Know Your Enemy - Chapter 15
When Peeta floated into consciousness, the first thing he was struck by was just how heavy his body felt. He might not have noticed if he hadn't tried to roll over to get himself more comfortable – he always slept on his side – but found it strangely difficult to make his limbs obey him. They wouldn't move. That didn't concern him too much, though. He could barely think straight when it was his head that felt the heaviest of all.
It was like it being held underwater; his mind seemed to be completely submerged in a sort of thick, grey dullness. It wasn't unpleasant exactly, but it was still unusual (and baffling) enough for him to will himself awake properly. Shaking himself, Peeta blearily opened his eyes.
He blinked, confused for a moment about where he was. This was mostly because it took a while for his eyes to adjust to the light, which shone in brightly from an open window at the corner of the room. Even before he could see properly, Peeta knew that something felt different. Slowly he began to realise that, for the first time in a long time, the strangling fear and panic that had constantly lingered over him during his time in the arena was gone. Instead he felt this overwhelming sense of security, like he was finally safe.
As the room slowly slid into focus, two fuzzy figures sitting across from him became steadily clearer. The splashes of bright, clashing colours topped off with a haze of candyfloss pink began to separate themselves from the subtle symphony of golden and brown beside them. Little by little, both of the colourful splotches morphed into the shape of two women, and a small smile involuntarily stretched across Peeta's face.
Peeta knew exactly who the women with him were, and he was definitely excited to see both of them. Last time they had met, despite all of his bravado, a quiet part of him had been convinced that he would never see either of them again. He thought their goodbyes had been final.
Sitting up as much his body would allow him to (and then lying straight back down when his head started throbbing), Peeta opened his mouth to greet them but the words stuck in his throat, coming out as nothing more than a garbled jumble of letters. At this, the bright pink head snapped up and a loud squeal slipped out from beneath it.
"Peeta!" Effie practically screamed, bustling over to him excitedly. "You're finally awake!" With that she lunged for him in a manner that was quite startling for someone who had only just woken up, especially after two solid weeks of constant anxiety and paranoia. Naturally, Peeta jumped.
Oblivious to this, Effie just grasped his face firmly between her hands and quickly turned his head from one side to the other. Her eyes narrowed briefly as she inspected him, like she expected him to break and shatter apart at her touch. After a few minutes of this, when she was finally satisfied that he wasn't broken or anything awful like that, Effie swooped in and hugged Peeta tightly. She felt warm and welcoming, even though her sharp nails dug a little too hard into his back.
When she pulled away, Peeta eyed her hands suspiciously. He was sure her nails hadn't been so painful last time she hugged him. They were now incredibly, impossibly longer than ever before - sharper, and shaped to be more pointy. Peeta hadn't even known that was possible, but if he had, he might have asked his prep team to help him achieve that look for the arena. Fingernails as weapons! No one would've seen that coming.
As always, Effie's nails were manicured perfectly. This time, each thumb was adorned with a small number '12' at its center. Peeta, in his drug-induced, slightly sleepy and confused state marvelled at that; District 12 was historically the District to be ashamed of rather than proud. They were the ones no one wanted to work with, let alone be associated with, but he'd given them something to be proud of.
"We were so worried that you wouldn't wake up in time," Effie told him, tone somewhat calmer and far less frantic than before. Cupping his face between her hands again, she leant forward once more to press a quick kiss to his forehead. He could feel her wide smile against his skin. "We're all so incredibly happy to have you back and I am so so proud of you!"
Although it took a moment to process what she said, Peeta grinned back at her easily. He didn't realise quite how much he'd missed the woman and her inane (but nonetheless kind and affectionate) babble. Tightening her hold on his cheeks for a fraction of a second, she squeezed them softly before she stepped away. The hard clack of her heels against the hospital floor was distinctly 'Effie', the same way they always did. It was familiar and comforting. It made it feel almost as if nothing had changed.
Then Effie caught sight of the delicate watch on her wrist, and it was like something inside of her snapped. Back to routines, back to schedules. She straightened up abruptly and, although she remained smiling, her posture changed completely as she visibly hardened into her more business-like self.
"Now!" Adopting her no-nonsense tone, she fixed Peeta with a look that told him he was probably already running late for something or other. "We simply must start getting you ready for going up on stage tonight! After all, it will take a long time to get you presentable enough for such a big audience! Portia, would you-"
Although Portia said the word politely enough – even accompanying it with a smile – the interruption still left Effie looking more than a little affronted. She glared at Portia, her painted pink lips puckering up into a tight pout as if she'd just been insulted. Then again, in her feather-headed mind, she probably had. Even unintentional rudeness caused Effie a pain worse than any form of physical torture ever could.
"I don't think that's a good idea," Portia elaborated, unfazed by Effie's obvious irritation. "Peeta needs to get some rest for a while. He's only just woken up." Her gaze flickered to the boy in question for a moment, and then back to the woman next to her. "Relax," she said. "We have plenty of time."
To Peeta's surprise, Effie didn't argue. Sure, she huffed and tottered over to the other side of the room with an expression that read 'on your head be it', but she didn't put up any further protest. Rolling her eyes at the other woman, Portia shot a quick wink in Peeta's direction. "Welcome back," she said. "Congratulations on the victory, by the way. You really kicked ass in there."
She spoke about it casually, like he'd won a bowling game or something equally trivial. Peeta grinned at her gratefully. It made him feel more normal. While Effie meant well and he loved her to bits for it, her incessant fussing didn't have quite the same soothing effect on him as Portia's calm and collected manner did. Right now, that was what he wanted. What he needed.
"Do you think you can sit up?" Effie asked, choosing to ignore the disapproving look this drew from Portia. Mainly because he didn't want to disappoint her, he attempted a nod, but his head still felt heavy and spun when he tried to move it. Frowning, he was forced to shake his head instead. At least that was easy – he just let his head loll from one side to another.
