The Everdeens were used to knocks on their door in the small hours of the morning, but the voice that greeted Prim shocked Katniss fully awake. She still had no idea what to do with its owner.
"We were prepping in the front room, when this man came in," Peeta Mellark was explaining to her mother as Katniss padded into the main part of the house. "I don't know, I thought… thought the guy had died."
Prim frowned, "His heart stopped. I felt it stop. It went really fast and then it stopped."
The boy shook his head, and for the first time since the day with the bread, he and Katniss made eye contact. He looked terrified.
"He bit my brother pretty hard for a dead guy," he darkly joked.
Mrs. Everdeen inhaled sharply.
"Anyway, I was hoping you could come by ma'am. It's pretty nasty and if the guy wasn't dead before, he is now. My mother," he laughed nervously, "well… she hit him over the head with a marble cutting board. His brain it's… more on the kitchen floor than in his skull now."
He muttered something like, "Guess all that practice finally came in handy," when he thought no one was listening.
But Katniss heard.
"This is some kind of trick," Gale Hawthorne muttered later as they sat behind the bakery and watched Peeta's shadow flit back and forth past the window as he paced, waiting for Mrs. Everdeen to treat his older brother. "The Capitol is doing something to us. They wouldn't just let us go like that."
Katniss shook her head, but not in disagreement, "It does seem a bit much, even for them. They need our coal. Why would they just give it up like that?"
Gale's face grew dark as he said, "Because if they don't, they won't survive at all. Something bad's coming, Katniss. They're going to hurt us bad somehow."
That night, Mayor Undersee took a Peacekeeper's rifle and executed his wife, their daughter, and a servant, before setting his mansion on fire.
His own body was so damaged that no one was quite certain if he had shot himself before the flames got to him, or if he just sat inside as the place burned.
Katniss worried that it might be worse than even Gale predicted.
"Rye's sick," he said.
Once again, the last person Katniss wanted to see was at her house before the sun had risen.
"He's acting weird. Keeps trying to get out of bed, almost like he wants to… hurt someone," he nearly choked on his own words. "There's something wrong with his skin. And his eyes."
By the time he said the words, "He can't talk," Peeta Mellark was crying.
"Peeta, given the threat of contagion, I want you to stay here," her mother said gently, "Katniss will make you some tea."
As she left the house with Prim, Katniss could hear her mother tell her sister to run and get Gale, because she knew Bran would be crying, and someone needed to help the hold down that boy so she could sedate him.
Worrying over her mother and sister, Katniss sat in her kitchen. She watched the boy to whom her entire family owed their lives, but whom she did not know at all, drink tea. He had asked specifically for no sugar, but she was pretty certain he had only said that because he knew they were poor. So she had put some in his cup when he wasn't looking. It was the least she could do, by all accounts.
There were few times in her life when she had felt quite so useless.
"He told me to tell you," he finally said, staring at his cup. "He told me to tell you or he'd do it himself."
She shook her head, confused.
"How I feel about you, I mean," his voice was hollow. "I've liked you for a really long time, Katniss."
Having no idea how to respond, she said nothing. This wasn't really the time
But Peeta smiled hopefully.
"I think that might have been the worst confession in the history of romance. There's no way he'll let me live it down. He has to get better, now."
He made a strangled noise that sounded like a dying animal.
She kissed him because she didn't know what else to do.
"This is nothing but shit!" the man fumed, slamming the lid of his laptop shut. The sound echoed through his empty apartment, and his dog looked up at him with a perplexed expression.
"I can't write horror, Finn," he explained to the animal as though he could understand. "I can't do it. I don't even know why I tried to write this damn story."
The dog cocked its head.
"It's all wish-fulfillment anyway," he collapsed back into his chair and ran his hand through his messy blond hair. "I named the fucking love interest after myself, for god's sake. This isn't real writing, it's just messing around."
Bored with the conversation already, the dog laid his head back on his paws as his master continued to rant.
"I know Johanna has her sights set on this horror edition for the lit magazine, but I won't even watch campy horror movies. What does she expect from me? I can't do scary, let alone literary scary."
The dog got up and left the room in disgust.
