Chapter Six

Instead of running home, Katniss stumbles down the streets at a slow, lulling pace. Physical pain has nothing to do with her lack of enthusiasm. Rather, she is counting. Over and over again. Eight shots. There are only eight shots. Primrose, Posy, Vick, and Rory are top priority. That's four. Half of the shots are permanently promised. Those are without a doubt going to the children.

Then there are the four other shots.

Gale needs one. She made him a promise to bring something home. He's family. But so is Mother and Hazelle. They're all important and she can't bear to loose them and she has done this for them. So there goes three more of the eight. Leaving her with one shot left.

For her?

But every time she thinks that, she sees the ugly, swollen, purple side of Peeta's face the day after he'd given her the life saving bread. Her mind goes to other things, too. To the overwhelming smell of from the ovens that rainy spring afternoon. Times when she'd caught him staring across the yard, turning away, pink in the face. Him purposely losing to her team in gym. Ridiculous little things, that don't matter.

The shot does matter. This shot could be life or death at some point in the future.

She weights her game bag around her neck, then notices the bloody hand. She has to go home, it's getting dark, she can see her house from where she's walking. Vick and Posy are running around the yard, teasing Lady. The goat bleats my coming.

I'll tell them I already had my shot. It'll work. She'll use her injures as distractions when they try to push her on that point. I'll give them the seven and tuck the eighth into my hunting jacket.

Tomorrow, I finally pay back the boy with the bread.

No more owing. She'll be free from the tugging at the back of her mind and she won't have to feel guilty or unease over the thought of Peeta Mellark dying. Ever again. The shot will be a thank you enough.

Gale appears in the doorway before Katniss is even in the yard. Relief is evident in his every feature as he struts over and wraps her in his arms. Katniss hisses in pain when her hand catches awkwardly against his side. "Watch it, you dolt."

Gale draws back, smiling faintly. He overlooks her with those dark and observant eyes. They linger on her face, on the side of her cheek. A hand raises, the pad of his thumb brushing the smudge of blood. His smile is gone and his face is hard. "Should I get my bow?" he asks.

"No." Katniss shakes her head; she regrets that when her temples pound. "No. I'm fine."

"No execution?"

"Not that I know of."

He pulls her in again and this time Katniss squirms, not in pain, but it is that he's being.. more touchy than usual. First, this morning, with the promises and now this.. she shoves her ravaged hand between them and that does the trick. Gale recoils, stares at the hand, her face, the yards around them, and then snatches her by the elbow, leading her inside.

After a small hug from Primrose, her mother switches into healing mode. The box of supplies is out, herbs, and Katniss goes to the kitchen table. She takes off her game bag, sets it carefully on the back of her chair and sits, sighing.

"Okay. Time to confess," Gale says and sits across from her.

Katniss glances up, and all she can think for a moment is that Peeta was sitting in that exact seat the last time she'd seen him. Then she rubs at the base of her skull and shows her mother the dried blood there.

"What happened?" her mother asks, much cooler in tone than Gale. There is no impending punishment and if there was one Katniss surely wouldn't have obeyed it. The idea her mother would try to discipline her is ridiculous and near aggravating.

Hazelle slips over and lays her hands on Gale's shoulders, rubbing slightly before she leans in and examines Katniss in the dim evening light. There is concern in her eyes, mirroring Gale's.

Katniss finds Prim's eyes over the Hawthorne's shoulders and finds those easier to meet. "I fell."

"From?"

"A ledge."

Gale grows frustrated. "You promised," he says. "You promised to tell me if I covered for you."

"I know." Katniss allows her eyes to flicker to his, then down to the table, then to her hand that her mother is working over. Cleaning alcohol stings and her voice comes out a little too breathless. "Madge and I broke into the Justice Building. We went to the morgue.. then we got separated. I went to the tracks and I broke into the train sitting there." She bobs her damaged hand in evidence. "Smashed a window. Then I tripped and bumped my head. That's all."

There is appall written in both the mother's faces. Gale is stoic. He knows there's a reason she would do those reckless, life-threatening things. And that makes him nervous, too. Because if it's worth a smashed window, a damaged bow hand, and the mayor's daughter than it has to be something extremely important. "The morgue? Why?"

