Disclaimer: The Hunger Games belongs to Suzanne Collins.
Thanks to my beta fnur for her help with this chapter.
Now that the temperatures are steadily growing warmer and the sun is staying out longer each night, the normally blackened sky is only a royal shade of blue when Annie drops me off at my house.
"Thanks," I say, suppressing the urge to yawn when I see her do it. She waves me off before speeding down the street only moments after I've stepped out of the car. It must have rained while we were working because puddles of water collect in the street and my shoes squeak under the pavement's slickness.
I tug my backpack up higher on my shoulder as I walk up the path to the porch, stopping only when I notice Peeta's heavy shadow leaning against one of the overhang pillars to the right of me. If he hadn't sniffed, I probably wouldn't have even realized he was sitting there.
A tightness collects in my chest, because we haven't spoken since our encounter after lunch today. I'd asked Annie to give me a lift to the library and although she looked to me with skepticism as I leaped in her car, she hadn't asked questions. Peeta had texted me, but I didn't see it until nearly a half hour into my shift. He said it was okay. I knew by his short reply it wasn't.
He doesn't seem to notice my presence... or if he does, he doesn't care. I pause on the lower step for a moment, internally debating with myself whether or not to go over there. I stare at him so hard he has to feel it, but still no words leave my mouth. I step onto the porch loudly, but his head does not so much as glance up.
Whatever. I roll my eyes, fighting with my keyring for a long moment before a flash of light from the corner of my eye catches my attention back to him. His face lights up by the shine of some electronic device and it becomes clear that he's listening to music. Not ignoring me.
I frown and then hesitantly take a step over to where he's standing. The boy is dazed. He doesn't even realize I'm there until I'm practically standing over the top of him and then he jumps clear out of his skin.
"Chill," I say, unable to suppress the smile fitting to my lips. "It's just me."
"Fuck," he lets out with a breathy chuckle. "Didn't see you. How long have you been there?"
"Just a second," I shrug and he doesn't stop me when I sit down beside him. "What're you doing out here?"
"Nice outside," he answers vaguely, but his voice lacks its normal enthusiasm.
"Shitty night?" I finally ask, re-braiding my hair down the side of my shoulder. I catch his neck craning to the side so that he's staring at me, and when I finally meet his gaze he offers a weak smile, running his hands through his hair with a deep sigh and small nod.
"Yeah," he answers verbally after a pause.
My mouth opens, just enough for a soft breath of air to enter, but no words leave my lips. I don't want to ask because it's his privacy to share. But I can hardly provide comfort if I don't know what the hell is going on. Well, I know what's going on but I mean like, specifically. This occurrence.
Is that what I'm even doing? Providing comfort? It seems weird to think it, but what other purpose do I have for being out here? His words from earlier... the ones he left hanging in the air as he walked away... have clouded my mind all day.
You of all people should know that I know that.
Instinctively, I reach out and place a hand palm-side-up on Peeta's knee. He stares at it with a guarded expression, his lips pressed in a tight line as though he were trying to break a code.
It takes some coaxing on my part; a few wiggles of my finger and finally a light smack against his knee, for his twitching fingers to reach out and grasp my hand back. I give it a squeeze and he does the same thing back.
"Come on," I say, using our linked hands to pull him up into a standing position. "Let's go on a walk."
"Your family..." Peeta starts, glancing back at my door. The lights that should shine against the closed windows are dim and you would not know the place was occupied by the silence that overtook it.
"Won't even notice I'm gone," I finish for him. "We'll make it quick."
We walk the length of our winding street, the first full loop spent in silence with our hands still entwined. I finally pulled away, feigning an itch on my face, but really the proximity was getting to me. Human contact is an important part of comforting, but there's a fine line between being a concerned friend and... being more. After earlier, I do not want to give him any mixed ideas. Not until my own mind is un-jumbled.
He doesn't seem to mind the loss of contact though. His hand finds his pocket lazily and he kicks a pebble below him.
"I'm surprised," he says vaguely and when I arch an eyebrow he hunches his shoulders a bit. "It's a Friday night... you should have something better to do than take me on a charity walk."
"You must know by now that I'm not exactly Panem's biggest socialite," I mutter and he kicks the pebble again. "And I'm not big on charity either."
"Maybe not Panem's," he agrees. "But surely there's some Capitol party you should be attending."
"Come on, admit it Everdeen. You were wild."
"So then tell me 'bout yourself," he suggests and when I turn up to meet his eyes, I realize that he's not joking. Not even a little.
I purse my lips and push back a stubborn piece of hair that keeps falling in my eyes, getting tangled in my long lashes.
"Anything," he suggests. "I'm a great listener, you'll see. Okay, go."
"I..." I stop with an unexpected laugh. "I don't know. There's not much to tell, I suppose."
Not much I want to tell.
"Basics, Katniss, basics!" he insists. "What's your favorite color?"
"That explains your sweater," he smiles and I'm surprised that he remembers. "Green and black and occasionally white. Mostly black."
"Congratulations, you've reached a new level of creepy."
"There's a difference between a healthy observation and creeping," he mumbles pointedly before perking back up. "Okay go on, continue. So you like green and..."
"And I think it's your turn to share."
"Yes. You seem like more of a talker than a listener."
"Is that the impression you get?" he grins. "Alright, a trade for a trade. My favorite color is orange."
"Like a basketball..."
"No, not like a basketball," he mimics, nudging my arm when I suppress a chuckle. I don't know why I feel so giggly. Maybe it's all the fresh air...
"Like... sherbet. No, not sherbet... it's not quite that harsh," he sighs. "Can't explain it, I'll just have to show you someday."
"I'll hold you to it."
"Good," he smiles. "Hey, how are things going with your sister?"
