Time stands still and sound ceases to exist. All that's left is the ringing of the gunshot that fades into the thumping of my heart in my ears. Without a second thought, I'm across the room and beside Peeta, scooping him into my arms to make sure he's still breathing. Peeta seems to be trapped between some stage of conscious and unconsciousness as his eyes open and close slowly, but never seem to focus on anything. He's alive though, and that's what's important.
I press my fingers to his neck until I feel his pulse, which is still racing from the adrenaline of his fight. Next I need to locate the bullet wound. I check his shoulder and chest, but they appear to be clean.
"Leg," he mumbles groggily through his shock.
That's when I see it. The thick dark stain that almost blends with his jeans. It's high on the thigh of his left leg nearly at his hip. I touch my fingers to it and his entire body flinches, revealing the pool of blood beneath him that's growing fast. If I don't do something, he could bleed to death. Even worse, if the bullet is trapped inside him there's no telling what sort of damage it has done. I wish that Prim were here or my mother even. They'd know what to do.
Taking a deep breath, I cup his face between my hands, now stained red from his blood. "I'm going to roll you over a bit," I warn. He nods and then lets out a fierce grunt when I lift his body to the side. His pant leg is soaked and matted against his body. I inspect where I imagine the bullet would have passed and find a hole that has been camouflaged by the thick clump of blood. It's not much of a relief, but it at least makes the injury manageable for now.
I've got to do something to stop the bleeding and his blood soaked jeans are only going to be a hindrance, but the thought of removing them puts me in another level of panic.
There's a chain link fence that lines a stretch of woods between the meadow and the forest that was erected to keep out predators. It became a minor inconvenience to Gale and me for about a week until animals began burrowing under it. We took their lead and cut the links on a weakened portion of fence, enough to create an opening to crawl under. The ends of the links were sharp though and one time Gale caught his shoulder pretty bad. He went to clean his wound in a nearby stream, while I climbed a tree with my back to him.
It wasn't just because I hated the sight of human blood, which was funny since I could skin and gut a dozen rabbits without batting an eye, it was the thought of Gale bathing in a stream. It made my body react in strange ways. Gale and I were strictly platonic, he was my partner and crime, and thoughts of his muscles flexing as water glistened on his bare skin were thoughts that I didn't want to be burdened with.
Peeta on the other hand is supposed to be my boyfriend, or something close to it. We're supposed to undress one another and admire every inch of flesh. Perhaps it's because I've felt how much Peeta wants me, perhaps it's because I've felt the hunger myself, that undressing him makes me so nervous.
"I'm going to have to take your pants off," I tell him, my fingers trembling as I reach for the button on his jeans.
"You first," he says, a lilt of humor still present in his thick, groggy voice. I feel my entire body flush and I crawl up the length of him to press a kiss to his lips. "All better," he mumbles, delirious. "Just keep on doing that."
I go back to removing his jeans and he lifts his hips as best he can to assist me. "This isn't how I envisioned our first time undressing one another," he hisses and grits his teeth as the rough denim passes the bullet hole. "A fancy hotel room, the backseat of my car, maybe the stockroom again. The look of horror on your face was always the same at least."
I scowl at him and he flashes a weak grin. I untie his boots and pull pants off the rest of the way. There's a cooler right by the register with soft drinks and I grab a couple of bottles of water, handing one off to him to keep hydrated and using another to wash away the caked on blood that obscures his wound. Once it's suitably clean, I take his socks and fold them into makeshift bandages. I slip off my red work vest, remove the brass name tag and tie it tightly around his leg to help stop the bleeding.
While I consider my next move, I hear Cato. I was so focused on saving Peeta, I'd nearly forgotten he was still there.
"Shit, shit, shit," he says over and over again. "This wasn't supposed to happen." He holds both hands to his temple, the gun still clenched in his right, while he stares off in the distance.
"Why aren't you doing anything?" I shout at him, my voice strained by the tears I hadn't realized I was crying. "Call for help!"
He's broken from his catatonic state long enough to stare at me blankly. Great. The only person capable of carrying Peeta to safety has rendered himself completely useless after the mess he went about making.