Katniss can see the suspicions in him, half-there, guessing at motives. Even Hazelle looks a bit considering after he speaks, frowning, and glancing uncertainly at the children about them. Katniss notices them, too, ignorant to the serious discussion. "We were looking for something."

"What?" her mother asks, finishing the last, tight wrap of white cloth around her hand. They meet stares, one turning and the other lifting her chin, and Katniss pulls her hand back into her own property.

"This." Katniss twists in the chair, pulls the game bag into her lap and unzips the flap. Using the fabric as coverage, she rummages inside the white box, pulling out one of eight syringes and dropping it into the corner of the bag. She withdraws the white box, sets it on the table, zips the game bag and secures it around her chair once more.

The three around her are gazing at the box. "What is it?" Hazelle is the first to inquire.

"Medicine. Shots," Katniss says. Her mother takes the thing, opens the lid and hums her approval. "They're for the sickness. The one that's spreading through Town.. that got Delly Cartwright.."

"You found these on the train?" her mother asks.

"No. Madge smuggled them from the doctor's office in the Justice Building."

"Why were you looking for them?" Hazelle wants to know. Her voice is stronger than her mothers, but less emotionless and botanical when it comes to medical things. "Is there something we don't know?"

"I won't matter once you all take the shots. There are seven, enough for all of you. Madge and I already had ours. She was the one who told me they existed, when her father gave her one."

Primrose is suddenly there, at the end of the table. "I heard her say that, the night she came over. About the shot."

"Yes," Katniss agrees. She turns to her mother. "Can you give them?"

"Of course." Mrs. Everdeen takes one of the capped syringes out of the box and examines it. "Do you have any idea what are in these?"

"Does it matter?" Gale asks. "They have to be legitimate if they were taken from a Capitolite's personal stores. Other Townies have used them, and we don't see them dropping dead. We can take them and tomorrow morning Katniss and I will get rid of the evidence in the woods. No one will know and we're safe from getting sick." It was plain logic.

Mrs. Everdeen continues to look skeptical for a second longer, then nods Prim over to her. Katniss hooks an arm around her sister's waist and reels the girl into her lap, where she wriggles until she's comfortable. A pale arm is lifted and extended.. and for a moment Katniss remembers the train compartment, the child's arm, flung out. It could have anybody. Just as easily could have been her Primrose and she presses her lips to her sister's golden hair, unbearably. Not anymore. Can't be her, because Katniss watches raptly as the needles sinks into the crook of Prim's elbow.

Prim winces, rubs the small blot, and then steps aside. Hazelle lowers Posy on Katniss' lap next and this little girl squirms more and clings to Katniss' knee and cringes away from the needle. "Just a pinch," Gale tells, slipping around the table and catching her nose between two fingers. Katniss joins the game and pinches Posy's leg, as Gale pinches her sides and Mrs. Everdeen manages to get the shot in without her noticing.

Vick plays brave, but a few tears come and Hazelle hugs him on a hip. Rory and Gale are both tough enough and don't rebuke at all. (Neither get to sit on Katniss' lap.) Hazelle insists that Mrs. Everdeen gives herself a shot before her. Once they're over with the syringes are all placed back in the box which is tucked into the game bag.

Katniss breathes one long sigh of relief.

"Hungry?" Hazelle asks, setting a bowl of broth in front of her.

It isn't until she can smell it that Katniss realizes she is famished. "Thanks."

As she eats, Hazelle and Gale sternly tell the kids never to mention what has just happened here. No shots, nothing. They could get in a lot of trouble. And it's a concept all of them understand. Silence and secrets are things people in the Seam and in District 12 are taught from birth.

Sundown comes and the Hawthornes leave with it. Mrs. Everdeen rises to meet every one if them at the door, checking their complexions, touching their elbows, and she goes to both her daughter's afterward doing the same. "You're worried," Katniss accuses.

"Any good healer would be."

Her mother's worry seeps into her after an hour or so. She begins to fret over what was in those syringes and if Madge might have been fooled. Throughout the night, Primrose can't be pulled close enough and her mind won't rest. She doesn't sleep until an hour away from when she's supposed to meet with Gale. The dream is hazy and misted and shrouded by dark. But she remembers two sharp and vivid things about the nightmare by the time she's pulling on her boots. One was the compartment of dead, but instead of strangers, it was her family piled on top of each, the train rocking around them. The second was a warm and heavy arm wrapped around her shoulders, pulling her away, turning her from the horrifying sight. Instinctively the arm makes her think of her father. But somehow, she knows the sleeve had smelt of burnt bread.

