn't love him. "I'm not going to force myself on you, Katniss!" She can hear it so clearly, so surely.
They drugged Peeta, probably before he could even blink, but Snow made it clear that drugs aren't necessary. If he threatened her, Peeta would probably stick a needle in his own arm. She wants to shake her head in fury at the very thought, fury at this stupid boy who loves her so stubbornly.
But, of course, she did exactly what he would have done; she made a deal at her own expense to save him, because — does she love him? She loves Prim. This she knows. But what else? But what about Gale? She doesn't know. But she loves Peeta. Yes. What does that mean? She loves him. She knows she must. If she didn't, she wouldn't have been so desperate, she knows it.
She turns the words around in her mind. She loves Peeta. What kind of love? It isn't his kind, isn't the way he feels about her, romantic, the kind that begs marriage and babies and a future together.
He mumbles a little suddenly. She wipes still more sweat from his face, shushing him a little, reassuring him that she is right here. His hand is on her waist now, clutching so tightly, and she leans forward to kiss him a second time, just because she can, just to remind him that she is here.
If she has to do this, if she has to be trapped in marriage, forced to bring a baby into the world, who better as a husband and a father than Peeta, who loves her so much, who protects her so fiercely? Who better?
Gale, maybe, except Gale isn't wrapped up in this like Peeta is. And Gale doesn't need her —
Peeta does, or he claims as much, anyway. And Peeta loves her just as much as Gale, if not more.
But if she does this, she can't tell him. The realisation is sudden but certain. If she tells Peeta exactly what her deal entailed, he won't let her do it. If he does, if she forces him, it'll break him.
She can't do that to him, can't hurt him like that. No. This is to protect him, not hurt him.
He groans a little, and his whole body trembles. He is too hot. She sits him up, and it takes a lot of work with his heavy, uncooperative limbs, but she manages to strip him out of his shirt, and she runs the cloth under a fresh stream of cold water, and she puts together a new plan.
At some point, she falls asleep.
The rain on the window wakes her up, and she starts to sit up, only to realise exactly where she is.
She turns to the boy beside her, and he is awake, his face calm. His body isn't hot, she realises, and his blonde curls are fluffy and ruffled rather than damp with sweat. "You're awake," she says, happy to see him so clearly free of the drugs. She brushes his bangs out of his eyes.
"Yeah, I have been for a little while," he says. "But, um, you wouldn't happen to know where we are, would you? Or, you know, how we ended up here?" He raises an eyebrow, almost amused.
She falters, and he catches it. He pushes himself to sit up, and she draws her knees to her chest.
"What do you remember?" she asks. He doesn't remember much; an Avox beckoned him into the hall, a few Peacekeepers were at the door, and it turns hazy at that moment. But she picks up the thread, starts with the vague warning from Finnick, her crazy decision to listen, a smug Snow.
Peeta doesn't interrupt as she reveals what Snow wanted to do to him, and she keeps her eyes on her knees, because she doesn't want to see his face. She doesn't think she can stomach it. She forces herself to look at him, though, when she says he made her swear that she would be a dutiful fiancée and an even better wife, and she wouldn't try to find any loopholes. "My mother is no longer a valid excuse," she explains. "And he agreed to let me spend the night with you instead."
There. That's where her explanation stops. No baby. That's it.
"You always manage to save me at the last minute, don't you?" he asks, and his lips curve up.
She smiles despite herself. "It's more fun at the last minute."
"For you, maybe." He laughs a little, but his eyes are serious as he looks at her. "Thanks, Katniss."
She nods. He doesn't have to thank her. "You would've done the same for me," she says softly.
"I will do the same for you, if ever —" He stops, shaken, and she can see him swallow. "I won't ever let anyone touch you, okay? I won't ever let him do anything like that to you, I promise." He looks so earnest that she can almost hear the declaration of love hidden in the words.
"It really scared me," she whispers, "the thought that someone would hurt you." That isn't a lie.
He reaches out to take her hand, and she lets him intertwine their fingers.
"And I — I never wanted to marry, Peeta. I never wanted kids. I never even thought about it. I wasn't ever with Gale that way; it didn't occur to me that he wanted that, or that anyone thought we were more than friends. All I wanted was his friendship. I didn't want — I've never wanted —"
These aren't lies, either, and she needs him to understand these basic truths. He nods. "It's okay."
"But if I — if I have to marry someone, I — I want it to be you. You're my friend. And I love you." The words stick in her throat a little, but she manages to say them. "That's not a lie, Peeta, I swear it isn't. I do love you, like I love Prim, and Gale, and — just please believe that, okay?"
He smiles. "I do, Katniss. I know you love me like that. I do." He squeezes her hand.
"And there was this one — this one kiss, between us, this kiss that — it was different than all the others, Peeta. It made me feel this — I can't — it made me want . . . more." And that isn't a lie, either, she can still remember that kiss, in the cave, the hunger, the way she just felt so very much.
"It wasn't all for the Games," he says, and it's a question.
"It wasn't all for the Games," she says, and she nods. "I just don't know what it means to — I don't understand what it's like to feel about someone the way that you do about — about me. I don't —"
It's all starting to fall to pieces, her attempt to explain what she truly doesn't understand, to find a way not to lie despite that awfully big lie of omission, and finally he clamps a hand over her mouth.
"It's okay," he says, smiling, affectionate. "I understand. We're in this together, right?"
She nods a little, and he slips his hand down. "Right," she says.
"Come on." He grasps her hand. "We should probably find Effie. What are the chances she hasn't noticed we're a little behind schedule?" His smile is wider, and she snorts and shakes her head.
The memories are like snow on the mines back home, fresh and clean; her first fresh, clean thoughts in so long. They fall down quietly, covering the stained, black ground, melting over the coal, attempting to hide the smoke and the fire and the darkness, turning the world a bleak gray.
Effie. She remembers Effie, silly hair, silly clothes, silly voice. Effie. What happened to Effie?
She is probably dead. They're all dead. Everyone. Because of her. An angry hiss sounds in her ears, curses her for berries and for rebellion, repeats her name like poison, and she can hear Finnick scream so loudly, and all she can see is the blood that rims his mouth as he cries out.
Her fork clatters out of her hand, slick with blood.
She closes her eyes, tries to find Peeta. Fresh, clean. A little dandelion. Pretty.
They dotted the grass as the train took them home from the Capitol, she remembers.
Effie almost loses her mind when she sees them, and they're nearly late to the party in District 12.
(But excuses have been made, apparently; Katniss doesn't bother to ask what exactly they were.)
Katniss tries to appease Effie, though, allows her to rant the entire train ride, allows Effie to yank her upstairs to be prepped as soon as they arrive at the Mayor's house, allows the prep team to cake make-up on her face as Effie hovers and makes suggestions, and she swallows it all with a smile.
The uprising on the Mayor's television breaks her plastered smile to pieces in an instant.
That is what Snow wants her to stop with a vapid smile and a marriage and a baby. How can he expect that of her? How can a baby possibly make any of that right? It can't. A baby can't stop it.
She is shaken the entire party, and all she wants is to escape the cameras and the compliments and the whole world, just for a little while. The woods. That's what she wants, sanctity of the woods. The night ends at last, and she finally is alone with her mother and Prim, who both hug her tightly.
And she is finally at home in Victor's Village, alone, free to think. They need to run, no more attempts to appease what can't be appeased, to subdue what can't be subdued, no more pretend.
Her nightmares that night are bad, a dark haze, with a bloody baby torn out of her, and Peeta is taken away from her, dragged through mud, stabbed repeatedly by Cato, who looks at her with the eyes of Snow, and it smells like bloody roses; she chokes on the smell, and she races to help Peeta, but she can't, is too late, so she screams and screams and screams for someone to help her.
Her throat is raw when she wakes up, still more screams on her lips.
She scrambles from the bed and out of the room, and she nearly runs over Prim. "What's the matter, Katniss?" her sister asks, her eyes bright in the dark hall, her sweet voice thick with worry.
"I just — I need to see Peeta," she says, and it hurts to breathe. "I'll be back soon."
It's cold out, and the snow cuts into her bare feet like glass. She hadn't thought of the weather. But she steels herself and races across the yards, three houses down, to Peeta, where he will be safe, untouched by the Capitol, still under the protection of her pointless deal with President Snow.
The door is locked, but she bangs on it as loudly as she can, shouts his name.
He opens it suddenly, his hair sticking up in the back, his face sleepy. "Katniss? What's the matter?" It only takes an instant for his eyes to widen in alarm, and he ushers her into the house. "What's happened? Are you okay?" He rubs his hands against her bare arms, trying to warm her.
She nods, and she hugs him, presses her icy face into his shirt. "I just really can't sleep alone."
He is fine, just like she knew he would be. He is fine. And he will stay fine. She'll make sure of it.
He kisses the top of her head. "You want to spend the night here?" he asks.
She nods, and he ushers her upstairs, still rubbing her arms as she stumbles up the stairs. His bed is warm, and she curls up in it as he climbs in after her. Her cold feet find his warm leg in a moment. He jumps a little before he pinches her arm and tells her not to steal all his heat, please.
It was just a nightmare. Just a stupid nightmare.
She wants to tell him about her plan to run, but she can't yet, not in his house. She asks about his nightmares instead. How come he never wakes her up? "My nightmares are usually about losing you," he says. "I'm okay once I realise you're here." She doesn't have a response.
He only smiles a little, and he clearly doesn't expect a response. "My nightmare was mostly about you tonight," she admits quietly. "And I had to make sure you were okay." She doesn't know why she admits that. His hand finds hers under the sheets and squeezes lightly.
She waits until morning to talk about her plan to run.
As soon as the sun is up, she dresses up in one of his coats and pulls on a spare pair of his boots. And as they walk back to her house, so slowly a butterfly could outstrip them, she tells him about the plan, about the rebellion in District 8, about how impossible she knows it would be to do what Snow expects her to do. "And if we can't please him, he won't stop until he takes everything from us. He'll hurt you and me, and Gale, your family, mine — everyone we care about. I know it."
"So you want to run," Peeta says. She nods. "What does Gale think about this?"
"I haven't told him. But he won't be hard to convince. It's just that I know Snow must have an eye on us, especially now that I've agreed to — to play my part especially well." She bites the inside of her cheek, bites back any talk of babies. "It'd be hard to run far before they came after us."
They pause outside her house, and he tugs her hands out of her warm pockets so they can hide in the warmth of his own hands instead. "If you really want to run, I'll go anywhere with you."
She believes him.
It all falls to pieces when Gale refuses, too excited at the prospect of a rebellion.
She is half tempted at him to shout that he has to realise what can really happen. What if Snow threatens to sell him next, or the mines fall when he is inside, or a fire kills his entire family while he is at those mines, unable even to say goodbye? But she has already spilled enough, and she doesn't want to tangle him up in her stupid, stupid deal with Snow.
And then she sees the skin beaten off his back, and she knows she can't run.
How did this become her life? If only Seneca Crane had blown her to bits, it wouldn't be like this.
Peeta would've been the sole victor, able to return home without any scandal, able to live a relatively normal life, and Gale wouldn't be considered any kind of threat to anyone or anything.
She sits alone in the kitchen with an unconscious Gale, and her thoughts run in circles.
She switches roles, imagines Gale in the Games, and it's all almost too much for her.
She is so selfish. This whole mess is because of her, and she can't run from it. She pulled out those berries, and it doesn't matter why. No matter whether she did it to save herself, or to save Peeta, or to start a rebellion, it doesn't matter; what matters is what happens next. She looks at Gale, traces her fingers along his face, his cheek, his eyebrows. Her heart aches for reasons she can't explain.
(Or maybe she can. She loves Gale just as much as she loves Peeta. It's such a long list now, the people she loves, the people she has to protect. Prim. Peeta. Gale. How does she save them all?)
She needs to fight.
If she dies, she'll die as a hunter, not as prey. And that must count for something, right?
So she stays, and she fights. What will Peeta think of her decision to rebel? He mentioned it in the Capitol; before Snow snared him, he said that they might be wrong to try to subdue the districts.
He'll fight, too, won't he, if she does? And it will cost him, because Snow has expectations. If Katniss throws her lot in with Gale, chooses to stay and to fight and to be with him, that will leave Peeta exposed, an easy target, because he will stay with her, fight with her, despite it all.
He will love her even if she doesn't love him, and it will cost him dearly.
She looks at Gale. She thinks of Madge. She thinks of how selfish she is, how someone always ends up hurt when she is involved, no matter what choice she makes. But she has to make a choice.
She kisses Gale lightly, and she makes it clear she doesn't plan to run, even as the drugs pull him back under. They're drugs meant to help him, not hurt him. She watches him sleep for a moment more, and she slowly moves her to feet. She finds her coat and her shoes this time and carefully puts them on, and she picks up a little snow on her way out the door to hold to her cheek as she walks.
Peeta is awake and in the kitchen, baking, and he looks surprised to see her. "How is Gale?"
"Hurt," she replies, tugging off her boots and sinking into a seat. "We can't run, Peeta."
"I know," he replies, almost sad. It's quiet. "You should try to sleep. You need it."
"So do you," she counters. He shakes his head a little, and he turns back to his bread. She watches him, and she lets her decision solidify in her mind. She loves Gale. She will do right by him.
She will let him fight the way he so badly wants, and she will fight with him, but she'll let him find someone who can love him properly, someone like Madge, someone good, who wants marriage and children and isn't so cowardly. And she will keep Peeta for herself, her final selfish act.
It's what the Capitol wants, but this won't be about the Capitol.
