XIII. Love is not a victory march

Peeta couldn't get Haymitch alone again until the next day before his last interview with Caesar; the man had done everything in his power to avoid him, but Peeta finally tracked him down.

"I need to talk to you," Peeta started, but Haymitch was already shaking his head.

"Save it for Caesar. You're gonna need to do a lot of talking then."

"But Caesar can't answer my questions," Peeta said firmly, grabbing Haymitch's arm before he could turn away. Haymitch almost growled, stepping close to Peeta.

"Boy, I really think you want to wait to talk to me after you've done your interview," he warned, but Peeta wasn't going to relent. He released Haymitch's arm but fixed him with a steely gaze.

"No, I want to know what I'm walking into. I'm not stupid. If you want me to go along with whatever plan you've concocted, you need to tell me exactly what plan I'm agreeing to."

Running a hand through his disheveled hair, Haymitch sighed and didn't say anything for a moment. "Well? Ask me," he said tiredly.

At that moment, Peeta was almost too scared to ask, not sure he wanted to hear the answer, the truth. "Did you make Katniss tell the story about the bread?"

"I didn't make your girl do anything—"

"But did you?" Peeta interrupted.

He sighed again. "I told her if she wanted to help save you, she needed to talk about the bread."

Peeta blinked, letting the information sink in. "So...you told her to say all that. Everything in that interview..."

Haymitch scoffed. "Don't get it twisted. I nudged her. The rest she did on her own. The things she said, and, even before that, at the reaping and the Justice Building, that was her."

His words were of little comfort. "But you forced her hand. She never would have...I mean, that story about the bread...she felt obligated to me. This isn't some grand love story. She did what she did because she felt like she owed me or something. Now the Capitol expects some kind of epic romance between the two of us, and she's caught in the middle. They've forced us together! This is exactly what I didn't want, Haymitch!"

He didn't know why he was so upset. Having Katniss was all he had wanted for years, but now it was tainted. Everything was all wrong.

Haymitch sneered at him in disdain. "I'm fairly certain you also didn't want to die, kid, and I did what I had to in order to save you. That's my job. Hell, I thought you'd be a little more grateful."

Peeta was incredulous. "Grateful? You went against my wishes—"

"I saved your life, and I delivered you home safely into the waiting arms of the girl you have wanted since you were 5. I thought I was giving you everything you wanted," he said snidely.

Peeta just shook his head. "Not like this. I wanted it to be real. I wanted—I wanted her to actually want me, not be with me because the Capitol wants us to be."

"And I'm so incredibly sorry for you that now you're going to have to spend the rest of your life with the girl you love," Haymitch said bitingly, and Peeta clamped his mouth shut. "Look, kid, I can guarantee you this isn't even the worst thing that's probably going to happen to you. It was your shitty luck that your name was drawn, and now, having survived, I doubt your luck is going to get much better. Your fake romance with Katniss might be the only thing that saves you."

His eyes widened. "What?"

Haymitch snorted derisively. "I told you you weren't making any friends here. The things you said and did in the arena...you've made people like Snow very unhappy. You've bucked the system."

"What do you mean?"

"You made people give a damn, kid. They cried when you cried; they raged when you raged; they hoped when you hoped. And worst of all, you made them question things that should never be questioned."

Peeta was speechless, but Haymitch didn't wait for a response. "From here on out, you need to keep your head down. Or I guarantee you, Snow will make you and the people you love regret it. So keep that in mind when you're talking to Caesar."

Clapping him on the back, Haymitch slinked off and left Peeta to ruminate on his words, stunned. He didn't have long to think, however, because Caesar appeared on set, fresh from his dressing room. He greeted Peeta warmly.

"Peeta, my boy, think you can put up with me for one more hour?"

Peeta grinned automatically, shaking the man's hand. "I can't think of anywhere else I'd rather be right now, Caesar." Caesar laughed and led him to his seat. Getting comfortable, Peeta put aside his conversation with Haymitch and prepared himself to sell the contrived love story they all craved.

The producer gave them the signal, and Peeta smiled as Caesar welcomed him back. "As we saw yesterday, your time in the arena was a pretty harrowing journey from the moment you stepped off that platform until the moment they lifted you out of the arena, and to be frank, at that moment, a lot of us weren't even sure how your journey was going to end," Caesar said, his tone serious.

Peeta nodded, a somber smile on his face. "It was definitely touch and go at the end there. At least, that's what I've been told."

"And your leg?"

Peeta tapped his cane to the shin of his prosthetic, making the metal clang. "Brand new."

"Well, I think we all realized early on you were a fighter. We knew a little thing like a missing leg wasn't going to stop you!" Caesar joked, patting Peeta's hand comfortingly, and Peeta nodded his agreement. "Speaking of which, you turned out to be quite the fighter. I think you held back on us prior to the games!"

