BERRIES FOR ALLIES

He recognized her immediately. She was the girl who kept to herself, the girl who always left school in a hurry, the toughest girl he knew...the prettiest...

His mother pushed him out the door, screaming at him as usual. How could he forget the loaves of bread in the oven!? Didn't he have any sense at all?! What the heck was he doing that made him forget that one simple task?! She slapped him hard but he didn't even blink. He didn't try to explain himself either - he knew it was no use. Burned bread was burned bread. And in times like these...

Feed it to the pigs!

He was about to. But then he saw her.

The toughest girl he knew, the prettiest girl in the district, the girl who always kept to herself. She didn't look very tough at the moment. Her hair was wet from the pouring rain, strands clinging to her face in dark streaks. She was shaking and looked absolutely miserable. Food was always scarse but these last couple of months had been particularly bad and people were literally starving to death. She looked so pale and thin. And hungry...

Feed it to the pigs! his mother had told him. But how could he? He glanced over his shoulder - nobody was watching - and then he threw the last loaf of bread to the girl. It hit muddy ground a couple of feet away from her, but she would know it was meant for her. He turned on his heels and went back inside before his mother could come out and look for him.

He followed her from school every day but he kept his distance and she was never aware of his presence. He didn't even know why he was following her. Mostly he figured it was because he wanted to keep her safe but sometimes he questioned those noble thoughts because he really liked to watch her - she was nice...real nice to look at - and deep down he knew she could take care of herself and didn't need him to protect her.

No matter the reason he followed her home from school every day. Sometimes she walked straight home but most of the times she would carefully make her way toward the outskirts of town. She would then slide under a loose stretch of the fence that surrounded the district and he would watch as she disappeared into the woods. He never followed her to the other side of that fence though.

Years passed and she grew up before his eyes and she became a beautiful girl. She was beautiful in a way that was hard to describe, even though he was usually pretty good with words. She was like a flower that had somehow blossomed from a patch of ashes. Vibrant and so full of life even though she lived in a place equal of death and of no hope. Except she wasn't frail like a flower, she was tougher. Maybe she was more like a deer? Strong and beautiful - and watchful like a deer. A deer standing in a clearing at dawn as mist rose from the ground, crisp spring morning air hugging warm, damp earth... Well, maybe not that corny. Obviously words did not come easy or sound right when they were about her. And for the same reason he had not yet found the courage to talk to her. He wasn't shy, he was a sociable person, but he had no idea what he would say to her. No idea at all.

Then came the reaping of the 74th Hunger Games...

"Peeta Mellark!"

A rush of fear coursed through his body. Fear and dread at the same time because what did all this mean? It meant he was practically dead. It meant that if he were to win the Games - highly unlikely but still - it would be because she had died. Died at his hands or somebody else's. Except he would never lay a finger on her. He wanted her happy and safe and if she were ever to be safe again it meant he would have to die because they couldn't both return home. There was only ever one victor.

He wasn't a hero in the sense that he would offer his life for hers without any hesitation whatsoever. He was only sixteen, after all, and he didn't want to die. But he was more afraid of her dying and of losing her to a violent and meaningless death. So when his name was pulled from that bowl and called out through the speakers, he knew he would not live - he could not live. He would die that violent and meaningless death instead of her. His life ended as soon as Effie Trinket spoke his name. And she, Katniss, would never even know how he felt about her.

The days spent in the Capitol preparing and training for the Games were for him just that - training and preparing. Not to survive long enough to win, but to survive long enough to make sure she would. He needed the skill and the strength and the knowledge to be able to do that, so he trained and prepared just as purposefully as the other kids. And he learned everything he could about the social game and tactics behind winning sponsors and used his charms to win the love and adoration of the crowds of the Capitol. He did his very best, and his work and determination kept him focused and alert and not thinking about his imminent death.

Katniss was cool and calculating as well but not to save his life or anybody else's but her own. Because she had to get home to her sister. He understood and respected that. He really did.