Just as he predicted, Effie looked dissatisfied with this response. Peeta couldn't quite bring himself to feel guilty about it, though. Honestly, he didn't trust himself to sit up properly, let alone the whole standing up, running around and forcing his limbs to co-operate with him thing that getting ready would involve. All he really wanted right now was to succumb to his desires and just roll over, blank out the world again and go back to sleep.
"I told you, let him rest!" Gesturing to him, Portia waved a hand towards his limp body with an exasperated sigh. "He can barely move! Does he look like he's in any fit state to get out of that bed to you?"
Peeta knew things were getting bad when Effie took a long pause before opening her mouth to reply. It was clear she needed a moment to compose herself enough to ensure her manners stayed in check, and that was never a good sign. He tuned them out pretty promptly after that.
He liked them both, and liked them a whole lot at that. They were his friends now, and that meant that they were important to him. If he could move right now, he'd stand up, hug them both and tell them that he loved them, then ask them (politely, of course) to please shut the hell up. One thing he didn't want was to listen to them bickering, especially not over him. What he wanted was to relax and enjoy this new peacefulness that came with the hard-earned victory.
Shared victory, the voice in the back of his mind corrected him cheerfully. He wasn't the only one who had survived, after all, and that just made it all the more better. He felt his lips tug into a smile as it truly hit him for the first time. They'd actually managed to do it.
They had won. Joint victors. Both survivors. He had won. No matter how hard he tried to make it sink in, it wouldn't. Peeta knew that he had somehow survived. He'd won the Hunger Games. They both had, because Cato was still alive too. He knew the facts, but they just wouldn't process. It all seemed too good to be true.
Once he started thinking about Cato, he found it hard to stop. His mind wandered to whether or not Cato had just woken up as well, but he dismissed the idea quickly. It was unlikely. The period of time between the end of the Games and the first appearance of the victor tended to fluctuate; it could range anywhere from a matter of hours to several days, depending on how injured they were and how much healing they had to do.
When the aircraft arrived to collect them, Peeta had been much more injured than the older boy. Cato had been relatively unharmed, actually, and had even helped him hobble over to a stretcher that had carted him off soon after, where he was prodded at with needles and pumped up with medicine as soon as the doctors could lay their hands on him.
With this in mind, he knew that it would've definitely taken the Capitol a whole lot longer to patch him up and make him presentable enough for an audience than it would have taken them to fix Cato. That meant the other boy had probably been awake for a while. Could he have visited him here? Was he even allowed to do that? Peeta didn't know.
That was one thing he hated about this rule change – he had no idea what he was and wasn't allowed to do, or how he should behave. He didn't know what to expect or what was expected of him. No set of rules had already been laid out. Peeta felt himself longing to see the other boy again, just to check he was all right. He realised with a dull jolt that he missed him. Not really a surprise, but it still sent a thrill of shock right down his spine every time he realised how much he wanted to – no, needed to be around the other boy.
Suddenly Portia interrupted his thoughts with a soft hand on his shoulder. "Fine. If you're so sure then why don't we ask him?" he heard her snap from somewhere beside him. The sharp tone sounded strange and out of place in her voice. He'd never heard her snap before. "Peeta," she said. "What do you think?"
Smiling down at him, she waited for him to agree with her. He didn't really need to, though. Portia knew that she was right from the way his eyes were still glazed over and his body lay limp and perfectly still. He was in no fit state to go anywhere for at least an hour.
Beside her, Effie also looked at him expectantly for his verdict, and he realised a few seconds late that he was supposed to formulate an answer for them. The problem was, he hadn't listened anything that either of the women had said, and then the words he meant to reply with got lost on the way to his mouth. So, he just blurted out what was really on his mind.
He frowned. His voice sounded horrible, gruff and scratchy as a result of not using it and he coughed in attempt to clear his throat. This seemed to flip Effie straight back to squeal-mode as she made a slightly choked, inhibited noise. Portia quirked an eyebrow and gave him an amused smirk. Peeta suspected it was something to do with the fact that his first words when he had woken up were Cato-related, but he didn't dwell on that too much.
Instead, he watched Effie attempt to compose herself with no small amount of effort. "Not to worry Peeta," she exclaimed brightly after a few deep, calming breaths. "He's with his mentor! Of course, that is only my assumption, but it is the usual protocol for what happens when the victor leaves the arena."
Peeta frowned a little in confusion, and Effie mistook it for concern. "Oh, no. Don't you start worrying about Cato, dear. He's safe and sound, and you'll be seeing him in about three hours. Probably a little less than that, by now." With a pointed glance at Portia, she checked her watch again. "Two and a half, to be precise," she corrected herself. "Well, that's providing we manage to get you ready on time."
"Okay," Peeta said, too tired to correct her. There was no point. Easily distracted by the babble, he couldn't even remember why he was confused in the first place. Sometimes a part of him wished that Effie had a mute button, so he could just silence her rambling every now and again without offending her.
As soon as that thought crossed his mind, Peeta felt guilty for even thinking it. Something must have shown on his face, because Effie smiled softly and extended her hand out towards him like she couldn't help herself. Very gently, in barely there little touches, she began to stroke her fingers through his hair.
Peeta relaxed into the touch, grateful for something quiet and calming. It was nice, until Effie looked down and saw something that caused her fingers to still instantly. Dismay and disappointment flickered across her face, marring her features as she examined the fragile new skin across his previously injured shoulder.
"Oh, Peeta!" She wailed, apparently forlorn. "That scar looks positively awful. I had no idea how bad it still was!" Her face scrunched up in worry. "I hope it won't show while you're in front of all those people out there, that would be a complete tragedy, especially as you've done so well!"
