Summary: Peeta Mellark has been diagnosed with an incurable terminal illness, one that causes Katniss Everdeen to break in ways she never knew she could.
Warnings: Angst, blood, and (SPOILER) eventual character death
I've waited for so long
Just to know
That you'd wrap yourself around me if you couldn't let go
-Ingrid Michealson, Let Go
I don't think anything of the boy with the bread's sudden needs to sit when he is not tired. I don't think anything of his limbs sporadically giving out on him, causing him to drop baskets of bread or fall to the ground. I don't think of the bruises from these drops. I don't think of the cramps he gets in his hands when icing sweets.
But when a loud, echoing crash sends me flying upward in bed one late night, finally something registers in my mind that something is not right.
The space next to me is empty.
"Peeta?" I call, slowly getting out of bed. "Peeta."
When there's no response, instantly I become frantic, my entire body automatically switching to save-and-be-saved mode.
"Peeta!" I scream, hurrying down the stairs three at a time, and hurling onto the floor off the final step, electric shocks of pain rocketing up my loose limbs.
The first thing I detect is the sickening, metallic scent of blood.
Waves of memories crash through me, and I have to force myself to ignore the scent and focus instead on the person before me, to stop the memories before I collapse again.
Peeta is kneeling before me, gripping his right arm. His wrist is sliced open, pouring blood and showing no signs of stopping.
"Peeta," I say one last time, forcing myself to collapse next to him, taking his arm tenderly as I can. There's so much blood; it is already making me lightheaded.
"It's fine," Peeta attempts, shrugging his arm away. "I just fell."
"What were you doing this late?" I ask him, my eyes never leaving his wound. Upon further investigation, the cut is small, but the bleeding is immense. "Don't you-"
"Can't I get a drink without having my motives questioned?" Peeta interrupts me. "I just fell down the stairs and cut my wrist. It should stop bleeding at –"
"Your legs gave out again, didn't they? That's why you fell." I take his arm back from him, hesitating only for a moment to examine it. "You need something for this."
The only thing I can see that is close enough for me to grab without leaving him is a scrawny rag hanging at the edge of the kitchen table. Figuring this has to suffice, I grab it and wind the fabric around Peeta's wrist, tightening it so it applies enough pressure to stop the bleeding.
"My legs don't 'give out.' They're just not what they used to be. The fake one, especially…ever since the explosion-"
"Stop talking," I order him, my throat constricting at his words, again unpleasant memories resurfacing. "One thing at a time."
But something is wrong about this injury. The blood doesn't seem to be stopping. In fact, it looks as though the blood is soaking up the towel, and not the other way around. Within seconds the rag is soaked with the red stuff, and I am unwinding the rag with hasty panic.
"Why isn't it stopping?" I ask, and, finding no alternative, press my bare hands onto his wrist to stop the bleeding. "Why won't it stop?"
"Katniss, it's fine; it's just a deep cut," Peeta tries to assure me. "Deep cuts don't just 'stop.'"
"No, Peeta, it's barely a scratch. You know what a deep cut is, and this isn't one of them." I examine my bloodied hands, feeling instantly sick. "But it won't stop. It should have…"
I look closely at the wound, which looks just deep enough to break the skin. But the problem isn't the depth, but the width. It's a small cut, but wide enough to pool out blood. The skin around the injury is a sickly gray, weak against the attempt to close off the wound.
Which it will not do.
"You need to see a doctor." I realize I am shaking as I stand.
Instantly Peeta is in defense – though probably it's not for his sake but mine. "It's fine, Katniss. I promise. I'll just wrap it and –"
"It's not going to get better that way. Don't you see? It's not stopping itself – and it won't stop itself. It….it probably needs stitches or something."
Peeta blinks, slowly rising to his feet, cradling his mangled wrist. My whole body aches with seeing the blood running down his arm, his elbow….
I don't know what's wrong with him. And that fact scares me more than anything.
"I'll be fine," he tries again, but I'm too stubborn to believe him even for a moment.
