Her hand shakes as she reaches out to clasp mine; when her eyes meet mine, they are fully alert, wide with terror.
"The President," she whispers. And then, before I am ready, she pulls me inside.
. . .
The fire blazes in the stove with more kindling than we can afford to use at once; Prim sits on the threadbare couch, her face illuminated by the golden flames. When she hears the door shut behind us, she turns and gives me a forced smile. Her eyes dart to the kitchen, her smile falling slightly.
And there, sitting at our kitchen table made of thin plywood, sipping tea out of my mother's only good china, is President Snow. A Capitol man stands next to him, arms crossed menacingly. When he sees me, he holds a finger up, gesturing for me to wait. He takes another long sip of tea before placing his cup on the table and ignoring the way it wobbles on the uneven surface.
"Ah, Miss Everdeen," his mouth stretches into a wide, sinister smile. His lips are thick and puffy, probably intended to make him look more appealing, but it has the opposite effect. "I'm so glad you could finally join us." His cold, snakelike eyes roam over me, taking in my appearance. "I assume you were…out for a walk?" The knowing look in his eyes freezes my insides.
I'm silent for a long moment until my mother squeezes my shoulder. "No sir," I say finally. "I was spending the afternoon with Peeta."
Snow smiles in satisfaction. "Ah, yes, our most beloved Victor. I'm sure he was happy to spend his last evening in the district with you."
I swallow hard. "Yes, sir. I'm sorry, I didn't know you were coming, I wouldn't have kept you waiting—"
He shakes his head benignly. "No matter." He smiles broadly at my mother and Prim, gesturing to his tea. "Your family has been an excellent host, I have never had such fine tea." My mother seems to relax at this, smiling back tentatively. Snow looks back at me, cold eyes locking on my own. No matter how friendly he seems I know something is terribly wrong. "But I'm sure they're quite tired by now, it is rather late…" He trails off, and my mother nods hesitantly, wrapping her hand around Prim's arm and tugging her towards the hallway that leads to the room we sleep in.
"Good night, Katniss," Prim says softly. She casts her eyes warily once more in the President's direction.
"'Night, Little Duck." I try to smile reassuringly but I am certain it falls flat. Snow's guard follows them a few steps into the hallway and then stops, lingering in the shadows, reminding me that we are not alone. It is both a terror and a comfort.
I stand there for another moment, trying to come to grips with the situation. I feel like I have been trapped at the top of a tree with wilds dogs at the bottom, waiting for me to lose my balance and fall. He looks at me expectantly, hands clasped neatly in his lap; very slowly, I walk to the table and sit in the chair across from him. I tuck my hands under my thighs so he cannot seem them shake.
"It's a pleasure to have you in our home, sir," I tell him quietly, meeting his eyes with caution.
He clucks his tongue, shaking his head at me in disapproval. "Oh, Miss Everdeen, I think we can make this whole situation a lot simpler by agreeing not to lie to each other."
This puts me strangely at ease. "I think you're right."
President Snow smiles again. "I've been anxious to meet you for quite some time, you know. Ever since Mr. Mellark somehow managed to win and it was discovered just who his secret love was."
I feel my forehead wrinkle in confusion. "Why would that matter to you?"
He laughs dismissively. "My dear, Peeta is a Victor now. He belongs to the Capitol. So of course, when we discovered he was spending so much of his time with a known rebel—"
"Rebel?" I feel my blood run cold, and I grip down hard on the chair. "I'm not—"
He raises an eyebrow, clearly annoyed. "Ah, ah, Miss Everdeen, I thought we agreed not to lie to each other?"
I'm silent for a long moment, staring at him. My heart beats double time in my chest, and my face feels flushed with my fear. "I'm not — I'm not a rebel," I say finally, my words slow. "I just want to provide for my family."
He leans in across the table, close enough that I can smell his breath as he speaks, like tea and something coppery, almost like blood. "A noble cause to be sure, but I assure what you are doing is quite rebellious. It is almost laughable how easy it was to discover your true nature. I could have you shot a hundred times over for your crimes this month alone."
A sound of horror escapes me, and he smiles grimly. "It's not just you, though, is it?" he muses. "Your mother and sister use the illegal herbs and plants you gather. Of course, there's also the matter of your hunting partner. And the dozens of other people who willingly trade with you. All of them, guilty of treason. It seems District 12 has been lax in its security measures, if a simple girl can entangle so many people in her treachery."
My breath catches in my chest, every inhale a struggle. I knew the danger I faced every day but I never imagined it would come to this, come to having everything I love being threatened. "What if I stopped?" My thoughts race in my head furiously. I have no idea how we would survive, but we would have to. There is no other option.
Snow scoffs. "You think that would solve the problem? Stopping? If that was the solution I would have ended you months ago." From his pocket he pulls a small device; at the press of a button, Peeta's face is projected in the air, his sweet smile beaming at my cupboard, his blue eyes seeing right through me.
