A/N: So I'm still alive and haven't yet abandoned these outtakes. Still not sure how long it will take me to get through all I have planned, but I'm still fond of this story and these characters, so I think I'll keep going until it isn't fun any more.
Things Fall Apart for Peeta
Two weeks after they had buried his father, his mother announced that she was getting remarried. She told her sons that she would be selling the bakery and moving in with Templeton Steele.
The boys said nothing. Templeton was well-known for being a nasty, ill-tempered drunk. Peeta half thought his mother must be kidding, although she had never joked around with them before.
"Templeton asked me to marry him a long time ago, but I thought I'd be better off as the wife of a baker. I knew at least I'd never go hungry. Little did I know I was agreeing to wake every day hours before dawn, to forever have flour under my fingernails, and to eat nothing but stale baked goods every day." Her perpetual scowl deepened as she remembered these indignities.
"But," she continued, "it seems the odds were in my favor after all. Templeton lost his wife a few years ago to the Pox, and your father's heart attack has freed me as well. And after all this time, he still wants me."
Her expression softened slightly as she reflected on what she perceived to be her good luck – which included the death of her loving and dependable husband. Peeta felt bile rise in his throat.
"This is bullshit," said Oates. "We just lost our father and now you're selling the only home we've ever known?"
Her scowl returned, redoubled in intensity. "I raised you boys. I fed you and clothed you and made sure you never went hungry. Now you're old enough to take care of yourselves, and you are not going to ruin my second chance at happiness."
It had been six weeks since his mother instituted her "motivation" program, which began with a starvation diet and ended with a nightly beating after he reported that he still hadn't found an apprenticeship. Peeta wondered how being starving and injured was supposed to make him more attractive to potential employers, but he also knew in his mother's eyes, the fault of his lack of employment was his alone.
Peeta hadn't eaten anything but a watery breakfast of oatmeal for over a week. His brothers tried to slip him food when they could, but they were dependent on others for their own sustenance and often had nothing to spare. And he was too ashamed to tell them how bad it really was at home.
Today he was resolved to seek out food beyond the border of the district. Before today, he had not thought the possible reward worth the possibility of electrocution or arrest, but at this point, hunger had won out over fear. After all, Katniss went beyond the fence to hunt. How dangerous could it really be?
He walked along the fence, hurrying along guiltily whenever he came across a Peacekeeper, until he came to a spot along the north end that he thought he might be able to climb under.
Once he had wriggled underneath, he felt a moment of elation before he realized he had no idea what he was looking for. He didn't know how to hunt. And unless big bags of Capital-ground flour were stacked in the woods, he had no idea what "food" should look like.
He wandered until he came across something that looked promising: a berry bush. These berries looked very similar to the ones they used to bake into some of their muffins, so Peeta figured they should be good. He had just begun picking a handful when he heard a shout of, "Peeta! No!" Before he could determine where the shout came from, an arrow hit the tree next to his head with a loud THWACK, and he practically jumped out of his skin.
He assumed he was about to be killed by Peacekeepers when a slim girl appeared from the shadows, her dark braid bouncing behind her as she glided towards him.
"You didn't eat any, did you?" she asked him breathlessly. Her dark-lashed grey eyes were wide with concern.
He wondered if this was a dream. Had starvation finally brought on hallucinations? Had he perhaps already been shot by Peacekeepers and this was the last delusional spasm of his dying brain?
"Those berries you were picking are called nightlock. Extremely poisonous. You didn't get any juice on your fingers, did you?" She roughly took his hand in her own and examined his fingers and palms. He could tell by her serious tone that he should be concerned, but the only emotion he could muster was that of shock.
Katniss Everdeen was holding his hand.
"They look clean, but you'd better wash your hands carefully before eating anything, just in case." She dropped his hand and it seemed to knock him from his stupor. He had almost poisoned himself in front of Katniss Everdeen. God, how embarrassing.