"That amount of blood is not 'fine.' I-I'm calling Haymitch or someone….so they can-"
But my words instantly die on my lips as suddenly, oh-so-very suddenly, Peeta's face goes completely white, and his limbs start to shake. In one single second, Peeta goes from standing and competent to falling to the floor, writhing and shaking.
And that's when I pick up the phone and call for help. The only thing I realize I can do.
There's a scientific name for what Peeta has. But I doubt I'll ever remember the name. Just what it entails. The only illness that is too strong to ever cure. A virus that is as rare as it is unbiased in who it attacks. A virus that eats at your skin when it tries to heal cuts, and breaks the marrow on your bones until they are too weak to function.
It explains the unstoppable amount of blood when he's cut. The cramps. The weakness.
I spend the first night after Peeta's medical examination in the bathroom, sobbing without tears and scratching, out of habit, on my own delicate skin. Hating the fact I didn't notice sooner. That I didn't do something about it.
That Peeta has just two short months before the virus quickly takes over his body and kills him.
The pain in my stomach and chest is so unbearable I make myself sick more than once during the night, coughing and sobbing and making cuts in my skin that will heal where his won't. The idea of another one dying is so beyond sickening and devastating I can think of nothing else to do but cleanse my stomach and rip at my skin.
We can only make him comfortable, they said. There are no cures, they reiterated. Pain relievers may help, but won't completely stop it, they assured.
I am lying on the floor of the bathroom, shaking from the effort of the sobs that rack my whole body. If – when – Peeta dies, I will have nothing. No one. I'll be alone in this horrible world with nothing to look forward to.
The soft voice outside the closed bathroom door jolts me up from the floor, staring at the door as though expecting it to combust.
"Katniss, is everything all right?"
I slowly stand to my weak feet, pulling open the door to see Peeta standing before me. I can't help but flinch away from him and his bandaged arm, stained red with blood, and his shaking fingers and knees.
I suddenly am afraid for him in a way I can't remember being afraid for him before. This is a different kind of fear. This is a fear I cannot ease. I cannot help Peeta in this battle. In the arena and in the war, I could save him, even when I thought I couldn't. But against a flesh eating bacteria, I am powerless.
"You should be in bed," I say hoarsely.
"I heard you sobbing from the bedroom. Are you all right?" Typical Peeta to turn any of my concerns back on me.
"I'm fine," I lie. "But you – you need to be in bed. You-"
"I don't want to be in there without you, Katniss," Peeta interrupts softly.
But I can't stand to be with you there without the fears. I stare into his deep blue eyes. Eyes that used to give me hope but now only fill my body with more despair.
"Come to bed, Katniss. Please."
It's my weakness when he asks that way. With an innocent, almost desperate plea I can't ignore. So I lightly take his hand, and try to ignore the shaking of his fingers, and we slowly walk back to the bedroom. We're both shaking with every step – for different reasons but ultimately we both are facing the same condition.
"You're afraid for me," Peeta whispers into the darkness of the room as we settle down in the bed.
I don't answer, just stare at the ceiling, making every effort not to look at him, not to feel his shaking. I can feel my stomach clenching as though I'm about to be sick again.
"Real or not real?"
Inwardly it feels as though my stomach has been punched in. We haven't played that "game" in what seems like so long. To hear him ask it now reminds me of how vulnerable he still is. How he still confuses fantasy with reality.
So my whispered, "Real," really means so much more than what Peeta probably initially thought.
Real, I am afraid for you.
Real, you are very, very sick.
Real, you are going to die.
Real, I cannot save you.
"Sick? How sick?" Haymitch leans forward in his place in one of the living room armchairs, drink glass dangling between his fingers. I'd hate him for drinking at a time like this if I didn't need him.
"Really sick," I reply, drawing my knees closer to my chest and glancing out the window. Peeta is out there, watering the primrose and pausing to run his fingers through Buttercup's fur. This is recently something he's taken up over the past three days. It seems silly to me, but he finds peace in it. And I can't argue that.