Peeta shrugged modestly. "I couldn't give it all away up front, could I?"

Grinning, Caesar nodded, and then he leaned forward conspiratorially. "Did you know your list of personal kills was higher than even Cato's?"

That he was not expecting. "Wh...what?"

"You killed five tributes! I think you surprised us all," Caesar continued, oblivious to how pale Peeta's face had gone. "Who would have thought a tribute from District 12 would be such a force to reckon with?"

Peeta didn't know what to say to that, at least not something that wouldn't further endanger his life with President Snow. "Yeah...I think I surprised even myself," he said weakly, staring at his hands in his lap. Hands that had killed.

"Maybe you fought so hard because you had someone to fight for?" Caesar offered helpfully, a small smile playing on his lips, and Peeta braced himself for the conversation. Although he dreaded it, he knew it was a topic he could handle better than the one of the atrocities he had committed.

"Yeah, the thought of her kept me going. I just...wanted to make it out of there so I could at least see her one last time," Peeta said softly.

"And 'her' is Katniss Everdeen?" Caesar asked, and Peeta nodded in confirmation. "I have to tell you, the story about the bread—that was the most touching story I have ever heard, and I venture that most viewers agree. I know I shed a tear or two after hearing it. Tell me, what did you think when you got that parachute with the bread and the dandelions?"

Sitting up straighter, Peeta smoothed his palms over his pants nervously. Haymitch's words repeated themselves in his head. "Well, I...I wasn't in a good place at that moment, and I really didn't think I could go on. I didn't care about anything anymore, to be honest. But when I saw that dandelion, I had hope. I had a purpose. And that was to return home to her."

Caesar seemed touched. "The last we time talked, you said you two weren't an item. But it certainly seemed like she just might feel the same way you do. Do you think you two might reconnect when you go back?"

Peeta blushed, but his stomach twisted painfully. "If she'll have me. I can only hope I've done enough to deserve her," he said timidly. But the smile felt odd on his face, and he wanted to scream. It wasn't fair.

"Believe me, I speak for everyone when I say, we all think you have," Caesar said sincerely, touching his hand gently. "And I think if she were here, Rue would agree too."

His words felt like a punch to the gut, but somehow, Peeta managed to keep the tight smile on his face. "I hope, wherever she is now, I've managed to make her proud of me in some small way," he said stiffly, and Caesar used the opportunity to talk about Rue and Peeta's other heroic actions during the games. But Peeta had already checked out mentally. Smiling and nodding and responding appropriately. He barely registered when the interview ended, and by the time he was on the train, his cheeks hurt from the strain of smiling so widely at all the people who repeatedly stopped him to congratulate him on his way to the station. He wanted to scream at them to leave him alone, but he knew he couldn't. When he finally made it to his room on the train, he felt like he couldn't breathe. He yanked his tie loose and unbuttoned his collar, his chest constricting with his pained, shallow gasps. He was hyperventilating, he realized, and he wished he could open a window or step outside into the fresh air, but he didn't want anyone to see him breaking down. So he sat down on the edge of his bed and forced himself to take deep, even breaths through his nose. He could tell when they had left the station, the train barreling its way toward home.

Home. He was going home. The thought of seeing his family again calmed him somewhat, but doubts lingered in his mind about how everyone there, even his family and his friends, would receive him once he returned. Would they be happy to have him back, or would they reject him as just another Capitol creation, left to rot alone in the Victor's Village like Haymitch? He didn't know if he could bear it.

It took a while for his breathing to slow and his heart rate to drop, but when he finally had it under control, he dropped his head to his hands and stayed there until Effie came to get him for dinner.

As the train pulled up to the station in District 12, Peeta could see the throngs of people and cameras awaiting his arrival. He swallowed nervously, fidgeting with the buttons on his suit jacket. He jumped when Haymitch put a hand on his shoulder, and he glanced over at him.

"Try to relax, kid," Haymitch drawled with a hint of a smile, swirling the ice cubes around in his glass. "Everyone loves a victor. Well, until they don't. But you've still got a few years before the shine wears off."

Peeta raised an eyebrow at his mentor. "And when exactly did it wear off for you? Was it during your first drunken nosedive off the reaping stage or the seventh?" he asked rhetorically, but his tone was light. Haymitch just chuckled and offered Peeta the last of his drink. Peeta considered it but shook his head; he didn't want to smell like liquor when his family saw him again for the first time in weeks.