And it will be her final selfish act, because she will do what it takes to keep Peeta alive from here on out; she will give him whatever love she can, anything that she can manage, and she will marry him, and she will have a baby, and she'll do what she can to make sure he doesn't die in this fight.
Peeta wants to check her face, and she lets him. He kneels down in front of her chair, and she can smell the dough on his hands as he gently runs the tips of his fingers over her swollen eye.
"It doesn't hurt too bad, does it?" he asks.
She shakes her head, and he cups her face. And on impulse, she softly kisses the palm of his hand.
He stares at her, and she reaches out to touch his face, to wipe away the little smudge of flour, and she can hear him swallow. "Peeta," she whispers, "close your eyes." He does. His pretty blonde eyelashes flutter, and she watches them for a moment, before she slides her hand down to hold his neck, her thumb brushing against his ear and the pretty blonde curls that need to be cut.
She kisses him, softly, carefully. He doesn't move, doesn't open his eyes, doesn't even breathe, and it softens her heart in a strange way. She brushes her thumb against his cheek, and she kisses him a second time, presses her chapped lips against his. His mouth parts a little, and his hand trembles against his face. "Katniss." The whispered word is a question and a plea and a promise, and she draws back, opens her eyes, meets his gaze finally. She runs her hand up through his hair.
"I don't want to be with you because the Capitol tells me I should," she whispers, "and I don't want not to be with you because the Capitol tells me I should." She isn't sure that makes sense.
He shifts a little closer to her, and his hand is on her hip. "What do you want?" he asks.
She opens her knees a little wider, pulls him still closer. "I want to kiss you, just for us."
"Just for us," he repeats. She nods. And he kisses her, just for them. It's a lie, she realises; it'll be a lie as long as she doesn't tell him about the deal with Snow, about exactly why she made the choice she made, but at the same time it isn't a lie. It's her last coherent thought before she closes her eyes, parts her lips, and lets him kiss her, soft and sweet and shy, a real, honest kiss.
It isn't a lie, because she does want to kiss him, at least to see if it'll make her want another kiss.
And it does.
Haymitch laughs off her suggestion to start an uprising. But it isn't all about him, is it?
The whole District starts to change under Thread, and Katniss is a pariah around town, but she can't be bothered to care. She avoids Gale, although she does what she can for his family, and she can at least know they're better off as long as Hazelle works for Haymitch. It's all just for now.
She and Peeta don't talk about those kisses in the kitchen, and that makes it easier. She no longer traipses over to his house at night; instead, he starts to stay over, and her mother doesn't question it. A part of Katniss wonders if she wants to, if some small part of her mother still wants to be her mother, wants to say something, anything, about the boy who, whether he eats dinner with them or not, always shows up in time for bed and disappears behind a closed door with Katniss.
But her mother doesn't say a word to her. Peeta makes friends with Buttercup, and he easily wins Prim over. He tries to teach her how to draw, and she tries to teach him how to make cheese, and Katniss can't complain when she ends up with especially cheesy cheese buns every night.
And she is more than thankful for Peeta the night she meets Bonnie and Twill, the night the fence is turned on, the night she ends up with a bruised butt and a fractured foot, and sleep syrup sweeps her into a dreamless sleep. "Stay with me," she whispers. She falls asleep before she hears his murmured answer, but she knows he'll stay, and he does.
The next morning, she wakes up to find Peeta still beside her, now lying on his belly, sketching.
She watches him, takes in the careful concentration on his face as he is lost in a world all his own.
The picture is of Lady and Buttercup, and it must be for Prim.
"Peeta," she murmurs, and he turns his head towards her, smiles a little, probably starts to greet her with an easy good morning and maybe ask her how she feels. But she kisses him instead.
The deal isn't on her mind when she does it; all she knows is that she wants to kiss him, so she does, and it only takes him a moment to respond. But he draws back a moment later, and he looks down at her happily, even as the question is bright and bold in his gaze. He touches her cheek.
And she remembers that she can't take this slowly, can't kiss him when the rare, sudden urge hits her, because, well, that won't make a baby, will it? "What's with that face?" she finally asks. "As your fiancé, I'm allowed to kiss you when I feel like it, aren't I?" She crosses her arms.
His smile is playful for a moment, and he tugs on one of her messy braids. She is aware suddenly on her state of disarray, messy hair, drool probably on her chin, breath sour with sleep. He has seen it all before, of course, and her attention is better spent on the way he doesn't remain playful.
"I wasn't sure you actually were my fiancé," he says, and they both stop, because this room is bugged, just like all the others, and she can't let them forget that. And an abrupt fear snaps like steel claws around her heart, because if Snow hears this conversation, he'll know she hasn't even tried to do her part of the bargain, and he might well feel the need to remind her with some kind of threat.
"I am," she replies lightly, teasing. "And as your fiancé, I also demand that you carry my to the bathroom so I can wash my face." He chuckles, and he scoops her up. They turn on every faucet in the room, open the window, close the door, and they sit with their backs to the tub, side by side.
"The Capitol expects us to marry, Peeta," she whispers as quietly as she can. "He expects us to marry. All this wedding stuff isn't all just a temporary distraction. It'll happen sooner or later."
"I know that," he whispers back, and she watches his mouth to catch every word. "But I don't want you to kiss me just because you're stuck with me." Those words come out broken, even at a whisper, and she shakes her head a little. She can't let him think like that.
From here on out, it's about helping Peeta, making Peeta happy, loving Peeta. And the truth is —
"That's not all this is," she replies. "Just for us, remember?"
He stares at her, and he looks as torn as she feels.
"I can't lie, Peeta, and say I want to marry you. I don't want to marry anybody." She pauses. "But if I didn't want to kiss you when cameras weren't on us, Peeta, I wouldn't. You have to know that."
His whole face softens.
And she lets loose what might be a lie, but might have some seed of truth, too.
"I sometimes want to — to do — more —" She can't finish, not with her face on fire, but she drops his gaze, and she forces the words out. "A few times that we've kissed, I've felt — hungry." There.
That isn't a lie, and it only sounds, you know, completely ridiculous. She can't look at him.
"I know what that's like," he whispers, voice gravely. His fingers find her chin, and he lifts her face up. "You have no idea how much I know what that's like, Katniss." The way her stares at her makes her heart beat a little faster, and her mouth feels dry, but now she can't look away from him.
He kisses her, and kisses her, and kisses her, and it's like in the kitchen, it's like in the cave, so she kisses him, and kisses him, and kisses him, and she just wants him closer, just wants more.
He does, too. His hands find her waist, tugging her nearly onto his lap, and she accidentally knees him in the stomach, and hot, horrible pain shoots up from her hurt foot out of nowhere, but suddenly his lips travel down along her jaw and down to her throat, and her whole body shudders.
His hand is on her thigh, and he hoists her up, ignoring their knocking limbs, and she is astride him now, her knees nestled around his hips, and his hands, so quick, so steady, have undone her braid somehow, are tangled in her hair. His own hair is soft under her fingers, and she can taste the bread he made for breakfast, and her mouth is slick with spit, and this is all so much —
"Oh!" Prim exclaims. Katniss and Peeta knock heads, and she starts to scramble away from him.
Prim stand with her hand still on the doorknob, her mouth as round as her shocked eyes, and Katniss doesn't know what to do, what to say. She looks at Peeta, but the boy with all his pretty words suddenly finds himself as speechless as she is. "Prim," Katniss starts.
"I'm sorry!" Prim squeals. "Mother wanted me to see how you felt and if you wanted breakfast."
"I feel fine," Katniss says, even though she is suddenly well aware of how her bruises sear brightly with fresh pain, almost as brightly as her face burns. "I'll be right down. Just a minute."
Prim nods, and she slams the door shut as she runs off. Katniss looks at Peeta. "Oops," he says.
She smacks his shoulder. He starts to laugh, and she pushes herself ungraciously to her feet. He catches her when she starts to fall, and she catches sight of herself in the mirror. Her face is bright red. Her lips are plump and kissed, her hair a tangle around her shoulders, her pyjamas rustled.
"Oh, no," she whispers. Peeta only laughs, amused. She locks him in the bathroom as punishment while she hobbles around and dresses. She puts her hair in a new, neat braid, and finally she releases him so that she can splash cool water on her face. She needs to pull herself together.
She remembers to say something loudly as he helps her downstairs. "If my sister catches us in that position again, I won't talk to you for a week," she hisses, and she hopes the bugs pick that up.
They'll certainly catch the sound of his loud, happy laughter.
Her mother sentences her to bed rest, but Peeta keeps her company for the week.
They find ways to keep busy: they work on her family book, once a day Peeta carries her downstairs for a change in scenery, and they kiss until she almost can't breathe. Prim doesn't ever mention what she happened to walk in on, and Katniss loves her baby sister all the more for it.
But her mother does want to talk about it.
It's while Peeta and Prim are in the kitchen, ingredients for cake all over the place, and Katniss has just made her discovery about footage of District 13 on the television. If the reporter isn't in District 13, if it is all a ruse, what is in the destroyed District? And where does she even look to find out?
If Twill and Bonnie were right —
"Katniss," her mother murmurs, and Katniss forces herself to click off the television, to look at her mother. She is almost startled by how serious her mother looks, and the way she twists a dishcloth in her hands make Katniss feel uneasy. "I need to talk to you." She looks at Katniss, her face set.
"About you relationship with Peeta," her mother starts, her voice delicate.
Katniss tenses, but she doesn't try to stop her. "What about it?"
"I understand that you and he are close," her mother says. "And I know that you're a young woman, and I remember what that's like. And I know that you're under a lot of pressure for — for a lot of reasons, so I just wanted to make sure that you knew that you — you can talk to me."
It isn't clear what her mother offers. But Katniss stares at her, and she can't help it.
Her mind flickers to endless kisses from Peeta, finally real, to the hunger for more, more kisses, more than kisses, and her mind finds Gale, how they avoid each other, how much she misses him.
(And is he with Madge now? Or Leevy? Or still someone else? It makes her stomach hurt.)
"Mr. Mellark was in love with you," she says, "but you chose Dad."
"I did," her mother says. She doesn't recoil at the mention of her husband; she only waits for more.
"Why?" Katniss whispers. "How did you know that you loved him instead of Mr. Mellark?"
Her mother seems to consider it. "I wasn't in love with him from the start," she finally says, "and I always thought I would end up with Peeta's father, I really did. I knew that your father was handsome, and I had heard him sing, but I didn't know I loved him until I woke up, and I did. I loved him, like I had never not, and I wanted to fall asleep to his smile, and I wanted to wake up to it, and I knew that I needed him to survive — if I lost everything, as long as I still had him —"
She stops, her voice strained, and Katniss almost wants to take back the question, because her mother did lose him, and she lost herself with him. A part of her wants to shake her mother and ask how she could have ever fallen so in love with someone that she tied her life so surely to his.
But she chose to tie her life to Peeta's life, to fight beside him, to keep him alive no matter what, and maybe it will happen like her mother says, maybe she will wake up, and she will know that she needs him. She thinks of her nightmares. She does need him. It just isn't like her mother says.
She does love him, but it isn't the way that her mother loved her father. And maybe that's better.
Her mother reaches forward hesitantly and touches her knee. "Katniss, do you love Peeta?"
And she does, at least in her own way. "Yes." As her mother smiles and stands, Katniss pretends she still hasn't noticed Peeta in the doorway, and she lets him slip away as if he never heard.
A hand touches her shoulder, and the stream of memories ends. She looks into an unfamiliar face.
It's framed by dark, thick hair, and the eyes are a pretty green, flecked with gold. It's a kind face, a young, pretty face, belongs to a young, pretty girl, and Katniss stares. The young, pretty girl with her kind face smiles a little. Katniss looks at her throat. They're in the Capitol. An Avox. And the young, pretty Avox motions for Katniss to stand. Katniss looks over her shoulder. Another Avox.
They gesture at her, and she sees an open door in the corner of her room, clearly not for guests, clearly just for servants, for Avoxes, and for her, for Katniss, too. She lets the silent women help her stand, and she lets them walk her out of the room, and she wants to much to fall back into her memories, where the snow falls thick and fast, where everything is sharp and crisp and clear.
They walk her down narrow stairs. She stumbles, but they catch her. They're in a kitchen.
They hold her hands under a faucet, and they gently rub away all his blood. She watches it swirl with the water in the sink, a river of red that drains away, and they dry her hands, murmuring nonsensical sounds that make her sleepy, and she thinks of bloody rain, what it would feel like.
The whole building shakes, dishes rattling loudly. The Avoxes look alarmed.
She likes the sound rain makes when it hits a window. Not like snow. Snow is white. Her dresses were white, large, fancy, hideous white dresses. She remembers them all so, so wonderfully well.
The night after they take pictures of her in dozens of wedding dresses, she feels restless.
It sleets a little outside, unsure whether it wants to rain or to snow, and Katniss sits up in bed as Peeta putters around the room, preparing for bed. She watches him. All the dresses are a painful reminder of what she needs to do, but they aren't as painful as a mine collapse would be, or any other manner of terrible accidents that would put the blood of the people she loves on her hands.
As soon as Peeta finally settles into bed beside her, the lights switched off, the covers pulled up over them both, she pounces. She kisses him, once, twice, three times, and he laughs a little into her mouth, pleased. She lets him shift her onto her back as he trails kisses along her neck.
But she tugs his face back to hers so she can kiss him on the mouth, and she tries to relax into it.
