My first-ever Hunger Games fic . From back before I knew that 9,000 words was too long for a one-shot, and that Katniss/Peeta after Mockingjay was not an original fanfiction concept. Still, I hope you enjoy! :)
"Okay. I'll see you soon!"
Joy. That's the emotion that twists the corners of my mouth into a smile when I hang up the phone. Pure and simple.
Five years ago, if anyone had told me that I would ever feel this much happiness at anything as ordinary as a friend coming for a visit, I would never have believed them. I saw life as cruel and figured only ignorant people could enjoy it.
I'm glad those days are mostly far behind me.
"Who was that?" Peeta doesn't stop mixing when he speaks. His face is coated in flour, so I grab a cloth and wipe it with a mysterious grin on my face. "Come on," he begs. "Don't make me guess!"
I laugh. "A friend of mine. One that actually enjoys my company." That should narrow it down quite a bit.
"A friend?" He screws up his face thoughtfully. "Have we seen them recently?"
"Not in person," I say.
"Hmm… someone you call or write to or… communicate telepathically…" He is just being difficult now, and I can't hold the news in any longer.
"Annie! She's coming all the way from District Four on the next train!" I exclaim, barely containing a shriek of delight. A shriek of delight. Honestly, if I could only have met myself five years ago…
"Annie?!" Peeta seems equally excited. "Annie Odair? That's great! We've got to do something special!" He straightens his apron with a dramatic motion. "I know! I'll bake a pie!" he says importantly, as if that's what he does in preparation for a great banquet, instead of what he's already in the process of doing, just for fun. He goes back to rolling the dough with gusto. I laugh.
"And she's bringing little Nicky!" Her young son, whom I have heard tales of in her letters, watched him grow in pictures. The little triumph who was born out of great tragedy, changing the bitterness into something bittersweet. Little Nicky who will never meet his father.
"Oh! How old is he?" Peeta asks. "Three? Four?"
"Somewhere around there," I tell him. Something flickers in his eyes then, a kind of longing, and I turn away and pretend like I didn't see.
"It's too bad he won't have anybody to play with," he murmurs.
"You don't plan to play with him?" I tease, ignoring his implication.
"Don't you start with me…" I still smile, but I let a warning creep into my voice. I'm not angry, but he knows me well enough not to push it. Not now. Not on one of my good days. He turns aside and slides our celebration pie into the oven.
I slip upstairs to grab my old bow and arrow. We will have to have something besides pie for our reunion feast. After all, I haven't seen Annie since my wedding, almost two years ago. I still remember how excited she got over a simple bowl of rabbit stew then. She's from the fishing district, 4, where they rarely ever got a taste of red meat, and rabbit was particularly to her liking. It's an easy enough treat to provide her with, and I wouldn't mind a walk in the woods to clear my head before my friend arrives.
My friend. It's still a bit strange that I think of her that way. Even back in school, I never really had a girlfriend, one my own age, that I truly enjoyed being around. But Annie and I didn't bond over sports or giggling over boys the way the girls I knew in high school did. We bonded over war, and loss, and a mutual need to move on without forgetting. Our friendship had grown slowly. We met in District 13 during the rebellion, when her love Finnick was one of my closest comrades. She had been rescued from the Capitol's grasp, and he was the only thing that could comfort her hollow shell of a person. She wasn't crazy the way everyone whispered, she was fragile and scared and scarred from the horrible things she had seen in the arena. But she had begun to heal. She married him and for a few days, weeks, they were radiantly happy despite all odds, despite the war raging outside. We talked a bit then, but Finnick was the only one she was close to, the only one that kept her frightening memories at bay.
But then after… after the Rebellion, the assassination, the deaths… we had both gone home and tried to pull our lives back together. I coped by loving the people I had left. I found out that she did the same. She sent me a picture of her newborn son, which I put in my scrapbook. And then, I sent her pictures back. After the fall of the Capitol, it took a while to get a mail system set up and running, because communication between districts had been strictly forbidden. At first, the service was slow and a lot of things got lost, damaged, slipped in the wrong mailbox. But as the deliveries became more consistent, so did our letters. She appreciated that I never told her to remarry, the way most people did. I never said that she needed someone to support her, that she was too unstable to raise a child on her own, or that Finnick would have wanted it. The truth was, if she had died, he never would have moved on. Never. That arrogant, egotistical womanizer the Capitol had presented us with would have mourned his love the rest of his life.
Then in recent months, we had exchanged long phone calls. I am always struck by her perspective on everything. She feels everything so much deeper than I do. When I smile, she laughs until she cries. When I ache inside, she pours out buckets of tears. While my world is in shades of black and white and gray, she sees everything in vivid, vibrant color. She is like Peeta in this respect. I have decided that they are my very favorite type of people.
I shoot three good-sized rabbits for our lunch and string up a few snares to catch dinner. The trap is something Gale taught me long ago, in a vague dream of my old life. Gale, who I haven't seen for years, either. Who I hope was able to forgive me for never being able to forgive him. Who was gracious enough to disappear out of my life forever. I am thankful. I wish him well. But I can't say that I miss him.
When I return home, Peeta has gone out. His pie is sitting, steaming, golden-brown, on the cooling rack. I take a deep whiff of the mouth-watering, tart fruit smell and then reach for the telephone. I call my mother and tell her about Annie's visit. She is happy to hear the news, but she won't be able to come see her tonight.
