A/N - Apologies on the delay here. Real life, and an Everlark Fic Exchange popped up. Thank you for your patience.
This chapter was written to I Will Wait, by Mumford and Sons. On repeat.
Their bodies collide into each other, and the point of a knife pierces flesh, slips through skin and blood. Mirroring flashes of pain cross their faces as they look down. Both knives have embedded themselves into their torsos, trails of scarlet making their way across their skin, through their clothes, dripping into the rocky ground below.
They both fall to their knees simultaneously, their eyes locked. I watch as Peeta opens his mouth to speak, but before he can, he falls forward onto his stomach, staring blindly at the rocks in front of him. He closes his eyes.
The entire forecourt in the centre of the Capitol is silent. No one moves a muscle, takes a breath, as we all stare at the screen.
My heart beats out of control and my head feels heavy as I wait for the boom of a cannon. I didn't expect it to come to this. I thought it would be obvious, a moment of clarity as relief lit the eyes of the victor. Instead, we wait, anxious and aching, for the end to come.
I feel Haymitch's hand rest lightly on my shoulder, and despite my instinctive urge to shrug it off, I let it stay. Effie is on the other side of him, her face pressed into his shoulder blade, as if she can't bear to watch. Even through my own haze, I'm a little surprised at her obvious and public show of emotion. Prim and proper Effie has disappeared, and in her place is someone normal. Someone real. Someone who cares.
A cannon finally, finally sounds, and I close my eyes. I wait for the next one, terrified they'll both die, and not knowing what the consequences to that are, but it never comes. The Capitol has their victor.
I can't watch the screen and I can barely stand to hear what words Claudius Templesmith will utter over the speakers that will abound throughout the arena, around the Capitol, over the broadcasts showing in every district in Panem. Blindly I reach up to my shoulder, gripping Haymitch's hand. He's the only one who has any idea how I'm feeling right now, any idea how fast my pulse is thrumming under my skin, or how my entire body feels like it's shaking from the inside out. The speakers finally crackle and hum, and a throat clears itself softly.
"Ladies and Gentlemen!" Claudius' voice booms out, loud and clear as a bell, as though he is right beside me. Everything we've done since the minute Effie uttered Peeta's name on Reaping Day comes down to this. "May we present to you the victor of the 74th Annual Hunger Games - Peeta Mellark!"
My eyes fly open as Effie suddenly flings herself into me, enveloping me in a sea of colour and fabric. I pat her arm gently, still a little wary of her overabundance of emotions, but looking up, I see the most genuine smile I've ever seen gracing her face. In that moment, I can see through the makeup. She's beautiful. And she's happy.
I never realised before now how sad she was.
Haymitch's grip on my shoulder tightens, and I turn from Effie's arms. "We did it, sweetheart," he says softly, his voice gruff and thick. And as he says this, it hits me that he's right.
We did it. Peeta is coming home.
I look up to the giant screen, ignoring the cheers abounding around me, the confetti raining from the sky. All I can see is Peeta's still prone body, the slight shifting of his torso as he breathes lightly. I've never been happier to see a hovercraft in my life as I do now, and I watch as the claw drops from the sky, gently cradling Peeta, and drawing him into the belly of the ship.
I shift my gaze to Haymitch, who seems just as focused on the screen as me. I tighten my grip on his hand, and his eyes lock with mine.
"What do we do now?" I ask.
"Well, we-" He cuts himself off and glances behind me, his eyes narrowing. He grabs my elbow before I can turn to see what he can, gently nudges Effie, and begins to lead us in the direction of the training centre. It's a slow process, as every person we pass wants to speak to us, wants to express their congratulations. I can feel frustration and annoyance growing, overwhelming the relief that had filled me the minute Peeta's name had been announced. My glares and mutters do nothing to halt his progress and finally I yank my arm away from him, placing my hands on my hips.
"Where are we going? What are we doing?" I demand, not caring that people are staring at me, that they're pausing in their celebrations to whisper about me. He rolls his eyes, and grabs my elbow again, although it's more of a drag than a lead this time. I plant my feet, trying to stop our momentum, not worrying that I'm banging into people as we pass, but he just keeps tugging and tugging until we're eventually inside the lobby and travelling back up the elevator.
"Haymitch, what the hell are we doing?" I'm angry now, and I just damn well wish he'd tell me rather than treating me like a child.