She might not really know how to kiss, but she knows how to kiss Peeta, and that's enough. She knows that he likes when runs her fingers along his neck softly, knows that he doesn't mind if she bites his lip a little, knows that he smiles against her lips if he manages to draw a whimper from her. So she kisses him, and the kisses start to warm her. His tongue slides over hers, and warmth pools inside her, spreading out her toes, to her fingertips, to her head. He shifts so her thigh is caught between his legs.
It all feels so easy, so good. It won't be hard to do more.
But her stomach recoils at the thought, and her mind clears in an instant. She forces herself not to tense.
She feels him harden against her thigh, though, and she does tense. He gently draws back from the kiss, lets her have space. This is how this works. They've done this every night for weeks, and they always stop right around now. He smiles at her, sheepish, and presses his nose to her cheek, happy and affectionate and in love with her, and she wants to think about that, not all the rest. She will think about that, not all the rest.
She surges forward to kiss him. "I don't want to stop." It isn't a lie. Her hands find the edge of his shirt, and she licks her way into his mouth as she tugs on the shirt. A moment later, she breaks away from him to pull it off, and he breathes heavily as he lifts his arms and helps her.
She kisses him before he can say anything, and she decides to take charge, pinning him to the bed. She runs her hands along his chest and his ribs and his stomach. She kisses him, and kisses him, and kisses him, because she knows how to kiss him, likes to kiss him, isn't afraid to kiss him.
His skin is soft under her hands, and it makes heat prickle along her spine to touch him like this, to feel his own heat radiate off him and sear her skin through her shirt. She tries to keep her breath steady as she straddles him, as she pulls her own shirt up over her head and tosses it aside.
The whole world seems to stop.
The sleet lashes loudly against the closed window, and the warm room feels cold against her bare skin, and louder than the rain is her heartbeat; she can hear it pound in her ears, and she stares at the headboard. His hands find her waist and burn through her pyjama bottoms.
"Katniss." A low, quiet, strained sound. "Look at me."
She looks at him. His eyes are dark, his face flushed. "I've never done this," she confesses.
"Me neither," he breathes, and his eyes flicker to her breasts for just an instant, but he snaps his gaze back to her face, guilty. She knows what she looks like. She knows Peeta knows what she looks like. And, most importantly, she knows he loves her. She grasps his hands.
And she won't let herself look away from his face as she covers her breasts with his hands.
"Katniss." It's entirely broken now, her name on his tongue, and his thumbs brush against the tops of her breasts. All the heat from all those kisses, it flares back to life, and she trembles a little, feels her nipples pebble against his palms as he squeezes gently, and she can't keep her eyes open.
Her own hands are still tightly clasped around his wrists as he slides his hands around to her back and moves to lay her down, on her side, and he kisses her softly, nuzzles her nose with his. She releases his wrists so that she can touch his shoulders, touch his face, curl her fingers into his soft blonde hair, and his hands run along her bare back. His mouth finds her collarbone, litters kisses against her skin, and she fists her hands tighter around his hair as his kisses reach her breasts.
She arches towards him, breath torn out of her, when he takes a nipple into his mouth, swirls his tongue. She mumbles his name, holding him closer, her body strumming with too many feelings.
His mouth makes it way back to hers, and she kisses him wetly, hotly, pressing against him.
"Katniss," he whispers, breathless, "you're too much — you're — Katniss, I —" His kisses are insistent and hungry, and he wants this so much, so, so much, and all she knows is him —
Her hands find the drawstring of his pyjamas, and she tugs.
His hot breath fans against her shoulder as he helps her, and they discard his bottoms entirely, and suddenly the world stills a second time. Her mouth is dry, and her heart pounds too fast.
He kisses her. She can feel him hot and smooth and hard against her as his own hands toy with the tops of her own pyjama bottoms. She tries to respond to his kiss, the world spinning too fast now.
"We can stop," he whispers, and he pulls back a little, her kind, sweet Peeta; he doesn't crowd her. "It's fine, Katniss," he assures, kisses soft and simple. "We can stop." And he looks right at her.
She shakes her head. "I don't want to stop," she whispers. A lie, she realises with absolute certainty. But they can't stop, not now, not when they've already come so far. It's all felt so good until now, and she promised a baby. She doesn't have much time left. She needs a baby.
"I want this," she insists. "I've taken the pregnancy shot." Another lie. "We can do this. I want to."
He touches her knee. He touches the inside of her thigh. He slides his hand down.
Her legs snap together of their own accord. "No," he tells her, his eyes knowing, "you don't." He rolls away from her, and he pulls his pants back on. He touches her arm. "I need a few minutes, okay?"
He kisses her softly and brushes a hand over her hair. "It's okay," he murmurs. Another gentle kiss. And she watches him disappear into the bathroom. The air is suddenly cool, and she finds her shirt, pulls it back on. But it feels too hot against her skin. She breathes slowly in and out.
He returns in a few minutes, just like he said, and climbs into bed beside her.
She clings to him, somehow abruptly terrified, and she doesn't have any idea of what.
She doesn't realise until the next day that Snow must have heard every bit of what happened, must know that she hasn't even slept with Peeta, let alone made a real effort to make an actual baby.
She talks to Haymitch more about the possibility of an uprising, but he isn't anymore optimistic.
And they announce the Quarter Quell that night. They plan to send her back into the arena.
She is on her feet and out the door before she can think, running fast, but arms circle her. She screams, the sound torn from her throat, and he whispers her name so sadly. No. She can't be sent back into the arena. Of all her fears, something like this never crossed her mind. It's unprecedented. It can't be real. It can't have really been planned seventy-five years ago. This is just for her.
Because she inspired what she saw in District 8, and she couldn't uninspire it.
She collapses back against Peeta, right in the front yard, and she remembers what Snow said. He had a plan to dispose of her, but it would be an unpopular move, so if he could avoid it —
But he couldn't, and she will be sent back into the arena.
She can't breathe, but she curls into a ball, tries to curl into herself, and Peeta holds her tighter.
At some point, Peeta carries her back into the house, and Prim clings to her, a small comfort.
Gale arrives, his eyes wild, and he picks her up out of her seat, clutching her tightly, apologising into her hair, but it's all too late for that, too late to make a new plan. If they had run, if she had escaped into the woods that have always kept her safe while she had the chance, they could have avoided this. But she chose to fight, to be a hunter. And Snow still found a way to make her prey.
He didn't say he had a way to dispose of her. He said he had a way to dispose of them.
She pulls away from Gale, and she looks around the kitchen, the lights too bright.
Prim wipes at tears, and her mother tries to hide bloodshot eyes, too, but Katniss doesn't see Peeta. If she is forced back into the arena, she won't be alone. A male tribute must return, too, and that means Peeta or Haymitch. She thinks she might be sick. She stumbles right back out of the house.
Gale shouts her name, but he doesn't chase her. Haymitch isn't surprised to see her barge in.
Peeta stares at her across the kitchen as Haymitch downs the contents of a bottle, and she doesn't know what is supposed to happen next. She can't let Peeta die. She can't wish Haymitch into the arena either. They are both part of her broken family, and they can't be sent back into that arena.
And as she stares at Peeta, she knows why he came to talk to Haymitch. She shakes her head.
He only looks back at her sadly, his mind already made up.
She continues to shake her head. "I need a drink," she finally mutters. Haymitch laughs loudly, but he holds out a bottle. It burns her throat, disgusting, before Peeta pulls the bottle from her. She wants to yell at him, wants to snarl at him to hate her, wants to scream it at the top of her lungs.
She doesn't. She collapses into a seat instead.
"Look," Peeta starts, "all three of us will be back in the Capitol in three months, two of us as tributes, one as a mentor. We can't stop that. But we can prepare for it. We can train." He steals a bottle away from Haymitch, too, who curses angrily. "Two of us can make it out of this alive."
"And you want it to be me and Haymitch," Katniss accuses. Peeta doesn't answer.
He doesn't need to answer. She knows what he wants. It doesn't matter. She doesn't care what he thinks. She made a decision months ago to keep Peeta safe, to fight with him, and if this is what it comes down to, she will. They can fight, and she will keep him alive, whether Haymitch is her mentor or her fellow tribute, she is not about to let Peeta die. It doesn't matter what he wants.
This is what she needs.
She almost falls asleep in her chair, but Peeta picks her up, and he carries her back to her house.
He ignores her protests that she is awake, and she can walk. If her mother or her sister or Gale are still awake, she doesn't see him, and soon she is alone in her bedroom with Peeta, and they curl up in her bed, both still fully dressed. They don't talk, not all night, not outside the screams her nightmares inspire and the whispered reassurances he offers to comfort her. It's a long night.
The next day starts with a new regimen enforced by a determined Peeta, and Katniss does as he wants, acts the part of Career alongside Haymitch, training, watching old Games, preparing.
It isn't hard to corner Haymitch that afternoon, to tell him that he owes Peeta, just like Peeta claims he does — Haymitch kept Katniss alive last year, and this year he needs to keep Peeta alive; if Peeta enters the arena, it should be Peeta who walks out; between the two of them, they can do it.
And Haymitch reluctantly agrees.
They train, and everyone helps out, her mother, Prim, even Gale. It allows Katniss a chance to focus, to put all her time and energy into something worth while. This is her fight now. District 12 isn't ready for an uprising, and this is how she can resist. She can save Peeta. It means she'll die.
She doesn't dwell on that. She has been prepared to die before, really, hasn't she? She will die for a purpose this time. Is this how Peeta felt last year, when he went into the Games in love with her and more than ready to do whatever it took to keep her alive, even thought it meant his own death?
She looks at him in bed beside her. His back is to her, but he isn't asleep. "Peeta."
He turns, reaching blindly for her arm, a practised motion. "What's the matter?" he whispers. "You should sleep. We need sleep to keep up our energy." He talks so matter-of-factly, and she hates it.
A week of this Peeta, and she is already sick of it.
So when he starts to say something else, as if to further convince her, she kisses him. It works. He pulls back to look at her, his eyes a little pained, but she misses him, can't he see that?
He must. He kisses her, and his arms snake around her waist.
Her mind buzzes with thoughts of the Games, of poor Haymitch if he is forced into them, of Prim, of Gale, who begrudgingly admitted that Peeta isn't all bad. And worst of it all, it buzzes with the stupid deal. What if she could have prevented this? What if the bugs in this bedroom had heard what Snow wanted to here? What if she were pregnant, and the Quarter Quell wasn't what it is? But it's too late to think about that.
She doesn't want to think about that. She just wants to kiss Peeta, to let herself not think.
She slips her hands under his shirt, feels the smooth planes of his back, and she tilts her chin a little to let him press warm kisses against her neck. His own hands slip under her shirt. They slide up achingly slowly, until finally he palms her breasts, and she arches up against him.
He whispers her name, soaked in too many emotions, wetly against her cheek.
"I've missed you," she breathes, "and I just need you to be you tonight, okay? Forget the Games."
He nods, kisses her, and she doesn't mean to do more than kiss him, or more than find a way to answer the hunger that curls up inside her, but she just needs so much more; her whole body feels wired with all this need and all this want and all this fire, and she clutches his back and his arms and his hair.
He helps her tug off his shirt and hers right after, and she wants him to put his mouth on her breasts, but she doesn't know how to ask. Peeta always gives her what she wants. She curls her fingers into his hair and presses his head down a little, and it works. She whimpers when his lips finally skate over her breasts, licking and kissing and sucking, and she almost screams when he nips her lightly.
He answers with a hot groan against her skin, and she tugs him right back up, needs to kiss him.
He settles between her legs, and she bends her knees, draws him closer, runs her fingers along his neck, whispers her name against his lips because he likes that. And his own fingers skim down along her bare back and dip under the edge of her pants. It tears another whimper from her.
He cups her bottom, and she tightens her knees around his hips, holding his face in his hands.
She isn't sure how it happens. She doesn't think about it. They discard the rest of their clothes in a tangle of limbs, their motions punctured by a breathless cocktail of awkward and shy and needy. She bucks against him when his hand brushes over her, when he slips a finger into her. She can't keep her eyes open, she just can't, but he kisses her closed eyelids with shaky lips, and he kisses her nose and her cheeks and her lips, and he curls his finger inside her.
It builds up so suddenly, overwhelms her, overtakes her. She digs her fingers into his shoulders, because she can't stand it, she can't. He cups her breast and kisses her and his thumb is inside her, too, and her whole body turns tense before the fire sears down her spine.
"Open you eyes," Peeta breathes, and she does, stares at him in a daze as it crashes over her.
The whole world is on fire.
He pulls his fingers away, kisses her as she lies boneless beneath him. "Katniss —"
"Yes," she breathes. "Yes. Yes. Yes." She tears at his pants with a desperate hand.
"You've taken the — the shot, so you won't — pregnant —?" He kisses her as he talks, won't not kiss her, and it makes her stomach flutter in the best way, keeps the warmth alive inside her.
"Yes," she says, impatient, needy. What does it matter? All that matters is here, now, him.
It isn't like she expects, the fast, sudden thrust into her. It steals her breath, and it hurts, stretches her out in a painful, foreign way. She feels invaded, strangely full, and he pants against her neck.
All she knows of sex ends at this point. Peeta pulls out of her, and that can't be it, can it? It isn't. He pushes back in, the feeling still strange and wrong, but he hits deeper, groans loudly, and she pets his back, breathes in and out of her nose, feels hurt and hazy and heavy. She needs to do something, so she kisses him wetly, trying to find an anchor in it.
He pulls out, pushes back in. She doesn't know what to do. She tries to move with him, and it doesn't work, and it only makes the hurt return with a fresh wave, so she stills, and she tightens her hold on his arms. "I'm — I'm trying not to hurt — I just —" He pauses, just barely inside her, his arms trembling as he holds himself above her, sweat gathering on his forehead.