"So this – this bacteria is going to basically eat away at him?" Indelicate as ever, Haymitch's words throw another blow to my stomach, and I try not to whimper.
"Basically. He only has two months." My voice cracks, and I look away from him.
Haymitch leans back in his chair and takes a long drink out of his glass. He seems to be seriously contemplating this situation, and that to me almost makes me not want to knock his drink from his hand.
"Do you know what you're going to do?" he asks finally, and I blink, looking over at him.
"What do you mean, what am I going to do?" I ask.
"That boy has two months to live. You're going to have to do something, sweetheart."
I look out the window again at Peeta, who is now sitting in the grass, tickling Buttercup's neck. I haven't seen that cat look so content.
"What do you expect me to do? I can't fix him; I can't prolong his life. What am I supposed to do?" I say desperately.
Haymitch regards this for a moment before saying simply, "Give him the life he can't have."
I don't follow Haymitch's only advice. I still don't understand how to do what he suggested. Give him the life he can't have? It seems impossible seeing as he already cannot have the life he would actually want.
I don't follow his advice until two weeks after Peeta's diagnosis, when Peeta falls and his foot lands sideways, breaking the bone instantly. When I feel it, I can feel the tenderness of his bones that tells me this has already taken a huge toll on him. Again I blame myself for not getting him help sooner.
"Peeta, what do you want?" I ask him vaguely after helping him upstairs to the bedroom, propping his wrapped foot up with a pillow. He winces in pain as I do so, and I hate that I have to be the one who causes it.
"What do I want?" he repeats, patting the space beside him for me to sit, which I reluctantly do.
"We all know…. You're not going to – " My voice fails, and Peeta looks up at me, his face serious.
"I know I'm going to die, Katniss," he says gently. "I know my broken foot may never heal properly. I know I won't live to have children, to grow old with you, to –"
"Stop. Please stop," I interrupt him forcefully, rubbing my hands along my arms out of distressed habit.
"So then what do you mean by 'what do I want?'"
I heave in a shaky, long breath and whisper, "What do you want? What can I give you – do for you – before you….before you die."
The final word sticks to the back of my throat, causing me to gasp slightly. My fingernails are catching skin again.
Peeta's eyes soften slightly, and he slowly extends his hand to take one of my own. He traces soft circles across the back of my hand.
"I don't need anything from you, Katniss," he murmurs.
"Don't say that. You must want something. There must be something I can do." I'm so desperate to do something for him that will help him my voice is hysteric. I just want to help him. I want to save him.
"I could only ever want you, Katniss. You by my side until the day I take my last breath. That's all."
"That can't be all! There – I have to be – You're not getting it!" I tear my hand away from his and bring both of my hands to my face, digging my fingernails into my cheekbones. My body is shaking with silent sobs I know any minute will reach my voice and cause me to break.
"Katniss. Katniss, please don't –" Peeta attempts to wrap an arm around my back, but I shrug his arm away. "I'm sorry. I'm sorry I don't get it, Katniss."
"Don't," I say again, closing my eyes, and turning my head away from him. "Just don't."
Peeta does not respond. For a long moment the two of us sit in bed together, the silence screaming at us to say the things we are not. I can't force myself to speak. I wouldn't know what to say.
"You never let me shoot. A bow, I mean. You've never taught me." Peeta's soft voice breaks the unearthly silence. I still cannot look at him. "If there's one thing I want, it's for you to teach me."
Somehow this is worse than anything Peeta could've asked for. I've always seen Peeta as someone who is too innocent to ever work something as dangerous as a bow and arrow. I never taught him because it reminds me of too much, and I don't want that to be on him.
"I can't," I say into my hands.
Another short silence. Peeta places his hand on one of my knees, and I don't pull away from him this time.
"I understand, Katniss," he whispers.
You're the only one who ever does. But now you're leaving. Tears are streaming down my face now. A sadness filling up inside of me for everything I've ever lost, and everything I have to lose.