The question comes so seemingly out of the blue that I whip around to face him with wide eyes and an unreadable expression.
"Things have been pretty quiet over there on your side of the wall," he teases. "Does that mean they're better?"
"They're fine," I answer truthfully, only because I believe Peeta would answer truthfully too. And now that we both know way more about the other's life than we'd like, the truth is something we kind of owe each other. "She's been... taking all her pills, so, she's always a little better then. More stable, you know?"
He nods, thoughtfully.
"I don't need you judging her," I say after an awkwardly long silence. "It's not her fault she acts how she does. Well... I guess partly it is because sometimes she uses her illness as an excuse to get what she wants... but mostly. Mostly it's not her fault. She's sick."
Fuck, I'm rambling. But I can't find it in me to stop the words from falling out. They're important. They need to be said. Prim may be a pain in the ass but she's my pain in the ass, not anyone else's. No one else gets the right to be annoyed at her for something out of her control.
"I'm not judging her," he says with so much sincerity to his tone I feel inclined to believe him. "I totally get it, actually. Don't look at me like that, I'm serious. I mean, I know I don't have first hand experience... with that particular situation. But I understand."
I must still appear skeptical because he lets out a breath and holds his hands out in front of him the way I've noticed he does when he's about to rant. It's kind of cute actually, the way his lips press together tightly and eyebrows knit in concentration.
But I push the thought away as quickly as it comes. Those kinds of thoughts are too dangerous to harbor.
"You say she's sick, right?"
I nod, he continues.
"So the way I see it, she shouldn't be treated any differently than someone with like... cancer or something. She didn't choose to be sick. It's not like she wants to live her life that way. But, she'll still get a bad rep for it. Why?"
"People think she's loony," I shrug. "Not just her. Anyone with mental health issues. But it's not her fault," I say for probably the tenth time since we've began walking. "Her mind is just... under the weather."
"She's lucky to have you."
"I don't think she always feels that way."
"She might not express it... but I think she knows."
"I'm not always this nice, you know," I say, rolling my eyes because he laughs way too hard.
"Yeah, I know," he nods, still kind of laughing. "But that's not a bad thing. No one is always nice. That'd be like... some weird apocalypse type shit. Where robots took over the earth and eradicate the human species, you know?"
"You're normal, Everdeen. You're just fucking normal."
"Well what about you?" I challenge, folding my arms across my middle. "You're always nice."
The corner of his lips tugs up.
"See? Even now, you can't help but smile."
"Because I know you're full of it," he snorts. "I am not always nice."
"Truths," he counters, trying hard - and failing harder - to keep from smiling again. "I can be a real mean-ass sometimes."
"Mean-ass? That right there disproves your theory. What the hell is a mean-ass?"
"Exactly how it sounds."
"You're not mean," I say. "I refuse to believe it."
"That's cause you're nice."
"Oh God Peeta, whatever."
"First of all, I'm not. Secondly, is it possible for anyone - besides me obviously because I am clearly the acceptation to this rule - to be mean to you? Literally everyone I've encountered in this damn town loves you."
"Pass that along to my mom, would ya?" he teases, a hint of self-loathing to his tone, before running a hand over the back of his neck. "Sorry."
"S'okay. Is that why you were outside tonight? Your mother?"
"I needed a break."
"...From...life, really. I guess she'd be included in that, yeah."
"Why does... how does she..."
"How does a middle-aged woman beat up her teenage son?" he asks for me, his voice raising just an octave higher than normal. "Though I will admit, she's in pretty good health... but still."
I wait for him to continue, because even if I could find my words I wouldn't know which to say.
"She just gets so mad. I didn't know it was possible for one person to carry so much fury, but she does. It comes out of nowhere. There's not a lot of time to prevent it."
I know how that goes.
"Why do you let her?" I finally manage, and although I barely whisper it my voice feels too loud for the quiet air.
"What other choice is there?"
I look at him in disbelief as a snort escapes my lips.
"What other choice? How 'bout telling her to go to hell, that's a choice. Or grabbing her scrawny little wrists and snapping them? You're on the wrestling team, I'm sure you could get creative."
"You knew I was on the wrestling team?" he asks with a broadening smile. He smiles with his whole face, in a way that makes his ears and eyebrows twitch up as if pulled by invisible strings.
I shoot him a look and his face melts just slightly.
"It's not that easy, Katniss. You don't understand."
"I don't know how," he says, sounding somewhat frustrated. "You aren't the only one who's not used to sharing this kind of shit I... I've never talked about it... not out loud with anyone before."
"Finnick?" I ask and then clear the lump in my throat. "Or Annie."
"Yeah they know, but it's sort of like an unspoken rule that we don't talk about it."
"I'm sorry," I apologize slowly. "Do you not want to talk about it?"
"You're not Annie or Finnick," he replies and for some reason it makes me blush a little.
"Look, I know you probably think I'm a weak fuck because I let my mommy hit me with shit and scream but... it's not as bad as it seems. It's livable. It has to be. Where else would I go if I left?"
"It's not that easy," he repeats with the shake of his head. "But it's not anything I can't manage either."
"I believe you Peeta, I just..." I don't know what 'I just.' I just want him to be safe. I don't want to hear the screams coming through the wall. I don't want to see his bruises. But he's right. Life is not a simple board game. There is no dice to roll or piece to move when you don't like where you are.
You just deal.
"I'm sorry 'bout earlier," he mumbles, "At school."
He stops us in our tracks and turns me so that I'm facing him squarely. His voice is small, like a toddler who's just been caught doing something wrong, but his eyes meet mine dead on. "I didn't mean to storm off. I shouldn't have."
"It's okay," I shrug, before adding. "I'm sorry too. For being a bitch."
"Don't apologize for that," he says, nudging me. "It's part of your charm."
