A/N: And you were worried you wouldn't see much of Peeta in the later chapters... Anyway, here's the next chapter, a little short, sorry. Hope you like it. And don't go guessing what happens next, because you probably have no idea what I have planned. Reviews are love. Thank you for reading. - Taryn
On the way home, all she thinks is that a week without Primrose is going to be a torturous one.
Katniss returns home exhausted and, at this point, panicked, as she begins to realize the massive responsibility of what she's promised to herself. This isn't going to be easy, this isn't going to be fun, and there's no guarantee for her survival, or the prosperity of all of District 12 if she fails.
The moment she step into the house the rest of her family is waiting to ambush her. Her mother's head begins to shake at the sight of Katniss' empty hands, but she's quick to explain where Prim is and that she's safe – for now. And that's when Gale jumps in, indignant, because of course he knows what Katniss mean, of course he sees the purpose in her eyes. "You can't," he says, with no real authority. Because how can she not? Primrose is at stake and he knows she won't let him do it… and there's no way they can do it together. Someone has to go. "You can't!" he repeats, as if adding volume will make it real.
When the first wave of tears hits her, still standing there in the living room, Gale wraps her his arms and holds on so tight she's half-sure he's the only reason her pieces don't come apart and fall all over the floor. She tells them about her forehead, about Haymitch but she cuts out Peeta, she tells them only that she heard the news, not from who she heard it from, and that's what led her to a decision. No one detects the deception – and if they do, if there is suspicion it is buried within tides of worry.
A pale-faced Rory perched on the edge of the coach catches Katniss' gaze over his brother's shoulder. He just stares at her. A tear escapes and he dashes it away hurriedly. "I want to, too," he says, startling the whole room, but Katniss. "I'll go in the Hunger Games for her."
Immediately his mother objects, but he bursts, "But you're letting Katniss do it!"
"Don't be stupid," Gale snaps. He turns to his brother, letting go of Katniss, and rearranges his face into the fiercest expression he can. "You're barely twelve and the odds of you winning the Hunger Games are lower than Katniss'. Not to mention that if she happens to get far enough in the Games, dragging you along, it'll eventually come to an ugly end."
"Then just let me –"
"Let you go alone?" Hazelle says. "Rory, you don't have to do this to prove you love her."
Obviously she touched right where he's sensitive because the tears come again, fast and too many to wipe away. Katniss watches in a daze as Hazelle wraps her second-eldest son in her arms and he sobs into her neck. Can someone love Primrose that much to feel this way about her impending death? Other than her, of course. But seeing those kinds of emotions in a boy so young, the kinds of emotion that broke her mother…
She looked to Gale, to find him not watching his younger brother's meltdown, but her.
Were all of Hazelle's sons prone to this type of love?
Katniss shook the thought from mind. It didn't matter. Rory has obviously suffered this last winter, seeing the corpses in the street, coming across the sick in the snow where they beg for your time, and there were the three patients that Mrs. Everdeen had seen in the Hawthorne's own home. Rory had helped Katniss and Gale mop the blood off the floors. He'd seemed fine then. Maybe knowing what the sickness will do to Primrose is what has unhinged him, on top of everything else.
"You'll need to start eating more," her mother speaks for the first time. Eyes all fall to her. She's not crying. In fact her eyes have that glassy look Katniss is all too familiar with. Mrs. Everdeen moves straight for the kitchen, as if on auto-pilot, and when Katniss turns to follow, to comfort her mother despite it's her who is at risk, Hazelle rushes forward to relieve her of the duty. One soft touch to Katniss' arm, a heavy look passed, and Gale reels Katniss back into his chest. Hazelle joins Mrs. Everdeen in cooking, using gentle tones and eye contact. She knows just how to handle her. That's good, because at this rate Mrs. Everdeen just might lose both her daughters in one blow, and there's got to be someone who knows how to do it when they're lost.
With Rory balled up on the coach, his little sister holding his hand silently, and Vick hunched on the floor, Gale pulls Katniss to the bed she's been sharing with Posy and Prim, and slowly she gets ahold of the gasping, rubbing away the tears. "I remember our promise, Katniss," he whispers, lest their mother's hear… "but…"
"But are you sure about this? The Hunger Games?"
"No." She's not sure about anything anymore; everything seems off with Prim gone, and it's only been a few hours since they were together at the bakery. "But I have to do this. If not for Prim, the district." District 12 is not adored by the Capitol citizens like the rest. She's certain if the citizens know about the sickness moving through the districts their voices wouldn't shout for hers, but more likely the Career districts where their favorite victors reside. Winning their favor and sponsorship never seemed more impossible.
