Peeta Mellark has paid no attention to the young servants dressed all in white, listening to Haymitch and the others congratulation Cinna and Portia. Trying to avoid looking at the skinny girl from the Seam across from him who alternates between devouring her food and shooting him nervous looks.
He knows he should be grateful, should be thrilled with the way their District has managed to truly capture the Capitol's attention for the first time, for the chance of sponsors lining up. Instead he thinks of the way his mother eyed him up and down before she left his room in the Justice Building. "I suppose I won't be seeing you again," she'd said simply, leaving him with nothing to hope for. He thinks of the people he met tonight for the first time; some that he will kill, one that will kill him.
"What makes it burn?" Bristol pipes up suddenly, staring at the lovely cake a servant has just set down in front of them. "Is it alcohol?" It blazes hotly for a minute, flickering intensely like the cape that hung down his back just a couple of hours ago, and then dies out. Peeta frowns, tries not to think of the cakes his father will have to decorate alone despite the arthritis in his wrist now that he is gone.
He forces his gaze away from the cake to the servant who brought it, a young girl with her back now turned to him as she silently gathers dishes. A long dark braid falls down her back, contrasting sharply with the stark white of her uniform. He closes his eyes against the memory, and when he opens them again she is facing him—
He squeezes the wine glass in his hand so tightly it shatters; a choked sound escapes from his throat. He can't take his eyes off her. She meets his eyes for the briefest moment, and he sees the same fear he saw when she was eleven and starving in the rain, the same danger of fading away completely.
The rest of the table jumps in surprise and Portia grabs his hand from beside her, pressing her napkin to stop the blood that is dripping freely from a long gash on his palm. "What happened?" she asks urgently, holding the napkin harder against the wound.
The girl is gone, though, darting silently through a panel in the wall he didn't even notice before; she doesn't spare a glance back at him.
"Nothing," he chokes out finally, giving the table a smile that he knows must be more of a grimace. "Just not used to such fine glass, I suppose." Effie smiles brightly at the statement, and begins chattering incessantly about the Capitol's kind hospitality and wonderful accommodations. Portia murmurs worriedly to herself as she continues to treat his hand. Bristol turns green at the blood dripping on to the table cloth. Haymitch takes a long swig from a flask he pulls from an inside pocket of his coat.
Peeta stares at the wall. Remembering the girl who sang so sweetly even the birds stopped to listen.
He thought she was gone forever.
. . .
When Cinna shows him the roof later that night, he is burning with curiosity. Still, he tries to deliver the question casually as they lean against the rail and stare out at the candy bright Capitol; the wind shakes the chimes hanging in the rooftop garden gently.
"I thought I recognized one of those servants. Earlier tonight. One of the girls in white."
Cinna turns to him, frowning deeply. "One of the Avoxes?"
Peeta licks his lips, trying not to appear overeager. "What's an Avox?" He can feel Cinna's hard stare without even turning to face him.
"A traitor," he says bluntly. "Someone who was caught in an act of rebellion and taken to the Capitol."
Peeta finally faces him, raising an eyebrow skeptically. "They make traitors their servants?"
"After they cut their tongues out," Cinna says grimly.
After years of living with his mother, Peeta is able to fight off the shudder he feels at the news. He can't stop the nightmares that night, however, of the most beautiful girl he's ever seen. Standing on a stool in music class, unable to sing.
He wakes up, more alone than ever.
. . .
Peeta is the first down to breakfast in the morning, and his stomach drops the same way it always did in school when he sees her again, setting up a lavish buffet for breakfast.
He walks forward and grabs a plate, startling her as he leans closer than necessary to reach the eggs. She jumps, giving him a look that is so afraid it makes him afraid too, terrified of what this brave girl has been through to have so much fear. "I remember you," he whispers, so quietly he worries she won't hear. But her silver eyes turn towards him, just as solemn and silver as they ever were, and she reaches out cautiously and grabs a roll. She holds it to her chest for a brief second and then places it in his hand, calloused fingers wrapping his own around it.
Peeta knows she remembers too. He remembers the wrenching pain when she didn't come to school a year and a half ago, day after day after day until no one missed her except for him and the Mayor's quiet daughter. She had disappeared one day into the woods, her and the boy she was always with, Gale Hawthorne. They were young, but not too young. Were they eaten by wild animals, shot by Peacekeepers for their treason? Did they make a run for it, living free from the Capitol's oppression? No one knew. Eventually the whispers stopped, no one really affected by their absence except for two hungry families in the Seam.
And Peeta. He hurt, too.
"Katniss," he murmurs, just as quiet but more intense. He inches closer but she steps back quickly, eyes wildly surveying the room around them. Her eyes lock on someone behind them—he turns and there is Haymitch, face bleary and hung over but still awake enough to eye them suspiciously. When he turns back to face her she is gone.
He doesn't stop looking for her, though.
. . .
He knows he should be focused on training, trying to soak up as much knowledge as he can at each station. He should be paying attention to the other tributes, focusing on their strengths and weaknesses. But he is filled with no grand delusions, no thought of winning. One look at the burly District 2 tribute who grinned at him menacingly the very first morning reaffirms that Peeta will be dead in just a few days time.
And he just wants to spend every possible minute of the rest of his life with her.
His attention strays often, every time a glint of white catches his eye, but it is never her. He thinks about asking for her but that somehow seems wrong; if she is being punished for treason, surely they don't want people from their former lives visiting them.
They weren't even friends. She probably doesn't want to see him, the terror every time he has seen her has made that pretty clear. But he can't stop thinking about the way her fingers wrapped around his when she placed the bread in his hands, proving that despite everything she still remembers one of the most significant moments of his life.