"You could be right," he says, his voice low and raw again. He hangs his head so that ours are closer together and through locks of blonde hair that fall into his face says; "There's... a chance I might be a little sweet for you. Maybe that's why I acted like a four-year-old when you admitted you didn't feel the same way."
My heart pumps rapidly in my chest.
"Why?" I finally whisper and Peeta shrugs, stuffing his hands in his pockets boyishly.
"Don't know," he says with a chuckle. "You're real. You're... normal. I know you'd like everyone to believe that you're just some heartless bitch but I know that's not the truth. It's just a shell."
"...A shell?" I say, unconvinced.
"Yeah. It's your defense mechanism. I know the truth, Katniss," he pauses, reaching out and tentatively wiping a lock of hair out from my eyes. "You don't take anyone's shit. But you genuinely care."
I swallow, my cheek burning in the place where his fingers had accidentally brushed it.
"And you deserve to be genuinely cared for," he adds. "So I won't give up, okay?"
When I don't reply, he smiles before turning back towards the road and motioning for me to follow.
"Come on. You said this was going to be a short walk and look how late you've kept me out! I've got to get home."
Panic - the kind that causes your heart to actually stop for a beat - floods my veins as I wake with a start to a dim brightness casting itself across the entryway to my bedroom.
I don't have to glance at my clock to realize I've overslept. I fly out of bed, nearly tripping on the tangled bedsheets and swear in a muttering breath as I fight to find something suitable, and preferably clean, to wear.
"Stupid alarm," I hiss at the old phone that sits beside my nightstand as I tug on a pair of jeans and change my socks. "What are you good for?"
Once dressed, I take the stairs by two, still pulling a knit sweater over my head. It's only when I'm turning into the bathroom to give my teeth a quick scrub and see both Dad and Prim in the kitchen that my eyebrows knit together and my racing heart slows as confusion washes over me.
Then it hits me that it's a Saturday, and I could literally punch myself in the face right now.
"Mornin' Katniss," Dad smiles, pouring himself a cup of coffee. "You hungry?"
"Work?" I manage to croak, stretching my back with a yawn. He shakes his head, whistling a bright and somewhat familiar tune as he turns towards the dining room table.
"Nope. I've got the whole day off."
Prim stands over the oven, occasionally shifting the pan over the burner and poking the egg inside of it with her spatula. On a plate beside her sits a mound of bacon and the faint smell of burnt bread signals her toast is nearly ready.
We haven't done breakfast like this in months... possibly over a year, actually. It's not often Dad gets a Saturday off of work and Sundays we have an unspoken agreement that no one is to be disturbed before noon.
"What're you staring at me for?" Prim asks with narrowed eyes.
"Can't believe you're cooking," I tease, nudging her elbow. She nudges me back with a snort and rubs her palm over the back of her neck.
"Just because I choose not to doesn't mean I can't," she insists, though by the time she scrapes her egg off the plate it's an unnatural shade of brown on the bottom. "Want one?"
I shake my head, pouring myself a glass of orange juice and for the first time since waking in a rush, notice that I have an unread text message.
I'm not surprised to see that it's from Peeta, but it doesn't stop the faint tickle from rising in my stomach or my hand from clenching the device tighter.
Two truths and a lie.
What? I reply after reading his words over twice.
Well, good morning Sleeping Beauty! I was wondering when you were going to ever wake up. Don't you think it's funny we know more about each other's dysfunctional home lives than we do about each other?
Funny isn't the word I'd use.
Listen, I'm doing us a favor in getting to know each other better. Play along, would ya? Two truths and a lie, go!
I frown, re-filling my glass of orange juice and retreating to the basement with the excuse of homework. I'm still staring down at the blank keypad as I curl back up on my mattress and take a deep sigh.
"I don't know," I mutter to myself in frustration before pounding the keys and hitting 'reply.'
Um... my favorite color is green. I have one sister. I am missing my two front teeth.
A few seconds later it sounds again.
Everdeen! You are literally the worst at this game.
It's hard. You wanted to play so bad, then you go.
Fine, let me show you how it's done. I have two older brothers. I love painting. I once found a fossilized dinosaur imprint in my backyard.
You're a painter? I want to see this imprint.
I wouldn't exactly say a "painter" so much as I like to paint. Definitely couldn't sell my stuff for a living.
So you have two brothers?
She's right again! I crack a smile before his next message rings in. Both older. Both love reminding me that I'm the youngest. Both less handsome than me.
Is that possible?
You can't fool me, Katniss Everdeen. I know this is your impossibly roundabout way of flirting with me. Also, I believe it is your turn. Lay on the lies!
This goes on for a while, at least an hour and a half if I had to guess, and steadily our answers become less goofy and harder to figure out. I take the last sip of my lukewarm orange juice and lean against the wall as his next message rings against my thigh.
You're the prettiest girl I've ever seen. My mother once tried selling me to the circus. My eyes are blue.
I swallow deeply as I read his words over a few times, my thumbs barely skimming the keyboard as I fight to find a response.
What? The circus didn't want you?
I'm serious. He replies less than a minute later, and if he hadn't said the words, his use of a period would have gotten his point across clearly. You are.
That's because you haven't seen my scars, I try my hand at teasing, but my face only grows redder with his next words.
They don't matter. I'd think they were lovely too. We all have them.
A couple seconds after I've finished reading his reply for the fifth time, a knock sounds from the other side of the wall. It's strong, definitely intentional and waiting for a reply. I turn so that I'm facing it, sitting up on my knees before slowly but deliberately returning his knock.
I can practically picture him smiling on the other side.
"Katniss?" Prim calls down from upstairs. I peek my head out the opening of my "room" and look up at her expectantly.
"Dad's sick of looking at these boxes in the living room. He wants us to go through them today."