In the morning she slips the eighth syringe into her boot, slinging the game bag around her shoulders. She crosses the Seam, slips under the gate and when Gale meets up with her, she hands him the offending white box full of evidence. They agree that if it's buried some animal might come across it. Katniss opts to climb a tree, and she wedges the box into a splintered trunk fifty feet up.

Back on the ground Gale asks her for more details about yesterday. As they hunt, she tells him, little and more. Everything that has been going on; the sickness, how it kills, why Madge and Peeta were over at her house. Gale curses when he hears about Madge's determination to help Katniss and their family. He says something about needing to apologize for always being rude. She doesn't think he will, but it's the thought that counts; he has too much pride to really apologize.

She doesn't tell him her worst fear. It's the kind you don't share. The one where if you speak it, you fear it will become the truth. Really, she thinks she's being paranoid and silly. Over and over again, she remembers the compartment. She tries to remember how many bodies there were; the number is elusive. All she can recall is that there were too many for her to wrap her head around in that five second period in which she stood there staring. She does not tell Gale about the compartment at all.

"Where do you think it came from?" he asks her as they hike back toward District 12. "This sickness."

Katniss looks at him, then around, at trees and, ultimately, the sky. This theory of hers, she knows is silly. "Don't know," she says. "These things just happen. People get sick." Overhead she pin-points a small smudge of some bird in the distant blue. The cawing of Delly rings in the back of her mind.

"I don't know, it seems.. too sudden. You know?"

Now she is really watching him. She knows that tone, that expression. "The Capitol?"

"Why not? It wouldn't be the first time they senselessly killed people from the districts."

That's true, of course. But.. "Why do they look so scared of it?"

"Show," Gale says, as though it were obvious. "Everything's all about presentation with them."

Katniss doesn't agree. Then they have gotten better at acting, she remarks silently. The day after Delly died, there had been an upping of Peacekeepers. All of them looked a bit apprehensive about being in District 12.. and the way Madge described her father's behavior would suggest unease beyond the potential collapsing of an underlining plot. "Why?" she asks, again. "It wouldn't make any sense. To kill people without them being an example? To lessen the populations of one of the smallest, poorest districts? That would be pointless."

Pointless, beyond pointless.

And just cruel enough to be possible.

Still, she does not know and they both shrug away the heaviness of the conversation. The trades go by in a blur. Primrose is ready and outside milking Lady when Katniss gets home and her mother is up, too. A small surprise and even more so, when she asks to see Katniss. Mrs. Everdeen takes her daughter by the chin and examines her face. It is awkward and stiff and Katniss resists the urge to twist her face away. "What is it?"

"Nothing." Her mother pets the cheek momentarily before Katniss does, in fact, rip her face away. Pain is there in the woman's eyes before she buries it and she kisses Prim goodbye, bidding both a good day at school.

Every step closer to the school makes the syringe heavier in her boot.

By the time they reach the yard, her heart is beating ridiculous heavy and her mouth is dry.

Stiffly, she goes through the motions, escorting Prim to her class, going to a locker she never really uses, sitting heavily in her seat beside Madge's empty one. After a minute or two, of tapping her foot and attempting to stare out the window, she rises again. She knows where Peeta is, of course. Out in the hall, surrounded by friends.

At the doorway she pauses, spots him easily and tries to think up a way to get him aside.

Peeta glances up over the heads of his friends, fleetingly, at her, where she stands. A tangled smile touches his face, but he doesn't attempt anything more, before his attention is back on his friends.

Katniss continues to stand there, leaning into the threshold, and instead of outright staring, her eyes pass around the hall, only occasionally landing on him. Hard and meaningful, she thinks, telling him her urgency to speak with him. Peeta never comes.

The bell rings and she waits even then, watching one kid after another pass her by and into the room. Peeta is last, and she's watched him purposely slink to the back, too. That makes me stomach twist.

He's avoiding me.

Why?

Katniss grabs his elbow before he can slink passed. "We have to talk."