"What we have to do," he replies vaguely.
"Which is what?" I mutter through clenched teeth.
"Wait." I roll my eyes, but I know he's not going to give me anything more. Not right now.
The rest of the ride is silent, and any feelings of relief and euphoria have all but disappeared. Whatever Haymitch is holding onto has a sense of gravity that we're all aware of, whether he says it aloud or not.
It's frustrating. I want to be happy. I want to run out into the crowd and yell and scream that we did it. That we won. That we beat the Capitol. That I'm pretty sure I love Peeta Mellark.
But I can't. And I won't.
That's not the kind of person I am, and even if I was, now would not be the time to blatantly flaunt it in front of the Capitol.
The elevator doors slide open, and Haymitch immediately guides us towards the stairs that lead to the roof. Effie stumbles a little in her shoes on our way up, and I instinctively reach out and grab her hand to steady her. She squeezes my hand in what I assume is a show of comfort, before she quickly pulls it away. In the last twenty minutes, the Effie in front of me has become someone I don't recognise.
Haymitch pushes through the door at the top of the stairs, the brisk early morning air slapping at my cheeks. It's a little disorientating, knowing I watched Peeta only 20 minutes ago in an arena bathed with the glow of a late afternoon, only to be reminded of the falsity of it all when it's obvious it's really morning in Panem.
I move over to the ledge, looking down to where the citizens continue to dance and cheer over their latest victor. They've stayed up all night watching this, and none of them seem to be experiencing the overwhelming fatigue that is dragging at me. I wonder if they reacted like this to me last year, or whether the fact that Peeta is so damn likeable adds to their excitement. I feel Haymitch at my side.
"Was it like this for me?" I ask, unable to stop myself. He nods.
"They go apeshit every year, sweetheart, regardless of who wins. It's the same cycle. But the kid's interview will garner a lot of interest, a lot more than any I've seen in a while, I think."
"And that's what we have to talk about," I state. I know without a doubt it's what's bothering him, what's causing Effie to hover protectively beside us. He nods again, almost imperceptibly this time.
"We still have to play it carefully. Snow had men everywhere down there, watching us-"
"What the hell for?" I interrupt.
He raises an eyebrow. "Why do you think? But what we need to discuss, it couldn't be around them. The training centre is the one place I know we have access to where entry is restricted. Right now, we need that privacy, to talk about our plan for the next few days," he says bluntly, all business. "We'll be expected to go and visit Peeta in recovery, then depending on the level of his injuries, I'd say the victor ceremony will be in about two days. He'll have his final interview the following day, then we get released back to 12. This should be pretty familiar to you, sweetheart." I nod, but allow him to continue. This is his show for now. "You're going to have to pull off the performance of a lifetime during the next few days. I hope you're prepared."
I shrug. "What kind of performance do you mean? I did this all last year, I know what I'm doing. Everyone's going to be focused on Peeta, anyway."
Haymitch snorts. "You're kidding yourself. You're going to be pulled into this three ring circus just as much as you were last year. You're going to have to play the doting potential girlfriend to the hilt." I narrow my eyes at him, surprised at the depth of annoyance I feel at his implication.
"I'm won't have to act very hard. You know I have feelings for him. Snow already questioned me on this - I don't need it from you. Don't make this out to be something I won't be able to handle."
He shrugs his shoulders. "I know. I guess I just need to make sure you're completely aware of how important this is. Other than the few meetings with the gamemakers and the sponsors, you've managed to avoid the general Capitol population. They expect a show, so you're going to have to give it to them."
"We'll be fine. All that matters now is making sure Snow doesn't get his hands on Peeta. Or me." There's silence as Effie and Haymitch look at each other warily. It's the oddest thing, watching them communicate silently, until Effie finally gives him an encouraging nod.
"Yeah, about that, sweetheart…" he starts, then trails off, staring down at the ground. "We need to…talk about that a little more."
I look at him, confused. "About what?"
"What Haymitch is trying to say, Katniss, is that it's a good thing that you feel something for Peeta," Effie interjects, shooting Haymitch a look full of frustration. "Because you're going to have to make things a little more, well, let's just say official."
"What?" My mouth drops open.