I am expecting this disease to take Peeta, but I do not expect it to happen so fast. His broken foot is only the beginning of what is to come, of what will eventually mean his slowing heart. I am slowly branching away from him, fearing what will happen when it all ends. I can't bother to say more than needed to him, or to help him with the tasks he has recently been unable to fulfill. Haymitch and Greasy Sae end up taking care of him more than I do.
I don't feel bad even though I should. I am still selfishly scared. And I know Peeta knows that. He knows I'm pushing myself away from him. I can see it in his sallow eyes and face that he knows what I'm doing.
"Please don't push away from me, Katniss," he says eventually as we sit, miles apart, in the kitchen.
As usual, I don't respond, my eyes focused disinterestedly on the bacon and eggs Greasy Sae has come by to prepare for us.
Peeta looks down at his own food, his fork and knife loosely sitting in his hands. I can't stand to look at him, but looking at his hands is not much better. They are covered in small nicks and scratches. He gets them on a daily basis now, his skin simply too weak to handle any stress.
"Katniss, are you even listening to me?"
I look up to find that Peeta is still looking down, talking to the food on his plate instead of to me. For the first time I notice how hurt he looks. Not just physically, which I could never stop myself from seeing, but emotionally too. He's no longer the charismatic, bright boy I once knew, but a wilting flower that has received too little sun.
"Why do you do that?" I ask softly, turning back to my own food.
"Do what?" Peeta asks back, his voice both curious and a bit suspicious.
"That thing you do. How you say my name. You always do after or before everything you say." Frankly it's something I've noticed for awhile, but I am only just bothering to say it now, mainly to give sun to the wilted flower before me.
"Well….I guess I really like saying your name, Katniss." There's a bit of familiar light back in Peeta's voice, but it fades almost at once into seriousness. "I….I guess I just know how short of a time I have left to say it. The name of the girl with the braids."
The confession shouldn't hurt this much, but I feel like I cannot hold myself up in my chair because it does. I can't – won't – look at him, dare to see the look in his eyes.
"Katniss. Katniss….." Each time he says my name more pain fills my body and makes my head spin.
"You don't have to do this," I mumble. "You don't have to – to love so much. It'll be so much easier when you leave if you don't."
"It'll be easier if I do, Katniss."
From that conversation on, I vow to stop pushing myself away from him. I vow to stop treating him like an anomaly, and to start acting like the girl with the braids he fell in love with.
For a brief while, things are normal. As normal as they can be. I start hunting again, bringing back game for us to share – though his soft teeth have difficulties chewing the stuff. He starts learning how to frost cookies and cakes with limited hand movements – though he stops frequently with cramps.
Through all of this, he never complains. When he accidently nicks himself or winces in pain while standing, he never says a word. He just wraps the injury and suffers silently on.
I no longer suffer out loud in front of him. Only in the silence of the night do I cry. And eventually, I stop doing that too. Eventually we both become sturdy soldiers, marching on with the expectations of a final battle.
Peeta loses all mobility in his legs a week into the second month. He tells the doctors that he can still walk a little. He tells me he doesn't need my help getting places, that his legs can still hold him up. But he can't. Each time he tries, he only makes it a foot before his legs buckle and he goes down, violent bruises popping up on his skin. They confine him to a wheelchair, and this is the first thing he complains about. He complains about the inability to reach things, about the inability to go upstairs on his own, and, humorlessly, about being unable to kick Buttercup each time he tries to rub against his legs.
The fact that he has finally broken and started to complain is another sign to me that he is slowly drifting away. He does not even seem to be aware of the many times he has snapped at me, or the many aggravated sighs he utters throughout the day.
I put up with all of it. I want to make him see that he is still the warm, bright boy with the bread. But that boy seems so far away now, in a distant world. The boy that he was before this disease.
Peeta Mellark is finally breaking in a way I never thought he could. I can't help but jump when he drops things clumsily and curses the air.
"Katniss, why do I have to be like this?" he says, his voice an exasperated shout. "Why am I paralyzed and useless? Is it so much to ask to just….just be taken away already?"