"Wow, Effie. Way to make me feel better about my deformities." Peeta sounded amused, making sure his tone teasing enough that the woman knew he was joking. He craned his head back as he spoke, trying to and see exactly what scar it was she was talking about. Portia laughed at him, handing him a pocket-sized mirror so he could see it more clearly. "Thanks," he said, taking it from her.
Aiming the silver screen towards his shoulder, Peeta rolled his eyes as the broken skin came into view. It wasn't awful, not really. He could barely even see the slightly jagged and thin line circling his shoulder, and the light, skin coloured stitches that bounded the sides together were nearly invisible. He didn't really why it was a problem, but he knew Effie well, and Peeta could tell without even looking up at her that she was freaking out over it.
He tried to think of something to say that would calm her down, but nothing sprung to mind. Thankfully Portia jumped to the rescue. Peeta made a mental note to himself to bake her the largest 'thank you for saving me from Effie's insanity, I owe you forever' cake that he could when he got out of here.
"He's wearing a suit, Effie." She smiled encouragingly, and it might have looked genuine if Peeta hadn't caught the slight roll of her eyes before she had spoken. "No one will be able to see it, I promise. Besides that, remember what the doctor said? It should heal up in no time when the stitches drop out, good as new. It'll be like it never happened by the time it gets to the Victory tour."
Effie bit her lip for a second before dropping it, scandalised at herself that she'd indulged in such a stupid nervous habit. Her arms flapped around uselessly for a moment, like she didn't know whether to keep on worrying or just relax. Sighing restlessly, she gave a slight nod of her head to show she had been reassured, but she still flitted about his shoulder with a scowl on her face as if she could somehow glare the scar into submission and make it heal up faster through force will alone.
At least it fell silent for a few minutes, though, and for a while the only sound interrupting the quiet was the steady sound of the three of them breathing. It gave Peeta time to think. He took the opportunity to consider the question that had been niggling him at the back of his mind: If Cato was with his mentor, why wasn't he?
"Hey, where's Haymitch?" Thankfully, his voice sounded less gruff now that he'd used it a little and it came out less like a monster and more like himself. He couldn't help the small frown of confusion from appearing on his face. Now the words were out, it made him even more curious as to why his mentor wasn't with him. His mind raced ahead of him in search of answers.
Maybe Haymitch didn't want to see him? Maybe he was drunk. Hopefully not. The thought of that made Peeta uneasy. Surely he would be happy that Peeta had won? But then where was he?
"He's with the Gamemakers!" Effie chirped, which simultaneously put a lid on one set of worries and opened up a whole door of others. What could Haymitch possibly have to talk to them about now? The games were over. Then he realised that expected edge of disapproval that usually tainted Effie's voice when speaking about his mentor didn't come. Perhaps the two of them had finally overcome their differences while he was in the arena. Become friends, even? Not likely, but hey. Optimism never hurt anyone.
There he was getting distracted again. He shook his head and forced his mind to focus – the status of their friendship wasn't important at this moment in time. It could wait.
Peeta bit his lip, stuck on the word Gamemakers. Even though he was out, the mention of them still made him uneasy. Memories began to flash in his head of his time in the arena and how they had controlled his fate in there. The weather, the feast, the mutts. All of that had been them. Questions began to swim around his mind, fuelled on further by his paranoia. Why would the Gamemakers want to see his mentor? Was it because he had done something wrong? Were they still planning on controlling his fate, even now?
Effie seemed to notice his stress, and clucked over him. The fingers still tangled in his hair began to move again, a soft and steady rhythm that slowed his racing mind. "Not to worry, Peeta. It's nothing important, or Haymitch would have warned me about it before he went." The trust in her voice was unfailing, and Peeta smiled at that. "I'm sure not a bad thing! In fact, I'm quite sure that it's not even an official visit!"
Sighing in relief, Peeta leant back into Effie's motherly touch without even thinking about it. He better soak up all the affection from her that could before she turned all crazy dictator on him again. It wouldn't be too long before that happened, not with only two-and-a-bit hours to go. He smiled ruefully at the thought, and sure enough, Effie's hand stilled within the next ten minutes. She was predictable, because she worked like clockwork. Reliable. Peeta liked that.
When she began to usher him out of his bed, his body seemed a whole lot more willing to co-operate and he climbed shakily to his feet without much protest. Since almost an hour had passed since the initial attempt, which was practically a year for Effie and her schedules, Portia didn't even try and stop her as she bustled Peeta around this time.
He felt fine now, and even finer by the minute. His head seemed to get lighter as whatever pain medication the Capitol had gave him wore off. His limbs felt less sluggish, more active, and when he stretched them out they felt even better. Satisfied that he wasn't going to fall or pass out or anything embarrassing, he grinned and followed Effie and Portia down a short corridor and into his dressing room.
Excitement and nerves stirred inside him and he knew that the fluttering butterflies at the very pit of his stomach weren't due to the prospect of facing the whole of Panem. It was what was bound to come with it, out there for the whole world to see. It was his reunion with Cato.
The initial excitement fizzled out fairly quickly under the merciless hands of his prep team. He'd forgotten quite how much waxing hurt. Sure, in the last couple of weeks he'd been practically eaten alive by mutts, survived for long periods of time on a nearly empty stomach and almost lost his arm but at the moment all of that paled in comparison to this as Paloma yanked a line of long hair off his thigh. He hissed, finding it much harder here to remain composed.
He balled his hands up into fists, willing tears not to spill out of his eyes. He was a man now, he told himself, and men don't cry at a little bit of hair being pulled out of their flesh. Still, when Paloma ripped out a streak from his upper thigh, he didn't hold it against himself when one small tear slipped out. It was only small. It didn't count.
Besides making him look better in the most vicious way possible, the three members of the prep team who had never seemed to like him before the Games now looked at him as if he were a God. He didn't understand it at first, and then he realised that they were all just bursting to grill him about Cato.