They had spoken now and the ice had been broken so to speak but Katniss kept him at an arm's distance. There was an invisible wall between them and he wasn't sure why. Why couldn't he ever earn her trust? Didn't she realize he loved her?

His interview with Caesar Flickerman was meant to be lighthearted and fun and it almost scared him how effortlessly he fell into the role of the charming, young man. He was, after all, selling himself out to an audience that wanted to see him die a bloody death for entertainment. Most of the interview went like he wanted it to and he could even relax for a moment and joke a little. But Caesar was clever and knew what he wanted from the tributes. The question about a special girl in his life blindsided him and his facade crumbled a bit.

"There must be some special girl. Come on, what's her name?"

His smile faded a bit. What was he going to reply to that? He was cornered. There was no way to get out of this without losing the audience - he had to tell the truth.

He sighed. "Well, there is this one girl. I've had a crush on her ever since I can remember. But I'm pretty sure she didn't know I was alive until the reaping."

"She have another fellow?"

He had to turn this around, to make his confession count. How could he answer in a way that would favour Katniss and himself? He chose his words carefully, trying to mould the truth into something that the people of the Capitol would find interesting and take to heart, something that would make them connect with him and Katniss. The answer was; young love, star-crossed love.

"I don't know, but a lot of boys like her."

"So, here's what you do. You win, you go home. She can't turn you down then, eh?

He could have lied and agreed and pretended the girl he loved was still back in District 12. But he chose the truth. His response was honest but carefully thought out, his words aiming to break hearts and win sympathy.

"I don't think it's going to work out. Winning...won't help in my case." He didn't even have to feign hopelessness.

"Why ever not?"

"Because...because...she came here with me."

He never could win with her. His confession, honest though a bit over-dramatized, did not go over well with her. Seething with rage she attacked him as soon as they ran into each other. Verbally at first, physically the next.

Since arriving at the Capitol his top priority had been to protect her and keep her alive. He was so determined to do so that he rarely let himself dwell on her sometimes harsh words and actions. But sometimes they got to him. Her rage and the hard shove hurt him more than the shards of glass that cut his hands when he tried to catch his fall.

Haymitch stepped between them.

"Stop that! When are you going to get it into your thick skull that he's trying to help you?!" Haymitch berated Katniss.

He wasn't surprised that Haymitch took his side in this. They all knew Katniss was the one who actually had a chance of winning but whose social skills were more than lacking. It wasn't a secret that they all used him for her benefit when it came to that area and he was more than happy to help.

It wasn't the first time Haymitch had told Katniss 'Peeta is trying to help you!'. But this time it seemed like she finally accepted it to be true.

He stared at his hands absent-mindedly. They were bleeding profusely. Katniss noticed too and just as quickly as she had lashed out she was suddenly concerned and regretful. But no apologies were needed, he had already forgiven her.

He spent the last night by the window in his room, looking at the festivities outside. It was the last hours of countdown before the Games would begin and the festivities had reached their peak in the streets below. Their night was of joy and expectation, his was of fear and dread of what the future would bring. How would he die? When would he die? Would he be able to help her at all?

He didn't sleep that night.

His heart was pounding hard as he was elevated from the underground cell to the above ground via the confined space of the glass tube. He felt at a loss what to do once the Games started and he was facing the Cornucopia alongside the others.

Two things he knew. One, he had to wait until the countdown of sixty seconds had passed before he could step off the metal plate he was standing on. Two, run like hell for the woods and don't look back. But after that? What could he do to ensure her safety while not being by her side? Well, one thing...stay alive to keep her alive... The rest he would have to come up with along the way.

He found Katniss immediately, five tributes away. Her eyes were fixed on the Cornucopia as if she was planning to make a run for the weapons and provisions there once the sixty seconds had passed. It bothered him that she was considering going against Haymitch's advice, but she seemed focused and together and ready to fight which made him relax a little.