"Okay," I nod. "I'll be right there."
I glance back at the text message one more time, reading it over carefully in my mind - especially the last part - with a deep frown. Pictures of his mother creating those angry red and swollen scars across his collarbone swirl around in my mind as my fists clench together.
My name isn't Katniss Everdeen. I'm seventeen years old. I wish I could protect you.
I don't give him a chance to reply before typing out another reply; letting him know that I won't be around for the next few hours and still need to unpack some things. I set my phone down on the dresser, on top of the ragged cover of The Limitless Dream. I haven't been able to properly read in a couple of weeks, but thankfully the week after this coming one is Panem's spring break, so I'll have an entire week off to curl up and read.
I hear my phone buzz but don't bother to check it. My heart still feels achy and a ball of anxiety pools in the center of my stomach with the turn our conversation had taken. I'm not sure if I'll ever fully be ready to take on those emotions, but I'm in no position to start trying right now.
By the time I'm up the stairs, Prim is already elbow deep in one of the boxes, digging through and pulling out her belongings with faint curiosity - as if it'd been years since she'd seen the stuff. I hear the creak of Dad's feet on the weak floors upstairs as I kneel down beside Prim and take on a different box.
"Find anything good?" I ask to fill the silence and her bony shoulder shrugs.
"Mostly shit. Mostly mine. Nothing of yours."
I nod, tugging out an old and ragged doll before stuffing it back in. Some of this stuff should just disappear with the trash next garbage day.
It's strange that I hadn't really noticed so many boxes were left unpacked in our full month and a half of being here. They seemed to have blended into the walls and other surroundings, almost like furniture, completely forgotten by Prim and I.
If it wasn't for Dad, it'd probably be months, maybe even a year or two before Prim and I thought to go through it. But he's hell bent on us being normal. Being a family and having a home that looked the way a family's home should look.
Prim and I always laughed at his attempts of "average American" living, because as a family we were anything but average.
"Fucked up is more like it," Prim had said on one of our last nights in Capitol. We'd been sitting around the table eating dinner (something we hadn't done ever unless it was like, Thanksgiving or something, and even then it was always awful) and I had started to snicker, but the look on Dad's face, one of absolute failure and heartbreak caused me to choke it back and Prim to cast her eyes down, mumbling an apology (another thing as rare as our table dinners).
"Sorry," she had whispered to her salad. "We can be a normal family if you'd like."
I still think about that sometimes, when Prim is slamming dishes or when I take my breakfast to my bedroom. I wonder if Prim does too, if that's why she hadn't put up a fight about spending her Saturday sifting through boxes.
But it's not as though she has something better to do. Me neither. It's a fairly easy way to spend my weekend, going through our old things and chatting with Prim. She's in one of her better moods which makes it more bearable and we even share a few chuckles at the crazy old movies she finds in one box or the stack of photos I find rubber-banded together.
I open a box of clothing and am almost blinded by the bright colors that illuminate it. Pastels and sheer little things I'd bought once upon a time and obviously hadn't missed. Things I wouldn't be caught dead in anymore.
I give the entire box to Prim without a second glance, telling her what she wanted was hers and that pleased her greatly. She took nearly all of them, leaving only a few of the older styled stuff. I'm sure a couple of the items will be too big on her slight frame, but she doesn't seem bothered by it and places them off in the pile of her things to take upstairs.
Prim pulls out a sheet of crumpled paper and stares at it for a long time. At first I don't really even notice her stillness but after several minutes she's still staring, a look of perplexity on her grim features.
She doesn't answer, but pulls out a few more papers before her lips turn up into a slight smile.
"You and Gale were so weird."
My heart sinks into my stomach at his name, and all at once it hits me and I'm lunging in her direction.
"Give those to me!" I insist, grabbing for them, but she holds them in her opposite arm - out of my reach - as her smile increases.
"You wrote each other letters? God, did you think you lived in the eighteenth century or something? There's a little thing called the telephone-"
"You're such a little shit," I growl, pinning her down with one leg on each side of her hips and fisting my hand around her wrist. "Those were not yours to read, how fucking dare you!"
"Chill, Katniss! I didn't read them all, I was just trying to see if it was mine or yours and... I got caught up! Jeez, get the fuck off of me!"
"Give it back!"
"You're hurting me! You're suffocating me!" she starts screaming, thrashing her head from left to right as she tries to wiggle free from my embrace. "Help! She's hurting me!"
I reach out for the letters but as I pull, her grip tightens and the small stack in her hands rips across the lower middle in one blood-draining noise.
Prim stills under me, her eyes widening and suddenly her hand goes slack. I stare down at the pages for a paused moment in disbelief before rolling off of her in a defeated puddle to the side.
"Girls?" Dad calls from upstairs. "Someone didn't die down there, right?"
"You could literally not have worse timing, Dad," Prim grumbles, sitting up and rubbing her arm where my hands had just been digging into her.
"Katniss, you have to know I didn't mean to," she speaks again and this time, her voice holds a near hysterical edge to it. "I- I'll get the tape. We can fix it, it's just a little ri-"
"No," I cut her off sharply. "No, we cannot fix it."
"Are there more?" I ask, swallowing the choking sob I feel rising up from in my chest. Prim nods, reaching into the box and pulling out two or three more pieces of unripped paper.
"I need to be alone," I say, rising up from my spot and turning down the hallway. "You need to finish unpacking."
She nods and I retreat to the staircase leading down into the basement.
I wish I had a door. A real door. A slammable door. One I could just keep banging until the noise was so constant it was almost like a pounding heartbeat. But I don't, so instead I fling back the thinnest sheet in the universe that drapes over my door and fall face first onto my mattress, the torn letters still dangling in my shaking hands.