Shrugging, Haymitch downed the last of his beverage and slammed the empty glass down on a nearby table. "Well, your adoring public awaits you," he said dramatically, bowing, and Peeta walked past him to the exit where Effie and his stylists were waiting. They smiled at him excitedly, and he nodded to them, steeling himself as the doors swooshed open. As he stepped out onto the platform, the crowd roared, and he was momentarily stunned into silence before he recovered, beaming and waving at the crowd. They cheered louder, and flashes went off around him, making him squint against the brightness.

Peeta looked to his right, and his smile got impossibly wider when he saw his family waiting for him. He crossed the distance in a couple strides, and his dad was the first to pull him into a hug, his eyes shining. "My boy," he cried into his hair, and Peeta's own eyes welled with tears.

"I missed you, dad," he said softly, squeezing his father tighter.

"We're so proud of you, son."

His father let him go, and his brothers Rye and Barm grabbed him, slapping his back and congratulating him, and Peeta laughed tearfully, never so happy to see them before. He sobered slightly when he looked at his mother, who stood behind them somewhat awkwardly, a tense smile on her face. Peeta wasn't sure how to reach out to her or what to say, but she finally moved closer and hugged him stiffly. The gesture made his heart swell, but he couldn't help wonder how much of her actions were so she didn't look bad on camera. He returned the hug dutifully, and she stepped back quickly.

"Welcome back, Peeta," she said a little robotically, and Peeta smiled tightly, but a hand on his arm drew his attention back to his father.

"You have another visitor as well," his father said lightly with a small, knowing smile, and he pointed over his wife's shoulder. Craning his neck, Peeta spotted her almost immediately a few paces away behind some cameramen. His breath hitched in his throat, and his family was forgotten as he slowly moved toward her.

Katniss stood before him, dressed in the blue dress she had worn at the reaping; her dark hair was done up in the same elaborate braid as well. She had never looked more beautiful to him, and his heart fluttered dangerously. She fidgeted with her hands nervously as he walked toward her, stopping mere inches from her. She looked up at him through her lashes demurely, and Peeta stared at her in amazement, not quite believing she had come to see him. But then he became aware of the cameras hovering just a few feet away from them, and he remembered; he remembered just how hungry the viewers were for the star-crossed lovers of District 12, and he wondered if she knew. Was that why she was here? Did she understand what she had gotten herself into? Did she realize how irrevocably intertwined their lives were now? Did she know how much danger she was in?

"You came back," she said quietly, and his lips formed a sad smile.

"I came back," he repeated.

"I'm—I'm glad," she stammered, twisting her hands together nervously and glancing down at their feet. Peeta was suddenly aware of how quiet the station was, and he knew the crowd was watching their exchange anxiously.

Something tugged at his heart, and he leaned forward to close the distance between them, ducking his head so his mouth brushed against her ear. She inhaled sharply, and he lifted a hand to tuck some of the loose tendrils of her hair behind her ear. "Remember," he murmured, so low only she could hear, "we're madly in love, so it's all right to kiss me."

Her body tensed, and he pulled back just enough to look at her expression. Her gaze flew up to meet his, a faint blush coloring her cheeks, but he saw something curious flash through the gray depths of her eyes before it disappeared. And then she was stretching up to meet him, her soft lips pressing to his, almost urgently, and Peeta was on fire. The crowd cheered around them, but he forgot about them for just this moment, savoring the feel of her mouth against his as the girl he had coveted for all these years finally kissed him. Real or not, he knew this moment would burn in his mind forever.

Too soon, she pulled away, and she looked up at him through cloudy, lidded eyes. Licking his lips, he reached down and pressed the palm of his hand to hers. Their fingers laced together, and he motioned to the crowd with a tilt of his head. "Shall we? For the cameras?" he asked, and her brow creased slightly with confusion, but before she could respond, he turned toward the crowd and the cameras and thrust their interlocked hands high into the air in triumph. Everyone burst into applause and delight, and Peeta grinned broadly as he stared at her small hand in his, already wondering when he would have to let it go.

Author's note: And it's done! Thank you so, so much for all your reviews and kinds words! It pleases me greatly that so many of you read and enjoyed my story. I am writing a sequel (I couldn't very well leave it at that, could I?), and I plan to write three stories in total to mirror Collins' trilogy. I'm only about halfway done with the sequel, and I might not post it until I've finished. It's taking longer to write than this first installment, however, because there's more detail (and much more Everlark interaction), so I might get impatient and start posting chapters before I've finished it. But I'm hesitant to do that, simply because I feel more comfortable when I've tracked out the trajectory of the story fully and can reread it a few times to make sure all the plot points line up correctly. We'll see! Again, thank you everyone! Keep an eye out for the sequel, "And Keep Your Feet on the Ground." In the mean time, shoot me any questions and follow me at atetheredmind dot tumblr dot com if you're on tumblr :)