Every once in a while Ryden would squeal and, when questioned about it ("Whoa there, are you okay?" from Peeta and "What is it? What have you remembered?" from the rest of the team), he would blush and mutter something about the various antics Cato and Peeta had gotten up to. Thankfully it was mostly just squealing and flailing. They didn't go into too much detail over it all, save for the occasional squawk of "the kiss!" or "that look!" which were easy enough to ignore.
Peeta suspected that Portia had warned them to back off to save him from the embarrassment of answering all their awkward questions. She knew him well enough to know that he wouldn't have a clue what to say to any of that, and he felt immensely grateful for her accurate guess. By the amount of effort it was taking these three to hold themselves in, he was pretty sure that if they had been left unrestrained the situation would have only ended up in chaos. Domino was visibly shaking with excitement, and their grins were so wide it had to be hurting their faces.
Their resolve finally broke when Domino was trimming the tips of his hair. "When you and Cato kissed, I cried so much that I was sick!" She blurted out suddenly with an undeniable sense of pride. It seemed she couldn't help herself from making that announcement. The smile that accompanied it was completely scary on her misshapen feline features, and her whiskers twitched in excitement.
Peeta honestly didn't know what to say. He felt horrible.
"Ooh! Which time?" Ryden joined in enthusiastically. "My favourite was their first kiss." He sighed happily and clapped his hands together, dropping the little metal object in his hands on the floor with a clatter. Were they called tweezers? He wasn't sure, but whatever they were, Peeta didn't like them. They hurt just as much (if not more) than waxing.
Domino bent down and picked them up for him, her tail sticking up in the air, and it struck Peeta again just how weird Capitol citizens were. Who would want to make themselves look like a cat? It just didn't make sense to him. A moment later she was back upright and she handed the shiny things back to Ryden with a feral smile that revealed her neat rows of fang-like teeth.
"My favourite was the kiss on the Cornucopia!" Paloma chipped in as she pulled the hair away from his upper thigh. Peeta grimaced. "It was soromantic!"
"Oh, no" Ryden shook his head. "Mine has to be when I thought Cato was going to kill him, but he threw the sword down on the ground instead!" Clutching at his heart, the man practically swooned. "It was so perfect, don't you think? It just made my heart melt."
Peeta shifted uncomfortably as they continued to enthuse about their favourite moments of the games, adding their own spin and interpretation to practically every word he had exchanged with the other boy throughout the course of the competition. At least they were talking over him and not to him. That way, he didn't have to participate.
"Just wait until Cato sees you tonight," Ryden said suddenly, as if he had read Peeta's mind and decided to contradict it, grinning creepily as he massaged some sort of serum into Peeta's hair. "We're going to make you look so hot that he won't be able to keep his hands off you."
Domino giggled loudly at this, and Paloma winked at him. "Would you like me to do your bikini line, too?" She asked him with a wicked grin, pointing a wax strip in the direction of his crotch. Panicked, Peeta closed his legs to protect himself and frantically shook his head.
"No! Uh, I mean no. Just no. No thank you, even. Thanks, but no." His face was bright red. "That won't be necessary at all."
Ryden cooed in disappointment. "Are you sure?" he asked. "What if he wants to get frisky with you? You've heard the phrase, haven't you Peeta? You know, absence makes the pants grow harde-"
"That's enough," the boy said firmly, trying hard not to glare at them. "Look, I appreciate the fact that you're interested, but I'm really not comfortable discussing this.
Paloma rolled her eyes. "I bet if we had Cato, he'd tell us everything," she whispered to Domino. "None of the juicy little details spared. He's more fun than this one. I'm so jealous of his team!"
"Don't worry," Domino whispered back, and Peeta wondered if they knew that he could hear them. "I'll be having words with Donna later, and she's already promised to find out everything."
Peeta bit back a retort that they were likely to get even less from Cato than he had given them, unless a hard punch in the face counted as more. Poor Donna was probably sporting a rather impressive black eye by now. He didn't say anything, though. There was no point in getting into an argument with them. Not when they had the means to seriously injure him at their disposal.
Eventually the conversation moved on, and they seemed to be content once again to just squeal in his general direction about how "cute" he was, and how "adorably insane" Cato acted. Peeta snorted at that, which only made them babble and enthuse more. Peeta didn't mind, really. As long as he didn't have to speak much, it was fine. At least it gave him a good idea of what would be in the "best bits", and how to play the crowd a little. He knew what they liked. He knew what they didn't like. Hopefully Cato would just roll with it.
Besides that, it was kind of funny to listen to them ramble about the strangest of moments. It passed the time, and took his mind off the pain of several weeks worth of hair being ripped out of his skin. Ryden seemed to hold some sort of vendetta against Foxface, and he kept on insisting she was the daughter of a devil. He had to try hard not to laugh at that. See, he knew that Ryden was his favourite for a reason.
Peeta's legs felt raw under the smooth silk of his brand new suit, which skimmed lightly over his now hairless skin – the reunion with his prep team had been nothing short of brutal, but they had left him looking sharp, smart and sophisticated.
Catching sight of his reflection in one of the gleaming walls opposite him, Peeta knew that he looked a whole lot better than that ragged and unkempt boy who had been in the arena. Skin that was once stained with blood and mud was now a seamless and pale cream; hair that stuck out in all directions was now perfectly tame and slicked back neatly.
Who knew if the audience would even recognize him? He knew for sure that if he was in their place, he wouldn't. He looked as neat as a pin, as good as new if not better. It was almost as if nothing had happened to him since the last time he had been suited up for an interview with Caesar. Warrior. Hunter. Murderer. All the names that applied to him just days before slipped away, hidden by Capitol glitz and glamour. Suddenly Peeta was back to being just a poor boy from District Twelve in a suit far too expensive for him.
The only sign that anything had changed within him was in his eyes. They seemed different somehow. Older. Harder. Wiser. He wondered if Cato's looked the same.