The rip isn't unsalvageable, but it's enough to make my heart feel like it's been the thing ripped down the middle. It's enough to make my jaw clench and a million emotions rise in the pit of my stomach.
Being so out of control makes me feel like Prim. I want to cry and scream and hit the shit out of her and also hit myself.
I do cry a little... and I body slam my pillow for good measure.
Then, exhaustion takes over and I fall to the mattress with panting breaths, clinging to my beaten pillow and staring blankly at the wall on the other side of the room.
There's an eerie feeling that passes through me as I turn down the hallway and am greeted by a gang of boys, huddled in a circle wearing masks of sick amusement and eager expressions.
"Leave me alone!"
"Aw, come on Vick," a new voice sings teasingly, "We're just messin' around with you."
"Yeah, come on - this is just new kid initiation!" another voice chuckles, but I don't dare look to see who is saying what or what is even about to happen.
It's not uncommon for fights to break out along the hallways. It seems at least twice a week there's gossip of a new fight and our principal forcing students down to the main office.
I hear a crash on the ground, like papers... and something heavier (binders? book bag?) fall to the ground with a thud and the distressed first voice grunts as something that definitely sounds like his body is shoved against a locker forcefully.
Don't get involved. Do not involve yourself, my mind chants as I squeeze my eyes shut, gearing to pass the crowd. You have enough to deal with as it is, do not involve yourself. He'll be fine.
But my eyes catch his, just for a second, and all I can see is Prim. I see her crying because of the taunting names her classmates created for her, or the redness of her skin from someone jerking her around. I hear her words; wishing for once someone would just stick up for her.
"Hey!" my voice sounds before I can stop it, and although my hands are shaking, the words come out smooth and forceful. I straighten my posture as all eyes land on me.
"What the fuck do you think you're doing?"
"Listen honey, this don't concern you, okay?" one boy says as he saunters over closer to me, a charismatic smile etched on his lips even though he's at least a head shorter than me. I fold my arms and arch an eyebrow, chancing a demanding step forward and there's so much power behind the move that he actually flinches and takes one step back.
I don't allow him to get away before I close the distance between us again and move down to eye-level with him.
"How about you never call me 'honey' again and I won't castrate you right now, okay?"
He nods, wide-eyed and I smile, moving past him to the group of gawking boys.
The boy (Vick was it?) is still dangling against a locker, pinned there by the strongest one in the group who makes the action appear effortless. I bend down and begin collecting his scattered and slightly ripped papers before returning them to their right binders and grab his books.
"Now," I begin, but before another word can leave my lips, a strong voice sounds from behind me.
"Put him down."
The strong boy drops him and I watch as Vick briskly walks to the figure that casts a long shadow over my body. I turn and have to lift my head to come eye-to-eye with him; an expressionless boy with an uncanny appearance to the one standing behind him. His jaw is clenched and his deep brown hair falls down over his face.
The hallway grows silent with his presence. He screams authority.
He's watching me, evaluating me before he finally gives a hard nod of his head and reaches out for the things I have collected in my hands.
"Thanks," he tells me. "I'll take it from here."
I nod and am gone before I know what happens.
Days pass, but my mind continues to focus on Vick and if those kids are still giving him a hard time. He seemed happy to see his brother... or whom I'm assuming was his brother... which was good. He must not be worried about the kids teasing him for needing 'big brother's' help. That was always Prim's issue with me rushing to her side.
I think it's good that she wants to choose her own battles and learn to fight them on her own, but she's so fragile. She thinks she's capable of things she just isn't and that's what really worries me about her.
It's four in the afternoon and the bus to bring me home from after school activities should be here any second. Although it's cold, I don't mind waiting outside so much. The air in the cafeteria is stuffy and sour and with my jacket tucked up over my neck, the biting chill hardly affects me.
Right on time the bus pulls in front of the school and I climb on. A few others do too, maybe three or four more, but that's only judging by their footsteps pounding up the short steps, I'm too busy looking out the window to know for sure.
It isn't until I feel the warmth of a body much too close for my comfort that I turn, deeply surprised to see the boy from the other day, the brother, sitting beside me.
"Do you always sneak up on people?" I ask with narrowed eyes before turning my body back towards the window. "There's one hundred empty seats, I'm sure you can find another to sit in."
"I'm not sure 'bout one hundred," the boy says thoughtfully and I feel him shift into a more comfortable position. "I'll move though. I just saw you here and wanted to thank you properly. Not sure when I'd get the chance to otherwise."
I turn slightly, just enough to give him a sideways glance through my eyes before shrugging indifferently.
"It was nothin'."
"Tell that to my little brother," he snorts. "It meant a lot to him. Which is why I'm thanking you."
I'm silent and then finally turn my hips so they're not angled away from him but facing the bench in front of us.
"He's okay, right?"
"Nothin' hurt but his pride," the boy smirks. "Which ain't so bad. Builds character."
"Katniss," I reply evenly, hugging my book bag to my chest.
"What grade are you in, Katniss?"
He makes a face like he's surprised but schools it into normalcy shortly thereafter, nodding his head a little.
"Got quite a bit of spunk on you, don't you?"
"Yeah well, I have a little sister," I respond. "So, I know how that goes."
"That protective gene is branded in you."
"Well, if your little sister's ever in trouble, I owe her a favor."
"No," I say with the shake of my head. "You don't owe us nothin'. It was nothin'."
He sighs and then after a moment's pause places a wrapped cookie on top of my bag. It's the kind you'd find in the cafeteria with a name brand stamped on the front, still chilled from the vending machines. I take it in my palm, looking it over before frowning in his direction.
"What the hell is this for?"
"Token of my gratitude."
"I don't want your old ass cookie," I spit, tossing it back at him. "I thought you said you weren't gonna stick in this seat."