She surges up to kiss him, and the motion thrusts him back into her, long and deep. It doesn't feel so foreign; it makes something deep in her ache with a strange, delicious twist. "Peeta," she whispers, clinging to him as he grunts against her skin. She can breathe a little easier. "Kiss me." He does. "And — and do what feels right," she whispers against his lips. He nods a little. Pulls out. Pushes in.
She looks down, watches as he disappears into her, as he pulls back out, disappears.
It still feels so strange, but she likes it. Something's building. She tightens her grip on his shoulders, and she tilts her hips. His movements become jerkier as he repeats her name in a mumbled chant, barely kissing her. And then his hips snap suddenly, pushing her up the bed, and he collapses against her.
She clutches him, her hair sticking to her neck with sweat, his or hers, theirs.
He breathes unsteadily against her ear, and his confession is a gasp. "I love you."
A part of her wants to say she loves him, too. Or that she really cares about him, or needs him. But those aren't the words that slip out. She speaks before she can think about what he might want to hear.
"You're mine," she whispers. He nods a little, kisses her jaw. He is hot and heavy on top of her, still buried inside her, and she doesn't want him ever to pull away. She repeats it, emphatic for reasons she doesn't understand. "You're mine."
She really is selfish.
He wakes her up with a soft kiss to her cheek, and his happiness is carefully subdued.
She kisses him on the mouth. "How about we take training a little easier today?" she asks.
He nods quickly, happiness peaking through, and they kiss easily, lazily. He asks her what she wants for breakfast. She says she wants cheese buns. He replies that she really needs to expand her bread horizons, and she asks him what use is a baker who doesn't bake her what she wants.
He laughs, tells her they should dress before Prim walks in. He laughs harder at her expression.
And, feeling cheeky, she slips out from under the sheets and walks to the bathroom butt-naked. His eyes burn into her, his laughter abruptly cut off. She only shuts the door and clicks the lock.
She stares at herself in the mirror, watches her smug smile fade. Her hair is messy, and small, red marks litter her neck and the tops of her breasts, but otherwise she looks pretty much the same.
Because what happened last night doesn't change anything. They still have to train, and in a matter of weeks they have to return to the arena. Her heart sinks in her chest. She almost wants to take last night back, because it'll make everything so much harder. Peeta will fight all the more to keep her alive, and she knows more than ever than she needs him to be the one to live, no matter what.
She can't end up like her mother, putting her life in the hands of a man only to lose him. She can't.
But she won't take last night back, not if it takes back the smile on his face a moment ago.
He deserves that. He deserves her. (He deserves more, but it is she he wants, so he can have her.)
And she won't think about Gale, who she has already accepted can't be with her, or about Prim, who expects Katniss to come home alive a second time, or about a deal with Snow for a baby that created a lie she can't ever confess to Peeta, because it will make him question everything, all of it.
She'll just think about Peeta, the boy she will keep alive.
The older Avox sets a cup of tea in front of her.
It smells like mint. It makes her think of hunger. She isn't hungry. She can't recall the last time she was hungry. The Avox touches her hair lightly, tenderly, and it's just like Snow, and she feels sick. She recoils away from the woman, who seems to understand. She pushes the tea closer to Katniss, and her smile is understanding. She must know what Katniss is. Broken. Tired.
She picks up the tea. It shakes in her hand. The building shakes, too, more than Katniss does.
The Avoxes gesture to each other. She stares at a water stain on the table. Her ankles hurt.
She hugs her stomach as she drinks.
The tea tastes like blood, because she failed him. The angry voice hisses about berries, about a song for a little girl that she didn't save, about flesh flayed off the back of a boy who only ever loved her. Her ankles hurt. She sets the cup down, splashing the tea. It hits her fingers.
Her skin turns pink. The tea must've scalded her skin. She tries to remember what that feels like.
The young, pretty Avox kneels in front of her, motions for her to drink the tea. She makes other gestures, too. Katniss doesn't understand. She doesn't care. She closes her eyes, waits. A hand squeezes her shoulder. She waits a little longer. A door shuts. She opens her eyes. She is alone.
She tries to take a sip of tea. It still tastes like blood. She spits it out. The cup rattles in its saucer, because the table shakes, because the room shakes. It's just like on a train, she remembers.
She doesn't have a chance to say goodbye, not before the Peacekeepers usher her onto the train.
Peeta keeps a hold of her hand as she stares out the window and watches her home disappear, knowing she will never lay eyes on it again, on the Seam, on the forest, on Prim, on Gale. Peeta tells her they will write letters, and she nods and lets him kiss her temple.
She makes herself goodbye to all of it, to them; she whispers the speeches she prepared to herself.
She whispers that Prim can never forget how much Katniss loves her, whispers that she forgives her mother for everything, whispers that she wishes she and Madge could've been better friends. She whispers that she is sorry she ever hurt Gale. She knows she hurt him in these last few weeks, knows he pulled further and further from her as they trained, as she spent her nights with Peeta.
Peeta never kissed her in front of Gale. He never acted like they were more than friends, not outside of hungry kisses and desperate touches in the dark of her bedroom. She owes him for that.
But Gale isn't blind. It wasn't even a week ago when he asked. "You're with him, aren't you?" His anger was contained in a kind of awful resignation, and he wouldn't look at her. The guilt clawed at her insides, threatened to tear her to shreds. "I thought when you stayed," he mumbled, "I thought it was because —" He stopped, shook his head. "But you're really with him now, aren't you?"
She hadn't been able to come up with an answer, too stricken by guilt. She hurt him. That isn't what she wanted. She wanted him to find someone else. (But she didn't. The thought still makes her heart twist in pain. It doesn't matter now, though. He can't be with her. He deserves someone else.)
She whispers that. "I need you to find someone who will love you."
After dinner, Peeta wants to plan strategy now that they know who the other tributes are, and she silently curls up beside him on the sofa as he looks at pages of the victors, picks out old tapes.
They haven't talked about what will happen in the arena, how they will be fighting against one another to save each other. What would they possibly say about it? They both know where the other stands, and they both know the other won't be persuaded. But she is the better fighter.
She can't deny that. She is the better fighter, and this is a battle she will win.
It'll be an act of defiance that she means to make before she makes it.
It won't just be a last desperate attempt. It will mean something. She will defy what the Hunger Games represent, what the Capitol represents. Haymitch will help, and they'll keep Peeta alive. She falls asleep against him, the decision solidified in her mind, a new surge of confidence alive in her.
"Hello, Katniss," Finnick greets, and she's startled by memories of the last time she saw him.
It seems like a lifetime ago.
She smiles carefully. "Hello, Finnick," she replies. He really needs to put on more clothes. She thinks of that beautiful bedroom on the top floor, of his warning, if he really meant to help her, because he knew from experience what happened in the beautiful bedroom on the top floor.
He offers her a sugar cube, asks what happened to her pretty little girl dresses.
As far as she can tell, Finnick Odair only did what President Snow asked when he talked to her.
He disconcerts her a second time moments later, however, when her attempt to keep up an easy conversation with him turns to talk of secrets. All his company in the Capitol pays him in secrets, he says. He shared a secret with her so that she could protect Peeta.
The way Finnick looks at her, it makes her uncomfortable for reasons she can't explain.
(What if he simply didn't have someone to hear a secret, to run the top floor, to protect him? What if he used to smile like Peeta, but nobody protected that smile? She shakes away the thought.)
Finnick finally saunters off, and she makes light of him when Peeta appears.
The opening ceremony goes off without a hitch.
She smacks Peeta in the stomach as hard as she can the moment Johanna leaves the elevator and they're alone. He chokes back laughter, and she glares at him as he tries to call her pure. "I like it," he adds quickly, touching her wrist, trying not to grin too widely. "For me, you're perfect."
She crosses her arms over her chest and refuses to talk to him. He can enjoy the silence with thoughts of oiled breasts, thank you very much. He pokes her arm. She steadfastly ignores him.
It all seems silly when she sees Darius, and her stomach revolts, all her newfound confidence crumbled at the sight of his face. She even locks Peeta out for the night. That doesn't last long, not after mutilated tongues feature in her nightmares, and she slips on her robe and crosses the hall to his room. She muffles sobs against him, and he rubs her back, doesn't try to come up with words.
The training days pass too quickly.
She wishes she hadn't started to befriend the other victors. It'll just make it all so much harder, as if everything weren't hard enough already. Peeta admits what's crossed her mind as well, that they're probably targets and that most likely neither of them can win the battle to see the other survive.
But it's still an act of defiance if they die with a fight, isn't it? And they will fight.
What better gift can they offer the rebels? It's all they can offer the rebels.
Their last day of freedom on the roof makes her feel strangely peaceful, and she smiles as she watches the sunset with her head in his lap. She smiles, too, as they return to her room, and she smiles as she kisses him with a purpose. They haven't slept together since they left District 12.
It's all still so new to them, this intimacy.
They still fumble their way out of their clothing, are too rushed in some kisses, too slow in others, but he laughs when she elbows him in the thigh, and she refuses to by shy when he gently spreads her legs and dips his head down between them, and she likes all of this more than she would've ever imagined she would. This kind of closeness is somehow special, somehow sacred, meant only for them, like a forest that she shares with Gale, like a song from her father she won't ever forget.
Afterward, as she lies on top of him and he toys with her hair, he simply says it.
She listens to his calm, steady heartbeat. "For what?" she asks, sleepy.
"The last few months," he replies, and something is off in his voice. She shifts slightly so that she can face him, her chin on his chest. He smiles sadly, touches her face. "You knew you were stuck with me," he whispers, "so you tried to make the best of it. You tried to make it better for me. You let me love you. You let me believe you loved me." His thumb brushes against her cheek.
She stares at him, and she starts to shake her head a little. "Peeta."
"I wanted so badly to believe it was real in the Games," he interrupts, "so I did. But you can't fool me like that twice, Katniss." His smile is still sad, but it isn't angry, isn't cold, isn't hurt.
She sits up, and she grasps his hands, holds them tightly in hers. "It was real, Peeta." But he only smiles that sad smile. A week from now, she'll be dead. She can't die with this lie. "It was real, but it didn't — it didn't start out — the deal I made with Snow was more complicated than I told you."
"He wanted a baby, Peeta," she confesses, anxious. "He wanted us to make a baby to show the world how in love we were." She almost wants to flinch at the way his face starts to pinch, full of too many emotions for her to recognise. "And I said yes, because I had to protect you."
He opens his mouth. He closes it. He won't look her in the eye. His body is tense beneath hers.
No. This is all wrong. It can't be like this.
"But I didn't know what to do," she continues, "what to tell you, if we should run. I didn't know anything. I tried not to lie to you. I tried to tell you the truth every chance I could. And it was the truth, Peeta. That I wanted to kiss you, that wasn't a lie. That I loved you, that wasn't a lie."
He still doesn't reply.
"And when we finally did sleep together, it wasn't for Snow. It wasn't. I swear it wasn't."
"But the way you love me," he finally whispers, "it isn't like the way I love you."
"I don't know what it is," she replies, and tears prick her eyes. She doesn't want to cry. This isn't about her. "I don't know. All I know is that — that maybe the Games are the reason we became friends, and Snow is the reason I decided to be with you, but the Games and Snow and all of it, the Capitol — they didn't make me feel the way I feel right now. For you. That's real, Peeta."
He seems to think about it for too long, and the silence makes it hard to breathe.
"Are you?" he asks, voice too quiet.
"Am I what?"
"Are you pregnant?"
The question shocks her, but she quickly shakes her head. "No. I told you, I didn't —"
"So you had a pregnancy shot like you said?" he asks. "And you've kept up, had a shot a month?"
Her heart stops. She hasn't. It isn't something she's thought about. Why hasn't she thought about it?
They must have slept together a dozen times during the months they trained, but somehow she was always so caught up in him, and all she wanted was not to think, was comfort, was Peeta. It might have first started with talk of a baby, but it wasn't about that any longer, and she never really thought —
"I'm not pregnant," she murmurs. "I'm not." She can't be. She can't be.
He stares at her, and finally he nods, dropping his gaze. He moves her off her lap, lays her on her back, and he pulls the covers up. "Let's just sleep, Katniss." And he won't look at her. She hates it.
"I don't want to talk about it."
Fine. They won't talk about it. He switches the light off, turns his back to her. It's dark. It's quiet.
But he can't just do that. He can't act all wounded, pull away from her, refuse to understand.
"Well, I do!" she snaps suddenly, and she reaches over him to switch the light back on. She touches his arm, forces his eyes back to her. "I'm sorry I lied to you," she says, breathing hard, "I am. I'm sorry I didn't tell you about the deal with Snow. I'm sorry that I played his games, agreeing to use you." She hadn't thought of it like that until she said it, but it's true, isn't it? "I'm sorry."
"So why did you?" he asks, voice low, expression unreadable. "Why didn't you tell me?"
"I — I wanted to protect you," she says.
"I don't need you to protect me, Katniss," he says, and she can read his expression now, the anger.
"But I need you to protect me?" she replies, angry herself. "Just because I'm not madly in love with you, that doesn't mean I'm not allowed to try to protect you, or to want to take care of you! I have just as much a right to protect you as you do me. It's what we both do. We protect each other."
She doesn't mean for her voice to break at the end.
He reaches out and touches her face. She turns her head, feeling shaky, her stomach in knots, and she kisses his palm. "Okay," he says, and that sad smile is back. "Okay." He switches off the light. And he wraps his arm around her. It's quiet. She feels like she still has so much more to say, but she can't find any words. She falls asleep trying not to cry and trying not to admit she wants to cry.