"Then I'll help." Gale always seemed strong; Katniss has never seen him cry, not even for his father, so she's surprised by the helplessness in his face as he clutches her by a bicep and asks, "What can I do?"
It takes her a moment to come up with an answer. Right then she thinks all he can do is keep holding her, but she shakes that off, because there's only so much time she can spend in shock. Gale has the right of it; she needs to start preparing, she needs every advantage she can get. Her mother is right as well, she needs to put on weight, or at least bulk up from the severity of last winter. (She can still trace the ridge of her hip, and count her ribs.) "After we eat, let's go to the forest and shoot." The fresh air and silence will do her good, she thinks, and if the odds are in her favor there will be a bow in the arena.
But as she's spooning the richly seasoned soup at the table an hour later, Gale abruptly draws away to examine her clothes, just noting the difference. "Whose shirt is that?" he asks, and everyone who had been pretending not to be watching Katniss stops the pretense, curious, but unwilling to say it aloud.
She knew this would come. "How do you know it's not mine?"
"I know you don't own a shirt that expensive. That has got to be a hundred percent cotton, and that blue dye is too rich, and I don't see any holes patched anywhere. Whose is that?" He won't drop it. "It's too big, too…" It's a guy's shirt, he means and Katniss sighs exasperatedly.
"I borrowed it from Peeta. Mine was covered in blood. Alright?"
Gale doesn't look satisfied with that answer, but Hazelle moves to defuse anything that can turn sour. "You saw Peeta last night?" Hazelle asks, sitting at the table. "That's where you went after you left?"
"After the Victor's Village, yes," she says. She returns to her soup, not wanting to see that everyone is listening. "I didn't know where else to go and Prim needed a place to hide… I thought she did at least, so I went to the bakery."
"And that's who turned Prim in?" Gale demands.
"No, I turned her and Peeta in myself. And afterward I didn't go back to return the shirt because I didn't want to know what Mr. Mellark would say about that. For all I know he hates me now."
And I know Peeta will, she thinks, but she won't share that aloud.
"Peeta's sick?" Gale seems stunned.
"He's still alive?" Mrs. Everdeen asks at the same time, her expression similar.
"Yes." By now her words are blunt and short, she doesn't need to talk about this with them; it's not like it'll help her in the coming Hunger Games, nor does Peeta concern any of them. She doesn't want to think about him, or the fact that at any moment now he's going to realize she handed him over to the Peacekeepers and feel a sting of betrayal he won't forget any time soon. "But he and half the district won't be alive after the next three weeks unless I can focus on what's important now and train."
"She's right," Hazelle offers, then hesitates… "Katniss… I know I shouldn't ask this. But –"
"How long has Peeta been sick?" Gale cuts in.
Mrs. Everdeen sits across the table from Katniss, laying a silencing hand on Gale's forearm. "You haven't… I know it's none of my business, but I have to know. We all do. Cause if you're…" Her eyes travel downward and Katniss feels anger open up in her like a pit.
"Are you asking if something was going on between me and Peeta?" she demands.
"Yes," her mother says bluntly. Katniss can feel she's a patient right now, not a daughter. It stings, almost as much as Gale and Hazelle's eyes burning on her face. "It doesn't matter, really. But the pos –"
"If it doesn't matter then why are you asking me?"
"Because if that Townie got you sick, how do you expect to win the Hunger Games?" Gale spits.
Katniss whirls on him. "Don't call him a Townie. Are you angry just because of where he comes from? Would it make you happier if it was a guy from the Seam? He has a name and Peeta would use yours."
"So you were, then," Gale replies, completely missing her point. "You and him?"
"No," she says, scowling. "You know how I feel about dating. There's nothing between us like that. But I owed him for something he did for me once, and I paid it back. He didn't get me sick."
"Paid him back how?" Gale presses and the implication in his gaze makes Katniss sick to her stomach.
"Gale," his mother snaps before Katniss reacts. "Why don't you go outside and clear your head?"
"I'm not going anywhere."
The fact that he thought she would do something like that made Katniss angrier. Across the table Gale held her hard stare, and there was disgust and anger and hurt in his eyes, and the intent to hurt back, too. How can her best friend, the one person who is supposed to know her best, think she could do something that was the exact opposite of what she'd ever do? At first, she rationalized herself, like she always does. She shouldn't let it bug her, Gale is just going through the same emotional rollercoaster everyone else in the District is. He's angry at the Capitol, and is channeling it at her, at Peeta – because he's a much easier target than the government. He's frustrated because he knows he can't help Primrose, or the rest of his family if the shots continue to fail, and he's angry at Katniss for leaving him to go to Hunger Games while he twiddles his thumbs at home… She's willing to bet he felt left out still from when her and Madge had gone out in search of the shots, and is working off some of that as well.