Haymitch stuffs his hands in his pockets, and sighs. "What we mean, sweetheart, is that the Capitol is going to continue to be pissed with you. Going to continue to try and pull you into their web. That's not going to change, just because both you and the boy have given yourselves a reprieve with this love story stuff. So unless you spend the rest of your life together, you're going to leave yourself open to them. They don't forget easily, or quickly."
My mouth drops open. "But-but I thought you said this was what we could do to stop them. Why isn't it enough?"
"It was the first step. It just doesn't end there. That's why I didn't want to raise this until now. I know how you feel about that kind of stuff. We-" I raise a hand, stopping his words. As much as my head doesn't want to comprehend what they're saying, I can't avoid it. They don't need to say anything more. It's clear as day.
At 17, my life is being served to me on a silver platter. In the form of a wedding dress.
"We're going to have to get married," I whisper, and I know the colour has drained from my face. It doesn't matter that I have feelings for Peeta, that I think I love him. That, following his conversation with Hadley, it doesn't sound as much of an awful thing I once thought it might be. It doesn't matter that I've done all I possibly can to bring him home to us, to me.
All I know now is that my entire life is no longer my own choice. Someone else is dictating the terms. And neither Peeta nor I have a say in it.
"Pretty much," Haymitch nods, and I can see the sympathy in both his and Effie's eyes. Not sympathy that it's Peeta – really, how could anyone sympathise with me over him – but that my life is no longer mine.
None of us should be surprised. This all started the minute Peeta's name got called. The minute my name got called.
The minute a district rebelled, and children were thrust into a game of life and death.
I remember the words I uttered to Finnick the last time we spoke - "I will not let Snow do what he wants with me…I'll do everything in my power not to." - and I know that this is something I can do that is within my power, one of the very few things that are.
"Then I need to see him," I say bluntly. "We need to go to him. Now." Haymitch nods, and glances at Effie.
"Can you organise that?" he asks her.
"Of course, Haymitch, I'll see to it immediately," she replies primly, and the old Effie is back. All business. She moves towards the door, and I go to follow, but Haymitch grips my wrist slightly to halt my progress.
"I'm sorry," he says simply, and I shrug.
"Why? Anything is better than the alternative that they want for me. If this is what I have to do to avoid it, then I guess I'll do it. It's not the worst thing in the world, and we shouldn't act like it." We stand there in silence, a final moment between mentors.
"You know you've probably only fuelled the flames even more, right?" he finally says, and I nod.
"I'm their Girl on Fire, Haymitch. What more do they expect?"
It takes most of the day for Effie to organise us entry into the medical facility in the training centre, and we're only granted access as the afternoon begins to fade into night. We try to be as discreet as possible as we step out from the tribute elevator into the main lobby. The only people there are guards, their faces sober and free of any inflections. They don't care who we are. As long as we don't do anything we shouldn't, they'll ignore us.
We travel in the elevator that services the underground floors, and eventually reach the level where Peeta is being held. It's sterile and white, nothing but a wide room with a light blue couch lined against the wall, and a long plain corridor stretching before us. A pale yellow light emanates from the ceiling, and I remember it clearly from the first time I opened my eyes after I was pulled from the arena last year
Halfway down, a panel slides open, and a short man with a shock of magenta hair pokes his head out. The minute he sees us his eyes widen, and he stumbles out, hurrying towards us on stubby legs, his white lab coat flapping behind him.
"What are you doing here?" he hisses at me.
"What do you think?" I retort before Haymitch can stop me.
"You're not meant to be here," he hisses again, pushing a finger into my chest angrily. Haymitch grabs his arm by the wrist and flings it aside.
"Watch it buddy," he glowers, and Magenta Man has the decency to cower under the look Haymitch gives him. "Now stop being an asshole and tell us what you're talking about."
"President Snow has made it very clear that Miss Everdeen is not to see Mr Mellark until the victor ceremony."
"I bed your pardon, but Mentors are always allowed to visit the victor," Effie admonishes him, her gaze pointed.
"I have explicit instructions, Miss Trinket," he replies, only the faintest tremor in his voice."
"Well, I never," Effie exclaims. "I will not let this go lightly. Who are you? I demand to speak to your superior." I can see him draw his chest in, breathing deeply in frustration or anger, I can't tell.
"Dr Chiron. And I report directly to President Snow, so I suggest you take it up with him if you don't like the decision." He knows he has the upper hand now, and there's nothing we can do. I'm pissed – we all are – but Haymitch stands his ground.