"Fine," he grunts, shifting over to the one across from me. He keeps his legs out in the center aisle, leaning on them so that he's still a little too close to me, but something about the expression on his face, the body language, and the stupid cookie sitting in the empty spot between us makes me crack a smile.
"This is my stop," I reply shortly as the bus slows. Gale looks over the street and his eyes brighten.
"Hey! You don't live so far from me. Just a few streets is all."
I nod, scooting out from my seat and swinging my bag up over my back.
"We should hang out sometime. Get the kiddos together."
"Maybe... but I have a lot of homework and things-"I stop as he begins to chuckle, running a hand through the thick hair that looks soft to the touch before leaning back in his seat.
"Well tell ya what, I'd be willing to work around your homework schedule, okay?"
I stare at him for a paused moment before nodding my head and heading for the door. He grabs my arm, stilling me and places the cookie back in my palm.
"Token of my gratitude."
His smile haunts me behind closed eyelids.
His voice is sounding through my racing mind.
I can feel the heat of his arms encircle me and his soft breath on the back of my neck.
He's fucking everywhere.
"Catnip... ... CATNIP!"
"Gale, what the fuck is wrong with you?" I bite, snapping my head around to face him. He's several paces behind me in the empty aisle, palming a bag of kitty treats and grinning widely. He holds them up towards me, as if it's some sort of inside joke I'll understand, and the excitement in his face only falters slightly as I shoot him a glare.
"What?" I try again.
"Get it?" he asks, shaking the bag. "Katniss... Catnip... kind of sounds similar, right?"
"Are you comparing my name to a cat treat right now?"
He tosses the bag inside of the cart, a treat to give to the stray cat we found a few days ago in the woods most likely. 'Buttercup' had grown quite the attachment to both Gale and Prim and is all they have been able to talk about since.
Buttercup hates me almost as much as I hate him. The last thing we needed was a dingy, worm-infested stray cat with medical bills and trust issues and another belly that needs feeding.
"Come on!" Prim had belly ached, almost as much as Gale. "He's just as fucked up as the rest of us, he fits in perfectly."
So that's how we inherited a fucking stray.
But it doesn't mean I won't drown him if I get the chance. Put us both out of our misery.
"I'm gonna start calling you Catnip now," Gale snickers, breaking open a bag of chips and sticking his hand inside.
"You'd better not," I grumble, but even he knows I hold no power when it comes to him.
He smiles triumphantly beside me and bumps me with his hips until I scoot over enough for him to place his hands on the cart beside me.
"What's your favorite season?"
"Spring," I answer with a sigh, leaning back against the thick bark of the tree we've climbed, deep in the woods behind our houses.
From the corner of my eye I catch him perched on the opposite branch, staring curiously at me with a hint of a smile on his lips.
When I turn to look at him more fully, his expression only deepens.
"Got a long way to go, Catnip. Fall's barely begun."
"I'm well aware of the season we're in, thank you very much," I reply and although my words are sharp, my tone reveals the hint of teasing in them. He chuckles, a sound that automatically causes my cheeks to sting and runs a hand through his thick hair.
"I don't mind spring, but I like winter best."
"No, it's not."
"You're big into hunting, Gale. It's a little weird your favorite months are the ones when everything is dead."
He purses his lips, as though the thought had never occurred to him and then slowly nods a couple of times before shrugging.
"True, it is not ideal hunting weather, but definitely not impossible. But that's not even why I like it anyway."
"Then why?" I ask, because I know he'll tell me whether I do or not. And I don't mind it that way. I kind of like that about him.
"Because it's like a fresh start."
"No, spring is the fresh start. Winter is like the shitty grand finale."
"Bear with me," he says, holding up a hand to stop me while biting into one of the apples we found along the trail. "It's true, winter can be pretty fucked up, but it's like the metaphorical wiping of the slate, you know? Everything from the whole year is swept away."
"It's new beginnings, Katniss."
"No Gale, that's spring!"
"That's what they want you to think! But, you've got it wrong, just like everyone else. Spring doesn't do shit. It's winter that does all the hard work."
"You are weird."
"You don't mind it."
"I don't," I agree with a smile and then he leans over the large stump between us and his face is only a few inches from mine.
"Are you going to punch me in the face if I kiss you?"
With his words and close proximity it feels as though my stomach is lodged in my throat and I try with little success to swallow it down heavily.
"Um w-why would you... want... t-" my words trail off as he leans in closer to me and our lips touch for the first time.
It feels weirder than I always imagined it feeling, our noses bump awkwardly and his lips are not plump enough to provide much cushion. It almost feels like I'm pressed against a wall.
I still blush though as we pull apart and cast my eyes down as he continues to stare at me stupidly. Then he takes my hand knotted in his own and lifts it to his face, giving it another sweet kiss.
And I know that I will not say no if he tries doing it again.
It's hard to remember what he looks like without seeing his picture.
His voice is fading from my memory.
It used to feel like he was only gone for a short while. Like he was on an extended vacation and we'd see each other again soon.
But there is no point entertaining that line of thinking.
He's never coming back.
It's my fault.
I know I teased you about this whole letter thing. Especially because we go to the same school, live about a half a mile away from each other and you sent me a text message about fifty seconds ago. But really, I like it. I know you're probably scowling because you think I'm being a dick and making a joke but I'm serious. I firmly believe that our writing letters to one another is the equivalent to giving the giant middle finger to our technology-crazed generation and society. Definitely something I could get on board with.
This is the first letter I've ever written to anyone but my nana... and I'm not sure if she counts because she was about ninety years old and thought I was a GIRL because she went fucking senile. But my mom insisted I wrote her anyway. As you can see I'm out of practice. But I want this to be good. I want you to look back on this years from now and smile and roll your eyes and all the other expressions that make me want to kiss you, so I'm gonna try Katniss. I'm gonna try to get you to do all of those things.