He doesn't warn her about his plans for the interview, and she is as shocked as everyone else.
She wonders if the night before inspired this, if he really thinks she might be pregnant, if he knows this is a lie Snow will believe, or if he had this plan before they talked. It doesn't matter. As always, Peeta knows the perfect words. As he grips her hand, tears on his face, and the Capitol audience turns chaotic, she almost believes that she is pregnant, and what she's always feared most is about to happen. Her own tears fall fast and steady, and she nearly collapses against him.
They spend their final night together, because he definitely doesn't have anything to apologise for.
They don't sleep together; they don't sleep at all. They don't talk. They don't cry. They wait.
And, with images of a beaten, bloodied Cinna fresh in her mind, she is sent back into the arena.
She finally finds a way to ask Finnick.
"The first time we met," she says, "what you said, that was nice." She tires to make her words light as she rubs the ointment on her blistered skin, and she doesn't even look at him.
"I'm a nice person," he replies. "And did you take my advice?"
She looks at him, but he knows how to act; he focuses on his scabbed, ruined skin, and he offers her half a smile, completely calm and casual. "I did, actually," she says. "It worked out well."
"It made me wonder, though," she adds, "if you knew from personal experience."
The audience is probably so anxious right now, annoyed that they're speaking in riddles, that they're leaving out the vital piece of information to understand their conversation. She'll care about that later.
"I did, actually," he echoes her, and he smiles.
She drops his gaze, and the conversation is over.
It isn't that she doesn't trust Beetee. She does. But she doesn't trust Johanna, she doesn't know what to make of Finnick, and she just can't be separated from Peeta. These last few hot, awful days, with poisonous fog and vicious monkeys, with a locket and a pearl — they've made it clear how much she needs Peeta to survive. He says she can live on without him, offers her everything.
He doesn't understand. He doesn't know about what happened to her mother. She can't let him die.
He is her friend, to die for him would be an act of rebellion, and she owes him so much.
But she needs him to live. At this point, that's what matters most. And she can't trust anyone else to keep him alive. "I'll make sure he runs fast enough," Katniss tells Beetee. She can, and she will.
"I'm not about to risk my life so the gimp can tag along," Johanna snaps.
"Fine," Katniss replies, "you can stay. Peeta and I will do it ourselves." She makes to take the coil from Johanna, but Finnick stops her. She glares. "You can't separate us." It's not a discussion. A niggling voice in her head, a sensible voice, reminds her that Peeta is slow with his leg, that he won't be able to keep up with her and Johanna on the jungle floor. She ignores that stupid voice.
Finally, Finnick concedes. "I can help Beetee," he says. "Peeta, you guard Katniss and Johanna." Johanna tries to protest, but Finnick won't let her, and she finally nods curly, her mouth a thin line. Beetee sighs, but he doesn't try to argue. Peeta smiles at Katniss, and she impulsively kisses him.
(They won't have many more chances to kiss, will they?)
Johanna unwinds the coil while Peeta and Katniss guard. But all her steely effort to keep Peeta with her is wasted when, a little more than half way finished, Peeta suddenly touches her arm and, his voice low, speaks out of the side of his mouth. "We're not alone." He keeps his eyes on the wire.
Johanna tenses, but she continues to unwind the coil.
"If I circle back," Peeta quietly suggests, "whoever it is might target me. You can finish with the wire, and I'll meet you in the forest." Katniss wants to shake her head. No. They can't separate.
And Peeta can't just offer himself up as bait. How can he think she'd agree to that?
Because she doesn't have a choice, that's how. He squeezes her arm. "I'll make sure everything is still laid out properly," he says loudly. He kisses Katniss abruptly, and Johanna rolls her eyes.
Katniss watches him start back. "Eyes forward," Johanna hisses. Katniss wants to smack her.
She forces her eyes forward. Peeta is a fighter, too. She can't let herself forget that.
"I'll take the coil for a while," she says, looking at Johanna, who nods, agreeing.
It all falls to pieces in an instant. The wire is cut. The metal cylinder crashes into her head. What about Peeta? What's happened? She can hear shouts, but who is it? And she can't see, can't even think, not with an unbearable pain in her left temple. But Johanna is on top of her, cutting her arm, and Katniss can't find the strength to throw her off as she hisses at Katniss to stay down.
As soon as Johanna disappears, another pair of footsteps comes.
A shadow stands over Katniss for the briefest moment, blocking out the sun that burned the back of her eyelids red. "Dead." Enobaria. But her shadow passes, and her footsteps move past Katniss.
Is she dead? She doesn't know. But Johanna turned on her. She knows that. What about Peeta?
She didn't hear a cannon. He can't be dead. Enobaria didn't kill him. So what happened? She needs to find him, to make sure he is alive, to keep him alive. She will find him if Enobaria hurt him, will warn him if he made his way back to Finnick and Beetee, will keep him alive no matter what.
Finnick flies by, shouting for her and Johanna, but she hides from him. She has to stay calm.
That shatters as soon as a cannon finally does fire. But Peeta wildly shouts her name, desperate but still alive, close enough to find. He continues to shout, and he'll attract Brutus, or Johanna, or Enobaria, and they'll all kill him, and this is it. She shouts back for him, and she starts to run in the opposite direction of his voice. She'll keep them away from him. She'll make sure he survives.
Another cannon. Peeta screams her name.
She runs, and she sees the lightening tree, and she hears footsteps behind her, multiple people chasing after her. She doesn't know who, but Peeta isn't among them, isn't that close, and she'll trap the others at the tree, die with them if that's what it takes. Beetee is slumped on the ground.
He might already be dead.
She stumbles to the tree, turns, sees Enobaria and Finnick. She can kill them, and Peeta will be able to make it out alive. He is a fighter. He will find a way to defeat one last enemy and survive.
She can hear Haymitch in her head, his last reminder, remember who the real enemy is. She ties the wire to an arrow with shaking hands. She shoots into the force field. She watches lightening strike.
The arena explodes, and she is paralysed.
She broke her promise to herself. Her final act wasn't to save Peeta, not at all.
The hovercraft appears, the claw drops, and she is helpless to do anything but hope to die. They'll make her death awful if she can't die soon, can't die now. The face of a Peacemaker greets her, and she wants to scream, but a needle sticks into her neck before she can. She slumps onto the floor, the world fiery, too much of her blood lost, enough to kill her; please, let it be enough to kill her.
The last thing she sees before she blacks out is a pair of apologetic green eyes. She tries to say his name.
She is out cold before she can.
She wakes a few times, but the moments are brief. She sees the top of the hovercraft, and a needle digs into her neck. She feels herself moved; another needle sticks her. It's freezing. Another needle.
The first time she wakes up and actually comprehends what's around her, she is on a floor in an empty room, a silver room. Her clothes are not her own, the material soft and cool. Her arm is bandaged. She presses her hand on it. A little pressure makes it prick uncomfortably, but that's all.
She tries to clear her head. She closes her eyes, takes a deep breath.
"Morning," Finnick says.
Her eyes snap open, and she sees him across the room, propped against the wall. The last of the fog clears. It is a silver box, a prison, the walls identical to the floor, the ceiling rising twenty feet high into darkness. A set of bare light bulbs encased in metal cages hung from the ceiling by thick chords are the only light. A single door is to her left, no visible knob. And Finnick is here. That's it.
"Where are we?" she asks him. "What's happened?"
"A hovercraft picked us up out of the Games," he says. "I'd imagine we're somewhere in the Capitol, but no one has offered me any explicit details. All they've done is poke and prod us." His face is blank. "I don't know how long we've been here. I've been awake in here for what's probably, I don't know, maybe a day. They threw you in here unconscious about three hours ago."
"What happened in the arena?" she demands. He betrayed them, didn't he? Or maybe not, if he is here with her. And does it matter anymore, whether or not he did what he had to do to stay alive?
"I don't know," he replies. "The wire went slack, I ran to see what happened, and the next thing I know the whole arena has exploded. The hovercraft came, picked us both up, picked Beetee up, and I blacked out. And here we are." He pauses. "I don't know what happened to Beetee."
She swallows thickly. "What about Peeta?"
He shakes his head. "I don't know." His voice is a little softer at the confession.
She pushes herself to her feet and starts to look around the room. Nothing. The door is sealed shut, and she suspects it must slide open and closed, activated by something on the other side. Nothing.
She slumps back down against the wall. They aren't about to escape this box.
A few endless hours later, the door abruptly slides open.
She shoots to her feet as two Peacekeepers walk calmly into the room, each equipped with a thin, long metal stick. "Odair. Everdeen. Out." They stand on either side of the open door, waiting. Katniss looks at Finnick, and he sighs and pushes himself to his feet. She squares her shoulders.
A Peacekeeper follows her into the dark hallway, and he claps handcuffs over her wrists.
Finnick comes to stand beside her, his own wrists cuffed. "Let's move." The Peacekeeper nudges her lower back, and she walks. She tries to look at everything that might be important for a possible escape, but they're simply in a dark hall lined by closed black door after closed black door.
She glances at Finnick.
He just barely leans towards her, and she copies his motions. He leans a little closer. "They have cameras everywhere," he whispers. A painful, electric smack to her back makes her stumble away from him, body twitching. The Peacekeepers have electric weapons. She curls her hands into fists.
They reach the end of the hall, turn left, and are forced into another room.
It's too bright, and she blinks rapidly to see. It's much wider than their silver box, and all sorts of machines and wires line all the clean, white walls. The focus of the room, however, is two raised platforms that face each other, a kind of metal cot on each. At the far end of the room, the wall is simply a large mirror, and she stares at her reflection. A thin, angry face stares back at her.
The Peacekeepers nudge her towards a cot.
She doesn't resist until he unclasps the handcuffs only to start to strap her onto the cot. She shoves his chest, biting back a scream, and electricity pumps through her, making her head spin with pain. A loud rapping sound breaks the pain, and a voice suddenly echoes through the room, crackling.
"Not the girl. No electricity on her — at all."
What does that mean?
She is strapped to the bed, left to stare at the ceiling for minutes. She starts to test the restraints, unsure if the Peacekeeper even has an eye on her, when the cot unexpectedly starts to rise. She blinks, and she is completely upright, strapped to the cot a foot off the ground. Finnick is strapped to an identical cot ten feet across from her, his mouth a hard line. The Peacekeepers focus their attention on him now, hooking him up to some sort of machine, wires snaking around his arms.
And then they simply walk out of the room, the door sliding shut after them.
"This doesn't bode well," Finnick says lightly, smiling.
She manages half a smile back, unable to help how glad she suddenly is that she is not here alone.
Even as she thinks it, the wires that surround him come to life, and he screams so loudly she wants to cower away from him. But she can't even look away, not when her head is strapped against the cot just like the rest of her body. He convulses against his cot, arms straining against the restraints, before it abruptly stops. He pants, spit slipping from the corners of his lips, sweat on his forehead.
Why isn't she wired, too? Not the girl, the voice said. Why not the girl?
The wires light up. Finnick screams. She can see the pain ripple in his face. "Stop!" she yells. "What's the point of this?" His screams easily overpower her own desperate shouts. "Stop! You haven't even asked any questions! What do you want?" She struggles against the straps. "Stop!"
And it stops. His breathing is even heavier, and her own breath comes short, too.
It stays quiet for still longer. She strains her eyes to look around. It's useless. The door slides open.
She smells him before she sees him, bloody roses, and her stomach drops. He walks into the room, comes to stand right in between the two platforms, blocking Finnick from her view. He smiles.
"You needn't shout, Miss Everdeen," he tells her. "Your voice carries very well."
"What do you want?" she spits. She knows she should probably try to control herself around him, but, at the same time, why should she bother with the formality? He obviously isn't here simply to size her up, not if he already has her strapped to a cot, not if he's already started to torture Finnick.
"An interview," he replies. "I have a dress ready for you, and your prep team is here to fix your hair, to make you beautiful. All I ask is that you stick to the script." He stops, tilting his head. "It would be a shame if, should you stray from our script, Mr. Odair were to continue to suffer."
"If all you want is a scripted interview, fine. You don't have to torture him for that." She is proud of how steady she keeps her voice. Snow only smiles and shakes his head at her, as if she were a small, foolish child. "Where are we?" she asks him, hands fisted. "What's happened to Peeta?"
She has to ask.
"You are in the Capitol — a kindness, in my opinion, after your little temper tantrum in the arena."
A stronger surge of pride flushes through her. Yes, she had a temper tantrum, and she destroyed his arena; the whole country must have seen it, and that can't have worked out well for Snow.
"And what does it matter what has become of Peeta Mellark?" Snow asks. He stares at her so long it makes her stomach flutter in a fear she can't deny. "What does it matter if I tell you he is dead?"
No. She tries to shake her head. "I don't believe you." It's impossible. She heard him shout for her after that last cannon fired. He was still alive. And if she and Finnick both survived the arena explosion, he did, too. He is alive. He is being tortured somewhere else, being told that she is dead.
"Mr. Mellark is no longer your concern, Miss Everdeen."
But he hasn't actually said Peeta is dead. Because he isn't. He can't be dead.
"After your little stunt," he starts, "we flew into the arena, detained you and Mr. Odair —"
"Why save us?" Finnick interrupts, voice rough.
President Snow slowly turns to face him. "Because," he says, "Miss Everdeen and I made a deal, and I expect her to hold up her end. As an assurance, since we cannot physically harm her, I made sure to bring you, too, Mr. Odair." He smiles, and his eyes return to Katniss. "And it works out well, as in your case, Miss Everdeen, emotional persuasion clearly seems to work best."