Peeta recoils from her touch, moving his arm away, refusing to meet her gaze. He rubs the spot where she touched him, wincing. Weakling, she thinks, unbidden, to cover up all her other worries, I hadn't grabbed him that hard. "Not now," Peeta mumblers and enters the classroom.

Katniss sits through the entire class, aware that Peeta is ignoring her.

But, relieving, by the time the class ends, he stands and waits. When she steps up to him, he steps away, leading them out the class and down the hall. He is staring at her wrapped hand. "You weren't in school yesterday," he says. "I thought.."

"No." His worry is misplaced. She refuses for it to matter. "I'm not sick."

"Your hand?"

"Tripped."

That earns her a disbelieving glance. But he lets the matter fall. He looks away and they reach a locker. His, she assumes, by the way he moves to open it. "You wanted to talk," Peeta says.

Katniss eyes the people all around. "Somewhere.. less crowded."

His lips press together. Displeasure shines in his eyes. "Here's fine."

"No." Her fingers itch to pull the syringe out of her boot, and show him, to get this over with. "Outside." If she slips the shot to him and tells him to simply use it, she wonders if he won't. That she might have to make sure he uses it, by watching. Peeta shakes his head at her suggestion. Katniss lifts an impatient hand and rests it on his forearm. Peeta flinches away. Her stomach pulls tighter. "Sorry," she says, dismissively, too quick to ever be genuine. Her hand feels awkward and heavy at her side now. Stop touching him, she chides herself. Gale, she blames. All that new touching, she's can't get comfortable with it, for anyone.

"No, it's alright." Peeta closes the locker and carefully pulls the strap of his bag around his shoulder. His eyes search the surrounding area. "Just.. still sore, is all."

"Sore enough that, that hurt?" she asks. It is her turn to look disbelieving. Some girls call him a gentleman, but if he's trying to use that as an excuse from not wanting to be touched by her, than he's got to work on his excuses.

Underneath all that, she feels the familiar tug. To flee, to abandon him, because if that hurt, how long until walking is too much for him? Until his whole body is too much for his heart to beat?

"If you don't want my help then–"

"Help?" Peeta asks. "I don't see.."

Katniss takes his hand this time; it seems that couldn't possibly hurt. She tugs him down the hall and out the nearest door. No one is out so early, there are no windows here, but she looks around the abandoned length of the side of the school before she drops his hand and leans to her boot.

"What is that?" Peeta asks when she pulls off the cap. The needle catches the sunlight. He slides closer to the door and away from her. "Did your mom say to give me that?"

"No. No one can know." Katniss breathes. "Take it. I owe you this."

"You don't owe me anything."

"Yes, I do. But if you take this I won't anymore."

Distantly, the class bell rings. Neither of them stir.

"What's it for?"

"To keep you from getting sick."

Peeta eyes brighten, his hands move and find her wrist. He pulls the needle away from himself and closer to her. "You take it. You need this. Has Prim had one?"

The mention of Prim unnerves her. "Yes. My whole family has. You need to take this, not me. I got this for you." That's a lie, she thinks instantly. Madge got the shots. She got them for her family. Not Peeta.

"Then you'd be wasting it," Peeta says, grimly. "It's already too late for me. You need it."

"Too late? No. You said the Peacekeepers.."

"They lied."

"But.."

"It's alright. I'm not going to get anyone else sick, I'm careful." His hands on her suddenly withdrawal. "Just.. take the shot, because I can't bare to think you might get sick. That you could get sick from me."

She looks him over. His face and his lips and his hands. Nothing is off, though. He looks perfect. The same boy she's always seen in school; blonde waves over his pale face, unchapped rosy lips, sturdy figure. "But you don't look.." There is a cringe. She doesn't miss it. The way he shrinks away further. "Show me."

"Katniss..."

"Show me."

"I really don't think–"

"Show me or I put the needle in myself."

Peeta surrenders, then, painstakingly. Reluctantly, he leans into the wall of the school, draws his leg up (the same leg he'd flinched away from her mother) and rolls the pant leg to mid-calf. Katniss crouches without thought, a hand reaching and tracing the line of black. There are more, hundreds it seems, tiny and spreading and pulsing. They're his veins, she realizes, and Peeta looks uncomfortable with her there, touching him. "Bad, huh?"