When it was 16 seconds left of the countdown she finally glanced over at him. He shook his head at her, trying to will her off of her plan to go for the Cornucopia. The countdown continued.

12..11..10..9..8..7..6..5...

It seemed like she discarded her plan of going into immediate battle because she was suddenly scowering the ground around her as if looking for anything that could be of value and was in her immediate vicinity, something easy to get her hands on. He hoped she would go for one of the backpacks, or nothing at all, and then quickly head for the safety of the woods.

He found she did.

3..2..1...

He was off the metal plate and running for the woods in mere seconds. He glanced over his shoulder as he ran and caught a quick glimpse of her grabbing a backpack mid-run and heading for the woods - but in the opposite direction. He would find her later, he hoped.

A couple of days of hunger, bone-deep fatigue and cold nights passed. And he was afraid for her the entire time. It was weird since he knew she was most definitely doing better than he was. She was used to being in the wilderness, she knew how to hunt and she had a backpack that had probably contained at least a few potentially lifesaving things. It was more than he had. Still, his heart stopped with every boom of the cannon that indicated a tribute's death. She hadn't been one of the dead yet, thank God, but he would soon be did he not find shelter or food soon. Luckily, he'd found water or he would've been suffering in that department as well.

He ran into them only a couple of hours later.

Cato was on him before he had any time to react. A second later he was pinned to the ground with Cato's hunting knife at his throat. Why Cato didn't kill him instantly, he would never know. But there had been a short moment of reprieve as Cato had waited for the rest of the Career pack to catch up. Maybe Cato had wanted them to witness his death, or to take part in torturing and killing him. He didn't know. But he didn't wait for a decision like that to be made without him.

"Wait," he croaked, throat and mouth dry from fear. "I can help you find her! Katniss, I mean."

Cato was heavy and his breath hot and oppressive on his face. He tried to turn away as he spoke. "I know her well, I can track her for you." He hoped to god Cato would believe him.

The others finally caught up with them and a storm of taunts rained down on him. They wanted Cato to just kill him already. The girl from 1 wanted to cut him up before they killed him. The boy from 2 got on his knees next to Cato to help hold him down, even though it was really not necessary. A knee landed on his ribcage and pushed down hard and he had to bite his lip to keep from screaming. It felt like the guy broke all of his ribs and it hurt like hell. He was sure his pain was displayed in his eyes because Cato laughed at him, low and cruel. "Why should I believe you?" he asked.

Yeah, why should he? But Peeta found the words quickly.

"I want to win this thing as much as the rest of you." He winced as the knee ground harder into his ribcage. "She got the highest score from the Capitol, she's the most dangerous of your adversaries. I can find her so you can kill her. You're clearly in alliance with each other and I think she's one of the reasons..."

It was now his fate would be decided, whether he would be able to do anything more for Katniss. Cato looked at him suspiciously at first but then he seemed to come around.

"Okay, loverboy, you've bought yourself some time. But don't get any ideas, we will kill you later once we've found her."

His chances were grim either way so he simply nodded his compliance. They let him up but that was about it. They didn't trust him at all, naturally, and they shouldn't. So as soon as he was standing upright between Cato and the boy from 2, Cato reached into his jacket pocket and produced a rope. They proceeded to tie his hands tightly and a small part of him hated that he let them. But this wasn't about him or his survival - it was about hers - and if tying him up put them more at ease then so be it.

"Okay, lead the way," Cato ordered.

He had no idea where to go but he hoped he would lead them in the opposite direction of where she was going. He pointed to the right with his tied hands.

"Last I saw her she was heading that way. It was a day or so ago but I'm sure I can pick up her trail once we've come further into the woods."

He wasn't sure at all. But he'd seen her snares at least, maybe he could find something like that and convince them it was hers. Other than the snares all he knew about her was that she was almost impossible to track. She never left a trace, he'd heard Gale Hawthorne complimenting her on it once. He could only hope it was true.

It took almost two days before he found anything that could even resemble a trail. By then the others were on the verge of killing him, certain that he'd been pulling their chain all along.