My mother lives on the other side of town, what used to be the rundown Seam, in one of the large, new houses that has been constructed over the ruins of the old ones. She didn't spend long abroad after the Rebellion before something called her home, although she would never return to the old Victor's Village. Here, she has prospered as a renowned doctor at the district's first hospital, using a combination of her old apothecary herbs from the woods and the factory-processed medications produced in the richer districts. Today, she is dealing with an influenza outbreak that is so severe I guess the schools are closed in that part of town. She has a lot of children in the emergency room. Peeta has gone to bring them bread, and cookies to brighten their spirits.
Cookies for sick children. I don't deserve him.
My mother often tells me that, teasingly. It's a bit ironic because she was the one who so vehemently opposed our marriage in the first place.
I remember the day he asked me. I had taken him to the little lake sanctuary that I had only ever shared with my father. We swam in the cold clear water, and I taught him all the strokes that I had learned there, backstroke, breaststroke, the butterfly. Then he had tried to kiss me underwater, like a complete idiot, and I think we both nearly drowned. We dragged ourselves ashore and sat beside the sparkling water for hours, talking about everything and nothing and then falling into a long, comfortable silence. I leaned on his shoulder and he plucked at the grass beside him, fashioning a little clover ring. Then he got down on one knee and slipped it over my finger. I squealed and beamed and knocked him to the forest floor for a kiss. Yes, absolutely yes!
And then we went back to District 12, and my mother said no, absolutely not. I wasn't quite nineteen, but age wasn't her concern. The truth was, both of us had been broken by the war, the Rebellion, and Peeta especially still suffered ill effects from the months the Capitol had held and tortured him. They had fed him tracker jacker venom and false memories, and the poison blurred reality in his mind until he was full of rage and violent against me. He eventually learned how to tell what was real and what the lies were. He never hurt me after that first day, but I know that the memories still plagued him on and off for years. The only thing that he could ever compare it to was waking up and knowing it was only a dream but still feeling everything you felt in your sleep.
My mother had seen his eyes darken at random when he would look at me. She knew there were still moments he hated me for doing things I had never done. So she forbid me to marry him, and even though I was a consenting adult, I knew Peeta would never go against her. He was so polite and understanding and, under that, ashamed of himself. But I was a monster, screaming at her and crying and then refusing to talk to her for days. In my head I understood that she was right. And I apologized later. But my mother was relieved that I had begun to feel things in my heart again. She readily forgave me, and promised me that someday I would marry him.
And that day came. It was over a year after his last episode. After we could be confident he would never have one again. And he never has.
I try to think of who else in town will want to visit Annie, but I realize that only Haymitch remains, and Annie was always a bit afraid of him. So I cross him off the guest list. It will be pleasant just to have Peeta and I and Annie and her baby, nothing big, nothing fancy, just friends enjoying each other's company.
Annie should be here for lunch, so I go to work skinning and dressing the rabbits for the stew. It is bubbling on the stove when Peeta comes in. He doesn't even remove his hat or jacket but makes a beeline for the stew. The taste he takes isn't to his satisfaction, so he opens the spice cabinet and adds a pinch of this and a sprinkle of that. I trust him to fix it up nicely.
I pull his hat off his head and kiss his cold cheek. "Hey. How were the kids?"
He shrugs. "Sick. Sad. Bored. Needed sugar."
"Did you make them laugh?" I ask.
He turns to me with a crooked smile on his face. "Babe," he says, slipping his arms around my waist. "How can you see this face… and not laugh?" he whispers, lips tickling my ear.
I crack up, and he drops his arms and folds them across his chest. "See, now you're just picking on me!" he whines loudly.
"Oh, come here!" I'm just about to kiss him when the doorbell rings. We both turn and hurry to the front hallway. I pull open the door to find Annie standing on the porch, thick hair done up under her cap, cheeks rosy from the cold. Rosy red and healthy-looking. Her eyes seem brighter than I remember, too.
Annie is thriving.
I embrace her tightly and lead her in out of the wind. Peeta also greets her warmly as I help her strip off her warm fluffy outer layers of clothes. They don't know each other that well, but I know how much they have in common. We will all have a wonderful time.
A tiny, indistinct voice at Annie's side draws my attention to her son. Little Nicky, whom I have never seen outside of the pictures his mother sends. Somehow, in real life, the little boy's features seem brighter, livelier. More distinct. He has his mother's deep sea-green eyes. But everything else, his dark hair, face shape, cheeks, eyebrows, nose, point to Finnick. I draw a quick breath in.
"Say hi, baby," Annie says, pulling him forward gently by the hand. His eyes widen, and he shyly buries his face in her pant leg. But his chubby hand waves at us.
"Hi," comes the muffled greeting. I can't hide my smile.
"This is your Aunt Katniss. And your Uncle Peeta," she tells him. I'm touched by this introduction. For the first time, I realize that Annie is not just like a friend. She considers me a sister.
The little boy peeks out from around her leg, and suddenly Peeta is on his knees beside him. "Hey, buddy," he says brightly. "Are you Finnick, Jr.?" The boy nods, and Peeta gasps loudly. "The Finnick, Jr.?! Man, you're so much taller in real life!"
Nicky casts his mother a questioning glance. "I'm this many!" he exclaims, holding up three fat little fingers. Peeta acts appropriately shocked.
"I like trains!" Nicky shouts.