You're always saying you don't know what I saw in you, why I bothered to stick around you and I always just called you an idiot. But really, I just never knew how to explain it out loud. So I guess a good way to start off this letter writing escapade is to tell you the best I can on paper. Where I can erase and edit my words, haha. You probably don't remember this but the first time I met you, you gave me your signature scowl. YOU HATED ME. I bought your ass a cookie and you basically told me to go fuck myself with your eyes. And I know you're probably yelling at this piece of paper in your defense right now but you cannot deny it, you scowled. But I'm glad you did. I thought you were funny. I thought you were interesting. It wasn't just me Katniss, you have a quality about you... people wanted to know you even though you clearly wanted nothing to do with them.
So my question for you is why did you choose me? It would have been so easy for you to keep shutting me out. I know you know that I like a challenge, so I might have kept bugging you a while longer but eventually I would have disappeared. A man's ego can only get so bruised, you know? So why did you let me in? Of everyone in Capitol you chose me. And I chose you. And look how much good we've been able to accomplish together. We're a good fit, Katniss. We work well.
I could list one hundred reasons why I chose you and why I continue to choose you... but not only is that super cheesy and you'd probably throw up, but I don't have enough paper.
So instead, I'll leave you with this, because as much as I joke around with you about being macho and manly, I know if I don't say this here and now I might never have the balls to.
I love you.
Don't break up with me, but it's true. I do. And I know love is a fucked up fairytale for you and something unattainable, but I promise to prove you wrong. I promise I'll continue to show you that I do love you.
Is it possible to be drowning when you're nowhere near an ocean? It feels like my throat is constricting to the point of pain. I'm wheezing for shallow breaths but it's never enough.
I'm too far under.
My hands shake as I grip the pages of that first letter. One of ten that we wrote to each other. I read the words until my vision blurs and the paper crinkles with the saturation of my fat tears.
My fault. My fault. All my fault. My fault.
Can't be mad at Prim. This isn't her fault. If he were still around to write more letters it wouldn't matter so much that this one was ripped. There would be more. Hundreds more. We would write to each other until we were blue in the face if it meant having him back.
But he will never be back.
It's my fault.
The walls are caving in on me. It's too small here... but not just in my room or this house... this whole fucking town is too small.
Air. Even my mind is gasping as the word pushes to the forefront of my mind.
I need air. But not air where Prim can apologize again, or have the chance to say his name.
Also air where Peeta can't find me.
Peeta, my heart aches with his name and I close my eyes as another tear rolls down my cheek. Another person to hurt. Another person to leave me.
Air where no one can find me.
I wouldn't have the strength to talk to Peeta right now if I tried anyway. I need to get away. I need to go.
I stand on wobbly legs and close my eyes, regaining balance before focusing on breathing deep and moving forward. In and out, right and left. I grab Dad's keys off the countertop and slip the quickest shoes on before rushing out to his car.
I don't look up to see if he or Prim notices I'm leaving. I don't look back as I speed down the street much quicker than anyone should.
It's twilight and the stars seem brighter the further out of town I grow. With the windows down and soft breeze swishing the trees, my heart rate begins to slow and the ball of anxiety in my chest lessens. A choking sob escapes my throat as I try releasing a steady breath and I have to place a hand over my heart to soothe it.
Keep going. Don't look back. Keep driving.
I'm not surprised when my foot hits the breaks and the car rolls to a stop in front of the only graveyard in Capitol.
There's only a few dimly lit streetlights to pave the way as I walk the gravely path, all the way down the swirling roads as I've done so many times before. It doesn't scare me, being here after dark, in fact I feel calmer now than I have since this afternoon.
With a howling breeze, the sweat from my forehead dries and loose strands of hair blow out from my face. I probably look insane right now, but I don't care. I don't care about anything but finding Gale.
It's not a hard task, just a clear cut off the path onto some sparse patches of green grass that tries desperately to grow among the muddy dirt, and then I'm there. It's small in comparison to some others, with no special recognitions or awards and achievements.
He was just a kid... robbed of a life where he'd have the opportunity to make something of himself, to earn his decorated gravestone.
"You probably would have gone into the army," I mutter out loud. I know I'm talking to myself... that he cannot hear or respond or even care for my words. But it still makes me feel better. Validated, in a way.
"And I would have been so mad at you," I sniff, releasing a strangled chuckle. "I would have given you a million reasons to stay and you still would have gone. And... and I probably would have been kind of proud of you.
"I hate you, you know," I frown after a silent moment. "Why the fuck did you let me do that? Why couldn't you be the adult for one minute and tell me to knock it off? This is... this is all your fault. And I hate myself because I know it isn't at all. Not even a little bit. I robbed you of everything, Gale... I took away everything."
I pull my legs into my middle tightly, resting my head against my knees as I focus on breathing. Why does it have to hurt so badly? Doesn't the pain ever dull? Why can't-
I'm ripped from my inner turmoil at the sound of a crunching leaf below a foot. Spending much of my time growing up in the woods with Gale, my ear is acutely trained and with the noise I spring into a standing position, more than a little surprised to find Peeta standing just a few feet away from me.
My eyes widen and then furrow deeply as an array of emotions bubble through my body. It doesn't make sense. How could he know to find me here? How is it possible that he's here right now?
"What the hell are you doing here?" I hiss, jumping to my feet as anger continues to bubble through my body. I feel my teeth clench instinctively and my hands ball into fists at my side.
He takes a tentative step closer, the way one would approach a wild animal, and holds his hands up as if to soothe me.
"I saw you leaving, and you looked upset," he explains in a calm and even voice.
"So you followed me?"