"It's not your fault. You know it's not. You're – you're just frustrated, that's all. It's the disease, not you," I reassure him, already stooping to pick up the plastic cup he has just dropped.
"I don't want your help," he snaps nastily, taking the cup from me with an unnecessary force. "You've done little of it anyway."
I blink, feeling as though his words have whipped me right across the face. I hate this Peeta that is before me, confined to a chair and too weak to hold a cup without shaking violently.
"I'm sorry, Peeta. I'm trying," I whisper.
"Well, maybe you should just stop. Because we both know I'm going to die regardless of what you do."
I'm actually winded by his stinging words, automatically taking a step back. What horrifies me the most is there is no regret in Peeta's eyes. There is no wishing on his part to take what he has said back.
I can't handle this any longer. I whirl around on the heels of my feet and flee, stumbling up the stairs and into the bathroom. For the first time in a while, I cry until I'm sick again, and until there's flakes of my own skin and pieces of my own hair on the floor.
"Peeta….remember when you said you wanted to learn how to shoot a bow?"
It's this question I start off our breakfast conversation with. Peeta looks up at me, his hollow eyes almost disinterested.
"I thought you said you couldn't," he says back blandly.
"I-I know I did. But I've changed my mind. If you're still interested, I'm going out right after breakfast." I hope my voice sounds cheerful and excited enough.
Peeta stabs a bit of his ground up sausage, examining it closely. "You're only doing this because you know it's almost the end."
He puts the food in his mouth, attempting to chew it before just thickly swallowing. He looks back at me and, for good measure, asks, "Real or not real?"
I drop my own fork with a clatter on the table, curling my hand into a fist. I can't lie to him about this, even though I want to. I don't want him to think that. I want him to think I genuinely changed my mind.
"Real," I reply hoarsely. "But that doesn't take away from the fact I want to do it. I want to teach you. I want to do the only thing you asked of me. Please, just let me do this for you."
Peeta is silent for a moment, setting his fork down in an almost defeated way. The silence between us is slowly destroying me – as it so often does.
"How am I going to get out there?" he murmurs eventually.
"The doctors gave you crutches. You'll use those – and I'll be there every step of the way. I – I won't let you fall."
"I'm not worried about falling. I'm worried about no one being there to catch me."
The woods are quiet and warm at this time of the day. But I'm not noticing it. I only have two concerns: helping Peeta reach the tree line and making sure he doesn't go down. I don't care that his crutches are crunching leaves and scaring away any game from here to District One. I don't care that he's leaning painfully up against me for balance. All I care about is his shaking arms as he struggles to hold himself up, and about the task it will be to get him to hold a bow.
We stop as we reach the very edge of the trees, and I lower Peeta to the grass so he can rest. He watches me from that place as I shoot a few arrows into the bark of a few trees, and eventually snag a brave squirrel attempting to scramble up a tree.
"Are you ready to try?" I ask him, readying another arrow.
He does not say anything, just nods towards his crutches. With much effort, I help him so he is supported by them, his arms propped up on the tops of them by his underarms.
"This is hopeless, you know," he says quietly as I position myself behind him, ready to help him make a shot.
"Nothing is hopeless. I'm right here – I'll catch you," I promise, bringing the bow around so it's in front of him. "Just….just let me guide you."
He says nothing, and I take that as an opportunity to take his limp arm and position it on the bow. He stumbles a little, but I move closer to him, allowing him to lean on me.
"You just want your other hand to take the arrow string…." I whisper, taking his other arm and doing just that. His crutches lay abandoned on the grass now, his whole body completely supported by mine. I ignore the shaking of his arms and body, ignore his deep, rapid breathing, and focus instead on using Peeta's body like I would use my own.
My hands enclose both of his, positioning the bow so it points straight at a tree. I pull my right hand back with his, pulling the arrow back.
"Are you ready?" I ask him.
It takes him a while to reply, and when he does, he sounds out of breath. "I'm fine, Katniss. You can let go."