"Well, you didn't say anything about me not being able to, Doc, so take me to him," he demands. Dr Chiron shrugs.
"You can see him – but he's still under sedation, recovering. You won't be able to speak to him."
"I just want to see him," Haymitch demands again, his voice hardening, and I know he's losing his patience. This guy should just be thankful Haymitch stopped drinking at about 3am, otherwise it would be pretty messy right now.
"Fine. You can come. These two," he points at Effie and I, "Need to stay here." Effie mutters under her breath about poor manners, but I just ignore him, throwing myself onto the blue couch. I don't particularly like being here anyway. It holds too many memories from last year, the tubes and wires sticking into my skin, the low hum of the machines that surrounded me, the silence of the avoxes as they became my only contact with the outside world.
I know exactly what Peeta is going through right now. And as much as I want to see him, need to see him, I know it won't make much of a difference whether I do or not.
But it's the fact that Snow wants to keep me from him until the ceremony that is infuriating. I know I can't let that show here – I'm not nearly as oblivious as I was before as to what lengths Snow will do to keep an eye on me. I'm confident that there would be discreet surveillance cameras throughout this facility, recording every word I utter, every expression that crosses my face.
I refuse to give him any more fuel to add to the fire.
"Don't let this bother you, dear," Effie says softly, sitting beside me carefully, expertly crossing her legs. "I'm sure it's just to ensure that we don't interrupt Peeta's recovery at all." I glance at her, frustration already bubbling at the back of my throat, but I know she's only saying what is expected of her to say. She knows as well as I do how careful we have to be.
"Yes, I know," I reply. "We have to make sure he has a quick recovery." She nods, and I can almost feel the approval emanating off her.
We sit in silence, Effie tapping away at a hand held computer, while I stare blankly into space. I can't help but think how the reactions are in our District right now. How happy everyone must be for Peeta. How comforting it is knowing that 12 will receive food packages for another year. How relieved Mr Mellark, and Peeta's brothers must be that he's coming home. I don't even consider his mother.
And then it hits me how awkward it's going to be to return home and face an entire district who are now fully invested in a relationship that's barely just begun. I shudder, knowing that I'm going to have to get used to this type of scrutiny, probably for the rest of my life.
Better than the alternative, better than the alternative. Peeta will always be better than the alternative.
Finally, Haymitch returns, his face drawn and tired. I open my mouth to question him, but he simply shakes his head and walks past us back to the elevator. We ride in silence up to the lobby, then on the tribute elevator to the penthouse. Haymitch walks straight to the buffet, grabs the largest crystal decanter he can lay his hands on and goes to his room, slamming the door behind him.
Effie and I look at each other in shock.
"Did he do this last year?" I whisper, and she shakes her head.
"No. Let me speak to him."
"Shouldn't we leave him alone?" I ask.
"No," she replies firmly. She moves down the hall, her stride purposeful, and I watch as she barges through the door, unannounced.
I guess sometimes, manners just aren't required.
The door slams behind her, and I hear faint mutterings, murmurings. A silence, followed by a loud shout.
"Just leave me the fuck alone, Effie!"
And I can't deal with that. The only person I know, without a doubt that I can speak to and who would understand, doesn't want to speak to anyone.
I head for my room, and curl up on my side on the bed, holding back the sobs that have settled in my chest and threaten to burst forth. Whatever happened when Haymitch saw Peeta wasn't good. It can't be, not to garner that kind of reaction. I close my eyes, willing the tears pricking at my eyes to subside.
I must fall asleep, because I open my eyes to a hand gently stroking my hair and the sky outside the window black as ink, broken only by a smattering of stars. I half turn to see Cinna sitting on the edge of the armchair he'd dragged over from the corner, his hand shifting through the knotted strands of my hair. His eyes are tired, but they're the friendliest thing I've seen in a long time.
"Hello, Katniss," he says softly, and drops his hand so it falls to the mattress. Unbidden, I reach out my own, curling my fingers with his. Cinna is one of the few people in this world who I can be myself around, so I don't stop the tear that tracks down my cheek. He sighs. "Don't cry. Peeta's fine."
"How do you know?" I whisper softly. He reaches his free hand up, and rubs his eyes.