"Me, too!" Peeta shouts back.
And so a beautiful friendship is born.
Annie catches my eye, trying to suppress her giggles. I smile at her, but all I'll say is, "Stew's getting cold." I hurry into the kitchen.
I try convince Annie to sit and let me serve her, but she insists on helping me set the table. I am struck again by the gleam that has replaced the far-away look in her eye. She tells me news from District 4, how new technology is changing their way of life. Speed boats have increased harvest and shortened work hours, but she just isn't sure if she will ever get used to the noise. I express similar concerns about the automobiles that are beginning to fill even our quietest streets. We're deep in this discussion when I ladle some rabbit stew into Nicky's bowl. He pulls my pant leg as I walk by.
"Do you like trains?" he demands.
I think of the noisy, filthy transport trains that delivered our coal quota to the Capitol every week, filling the air with thick black smog. Then the luxury cars I rode in years ago that took me to the Games. Twice. Under thousands of tons of rock in claustrophobic tunnels. On a victory tour that still gives me nightmares.
"No," I answer honestly.
Nicky slams his spoon on his table. "How come?"
"They're loud and bumpy and their smoke smells bad. I like to walk." I sit down beside Annie and take a bite of stew.
"Oh." Nicky deflates. "I like trains." He doesn't even look at me for the rest of the meal.
I heard someone say once that it's bad manners to discuss politics over a friendly dinner, but here in the districts, we're just happy to have politics to discuss. The freedom to disagree with someone else's opinion without fearing for your safety or your family's. So no one minds when the conversation turns to the upcoming election next month. It's going to be a historical occasion, the first time in nearly one hundred years that every citizen of Panem has a voice in choosing our leader. President Paylor, who has been overseeing the reconstruction and reformation of the government in the years following the Rebellion, has graciously stepped down. Her name will not even appear on the ballot, although she is supporting an old friend of hers from her cabinet.
It still seems strange to me to watch the presidential debates on TV. It's strange to see anything on TV besides Capitol propaganda, so much stranger to see people battling different points of view. Our media is still far from having complete freedom, however. After seventy-five years of televised Hunger Games, depicting violence on TV is strictly forbidden. One show was banned, no questions asked, after showing a child poke a dog with a stick. Perhaps the pendulum has swung a bit too far back the other way, but you'd be hard pressed to find a person in the Districts who would complain.
"I really don't know who I'm going to vote for," Annie says with a sigh. "I don't really understand the way this whole system's set up. We've got to be educated."
I think back to all my years of schooling, which seem like a waste because I only memorized things that the Capitol wanted me to know. "I know what you mean. The majority of us aren't prepared for this election."
"It's going to be an easier job for our kids," Annie comments.
I shift in my seat. "For the next generation," I correct her, because she must know I never plan to have kids. Feeling a bit uncomfortable, I turn to Peeta. "What do you think?"
Annie and I glance over at my husband, who I notice for the first time hasn't been entirely tuned into our conversation. He has eaten out a hole in homemade dinner roll and is now making engine noises while Nicky drives a toy train through the "tunnel".
"Peeta!" I hiss through my teeth. "Don't play with your food!"
Peeta pops the roll in his mouth. Even though I had only been addressing him, Annie flinches apologetically and pulls the train out of her son's hand. "Sorry," she mutters to me.
"Oh, no, I wasn't…" I put a hand over my mouth, embarrassed. I am not winning any points with that little boy.
Annie ignores Nicky's squeals of protest and turns back to Peeta. "So, who's your favorite candidate?"
Peeta shrugs good-naturedly. "I don't know about you guys, but Haymitch has my vote. Unless I can find somebody with a bigger train."
Nicky laughs hysterically, Annie looks bewildered, and I just shake my head at him. "Thank you for your input," I say dryly.
It soon becomes apparent that Peeta has little interest in adult talk at all. He is completely preoccupied with entertaining Nicky. I keep muttering apologies throughout the evening, especially when the two boys begin a wrestling match in the middle of the living room floor. Annie catches my arm as we sit down on the couch.
"Please- don't be sorry," she says quietly. "He needs it."
I take a deep breath, slowly catching her meaning, and watch Peeta pretend that Nicky has pinned him to the floor. In a way it seems fitting. The little boy who won't ever meet his father bonding with the poor man whose wife won't let him have kids. I feel a pang of guilt as I realize that Peeta is trying to prove himself to me. But he's wasting his time. I already know he's great with children. It's the rest of the world I don't trust.
But Annie loves to watch them play, so we camp out in the living room. I pop popcorn and pull out a deck of cards and soon discover that in District 4, children learn cards before they learn how to read. It's something of a sailor's tradition. Annie smokes me at every game we try, which surprises both of us. As usual, I crack a smile, and she laughs until tears stream down her cheeks.
It all seems so natural, so normal, so not like I imagined my future would ever be. There's still that part of me that doesn't believe it, that is hesitant to let myself enjoy any of it. But I suppress that part and laugh and joke and talk more than I have in months. Because I know I've got to make the good times last.
"Again!" I look over and find Peeta flopped on his stomach while Nicky bounces on his back, begging for another pony ride. I laugh at them, because they both look equally exhausted. Peeta's got bags forming under his eyes, and Nicky's having trouble keeping his open at all.
"Let's take a break, bucko," Peeta says, his voice rough and scratchy, probably from all the happy shouting they've both been doing. Then he takes the little child in his arms and rocks him.