"Excuse me," a man wielding a heavy camera called out to him politely, waving Peeta out of his path as he shuffled past. "I have to get this set up before the show," he explained, tapping a hand on the black plastic by way of explanation. "Thought we had enough already, but they want more. Don't want to miss any of the good stuff, they say."
Then, with a suggestive wink that left Peeta blushing, the man was gone.
Caesar Flickerman's Highlights of the Hunger Games show was due to start in roughly ten minutes time, and Peeta felt both nervous and slightly nauseous. He straightened his tie for lack of anything better to do with his fidgeting hands as yet another man scuttled across the room. This one was wrapped up in a tangle of wires and circuits, and he shot Peeta a small smile and a nod of congratulations as he went.
As friendly as the gesture was intended to be, it did nothing to soothe the boy's nerves. Of course, he wasn't nervous to face Caesar and his audience, or the whole of Panem for that matter. They had monitored him for days already, watched and played back and analyzed every little move he made. Repeat. They did it every year. Now was hardly the time to get camera shy, after all of that.
No, he was far more worried about having to watch back whatever the Capitol deemed to be the "best bits" of the Games. This tended to be the most awful, the most exhilarating, high tension and painful moments they could find. The ones that make the audience gasp and sigh in horror. The ones that cut the victor more deeply than the stab of a sword ever could.
The only thing keeping him collected and holding him together was the comfort he found in knowing that he was going to see Cato again as soon as he stepped onto that stage. According to Effie, the Capitol wanted to save their big reunion for the audience, probably in the hopes that they would do something dramatic like cry and hug while declaring their undying love for each other.
Effie may have been half-joking about that part, but even she had sounded slightly wistful as she spoke, smiling at him stupidly. Peeta had nodded along, smiled back and tried not to be embarrassed at the way everyone seemed to gush over their relationship. He didn't have the heart to tell her that the chances of that happening were little to none. Cato wasn't exactly the most affectionate person, after all. Well, not in the conventional sense, anyway. On a day-to-day basis, mocking and pigtail pulling were more his style than kissing and cuddling would ever be. That sort of stuff was saved for special occasions, like almost dying.
Biting back the goofy grin that began to ease its way across his face, Peeta quickly turned his attention back to the stage, which was currently empty save for a leather armchair and a plush red loveseat that was perched opposite it. He could just about make out Caesar in the wings, concealed from the audience behind a satin curtain, his pastel blue hair catching in the bright light from above.
On a screen behind his head, the countdown for the crew informed them all that they had 47 seconds before they went live. Nods were exchanged. Caesar straightened his suit and shot a practice smile out to no one in particular. Lights dimmed. A kaleidoscope of bright Captiol colours radiated out of the audience, where the crowd sat with baited breath.
The screen flashed eight, seven, six…
"Good evening, ladies and gentlemen!" Caesar boomed and the lights came up, illuminating his pearly white teeth as he strode out on stage with a wide smile and silly wave. The sound of his voice was met by the usual chorus of whoops and screams, and Peeta wondered when exactly it had all become so familiar to him.
As Caesar babbled to the crowd, enthusing about what an interesting year it had been in the arena, Peeta let himself be led forwards by an irritated woman with a clipboard tucked neatly under one arm. She positioned him on a podium that would, presumably, lead him onto the stage as soon as the cue was given. It was strangely reminiscent of beginning of the Games, and his heart sped up just standing on it.
"Are you ready?" she asked him in short, clipped tones. Peeta nodded and imagined Cato at the other side of the stage being asked the exact same question. "Good," she said coldly, in a way that implied it was anything but. "You're going to be on in ten seconds. Smile."
He stretched his lips around his teeth in what can only have looked like a grimace, and she shot him a glare that told him it was pathetic, but it would have to do. Caeser called out an introduction. The screaming increased ten-fold.
Beneath Peeta's feet, the podium jerked violently and shuddered to life, nearly knocking him off balance as it carried him towards the center of the stage.
Apparently Cato didn't have the patience to wait for the podiums to reach their destinations at their own leisurely pace. As soon as he set his eyes on Peeta and discerned which direction the other boy was coming from, he was off the platform and charging across the stage, jaw set and determined.
The excited crowd gasped in unison as he grabbed Peeta's arm less than gently and pulled him down from his pedestal clumsily. In the crowd, everyone leaned forwards in their seats with keen anticipation of an embrace that never came. Instead, Cato tightened his grip on the other boy and dragged him off into the wings where they were shrouded from the audience's view by the same curtain that had hidden Caesar just minutes before.
"Are you okay?" Cato demanded instantly. "If you're not, you need to tell me right now. We won't be able to talk properly out there. I need to know that you're okay."
Peeta smiled at him, soothing. "Yeah, I'm fine. Those Capitol painkillers work wonders. I can barely feel my arm at all." To reassure him further, he wiggled his fingers in demonstration.
Cato glared down at them distrustfully, then placed the flat of his palm on Peeta's shoulder where the skin had ripped, pressing the silk of his shirt firmly into the stitches that twisted their way down his arm underneath. "I hope you aren't lying to me."
Rolling his eyes, Peeta shook his head. "Why would I lie about something like that, stupid?"
"I don't know," Cato admitted lamely, shrugging. He couldn't really justify it but for him, a bit too much concern was the closest thing to showing he cared that he actually knew how to display. "I just wanted to make sure."
Just then, a blue head popped around the curtain, pulling it back. Another man with a mobile camera stood behind his shoulder, lens directed straight towards the boys. On the wide screen in front of the audience, the sight of their blushing faces swam into view.
"I'm so sorry to interrupt you two lovebirds," Caesar piped chirpily, making a point of eyeing the way Cato's hand curled firmly around Peeta's shoulder. "Are you planning on joining us back on stage any time soon?" The microphone attached to his collar amplified his voice so it bounced around the room. After a beat, the audience laughed.