"But I don't think it matters where someone comes from, what their class is or what people think. Katniss is…extraordinary, and I've been crazy about her practically my whole life. I'm not going to let something like where we come from dictate who I love."
I meet his eyes again after the recording is done. Peeta's face hovers in the air for a moment, and then the space between us is empty. The President frowns deeply, showing lines around his mouth that no Capitol procedure can hide. "Imagine how distressing it is, Miss Everdeen," Snow says coolly, leveling me with a bland frown, "for a Victor to so publicly condone rebellion against the Capitol's laws."
"Peeta would never—"
"But no matter." He waves his hands in the air dismissively, smiling once more. "There are many ways to keep a Victor in line." My eyes narrow, remembering the horrible scenarios Haymitch threw out when Peeta first returned home.
"And that's why you're here," I realize. "To keep him in line."
He nods in approval at my realization. "You see, I agree with you that Mr. Mellark isn't knowingly encouraging rebellion. He seems far too…good for that. And the country is rather attached to him at the moment, what with your sweet love story. So I don't think that my usual methods of persuasion would be as effective."
"Like killing me," I say flatly.
He chuckles. "For starters."
I shrug. "So you want me to…what? Give up hunting and convince Peeta to be a good little Victor?" At his silence, I falter. "Oh." That's exactly what he intends.
"I assured my advisors that you wouldn't be difficult to convince, Miss Everdeen." He stands up, brushing dust off of his neatly creased trousers. "I told them that a girl who has worked so hard for so many years to survive wouldn't throw it all away." I stare at him with wide eyes and he shakes his head, gesturing for his escort to come closer. "Was I wrong?"
. . .
Dawn has barely broken when I race from my house to Victors' Village, my lungs burning as I breathe in the freezing air. I fly past the miners heading into the heart of the Seam, darting through the town square.
Peeta's house looms large and daunting in the early light of morning, casting a long shadow that reaches almost to the archway that welcomes me in. My heart almost literally aches as I look at it; my eyes find his window, cracked open to the frigid winter air. I wonder if he is awake, if he slept at all, if he's thinking of me. I wonder if he knows the danger he's in. I want to be in there with him, more than anything, huddled together under the blankets and facing the day together.
But first, there are things to do.
My hands tremble, buried deep inside the worn pockets of my coat, as I climb the steps to Haymitch's front door. I try to knock quietly but in the still morning air it echoes. Uneasily, I glance back to Peeta's window and then try the knob; to my surprise it is unlocked, and I let myself in. The inside of his house is somehow even dirtier than the last time I was here, sharp with the smell of vomit and rancid food. I wander the first floor and find him asleep in the kitchen, slumped over in his chair clutching a knife, surrounded by empty liquor bottles.
I scowl to myself. Even in sleep, he is repulsive.
"Haymitch," I hiss, finding a used wooden spoon on the counter and poking him at a safe distance. "Haymitch." He twitches slightly in his seat but doesn't wake. I give a huff of irritation, grabbing a dirty glass off of the table and quickly filling it with water from the sink. After a moment's hesitation I dump it on him from a safe distance; he bellows loudly, shaking off the water like a wet dog and swinging the knife wildly. He looks at me with murder in his eyes. "We need to talk," I say shortly. And he must be able to see the terror in my eyes because he follows me with no protest, shrugging on a jacket and stumbling into his boots. We traipse through the snow in silence, shivering quietly.
"You look like you've seen a demon, sweetheart," he says gruffly once we've passed the delicate arch.
"Worse," I tell him grimly, crossing my arms and hugging myself tightly. He waves his hand expectantly, gesturing for me to speak; his expression turns steadily stonier with every word that spills from my mouth. He curses when I finish recounting Snow's final words.
"What should we do?" I ask desperately, ringing my hands together. "I never meant for any of this to happen, Haymitch, I never meant to make things worse for him—"
He scowls. "No one ever means to make things worse, girl, it's just how things happen."
"Tell me how to make it stop," I plead. I hate the way I sound so desperate, tears stinging the corners of my eyes.
"This doesn't stop, Katniss," Haymitch scoffs. "He's barely even been a Victor six months, you think this is the worst it's gonna get?" I can feel my hands begin to shake at the pained fury in his voice. "Things can — things can get so much worse." His voice breaks, and for the first time I wonder why he too lives all alone in his fancy house in Victors' Village. He turns away for a long moment, looking out over snow blanketing the district. When he turns back around, his face is once again expressionless.
"So what do we do?"
Haymitch shrugs. "We protect him. Keep him from doing anything stupid. Keep you from doing anything stupid," he says accusingly, shaking his fist at me. "Pretend everything's okay, let the world watch you live happily ever after." He lets out a derisive snort. "The end."
I swallow hard, shaken by his hopelessness. "What do we tell him?"
He hesitates. "For now...nothing specific." I frown, and he crooks an eyebrow at me. "If he's 'too rebellious' now, what do you think he'll do when he finds out you've been threatened. Love is irrational," he sneers, "and the boy has got it bad. I'll just get Effie to write 'im up some notes, tell him to stick to the scripts. That should take care of it. And all you have to do is hug him goodbye. Think you can handle that, sweetheart?"