He quiets into sleep on Peeta's lap, little breaths ruffling his bronze hair. The three of us adults just sit there in silence for several minutes, watching him. I finally say the thing that's on all our minds.
"He looks like his daddy," I whisper.
Tears immediately spring into Annie's eyes, and they follow the trails down her cheeks that the happy tears made earlier. She thanks me profusely. I know every time she looks at him, he is a reminder of past pain. But also future promise. He was the thing that kept her going when her own life wasn't enough reason to live.
Peeta complains of a headache then and reluctantly turns himself in for the night. I wonder if he really doesn't feel well, or if he is just trying to give Annie and I some time alone. Either way, he makes a point of depositing Nicky on my lap instead of his mother's before he goes upstairs. He's careful not to catch the dark look I shoot him.
We talk long into the night, Annie and I, about sad things and happy things and anything and nothing, with little Nicky curled up warm against me, fast asleep. I watch his little chest rise and fall, eyelashes fluttering in dreams. I fall silent as I picture him wrestling on the floor with Peeta, the laughter and the light in both their eyes. This is what my husband wants more than anything.
Suddenly, I'm afraid I might understand why.
Annie sees me watching her son, and her mouth turns up in a little soft smile. "Katniss," she whispers. "You're going to be a great mother someday."
No. Peeta tried to convince me of that years ago. My answer was no then, and it's still no. I laugh as if it's all some ridiculous joke that Annie and I share. "And you're going to be a great comedian."
"I'm serious!" She watches me intently. "Why don't you see that?"
I've always blamed the world as a whole for my refusal to have children. It's always been a dangerous place for new life. First the Games, then the Rebellion and the war. Now with everything… the election, the new president, the new freedoms we have in Panem. The world is changing. There's a chance, just a sliver of a hope of a chance… The next generation will certainly have it easier. Maybe their world can be safer, brighter, cleaner. It's the first time I have allowed myself to think it. But does that lessen my conviction?
Nope. Not a smidgeon. Which makes me wonder if the root of my problem was not completely with the cruel world in the first place. Maybe my problem was with me.
I clear my throat, trying to keep my tone light. "I just don't know if I have those… motherly instincts."
Her mouth falls open in disbelief. "Of course you do! I've seen your instincts!"
Oh, I know I have instincts, but they're not exactly the nurturing variety. I have the kind of instincts that allow me to turn, shoot, and kill at the slightest sound. The kind that are sometimes mistaken for good judgment of character because I hardly trust anyone. I stroke Nicky's soft hair and shake my head furiously, as if that will fend off the little ache in my chest.
I want to have motherly instincts.
I don't want Annie to see how frustrated I am at myself for this moment of doubt. It's not her fault that I'm so conflicted, after all. So I make a big show of yawning and declaring it a night. It doesn't take much acting, because it's nearly one o'clock in the morning.
I prepare the guest room for Annie and her little one. I tuck her in and kiss her cheek the way I used to do for Prim. Then I turn and hurry out, before I am tempted to admire little Nicky again.
Peeta stirs restlessly when I crawl under the covers, but he doesn't wake up. I lay down and try to relax, but images are flooding me. Diapers. First teeth. First steps. Childish laughter and big wet kisses. All those things that I would never truly allow myself to appreciate. I scold myself over and over again for this moment of weakness. I've made a vow to myself, and I can never go back on it. I know why I will never be a mother. Me, who can watch a beautiful sunrise and only take away the day's weather forecast. Me, who votes to shoot the old dog whose owner has died. Me, who lets Peeta do the interior decorating. I have no motherly instincts. And yet… I wrestle against my thoughts until I'm burning with frustration.
No, I become vaguely aware that I'm burning with more than frustration. The night is unusually hot for this time of year, and I'm sweating under the thick blankets. I kick them off the bed rather violently and try to settle down. It's less than a minute before I hear Peeta's teeth chattering beside my ear. I sigh, feeling a little guilty at my rage, and gently tuck the covers back around his chin. He continues to shiver, even though the down comforter's got to be stifling. I'm suddenly reminded of another night, in a sweltering sleeping bag reflecting Peeta's fever. I sit up against my pillow and press my hand softly against his cheek. It's radiating heat like the dying coals in the fireplace.
It's strange. He seemed fine all day. I realize that with all the preparation for Annie's visit, I haven't paid a whole lot of attention to Peeta today. I brush the hair off his forehead and kiss it silently. He's feverish, all right, but not dangerously so. Probably caught the flu from those poor small children he visited today. My mother had said it was spreading like wildfire.
What timing. I hate to think of him wrestling around with Annie's little boy on the floor. He was probably contagious without even knowing it. I sit there in the darkness and continue to stroke his hair, more concerned for my little guest who is so susceptible to sickness. Should I warn his mother? Clean his toys? Take him to the doctor? Even if my mother could inoculate him now, it would already be too late.
Peeta lets out a moan then, and his lips form my name, drawing my attention back to him. He is tossing and turning, caught in that miserable, delirious state between sleep and wakefulness. I hurry to the bathroom and wet a washcloth with cold water. When I press it to his face, my throat tightens. I'm back in the arena again with my memories, probably because neither of us has truly been sick since the Games. We are both healthy and strong now. I don't need to worry about blood poisoning or mutts or an ambush while we rest. But that cool washcloth pressed to Peeta in the darkness makes me feel small and vulnerable, like it's us against the world. Again.