But then… the rationalizations seem useless. And unfair. And somewhere in her chest, she wants to take the drive he has to hurt her, and take the knife and heave it back at him, right where it'll burn.
"Fine," Katniss says, softly. "I kissed him." It's not a lie, and she sees Gale's fists contort on the table top, a long, hard exhale escaping him, deflating him. "But only once," she adds when she knows she's gone too far, and she turns to look at her mother. "It didn't get me sick; I'd be dead by now if it did."
"Was this after I told you he was sick?" her mother asks.
"Wait," Gale says, leaning over the table, eyes narrowed. "You mean your mom told you he's sick, that he's got the bug and that touching him could get you sick, too, and you still did it? Are you just stupid or did you want to die? You were going to take the risk of abandoning your family to kiss some Tow –"
"Stop turning it all around," Katniss snaps. But of course she didn't explain it all, so he doesn't know that he's twisting the innocence of the story. She did it to pay him back. She did it to save him – and has failed to boot. If she tells the full story and she talks about the shot, what if they puzzle out she never took hers? Then Gale can take that and throw it in her face, saying she'd rather see a Townie live than herself, and by that factor, her family, too.
And if she were to tell the full full story, she'd have to tell them about the bread and dandelions.
Which seemed more pointless than the last story. All of this was pointless.
"Look," she says. "I'm not sick so all that doesn't matter anymore, can we forget this? I'll go change my shirt now and then I think I'll go out and shoot arrows on my own for a few hours. Tomorrow…"
"Tomorrow we are all going to help you train," Hazelle finishes. "In some way or another. Agreed?"
Surprisingly it's Rory who agrees first, from the living room, and her mother nods soon after, staring at her hands tented on the table. Gale gives a shake of his head and shoves himself to his feet and leaves the house – to go where, Katniss doesn't care, as long as she doesn't find him out in the forest later.
Twenty minutes later, she's pulling her father's bow from its hiding place and the spring breeze on her skin feels better than the ghost of Prim's blood. As she toes through the thawed dirt, she wonders what the Capitol is doing to preserve the sick. She'll have to visit her sister before the Reaping. Since the Justice Building had already been cleaned out the quarantine took place in its walls. Tomorrow she'll jog over there and try to instill as much hope into Primrose as she can. And while she's there she'll ask after Peeta because… well, she feels bad about turning him in. That's all. She won't go to see him.
To her left the bushes stir. Katniss goes completely still. She crouches and niggles an arrow loose of the sheath slung around her shoulders. It's something big; she can tell by the way the leaves move. It could be a wild dog – it seems like the most likely possibility. She scopes the nearby trees; three down from her is the best for climbing and escape, though it's not ideal.
Or it could be a bear. Or Gale. Or a mountain lion.
Silently the arrow slides into place.
She shifts her weight, burdening the bow on her knee, preparing to stand and pull –
But her heel knocks over a rock, that breaks a twig and the thing in the bushes goes still, too.
She can feel her heart in her throat, waiting, holding her arms stiff, knees aching to stand.
All at once a doe bursts from the leaves, galloping hard away from her, and Katniss leaps to her feet. She draws within her next breath – excited suddenly, because deer is rare and meaty – but the moment she drops her eyes to aim, staring down the length of the arrow's shaft, her gaze catches on her hand.
She releases too late, and not really paying attention to where the arrow lands.
The bow falls from her hands and she opens her palms to her face, perplexed.
There. Down the length of her ring finger. A twisting line of black.
No, no, no.
Katniss slumps to her knees, pulling her hand as close to her face as she could and still see it. The closeness did nothing to change what she saw, only worsen it. There were more, smaller veins, already gone bad. Miniature, almost invisible, hardly noticeable. She flexed her hand and she waited feel a throb or a pang or some sort of pain – but there was none. Peeta was right. She can't feel anything.
She pulls out her hunting knife without thinking, and draws the tip of the blade down the length of the worst one; the only vein in her hand that connects to her heart. Blood leaks out, as black as it appeared from the outside; tar-like, thick and sticky and foul smelling.
Frantically she searches her head for how this could be. It can't be Peeta; refuses it to be him.
But if it wasn't him, than it was Prim. And she knows it was. She let it happen, in her state of protector for her little sister. She remembers swiping her forehead where the knife nicked her with hands covered in Prim's blood. She remembers the taste of rust on her tongue when Prim sputtered blood into her face.
And for some reason she'd assumed it wouldn't matter. That she was immune.
That the odds would be in her favor just that once.