"He needs a doctor," I say, hoping that he will become more responsive. Sighing heavily, I decide to take matters into my own hands. I take Peeta's hand and hold it over his leg. "Press as hard as you can," I instruct and place a kiss on his forehead before I climb to my feet.
I don't have a cellphone and Peeta's doesn't seem to be in his pocket, so I'll have to use the phone in Undersee's office. I've only taken a few steps when I hear the safety click on the gun in Cato's hands.
"Where do you think you're going?" He demands, the gun once again trained on me.
"To call an ambulance," I reply evenly.
He shakes his head frantically. "You can't do that," he says, his eyes wild.
"You can't be serious," I nearly scoff. "Given your track record for decision making today, I'm going to have to veto that one," I say and begin to turn back towards the manager's office.
"Don't move," he barks, causing me to jump. "Back on the ground," he says, and I rather not leave Peeta alone with this psychopath, so I oblige.
"Now what?" I say. I'm on my knees again beside Peeta, pressing the heel of my palm as hard as I can against his injured thigh. "You going to let him bleed to death?"
"Well I sure as hell aren't going to let you call the cops," he replies. "I'll think of something."
Peeta's face is pale, his skin hot to the touch. He murmurs something incomprehensible as I stroke my fingers through his sweat drenched hair. "Cato," I say pleadingly. "If you let him die. It's over for you."
His breath catches and he begins to shake his head furiously again. "Shit, shit, shit, shit, shit..." begins the mantra again.
An hour passes, maybe two. The socks I used to dress Peeta's wounds are soaked through with blood and the dark red stain has even seeped through the polyester vest. He begins to drift off again and I shake him gently. "Stay with me," I instruct. I keep my fingers wrapped around his wrist, pressed against his pulse point. It's weaker than before, but the pounding keeps me at ease.
Cato's eyes are wide while he watches us. His lips look dry, his jaw has been hanging agape for so long. Some sort of recognition seems to flicker across his cold gaze and he reaches into his pocket for his phone. I feel relief. He's come to his senses, finally. He dials a number that's longer than 911 and puts the phone to his ear.
"I've done something," he mumbles. "I need help." There's a pause. "Arena Grocery Store."
Not a second later the room begins to fill with the flash of blue lights. Sirens. This wasn't the company that Cato was expecting because in an instant he's ushering us between the registers. "Get down and stay down," he says, waving the gun around again for good measure.
The outer doors rustle and I hear the deputies faintly through the dual layers of glass. "There's nobody here, Sheriff," he says. "The Mellark kid is probably off giving it to that Seam girl at the Slag Heap, just like Abernathy said."
"Try explaining that one to his mother," I hear the voice of Sheriff Crane. "She'd believe he's lying dead in a ditch somewhere over him getting his jollies on with some Seam trash, in fact she'd probably prefer it. I swear if they weren't so fucking rich, we wouldn't have to send out a fucking search party for a kid that's two hours late from work."
The deputy knocks roughly against the glass for good measure and they wait for a moment. "Well it doesn't look like he's here."
The sound of their voices begin to grow distant when I hear another familiar shout. "What do you mean nobody is here?" Haymitch says. "There's a pool of blood right there! Don't you see it?"
"I thought I told you to wait at the station," Sheriff Crane says, sounding annoyed.
"And maybe I would have if you two geniuses could properly identify a crime scene. If something doesn't smell rotten in Denmark, then you two must have one hell of a cold."
"That does look like blood," the deputy says and I recognize that voice. Deputy Cray.
"Fine, let's get these doors open and call for backup," Crane says tiredly, as if doing his job is some sort of huge hassle to him.
I let out a sigh of relief and hug Peeta tightly against my chest. We're going to be rescued.
"Where are you?" Cato says under his breath, his eyes darting around the narrow corridor frantically in search of an escape.
"It's over," I tell him, and I can't help but feel a little pleased. "You should have gotten out while you had the chance."
"Like hell it's over," he says and hooks an arm around me to pull me against him roughly. His body is so rigid that it's terrifying, not as terrifying as the cold metal of the gun barrel that's pressed against my neck.
"Take me," Peeta pleads, but he's too weak to move much. "If you need a hostage, use me."