Katniss doesn't understand. "I can't exactly hold up my end of the bargain if Peeta is dead." Her heart is lodged in her throat, her head hurts with the effort to hold back tears, and any moment now she knows she really will be sick. If Snow takes a step closer to her, she'll spit in his face.
"He isn't," Finnick says. "Peeta isn't dead, Katniss. They didn't kill him. If they really wanted to manipulate you, they wouldn't kill him. If it were up to them, he would be here, not me. But it wasn't up to them. They were too late to capture him." The door to the room slides open, and the words pour frantically out of Finnick. "The rebels reached him first," he cries. "The only reason the Capitol picked up me is because they couldn't reach Peeta, and, listen to me, Katniss —"
But she can't listen, because the wires light up, and his words become screams. Katniss blinks, and a Peacekeeper smacks Finnick across the face, knocking him unconscious. His screams are cut off as suddenly as they began, and he is motionless, a stream of blood gushing from his swollen nose.
The rebels, Finnick said. Are there really rebels? Are they an organised force, organised enough to have rescued Peeta? She can't think fast enough, and a disgusted Snow turns away from Finnick to look Katniss straight in the eye. He steps closer to her. She starts to gather the spit in her mouth.
"The rebel force may have rescued Mr. Mellark," Snow says, "but that simply means when I crush the rebels, I will crush him with them. I will personally see him executed." He steps closer still.
"Miss Everdeen, let me make myself clear. The only reason I have kept you alive is to assure that your baby is born unharmed, a baby you agreed to make for me, a baby that I will use, right alongside you, to squash the rebellion that you started. If you resist, I will slowly, painfully kill Mr. Odair. And as soon as I have detained the few others you care about, they too will die."
She spits in his face.
"There isn't a baby, you idiot," she snarls. "It was a fake baby, a story Peeta made up."
He slowly pulls out a handkerchief and wipes her spit from his face. He nods at the mirror.
Finnick is torn into consciousness when an involuntary scream is torn from his throat, and it goes on so long Katniss is ready to beg it to stop, but she bites her tongue until it bleeds, and she stares at Snow, knows that she can't back down, that she and Finnick have to stand strong against him.
The moment Finnick manages to plead through his screams, Katniss finally breaks.
"Stop it!" she shouts. It cuts off instantly. Finnick whimpers, his whole face swollen, his limbs twitching, the blood from his nose splattered all over his chest. Katniss can't manage to look at him.
"I hope you see how this will work," Snow says.
She doesn't respond.
He steps still closer, close enough that she can see the age spots in his lined face, the creases in his puffy lips. "I urge you not to think, Miss Everdeen, that just because I do not wish to cause undue stress to your unborn child, it means I cannot hurt you. I can, and I will." She can smell his breath.
"I'm not pregnant," she insists, trying to speak coldly as she can. "It was just a story."
"It might have just been a story to Mr. Mellark," he says, "or even to you, but let me assure you what the best, most highly-trained Capitol doctors have assured me: you are very much pregnant."
"It's impossible," she whispers. She can't be pregnant.
"Is it, really?" he asks. "And here I thought you were well aware that we have audio recorders in every room of every house in every Victor's Village." His smile is twisted. She can taste the bile in her throat. "Or is it that you don't understand the intricacies of physical intimacy, Miss Everdeen?"
She tries to speak, but she can't.
He steps back. "The script, please," he says, voice cold.
A Peacekeeper walks in, and he stands in front of Katniss with a thick piece of paper, a dialogue written in large, bold, block print. Her name is even written in the script. The words blur as she stares at them, and the tears spring free as she blinks. She can't hold them back.
"This script will clarify a few details for you, I'm sure," Snow says.
She tries to calm herself, to focus on the harsh sound of breathing that belongs to her one remaining ally, but her own heart pounds louder, and every swallow burns hotly with sick.
"I must insist you practice," Snow continues. "Mr. Odair will help." He pauses. "As long as you cooperate and continue to cooperate, he won't suffer too badly. And, of course, you can rest assured that, while you couldn't save your precious Peeta, you can at least keep his baby alive."
He nods curtly at the Peacekeeper with her script, and he stalks from the room.
"Welcome back, Katniss," the Peacekeeper says, the words Caesar Flickerman will say. But she can barely read the dark letters of the script. The wires flash. Finnick tries to swallow a scream.
He can't do it.
"Thank you, Caesar," she reads.
The splash of tea startles her, and she is back in the kitchen.
The building still shakes, she is still alone, and her tea cup is empty. The tea is all over her lap, her pretty yellow dress damp with it, clinging to her skin, outlining her popped belly button. She runs a hand over her swollen stomach, so unbearably large, the baby that would've hated herso much.
But the baby is better off dead.
Her ankles still hurt.
The room shakes. A few dishes start to fall off the counter and break, and with each crash she sees someone die, Rue, an old man in District 11, a tortured Avox who used to be Darius, a six-year-old girl whose name she will never know, Prim, Gale, Peeta, everyone in the whole wide world.
And Finnick, too, all bumps and bruises and blood, left to rot.
She wants desperately to eat a strawberry. She can't remember the taste.
She wonders if when Madge died, her blood ran the colour of the strawberries she loved.
The lights flicker with another loud, angry shake of the building. Shelter. What did her father think right before he died? Of her? Or of her mother? He probably thought of her mother. Her mother probably came to him, sat beside him, so he wouldn't die alone. And she knows Peeta will come.
She spots the closet. There. She will wait for him there. It might have strawberries, the closet.
Or peaches. She thinks she would have liked the taste of peaches. She moves from the chair, but a pain stabs her back, and she can't walk steady on her feet. She moves to her hands and knees, her belly almost dragging on the floor, and she crawls to the closet. It's dark. She likes the darkness.
The bright lights made her head hurt, she remembers, as she walked across the stage.
Her skin is polished smooth and perfect, her hair in an elegant twist, her make-up thick, and the pink, floral dress that swirls around her thighs makes her feel ridiculous, but she smiles as best she can under the lights and walks in pink high heels to where Caesar waits, a small smile on his face.
Her prep team was forbidden to talk to her while they worked, and they were a mess.
But she does look beautiful.
"Welcome back, Katniss," Caesar says.
"Thanks, Caesar," she replies, and she offers a sad smile back as she crosses her ankles and folds her hands in her lap. They told her exactly how to sit, too, made her repeat the instructions back to them, and they tortured Finnick until she could say it all word for word, just like with her script.
They put some kind of chip in her ear, too, to remind her what her lines are if she should forget.
"How do you feel?" Caesar asks kindly. "You look well. And dare I ask about your baby?"
She doesn't respond right away, gazing down at her shoes instead, and Caesar reaches out to touch her hand in comfort. She looks at him, and his eyes are so terribly sympathetic. She nods a little.
"The baby is fine," she says softly. "The Capitol made sure of that." She forces a smile. "It's the only comfort I really have right now, after everything that happened in the arena." She lets her eyes drop, and Caesar rubs her arm, asks her if she could possibly talk about what happened.
"I don't know," she says. "It all happened so fast." She pauses. "I didn't expect to make it out alive, honestly, and it doesn't seem real that I am alive. I can't even begin to describe. . . ." She shakes her head a little, and all she can think of suddenly is if Peeta really is with the rebels, if he can see this.
"I think we all know that you wanted to try to save Peeta," Caesar says, "while he fought to save you and your baby. It was tragic to watch, to know that you couldn't both survive."
She swallows back fury at his words, and she hopes it looks like she attempts to swallow back tears. She had been prepared for his words, but something about the way they actually sound when they come out of his mouth makes her want to shake him, to scream that he doesn't know tragedy.
"But we didn't have a choice," she says, forcing the words out of her mouth, hoping it doesn't sound scripted, because she had been warned about that. "So we fought to save each other, and suddenly it all went wrong. It all went completely went wrong." She doesn't have to fake how her throat closes a little, her memory flying back to the way the wire snapped, and just like that —
"You didn't know what the rebels had planned," Caesar says.
"No," Katniss whispers, "we had no idea."
"I have to admit," he says, "when you shot the arena, it almost looked as if —"
She shakes her head. "I didn't know what else to do!" she exclaims, her voice breaking at the perfect moment. "I didn't understand any of that stupid plan Beetee devised, and I'd been separated from Peeta, and Johanna had attacked me, and I just — I thought it would be some sort of — some sort of signal, some way for Peeta to find me. I knew if he saw the arrow —" She falters.
"If he saw the arrow, he would come for you, for his Katniss," Caesar says, voice full of so much heartbreak, and he leans forward to wrap his arm around her shoulders. "I'm so sorry, Katniss."
She nods quickly, staring down at her lap, trying to muster up tears. "After that, it's all a blur. All I know is that the Capitol rescued me, nursed me back to health, and made sure my baby was safe."
"But the rebels got a hold of Peeta, didn't they?" Caesar asks.
"They did," she says. "But he didn't know about all their plans, Caesar. He didn't. If only the Capitol had reached him in time, the rebels wouldn't be able to use him." It takes all of her effort to say these words; they were among the worst to practice, had caused Finnick so much pain. "If only the Capitol had been able to rescue him, he would be right here with me now."
Caesar sighs sadly. "It's awful," he murmurs. "Just awful. We can stop now if you want."
"No," she says, looking up at him. "No." She looks at the camera. She straightens in her seat. "No, I have something else to say. About these rebels, about this war. I didn't know what the rebels had planned. They used me, they used Peeta, and they probably meant to use our baby, too."
She suddenly hopes desperately that Peeta doesn't see any of this broadcast. He just can't.
And can she really say what comes next? She stares at the camera, at the whole country, and she hesitates. If she wants to fight, this is her chance. She can still fight. They might kill her, but her death is only a matter of time. It would be better for this baby to die now, too, wouldn't it?
She chokes on thoughts of the baby. A baby. Inside her. Peeta's baby. It can't be real.
What if the rebels do lose, and the Capitol finds him, and they remember this moment, when she left the script, when she embraced her role as the Mockingjay and told the whole country to fight?
"Katniss," Caesar starts gently, "are you alright?"
As if on cue, screams suddenly fill hear ears. The sound is as soft as a buzz of insects, but it's painfully distinct, too, the sounds of Finnick, probably at this very moment. This is why they put that chip in her ear. Not to remind her of her lines, but to remind her of Finnick, tortured.
"I don't know who they are," she says, "these rebels, or what they think they can accomplish, but all a war will bring is destruction. If the Hunger Games have taught me anything, it's how terrible the loss of innocent life is. I can't believe anyone would forget that, but these rebels have. And if any of them are watching right now, I need them to remember. This war will only bring death."
Her eyes burn with tears. But she can't let them fall, not at this crucial moment. She has to be fierce now, has to be the Mockingjay, the symbol, and she has to fly from the rebels with fierce resolve.
She thinks of Haymitch, if he is with the rebels, if he knew. She hopes he didn't.
"So you're calling for a cease-fire?" Caesar asks.
"Yes," she murmurs, "I'm calling for a cease-fire." She finally drops her eyes from the screen. "I think I'd like to lie down now, Caesar." She turns to him, and he wraps her up in a hug. She holds her breath, waits for him finally to release her, and he helps her to feet.
"Thank you for talking to me today, Katniss," he says. She nods. She walks off stage. It's finished.
The moment she is inside, a Peacekeeper handcuffs her.
She isn't taken back to the torture room, or to the silver box.
They take her to an actual prison now, with three stone walls, the fourth wall a wide door of long, thin steel bars. A single, buzzing light is fixed on to the stone ceiling, just bright enough to cast eerie shadows over a metal bed with a thin mattress, and the metal basin in the far corner.
It is dark and damp, a thin coat of grim on the walls.
The Peacekeeper unlocks her handcuffs, shoves her in, and through the bars she watches him use some sort of card and some sort of code to lock her in. He walks away. She is alone. She doesn't even know what's happened to Finnick, but if they wanted to punish him for any faults they might have found in her interview, wouldn't they have strapped her in to watch the show?
She sits down on her pathetic bed. She will be here for a while, won't she?
Her eyes travel to the basin, and maybe it's everything that's happened, maybe it's the baby, or maybe it's just the rotten stench to the room, but she lunges for the basin a moment later, reaches it just in time to throw up. She purges her twisted stomach, and she collapses on the ground, broken.
Her dress is twisted around her legs, and she kicks off her heels.
It's all gone so wrong. How did it go this wrong? How did any of it happen?
She doesn't mean to fall asleep.
But she must at some point, right on the cold floor, because the clanging of metal bars abruptly wakes her, and she blinks rapidly, trying to remember where she is. It isn't hard to recall, and she sits up as she hears the beeps that signal a locked door. A pair of Peacekeepers stalks past her cell.
It's quiet. But she isn't entirely alone anymore, is she?
He must realise that, too. "Katniss, are you awake?"
"I'm awake," she says. His voice is so close; he's probably in the cell next to hers. "Are you okay?"
"No," Finnick says, and she can imagine the face he makes as he says it. "I'm really not."
She crawls to the front of the cell, right up to the bars, so she can hear him better. "What happened? I heard them start to torture you in the middle of the interview. Or was that an old recording?"
"It's all kind of hard to recall," he replies, "but I think that was some fresh material. I don't know."
She wants to ask him about the rebels, if he knew. She thinks he must have known, and that's why he wanted to be her ally, why Haymitch wanted him to be her ally. Haymitch knew, too. As far as she can tell, they probably all knew, except she and Peeta. The rebels trusted Johanna enough to tell her, but they didn't breathe a word to Katniss. A part of her hates them for that, hates them fiercely.