Katniss doesn't know what to say. The sight is appalling, makes her feel a bit green in the face. She stands, but her eyes don't stray from the blackening limb. A healer.. a healer would know.. she doesn't..

"Take the shot, then we go to my mom. She'll know what's wrong."

"I think it's pretty obvious what's happening."

"It's not blood poisoning."

"That would hurt. This doesn't hurt, I don't feel my leg anymore where it's gone black. It's dying." Peeta rolls down his pant leg again, and as he leaned over, he adds, softly, "I am."

"No you're not." Katniss takes his arm and shoves aside his sleeve. Peeta struggles with her. "Stop moving. You're taking this shot." She tries to lower it over his elbow, but his hand encases hers, and they fight over the control. But he's stronger, that's undoubted.

She breaks away from him, ripping her hand free and scowls. "Won't you just let me help you?"

"I'm not going to let you take risks for my sake," is Peeta's calm reply.

"Why? That's not fair. You've done it for me!"

"That's different."

"No it's not." She takes a step closer again and Peeta pulls away. This frustrates her, too.

"Look, the shot won't even work. Not only is it too late, but I don't even have what Delly and all the others have. This is different.."

"How do you know? They all have to do with blood. Just.. just yours isn't escaping, its dying from the inside out. It's just backwards, is all. The shot could still work. It's worth a try."

"No," Peeta says, shaking his head. "Just no. I won't take it, when you haven't had one."

"I have," she pipes up. Too fast, too high-pitched.

"You're a terrible liar."

Katniss closes her eyes, breathes. The fingers around the syringe contort slightly in her rush of chagrined vexation. Peeta doesn't stir, but she can feel his eyes boring into her face, too honest, too earnest.. defeated, too. He can't give up, though. She remembers when she wanted to give up. Remembers the apple tree and the trash bins and the splash of his feet in the puddles. The burnt bread that fed her family for a week.

It's not fair, but she never claimed to fight fair before. Katniss opens her eyes and lurches toward Peeta, who stiffens underneath the weight of her chest on his and gasps when their mouths lay against each other. It's her first kiss; her lips are unyielding and pressed awkward on his shocked ones. It doesn't last long. He jerks away at the pinch in his arm and his hands curl over her shoulders and push her aside, looking horrified. "You can't.. are you.. haven't you heard a thing we've said? You can't kiss.." His eyes fly to the blood beading on his arm, to the empty syringe in her hand.

Ironic how Peeta suddenly does look like he's going to be sick.

"You should have taken it when I asked," Katniss tells him. Her chest is heavy with a hundred different emotions and thoughts and she feels the heat in her face, betraying her. With the syringe in her hand, she flees, and dashes inside, down the hall and (panicking slightly) she decides to stash the evidence into her locker until after school when she can really get rid of it.

Peeta is in the hall by the time she slams it shut. He's still pale and his eyes are burning when they meet hers across the hall. Katniss runs again, to get away, and she feels her throat tighten at the sight of him trying to hurry after her. But he limps on his bad leg and can't catch up even though he wants to.

Breathless she gets to the door of her second class. The teacher sighs and glares and marks her down once more. There are plenty of curious glances thrown her way when she moves to her desk. No one speaks, though, and she sits. Replays the whole argument in her head as the time passes. Fingers raise to rest on her lips. They're dry, untouched, really. There was no passed bodily fluids. She won't get sick from it, if he can even get her sick in the first place.. and..

She did the right thing, she decides. If she had another chance at that, she wouldn't change a thing about what she did. The kiss was because of what he told her and she knew it would distract him. It was a deceiving, manipulative thing to do to him. To use his feelings against him like that. But he wouldn't have been convinced into the shot, and she couldn't overpower him in physical force...

She did the right thing.

She doesn't owe him a thing anymore. She tried, if nothing else.

She doesn't have to feel guilty about the bread and his face, now. Is allowed to shove him from mind and pretend he doesn't exist. Gets to forget all about him and not care if he dies or is hurt.

But that's not true. I still feel bad.

The idea he could still die, slowly, one limb.. one painstaking vein at a time.. makes her want to retch.

Inaudibly, she groans, props up her elbows and buries her face in her hands.