"We are not lovebirds!" Cato snapped at him, taking a step away from Peeta as he spoke. To his horror, this only made the audience laugh even more.
"Strong denial in a rather over-defensive manner. That is such a Cato move." Caesar stage-whispered into his microphone, like he was sharing a secret, before spinning around to face the crowd again. "Isn't that such a Cato move?" he called to them for confirmation. The answering scream was deafening. Peeta laughed.
"Shut up," Cato muttered back darkly, and Caesar looked positively delighted that the boy's catch phrase had made an early appearance.
At the look of confusion mixed with sheer irritation on the other boy's face, Peeta decided to intervene before Caesar got his head chewed off. "Come on," he said, grabbing Cato's arm and tugging him towards the stage. "We'd better get on with these highlights. I think we've knocked the show off schedule enough already."
"Fine then. Whatever." Glaring, Cato jerked his arm away from Peeta. "I don't need you to lead me, you know. I'm perfectly capable of walking by my self."
"Oh, I know," Peeta replied placidly, like he was humouring him. Cato huffed then, realizing that sounded more petulant than it did threatening, he growled.
"Wow." Behind them, Caesar let out a low whistle. "Looks like they're just as explosive in real life as they were in the arena! I'd say that we sure are in for a show tonight, ladies and gentlemen."
As soon as they got back on stage, Peeta and Cato were ushered onto the red loveseat (which was barely big enough for one person, let alone two) together. It was so small that their knees bumped and their thighs brushed with every little movement they made, despite Cato's rather unsubtle efforts at putting as much distance between the two of them as possible.
In his usual childish manner, Cato had lined his entire body up against his armrest as closely as he could. He even leant away from Peeta, turning his head just enough that he wouldn't be able to see the other boy out of his peripheral vision, even if he wanted to.
No matter what Peeta did, he couldn't even get Cato to look at him. When he shifted closer to the boy, Cato actually flinched.
Although he wasn't sure exactly what he had done in the last two minutes that warranted him getting the silent treatment, he had experienced it often enough in the arena to know that this was probably bad. It left him feeling cold inside. Hollow.
Biting down on his lip subconsciously, he worried at it with his teeth until the soft flesh stung and he could taste the coppery tang of blood against his tongue. When he released his swollen lip, a few people in the audience actually cooed at his obvious display of discomfort.
With an amused look, Caesar took to the armchair opposite the two boys. He seemed to sink into the soft leather entirely. Signature beam in place, he gave an animated introduction about the show to the crowd, as if they didn't sit and watch the same spiel every year.
Peeta quickly tuned him out, focusing instead on the downturned corners of Cato's lips and the worried clench of his eyebrows in the middle. He desperately wanted to reach out, smooth it flat with his fingertips, but he didn't. Couldn't. Not here.
By the time he started paying attention again, screens had flickered on all around him. They were already showing a few of the selected clips of the twenty-four Tributes as they fought for their lives, starting with the first few bloody days in the arena.
Judging from the audience's incessant laughter and cheering, Caesar had been right about the show being an exciting one. This was what the Captiol crowd deemed to be a good show. For Peeta on the other hand, experiencing everything all over again in the so-called highlights was unpleasant, to say the very least.
They showed the bloodbath at the Cornucopia first, where each of the two victor's had taken their first kill, followed up by a consecutive catalogue of death after death after death.
Watching intently because he couldn't seem to look away, Peeta witnessed each of the deaths he had caused, like that stupid girl who had lit up a fire on the first night, and some deaths he hadn't even known about. One boy fell in a shallow ditch and drowned. Another managed to eat a poisonous frog. When he fell asleep, he never woke up again.
Every now and again during this, Caesar's commentary would pause and the screens would flicker still, frozen on some picture of horror or another. Here, he'd hand Peeta or Cato the microphone and ask them what thought.
"Ouch?" Peeta had said uncomfortably, wincing as he watched the boy stumble over the edge of the uneven earth and hit his head hard on a protruding tree root. He wasn't surprised when the boy didn't get up again.
"Bad move," Cato muttered as the other boy bit a chunk straight out of the large frog he had just roasted. "He hasn't even skinned it or taken the guts out," he observed, tone laced with obvious distaste. "No wonder he ended up eating the poison."
As the Tributes being killed became less anonymous and more familiar to the audience, the clips changed. It wasn't just the death shown anymore. It was the lead up to it, too.
Then suddenly everything was on fire, as if the very screens were aflame, and heavy smoke curled up from the trees inside them from every direction. "Now, here's one moment I'm sure you can all remember," Caesar boomed, coupling his gesture towards the burning screen with yet another toothy grin.
A few seconds later, Katniss appeared from the thick of it. Peeta felt a strange swell of pride as he watched her stumble and limp her way out of the flames, skin stained black by dark charcoal scorch-marks. Her hand was pressed to her thigh where it was singed open, skin blistered red raw and bursting.
In that moment she was so weak, wounded and barely able to move, yet somehow she still looked strong, like she was determined to live as she ran on. A lump formed in his throat as he watched her struggle, knowing that she never made it to the end. All that fight in her, and she never made it.
Speeding up as she went downhill, she plunged noisily into cool water, panting and gasping for breath. Inspecting her leg, Katniss clenched her teeth and tried to bite back the yelps of pain as she washed the injury clean.
Peeta could recognise the scene now, and his gut twisted in displeasure as he the loud shouts of the Careers in the distance closed in on her. When they got close, the five of them quieted, creeping up on her with all intent to kill. The room was deadly silent as everyone watched, waiting to see what had happened as if they'd never seen it before.
When Marvel stepped on the twig, breaking it, the sound seemed to echo around the room.