By the sounds of it, Peeta is struggling out of a troubling dream. He finally succeeds, eyes flying open and flickering with confusion, as if he can't remember where he is or why he's here. He turns to me, willing himself to focus. "What are you doing here?" he says in a croaky voice that is both bewildered and somewhat accusing.
I shake my head slowly, not sure what he's talking about. He raises himself to a sitting position, and his eyes seem to register reality. "Katniss-" he says, and then interrupts himself with a loud coughing fit.
"Shhh…" I press a finger to my lips and squeeze his shoulder comfortingly. "Go back to sleep."
"Katniss, I'm freezing!" he moans, teeth jarring against each other as if to illustrate his point.
"You're sick. You'll feel better in the morning." I start to push him back toward the pillow, but he shoves my hand aside and sits up in a panic.
"No, I can't, Katniss! I can't! Every time I… I close my eyes…" His breath comes in short gasps, and I realize whatever he's seen in his sleep, it's as frightening to him as any reality. Real or not real? The old game we used to have to play. "Every time I close my eyes… I see…" But he falls into coughing again.
"Shhh, Peeta. Not real." I lower him gently until he's lying flat, and he doesn't resist. Then I slip out of bed and tiptoe down to the kitchen cabinet. I'll coax some fever pills into him and hopefully he'll get a few more hours of sleep.
I light a candle on the table and shake a couple of the pills into my hand. Then I pad softly to the guest room. Annie and Nicky are fast asleep. I quietly close the door behind me, silently apologizing in case we have infected their little family. I carry the candle upstairs with me, preferring its soft glow to the harsh electric lights. I'm still a bit old-fashioned in some ways.
Peeta's sitting up in bed when I enter, and the flickering flame reflects in his eyes in a way that kind of creeps me out. He speaks in a low, emotionless voice, which I suppose is the least straining on his throat. "What are you doing here?"
That question again. What am I doing here? Why would I not be here? "It's just me, Peeta. Just Katniss." I perch on the edge of the bed and hold out the pills in my palm. "Take these and drink some water. I don't want you to get dehydrated." Peeta catches my wrist and holds it there. But he doesn't take the medicine.
"I know what you're trying to do," he says, his voice rising. He's truly delirious, worse than he ever was in the arena. But I laugh as if he's just being silly. "I'm trying to take care of you, sweetheart. It makes me feel good inside." I've never actually called him "sweetheart" before. Annie's comment about my motherly instincts comes to my mind, but I brush it away quickly. Taking care of Peeta is entirely different than taking care of a baby.
Peeta's still watching me intently, suspiciously. I lower the candle onto the night table and come to the horrifying realization that it is not causing the flickering in his eyes. And I know what is.
His grasp on my wrist suddenly tightens. "These are nightlock!" he hisses through clenched teeth. I try to wriggle away, but he only squeezes harder, cutting off my circulation. "You're trying to kill me!" he cries.
I don't move. Don't make a sound. I am trying desperately to remember how to deal with Peeta when he is under the influence of those tracker jacker memories. But that should be over. He should be healed. But something… the virus, the fever, the restless sleep, has triggered venom that must have been lying dormant for years. And somehow the thought that he could have more episodes, possibly many more, is scarier than the fact that he is having one now.
"Not real…" I can't pull away. Peeta is stronger than me, even sick as he is. I grit my teeth against the pain, but he holds on. I'm a bit afraid that he might twist and snap my arm in his rage. But after another moment or so, he starts coughing hoarsely. I take the opportunity to grab the candle in my free hand and tip it slightly so that hot wax splatters across his fingers. He yelps and jerks back, and the exertion makes him cough harder than before. I race for the doorway, slipping my custom-made black bow over my shoulder. Before I can slam the door, something shatters against the wall just over my shoulder. Our old oil lamp. The one that used to sit beside Prim's bed.
I pause in the hallway. Since our door opens to the inside, I hang my bow on the doorknob, effectively barring it. Then I sink to the floor and try to think of a plan, some way out of this. But it's hard when I'm shaking so bad. I massage the arm that Peeta grabbed, trying to get some blood flowing back into my fingers. Who can I turn to? Not Annie. Her safe little corner of the world is so small, a scare like this would devastate her. And what would my mother say if she knew Peeta had another episode? I think of that awful day when I said yes and she said no. Could she say no again? I can't bear the thought.
Even though it's three in the morning, I know he won't be sleeping. The question is only whether or not he'll be coherent enough to the help me. I run down the stairs and snatch the telephone off the wall, punching in his number so hard I'm surprised my finger doesn't snap off. Then I collapse into a dining room chair and wait while it rings. "Pick up, you drunk old fool," I hiss into the night.
After about the twelfth ring, Haymitch answers by very diplomatically demanding, "Whaddya want?" I'm relieved that his voice is only a bit slurred.
I take a deep breath to steady myself. "Haymitch, it's Peeta. He's having a relapse. From the venom. He thinks I'm trying to kill him!"
Heavy breathing on the line. "What?" he says, but I can tell he understands what I'm saying. "You can't be serious… I thought…"
"I know, Haymitch! I thought he was better, too!" I try to keep my voice below a shout. "But he's… sick, he's got a fever, I think maybe that's why he can't… control…"
There's a crash over my head, upstairs in my bedroom, and I wonder what he could be throwing now. I press a hand over my mouth to keep from screaming.