"Because I've been working non-stop on his outfit for the ceremony. And I wouldn't be doing that if he wasn't." What he says makes sense, and the peace that envelops me is staggering. I nod slightly, so he knows I understand.
"How long was I asleep?" I ask, coughing slightly to clear my throat.
"About 3 hours." My eyes pop – it's the longest I can remember sleeping in one, uninterrupted session. "I came in, and you were completely out. I'd say you needed it." I slowly sit up and take a deep breath.
"How's Haymitch?" I ask. A slight grin crosses Cinna's face.
"Ah…well, Effie certainly laid into him. But I think whatever they argued about has been sorted. Neither mentioned what it was about, and Portia and I didn't want to ask."
"It was about Peeta," I say simply, and he nods. "Do you know anything about his condition?"
"No. All I know is that he'll be there for the ceremony."
I roll my shoulders, trying to work out the stiffness that has settled in them. "Do you know when that is yet?"
"Two days. I've already got your outfit planned."
"I don't have to try it on, do I?"
"No," he smiles. "It will fit you perfectly. But I do know the prep team will want to spend some time with you." I shrug my shoulders, resigned to the fact that I'm going to experience just a little more pain before this is over. I can see Cinna studying me carefully, and I catch his eye.
"What?" I ask.
"Haymitch told you, didn't he?" He says softly, almost so softly I'm not even sure he's spoken. But I can see the same sympathy in his eyes that I saw in Haymitch and Effie's, so I know he did. What surprises me is that it's almost overshadowed by something else.
Hope. Hope for what, I don't know.
"Yes, he did." There's nothing else I can say. Not while we're in here. He nods, and rises to his feet.
"Try and rest more, Katniss. I'll see you in the morning." I watch as he crosses to the door and moves out into the hallway, leaving me alone, to do nothing but wait.
The next two days drag. Haymitch visits Peeta, and reports little. While he's back to his usual sarcastic self, there's a sadness that surrounds Haymitch that I haven't felt before. I try not to think about it, try not to let my thoughts wander to whatever it may be that has affected him so much. I spend the obligatory time with my prep team, but hardly interact with them, with their constant, shallow but good-hearted, chattering. The remainder of my hours are filled with nothing but my own thoughts. My focus is on Peeta, and what happens from now on.
The afternoon of the victor ceremony eventually arrives, and I'm alone with Cinna again as he puts the finishing touches on my outfit. He's avoided red and orange and pink and yellow for me this time. Instead, he's selected a blue reminiscent of the ocean in District 4 that shimmers and almost looks alive when I turn from side to side. It's deceptively simple – a fitted bodice with thin straps that crossover my shoulder blades, its skirt falling from my waist to my ankles in a wispy, floaty layer. Blue fire, he calls it, and I don't argue. My hair is down, pinned so that it tumbles over my left shoulder in waves. My make-up is light and basic. When I turn to study myself in the mirror I look romantic and sweet. In reality, I'm neither of those, but Cinna knows what he's doing. He always does.
We're quiet, but it's not uncomfortable. It's necessary, I think, because I'm not sure I could hold a conversation right now. I have too many thoughts in my head, too many things to worry about. A 3 hour re-cap to dread. I don't speak much at all, even when Effie bustles in, and Haymitch follows, rolling his eyes, and tugging awkwardly at the jacket he's been dressed in. They chat around me, speaking about nonsensical things that I pay no attention to. Cinna starts to leave to prepare Peeta, and as he goes, he wraps me in a hug, tighter I think than any he's given me previously.
"I'm still betting you, girl on fire. Always," he whispers in my ear, and I smile as best as I can before he walks out the door. Effie, Haymitch and I look at each other warily, and he tips his head towards the bathroom. Effie and I dutifully follow him in, turning on all the taps in the sink and shower as soon as we're in there. He sighs, and scratches at his head.
"Ok, I know we all know what needs to happen from here on out. But the kid doesn't. I haven't been able to say anything to him while he's been in the medical bay. But he's clever at expressing himself. As long as he's aware that you have feelings for him, sweetheart, I really don't think he needs to know the rest just yet. He doesn't need coaching in how to act. He'll be fine. Do you agree?" Both Effie and I nod. I can't see a better alternative. "Good. We'll tell him everything once we arrive back in 12 and have more privacy. It's not like he needs any more surprises at this stage."
I frown at him. "What do you mean by surprises, Haymitch? I'm sick of being left in the dark about whatever you're holding out on me." He shakes his head.
