NOTES: So, in my original outline, there was kissing at the end of last chapter. But that . . . didn't work out, obviously. (Probably for the best; it belatedly occurred to me that this would not have been the first time I'd used emotional trauma and throwing up in a bathroom as a relationship catalyst in a fanfic. Which is a little disturbing.) It just didn't feel right, yet. Like, I totally understand now why it took a couple of arena fights to the death to get these two together in the series.

But that means that the rest of my outline needed (needs, still) a lot of tinkering. And it's taking awhile. So I guess what I'm trying to say is: Thanks for your patience! I'll be continuing to test it. But I promise not to just leave the story hanging indefinitely. :)


CHAPTER TWENTY-TWO

The next morning I am, for the very first time in my life, hung over.

I drag myself up and out to catch the bus anyway, and get to school only a couple minutes late. The front doors are opened, and Peeta's already sitting in the usual row of the auditorium when I stumble in.

He glances at me with sympathy as I drop down into the seat next to him—it's not like the remnants of my hangover are subtle—and passes me a glazed roll. I accept it without a fuss, and take a bite. The inside is still slightly warm and gooey and bright with cinnamon. I give Peeta a thumbs up, and he grins.

There's something different about the way we are with each other this morning. I'd thought I'd be awkward, after the things I said to him last night, and what he saw, but I feel . . . more comfortable. Maybe because, even with everything that happened yesterday, he's not acting any differently.

"I've got pain killers if you need them," he says, voice carefully soft, and I shake my head before I remember how risky an idea that is. It doesn't hurt as bad as it would have an hour ago.

"Took some before I left home," I say. Prim's been taking them; our mother brought them home from work that week, and I'd swallowed two this morning along with my guilt. "But, uh—thanks."

When Ms. Trinket sings out, "Good morning!" from the door by the stage, I wince. Too loud. And then when the spotlight comes up on the stage, I have to bite the inside of my cheek to keep from whimpering.

"For fuck's sake, Effie," Haymitch bitches as he passes us. The way he's moving, it looks like he's in worse shape than I am. "Turn the lamps down a few before all our retinas burn off. We're not trying to blind the two of 'em."

Haymitch, I note with both jealousy and irritation, is wearing sunglasses.

When he gets to the stage, he glances back at us, then lifts his sunglasses up a little and squints. I can see the bags under his eyes, bloodshot as usual, from here. "Everdeen, you look like shit," he says frankly.

It actually hurts to glare. "Good to see you too," I mutter instead, sliding down a little in my seat. Peeta pats my hand.

The day's task is a test. On the one hand, at least it means a lot of quiet. On the other, it means I have to at least try to focus. Ms. Trinket hands us each a booklet, a scantron sheet, and two number 2 pencils, and sends us to opposite sides of the auditorium. It seems a little like overkill; two seats would have been enough to prevent cheating.

We have forty-five minutes to answer all the questions. They aren't mindless, but they also aren't as hard as I would have expected, for a competition: typical end of grade stuff, reading comprehension, basic math, though there are plenty of questions in the latter I don't understand, and a few in the former probably get wrong.

Ms. Trinket collects our scantron sheets at the end and takes them to the office to run them through the school's scantron machine, leaving Haymitch to talk to us about good study habits. But Haymitch just digs a flask out of his pocket, takes a swallow, then leans back against the stage, eyes already closed.

It seems like a pretty good idea to me, and I'm about to do the same when Peeta asks, cautiously, "Are you okay?"

Haymitch snorts, not even bothering to open his eyes. "I'm fine. Or did you want to listen to a lecture on good study habits?"

"No," I say quickly.

"But—" Peeta says.

"The academic component is bullshit," Haymitch says.

Which is pretty much what I'd assumed from the start, but Peeta seems irritated. "Ms. Trinket said our scores mattered."

"Sure they do," Haymitch says. "But all you have to do is hit the minimum score requirement. And since neither of you are as dumb as you look, just don't fall asleep or start filling in random answers, and you'll be fine."

Peeta's brow, I notice, is furrowed. He doesn't look upset exactly. Just thoughtful. "So this competition is kind of one big lie," he says, and Haymitch opens his eyes long enough to shoot a finger gun at Peeta and say, "Bingo."