Cato laughs at him and tightens his grip around me. "We're untouchable," he says. "It's jailbird against you and me."
He must be completely delusional if he thinks that to be true. "How is that?" I ask. "You're the one holding the gun."
I hear the outer doors to Arena slide open and metal jingling as the deputies begin to work on the second set of doors. Cato poises himself to use me as a hostage when another voice enters the scene.
"Pardon, Sheriff," he says. His voice is calm and even, he's done this before. "A word please."
Cato releases me at the sound of our newest guest and I scramble to the edge of the aisle to distance myself from him. "We're untouchable," he repeats, causing my stomach to turn.
"All right boys, our job is done here," I hear Sheriff Crane announce. "Agent Brutus is going to take it from here."
Agent Brutus. An employee of Circenex. Part of the security team. He's here to clean up Cato's mess and make sure I never sing about it. If Crane leaves, I'll be railroaded for sure. I have to make them stay. I need to figure out a way to get them to stay.
"How does a private security guard have any jurisdiction?" Haymitch demands. "Where are you going?" Haymitch. I need to let him know that I'm here.
"I said our job is done," Crane repeats. "Mr. Abernathy, it's time for you to go."
Something shiny catches my eye, the brass name tag that I had discarded from my vest. It catches the light from the flood lights and the surface reflects like it's glowing. I don't know Morse Code or anything, but if I can shine the light out the door, I'll at least get Haymitch's attention. I reach for the pin, my eyes trained carefully on Cato to be sure he isn't watching. I rock the small pin against the tile floor, my eyes flitting towards it for only a second to check that it's reflecting.
"If Brutus can buy his way into an investigation, than so can..." Haymitch trails off and I know he's caught sight of my warning signal. A faint silver light shines on the ceiling in response, traveling like a parachute across the length of the store until it settles on the aisle across from my register. The shelf that he left my faded blue box cutter on. Haymitch is sending me a sign.
I check on Cato, who seems distracted while he anxiously awaits for Brutus to take over. If I can draw him out in the open, he can't be ignored. A box cutter isn't much of a defense, but if I take him by surprise, I may be able to get the gun free.
I shift my weight to the soles of my feet so that I'm on my haunches and ready to take flight. The last thing I see before I begin to run, is Peeta, desperately trying to catch my eye as he shakes his head, urging me to stay still because he knows what I'm trying to do.
The shelf is only about ten yards away and I make it there in a few long strides. Cato is right on my heels though and in a second we're on the other side of the store, again obscured by the tall shelves. "What do you think you're doing jailbird?" Cato demands. The cutter is on the highest shelf and just out of my reach. I use the lower shelf as a step stool and hoist myself up the side of the rack, using my other foot to kick roughly against Cato's chest. "That's it," he shouts and grabs me by my braid, yanking me roughly until I nearly topple to the ground. Before I lose my balance, my fingers brush against the cutter. With all my might, I stretch my hand upward and grab hold of the weapon before falling to the ground.
I land against Cato's chest and he grabs me by the throat, pinning me against the shelves and pointing the gun directly in my face. "Done playing hero?" He says, his voice menacing as he leans uncomfortably close.
My hands tighten around the plastic cutter and my thumb easily engages the blade. "Not quite yet," I say, and jam the short blade into the arm that's holding the gun.
Cato drops the gun in surprise and releases his grasp from my throat to remove the blade. "What the hell was that?" He bellows before he throws me back against the shelf.
In the scramble I don't hear Peeta stumble across the floor, but suddenly there's a clicking sound as he shouts, "Freeze," and attempts to shoot the gun into the air. But nothing comes out. The gun isn't loaded. Cato never planned on shooting anyone, but the moron forgot to check the chamber before he went off on his little game of chicken.
Peeta collapses to the floor and Cato takes off running just as Brutus and the Sheriff get the door open. "Took you long enough," I say to Haymitch as I gather Peeta in my arms and hold onto his hand tightly until the ambulance comes and takes him away.
It's morning when I'm able to get to the hospital. Flurries of doctors and nurses hover around Peeta's private room to form a human barricade. I keep close to the wall, certain that I won't be welcomed but avoiding the request that I leave.