I can't help but bristle at his callousness. "I can handle it," I promise tersely. I give him one last glare and he rolls his eyes, a dismissal if I ever saw one. And as I walk away, back through the snow and to Peeta's house, I promise myself I will never, ever let him become a man like Haymitch. I will never let him lose enough to be so empty. No matter what the cost.
. . .
When I slip in the front door the house is still dark save for the soft light that filters in through the windows. The first floor is abandoned and cold; I pad softly up the stairs and creep in to his room silently, not wanting to wake him up from his last chance at peace. There is no need, though — Peeta's blue eyes are wide open and staring at the ceiling. He rolls over, propping his head up and smiling in surprise.
"You're here," he whispers, although there is no one to wake. No matter how many times I see him, it always startles me how beautiful he is. His smile widens as I shrug and I feel it resonate deep within me.
"I told you I would be," I remind him, toeing off my shoes and slipping in beside him under the covers. He immediately wraps his arms around me, and his warmth feels uncomfortably like home.
"You're early is all," he says, resting his cheek against my hair and tangling his fingers in my braid, snuggling me closer to him. I pull out of his arms.
"Well if you want me to leave—" I tease, beginning to roll away. He laughs, tugging me back and rolling me under him. His warm hand is splayed on my waist as he hovers over me, his broad shoulders shaking with laughter.
"Don't you dare," he warns. And then his bright blue eyes lock on mine and we aren't laughing anymore; the only warning I have is the way his fingers twitch against my side and then he is kissing me in a way that is completely new. It will consume me if I let it and for the first time I want to. His leg moves between mine, pressing hard against me and my entire body shakes against him, an embarrassingly loud moan slipping out. Instead of teasing me like he usual does he lets out a groan of his own, blazing kisses down the slope of my neck. I feel his tongue against my skin and although it is odd it's also thrilling.
I don't know how long we stay wrapped together so urgently, but when we finally break away it is only because there is only one other option and it is something I'm certain I'm not ready for. Although I can't deny I'm readier than I've ever been, my entire body thrumming with a curiosity that I never wanted to know. The sun has risen steadily and a glance at his bedside clock shows that his entourage will be here soon.
"My prep team would eat you alive if they found us like this," Peeta muses, smoothing down my hair. I love listening to his breathlessness, knowing that I caused that. "They can't wait to meet you," he teases.
"I know it's going to be the highlight of my morning," I tell him dryly, and he looks affronted.
"Are you kidding me, Everdeen? Those were my best moves!"
I sit up and stretch, conscious of the way his eyes are always trained on me. "Those were your best moves?" I tsk, shaking my head playfully. "We'll have to work on those when you get back." It's meant as a joke but his face falls; the lightness we've built up fades away into something more tense, and we both climb out of bed without another word. He starts to make the bed silently and I can't help but feel guilty.
I walk around to his side of the bed and wrap my arms around him, resting my cheek between his shoulder blades. I can feel the warmth of his skin through the thin cotton. "I mean it," I promise, squeezing him. "We'll practice till it's perfect."
He finally smiles again, turning around in my arms and dropping a soft kiss on my lips. "It could take hours," he warns.
"Days, even," I smile, tipping up on my toes to kiss him some more.
He brushes his nose against mine, our foreheads pressed together. "Such dedication," he says. We stay that way for a long moment, his eyes blinking slowly. I try to sear the image of him like this on my brain; I will need it to last me the two weeks he'll be gone.
"Promise me you'll be careful," I blurt out suddenly. The corners of his eyes crinkle in confusion and I feel myself flush, remembering Haymitch's warning. "Just — you know. Come back to me in one piece. Do whatever Haymitch says and just come back to me."
He scoffs lightly, resting his hands on the small of my back. "As if I could stay away."
"I'm serious," I insist, and his expression softens when he sees me frown.
"I am too," he assures me. "I'll always come back to you."
I bury these words deep inside of me, playing them on a loop inside of my head. When his prep team arrives, gushing over me like I'm an ill-groomed pet. When I'm ushered into the living room to wait for hours as they transform him into someone far too beautiful for me, someone I barely recognize. I'll always come back to you. I'll always come back to you.
And then we are in his foyer, shiny Capitol cameras waiting for him, only him, just outside the door. His arms wrapped tightly around me despite Effie Trinket's protests. He doesn't kiss me, but I feel the promise in his stare.
"Be careful," I whisper into his ear as we embrace. If he can hear the worry in my voice he doesn't show it.
"I'll be back in two weeks," he assures me quietly. But when he lets go it feels just like the train station so many months ago, being wrenched from my arms and into a dangerous game that I cannot save him from.
I can only hope he manages to win again.
. . .
. . .
Quickly wrapping up the plot arch and moving on to the next one. I hope you're ready, big, big, big things are ahead! Find me on tumblr: swishywillow.