So I do.
The arrow flies through the air, striking the tree exactly where I had envisioned it going. My ecstasy and small smile vanish instantly as Peeta slips from my grasp and hits the ground.
He is a crumpled ragdoll in the grass, and I throw myself down next to him, instantly checking his body for broken bones. I find various ribs are broken, as well as his wrist, which he had thrown out to soften the fall.
What scares me the most is that, when I place my hand on his neck to see if it's broken, I can't find a pulse.
"Peeta!" I shout, already moving him so he lays on his back. "Peeta!"
At the sound of my voice, he takes in a gasping breath, his eyes bulging open.
"Katniss…" he croaks, his hand shakily moving up to grab the hem of my shirt.
"Peeta….Peeta, what – this isn't –"
"I shot a bow," he whispers, looking up at me.
His breathing scares me. Short and rapid breaths.
And it hits me like the arrow that just struck the tree.
It's too soon! This can't happen yet! I gently wrap my arms around him, pulling him up to my chest. He winces in pain, but, for the first time in a long time, his eyes are shining.
"Hang on – I'll carry you back home. We'll get you help," I promise him, but as I move to stand, he just whimpers in pain, so I stop at once. "It'll be fine. You – you just hold on."
He blinks up at me. "They said this would happen. My lungs would collapse, my heart would stop, my brain would shut down. I know what's going on, Katniss."
"Don't – don't say that. That's not happening. Not yet." I turn my head to look behind me at the houses we have left behind. "We'll get you help, Peeta. You'll be fine…."
His whole body is going weak in my arms, and I hold him closer to avoid letting him fall again.
"We'll get you help," I repeat, and I look behind me again, raising my voice to shout. "Help! Someone, help! Someone's hurt, bring help, somebody!"
The only answer I get is silence, and I can feel my body tightening up with an all too familiar pain. I turn back to look at Peeta, and am shocked to find his eyes slowly drifting shut.
"Don't go. Not yet," I order him, leaning my head down closer to his. "Please. I need you to catch me. You're the only one who can catch me. If you, go, I'll fall. Peeta. Please don't - please – please…."
I can feel myself unraveling, my tears falling down my face and dropping onto his. He looks up at me under his eyelids, his body shaking violently and his breathing getting slower. I didn't expect this to happen so quickly. Two months seems too short to me now. In the end it would never be long enough.
I don't hesitate in pressing my lips to his, pulling him into the kiss. His lips are cold and trembling, and my only thoughts are to counter that. To make him warm again. To breathe life back into him. To keep him here for another day.
"You can't let me fall," I repeat as I pull away. I'm shaking now too, and can feel my grip sliding from his body.
Don't let me fall.
"You do love me." Peeta's voice is softer than the wind. "Real or not real?"
"Real. Always real," I reply instantly, my tears almost drowning out my words.
"Then let go, Katniss." Peeta's eyes are closed, and his whole body feels like a weight in my arms.
So I do. I settle him back on the grass, and watch him take his last breath.
I brush his hair from his forehead before leaning back, drawing my knees closer to my chest. I cry until I am forcedly removed from my spot. I tear at Haymitch's constricting grip, sobbing and screaming for the doctors to leave him be. But in the end I lose. In the end I am broken and falling apart, watching the boy with the bread disappear for the final time.
They bury him in the meadow with the rest. To me this is degrading to his memory. To them it is the highest honor.
It takes me awhile to understand and believe that he's gone. More than once I have caught myself asking for him, or saying, "Peeta would've never –" and then stopping myself with a chest constricting choke.
I don't think I ever really will accept that he is among the list of those I have lost. Only I didn't lose him to the war. Or the Games. I lost him in a way I couldn't control. I lost the boy with the bread to a disease he – and I – was powerless to.
He's always been the one who caught me when I fell. And then one time I tried to reciprocate, he still went down.
I don't know how I can ever forget that.
The only thing I can hope for now – the miniscule thing I have left to possibly hope for – is that no one will have to fall again.