Peeta's parents sit on a bench down the hall, presumably speaking to a series of lawyers and publicists in order to best strategize this little incident. His father's eyes flicker in my direction and I slip back into the nearest doorway before I'm seen. I wait a few moments before I allow myself to peek again and see that his father has put away his phone and is now guiding Mrs. Mellark down the hall towards the hospital cafeteria. Apparently I had an accomplice that I wasn't aware of.
For once Peeta's room is unsupervised and I slip in undetected. He's still unconscious and his body attached to a series of beeping monitors. There's something strange about a person when they sleep. Peeta's just a boy. His features soft, his cheeks full. He's like Prim in a way. Too innocent to deal with delinquents like me. I reach out to brush his blond curls from his forehead, my fingers linger as I touch his cheek.
I'm startled when someone claps behind me. "You put on quite a show, sweetheart. If I didn't know any better, I'd almost believe you."
He lacks his usual amusement, which means that yesterday's luck hasn't turned yet. "Please Haymitch," I say, still looking down at Peeta. "Not today."
"I've got some developments on your case," he says. He glances over his shoulder to be sure we're alone, we must be discreet. Perfect. "The security videos from Arena disappeared from the Sheriff's Office last night," he says.
I laugh. Of course they did. Brutus probably had private dicks circling the station like a bunch of gnats the second evidence arrived. Now it's his word against mine with Peeta as the swing vote. Peeta may find me and my braid irresistible, but I doubt he'd take on the word of a fellow Cap and gain the status of town pariah for a little spring fling.
"Let me guess," I say. "Self defense."
Haymitch gives me a knowing look and shakes his head incredulously. "You stabbed the guy with a box cutter in front of several witnesses," he says.
"Into a can of beer!"
"The story I'm hearing right now is that this Cato kid came back to the store to pick up some aspirin for his poor mother," he says, and his tone is so dry, there's no way he believes a word of it. "That you attacked him with a box cutter again because you were reprimanded as a result of your earlier encounter. He claims that after you stabbed him, you reached into your vest and pulled a gun on him."
"That's not true," I exclaim quickly. "The gun's not mine. It has to be registered."
"The numbers were filed off," he says. "You know where you get weapons that have no classification numbers on them?"
I shake my head a few times because I know exactly what Haymitch is implying. "A black market like The Hob," I say, even though it's not necessary.
"Cato wrestled the gun from you and in the process, accidentally shot Peeta in the leg," he concludes. "They haven't gotten a statement from Peeta yet, but from what I hear the Catos' lawyers and the Mellarks' lawyers have been pretty tight over the past twelve hours."
"So without the tapes, I may as well lay across some railroad tracks," I say.
"Not exactly," says Haymitch. "They're not the only ones with a copy of the tapes." Haymitch reaches into his pocket and reveals a stack of disks. "Undersee had a backup hard drive and made a copy before his computer was seized for evidence this morning. Passed them along to me."
I feel relief for a moment, but Haymitch still doesn't look very happy. "There's the proof. What else do we need?"
"That's not the only video of interest in the compilation from yesterday," he says, and the way he's looking at me, I can tell that he's disappointed. "The cameras caught a lot more than Cato pulling a gun on you."
My heart stops and I can feel the color drain from my face. The TJV, the stockroom. I didn't think they could see us from there, but apparently the security at Arena was tighter than I thought.
"There's video of you selling drugs to Peeta," he says what I already know. "And then he slips you an additional sum of money in what could be interpreted as an exchange for... favors." He presses his lips together in a tight line and shakes his head. "There's no shade of gray on this one sweetheart, distributing narcotics is in direct violation of your parole."
"I didn't think anyone was watching," I say as if it will make things better. "So we're at a stalemate. Cato's indiscretions for ours."
Haymitch crosses the small hotel room and lowers his voice to a harsh whisper. "You better hope that when that boy wakes up," he says and points a finger in Peeta's direction, "that he has hearts in his eyes. A Seam girl with a record isn't going to be able to take on one of the most powerful families in town. If you can keep the Mellarks in your corner you may have a chance. But you can't come off as some gold digger hanging on for dear life to his coattails. You have to keep up this star crossed lovers act and boy do you have to sell it."