A few hours later, Peeta had stripped off his shirt, preparing for bed when there was a knock that echoed through his apartment.
"Who on earth would be coming by at this hour?" he grumbled, making his way to the door. "Oh well. Not like I was going to get much sleep anyway."
He unlocked the deadbolt and removed the chain, yanking the door open, ready to give a piece of his mind to whatever confused delivery person had ended up on his doorstep when he had to be up early the next day.
But what greeted him knocked the wind out of his stomach.
"Hi," she half-smiled, half-scowled. "I'm your new neighbor, Kat. I um… locked myself out. The super's on his way, but I was hoping I could use your bathroom. Sorry, I know it's real late, but my car keys are in my apartment and everything."
Peeta's jaw fell to the floor.
It was her.
He said nothing as she used the bathroom, or when she gave him a quiet smile before closing the door behind her.
He had to be losing his mind.
The next day he saw her on his run. He and Finn had made it about two blocks before she was next to him, singing quietly along with the song playing on her iPod.
She had a beautiful voice, but, of course, he already knew that.
Because he had made her up.
"Oh hey," she said quietly, noticing him for the first time. He nodded, not certain if it was good to interact with a figment of his imagination, but unable to completely banish the thought that maybe it was just a HUGE coincidence, and she really was there and he couldn't very well ignore her.
They ran in stride, step for step for almost two blocks before she awkwardly asked, "Do you like to run?"
"I don't exactly like it," he found himself joking, "but otherwise I'm going to start looking like a stereotypical baker, and no one wants that."
She barked out a laugh that she obviously hadn't expected and tripped a little, bumping into him. Finn was strangely undisturbed by the collision, and paid no attention to her at all.
On some level, Peeta thought it be best he do the same. But he couldn't. The mere glancing touch of her body against his had sent electricity rushing across his skin.
"So when did you move to the neighborhood?" he asked.
Looking ahead as they jogged, she said, "Yesterday."
They ran in silence for another block before he tried again, "Know anyone around her? Family?"
"Just my job. I don't know anyone. Kind of all alone."
He was about to say something bitter about his own loneliness, but instead, "Want to come over for Chinese and a movie tonight?" came out instead.
"Okay," she said.
For the next week, she spent every night on his couch. They ate takeout and watched bad movies while his story malingered on his hard drive. Their interactions were platonic with an edge of sexual tension that would have been utterly intoxicating, were it not for the fact that he was not certain she was real. She never invited him into her apartment, or really said much about her life at all. He often fell asleep on the couch with her leaning on his shoulder, only to wake up the next morning to find she was gone. Even on days when he had to be at the bakery at the crack of dawn, she was never beside him when he woke.
One of the other mornings, the ones when he could sleep in, he was unpleasantly awoken by a pounding at the door.
As he crossed the room to answer it, Finn jumped up and down, barking as loudly as possible, making his head hurt. His neck was stiff from couch-sleeping, and his stomach hurt from too much Thai food.
"What the fuck are you doing, Mellark?" Johanna demanded the instant the door cracked open. "Our deadline to get things to the the printer's is in two days, and I haven't even looked at the story you owe me."
"I had to do some last-minute revisions," he convincingly lied. "I'll send it to you in a few hours."
But Johanna knew him too well, and she crossed her arms angrily. "Don't bullshit me, you son of a bitch. You promised me you'd submit something, and you're dropping the ball. What the fuck else do you have going on? You obviously haven't cleaned this dump in awhile. I know you're only at your dad's half-time, and since you and Delly broke up, you've been a goddamn hermit."
"It just… isn't coming out right," he grimaced. "I told you I don't know how to write horror." He neglected to mention the fact that he had been spending every night for the past week inching closer and closer to the girl of his dreams.
"Write about your life," Johanna rolled her eyes. "That's enough of a horror story for me."
That night Kat kissed him, slow and sweet, in the middle of a MacGuyver episode. He had made some kind of joke about how he hadn't ever seen her interact with anyone else but him, when she had snaked her arms around his neck and pressed her lips to his.
Before he knew it, she was lowering himself onto him, hands on his shoulders, forehead touching his.