"You'll see, sweetheart, you'll see. Now let's go. I don't want to draw this shit out any longer than we have to."
The prep team goes first, the cheers deafening even from backstage. Effie follows, and I can only imagine the smile that's gracing her face. Ultimately, she's from the Capitol, and I can't forget the acknowledgement she would be receiving right now for having two victors two years in a row, would be feeding whatever ego she has.
Cinna is next, and as I know he downright refused to appear without Portia, she steps out with him. I haven't seen much of her at all since Hadley died, and in the brief moments I saw her as we waited to appear onstage, I know she hasn't been sleeping very well. Two years in a row she has had a tribute die, while Cinna's has come out of the arena Victor. She knows heartache that he doesn't completely understand yet.
Finally, it's time for Haymitch and I to make our entrance. I desperately want to grip onto his hand, hold onto it tightly but I know I can't. I need to look, act, feel strong in front of the Capitol, in front of Snow.
The crowd is a mass of blurred faces, and the auditorium is filled with a cacophony of sounds. It's deafening, and slightly terrifying. I hate crowds, hate the attention, hate everyone looking at me. But I smile, and nod, and wave, and shake hands with Caesar, acknowledging when he says how happy he is to see me. The applause and shouting and cheering doesn't abate for a good 5 minutes, for all of which I just want to slink off the stage to my seat and wait for Peeta to appear.
Caesar lets us go, and we take our seats in the front row, in between Effie and Cinna. I try to concentrate on Caesar's words as he speaks warmly of Peeta, of his triumph in the arena, but his words mean nothing. My eyes are fixed firmly in the middle of the stage, where I know the platform will rise with Peeta standing on it. And when it finally does, my heart stops.
He looks beautiful. He looks perfect. He looks….uninjured.
His blonde hair is casually styled, with one errant wave that insists on falling onto his forehead. Cinna has dressed him in a simple black suit, cut to fit him perfectly, highlighting his broad shoulders while also cleverly hiding the fact Peeta has lost a lot of mass in the arena. The only hint of colour in his entire outfit is the gleaming Mockingjay pin on his lapel, and his tie.
It matches my dress.
I glance at Haymitch, but his eyes are trained forward, so I look back at Peeta, watching as he makes his way towards Caesar. He has a slight limp, and uses a cane to assist him, but that makes sense, with the extent of his leg injury. Even after two days in a Capitol medical facility, it doesn't surprise me that it hasn't entirely healed yet. He clasps hands with Caesar, who raises their arms in victory, only causing the crowds cheers to grow louder and wilder. Peeta smiles, though he can't wave, with one hand caught in Caesar's, and the other gripping tightly to the cane. He's working the crowd perfectly, moving his gaze around, sharing his smile so that every single person in the audience thinks he's aiming it at them. And then he looks down at us, at his team, and our eyes lock.
I hear nothing, see nothing, except for him. And I don't even think about what I do next.
I pull myself out of my seat, vaguely hearing Haymitch mutter my name, but I don't care. I scramble up the stairs, thankful Cinna put me in those ballet slippers again and practically run across the stage. Caesar looks like he's ready to die of excitement, while Peeta's eyes widen in shock, then surprise. And then he smiles again and takes a step towards me. I fling myself into his arms, and I feel one of them band around my waist tightly, drawing me in. He lowers his head, and buries his face into the crook of my neck. He breathes deeply, and I can feel the hitch in his chest. I pull my head back slightly, lifting a hand up to his face and sliding it into his hair.
"Hi," I whisper.
"Hi," he whispers back. "That was quite something." I smile slightly, despite the embarrassment that is starting to seep in, causing a blush to sweep across my cheeks. The sounds of the crowd are now beginning to penetrate again, and they're wild, out of control.
"I, uh…..I missed you," I tell him, and he smiles again.
"I missed you too." I ignore Caesar, who's calling for us to kiss, and ignore the crowd, who are echoing his sentiments.
"I should leave you to your adoring fans," I whisper again, going to pull away. He stops me, gripping my wrist tightly.
"Stay with me?" he asks imploringly, and I can't say no to him. I know exactly how he's feeling right now. So I have no right to deny him.
"Always," I reply, and squeeze his hand.