Only a Cap can beat a Cap and if I want to avoid dragging my family through the mud, I'll have to play the part. It's not fair, but that's the way Panem is.
"So Cato gets away with it then? For holding us hostage? Nearly killing Peeta?"
"Look at it this way Sweetheart," Haymitch says. "If Cato burns, you burn with him." He taps his finger against his temple and then points at me. Think. And with that last bit of advice, he leaves me alone with my thoughts.
"Katniss?" Peeta says from his hospital bed.
My heart swells in my chest at the sound of his voice. I fly across the room and scoop his hand into mine, holding onto it for dear life. "Peeta," I say.
"What were you and Haymitch talking about?" He asks, his eyes betray him. They're far too honest because I can see the pain behind them. "Keeping up the act? What act?"
"They've been watching me," I explain.
"They?" Peeta narrows his eyes. "Who's they?"
"The Sheriff's Office, the parole board," I say and I can already hear my voice breaking. "They wanted to send me back to prison so they were watching me, to catch me if I made another mistake." I chew on the inside of my cheek as I gather my words. "They didn't like me, but they liked you."
Recognition flashes across his tired blue eyes and his soft features grow rigid and unforgiving. "So all of this? You and me? This whole time, you were just pretending?" He demands, his breath catching as he looks away.
"No," I say. "If I didn't play along they were going to find a way to put me away. Tax evasion, poaching, trespassing. They'd try me as an adult and even if it just turned out to be fines, it would put my family under." I realize that I haven't made much of a case, so I tighten my grip on his hand. "Peeta, I care about you."
His jaw tightens but he doesn't pull his hand away. "Your sentence is almost through," he nods at our joined hands. "What's the point to keep on pretending any longer?"
"The shooting last night. Cato wants to railroad me for it. Pin the whole thing on me," I say and drop my eyes in shame. "You have to pick a side."
"And pathetic gullible Peeta is supposed to side with you because you kiss me and hold my hand," he say with venom that burns me. His hand slips from mine and he folds his arms over his chest.
"He's claiming that the gun was mine. There aren't any serial numbers to trace it. He's saying that you got caught in the crossfire when he tried to wrestle the gun from me."
He chuckles, "Who cares what he says. There's security footage to prove otherwise."
"Not anymore," I say and nervously bite my lip. "Someone took the videos from the Sheriff's Station last night. It's his word against mine."
"And mine," he concludes.
"Cato's team has the videos and that's not the only thing on them." I turn away so that my eyes are trained on my blood stained sneakers. "The drugs in the stockroom, Peeta. It's on tape. Cato's people know. If we stick to the truth, we'll both pay too."
Peeta must know that he'll get but a slap on the wrist. That when I say "we'll both pay" I mean that I'll do time, while he'll take a drug counseling course and maybe do some community service on the side. He holds my gaze for a long moment, but his expression is unreadable.
Peeta's parents and who I assume is his lawyer appear in the doorway. "What's she doing here?" His mother sneers. She's a charming woman, that Mrs. Mellark.
"Miss, if you'd excuse us, we have to go over Mr. Mellark's statement," his lawyer says.
I swallow thickly as I rise to stand, my hands smoothing over my stained shirt from the night before. My feet are too heavy to lift and I stand in the center of the hospital room like prey about to be struck.
"Wait," Peeta says, and I feel his fingers wrap around my forearm. "Katniss was there too, she should stay."
"Peeta," his mother warns.
"If we're cutting deals, Katniss is protected too," says Peeta. He reaches for my hand and draws it towards his lips, his eyes staring down his mother defiantly. "If we'll be putting on a show," he murmurs against the back of my palm so only I can hear.
Sorry it took so long to update, I've actually had majority of this written for a few weeks now, but was missing the middle scene. Right, so this is supposed to be the end of the first part of the story since it follows the structure of the first book. I have a second half planned out that follows Catching Fire and Mockingjay (ie we don't really meet Snow until Catching Fire), but I'm not sure if I'm going to continue it. It sort of follows Katniss becoming a Cap and ties up the political drama that was set up in this part. I may come back to it after I finish my other fic and post it as a sequel. Thanks to everyone that read this one! Hope you enjoyed it!