"What's going on here?" And now Gale Hawthorne was here as well. Of course he would be. He was her boyfriend, wasn't he?
"He was about to eat a handful of nightlock, but I think I stopped him in time. Afraid I scared him pretty good though."
Gale only nodded, his expression inscrutable. Peeta had the impression Gale wouldn't have been too upset if Katniss hadn't stopped him in time. His face flushed pink.
"Thanks for your help, Katniss," he mumbled, and he slunk back in the direction of the fence.
As he walked, the hair on the back of his neck stood up, and Peeta imagined that Katniss might be watching him walk away, might still be thinking about him. After about 100 meters, he gave into curiosity and turned around to see if Katniss was still looking at him.
But her gray-eyed stare was only trained on Gale.
Peeta had been sitting alone at lunch ever since his big row with Mica. Mica had been bitching about how they lost the soccer game because he hadn't bothered to show up, and Peeta had just lost it. He had missed the game because he had been fruitlessly trying to convince the town tailor he could be of assistance. But though he had no trouble moving the heaviest bolts of fabric, he couldn't sew to save his life. Literally. For all his effort and frustration, he returned home to be beaten and denied dinner.
And Mica wanted to bitch about how Peeta had let him down? Screw him. Screw all his old friends. He had caught their sidelong glances at his bruises, his thinner frame. They knew what was going on. But no one had said anything. No one tried to help.
Anyway, the way he was feeling lately, he was better off alone.
But then today he wasn't alone. Today he was joined at lunch by Katniss Everdeen and Madge Undersee, the two most aloof people in the whole school.
He was immediately wary of their casual overture of friendship. And there was no way he would have missed this "tradition" of sharing food when he had been watching Katniss for the last eleven years. Not that he said that out loud.
He didn't want their pity. But although he wished to deny it, he did want their food.
Eventually, he helped himself to their offering. They ate in awkward silence until Madge asked some question about the book they were reading in History. He made some sort of comment, and he and Madge stumbled through some small talk together.
Katniss didn't say much, even when he blatantly tried to draw her into the conversation, but she kept her eyes mostly on him. When the bell rang, she slid a notebook across the lunch table.
"Thanks for letting me borrow your History notes."
He knew he had never lent her any notes, but he accepted the notebook anyway. He hoped the shaking of his hands wasn't noticeable.
He opened the notebook as soon as his next class started. He wasn't sure what he expected to see in the notebook – Love letters? Some rebellious manifesto? – but a compendium of plants still came as a surprise. The drawings were a bit crude and her handwriting was little better than scrawl, but why would she have given this to him. What could it mean?
Then he noticed she made careful note of which plants were edible and which were poisonous.
The nightlock. Of course. She was trying to keep him from killing himself. Or starving to death.
That was a good thing, right? It felt like a good thing. His heartrate began to speed.
Was he reading too much into this or did Katniss seem to care about him?
Peeta was carefully baking a homemade wild berry tart in the forge, wishing he had some idea what Katniss was thinking behind those impassive gray eyes. She took the time to create a notebook and brought him into the woods to learn about edible plants. She wouldn't have done if she didn't like him, right? But then why did it seem so hard for her to simply talk to him? Or even sit near him?
Was she worried about what Gale would think? Gale had gone out of his way to make sure Peeta knew he wasn't happy with the growing closeness between Katniss and him… if minimal interaction could even be termed "closeness." But when he brought it up, Katniss hadn't seemed worried about any gossip about the two of them reaching Gale's ears. Maybe whatever was going on between Katniss and Gales wasn't serious. Maybe when he finally landed an apprenticeship, she might be open to going out with him sometime. They could walk around the meadow and he could—
The front door slammed, waking Peeta from his daydream. Templeton weaved himself through the doorway reeking of white liquor, and Peeta stiffened in anticipation. It was going to be a bad night.
"You're still here, huh?" He scowled at Peeta. "I thought I told you I didn't want to see your face any more."