"Here," he said, silently thanking whoever had left behind what would most definitely ensure his survival at least for a while longer. He pointed at a circle of carefully laid out stones. "She makes these circles wherever she finds a good hunting ground. She mostly hunts rabbits and such and these circles mark rabbit holes or whatever. She usually makes camp close by so she can't be far now."

Cato studied him carefully, trying to read his face for lies. Apparently he passed the test because Cato nodded slowly and turned to the others. "Keep your eyes peeled, guys. She's close."

Every once and again he would point at something and make a remark about Katniss' way of moving around or what she would leave behind. They walked around aimlessly for a day until darkness fell and Cato wanted to stop for the night. Since there were four of them, plus him, they didn't seem overly concerned with concealing themselves or their location from the other tributes. They made a fire and laughed and talked loudly with each other.

Cato and the guy from 2, who he'd now learned was called Marvel, pushed him down at the foot of a tree and tied him to the trunk. They'd been doing the same thing every night since they'd caught him. They would clearly not leave any room for him to try to escape or to kill them.

They had a lot of food. After having slaughtered those who'd been foolish enough to head for the Cornucopia at the start of the Games, they'd had the provisions all to themselves. An unlimited supply of food - at least in comparison to what Peeta and those who had fled for the woods had - and pretty much all the weapons one could dream of when aiming to kill a fellow human being. They grilled meat and ate fruit and bread and berries like they had a million of them. But he received nothing but water and the occasional piece of bread. He was completely at their mercy and they clearly wanted to keep him as weak as possible, without risking him slowing them down too much. Hence the occasional bread crumbs.

"Here." Marvel tossed him a water bottle which he just barely caught.

"Thanks..." He was so thirsty he could die, and he was so very very hungry. He drank greedily and wished the water would lessen the hollow ache in his belly. It didn't.

Marvel pried the bottle away from him. "You've had enough."

He would study them as much as he could without them noticing, trying to learn their weaknesses and looking for ways to escape, but they were well-trained and lethal and there was no chance of him escaping as long as they kept him tied up like they did. The only time their defences were lowered was at night when they all slept and no one kept watch.

It was well after dark before he would let himself think about Katniss. He willed her to be alright and to stay alive, and then sent a silent prayer that the rest of the tributes- including himself - would drop dead as soon as possible so that she could go home. This year's Hunger Games had been going on for at least a week or two and he just wished for it to be over. He couldn't take any more worrying about whether or not he would survive the next day. Waiting to die was surely worse than the dying itself. He finally succumbed to exhaustion and fell into a restless sleep.

He was awakened by a swift kick to his side. It was Cato. He shrunk back a little as Cato got into his face and personal space, lips almost touching his as he spoke.

"I'm going to untie you, loverboy," Cato said, "but if you try anything, anything at all, I will kill you myself and it will be a slow and painful death. Got it?!"

He nodded quietly. Cato undid his hands and pulled him up.

"Now, find her!"

Once the ropes were abandoned the jabs took their place because how else would they keep him in check? He was manhandled throughout the day, slapped and pushed and shoved for he didn't know how many times and by all of them. It was actually worse than the bonds had been because now they were on him all the time.

Marvel smacked him upon the head when they finally settled down to eat. "You have no idea where she is, do you, loverboy?"

He fought off the reflex to hit Marvel back and stared into the flames of the campfire as he replied.

"Well, no, but I know how to find her, but it's gonna take a while. She didn't receive an eleven by luck, you know, she really is that skilled a fighter and hunter. You will never find her without my help."

They all believed him, it seemed, because nobody had anything to say to that.

Another day or so passed and every once in a while the other tributes would venture out of the camp, away from the safety of the group - one at a time - and into the deeper parts of the woods. And more often than not, a boom of the cannon would break through the silence not too long after they had left. They would return to the campsite bloody but happy. He wasn't happy though - his heart almost stopped at every boom of the cannon in fear that it was Katniss' death he heard. But she was still alive because her photo never appeared in the sky.