But she can't ask Finnick about the rebels, not with all the cameras.
(They can't plan an escape, either. They wouldn't make it ten feet.)
If the Capitol found out that he knew something, if they even suspected, he would be tortured even worse than he already has been. Even as she thinks it, she wonders if that's what's happened these last few hours, as she slept on the floor, untouched. She leans her head against the stone wall.
"Katniss, you can sing, can't you?"
The question takes her by surprise, but she answers. "Yes, a little."
"No, I've heard you," he says. "Everyone heard you during the Games. You're good."
"Thanks, I guess," she says. She pulls her knees up to her chest. It's warmer like that.
"Would you sing something for me?" He sounds like a little kid.
She hesitates, but — "What do you want me to sing?"
She thinks about it a moment, and she closes her eyes, remembers her forest and her father. She opens her eyes, touches her hand to the bars, and starts to sing, soft like her father used to sing it. She finds her voice grow stronger as she sings, and she closes her eyes, wills herself not to cry.
A few tears finally break free when she reaches the final verse.
"Are you, are you / Coming to the tree / Wear a necklace of rope, side by side with me. / Strange things did happen here / No stranger would it be / If we met up at midnight in the hanging tree."
She thinks she might finally understand the words.
A finger brushes her cold knuckles, and she opens her eyes to see that Finnick has reached out a hand through the bars of his cell, twisted his arm so that his fingers can just barely touch hers. His wrist is covered in angry red marks, and she reaches her arm out through her bars to hold his hand properly, intertwines their fingers. Her cheek presses against the cold bars, but she doesn't care.
She wonders if this is the last kind human touch she'll ever feel.
Just as the hunger and the thirst become almost unbearable, a Peacekeeper comes for her.
She catches a glimpse of Finnick in his cell as the Peacekeeper handcuffs her, and his face looks so badly bruised she almost wishes she hadn't caught a glimpse. The Peacekeeper nudges her forward, down the hallway, and she doesn't try to resist. What would be the point? She doesn't know why they even bother with the handcuffs. It isn't as if she would have anywhere to run.
A doctor waits in the next room, a sterile place, some kind of hospital room, she realises.
The man doesn't talk to her as he examines her, taking her pulse, running his cold hands over her abdomen. He finally leaves the room, but he hands her a new set of clothes as he leaves; they're like pyjamas, simple gray pants and a simple gray shirt, and she changes with unsteady hands.
At least they've also provided socks, and she pulls them gratefully over her icy feet.
An Avox walks into the room next, and she doesn't look at Katniss as she holds out a tray of food. Katniss doesn't bother with the utensils as she eats, her stomach aching with hunger the moment she smells the food. It isn't the usual rich Capitol fare, but it's still a meal that would make mouths water in District 12, and she would eat anything at this point. The tray is clear of food in minutes.
All that remains is the little cup of pills she doesn't trust.
But when President Snow walks in, his first words are to tell her to take her pills.
"We have to make sure you stay healthy, after all. They're only vitamins, Miss Everdeen."
She stares at him. "Is that what this is about?" she asks. "The doctor, the clothes, the food — it's all to keep me healthy so nothing happens to my baby? Is this what the next nine months will be like?"
He doesn't reply. She grabs the cup of pills and swallows them all dry. She already drank all her water. She sets the empty cup down as firmly as she can before she looks pointedly at Snow. He smiles. "It'll be around seven months, actually," he says. The door slides open, and a Peacekeeper walks towards her, handcuffs already at the ready. "You needn't worry," Snow tells her. "We plan to take very good care of your unborn child." Another smile. The Peacekeeper cuffs her wrists.
She isn't taken back to her cell. That would have been too kind.
The white room is exactly as she last left it; Finnick is already strapped and upright in his cot. She is strapped to hers, slowly lifted upward, put face to face with him. She feels her full stomach churn as she catches sight of the same batch of wires carefully twisted all around Finnick. She can't watch.
But this time is different. This time they hook her up to something too, a set of thick, clear chords.
She doesn't understand until needles bite into her arm, and she realises that her thick, clear chords are tubes, and something green starts to travel down the tubes, towards the needles, towards her.
As her veins flood with some kind of drug, wires flash across the room. Finnick starts to scream.
It takes too long for her to black out.
She wakes up in the grimy stone prison, her head sore. She crawls to the bars. "Finnick."
"Afternoon," he says, voice too low.
"How do you know it's afternoon?" she asks, curling up against the wall.
"I don't. Just thought I'd pick a time."
It's quiet for a little while, but abruptly Finnick asks her about District 12, about where she really learned to swim. She isn't sure if she should answer him, but, then again, why shouldn't she? It's not like it's any sort of information that the Capitol doesn't already have. So she describes home.
The forest and the lake and her father; that awful cat and the way he makes her sister smile; how everything is coloured like coal; the way the cheese from Peeta's cheese buns melts in your mouth.
And Finnick describes District 4 to her, talks about what a Victory Tour doesn't show, even laughs a little as he tells her stories of himself as a little kid. Her hand finds his through the bars, comfort.
They fall asleep like that, and her arm is sore when a Peacekeeper wakes her and walks her to the hospital room. It almost feels like it's on fire by the time the doctor finishes his examination. She tries to stretch the muscles as she eats from her little tray of food, as she takes her little cup of pills.
By the time she is strapped to the cot across from Finnick, her arm feels fine. They do something different to Finnick, something with water, and he twists and convulses and screams so badly she actually throws up on herself, but it all fades into a haze as the green something floods her veins.
She passes out.
It becomes a routine. They have no sense of time, but it must exist, because a Peacekeeper always shows up, the doctor always examines her, the poison always runs through her veins and knocks her out just when the sound of screams becomes too much for her to bear, a strange kindness.
She and Finnick don't talk much, not really. He theorises that the silver box is where they usually keep prisoners, but they're somewhere for the especially guilty right now, some place ancient, perhaps the cellars of the very place where Snow lays his head to sleep every night. She hopes not.
She sings all the songs she can remember, and sometimes when she feels too weak to sing, when her mind is too heavy, when her food and her vitamins just don't seem to offer any kind of strength, Finnick will try to sing with her. His voice is rough and unpractised, and he almost always sings the Hanging Tree song, but she likes his earnest efforts, almost lives for the sound.
She thinks maybe Peeta would sing like that, if ever she heard him sing. She knows she never will.
Finnick recites poems to her, too, and sometimes he whispers about a girl, Annie.
But for the most part they keep thoughts of Peeta and of Annie to themselves, because those are secret, cherished thoughts, and it seems the blackest of crimes to expose their hearts to the Capitol.
She can feel the changes in her body, the way her breasts swell, turn sensitive, how her stomach is rounder, marking the passing of time, and she can't sleep, not with all the nightmares of bloody babies torn from her stomach, thrown into the Hunger Games as bright blue eyes screams for her help, but she is helpless, completely, utterly helpless, and Finnick is helpless to stop her screams.
(She doesn't think she knows a sound in this world better than she knows the sound of his scream; it's etched into her skill. Her last dying thought will probably be an echo of his strangled scream.)
She decides she wants to die. It should have happened in the arena, but she can't change what did happen. She can make sure her child never suffers at the hand of the Capitol. She can make sure Finnick isn't physically tortured just to torture her mentally. It would be better to die, the song says.
She refuses to eat. It's hard. Her survival instinct rages against the effort.
And Snow doesn't accept it.
It all happens so quickly, too quickly, and her heart doesn't even have time to pound.
She wakes up to shouts, to strangled cries, and the hall outside her cell is lit brightly, just to provide her with a wonderful view of the two red-haired Avoxes crumpled on the ground. She ends up with her back to the far wall, curled into a ball, trying to block out the sounds they make as they're slowly tortured. A part of her wants to be stronger, to offer some kind of comfort.
But what can she possibly do?
A Peacekeeper steps over Darius to slide a tray of food to her. That's what they want. She eats it desperately with her fingers, and it all tastes salty with her tears, but the screams stop to allow awful, twisted moans to fill her ears instead. She finishes all the food, but it doesn't really matter.
They die, and she is sick all over the floor, and she doesn't need drugs to help her pass out.
The message is clear. She must eat. She cannot die. She is not allowed to die.
It would have been better to have fought on stage that day. She should have left the script, should have screamed at everyone to resist. They would've ended the broadcast quickly, but she would've been able to say something, to make some sort of difference. And maybe Snow would've been so angry with her that he would've killed her in a fit of fury. If only it could've happened like that.
(She knows what the drugs do now, what they must do. Snow can't hurt her body, but he can hurt her mind, and that's what the drugs do. They're meant to break her mind, and it's only a matter of time.)
They strap her to a chair in a dark room, and the wall in front of her is a television screen.
The drugs flood her blood, and a video starts. Her first thought is relief. Whatever they will make her watch can't possibly be worse than the sight of a tortured Finnick. Except it is.
They make her watch the Games, hers, others, children mutilated and murdered in a hundred different ways, and the volume is so loud it pounds through her body. The only sound louder is the voice that comes from the chip shoved in her ear, the voice that remind her it is all her fault; everyone she loves is dead because of her, because of those berries, because of rebellion, because of her.
Her unborn child hates her, because of all that she has done, all that she has destroyed, killed.
The video changes to District 12, and she watches them blow it to pieces. She tries to close her eyes, but they stick a needle in her temple, and she can't close her eyes. Her watering eyes blur her vision, but she still can't escape the sound, the endless screaming of her home, of her little sister.
And the voice whispers that the next bombs will drop on District 13, will kill everyone else she loves, will kill so many people, all because of those berries, because of rebellion, because of her.
Finnick is already in his cell when they return her to it. "Are you okay?" he asks.
She doesn't answer.
She doesn't understand what the point of it all is.
Why drug her? Why make her watch those videos? Why make her listen to Finnick scream? Why drag a little six-year-old girl in front of her, just to make her watch the little girl die a terrible death?
She knows the girl is six. They tell her.
Her thoughts are jumbled, unclear, like broken glass on the floor, cutting into her, bleeding her.
All of it smears together, what they've done, the sight of District 12 bombed into oblivion, the blood that drips out of his ears as Finnick slams his head against the cot, screaming and screaming, because soft brown curls turn black from blood and six-year-old eyes stare unseeingly at Katniss.
She needs Peeta. She needs him to hold her, to kiss her, to whispers to her. She needs him.
She is in love with him. She wishes she could tell him that. She wishes she had realised it earlier. She might have been in love with him all along; she just didn't understand her own heart, did she?
But he isn't here, because he is safe, and she clings to that. He is her final tie to sanity. Peeta.
They bring another little girl into the hallway, as pretty as the first, with soft blonde hair and freckles hidden under the tears on her face. But they don't torture her. They take Katniss out of her cell, and they march her down the hall to still another new room. Her prep team is inside.
Octavia screams when she sees Katniss, but Flavius claps a hand over her mouth. Katniss assumes they're still forbidden to talk to her. Why are they here? Why is she here? She doesn't understand.
Snow walks into the room. "We need you to do another interview, Miss Everdeen," he says. "A little girl I know is particularly excited to see you do well. I might even let her have a piece of cake if you read your script well." He stares at her. She nods. She doesn't need to be led by the hand.
(Why can't he have Peacekeepers talk to her for him? Why does he always have to talk to her personally? Why does he have to haunt her? Why is his name Snow? What is his first name? Why can't she remember the way snowflakes taste on her tongue? What if they don't even have a taste?
Why isn't her mind her own? She can answer that. The drugs.)
She closes her eyes as her prep team returns her to beauty base zero, and the soft touch of their hands against her hair and her face and her fingers soothes her in a strange way. She realises as Octavia carefully helps her into a pale orange dress that they want to soothe her. Octavia strokes her cheek, and Katniss opens her eyes to look at her, to smile. Octavia starts to cry so loudly she is led out of the room. It doesn't matter. The job is finished. Katniss is ready for the whole world.
She can't walk in high heels, so they find a pair of glittering flats for her.
The stage light isn't so bright, and Caesar doesn't seem quite the same.
As she sits, Caesar takes her hand and asks her how she feels, and she says she feels fine.
She sounds stilted as she says her memorised lines, but she can't help it. She hopes they don't kill that little girl too painfully because Katniss Everdeen can't act. Her head hurts under the lights, and her mouth feels stuffed with cotton. She sways a little in her seat. Caesar wraps an arm around her.
"And I'm sure you've heard talk that Peeta is a symbol of the rebellion?" Caesar asked. "It's even been rumoured that he's made several propos for the districts." He waits patiently for her answer.
"They're using him, obviously," she says, "to whip up the rebels. I doubt he really understands what's going on in the war." She swallows thickly, and her vision swims. "What's at stake."
Caesar asks if there's anything she wants to tell Peeta. That's her cue to touch her stomach. The Peacekeepers made that point very, very clear. She is to touch her stomach right at this moment.
It doesn't make sense, because she knows the dress they had her wear is supposed to conceal the slight curve of her stomach. What is it they want to show the world? Is she pregnant or not? But she knows her instructions. She drops her gaze, and she touches her stomach. "Yes," she says.
She stares at the camera, at Peeta. And she forgets what she is supposed to say. Her head hurts.
"Peeta, don't be a fool. Think for yourself. What do you even really know about these rebels?" She is supposed to say something like that, she thinks. "Ask yourself if you really trust them." She stops. She has several more lines of script. But she can't remember the rest. She is finished.
A scream sounds in her ear. She shakes her head a little, and she stands, starts to walk away.
The light on the camera cuts off, and she faints.