Then Peeta knew there was no way this could possibly not be real. She felt too good, wrapped tight around him, to be a figment of his imagination. Her olive skin glowed in the light from the television and beads of sweat dripped off her nose and lingered on his lips. He could taste the salt.
Even crazy people weren't that crazy.
So when he came with a groan, only to have her follow a second after, the defenses he had built up came crashing down. It was okay to have feelings for this girl, because she really did exist.
"I'm so glad you locked yourself out of your house," he whispered into her neck.
"You're not the only one," she said softly, brushing a lock of hair out of his eyes.
They made love three more times that night, but when he woke in the morning she was gone.
He wasn't worried.
She always came back.
A week later, a morning came when he woke up in his bed, dark hair spread across his chest.
"Good morning, beautiful," he murmured, leaning down to kiss her forehead.
There was a pounding at the door.
"Ugh, I'm sorry," he muttered, pulling on his sweatpants. "It's Johanna, she wants this story and I haven't finished it, and this is going to get ugly."
She slipped one of his t-shirts on and asked seriously, "Do you want me to knock her out?"
"Mellark, this is ridiculous!" Johanna cried when he opened the door. "Look, I don't need your writing, I was just trying to give you something to fucking do. You could have at least been honest with me, okay. I know you're having a hard time with this whole breakup, but seriously, I am your friend. I don't deserve this shit."
She stormed into his apartment, Finn barking happily at her feet.
"Look at this place," she said in disgust. "The floor is covered in takeout containers. And what the hell is that smell?"
Peeta looked around in confusion at the nearly spotless room.
"I don't know what you're talking about, Jo." He turned to Kat and said with embarrassment, "I'm sorry you had to see this, really I am."
Johanna looked at him like he had lost his mind, "Who the hell are you talking to, Mellark? There's no one there. And when is the last time you took a bath? Or took out your dog?"
He opened his mouth to respond, but couldn't remember exactly. "We went for a run with Finn the other day. That was yesterday, wasn't it Kat?"
"Peeta, you are seriously freaking me out," Johanna said, eyes wide. "Who the FUCK is Kat?"
That was it.
"Look, Jo, I get it. You're abrasive. That's your thing. But please, don't talk about someone who is standing right here," he gestured to Kat, who was looking at him with concern.
"Okay, that's it," Johanna shook her head and started backing towards the door. "This is messed up. I'm outta here."
The door slammed behind her. Finn scratched at it and whined.
The super came, shouting through the door that there were complaints from people downstairs about the smell.
Peeta shouted he was busy, come back later, as Kat's head bobbed up and down the length of him. He needed to do something, he couldn't remember what, but it didn't matter because he just felt so fucking good.
Everything felt good now. All the time.
Some time later, he could hear his brothers, knocking and shouting. Johanna was with them. He even heard Delly, crying through the door. Her voice was thick with tears, he could tell. But he didn't care. She had dumped him, but he had found someone better.
Kat looked worried at the sound of their voices, but he just pulled her to him and buried his face in her hair.
Finn had taken to whimpering hopelessly for no reason at all.
It was really annoying.
She was riding him, head thrown back in ecstasy, when the paramedics broke down the door.
"What the fuck are you doing?" he called out weakly, as they wrestled him onto a stretcher. His father and brothers were there, each carrying looks that were a mixture of terror and revulsion. Rye picked up Finn, who looked strangely thin, and cradled the dog to himself, muttering that things were going to be okay.
"He's malnourished," the one of the paramedics said, ignoring Kat completely, though she was standing almost on top of him. "I think he needs an IV, cause if his mucous membranes are any indication he's dehydrated as hell."
"I'm fine," he said through cracked lips, "Kat tell them I'm fine."
"Kat's not real, Peeta," his father said. "There's no one else here. Just you. You're sick."
"No, dad, she's right here," he struggled feebly against his restraints, "look at her, look at how beautiful she is."
His father bit his lip and looked at the ground. His oldest brother put his arm around the man and said something Peeta couldn't hear.
"It doesn't matter. You don't know me anyway, not like she does," he looked up at Kat who stood next to the stretcher.
"They don't know what they're talking about, do they? You're real, of course you are."
She smiled softly and kissed his forehead.
"I'm real," she told him.