"I was worried about yo-"
"I don't need you to worry about me!" I shout, so loudly my voice actually echoes in the darkness and Peeta's face falls just slightly. "I don't need you to follow me, or have people bring me home from school when you're not around or any of the other shit you're constantly doing. We are not together, Peeta!"
"I know that," he says gently.
"I don't need your help!"
"Katniss-" he tries, but the second he takes another step in my direction I'm kicking damp leaves up towards him and taking another step away.
"Don't touch me!" I warn and my voice is hardly recognizable. "Just stay away!"
"I'm not gonn-"
"Stop it!" I shout, my entire body shaking. "Stop walking, stop talking just... leave. God, Peeta, just leave me the fuck alone!"
"Damnit, Katniss, you stop!" he yells and his voice level matches my own. The sudden change in his demeanor is enough to silence me and through tears I hadn't realized were falling, I blink wordlessly.
"I don't know what I ever did to make you hate me so much, but I was just looking out for you!"
I turn to look away from him, biting the inside of my lip with enough force to make it bleed.
"Why?" I finally spit out, meaning for it to come across much sharper than it does. Really, I just sound dejected. I sound tired and lifeless. Like I've lost hope.
"Because," Peeta croaks and though it's hard to make out his expression in the darkness the pain is clear in his tone. But I don't have space left to think about how that should affect me. There are no more emotions left to feel sorry about being the one to make him sound that way.
I never wanted to be the one who made him sound that way. So much like he did the night through the wall, when his mother called him worthless.
"Because," he repeats once he's cleared his throat. "I thought that was sort of what you and I did. We have each other's backs. We... we take care of one another."
His words linger in the misty air as soft beads of rain start to trickle down from the blackened sky. The sweatshirt that covers my arms suddenly does not feel like enough and I wrap them around my middle in a vain attempt to keep warm.
Peeta takes my silence as an invitation to move forward and comes to stand just two full steps away from me. His wet hair clings to his forehead in chunks and it's only now that I realize he's only wearing a thin white t-shirt.
"You're stuck in the past," he finally whispers, with just a hint of observation to his tone. His eyes flicker over the gravestone that my hand rests on. "Is... this why?"
His prying words snap me back into reality and I shoot a dangerous glare his way before ripping my hand away from the gravestone and shoving it into my pockets. Although the darkness does well to hide me, I cannot remember a time where I felt so wide open.
"Don't preach to me about my life and how I'm stuck," I snarl, my voice growing as the rain does, and this time it's me who takes the advancing step in his direction. "You're in no position to correct the hell can you expect me to take advice from you of all people when you can't even apply it to your damn self!"
"This is a completely different circumstance and you know it," he speaks calmly, though I pick up on the quiver in his tone. It doesn't matter. I do not stop.
"Completely different how? Different in the sense that you have the power to change your fucked up life but won't? I'm not stuck Peeta, if I could change this-" I jab a finger toward Gale's grave. "I would in a heartbeat. But you... you! You're the stuck one. And you don't even care."
"My problem is alive!" he finally snaps and when he points a finger in my direction, it's shaking. "And it's in my face every day, Katniss! Every single fucking day!"
"Well mine is dead!" I shout and his rigid body slackens slightly. "And it will never look me in the face again!"
I breathe the damp air in deeply before looking down at my numb feet.
"And it's my fault."
Peeta remains silent.
"Two truths and a lie," I say with a humorless chuckle. "I'm pathetic. I killed my best friend. It wasn't my fault."
Before I fully understand what is happening, Peeta's arms wrap around my middle and he draws me in closer to him until our chests touch. The feel of his strong arms around me is comforting and for a second I sink into the embrace wordlessly.
He brushes my hair out from my face, leaning down to whisper; "You had better believe that last one is the lie, Katniss."
I meet his eyes and then jerk away until I'm standing apart from him again. The loss of contact hits me like a ton of bricks and a small part of me realizes that I want nothing more than to wrap myself back up in his arms, let him tell me lies like everything is going to be okay, and go home and sleep.
But I can't.
"It's not," I tell him deliberately, and my eyes pierce into his own confused ones. "Just do yourself a favor and stay the hell away from me, Peeta. I... I'm no good."
"-I can't protect you and you can't save me!" I shout over the top of him before my lip begins to quiver. "So stop trying."
I turn to leave then. The further I go, I can continue to hear him calling for me, but I don't respond. There is nothing left for me to say to him. I've taken so much already it's best to break away clean and allow him to continue on with his life now. With people who can actually care for him the way he deserves.
I'm long gone from the graveyard when the opening keys of Here Comes the Sun starts up faintly on the oldie's station my radio is programmed to.
Here comes the sun and I say, it's all right.
"Are you fucking kidding me?" I shout to no one in particular as my earlier tears begin to stream down my cheeks again.
I turn the opposite way of Panem and drive far enough that I know Peeta cannot find me before pulling off on a side street and throwing my head into the steering wheel. I turn the radio up as high as it'll possibly play to drown out my cries and screams of self-loathing and frustration.
I don't check the time before I fall into bed, but I know it's late into the night. My half-dried jeans cling to my thighs uncomfortably and my hair feels sticky against my neck, but I don't bother changing before slipping under my covers and curling into a ball.
My body feels stiff and sore as I fight for a comfortable position but I'm so overcome with fatigue, so incredibly drained I hardly register the feeling shooting throughout me.
My eyes are closed when I hear the faint knock - so quiet I could have imagined it - sound from the other side of the wall. A distant part of me thinks of returning it, if for nothing else than to let him know I got home safely, but sleep takes me before I can even form a fist.
And to be honest, that is just an excuse.
Because I am sure I would not have returned it had I been fully awake.
Okay, I promise the next chapter lays off the angst a bit, but they sort of needed something like this to happen. Thanks for reading!