He thinks maybe, days before his death, there is still just a little bit of hope.
. . .
She appears again at dinner that night, her eyes nervously flickering between him and the rich lamb stew she is serving. He tries to catch her eye, tries to smile, tries to do something. Haymitch pulls him roughly aside afterwards and leads him up to the roof, hand gripping his forearm hard the whole way.
"You're gonna get yourself in a lot of trouble if you keep messing with that girl." The gruff scowl on his face is deadly serious.
Peeta licks his lips nervously, averting his gaze. "I don't know what you're talking about."
Haymitch scoffs. Peeta closes his eyes for a moment. "She's from 12. We went to school together, she was — she was amazing. She just disappeared one day, no one knew why. I thought she was gone or dead or...I just don't know how this happened. I always — you don't understand. I have to talk to her."
Haymitch sighs, his expression gentler but still stern. "You don't have much to lose, I get it. But she does. And if they get wind that she's in contact with someone—" He shakes his head, frowning.
Peeta feels his face crumble, his chest tight. He knew he was going to die soon, knew everything was going to be over for him, but it never occurred to him that he might be hurting Katniss.
He guesses some things just aren't meant to be.
. . .
He stares down at the streets, the people glittering like tiny jeweled insects from so far away. It is the night before the Games and he feels the moments slipping away like something tangible, something he could hold on to if he tried hard enough. The wind blows the chimes in the garden, a hollow soundtrack to what could be his last night.
He hasn't seen Katniss since his talk with Haymitch; he's kept his head down, eyes focused on anyone but the servants in white. He is determined not to hurt her, not to take her down in his spiral towards death. He wonders if she's even noticed.
When he hears the door to the roof open, swinging harder than it normally would against the side of the building in the wind, he jumps and turns. And there she is, holding a small silver tray with a steaming mug and a folded note, looking at him anxiously. Wordlessly he crosses over to her, ignores the hot chocolate and going for the note.
'Fifteen minutes at most. –H'
Peeta swallows hard, lifts his eyes to her. She bends down to gently place the tray on the floor.
"I always had a huge crush on you," he confesses suddenly, earnestly. Her eyes widen in surprise and she stands back up quickly but she doesn't say anything — of course she doesn't say anything, he reminds himself bitterly. That was taken away from her. She stares at him, dumbfounded, as he tells her the story he rehearsed so many times growing up. Of her pretty red dress and two dark braids, of his father's confession, of the coalminer who sang so sweetly even the birds stopped to listen. Of the way he's been a goner since she stood on the stool and sang the Valley song.
"And then when you disappeared — I thought you ran off with that guy. Your boyfriend, Hawthorne." Her eyes fill with tears and he wonders what happened. "I wish you had, Katniss, I never thought—I never thought you'd be here."
She shrugs, her cheeks a dark red and her eyes glassy. Stares down at the roof. He doesn't think his heart has ever beat faster. "Your sister is fine," he says after a moment, and that catches her attention. She looks up sharply, steps closer. "She still sells goat cheese to my dad. She's really grown up. I think of bunch of boys her age have a crush on her."
Katniss smiles, bittersweet and far away, and taps her the spot over her heart. He think she's trying to thank him. She reaches out tentatively and grabs his hand, squeezing tightly. He stares down at her fingers laced tightly with his, closes his eyes in disbelief.
"I'm glad I got to see you again before I die," he says softly, still looking at their hands. "I always — it's a good last memory." He looks back up and she shakes her head furiously. Folds their joined hands into a tight fist. Telling him to fight?
They stare at each other a few more moments; he is entranced by the way the wind blows the wisps of her hair that have fallen loose from her braid. "You should probably go now," he says finally. She nods, pulls her hand away. And then before he knows what is happening she is pressed tightly against him, her thin arms gripping him hard. Before he can hold her fully she pulls away and walks through the door, not turning back once.
He stands there in that spot for hours, wondering if she will ever know the effect she has.
. . .
Peeta wakes up to a room filled with a soft light, devoid of windows or doors; he is alone. He closes his eyes against the memories of the arena, the mutts chasing him and Cato. The showdown on the Cornucopia. The ragged scuffle that ensued, a cruel mockery of every high school wrestling match he has ever been a part of. The moment his vision blurred and his lungs burned, when he was sure he was going to die. Cato's cry of pain as a mutt reached him, sharp claws scraping across his back. The sound of his scream as he let go and slipped away, screaming in agony for hours as they tore him apart.
He wonders if this is it, if this is what he fought for. Remembers his words on the rooftop that last night to a girl that seems lifetimes away.
It was all a lie. He has changed completely. He is just a piece in their games.
He wishes he had died instead.
. . .
Minutes, hours, days later he wakes up to a tray in his lap, a girl in a stark white uniform standing beside him. Her braid is draped over her shoulder and he longs to reach out and trace it. Her silver eyes are shiny and he wonders if she is happy or sad to see him alive.
"Hey," he whispers weakly. Tries to smile. Her eyes dart around nervously and she shakes her head, but she gives him a shaky smile in return. And when she slips a spoon in his hand for the applesauce, she squeezes his fingers tightly, reassuring.
"Stay with me?" He tries not to be too pathetic, tries not to get his hopes up. He faced the arena, he can face this too. But when she nods her head hesitantly and allows him to grab her hand he knows it is hopeless, he is a goner all over again.
And he will do anything it takes to save her from this. Anything.
. . .
. . .
Originally posted on tumblr and AO3. Come hang out with me on tumblr: swishywillow!