"Katniss? Katniss, do you hear me?" Haymitch is begging for my attention, too. "Get yourself someplace safe, all right?"
"I'm not just going to leave him like this!" I protest.
"Then make sure you can defend yourself. He's not Peeta right now, and he's capable of anything. Don't forget that."
I am all too aware. I couldn't forget if I tried.
"I'll be there as soon as I can!" Haymitch says, but I realize I'm not looking for him to come defend me.
"No, don't come- call… call the doctor! That doctor that knows about the tracker jackers!"
I can't remember his name, the man who had treated Peeta in District 13, because the memories of those days had finally faded. Finally, and now they've been stirred up like the black mud that gets kicked up on the bottom of my clear lake.
I hang up on Haymitch as something else smashes against the wall. I flinch when the door to the guest room creaks open, and Annie's pale face peers out. "Katniss?" she whispers. "What's going on?"
I hesitate. I have to keep her safe without scaring her to death. "Peeta's got the flu," I say simply, like that explains everything.
"Oh, that's too bad," she mutters, as if trying to convince herself that the flu makes you shout and throw things in the middle of the night. "Is there anything I can do?"
I shake my head. "No, I'm afraid he's really contagious. We might have to quarantine the whole house. I hate to ask you to-" Another crash. Focus, Katniss. "I hate to ask you to leave early, but I don't want this to spread anymore… I can take you to my mother's house." Then I would have to explain to my mother, but I can't worry about that right now.
Annie's shaking her head no. Why is she shaking her head no?! "Nicky and I both got our shots back home. But thanks for your concern." She hurries into the kitchen, her nightgown swishing around her ankles. "I know a stew that's good for the aches and pains…"
No. I need her to leave and let me handle this alone. This isn't part of the plan. In fact, none of this has been part of my plan. I shut the guestroom door tightly and follow Annie out into the kitchen, heading straight for the medicine cabinet. My mother has left me a cure for every common ailment, with the strongest stuff on the top shelf. But I need something uncommon right now. I have to pull a chair over and step up on it to see what I'm reaching for. Bandages. Gauze. Stomach medication. A bottle of sleep syrup. I hesitate. Right idea, wrong application. There is no way I will be able to force anything down his throat. Then my hand lands on a tiny vial, and I grab it and examine the foggy green liquid inside.
It's tranquilizer. I could use some tranquility right now.
I feel around for a syringe and jam the little vial inside. This dosage should knock Peeta out for a good eight hours. I'm not sure what happens when he wakes up, but for now this is my best course of action.
The crashing noises have ceased, and the upstairs is still and quiet as I climb the stairs. I pause outside our bedroom door, remove my bow and prop it against the wall, hoping rather guiltily that Peeta is too ill to rise out of bed. That would make this part so much easier.
I ease the door open soundlessly and peer inside, every muscle tense and alert. I am hunting Peeta Mellark. My husband. This is quite literally my worst nightmare.
Peeta is sitting up in bed, reading something by the light of the candle I left. His face is pale and almost calm, but his eyes still flash when he looks up at me. He glances down at the book again as if I'm not worth his attention.
I almost set my bare foot in the shards of the oil lamp on the floor. I gingerly step over, and find Peeta studying me suspiciously.
"I threw that at you," he says flatly.
I have a hard time holding my tongue at that, because I can still see Prim studying by the lamplight. Lighting it in the wee hours of the morning when the darkness was too oppressive for her. Then I realize that Peeta's still watching me with an eyebrow raised. It's a question. He's not sure, but he's trying to sort things out.
This is a good sign, I try to tell myself.
"Yes, you did," I say steadily, taking a step towards the bed. "That wasn't very nice of you."
He holds my gaze for another long moment without saying a word. Then he glances back down and flips through a few pages absently, stifling a cough. He's reading our scrapbook, the one we made to commemorate our friends that had died. I wonder if he understands it. I take the opportunity to inch closer to him, holding the syringe behind my back.
"You married me," he says slowly. Then he waits for confirmation.
"I did. Do you remember asking me?"
"Yes," he snaps. "You didn't want to."
"Of course I did!" I'm genuinely surprised. "My mother wouldn't let me."
His face flushes bright red. "No!" he suddenly snarls. "No, you had to. They forced you. They all forced you. You loved somebody else." His voice is thick with pain.
Oh. That proposal. The first one, on live TV. Well, that had been fake, but how could I go about explaining that? "Oh, Peeta," I sigh, leaning against the bed frame, waiting for an opportunity to stick him. "Things… were complicated back then." And to my surprise, he accepts that response, at least for the moment.
I can see the scrapbook page over his shoulder now. He is looking at his mother's entry, the picture he drew because there was no photograph of her. Somehow, he made even her old, sour, hateful face beautiful.
"How long before you put me in here, too?" he asks icily. I only stare, and he raises up an arm accusingly. "You're planning it, aren't you?"
I am in the perfect position to plunge the needle into his extended arm, but something in his voice stops me. That question was loaded with haunting assumptions. "Peeta…" I stammer, gesturing to the book. "I didn't kill those people!"
He lunges for me. I leap out of the way and hold up the syringe like a loaded weapon. "Yes, you did! I saw you!" he screams, sore throat cracking. He flings aside the covers and rises unsteadily to his feet. He's not bedridden, as I had hoped. "I watched them die! Every last one!"