Startling, the girl on the screen looked up at them with wide, frightened eyes, like a deer caught in headlights. In an instant she was off, quickly hauling herself out of the water and away into the woods.
The footage jumped forwards. Katniss was in the tree, peering down with a frosty confidence that chilled Peeta's blood. The Careers were gathered around the base of the tree, deliberating over what they should do.
"I'll do it," the Cato on screen said firmly, and about half of the audience squealed.
He was looking right at Peeta when he spoke, a look of grim determination on his face. The promise he had made the other boy by the fireside the night before seemed to linger in the air around them, earnest and intense.
Chancing a quick glance in Cato's direction, Peeta was disappointed that he was met with nothing. The other boy was still resolutely ignoring him.
"There's no point," on-screen Peeta pointed out, shaking his head. "If she's armed, she'd be able to defend her position more easily than you could attack it, you'd only get hurt."
The concern in his voice was far more obvious than he'd intended it to be, even back then. Naturally, this pulled a reaction from the crowd and a chorus of 'aww's resounded. Caesar chuckled along with them. Beside him, Cato's neck flushed a light shade of pink.
Peeta tried hard not to smile.
Then the screen flickered once more, and the purplish light of mornings in the arena shone out. One camera showed Rue in a tree, desperately trying to catch Katniss' attention without waking up the sleeping Careers below. Another showed the buzzing nest of tracker-jackers that hung precariously over their heads from a fairly thin branch.
It showed Katniss standing up, leg almost fully healed. She pulled out a knife and began to saw away at the branch. Before they dropped, a few of the wasps landed stings to her hands and neck. Ignoring them, Katniss continued to hack away at the wood until it gave way.
An instant later, the nest exploded onto the floor.
Clove and Marvel ran for safety. Peeta yanked Cato from Glimmer's clutches, and staggered away with him. Glimmer, kicking and screaming, succumbed to the wasp's attacks. Her once-beautiful face was left swollen and scarred, barely even recognisable.
"How did you feel when you lost Glimmer?" Caesar asked to close his commentary on the clips played. The screens stilled here, stuck on a blown up image of the girl's purpling flesh, and the man offered a microphone to Cato. With some reluctance, the boy took it.
"I felt pretty relieved, I guess," he replied honestly, and then attempted to hand it straight back to him. Caesar ignored this gesture, leaving the boy stranded with the device as he continued to address him.
"That makes sense," the man nodded, his face conveying sympathy and understanding. "It must be relieving to know that you did not have to kill her yourself. Had she not died then, she would have remained an opponent and, despite your alliance, you would have inevitably turned on her to protect yourself."
"No, that's not why I was relieved," Cato said, frowning slightly. "She just kept touching me and stuff." His nose wrinkled up in disgust. "It made me really uncomfortable, and honestly, she was a bit of a liability. She couldn't use that bow at all. As far as I was concerned, the quicker she was gone, the better."
Caesar and the audience erupted into laughter, and even Peeta couldn't stifle the soft giggle that slipped out before he could stop it. Surprised, Cato peered around his shoulder to glance at him and, for a moment, the two of them just blinked at each other. Flushing a hot shade of red, Cato was the first to look away.
A moment later, Peeta felt the boy's rigid muscles relax into their shared seat a little more. The firm press of his body against the armrest slackened. If questioned, Cato would tell you that his muscles were getting sore and stiff from the effort of staying away from Peeta. He'd mumble a curse under his breath about the stupid Captiol and their stupid seats that aren't big enough from two, goddamn it, and, most importantly, he'd want you to know that he did not want to be nearer to the other boy. That wasn't the case at all.
The next time when their knees brushed, Cato didn't spring away. Instead he froze in place, warm and firm against Peeta's side, and stayed there. While it wasn't much, it was enough to tell Peeta that they were going to be okay. They were going to be okay.
As the highlights progressed, they became increasingly difficult to watch. Now there was the occasional snippet of Thresh running through tall golden fields slipped in, or a quiet moment of Katniss and Rue talking. Foxface eating. They showed Clove laughing, her eyes twinkling in the moonlight as she smiled fondly at the other Careers across the campfire. Three curled up in front of the tent with a weapon twice the size of him resting across his lap.
In the audience, you could pinpoint from people's forlorn faces alone exactly when it was that their favourite died. After Katniss blew up the supplies, the snap of Three's neck under Cato's hands had about half the audience shooting offended glares at the boy in question.
"I was really angry," he told them defensively. "Maybe it was a bit of an over-reaction, but the kid screwed up my game plan completely. We lost everything, and the kid had to go some time." Cato shrugged. "It wasn't as if a tiny little thing like him was going to win, was it?"
A few people actually booed when he said this, and he glared at them fiercely. Peeta took the microphone from his grip before he could make the situation even worse. "What Cato means is that, while he lashed out a little back there, at least it was a quick and painless death for the boy. He wasn't nearly as physically strong as other contestants, so who knows what would have happened if someone else had found him and killed him? He was an easy target."
"Well said," Caesar said, accepting the microphone back before the other boy could snatch it from Peeta's grip and correct him. "Now, from what I understand, the two of you were both very close to Clove throughout the competition. Would you say that's correct?"
"Yeah," Peeta said slowly, knowing what was coming. His heart felt like someone had poured lead into it. He wasn't ready for this. "Yeah, I'd say we were."
Cato paused for a moment, then reached out and grabbed the microphone. "I've known her since she was four," he said. "I was six, and I was the biggest and the strongest kid in my class. Everyone was kind of scared of me. Clove wasn't, though. The first day we met, she actually threw a knife at me." He laughed a little hysterically and his voice cracked, so he cleared his throat before continuing.
"We weren't friends, we were rivals. Clove did everything I did, and she usually did it better even though she was two years younger and a girl. When I volunteered for the Games, that's why…" he trailed off. Took a deep breath. "That's why she did it. She was meant to wait two years, but she didn't want to wait two years if I was doing it now. That's why she's… she's dead. She wanted to prove she was better than me in every way, and she was. She was better than me. She didn't deserve… she didn't deserve to die."