Peeta shrugged. To his credit, he thought he had been doing a pretty good job at staying out of his stepfather's way. He woke up early in order to get out of the house before Templeton woke. After school, he did a hurried sweep of Town to see if anyone needed an extra hand in the shops. Then he did his homework shut up in his room until after Templeton and his mother had dinner. Only after Templeton went drinking or went to sleep did Peeta attempt to leave his room.
It wasn't his fault that the man couldn't stick to a reliable schedule.
"You should speak when you're spoken to boy," the man growled and he smacked Peeta upside his head, knocking him so that his tart fell off the flat edge of the poker it had been balanced on and fell into the fire.
Peeta clenched his jaw and fists, but he kept his gaze averted. "Sorry, Sir. I'll try harder next time." Apparently, that wasn't enough, because Peeta felt the man's ham-shaped fist slam into his ear. His head exploded into ringing pain.
"There shouldn't be a next time!" the old man yelled. "You need to go get yourself a job, you lazy bum! No more excuses. The mines are always looking for bodies!"
Peeta knew from experience that it didn't help to remind the man that you had to be 18 to work in the mines. Logic could do nothing to assuage his rage when he was in one of these moods. Peeta did the only thing that sometimes worked and curled his body into a ball, protecting his head with his hands.
But the blacksmith wasn't appeased by Peeta's show of submission. He pushed the boy to the ground and kicked him in the ribs. Peeta gasped at the sharp pain, but the blacksmith didn't seem satisfied with the effect of his boots. He grabbed the poker from the fire and swung it like a baseball bat. The glowing hot metal tip burned through Peeta's thin layer of clothes and sizzled nauseatingly against his skin. Peeta couldn't help screaming then, but it didn't stop Templeton's rant.
"Good-for-nothing lump! You're no better than that trash in the Seam!"
Something stronger than bone broke in Peeta. He grabbed the poker from Templeton and tossed it to the ground before swinging his fists as hard as he could at the man. The blacksmith was too surprised to put up much of a defense, and he screamed in pain when his arm cracked. Despite the pain in his ribs and arms and the buzzing in his head, Peeta kept swinging until his mother grabbed his arm.
"Peeta! No!" Peeta gave her an incredulous look. His mother had told him earlier to not fight back and to take it like a man, but did she honestly expect him to just lay there while her husband beat him to death?
"I think he broke my arm," Templeton hissed incredulously. "How am I supposed to work if my arm is broken?" Then his glassy eyes narrowed on his wife. "Bitch. This is your fault. You brought him into my house."
His mother turned to Peeta.
"I warned you," she hissed. "Get out. Get out and don't ever come back."
Peeta's eyes welled, but he nodded and limped out the door. He had a feeling that the blacksmith's rage would transfer to his mother shortly after he left. The part of him that still considered her family felt guilty that he didn't care more about that, but she had made her choice.
And it wasn't Peeta.
He had no idea what to do next. His brothers didn't have their own space and wouldn't be able to put him up. If he went to the apothecary, he was sure he'd be immediately turned over to a group home. He wondered if any of his friends might hide him from the authorities until his wounds healed, but no one came to mind, especially since he had already isolated himself from his friends.
He considered reaching out to Katniss. Despite the fact that she seemed reluctant to talk with or be in close proximity to him, she did seem to have a vested interest in keeping him alive. And wasn't her mother a healer? But of course her mother would contact the authorities just as fast as anyone. Maybe faster. He didn't think Mrs. Everdeen had much of an opinion of his mother.
So it wasn't much of a choice. He would just go into the woods. He knew what plants to eat, and Katniss had shown him the location of a stream. He'd just stay there until his wounds healed. Afterwards, he could go back to looking for an apprenticeship. Or maybe he'd finally go over to the Hob and beg some work over there. He was a hard worker. He was sure someone would be willing to take him on.
The more he thought about it, the more the idea of the woods appealed to him. It was late spring. It likely wouldn't get too cold at night, right? All he had to do was survive for a week or so.
How hard could it be?