"Not real, Peeta!" I cry. He flings the book at me and I just manage to duck. "Whatever you're seeing, it's not real!"
"Even little Rue!" he continues, taking a menacing step toward me.
"No!" I run for the doorway, wanting to cover my ears with both hands and drown out these horrible thoughts. I grab my black bow and leap down the stairs. Peeta stops and leans against the banister.
"Little Rue!" he spits. "You jammed a spear into her stomach!"
I can't handle it anymore. "Stop it, Peeta!" I shriek, holding up the bow threateningly, but it's not strung. I don't have any arrows, and I know I could never bring myself to injure him anyway.
"I can't stop!" he screams. "I can't!" He trips down the stairs, slamming a fist against the wall in his feverish rage. He struggles to free his hand from the dry wall he has imbedded it in. "Katniss!" he cries out for me, eyes wide and panicky. It's his real voice for just a moment, begging for my help, but there's nothing I can do. However nightmarish this is for me, it's worse for him. Or it will be, when he comes back around. He is his own worst fear.
The real Peeta is gone in a heartbeat, and he steps onto the landing, breathing heavily. Annie chooses the worst possible to emerge from the kitchen carrying a bowl of hot soup. She startles when she sees him advancing toward me, teeth gritted, and me with my empty bowstring drawn back, loose hair splayed across my sweaty face. The soup spills all down her front, and she begins to tremble, eyes growing glassy.
"Get out of here!" I yell at her, running to push her towards the door. "Take Nicky! Get out!" But I see that I have already lost Annie to her own nightmares.
"That's right! You better run!" Peeta hisses bitterly. "She's dangerous!" He slips his hands behind the tall bookcase leaning against the wall, tilting it forward threateningly. I tackle Annie out of its way just as it crashes to the ground. The noise of the falling books and the shattering glass figures all but drowns out a single other, quiet sound.
Nicky is standing at the doorway of his guest bedroom. His eyes are wide with horror, and when his bottom lip trembles, he lets out a shuddery whimper. Not a wail or a scream but a sound of quiet misery. Then he turns and runs out of the room as fast as his chubby legs can carry him. Annie wakes up from her own terror and hurries after him.
Peeta's turned away from me to watch them, and it only takes this brief moment of distraction for me to have an idea. I hold up the syringe and pull the handle tight against the bow string like the shaft of an arrow. It's not very steady, but it will work. I train it on my husband.
I catch a glimpse of his face for a brief moment, and I know the episode is already over. He's already snapped out of it. The fire is gone out of his eyes, and he is staring after our guests with shock written all over his face. But it's too late for me to stop my hand from releasing the string. I fire my makeshift arrow into his rear end, and he freezes where he is. Then his eyes roll back into his head and he collapses.
Despite my best intentions to stay strong for Annie, I collapse soon after he does, straight into her arms. She strokes my hair and does her best to comfort me, but I keep crying long after Nicky has calmed down. It feels like I will never be able to stop crying.
But I do, eventually. I must choke on my tears, because then I cough until it feels like I will never be able to stop coughing.
I suppose that I never technically pass out, but the next few hours are blurry in my mind. At some point Annie must have called my mother, because I end up in a hospital bed with her briefly hovering over me. Then I am alone. I lie flat, staring at the flowers painted on the ceiling that are meant to be comforting. I wonder if I am seriously injured, if Peeta has hurt me, if I have hurt him. I am hot, then cold, and so confused, and every time I drift off I relive the past night. Each dream is a little different than the one before it, a little longer, more vivid, more terrifying. In one, I actually send an arrow straight into Peeta's flesh. In another, he smashes Prim's lamp over my head, sending blood running into my eyes. Each time I wake up I am sure that Peeta has done something horrible to me. That he is living with the guilt right now.
But I gradually become aware that the worst thing he has done is given me his flu. I have been quarantined just like those poor schoolchildren, but in my own room, so at least I get a little peace and quiet. I try to sleep again, but my fever makes me restless and miserable. My teeth chatter even when I pull the covers up to my chin. It must be high, to cause such confusion whenever I wake. I realize this is what Peeta must have suffered, only worse, much worse. He tried to warn me that he was slipping away, but I didn't understand.
I lie there and soak in the silence for over an hour. No one comes in to check on me, because there are much sicker people in here that take even my mother's priority. It doesn't matter, because my throat feels so raw and parched I'm not sure I could talk to anyone anyway.
Eventually, I hear voices at the door. A couple of nurses who have transferred to District 12 from the Capitol. It must have been a rough transition for them, because their prominent accents still inspire so much hatred in the people here. I am not a noble exception. I feign sleep when they enter.
One of them dabs a cool cloth on my feverish face with a slow, gentle touch. She takes my vital signs and recites them to her partner, who must be jotting the numbers down on a clipboard. She lifts my arm to take my pulse, and I wince when her fingers prod a tender spot. I can feel her hesitate, examining my forearm.
"Her husband did that," the other woman says with an obvious note of disgust in her voice. The first nurse clucks her tongue sadly. I know she is shaking her head in pity as she takes my other arm.
Anger boils up inside me, and I have to force myself not to move, not to protest. These women have made so many terrible assumptions about me, about my family, and I have no idea how I could argue with them. The whole situation is so bizarre. I am glad when the door clicks behind them, and I am alone again.