Blinking, Cato handed the microphone back. He looked stunned that those words had come out of his mouth at all, let alone in front of hundreds of people. Caesar looked equally taken aback. Not knowing what else to do, Peeta reached out and twined his fingers with Cato's and squeezed his hand gently and, although the boy did not acknowledge the gesture outwardly, Peeta felt his soft answering squeeze.
Their fingers stayed locked together as they watched Marvel abandon her in favour of finding Katniss and Rue. Their grips each tightened when Thresh ran his sharp blade straight through Clove's stomach, as if he were slicing through butter and not a person. By the time the on-screen versions of them appeared by her side, too late to even say goodbye, their grasp was almost painful.
Peeta was sure that Caesar could see the way their hands were clenched together and resting on top of Cato's knee. It wasn't like they were making a secret out of it. Maybe Caesar knew not to question it. Peeta appreciated that.
Cato didn't let go when Rue died, nor did he loosen his grip as he watched himself kill both Marvel and Katniss. He held tight on while he watched Peeta and Foxface's exchange, even snickering slightly as the other boy turned bright red.
When they watched the mutts chasing after them again, Cato even closed his other palm over the back of Peeta's hand, like he needed to reassure himself that Peeta was there, that he was still alive, solid and present, as more and more chunks of his bleeding flesh were torn out by sharp teeth and claws.
It wasn't until they were on top of the Cornucopia, when they were safe from the mutts and Thresh's cannon had sounded. It was when Caesar turned and winked at the audience.
"Now, here we have the true highlight of this year's Hunger Games," he said, and that was when Cato let go and the cold, hollow sort of feeling returned to Peeta's chest. The blown up version of Cato on screen was distracted, rummaging through their bag and looking for the bandages. Peeta's face contorted was in pain.
"I'm not letting someone I love die," the boy on-screen announced absent-mindedly, and then froze in place. The audience cheered and clapped.
"That's completely out of context!" Cato snapped, outraged. "That wasn't what I said at all. You've just sugarcoated it and made it into whatever the hell you want it to be! What right do you have to do that?"
Caesar raised an eyebrow. "Maybe you need to calm down a little," he said wisely. Cato's jaw flexed angrily. "We all know what you're like when you're in off on a rage."
Once again, the audience laughed fondly. This only infuriated Cato more. "I didn't say I love him," he called out over the top of their voices. "I didn't say that, no matter what you delude yourself into believing. I don't love him and I'm not in love with him."
With that, Cato turned and stormed off the stage.
Blushing, Peeta faced the now-silent crowd alone. "Um," he started uncertainly. "I'm sorry about that? I'm just going to uh, go after him I guess. It was lovely to see you all tonight, and thank you so much for all your support. We really appreciate it." Waving, he stood up and hurried away into the wings after the other boy.
"Well," Caesar boomed, somehow still grinning. It was like he never stopped. Peeta would bet anything that if someone threatened to kill the man, his first impulse would be to smile at them. "If you thought that tonight was interesting, just wait until we get to the interviews tomorrow, where we'll attempt to get to the bottom of this stormy relationship."
It wasn't long before Peeta caught up with Cato, who had charged to the end of the room and then slouched there sullenly in the shadows as if standing in a darkened crevice would make him invisible. He hadn't even gone far away enough to block out the sounds coming from the stage, which buzzed lowly in the background.
"What's going with you?" Peeta demanded shortly, placing himself right in front of the other boy and blocking him off so he had no way of escaping without starting a wrestling match.
"Nothing," Cato replied. "Leave me alone."
Peeta raised an eyebrow. "Did something happen that you're not telling me about?"
"No." Raising his chin defiantly, Cato looked him right in the eye. "Nothing happened that you don't know about, I just need a break from you, Mellark. Now leave me the hell alone before I make you."
"Go ahead, then," Peeta snapped back. "Make me."
So, Cato punched him square in the jaw. Reeling backwards, Peeta stared at him with wide eyes. "Fuck," Cato said, equally shocked. "Fuck, I don't know why I did that. Are you okay?"
The other boy nodded, and, running his tongue along his teeth, checking to see none of them had come loose with the blow. It had been quite a hard punch, and although Peeta was certain the Capitol would happily replace any teeth he lost, he'd much rather have all of his own. "I think so. Are you done being a dick?"
"Yeah," Cato assured him. "Yeah, I am." He reached up to run gentle fingertips over the bruise already forming across Peeta's chin. "I'm sorry," he whispered, so soft Peeta had to lean closer to hear him. "I don't mean to hurt you."
Peeta sighed, pulling him close and resting his forehead against the taller boy's shoulder. "I know you don't," he said. "You should probably work on that."
"Probably," Cato agreed, lightly stroking one hand through the other boy's hair.
They stayed like that for a long while, silently tucked away together in the shadows where no one would think to look unless they knew to. It was the clack of Effie's heels against the hard marble floor, and her worried calls of 'Peeta? Peeta!' that eventually pulled him back to the real world.
"I have to go," he said, pushing himself away from Cato.
"I'll see you tomorrow?" Cato offered uncertainly, like he was genuinely worried that the other boy wouldn't want to see him.
Rolling his eyes, Peeta just nodded. "Yeah, sure," he said softly. "I'll see you tomorrow."
A/N: Sorry we've taken so long to update! I know quite a lot of you guys thought we'd completed the story or abandoned it, which we definitely haven't. I was just on holiday without internet access for two weeks, which kind of put the writing process at a bit of a standstill (oops). Extra long update here to make up for it! As always, thank you very much for reading and we'd love to hear what you think, so if you can find the time please drop us a review! It would mean a lot. Thanks, and have a lovely day!