Peeta's request for me to stay on stage causes a slight ruckus, but they're not going to deny a Victor such a simple request at such an important time. A small red couch is produced, and the victor throne promptly removed. I sit beside Peeta and hold his hand the entire duration of the three hour recap, feeling the spasms in his hand each time he sees Hadley, and any of his fights with the tributes. His face is stoic, but his eyes betray the misery, anger and sadness I know he's feeling on the inside. Occasionally I glance down at Haymitch, and I see a begrudging look of respect on his face every time we lock eyes. I'm probably playing this better than he ever wanted me to do.
I hate to break it to him that it's hardly an act.
Caesar plaintively asks for a kiss – again – to round up the ceremony, but Peeta denies him, simply saying some things are meant to be private. I couldn't agree more.
We're finally released backstage, where Peeta is congratulated by the prep team on such a wonderful victory ceremony. Haymitch rolls his eyes at their ramblings, and grips my elbow, pulling me into a hug.
"What the hell was that?" he hisses in my ear.
"I didn't think," I reply quietly. "But I don't regret it." He sighs, and pulls away, studying me carefully.
"No, I don't suppose you do," he says simply.
We're whisked away quickly to President Snow's mansion for the gala dinner, and hours fly by without me being able to speak to Peeta. He's bandied around from sponsor to sponsor, citizen to citizen, by an over-zealous Effie who is playing her public escort role to the hilt. I sit, and wait, not in the mood to socialise, not in the mood to speak to people I don't care about. Of course, this doesn't prevent them from seeking me out, and it's no surprise when the seat next to me is pulled away from the table, and Snow sits down next to me, calmly smoothing the seams on his pants before he looks at me.
"Another interesting performance by you, Miss Everdeen," he starts, and I fight the urge to snap back.
"I was thrilled to see Peeta, seeing as I haven't been allowed to," I reply calmly but pointedly. He chortles.
"Ah yes. Well, I must be indulged sometimes, and I thought it best you wait and see Mr Mellark for the first time at his…finest."
"Excuse me?" I ask, sure this is relevant to whatever Haymitch has been keeping from me. Snow's eyebrows raise, surprised, and he laughs again.
"Well, well. It seems our mentors aren't being very honest with each other." I shrug, refusing to give in to his taunts. "I think I'll leave it as a surprise. Surprises are such fun, don't you think?" He rises, making as if to leave, but he leans down close to my ear, his voice bitter and angry. "Don't think this is the last of it, Miss Everdeen. I've been doing this for a very long time, and I always win." I glance back at him as he stands, and I catch sight of Peeta not ten metres away, watching us carefully.
"We'll see, President Snow, we'll see. As you said, surprises are such fun. It's been a pleasure," I retort, and stand, brushing him aside, and heading straight for Peeta. I grasp his hand, and move for the exit, not bothering to look back towards Snow.
"Katniss, where are we going?" Peeta asks, stumbling a little behind me. I slow, turning to him and placing a small kiss on his cheek.
"President Snow gave us permission to leave," I reply, though he said no such thing. "Let's go back to the Penthouse. There's some things we need to talk about." He looks surprised, but nods. I catch sight of Haymitch speaking to Finnick just as we walk out, and both their heads dip in unison, in what I can only take as a show of approval.
Our ride back to the training centre is quiet. The town car drives quickly, and smoothly, but we do nothing but link our fingers together, staring out the windows on either side of us. The elevator ride is the same, and once there, I lead Peeta up the rooftop stairs, not allowing him the chance to glance around the quarters he occupied before the arena. I push open the door, leading him into the cool, late night air, and lean against the ledge, breathing in the scent of lavender. I can also smell rain in the distance, and it's fresh and comforting.
The weather is another thing the Capitol can't control, and it's something I hold on to. They can't control everything, no matter how much they want to.
I hear a throat clear, and turn to see Peeta staring at me. I blush, because I don't think I will ever fully understand why he looks at me the way he does.
"I told you you were the first person I was going to come looking for when I got out," he starts, taking a step forward, and standing beside me against the ledge. I nod. "But you beat me to it tonight. I didn't even have to look for you. You were already there." I nod again, feeling my heart thud against my ribs. He's close, so close I can smell him, and he just smells so much like Peeta. He rests his cane against the ledge and brushes a stray hair off my forehead, leaving his hand resting against my cheek; I lean into it.