If they kill that little blonde girl, they don't show her. All they do is take her back to the white room, where Finnick waits, and they strap her in. They don't put any needles in her, though, and they don't hook any wires around Finnick. He looks worried as his eyes search her face.
And it starts, these horrible screams, not from her, not from Finnick, but from the hidden speakers.
They're back in the Games, unable to escape the tortured agony of all the people they love. A fire is lit inside her for the first time in so long when she hears Peeta scream for help, but all she can do with her sudden fire is thrash against her restraints. And soon enough the fire is extinguished.
All she feels is an icy, black emptiness.
The doctor takes her pulse. He runs his hands over her abdomen. He uses a little machine, touches a flat cold disk around her stomach so that his little machine makes all sorts of noises. He nods.
She eats from her tray, takes her pills, and is escorted back to her cell.
Finnick starts to sing. It's their song, the Hanging Tree song. His voice breaks as coughs seize him, so she picks up the tune, sings the last verse for him. His hand reaches through the bars. He is her last friend. All of District 12 is dead, Prim, her mother, Gale, Madge. All of them. The Mellarks. The starving kids from the Seam. Because of those berries, because of rebellion, because of her.
She looks at their intertwined hands, at the dried blood in the lines of his bruised knuckles. His whole body is like that now, covered in blood and bruises. They took this beautiful boy, and they literally tore him to the pieces, in the Games, on the top floor, with this terrible, terrible torture.
"I never thanked you," she says. "For warning me about the top floor."
"You're welcome," he replies.
Peeta is still alive, she thinks. She hopes Annie is, too. Finnick curls his fingers tightly around hers. She falls asleep, and his hand holds hers steadily when she gasps awake from a nightmare.
Her hand is slick with sweat, but Finnick holds it still.
The bed underneath her is too soft. She blinks. It doesn't help. The room is pitch dark.
She sits up. She is in a wonderfully soft bed, she can feel it, with thick pillows and warm blankets. She is dressed in her usual gray pyjama suit, but someone has put a sweater on her. Where is Finnick?
Her heart stops.
What if they were rescued? What if she is somewhere safe? What if she is with Peeta?
She whispers his name. She searches out the corners of the bed. He isn't here. She slowly steps off the bed, and she kneels down to touch the ground. It's wood, she thinks. She can't be sure. She crawls until she finds a wall. It feels strange under her fingers, not like a wall at all, but she walks around the room, traces the wall, tries to find a light switch or a door or a clue of any sort.
She finds her way back to the bed. It's the only thing in the room, she realises, besides her.
She tries to stay awake, but she can't stay awake forever.
The sound of videos wakes her up. All the walls are alive. They're not walls. They're screens.
She hides under the covers, hides from the bombs and the Games and the death. Her arms are sore, just like they usually are after she undergoes a session in the white room. She slips her fingers under her clothes, and she finds the marks of needles. She rubs them and tries to drown out the noise of the videos with her own thoughts, but all she can think of is her song, so she sings.
The hunger and the thirst threaten to overtake her. She falls asleep. She wakes up, and she is no longer hungry, no longer thirsty, but she is still in this room, still alone, and fresh puncture wounds line her arms. They must wait for her to fall asleep, must drug her to keep her asleep.
It deprives her of all human contact. Time doesn't pass. Time doesn't exist.
She misses Finnick. She misses the taste of food. She misses light. She misses Finnick.
He was her last tie to sanity, not Peeta. It's in her insanity that Peeta comes. She starts to sing, and she hopes that she will hear Finnick sing with her, but instead she hears Peeta. She repeats the song over and over, just so his voice continues to echo in her head, to wrap around her like a cocoon, to keep her safe. Her mind flickers to Prim, dead the moment her name was drawn, no matter what Katniss did. Her mind flickers to her broken mother. Her mind flickers to her old friend Gale.
But it isn't Gale who she craves. It is Peeta. Always Peeta.
She sings, and he sings with her. She remembers suddenly what he told her, when she asked him to stay with her. It swims up from her the depths of her broken mind, a promise in a single word.
The first person she sees in days or weeks or months or years is President Snow.
The lights blind her; her weak eyes water, and her head thuds with the sudden onslaught, but she finally catches sight of Snow, and she watches as he calmly walks towards her. She is not alone.
She stares blankly at his white hair, his puffy lips, and the smell of blood and roses brings her to her senses. But she can't find her voice. Snow sits on the bed beside her. "I don't think I've ever seen you so reserved," he tells her. He smiles. "It is a pleasant look on you, Miss Everdeen."
She still can't make herself speak.
"I thought you would like to know that Mr. Odair died last night." He asks her if she wants to see the body, and he chuckles when she shakes her head so quickly a fresh wave of pain rolls over her.
She tries to stop him when he stands to leave. She doesn't want to be alone. But she remembers who he is, that she would rather live endlessly alone in this awful room than be anywhere near him, and she starts to hum as the door slides shut behind him. The lights flicker off. Blackness.
At least Peeta sings with her still.
The baby moves inside her. It paralyses her. How can it still be alive? Her stomach is swollen; its growth is her only sign that time must still somehow pass, but for it to be alive, to move, it seems so impossible. The baby isn't alive. It can't be. But it moves, she feels it, and terror overtakes her.
She screams. And screams and screams and screams. No one comes to help her.
She clutches her stomach, the videos flash around her, and the voice whispers that her baby hates her, because everyone is dead, in District 12, all the rebels, everyone — except Peeta, her perfect Peeta.
She isn't in her plush bed.
She blinks, dazed, and slowly she realises she is in the white room. She is strapped to the cot. Her stomach is impossibly large, and she stares down past her swollen breasts to see a bump where her belly button should be. She wonders if that is normal. She wonders if it matters. It doesn't.
The baby is already dead. It doesn't move any longer. It's good, really; the baby is better off dead.
She looks around. The cot across from her isn't upright. It is empty. Finnick is dead.
She can still hear him scream in her ears; it isn't hard to bring up the memory. She wishes she could as easily remember the sound of his voice when he sings their song. She stares at the cot.
The door slides open, and two Peacekeepers drag an old man in. They toss him onto the floor, and they start to beat him. She watches them. What is this about? She tilts her head. She feels like she recognises him, but she doesn't know how. He is probably really dead, killed because of her, just like everyone, and this is just a nightmare to remind her that everyone is dead because of Katniss.
He looks up at her, blood dripping out of his mouth. And she does know him. Beetee.
Funny, she hasn't thought of him in ages. How is he still alive? He coughs up more blood.
It doesn't take too much longer before he is dead. She is grateful; she didn't want to watch them beat him for much longer, even if he made little noise, not like Finnick, not like the six-year-old.
His body is dragged out of the room, and Snow walks in. He looks so pleased.
"We monitor your heart rate, you know," he tells her. She doesn't know. He is close enough that she can see the spit on his lips. Too close, she decides. "And just now yours didn't change at all."
She doesn't understand. Or care. But he is still so, so pleased. "Unstrap her," he instructs. The bed starts to lower back to the ground. She closes her eyes. "And put her in something pretty. How would you like that, Miss Everdeen?" She opens her eyes as the Peacekeepers unstrap her.
Snow stands over her. "An obedient child like you would be a wonderful dinner guest." He smiles.
The shaking abruptly stops, and it had become so constant that the stillness jolts her.
She blinks, tries to remind herself where she is. The closet. Or pantry. Most of the food surrounds her on the floor, fallen from the shelves; she is in a sea of broken cans, smashed vegetables, and splattered bags of flour. She wants Peeta. She starts to sing, and she waits for his voice to join in.
She closes her eyes, and her voice sounds prettier in her head, and Rue dances to the tune.
A shout tries to drown out the sound of her song, but she won't let it. She curls her hand around a potato, and she imagines she is out in the woods. She can't remember what the lake looks like, not really, but she imagines herself in that red dress, and now if only Peeta will come sit with her —
She doesn't want to die alone, after all.
It's so loud. They must have turned the video walls on. The Games. The bombs. The death.
More shouts. She pets Lady with Prim. More footsteps. Avoxes are loud, as it turns out. She can feel the shadows of light dance across her closed eyelids. A broken, strangled, desperate voice.
She smiles, and she slowly opens her eyes, turns her head. It's Peeta. He came to die with her.
The bedroom the Peacekeepers walk her into is familiar, but it isn't a bedroom any longer.
It is a dining hall, and right in the centre is a large table, two chairs on opposite ends of it, an endless mountain of food decked on top of it. She can't even take in all the food, the pies and the meats and the greens and the sauces and the beautiful cakes. A hand touches her back lightly.
It's President Snow.
"Yes, I knew we would be able to scrounge up a lovely dress for you," he says, and he leads her towards a chair. "I think yellow is your colour, Miss Everdeen." An Avox pulls out a chair for her.
"I suppose you're curious why I've invited you for dinner. I feel like a celebration, you see, and I thought you ought to be the guest of honour, as it is to celebrate the end of what you started."
Her mind is broken, but she remembers. How it happened. Why she is here. She remembers it all.
She remembers Gale.
She stares at him. He chuckles, and he touches her hands suddenly, picks up the fork and knife on either side of her empty plate, and he forces her hands to hold them. They're too cold, she decides.
"We bombed District 13 this afternoon," he tells her. "And they're gone. Destroyed. It's finished."
She remembers Haymitch.
He tilts his head at her, and he touches her hair. "Aren't you happy? Well, I suppose I should tell you — I've decided to let you live." He waits. She stares at him. "If you're worried about what will become of your child, you shouldn't be. I'm sure you won't be any trouble as we raise your child to symbolise a new era in Panem." Another chuckle. "I can already see her death in the Games."
She remembers Prim.
He leans against the table, his hand right beside her plate. She looks at it, wrinkled, decrepit.
She remembers Finnick.
"I don't suppose you ever were much for words," he replies. "That was always Mr. Mellark, wasn't it? I wish you could have seen him die, Miss Everdeen. We could have watched it together."
She remembers Peeta.
She stabs her knife through his hand. She doesn't give him the chance to scream. She leaps to her feet with an old grace that her body barely remembers, and she scrapes her fork across his throat, digs it in, drags it, feels his flesh tear as blood gushes out. He sputters, grasping her bloodied hand, but she shoves him away, and she watches him crumple to the ground, the fork buried in his throat.
It really is that easy. She should have done it sooner.
She walks over to him, and she stabs him between the eyes with her knife. A good kill. She stares at him. Just because she isn't sane, that doesn't mean she doesn't hate him. Or that she doesn't love them all, everyone he killed, everyone she killed, her unborn baby, her Peeta. She isn't that insane.
Her ankles hurt.
She sits back at the table. A salad fork still sits neatly by her plate. She picks it up.
Her hands are sticky with his blood, and it isn't easy to hold the fork.
He scrambles to her, his blue eyes so bright in his face, blonde curls falling around his ears.
"I knew you'd come," she whispers. His hands are warm as they touch her face, and she can see tears in her eyes. Why would he cry? Isn't he happy? "I knew you'd be here at the end, Peeta."
"It's not the end, Katniss," he tells her. "It's not. It's just the beginning, because we won, Katniss. We won, and the war is over. It's all over, do you hear me? Come on. We need to take you to a hospital." His hands brush her arms, her stomach, her face. "Come on, Katniss, please."
The war is over, yes. She fought until the end, and Snow is dead.
"I killed him," Katniss says. "I killed him for you, Peeta." She likes to say his name. It sounds so pretty. She smiles up at him, snuggles closer to him, and lets her eyes flicker closed. "I've missed you."
Her mind is quiet when she closes her eyes. She likes it. His fingers press wildly against her pulse.
She isn't sure her heart still beats, but maybe it will for him, because it's his, after all.
"No, Katniss, no —" He shakes her a little, and she can feel him try to pick her up. "I've missed you too, but they can't ever separate us again. It's over. The war is over. Hey! I need some help in here!" His voice is suddenly close to her ear, soft and sweet. "You can't give up yet, okay, not now, not when it's finally over — Katniss, open your eyes, stand up, come on —"
He sounds so desperate, always trying to keep her alive. Silly boy. She wants to be with him, doesn't he know that? "I'm sorry it took me so long to fall in love with you," she tells him softly.
She really is. She wants him to kiss her, just one last time. She opens her eyes to see his.
"It's okay, it's fine — Katniss — Finnick is so freaked out about you. You want to see him, don't you? He hasn't slept since we rescued him. He needs to see you. Come on. Stand up with me." He tries to pick her up, and she feels light in his arms, but she doesn't want to stand up. She's tired.
She really just wants to sleep, and he is here with her. He'll help sing her to sleep, won't he?
"I'm excited to see Finnick, too," she says, smiling. "And Prim. And Gale. And Rue."
"Someone help me!" he shouts, and he starts to pull away from her. She shakes her head, curls her fingers around the material of his shirt, and looks at his blue eyes. She reaches her hand up, grazes her fingers against his lips, imagines a kiss. "Katniss, just stand up for me," he pleads. "Katniss."
It sounds far off, his voice. She leans her head against his chest, where she can feel his heartbeat.
It beats for her, like she knew it would. He whispers the words, a final plea. "Stay with me."
She smiles, closes her eyes, free from it all. "Always."
After I have travelled so far,
We'd set the fire to the third bar.
We'd share each other like an island,
Until exhausted, close our eyelids.
And dreaming, pick up from
The last place we left off.
Your soft skin is weeping,
A joy you can't keep in.
a/n: I hope that wasn't too hard to follow! All the changes from the canon plot were supposed to stem from the deal with Snow, but I'm not sure how well that came across. And, also, hopefully Katniss wasn't too out of character. I tried my best!