Then came a morning when suddenly Cato offered him a weapon. A spear. He stared at it in disbelief. Did Cato really trust him enough to give him a weapon? Obviously he did because he turned his back to him as he addressed the others.

"Loverboy just said the snare we caught back there was hers," he proclaimed. "She shouldn't be too far away now."

He hoped Cato was wrong because the snare really had been Katniss'.

Unfortunately, Cato hadn't been wrong.

It was mid-day and the five of them were making their way up the river when suddenly one of the others spotted her. She was in the water and luckily she'd seen them as well because she was up and out of the water in a second, running in the opposite direction. The others followed and so the hunt commenced.

He was weaker than the others and had a hard time keeping up as they all darted after her in full pursuit. Katniss must've been hurt or something because the others were catching up to her way too easily. But before they could reach her she was up in a tree, climbing higher and higher to where none of them would be able to follow. He exhaled in quiet relief.

But the others were blood-thirsty to say the least. They did everything they could think of to try and kill her from their place on the ground. It wasn't an easy task, but it wasn't impossible. But luckily, Katniss was too far up in the tree for their arrows to hit their mark and no spear or knife in the world could reach that far up, no matter how hard one could throw. He thanked the Gods for what was probably the hundredth time.

He glanced up at Katniss and their eyes met. Hers were filled with fear but also astonishment and pure disgust at his betrayal. He felt a lump in his throat. Didn't she realize it was all an act?

"Let's just wait her out," he heard himself say, "She's gotta come down at some point. That or starve to death. Let's just kill her then."

Luckily, they stopped even though it was just for the moment.

They made camp for the night right at the foot of the tree and the others fell asleep long before he did. He was on his back, looking up at her, eyes drinking in her silhoutte. He'd missed her and he was so happy she was still alive. But now he had to come up with a plan on how to get her down and away from the others before they could kill them both. Right at that moment he had no idea how he was gonna do that so he let himself fall into a restless slumber.

He awoke to frantic screaming and gasped in pain himself when something stung him in several places at once. Tracker-jackers! He was on his feet and away in an instant, bolting for the river. He heard loud cries behind him but did not look back. He was lucky. There were no tracker-jackers buzzing in his wake. The stings burned like fire and he groaned in relief when his body was submerged by the cold water of the river. Nobody but him had made it there and he hoped they'd all been stung to death. It was then that he remembered... Katniss!

It didn't take long before the stings took effect. He hadn't come more than a couple of yards into the woods before he suddenly got dizzy and nauseous. He was pretty sure he was hallucinating as well because the ground was moving beneath his feet and the trees kept jumping out at him. In spite of this he somehow managed to find his way back to their now abandoned campsite.

"Katniss?"

But it wasn't Katniss he'd come upon but a dead Glimmer one the ground, her face strangely deformed, then also - Cato. Cato had clearly been stung worse than Peeta because he had bumps all over his face and arms and was hunched over, heavy shakes wreaking his body.

Peeta slowed his pace, vaguely aware that he was hallucinating but mostly annoyed that the trees kept getting into his personal space. He was afraid he'd knock himself out on one of the tree trunks if he went too fast. He stopped briefly to give Cato a quick once-over. Cato seemed pretty out of it and was busy emtyping his stomach onto the earth floor. This would be the perfect time for him to strike.

But, before he could move Cato snapped to sudden awareness. He shot Peeta a look of pure hatred and snarled and Peeta felt like he was looking down the barrel of a gun. Cato had somehow sensed his presence despite being affected by the tracker-jackers' poison. He was way too lucid for someone who'd suffered that many stings. Peeta had to get out of there before Cato had recovered completely. He risked another glance in Cato's direction and jumped when Cato suddenly lunged forward and almost sliced his arm off with the sword. "You're dead!" Cato bellowed. He was already back to form.