"I had to be there," I say softly, and he smiles again. Being married to a man with that kind of smile is not going to be a hardship.
"And why is that?" He asks, although he must already know the answer. Surely by now, he would know I'm never that demonstrative, never that open in public.
"Because," I reply, shrugging, and I know I sound like a petulant child.
"Because you missed me?"
"Because you like me?"
"Yeah." He falls silent, and I look into his face, seeing the happiness there at my words. And I can't hold back any more. I slide my arms up and around his neck, drawing his body to mine, and press my lips to his softly, gently. I'm not well practiced with kissing – my first and only was the one he'd planted on me the night before the games – so I'm not entirely sure how to take charge here. But he responds quickly, and eagerly, and he slides his hand up into my hair, cupping the nape of my neck and pulling me even closer to him. His lips are soft, and gentle, and a slight moan escapes me as he deepens the kiss, sliding his tongue along my bottom lip and gripping my hip tightly with his other hand. I wonder how I ever lasted without this knowledge, this feeling, him, in my life. I shift closer, tucking my foot in between both of his, my knee bumping against his. And I know.
I pull back abruptly, my hands still splayed against the back of his neck, my eyes wide. And he averts his gaze.
"Peeta – what….." I trail off, and lean down, slowly drawing up his left pant leg. It's metal and plastic, not flesh and bone. They amputated his leg.
This is what Haymitch has been keeping from me.
My eyes fill with tears, but I straighten again, to see Peeta regarding me carefully.
"I lost it," he says simply, and I lean forward, burying my head in his chest. I try to hold the tears back, but I can't, and they steadily drip onto his shirt. His arm hesitantly rests on the small of my back, and I grip the front of his shirt tightly in my fists, cursing the Capitol.
They can do anything. They can remove my flaws, dye peoples skin, keep them young, younger than they could ever dream to be.
But they can't save a damned leg.
I raise my eyes to Peeta's again, and I can see the wariness in his eyes. I shake my head, and place my hands on either side of his face.
"It doesn't matter, Peeta," I tell him quietly. "It doesn't change who you are." I smile at him, and gently brush my fingers across the mockingjay pin. "You told me, before you went into the arena, that when you came out you would try and convince me that I love you." He blushes at this, but I won't let him look away. "You don't have to try and convince me, Peeta." I lean forward, gently kissing him again, pouring everything I have into the kiss, knowing that this is something the Capitol can't stop either. He pulls back slightly, his eyes full of hope, full of light, full of love.
"I love you, Katniss Everdeen," he says softly, and I can feel the muscle in his jaw spasm as he says it. I lean forward.
"I love you too, Peeta Mellark," I whisper in his ear.
I can feel Snows' eyes boring a hole in the back of my head, and I ignore every instinct in my body that tells me not to turn around, to keep my attention focused on Peeta and the path leading us to the train.
So of course, I slowly turn, in the guise of waving to the crowd again, and immediately lock eyes with him. They're bitter, beady, almost black with hatred.
Two years in a row, I've made him feel like a fool. And nothing - or no one - ever makes Coriolanus Snow out to be a fool and gets away with it.
I give him no recognition, and turn back, taking the final few steps towards the entrance to the train. We climb inside, not caring of the luxury around us. It holds no meaning, no purpose, no fulfilment to us.
We stand in front of a large window, the glass having been retracted into the ceiling, to wave our final goodbyes to the Capitol citizens.
Farewell and good riddance, I think to myself.
Peeta and I stand in the center, Effie to my left and Haymitch on Peeta's right. I feel Peeta's arm snake around my waist, pulling me against him, and I rest my head on his shoulder. It's warm, it's comfort. It's another reminder that whatever kind of predicament we've gotten ourselves into, it's nothing compared to what some of the other victors have experienced. Because what will happen for us, I know would have happened all along.
When we get home, I'll tell him what we have to do. What I want to do. And then Snow will need to think of a different way to punish us.
As the train pulls out, I continue to feel Snows' eyes trained on me, and I know he's already thinking.
When he's done, ready to try whatever he can to ruin us, we'll be waiting.
Peeta and I.
A/N - Thank you to all of you who have favourited, followed or reviewed this story. It's a little bittersweet to let it go, but I hope you enjoyed this final chapter of Stacked Odds.
A special thank you to those people who have helped me prior to the posting of chapters. Love you all.