I pull a pillow over my head and try to quiet my breathing for quite some time. Eventually, my mother returns, checks my chart. But she doesn't turn and leave. She isn't fooled by my sleep ruse. Lifting the pillow off my head, she kisses my cheek and drops some pills into my hand. She stands over me until I swallow them, then turns and breezes to the doorway without a word to me.
"Yes, she's awake," she says to someone in the hall. Peeta steps inside, slowly, hesitantly, and I watch my two remaining family members have a silent conversation. There is a question in his eyes, and in answer, my mother reaches up and touches his cheek gently. Then she is gone, but she has left the door open. Privacy is not an option for us now.
Peeta pads over to my bed, fake leg clicking on the cold tile floor. I know he is still sick when he kneels down beside me, his eyes are so bleary and puffy. But the fever-fire is gone from them. His big, rough hands swallow up my smaller ones and we just look at each other for the longest time. When we finally speak, it's the same question at the same moment.
"Did I hurt you?"
It would be a sweet, cute little moment, but neither of us smiles. We're too intent on getting an answer.
"You mean besides infecting me?" I finally say. I intend it as a joke, but my voice is raspy and I break off into coughing almost before the punch line. Peeta gives me a weak smile anyway.
"How's your bottom?" I ask him.
He snorts. "Sore. I'm not going to be sitting for a while, that's for sure."
I flinch at that. "I'm sorry."
"Don't be," he says fiercely, squeezing my hands tighter. "You did what you had to do."
I nod and try to clear the tickle out of my throat. "I'm just glad we only ended up bruised," I finally manage.
Surprise crosses his face. "Katniss?" he whispers.
Oops. I've just confessed to my own injury, minor as it is. I have to show him now or he'll imagine it's much worse than it really is. I roll my sleeve up to my elbow, exposing the deep purple marks that contrast starkly with my pale skin.
I thought it would be a relief for him to see this, because I'm sure I've received worse injuries from clumsily smacking into tree branches. But it has the opposite effect on him. A shadow falls over his face, dropping his jaw, filling his eyes with pain. He stretches out a finger and gingerly traces the imprint of his hand on my wrist. His mouth forms my name again.
"It doesn't hurt, Peeta," I say steadily. It's very nearly true, but I don't know that I wouldn't have lied about it. He meets my eyes then, and his are welled up with tears that are threatening to spill over.
Oh great. If he cries, I'm probably going to lose it, too. "Stop it," I hiss. My own throat is choked with emotion, but I manage to sound forceful. "Stop blaming yourself, Peeta. It's not your fault, all right?" I don't sound very comforting, but Peeta calms down, for my sake, not his.
"What happened?" I take a deep breath. "What did the doctors say? Have they been here?"
He runs a hand through his hair. "Oh yeah."
"Well, did they run any tests?" I demand.
"Katniss, I spend all day yesterday in a little padded room getting poked and prodded with needles," he says, an edge of irritation creeping into his voice. "They called it a fluke. They know nothing."
I can't believe that. "Even with all their brilliant research?" I seethe.
"You don't understand! I am their research!" Peeta snaps. "I am their brilliant research." He drops his head into his hands.
"It's okay. That's all right." I squeeze his shoulder, voice softer now. "Is it going to happen again?"
He shakes his head without looking up. "They don't think so. But they never thought it would happen this time, either."
We sit in silence for a long moment. "I don't think I can handle being dangerous again," he says finally.
I lean forward and gently begin to stroke his hair. "Everything's dangerous, Peeta," I choose my words carefully. "But some things are worth it."
He gives me a scoffing look.
"I'm serious. That's what they used to tell me about the woods. That it was dangerous. So they put up a big scary gate to keep everybody out."
I can tell he doesn't know where I'm going with this. I ignore the questions in his eyes and continue. "But if I had stayed inside, I would have died. And even though there were dangerous things there, I needed the woods to survive. I didn't have to be afraid, because I knew the woods. I loved them. And I understood how to deal with…" I trail off for a moment. "Problems… as they arose."
He quirks an eyebrow at me. "Violently?" His tone is almost playful.
"Only-" I give him a quick kiss. "When necessary."
It feels good when we laugh, but he takes only a moment to grow serious again. "Annie is at your mother's place. She says she'll come by later and see you, but… she's not planning to stay."
I cringe. "Don't really blame her."
He nods. "Do… do you think Nicky's all right?"
Peeta's not very good at this not blaming himself business. "Oh, he'll be fine," I say quickly, although I wouldn't be surprised if the kid has nightmares after witnessing our little family train wreck.
Ha ha. Train wreck. I crack myself up.
"I keep seeing his face…" Peeta says quietly. I grab his hand, looking for the right words to broach this delicate topic. To prove my point gently. I decide to try my analogy again.
"I'm not afraid of the woods, Peeta…" I hesitate. "But… I wouldn't take a baby there."
His face hardens, his jaw twitches with the effort of keeping the emotion in. "That- that wouldn't be a good idea." He stands quickly and plants a kiss on my forehead. "I gotta go," he says, voice husky. "You get some sleep, okay?"
"Okay," I murmur. He gives my hand one final squeeze and hurries out the door. I have won that battle. At last. But it's a very, very hollow victory. I have broken my husband's heart.
But there's a part of me that has fought before that knows the flighty nature of battle. I know that I won't always be on the winning side of this one.