Peeta finally came to his senses. He saw the spear he'd left behind earlier and snatched it mid-run. The sounds of heavy footsteps and snapping twigs behind him attested to Cato having already taken up the hunt. Peeta picked up pace and, weirdly enough, Cato fell behind almost immediately. Cato was worse off than he'd thought apparently because soon a string of strangled screams echoed between the trees. Either Cato was dying or experiencing a series of terrifying hallucinations. Peeta didn't stop to find out.

"Katniss!? Katniss!?"

He had no idea how long he'd been calling for her when all of a sudden she appeared right before his him. But by then he had experienced so many hallucinations - a few of them of Cato close enough for Peeta to feel his breath on his neck - that he wasn't sure if she was real or not. He didn't really care.

"Run!" he yelled. "Run! Run!"

She looked up at him all confused, clearly in the same tracker-jacker state as him. Shit! He willed himself to lucidity.

"Katniss go! Get out of here!"

She stared at him.

"Go!"

But she didn't move.

"What are you doing?! Go!

He pulled her to her feet and pushed her forward. "Run, dammit!" Please.

Then finally she seemed to realize what he wanted her to do and she fell into a slow run. He was about to head after her when something caught his leg and he fell to the ground.

Cato.

Cato was on him before he could even try to get up. He kicked up as hard as he could and managed to catch Cato in the chest with one foot. Cato doubled over when the wind was knocked out of him and it was enough for Peeta to get back to his feet. But Cato was a skilled fighter - a killing machine - and having the wind knocked out of him only slowed him down a couple of seconds. Soon he was on Peeta again and there was no escaping him, Cato wasn't weakened by lack of food, like him, so he was much stronger.

Soon his body was pinned down again. But his hands weren't and he reached frantically for anything, anything that he could use to get Cato off of him. His hand closed around a rock and he didn't even think twice before he swung it at Cato's head.

The impact knocked Cato to the side but didn't knock him out. In fact, it hardly slowed him down and it scared Peeta to death because he knew now that he could never win this fight. Cato grabbed him by the throat and squeezed hard and soon small white dots appeared in Peeta's field of vision. He was about to pass out when suddenly a burning hatred ignited in his heart - he wasn't going to die like this, and certainly not by Cato's hand. He lashed out in one last effort to break free and succeeded. Coughing and gasping for air he stumbled to his feet and tried to get away. But then the tracker-jacker poison got hold of him again and his world tilted suddenly about 45 degrees to the left. He lost his footing and fell hard to the ground. And Cato retaliated fast.

He felt a stab so painful that he almost lost consciousness right then and there and he screamed in agony as the blade of Cato's sword went further into his thigh and hit bone. The pain was excruciating and the injury so extensive that his body quickly shut off most of his senses. He hardly felt any pain when the sword was finally pulled back and Cato raised his arm to finish him off.

He would never know what happened after that, but all of a sudden Cato collapsed to ground, unconscious. Confused and close to blacking out himself, Peeta struggled to get up and half crawled, half dragged himself away from what had almost been the location of his premature death.

He almost made it back to the river before he lost consciousness.

He had no idea how long he'd been out when he finally came to but it was dark out and his leg throbbed and spasmed in a very unsettling way. The pain was back full force as well. He tried to move but screamed, really screamed, in pain at the small movement then winced as he realized that probably everyone in the entire arena had heard him. He could only hope his screams hadn't revealed his location because with his leg he was a sitting duck out here. If they found him he wouldn't be able to defend himself but not that it really mattered since the injury to his leg would probably kill him before anyone else could. Frankly, he was going to die no matter what he did or did not do.

Stuck on the river bank he tried best he could to conceal himself from animals as well as humans. Thanks to his talent for the artistic he thought he did a pretty decent job. But no hiding place in the world could save him from his injuries. The injury to his thigh was a fatal one. He was pretty sure of that because he felt himself slowly but surely bleeding out. An acute fever had taken hold of him and he became less and less coherent. And every now and then he was awakened from his feverish state by an onslaught of powerful hallucinations.