"So what should we be doing until Ms. Trinket comes back?" Peeta asks, when Haymitch doesn't continue

"Braid each other's hair, what do I care?" Haymitch says. "Just stop talking to me."

Peeta does, for few minutes. Honestly, I'm grateful; my head isn't pounding the way it was earlier, but I still feel worn out and fragile—from the week, if not from the alcohol. I follow Haymitch's lead and close my eyes, curling up best I can in the hard auditorium seat.

I'm almost asleep, actually, when Peeta asks, quietly, "Is it all rigged?"

Haymitch growls, "Did you not hear what I said about talking?"

"I heard," Peeta says. "Is the competition rigged?"

"The whole fucking world is rigged," Haymitch snaps. "Now shut up and leave me alone or I will give you a lecture on study habits."

Peeta's quiet again after that. Thinking about what Haymitch said, I guess. The idea that the world is rigged is not exactly a new one for me, so I just close my eyes again to wait for Ms. Trinket's return.

When Ms. Trinket does come back, she's beaming. "This is a wonderful start," she tells us cheerily as she toddles down the aisle. "Wonderful, wonderful. An excellent base on which to build!"

She hands us each a set of papers stapled together. Mine is thicker than Peeta's.

"What are these?" I ask.

"Why, your individualized study guides, of course! I'm sure Haymitch mentioned them."

I look at Haymitch. He's grinning; it's even creepier with his eyes shut. He could at least have told us what Ms. Trinket was expecting us to know.

Ms. Trinket hasn't stopped talking. "I've used the practice test to isolate your strengths and weakness, and these guides will help you refine the first while shoring up the latter in time for the official test. They're also an excellent way to prepare for the SATs!"

Of course they are. At least that means they won't be a total waste of time, I guess—presuming Haymitch was telling the truth about not having to do more than pass the pageant's test. I just don't know when I'll be able to fit more studying in. Grudgingly, I fold the pages up and stick them in my bag and brace myself for whatever else Ms. Trinket has to say.

/

When we're finally released, Peeta offers me a ride into town like usual, but I turn him down. I need to go home to sleep for a few more hours before work. And I want to spend some time with Prim.

Peeta and I walk out together anyway; I head for the bus stop and Peeta just . . . comes with me. Convincing him not to doesn't seem worth the energy, and he's not trying to talk to me. He just seems to want to be there. So I let him.

Probably it's the hangover, but being here felt even more pointless than usual. Study guides for a test that didn't really matter. Two-plus hours I could have been sleeping, or studying for a test that did matter. Two hours I could have spent with Prim.

"Why are you doing this?" I ask him abruptly as we reach the bus stop. "Not—walking. I mean the whole pageant thing."

Peeta shrugs. "To avoid suspension?"

"No, seriously," I say.

"You really want me to answer that?" he asks, glancing at me with a strangely wistful-looking smile.

I frown. "I asked, didn't I?"

"Well. You," he says.

The casualness of the answer feels nervous and forced, and I stare at my hands. Right. I'd almost managed to forget.

"Sorry," he says softly, when I don't say anything.

I shake my head. "No I asked. It's—that's fine."

Part of me, I'm ashamed to admit, wants to know more. Wants to know why I'd be a reason for anything. Wants to know if he thinks it was worth it, giving up all those Wednesdays and Saturdays.

"What about you?" Peeta asks, startling me.

"What?"

"Why are you doing it?"

Prim, I almost say without thinking. For Prim. For her to go to college, and become a doctor, and help people. Because it's what she wants.

But I can't imagine Prim going to college now. Not if the biopsy comes back positive. $50,000? It would have been enough to send her to school—maybe a good one, with enough financial aid—but if the biopsy comes back positive . . .

All that money sounded like so much a few weeks ago. So much possibility. Now I'm remembering how much just a normal doctor's visit costs. How many of Prim's medical bills would $50,000 cover? Would it even make a dent?

All of a sudden, getting that $50,000 feels important—really, actually, incredibly important. I am hyper aware of the study booklets in my bag. I need to start taking this seriously.

"For the money," I say finally, grimly. Thankfully, Peeta doesn't ask me to say any more. He just gives me a soft smile, and tells me, before he goes, that he'll see me on Monday.