Why did she hate him? He didn't know, didn't understand how a mother could hate her child as much as she hated him. It was so much, apparently, that she would risk their livelihood by hurting the hands that helped in earning it. He worked in his parents' bakery every day before and after school and on his days off. What else could he do to earn her affection?

She'd lashed out at him before. In fact, it was almost on a daily basis. But she'd never held his hands in the fire before. She yelled at him and then gripped him by the wrist. Before he could react she'd pulled his hand into the flames. He cried out loudly in surprise and in such agony that he was sure the whole district had heard. He pulled back his hand and she let go and slapped him hard across the face, obviously in punishment for him making that much noise.

He was much stronger than her of course but he was at her mercy because where would he go if he was thrown out of the house? He had a roof over his head, food, though not much, in his belly. District 12 was unforgiving to its people. People starved and many perished in the cold winters or died from the many diseases that went untreated. He wouldn't make it if he left home so he accepted his situation even if he didn't understand what he'd ever done wrong.

He didn't know of course that his mother was really his aunt and that his real mother had died in childbirth the same moment he saw light of day. Nor did he know that he was the product of his father's and real mother's shameful secret. How could he know.

"Get out of my face."

Tears of pain were welling in his eyes and he nodded slowly. The searing pain from the burns were almost unbearable. He found his way outside and went straight for the barrel of water in the backyard. The pain lessened some when his hand was in the cold water. He stood there for a long time with his hand under water, hoping that it would prevent blisters from forming on his aching palm. He would probably still be expected to help out in the bakery, and there was no way he'd be able to do anything with a palm covered in blisters.

The water helped some. He got a few blisters but could still work. Then the blisters burst and became pusing sores that got worse and worse. It took days of pus-tainted bread, that was sold to customers no less, before his parents finally deemed him unfit to work. One afternoon Peeta's father grabbed Peeta by the arm and walked him over to the Everdeen's house for treatment. Peeta was terrified they would run into Katniss. But it was her mother who answered the door.

"Mr Mellark," she said by way of greeting.

His father wasn't a man to beat around the bush. "My son has a burn mark on his hand that won't heal so he can't work. Do you think you can treat it? I'll trade you two loaves of bread."

Katniss' mother smiled softly at Peeta. Her eyes were warm and kind.

"Come on in, let me have a look," she said, opening the door for him.

His father thanked her and returned to the bakery.

Once they were inside and seated by the kitchen table she began studying his hand. She was careful but he still winced when her fingers skated over the open sores on his palm.

"Does it hurt a lot," she asked. Peeta shook his head. 'A lot' was a relative term. "I have something that will help with the pain and clear the sores of pus," she continued. "The sores will have to heal by themselves obviously but once we clear out the infection it shouldn't take too long before your hand is back to normal."

It was the kindest someone had been to him in a very long time. It was nice to be treated with kindness instead of disdain. "Thank you," he murmured. He got to his feet as soon as she had wrapped his hand. "I have to get back," he said. "To work. To the bakery..." He thanked her again and hurried back home.

His hand was free of infection and healed within a week. He would always be grateful to Mrs Everdeen. Not because she had healed his hand but because she'd treated him with kindness and respect.

The searing pain of fire on his skin, on all of his body. Flames melting soft tissue... This was what kept him awake whenever he got a reprieve from the claws of unconsciousness.

The flames died when he heard Katniss' voice.

"Peeta?..."

He wasn't sure at first if he was hallucinating or not and was hesitant to reveal himself. Maybe it was someone else sounding like Katniss. Maybe her voice was just an illsusion and it was actually the sounds of the woods he heard. But her voice came closer and closer. He managed to force his eyes open. Katniss wasn't more than a couple of steps away. He'd obviously concealed himself pretty well since she didn't even look his way. She took a couple of quick steps and almost stepped on him. He grabbed her by the ankle.

"Don't step on me, sweetheart," he rasped. Shit, he sounded so weak.

To be continued...